I’ll willingly admit to an interest here: Liza Perrat is an Australian writer married to a Frenchman and living in France, and I’m a fan. What you get with Liza is an Australian straightforwardness that draws you into her books and says: ‘This is real life as lived by real people.’ And it is. Real people aren’t always nice people, and Liza does not shy away from that. She shows you what people do and why they do it and she leaves the judging to you.
The Lost Blackbird is the story of two young English sisters, Lucy and Charlotte known as Charly, who lose their home and their mother after their father’s death. You see him die and you think you know the whole story. You may be in for a surprise, but there are no spoilers in my reviews. They are taken into a Catholic orphanage in London and from there they sail to Australia to start a new life. The new life is not what they were led to believe it would be.
It would be easy at this distance to see The Lost Blackbird as an indictment of the Australian authorities – but that would be only part of the story. What it really is is an indictment of relationships between adults and children. At the time the story is set ( the early 1960s, so we’re not talking about the distant past) children still had the same rights in practice as children in the days of Charles Dickens. No-one listens to Lucy and Charly – the people who should be making sure their lives are okay are too busy taking note of the views of adults who, if we’re frank, don’t give a toss about the girls; they are happy to pay lip service to any set of decent values you might choose, but lip service is all it is. Have things improved today? I’m really not sure that we can claim that.
In the hands of a less than stellar writer, this book could be very heavy going. The fact that it isn’t is the product of Liza Perrat’s great skill as a writer. It will make you angry that adults could treat the vulnerable as they do here, but you won’t want to stop reading. Recommended without reservation.
I know there are people in the UK who look down on the Romance genre. There are also people who look down on the horror, sci-fi, fantasy and religious/inspirational genres. I think this has to do with the snobbery that has been part of publishing in this country since the nineteenth century. Part of that snobbery says, “If it sells, then lots of people like it and, if a lot of people like it, it can’t be any good.” That would apply to all of the genres I just mentioned, because they are among the five largest money spinning genres – and Romance is right at the top. Romance pulls in more money than any other genre. And good writing is good writing, whatever the genre. So, instead of belittling it, let’s take a moment to think about what makes a good romance. And if we want to do that, Gloria Antypowich is a very good place to start. Because The Second Time Around is an object lesson in how to construct a romance. It’s also an illustration that not everything you hear about Romance genre tropes is correct.
Gloria wastes no time in introducing the two central characters (a man and a woman – there’s a market, too, for every other romantic combination you can think of and a number you probably can’t, but Gloria is mainstream. Or straight. Or whatever you want to call it). Not every romance features a pair whose hearts have been broken, but that probably describes the majority and it’s certainly what we have here – and Gloria wastes no time, either, in apprising us of what caused the breakage. Then she moves them into a position where they cannot fail to meet and, as we will have expected the moment we turned the first page, creates a situation in which they absolutely detest each other.
So far, so formulaic; where Antypowich scores so heavily is in the skill with which she pencils in the characters and the background (which is Western Canada, ranching, farming and the rodeo – not surprisingly, because that is also the author’s background. She knows the people and the place she’s writing about). I mentioned tropes; one very well-established romance trope is: Everyone else may be having it away but for the principal characters there can be no sex until they have it with each other. Antypowich sticks to that for her female lead, but the guy gets up to all sorts of stuff your Aunt Mabel would not have approved of. He does, though, in the end realise that the woman he’s been fighting against is the only one for him and we get our Happy Ever After. The trend in romance today is towards Happy For Now, but this author is more traditional than that. But none of that happens until a series of new obstacles has been placed in the way, each of which is obviously the final nail in this romance’s coffin and each of which is somehow overcome.
It’s Romance writing at its very best – and if you don’t like it because you never read it, you’re missing something. Remember how, when you were young, you didn’t eat something because you didn’t like it, and you didn’t like it because you’d never eaten it? You’re doing it again.
It’s a broccoli book – and I hate broccoli
If, like me, you were raised in a book loving family, one of the things you were taught at an early age was that books, once started, should be finished. You should read to the end, even if you don’t want to. I’ve no idea why we were taught that as children – I don’t know about you, but when I was a child I was taught all sorts of stuff that I had to disabuse myself of before I could even dream about a happy life. One of those things was eating broccoli. I did it for years. Why? Because people told me I should. It was good for me. And I hated it. And then, one day, maybe ten years ago, maybe a little less, I was in mid chew and I thought, “Why am I doing this? I don’t care how good it is for me – I hate the stuff.” I haven’t eaten it since. I’ll never eat it again.
The Darkness is like that. It’s very well written and, although I don’t speak a word of Icelandic, I can tell that Victoria Cribb’s translation is first class. And I read 80% of the book before I thought, “Why am I struggling on like this? I’m bored to tears. I couldn’t care less about the characters or what happens to them. My time has been woefully imposed on.” And I stopped. I didn’t finish it. I never will.
I know from looking at the reviews that there are people who think The Darkness is a wonderful book. I’m very pleased for them. I’m also very pleased for people who like eating broccoli. But both sets of people are deluded.
I’m a long-time admirer of William Trevor. I like the way, as an outsider (a Protestant in Catholic Ireland, and someone who had moved often in his childhood), he observed the people around him and presented them accurately in his fiction. I like even more his ability to indicate that what we are seeing when we read his books is not all that’s there. Sometimes, there’s a curtain between what we see and what is just out of sight but every bit as real. Sometimes, instead of a curtain it’s the ground beneath us and we know that it could suddenly move and we’ll be staring into the abyss. Those are great gifts in a writer and you don’t come across them very often. They are present in Killing the Girl by Elizabeth Hill. Hill lets us know that there’s more to the story than she has shown us – and, just occasionally and just for a moment, she lets it emerge from the darkness and stand before us.
As a man, I didn’t feel entirely comfortable with the way men are dealt with in this book, and I don’t just mean that there are three deaths and all of them are male. What made me uncomfortable was the qualities the men shared: all three of them took so naturally to controlling the protagonist (Carol Cage, who tells her story in the first person) that it was clearly second nature, and one of them also beat her. I know it happens. I don’t like knowing it happens. I don’t like watching it. But it is very well done here.
Carol spends most of her life in the shade of others. She knows it’s possible to be happy, but it seems to be beyond her reach. She reaches a kind of settlement at the end, and she does it as the reader reaches a different kind of ending. I said that all of the deaths are male; the title of the book is Killing the Girl, but the girl who dies is the naïve twelve-year-old who lives inside Carol Cage’s head and it’s long past her time to leave us.
It’s a challenging read, but worth it, and easy enough because, about a quarter of the way in, I found it had become one of those fairly rare books that grab you and pull you inside to the point where you’re living inside them and you can’t stop reading even if you want to (which I did, at one point, because of the kind of men I was having to look at. And I didn’t like the picture on the cover one little bit). It’s a first novel and it isn’t perfect, but it’s close. I look forward to the next by this author.
The Silent Kookaburra is not an easy read. Extremely well written, it demands to be read with the same concentration as went into writing it. And it repays the effort. What this book does is to trace the evolution of Australia from place of safety to one that knows that the safety was always an illusion. It presents the story first from the point of view of eleven-year-old Tanya; the tragedy is already there, implicit in the knowledge that the adult reader can see what the child cannot and the adult reader knows what is going to happen to the girl. At the end, Tanya is herself an adult who not only understands now what she did not understand as a child but also presents us with a shocking ending that we feared but hoped would not happen. Perrat does not shrink from showing us the worst of human nature, though she leavens the mix with humour, and leaves us always uncertain whether we are seeing simple vileness or the results of mental illness. It is, as I say, not an easy read – but a very worthwhile one.
However much or little experience you have, this book has something to teach you
I received a free copy of this book in return for an honest opinion. I’ll be frank: I didn’t expect to learn much. How wrong I was! Many years ago, when I began my sales career with IBM, I attended a course on public speaking given by a “resting” actor. Since then, in forty years of selling, I’ve spoken to large and small gatherings in many countries. I’ve been complimented from time to time on what people described as very professional performances. I thought I knew everything there was to know. Nevertheless, when this book was offered to me just before my daughter’s marriage, I decided it would be a good idea to see what Michael J McMahon had to say on this very specific branch of speaking. When I read it, I ripped up the speech I had planned to give and wrote another, following McMahon’s advice. The speech was received with laughter and applause. My takeaway: It doesn’t matter whether you have no experience of speaking in public or you’ve been doing it for years – there’s something here that you can learn from. If you’re going to speak in any capacity at a wedding, buy this book, read it thoroughly and do what the author tells you.
This is a very clever book on a number of levels. Peter Swanson has pulled off two very difficult tricks in one book:
- He has made us care about a character who, if not actively dislikeable, has nothing to commend him. The protagonist makes a point of telling us that he finds it easy enough to make someone’s surface acquaintance but almost impossible to move beyond that to real friendship, and that is exactly the way the reader feels about him
- He has written a new version of a very well-known book – probably one of Agatha Christie’s best-known and most written about – without our realising that that is what we are reading until quite late in the book. We know something is going on and Swanson nudges us in that direction with a cleverly inserted musing on the history and current popularity of the unreliable narrator – but it isn’t until the final two chapters (which closely parallel the final two chapters of the Christie book) that we completely understand what the author is up to.
This is not really a mystery in the Agatha Christie sense, because the unravelling does not come from a series of clues – instead, as is normal in mystery fiction today, the killer is simply introduced to us at the appropriate point. The reason I’ve taken half a star if you’re reading this on my blog and a full star if you’re reading it on Amazon from something that is otherwise five-star perfect is that there is no “Of course!” moment – you don’t think, as you do with the very best mysteries, “How did I miss that? It’s been staring at me almost from Page 1.”
Nevertheless, it’s an excellent book and I recommend it.
Old Filth by Jane Gardam
5 Stars. Stunning. Brilliant. A tour de force by a brilliant writer
Just occasionally, you read a book that has attained absolute perfection. It doesn’t happen often – once a year if you’re lucky (and I average more than 100 novels in a year). This is one such. The author leads us (and misleads us) through a whole life in which she forces us to care desperately about the man leading it and all around him, and presents us at the end with something utterly unexpected that, nevertheless, could not have been otherwise. Stunning. Magnificent.
Before reading this I read all three of the author’s Eldísvík novels and before that I read Too Many Heroes, so I guess you could call me a Jan Turk Petrie fan. What I like most is the way she creates real, believable characters and then carries them forward in a plot that makes sense and doesn’t get lost on the way. In Towards the Vanishing Point, she’s done it again. The author’s photograph suggests she isn’t old enough to remember the 1950s in England, but I do. It was a dishonest decade, ten years that we’re lucky to be rid of, and Petrie captures it as though she lived through the whole thing. I look forward to her sixth book.