Finn’s Feather by Rachel Noble and Illustrated by Zoey Abbott

What do you do when a book reaches into your soul and squeezes it so hard you’re left breathless and filled with a wondrous ache and yet the marvel of hope and the beauty of sorrow? You dry your eyes, still your weeping and read it all over again – this time, more slowly, taking in the deceptively simple and heart-warming prose and the gentle joy of the illustrations.

So it was when I had the amazing experience of reading Rachel Noble’s utterly lovely book for children, Finn’s Feather. This is a stark, moving and gorgeous tale about a boy named Finn who, when he finds a perfect white feather on his doorstep one day, believes it is a gift from his dead brother Hamish. I know… right?

The story is about how Finn, thrilled with his brother’s gift, can’t understand his mother’s or teacher’s reaction. His mother hugs him and sighs, his teacher takes a deep breath and smiles (and God, how I hurt when I read their reactions – it was a visceral response). It’s left to his best friend, Lucas to find, with Finn, the pleasure in his brother’s gift and the message it sends: to continue to laugh, love and never forget.

This exquisitely rendered tale of grief and loss, is told very much through a child’s eyes and how they process sorrow so differently. It is so sensitively rendered, so positive in its scope and the message and, believe it or not, happiness it offers (as well as the unbelievably touching acknowledgment of loss) that it should be read widely by everyone who has a child or who has experienced the death of a beloved.

I have been so touched by this story, but also rightly impressed with how it has been told – the care and love that has gone into a difficult and yet important tale in a society that generally doesn’t handle discussions of death at all well. Rachel Noble is to be commended and, indeed, praised for this elegant, poignant work – and for the ways in which she’s used her own experiences to give it such veracity and depth.

Let me give you a bit of background. In October 20102, Rachel lost her son Hamish in a terrible accident at home. As a way of trying to make sense of what happened, of Hamish’s death, as a professional writer, she turned to her craft: she wrote – and wrote and wrote. Knowing she wanted to write a picture book to honour Hamish and everything he means to her and her family, it wasn’t until she came home one-day and found a feather on her doorstep that Finn’s Feather took shape.

Snapped up by a US publisher – the phenomenal Enchanted Lion books, a family owned enterprise, it comes out June this year, including in Australia.

This is such an important book, such a lovely addition to any child’s and family’s library, I cannot recommend it enough. In sharing her emotions, her family’s story in such an accessible and meaningful way, Rachel has given voice to what is so hard to express and, along with Zoey Abbott, given death and loss a tender garment  for us all to don and cherish.

I loved Finn’s Feather and all the complex emotions it stirred, and the big, aching heart at its beautiful centre.

Thank you.

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Coffin Road by Peter May

26352121Was it only a couple of reviews ago I was praising this man’s talents to the hilt and congratulating myself for discovering him and the books he’s written that I haven’t yet read? Yes. It was. Now, I want to curse him… Why, you ask? Because the man is such a damn, amazing talent, I cannot put his books down once I start them and therefore, I am a sleep deprived, Nigel-No- Friends bibliophile – or maybe that should be a May-o-phile? Because I am. I’m an unabashed fan of this man’s stories.

Coffin Road, the fourth book of May’s I’ve read is a stand-alone novel and is exceptional. Set in Scotland, it takes the reader to the northernmost parts, the wind-lashed and sea-soaked dangerous isles that ring the Outer Hebrides, to the main islands and Edinburgh and Glasgow as well.

The novel opens with a man penning a letter before it switches to another scene where a man is washed up, all but drowned on a beach. Wearing a life-jacket, battered and bruised, he’s no recollection of who he is or what he’s doing there. It’s only that others seem to know who he is: his neighbour, his lover and his dog. With partial memories and able to easily perform certain complex tasks and skills, the man, who discovers his name is Neal, is ambivalent about finding out who he is or was; that’s because, somewhere, in the deepest recesses of his memory, he knows he’s done something terrible…

The story is then about this man’s efforts to uncover who he is and what he discovers. Written in the first person, you feel his pain, uncertainty and the small triumphs and fears he experiences, especially as he draws closer to the truth and the potential notion that he is a monster…

In the meantime, another narrative unfolds and we’re taken into the life of a rebellious teen who, two years earlier, lost her father in awful circumstances and is struggling with both his death and her mother’s efforts to continue with life.

The world May creates is bitterly real, the characters driven, flawed and completely magnificent. The plot, which in other hands might err on being fanciful, is suspenseful, clever and absolutely gripping. I couldn’t put the darn book down – it was with me at breakfast, lunch and then in the wee hours until I finished it. Then, like any good book, I was disappointed I had! But, of course, I have more May’s to read and many more sleepless nights to follow.

Ah, what’s sleep for anyway? I can do that when I’ve shuffled off this mortal coil…

Onto my next May…

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The Last Anniversary by Liane Moriarty

A wonderful story of secrets, families, hope, regret, relationships and the way in which the actions of past can impinge upon the present from Liane Moriarty. imgresSet on an island (Scribbly Gum) in the Hawkesbury River, New South Wales, Australia, it centres around Sophie Honeywell, a sweet-natured woman who reflects upon her life and decides that because she is in her late thirties, single and childless, she may have made some huge mistakes, including letting the man who asked her to marry him, Thomas Gordon, get away years earlier.

When she is left an extraordinary bequest by Thomas’ Aunt Connie, one that sees her relocating to Scribbly Gum Island and becoming part of the commercial enterprise that is the Munro Baby mystery – a mystery that harkens back to the 1930s when two residents of the island, Alice and Jack Munro dramatically disappeared, leaving behind a baby which the then island residents, Alice and Connie, raised as their own – she is flung back into Thomas’ life and that of his rather eccentric family. Befriending them all over again, Sophie is forced to reassess her life and her opinions of those who both seek to include her in the Munro baby enterprise but also those who feel that as an outsider, she has no right to be on the island and upsetting the status quo.

The longer Sophie stays, the more she begins to understand herself, what she wants from life and the “enigma” that is the Munro mystery.

While this book doesn’t quite have the sophisticated plot and characterisation of Big Little Lies, it is a delightful, light-hearted examination of people and the way we form and maintain or break relationships as well as how decisions made on the spur of the moment can have a huge impact upon the future. Often funny, moving and with a serious side, it’s an easy read and a great way to pass the time. Moriarty paints the characters so well, even the minor ones are three-dimensional and, just like real people, can be alternately annoying, fascinating and adorable. I read this while on holidays and reluctantly tore myself from it. While some of the narrative is predictable, there is a marvellous twist at the end that I never saw coming and found eminently satisfying. Another good read from a simply fabulous writer.

 

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The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins

BOOK Book Reviews 11514819042I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from this novel as it entered the literary world with both a great deal of hype as well as comparisons to the hugely successful book, Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn.

I am delighted to say, this was a terrific read. Sharing more in common with Flynn’s work than the use of “girl” in lieu of “woman”in the title, such as the notion of unreliable narrator/s, it’s an original, dark and compelling story told from three female points of view. The primary narrator is Rachel, the “girl” on the train who, when travelling to and from her work daydreams about an apparently loving couple she sees for a few seconds each time the train pauses on its journey and who happen to live a few doors down from her old house. Inventing a life and even names for them, she invests heavily in her imaginary scenario so much so, one day, when she sees something that doesn’t accord with her imagined view of their world, she is distressed. When she discovers the young woman she has named “Jess” is missing, she is compelled to uncover the truth of what she thinks she saw and what it might mean.

Things, however, are a little more complicated than a blurring of the lines between fact and fantasy, or adhering to the adage “seeing is believing”. It just so happens Rachel was in the area the night the woman, whose real name is Megan, goes missing. Rachel knows something terrible has happened and she may have borne witness to events. The only problem is, Rachel is an alcoholic who has “blackouts” and cannot recall what occurred or even if anything did…But she has snatches of memory… snippets of images and very strong feelings that she cannot dismiss. Do they mean something or is it the drink playing tricks?

The other two narrators are Rachel’s ex-husband’s new wife, the young mother, Anna, who lives a few doors down from the missing Megan (who is the third narrator), and in the same house Rachel used to dwell in and which represented such promise and happiness, until her marriage unravelled.

The three women’s stories and, indeed, version of events, are all interwoven with Rachel’s painful and desperate need to recall, interfere and discover what is true, what is not, and overcome her battle with the bottle and the demons of her past being dominant.

I don’t want to give away too much about this plot because it is clever. There were times I thought, how on earth is Hawkins going to pull this off? There is no way I am going to be able to suspend my disbelief regarding this…. But I did. The reader does, and that’s because the flawed and oft-times pathetic and frustrating narrators of this macabre tale are as believable and human as are the stupid, reckless and tragic decisions they make and the lives of those they draw into their stories and actions.

Light on police procedural (which is where I struggled a bit with some of the actions and behaviour of characters), this is far more a psychological thriller that plumes the depths of perception, of memory, of how we construct our lives, make excuses, accord blame, and reinvent ourselves in an effort to erase the past and shore up a future. It’s how the same people can view an identical event in completely different ways and react accordingly.

It is also about manipulation, violence – emotional, psychological and physical – betrayal (of ourselves as well) and the impact this has on others.

Once I started this tale, I could not put it down and felt quite wrung out at the end. Like the train Rachel rides, you hop on board and find yourself hurtling towards a destination that even if you see it coming, the arrival is daunting and haunting.

A great and unexpected novel containing beautiful prose and some genuinely marvellous reflections on people and life, featuring weak and real characters embroiled in events that will chill and thrill, this is a cracker of a read.

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Book Review: The Secret Keeper by Kate Morton

LiThe Secret Keeperke all of Kate Morton’s books, The Secret Keeper, a novel that is set in three different periods and follows the lives of three very different women, all linked by a terrible secret, is a rare treasure. This is because it’s a story like those you used to read of old, when you were a child and believed that dreams could be fully inhabited, and that your wardrobe really could lead to other worlds, and boarding schools were invented simply to enjoy high teas with friends. This is what I think of as a rainy day novel, the type transports you out of your lounge room, off your cushion, and into another time and place; immerses you in the lives of others making you care, dislike or even love them deeply. So much so, that when the tale ends, you feel as if a little part of you has dimmed.

So it is with Morton’s fourth book and, in my mind, one of her best. The Secret Keeper, as the blurb on the back teases, starts in a sleepy, gentle 1961, when young Laurel, a teenager on the brink of womanhood, witnesses her mother, Dorothy, plunging a knife into a strange man’s chest, killing him instantly.

Propelled away from the violence and into 2011, we meet Laurel once again, this time as an accomplished actor in her sixties at the twilight of a brilliant career. Dorothy is about to turn ninety and all the children are summoned home to be beside her, knowing her days are finite and precious. One of five siblings, Laurel is the eldest and, being back with her mother conjures up memories of her past and that inexplicable day when her dreamy, imaginative mother committed a terrible crime – a crime for which she was never held accountable and which Laurel has always kept secret.

As her mother’s health fades, Laurel determines to uncover the secret that she has kept, to find out who the murdered man was to her mother and what prompted her parent to act in such a way. Discovering a photo she’s never seen before, an inscription in a book that bears the name Vivian, Laurel is given her first clues and so, with the help of her brother, Gerard, she sets out to solve the mystery that’s shrouded her entire life.

This is a sublime novel that moves between 1941 and the London Blitz, to 1961 and then forward to contemporary times, shifting gently, like a soft pressure on the back, as if in a slow dance. It also segues from England to Australia and, in doing so, captures the lives and mores of different women in very different eras. Through the eyes of ambitious, romantic and fanciful Dorothy, who believes herself born to be exceptional, we come to war-torn London, where women worked in service and for their country. Physically attractive, Dorothy turns her back on her family in order to tread the path she believes the fates have carved just for her. Meeting Jimmy, a photographer with an eye for beauty and a loyal heart, she finds love, but it’s when she becomes the companion of an elderly rich woman and meets her neighbour, the enigmatic and beautiful Vivian, married to a famous author, that more than fate intervenes with tragic consequences.

Then, there’s Vivian herself, a child of the antipodes who, through terrible circumstances finds herself in England and at the whim of cruel and dangerous forces, which work to shape and change her.

From different classes and with very different outlooks on life, Laurel cannot fathom what brought her mother into Vivian’s sphere or vice-a-versa, but as she slowly uncovers letters, journals and more pictures, and begins to make the connections, Laurel begins to understand that she’s not the only one keeping secrets…

Morton has very much made secrets, letters, memories and diaries, the never mind photographs and stories within stories part of her very female (but not so it excludes male readers, many of whom I know devour her books too) ouevre. In her gifted hands and wonderful imagination, she uses these tropes deftly and smoothly, allowing different voices to share in the story in which readers inevitably become lost.

There is something lilting and magical about Morton’s prose, her turn of phrase; her exquisite way of rendering the ordinary extraordinary. One example is when Dorothy (Dolly) is working for her peevish lady: ‘“Perish the thought,” Dolly said, posting the boiled sweet through her mistress’ pursed lips.’

The simple word “posting” (think what else could have been used) is so perfect and transforms what Dolly is doing, making the action something you don’t just read about, but witness. That’s the beauty of Morton’s writing – it appears effortless, flows, but words like that reveal the thought and choice that goes into every sentence. A friend of mine (a fellow writer) once wrote that she had word-envy when reading a particular author. I understand that emotion when reading Morton.

What I particularly liked in this book as well is that Morton is not above giving the critics a bit of a serve. At one point in the novel, she has Laurel reflecting on her prefect childhood:

“The sort of home life that was written about by sentimental novelists in the type of books branded nostalgic by critics. (Until that whole business with the knife. That’s more like it the critics would have puffed.).”

Managing to be both self-aware and slightly self-deprecating at the same time she also silences those who might suggest (as some reviewers have) that Morton has become too formulaic, almost saying, what’s wrong with that? Or I choose to write this way. I cheered when I read that and thought what’s wrong with capturing a corner of the market like Morton has and relishing “nostalgia” and “family drama”, celebrating it and making that niche your own? For this is what Morton has certainly done. Not that there’s anything wrong with that – not when novels like this are produced.

The Secret Keeper is best described as a delicious book. It’s something you’ll want to savour, to reflect upon, to appreciate for the work of literary art that it is before you return for a second and third serve.

 

 

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