Gulliver’s Wife by Lauren Chater

The moment I read the first few sentences of this glorious book, I knew I was going to love it – and I did. The writing is lyrical and lovely, the story fascinating and clever, and the history that weaves through its pages brought to life in simply stunning ways. But what really makes this utterly engrossing novel so captivating is the premise that underpins the entire narrative.  While most of us either grew up with Jonathan Swift’s satirical travelogue/novel, Gulliver’s Travels, or know of the extraordinary adventures its protagonist, ship‘s surgeon, Lemuel Gulliver underwent through various popular culture retellings (eg. the movie starring Ted Danson as Gulliver) not much thought at all is given to his wife or family who were left behind. Well, Chater changes that. This is the story of Mary Gulliver and her two children and how they survived in Lemuel’s absence on upon his unexpected return.  The book is set during a time when women were completely subordinated to their husbands and society was patriarchal in every sense. When Lemuel is believed dead after three years missing at sea, Mary Gulliver not only provides for her family through her formidable skills as a healer and midwife, but excels. Imagine then, after attaining liberty, repaying her selfish husband’s debts and raising her children, her husband returns, expecting his household to revert back to the way it was – with him at its head and his every need and whim met. Furthermore, though he’s ill, he won’t be shifted from telling incredible tales of what happened to him while he was away, stories that threaten to undermine and even destroy the reputation Mary has, through hard graft and determination, restored.  This is the story Chater gives us – from the point of view of Mary and...

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The Phone Box at the Edge of the World Laura Imai Messina

This exquisite book, set after the shocking Tsunami that struck Japan in 2011 and took so many lives, wreaking havoc upon the people and land, tells the story of how some survivors handled their overwhelming grief in the aftermath.  While the book focuses mainly on Yui (whose mother and daughter were swept away) and Takeshi, a doctor whose wife died of cancer and whose young daughter has fallen into silence ever since, we’re introduced to a host of other characters who find solace, not just in each other (though not in the sense you’d usually expect – they don’t console one another in the ways we traditionally understand this), but in their memories, actions and choices and, through a special place. In a garden by the ocean, Bell Gardia, an elderly couple have a disused phone box which houses the “Wind Phone.” Here, people who are grieving, are welcomed to come and speak into the hand piece, communicate with those who’ve died or who are no longer present in their lives. In expressing their pain, dreams, love, rage etc and sharing with those they’ve lost, these people find ways to connect their past, their sorrow, and reconcile their present. That this place and the phone and its purpose really exist (how wonderful!) gives the tale a special frisson.  I admit, I was a little concerned that a book that focuses so much on such tragedy, on death and its impact on the living, would be bleak and miserable. Far from it. This heart-achingly lovely book has moments that do explore the depths of sadness, but it’s done with such beauty and thoughtfulness, imbuing even the smallest actions and thoughts with deep meaning. Yes, I ached, I cried, but I also felt a warm bud of happiness that grew as...

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The Hunting Party by Lucy Foley

This book was unexpected. While the premise was fairly typical of a mystery/crime novel (a group of old friends travel somewhere remote – the Scottish Highlands – to celebrate New Year when tragedy strikes and they’re stranded), the style was very original. Written as a number of first-person narratives, the reader gets to know a few of the characters intimately whether they’re the London guests with relationships spanning up to twenty years, or the staff that work at the gorgeous lodge they’ve booked in the wilds of Scotland. While the tale commences with the tragedy, it then segues back and forth to three days before, to “Now” and then brings the reader ever closer to the moment death strikes.  The combination of first-person POV, which means we sometimes see the same set of circumstances and interactions from completely different perspectives, as well as the shifting time frame, gives such immediacy to the story. I found I wanted to keep reading, even as my eyes grew heavy. Turning the next page, I would experience a chill, a frisson, that made me keep going. In that sense, the book is a real page turner. I have seen criticism of the book in relation to the characters, some readers finding them genuinely unpleasant. There is that – most are not ‘nice’ with secrets and flaws that make them unlikable but never, I felt, unrelatable. They admit to their faults, even try to psychoanalyse themselves. While the this generally fails, it’s the fact Foley gives the reader contexts and other perspectives for understanding certain characters’ actions and motivation that redeems them somewhat. I found it refreshing to have characters portrayed in such shades of grey. It’s also what made the perpetrator hard to pick. Overall, I thought his a great, escapist read. So...

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The Girl in the Mirror by Rose Carlyle

This is yet another book that has received a great deal of hype (debut novel that blew the publisher’s mind re the quality of the writing, Hollywood knocking, an author with a terrific back story herself etc), only this time, I didn’t hesitate, but went along for the ride and what a ride it was.  The Girl in the Mirror is the story of mirror twins, Summer Rose and Iris who, along with the rest of their extended family (their father was married three times and they have a number of step-siblings and a brother) find themselves pawns in their dead father’s will. You see, their filthy rich and manipulative father (he’s a man who tells his children “nice is dumb” – what a charmer) has written some strict rules for inheriting his wealth: forget dividing his incredible legacy between his kids. Oh no – not this bloke. Only one will get the lot: the first of his children to be legally married and then give birth to a living child will inherit his enormous wealth – $100 million no less (did I say this was very soap opera?). So, the race is on. With six daughters and a son – and the twins with a chronological advantage (they’re older) – who will be the first? But with Summer refusing to bow to her father’s unethical instructions, choosing love over money, and the other children far too young to even be able to conceive, Iris appears to have it in the bag – or would if her own, hastily conceived relationship hadn’t self-destructed.  Just when all seems lost (including the money), perfect Summer, the twin Iris wishes she was, throws her “Twinnie” a life-line.  Believe it or not, what I’ve revealed above is not a spoiler, but just the...

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Normal People by Sally Rooney.

There has not only been so much hype about this book, but a successful TV show (which I haven’t yet watched) as well. Once again, I was caught in the silly bind of asking myself do I read it and risk disappointment or not? Fortunately, I did read it and while the book wasn’t what I expected, it was a good read.  Basically, the story centres on two misfits (though the fact they both are isn’t immediately apparent) who, thrown together through life’s vagaries, nonetheless share little in common except they’re both smart and curious – mainly about each other, though they’d be the last to admit that. While Marianne is unpopular at school, Connell is the boy most dream of being or being able to call boyfriend, a situation that’s reversed once they get to university. Then, it’s the other’s turn to shine. The book follows the social, psychological and emotional intersections of these two characters through adolescence and early adulthood; the way in which they both depend upon and yet deny their need for each other. They’re like atoms, inexplicably drawn to each other then flung apart, mostly because, for all their intelligence, they don’t really understand themselves or their need of each other and are hopeless at communicating.  I found this quite frustrating in some ways – the fact they don’t learn from the pain they feel and cause and repeat mistakes that cause a series of emotional upheavals and damage to their souls. Are they “normal people” or is this a satiric commentary on their ability to function “normally’ (whatever that is) and embrace dysfunction instead? So, while I appreciated the rawness and realness of much of the dialogue and situations, I also found the naval-gazing a bit tedious and their white privilege a bit...

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Devil’s Lair by Sarah Barrie

I don’t recall the last time I was so chilled by a book as this one – and I mean that in a good way! The story of young widow, Callie and her attempt to put the tragic death of her husband behind her and the suspicion cast on her by a click-bait hungry media, by hiding in a small town in Tasmania – New Norfolk – Devil’s Lair is suspenseful, atmospheric and really very scary! Grateful that her friend has offered her a safe haven in Tasmania, what Callie doesn’t expect is the kindness of the strangers she encounters, or the eerie surroundings in which she finds herself. Located in the smaller gatehouse of a large property in which a curmudgeonly recluse lives, Callie nonetheless makes a real effort to get on with her life and interact with the people she finds herself among. More than anyone else, she finds herself drawn to Connor, one of the siblings who own a huge tourist-based property nearby and who gives her much-needed work. But when strange letters, stories of ghosts and unexplained deaths as well as the sense of being watched start to overwhelm her, Callie finds that the most rational of explanations don’t add up. Wanting desperately to trust someone, Callie is no longer sure, after all, how can you trust anyone when you can no longer trust yourself? I really enjoyed this book. The plot was terrific, the pace just right and the way it which it managed to capture the almost suffocating and frightening sense of being in a small house, at night, on the edge of the river and the feeling of being watched (I was looking over my shoulder in my bedroom!) against the gorgeous expanses of the Tasmanian countryside, was superb. Evocative, eerie and...

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Eight Detectives by Alex Parvesi

This debut novel by Alex Parvesi, a mathematician as well as writer, takes the structure of the typical murder-mystery genre as its subject and turns this into a series of clues that are meant to solve a crime. Basically, the story is about an editor at a press dedicated to publishing books in the crime genre, chasing down a famous author who lives on a remote Greek isle with the aim of  both seeking his permission to publish a series of short stories he wrote over 20 years ago that prove his thesis about the structure of almost envy murder-mystery (as he prefers to call them) ever written, as well as write an erudite introduction explaining his theories. The original book was called The White Murders.  This is the frame narrative for what then becomes a series of alternating chapters where the reader is given the seven short stories the author wrote all those years ago (and which comprise the original book), interspersed with conversations between him and his new publisher. Yet, in each story, there are a series of irregularities, which when the publisher points these out, the author either dismisses or explains away abruptly. When the publisher questions him re the title, which also conjures up an actual brutal murder of a young woman named White that occurred in England decades ago, and the writer dismisses any relationship as mere coincidence, she begins to question his response, not just to this, but to all her queries… I enjoyed this slow burn of a novel. Drawing on the tropes of the murder/mystery/crime genre, it explores it in a variety of homages – the gumshoe PI, the femme fatale, the bully cop, the dogged investigator and obvious and not so obvious suspects and victims. It bears echoes of Agatha...

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The Scent-Keeper by Erica Bauermeister

When I first started reading this book, I wasn’t sure how I’d feel about it. The writing is lovely, of that there’s no doubt but, initially, the story is opaque and unfolds slowly until…it doesn’t. In an usual move, the mystery behind young Emmeline’s life on a remote Canadian island with her scientist father who collects and captures scents in bottles, isn’t revealed until about a third of the way through the book. Up to that point, the reader spends each day with Emmeline, comprehending the small world she lives in through her eyes, ears and, as one would expect from the title, her nose. Her life might be defined by the island’s coastline, but in so many ways, it’s a deep and magical existence without borders, limited only by the stories she loves and her father’s and her imagination.  When Emmeline discovers one of her father’s stories is untrue, her reaction sets in motion a series of life-altering events. Suddenly, the investment in the narrative, in Emmeline and her father, John, becomes more than the worthwhile task it already was. After that point, Emmeline’s life, which has already taken an unexpected turn, continues to move apace. Forced to engage with people beyond her sheltered upbringing, Emmeline at first struggles. She is an unusual and extraordinary young woman who has been taught to understand the world through her olfactory senses (something we all do to a degree and mostly unconsciously). But it’s not until she meets a young man with a secret and learns one about herself that she’s propelled into an exciting future, one where others appreciate not only who she is, but what she can do for them. Rich in detail, observations about people and objects, but most of all, aromas, Emmeline’s first-person narrative is mesmerizing. Sadness,...

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The Shrine by L.J. Ross

It’s hard to believe that L.J. Ross has already written sixteen DCI Ryan books (and others besides), but I am so glad she has. This series is like comfort food. When you pick up the next one in the series, you know you’re in great hands. The familiar characters whom, over the years, you’ve grown to genuinely care about and will to succeed and survive appear and you settle in, knowing the recipe is being prepared by a master. This book is yet another very satisfying meal. When a colleague of Ryan and co., a high-ranking officer, is shot dead outside her home and then an explosion goes off in Durham Cathedral and a priceless relic is stolen, Ryan’s team are swiftly put into action. Ryan (for reasons I won’t reveal) is forced to bury personal feelings and simply get on with the job. But as the cases unravel, it’s clear that not only may they be related, but the killer hasn’t finished… Character driven, these books are slower-paced than many crime novels, allowing plot and certainly anything gritty to slide into the background as setting and dialogue and the bonds that connect the main characters are brought to the fore.  This is what makes them both an easy but immensely pleasurable read and I’m already looking forward to the next...

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The Octopus and I by Erin Hortle

This was an unusual book to which I had incredibly mixed reactions. I can only think of this as a positive thing – for both the reader and the author. In telling the story of Lucy, a breast cancer survivor who, while struggling to deal with her new body (never mind the trauma of cancer treatment and everything the mind, body, and those around you deal with post-recovery – I speak from experience), has a strange and incredible experience with an octopus. This has a profound impact on her life in many, many ways, changing her both internally and externally and altering the relationships she has with those closest to her, those she meets and, above all, the natural environment and the fauna that inhabit it in ways humans cannot possibly comprehend. The novel opens in one of the most original ways I’ve read in a long time and it took me a moment to become accustomed to the voice. I found it strangely beautiful and moving – particularly when I understood it was a wondrous creature narrating. This occurs at different times in the novel- creatures take over the story. I am not as convinced by the success of those other voices or the position they hold in the book as I was this first one. In many ways, they jarred a little. That said, when Lucy and the humans and their interactions take over, the story moves well and the characters are interesting and mostly engaging. There were times I really didn’t like Lucy at all. I struggled so hard with this because as a woman, cancer survivor, and someone who feels bonds with the environment (especially in Tasmania), I felt I should like her more. But, as is the case with others in the book, she...

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