Skin Deep by Gary Kemble

The debut novel, Skin Deep, by award-winning short story writer, Gary Kemble, published by Echo Publishing (who kindly sent me a review copy – thank you very much) is a ripper of a read. Not being familiar with Kemble’s work, I wasn’t sure what to expect, especially when the promotional blurb announced the novel was cross-genre. I have had mixed experiences with cross-genre novels (no pun intended) so worried I might be a little disappointed, especially as the blurb set my expectations high. What I read was a page-turning, exceptionally well-written, tale of regret, deception, betrayal, politics, war, corruption at the highest levels and all with a marvellous supernatural bent that evokes time, place and people with richness and depth.

25356542Journalist Harry Hendrick, once a star student at the university where he did his journalism degree, who because of a major mis-step early in his career is stuck working for the a local Brisbane newspaper (having been rejected by all the major ones, including the “Brisbane Mail” – a thinly disguised Courier Mail, the paper for which I’ve written for over 16 years!). When he wakes one morning after a particularly wild night to find himself sporting an odd tattoo, he is unable to explain when or how he came about it, believing he must have been incredibly wasted not to recall. When other tattoos start appearing on his body, accompanied by vivid and horrific dreams, dreams that include olfactory and taste sensations as well, Harry knows something fantastical is happening to him. But who can he tell? Who would believe him? Not the girlfriend who has just dumped him, the attractive reporter at the Chronicle where he works or his patient boss. As for his best mate, Dave, he’s likely to think he’s mad. Harry isn’t convinced he’s not.

When the dreams intensify, and the tattoos appear with alarming regularity, telling their own gruesome version of the events Harry experiences night after night, he understands something major is afoot, something that involves not only the story that almost had him kicked out of university and discredited as a serious journalist years earlier, but one that involves wild and dangerous magic, a desperate desire for revenge and extraordinarily powerful people who will stop at nothing to ensure no-one lives to repeat the tale they’ve worked so hard to bury.

From the first page, this book gripped and didn’t let me go. Kemble is a terrific writer and his evocation of place, particularly, is outstanding. It’s not just Brisbane (which I know and love and smelt, felt and imagined as I read), but the surging seas off the coast of Australia, the dry, barren lands of the Middle East and even the interiors of houses and office buildings as well as landscapes. Likewise with people. Harry (along with the other characters in the book) is flesh and blood and his fear and confusion as events overtake him are visceral.

I don’t want to say too much for risk of spoiling the plot except to say that this political thriller-cum-action-crime-supernatural novel is fabulous. My only reservation is the cover. I don’t think it does justice to the contents and certainly, I never would have picked it up. The title is so apt and tantalizing and yet the vague image of smoky squiggles just doesn’t cut it for this reader and if it as the same effect of repelling other potential ones, then it’s to their detriment as they’d miss out on a great novel.

A fantastic debut from a terrific writer. I cannot wait for his next book.


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Book Reviw: A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini

You know you are in the hands of a masterful storyteller when you put a book down only because you have no choice – life drags you away aA Thousand Splendid Sunsnd it’s a physical and emotional wrench to let it go, even for a moment. When all you can think as you go about compulsory tasks are the story and the characters. While you are away, you wonder what they are doing, where the narrator is going to take them and you care about their fates deeply. Such is the effect of A Thousand Splendid Suns. The characters live beyond the pages – not merely at the end, but throughout the reading experience, so realistically and gorgeously have they been drawn.

Just as the sublime The Kite Runner told the tale of doomed male friendship, ATSS tells the story of two very different Afghani women: Mariam – shy, subservient, filled with self-doubt and yet, despite what life has meted out, is also honest and possessed of an innocence that is both her greatest strength and weakness. Then there is the beautiful, smart and kind Laila. Raised under very different roofs and with different expectations of their future, fate in the form of political and sectarian upheaval throws these women together and what happens before, during and after is heart-wrenchingly bitter-sweet.

Hosseini knows not only how to capture the reader’s imagination but our hearts as well. Told without sentimentality but nonetheless with an almost unbearable sweetness and pathos, ATSS unapologetically describes what the women of Afghanistan (and many men, children, families and thus communities) were forced to endure. The rampant misogyny, sexism and horrific abuses; terror, hope, the loss, the grind, the joy in the smallest and simplest of things; their constant sacrifices. Their resilience is formidable and humbling; their strength amazing – as is their capacity to forgive. By focussing primarily on Mariam and Laila (and those who play important roles in shaping who and what they become) Hosseini gives us a searing insight into not only the plight of those who are helpless pawns in a brutal battle for control of a weakened state, but Western prejudices, sense of entitlement and misunderstanding as well as revealing the ugliness and terrible beauty of a culture so few of us understand except through snatches from sensationalized news bulletins or from foreign correspondents with a brief to fill. That there are those resistant to as well as complicit in oppression, suffer because of willful ignorance and the brutality of others; the way in which religion and culture can impose horrific restraints when reduced to power struggles while at the same time gesturing to a proud nobility is evident in the novel. Inevitably, as is the case when religion, sex and gender become politicized, there are scapegoats who pay for the hubris and cruelty of others – for more than a lifetime. The damage inflicted can last for generations.

I didn’t want this book to end. My heart soared, it plummeted; I gasped, cried, held my breath and as I read felt physically pummeled then embraced, experiencing the 30 years the tale covers as a visceral thing that left me psychologically and imaginatively battered but richer in ways that count. But, I also felt ashamed. Ashamed for thoughts I may have harboured deep down, for prejudices I may not have even realized I held until this novel exposed them to me, and for that, I am grateful.

This is a beautiful, deeply moving book that I cannot recommend highly enough. It was a privilege to read and now to share.

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Book Review: The Kite Runner by Khaleed Hosseini

I don’t know why I have waited so long to read this book but, having finished it in one sitting, I know I haven’t only read an amazing novel, but had an emotional experience like no other.

The Kite Runner

The Kite Runner tells the story of two young Afghani men who live in Kabul in quite different circumstances. One, Amir, through whose eyes the story is told, is wealthy, educated and privileged, his father being a strong, athletic and ethical man who wields power and earns respect. The other, Hassan, is the son of one of Amir’s father’s beloved servants and comes from a different ethnic group, the Hazara. Despite the differences in their social status, the boys were not only fed from the same wet-nurse’s breast (their mothers dying when they were newborns), but grow up together, sharing significant moments, triumphs and failures while also being eternally divided by their social status and ethnicity. The first half of the book fo

cuses on their childhood and adolescence and the chapters are simply exquisite in their observations, the raw honesty with which personal flaws are described and acknowledged, and the simplicity as well as complexity of Hassan and Amir’s relationship. This complexity becomes more evident as they grow older and, on Amir’s side at least, jealousy erupts.

Reading this section is like inhaling a flower’s perfume and becoming giddy with the fragrance… Yet, you know it can’t last. Already, as you revel in the joy of kite flying and running, for example, you know the seeds of destruction, of innocence lost, have been sewn. So you relish every moment in ways Amir especially does not and cannot. After all, what child can understand the consequences of their actions – even when they know they are wrong?

This is something the book explores in detail – how what we do in a rash moment, even when we know it is morally, ethically wrong, disloyal, foolish or a betrayal, can set in motion consequences that reverberate for decades. Against a backdrop of invasion and pending war, and as more characters enter their universe, the magical, insular world the boys inhabitbegins to dissolve. But no one could foresee what was to happen…

The second half of the book shows how the actions – both on the page and off stage – impact upon the present. Heart-wrenching, moving, lyrical and lovely, providing insights into the hearts and minds of a different culture and faith, this sweeping story of generations, masculinity, femininity, war, liberation, immigration, refugees, is epic in scope and elegiac in execution. The prose is sublime. Phrases and descriptions linger in the mind, trip off your tongue as you have to say them aloud. Who thinks to describe a sky as a ‘blameless blue’? Yet, I saw it, felt it, stood beneath it – or rain as ‘melting silver’ (that makes me sigh), such is the power of Hosseini’s prose.

At no point is the plot predictable and sometimes the twists and turns are shocking, a punch to the stomach, a catching of breath so sharp it hurts, yet you keep reading, you cannot stop. Exquisitely told, The Kite Runner is a magnificent novel by such a gifted story-teller whose insights and humanity leap off the pages and whose imagination, like the kites Amir and Hassan fly, soars.

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