The Woman on the Stairs by Bernhard Schlink
Literature , Review / 23/01/2017

With so many disposable thrillers with the word “Girl” in the title on the market it could possibly be taken a marker of some quality that the title of Bernhard Schlink’s new novel references a “woman”. There are no murders, no unreliable narrators and no sneaky plot twists. The Woman on the Stairs fits more in line with recent books that take the art world as their focus and as a jumping off point to explore deeper issues such as The Last Painting of Sara de Vos (which also, coincidentally, also featured both a stolen art work and Sydney’s Art Gallery of New South Wales). The narrator, an aging mergers and acquisitions lawyer from Germany is in Sydney stitching up a deal when he comes across a painting from his past. That painting, The Woman on the Stairs, was in the middle of a formative event in his life as a young lawyer. The subject of the painting, Irene Gundach, had left her husband for the artist Schmidt and the two men were in a dispute over the painting. The lawyer caught in the middle, found himself falling in love with Irene and helping her to get out of the…

The Terranauts by TC Boyle
Literature , Review / 17/01/2017

Two of TC Boyle’s long running themes collide in his latest novel The Terranauts. On the one hand is his continuing exploration of the power of visionaries to create a following (read cult) and bring people along with their vision (The Road to Wellville is a good early example of this). And on the other, the environment, its fragility, and man’s continuing struggle to both live in harmony with it and destroy it (When the Killing’s Done is a good recent example of this). And like many of his previous books, The Terranauts is built around a true story, because sometimes you just can’t make this stuff up. It is the mid 1990s and eight intrepid explorers, the Terranauts of the title, have been chosen from a group of 16, to spend two years inside a completely sealed habitat known as Ecosphere 2 (the “2” because the Earth itself is Ecosphere 1). Just a note that in the real world, the original was called Biosphere 2 and is still going strong reinvented as a research facility. Ecosphere 2, built in the middle of Arizona, has been established with different biomes – a rainforest, a desert, a small ocean – and…

The Good People by Hannah Kent
Historical , Literature , Review / 13/12/2016

Hannah Kent rose quickly to justified prominence with her stunning first novel Burial Rites. That book, set in the harshness of Iceland took a true story and brought it viscerally to life. While the method is the same, and there are similarities between the two books, The Good People explores a very different landscape and a very different culture. The Good People opens in a small village in Ireland in the 1850s. Norra and her husband have been eking out an existence and trying to look after their disabled grandson Michael. The four-year-old cannot talk or use his legs, he was left with them by their son-in-law when their daughter died. When her husband dies suddenly Norra is left adrift. In the highly superstitious villages this death is seen as evidence that Michael is a changeling, a child stolen by the fairies, or Good People. The village itself is caught between the old ways and the new. Kent effectively captures the tension between the desire to put the old superstitions aside and the pressure on villagers from the new priest to fully commit to Christianity. The old ways are represented by Nance, a woman who understands the fairy lore and…

Goodwood by Holly Throsby
Crime , Literature , Review / 06/12/2016

Fictional characters have been mysteriously disappearing in the Australian landscape for years. Despite efforts to colonise and urbanise, the land continues to swallow people up, particularly in fiction. So that when eighteen-year-old Rosie White disappears at the beginning of Goodwood there is a distinct Picnic at Hanging Rock feeling in the air. And like that book, Goodwood is for the most part more interested on the effect of that disappearance, and another a few days later, on the psyche of a small town than it is on solving the mystery. Although unlike its famous predecessor, Holly Throsby does provide a solution. Singer and songwriter Holly Throsby goes back to 1992 for her debut novel set in Goodwood, a mythical but typical NSW south coast town. Goodwood is a quirky town built on logging, fishing, a large coastal lake and a struggling dairy industry. With its bowlo and pub, Goodwood is too small to have a proper supermarket, but big enough to have a school. Full of the types of oddball characters, many harbouring dark secrets, that readers (and TV viewers of shows like Seachange) have come to expect from these literary country towns. Narrator Jean Brown is sixteen, on the cusp…

The Last Days of New Paris by China Mieville
Fantasy , Literature , Review / 30/11/2016

Thinking about it afterwards it was kind of obvious that pairing new weird novelist China Miéville and with surrealist movement was perhaps inevitable. The Last Days of New Paris not only celebrates Surrealism but brings it to life in a way that only the imagination and verve of Miéville could possibly achieve. New Weird and Surrealism, a match made in heaven, which, of course, as this book posits, also implies the existence of Hell. It is 1950 and, as a result of the detonation of an occult weapon in 1941, the war still rages in Paris. The bomb – “the weaponised soul of convulsive beauty” – made real the Surrealist dreams of Europe on the streets of occupied Paris. The landscape of Paris has been remodelled in line with a Surrealist thought experiment and manifestations of Surrealist art (known as ‘manifs’) wander the streets. To stop this strangeness spreading, Paris has been walled off from the rest of the world and so the Second World War rages on between the Germans and the French on its streets. The story centres on Thibault, a member of the surrealist resistance, who is caught up in stopping a German plot to harness the…

Here I Am by Jonathan Safran Foer
Literature , Review / 25/11/2016

Jonathan Safran Foer has the literary equivalent of a mid-life crisis in his latest novel, the intensely Jewish Here I Am. The title, explained early on in the novel, refers to Abraham’s answer when asked by God to sacrifice his son Isaac. But it could just as easily refer to Safran Foer himself, waving his literary arms and putting his head over the parapet ten years after his well received debut Everything is Illuminated and its post-9/11 follow up Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. Here I Am is essentially two stories – a domestic tale of the end of a marriage and the global crisis foreshadowed in the first line of the book – the destruction of the State of Israel. The domestic tale centres around Jacob, a writer for television married to Julia for sixteen years with three children, suffering from a mid-life crisis and looking down the barrel of a separation from his wife. The metaphorical earthquake in Jacob’s life is paralleled by a real earthquake in the Middle East leading to an array of Arab forces moving in on a weakened Israel. The global crisis comes halfway through the book and both heightens and throws a spanner into…

To The Bright Edge of the World by Eowyn Ivey

Eowyn Ivey, known for her first novel The Snow Child, takes readers back to a no less mystical Alaskan frontier in her follow-up novel To the Bright Edge of the World. The novel is centred around an expedition in the 1880s to the source of the wild and little known Wolverine River. But it is much more than that, it is a love story of sorts that also touches on the issues of changing nature of the landscape and the relationship that people have with it and the destruction of indigenous Alaskan cultures that followed the arrival of Europeans. The tale is told in a number of strands. The first is mainly through the diaries of Allen Forrester, a military man charged with leading a very small expedition (himself, two men and their guides) to navigate the Wolverine. The second is the diaries of his younger wife Sophie, left behind at a military camp in Canada, and having to deal with her own personal struggles. All of this is set in a meta-narrative of a correspondence between a latter day relative of Forrester’s and the curator of a museum in the modern Wolverine town of Alpine to whom he has sent…

Commonwealth by Ann Patchett
Literature , Recommended , Review / 20/10/2016

After spending time in the Amazon in the magnificent State of Wonder, Ann Patchett comes home in her latest novel, Commonwealth. The book at first feels like an example of the old Tolstoyan cliché that all unhappy families are unhappy in their own way. Not that the families in Commonwealth are unhappy, per se, but they are complex. And while at first blush their members seem to fall into identifiable types, nothing is that simple. Commonwealth opens at a christening in 1964. Policeman Fix Keating is celebrating the birth of his second daughter Frannie, little knowing that this party will bring with it a seismic upheaval not only to his life but the lives of two families. Attending almost by accident while trying to escape his own wife and children, Bert Cousins catches sight of Fix’s wife Beverly and the rest is history. In a sometimes circular fashion, Patchett traces the lives of the six Cousins and Keating children who ended up spending summers together in Virginia as they grew up until a tragedy throws them all apart. Patchett’s strength in this book is charting the growth of these characters. All of their life choices and decisions are informed by character and circumstance…

The Nakano Thrift Shop by Hiromi Kawakami
Literature , Review / 18/10/2016

Hiromi Kawakami is one of Japan’s most celebrated novelists but only a few of her works have been translated into English. She is known for “offbeat” fiction and in some ways her latest novel, set in a small ‘thrift shop’ in Tokyo, fits that bill. But it is also beautifully observed and the characters, while odd, feel real. Mr Nakano, the ageing shop owner surrounds himself with what can only be described as bric-a-brac – old ashtrays, bowls, paperweights – and has a growing on-line auction businesses. The Nakano Thrift Shop has a strong ongoing narrative (although one that takes a while to get going) but is told as a series of tales, often based around an item in the shop or one of the odd range of customers who frequent the store. The narrator of these tales is Hitomi, a young woman who works in the shop and finds herself becoming besotted by her fellow worker Takeo. Takeo is a taciturn character and the two develop a fairly chaste on again off again relationship. In the meantime, Mr Nakano is having one, and possibly more, affairs and his sister Masayo, who also spends time in the shop and provides…

The Windy Season by Sam Carmody
Crime , Literature , Review / 28/09/2016

Sam Carmody’s debut novel, The Windy Season, runner up for last year’s Vogel award, takes readers deep into what has become Tim Winton territory. A dangerous coming of age story set on the wild Western Australian coast, The Windy Season plumbs the depths (literally at times) of the regional Australian experience. Seventeen year-old Paul’s brother Eliot has gone missing. Paul, is unsure how to react but wants to find Eliot and, not knowing what else to do, packs up and follows in his brother’s footsteps. Eliot had been working on his uncle’s crayfish trawler operating out the West Australian coastal town of Stark so Paul follows. At the same time as following Paul’s life, Carmody charts the journey of a group of bikies across the country. Led by The President and narrated by a character called Swiss (after the army knife), the group flee from a bust in Sydney, heading west across the desert to exact some form of unspecified revenge. Besides Paul, Carmody gives some insight into the lives of the people who drift in and out of towns like Stark. The people who work on the trawlers, those running from some aspect of their lives, and the tourists…

The Summer That Melted Everything by Tiffany McDaniel
Literature , Review / 28/09/2016

The Summer That Melted Everything is a novel that defies characterisation. Part coming of age story, part American gothic, part social commentary. And it manages to be all of these things at once while plumbing the depths of the worst of humanity with poetic prose. It is 1984, a year of wonders, and Autopsy Bliss, long time prosecuting attorney in the town of Breathed, Ohio, puts an ad in the newspaper inviting the devil to come to the town. And the devil appears, possibly, in the form of a lost thirteen-year-old African American boy who instantly befriends Autopsy’s youngest son Fielding. Whether Sal, as he calls himself based on the S from Satan and L from Lucifer, is actually the devil remains ambiguous through the book. Certainly he seems to know things that he should not know and his presence seems too impact on the weather of the town which becomes unbearably hot. But in many ways, Sal is just a thirteen-year-old boy. The story of that summer is narrated by Fielding from a remove of seventy years. An ageing Fielding lives in an Arizona trailer park in a very sparsely described mid-twenty first century. But the affect of those…

Good Morning, Midnight by Lily Brooks-Dalton
Literature , Review , Science Fiction / 08/09/2016

In a time in which postapocalyptic fiction constantly trying to outdo itself in disaster, Lily Brooks-Dalton has produced what might be the quietest, gentlest most heartfelt view of the end of the world to date. The apocalypse in Good Morning, Midnight happens offstage, the view of it is from an extreme distance from which nothing is known other than there is no longer any telecommunications and, later, that all of the world’s lights are off. All that the reader knows of the event is that it has left some people stranded – in particular Augustine, an aging astronomer at a remote Arctic observatory, and Sully, a communications specialist, part of a team of explorers returning home from an exploratory trip to Jupiter. Good Morning, Midnight revolves around the lives of these two characters and those around them. They are different tales of survival and loss, Augustine chooses to remain at a remote arctic outpost when it is hurriedly evacuated and has an eight-year-old girl, accidentally left behind, for company. Food and warmth are not an issue but eventually the need to communicate with the outside world is and Gus decides that has to find a way to navigate them across…

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

With Black Lives Matter in the news in the US it is perhaps no surprise that fiction and non-fiction explorations of slavery are once again coming to the fore. Fiction which focuses on slavery, while important to an understanding of historical context, also casts a light on current events. Recent films like 12 Years a Slave, the remaking of Roots on TV and now, among a number of new books which take slavery as their focus, comes Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad. The Underground Railroad begins with the origins of the slave trade. The story of Cora’s grandmother who was transported to America and passed through a number of hands before arriving at a cotton plantation in Georgia from which she never left.  But the focus of the novel is on Cora, forced to find her own way after her mother escaped from the plantation, when she was eleven, leaving her behind. Cora, encouraged by a fellow slave, also decides to flee despite the severe and violent consequences of failure. When she does, Cora discovers the underground railroad used to transport escaped slaves North. In Whitehead’s world this is no metaphorical device but an actual railroad dug into the earth by unknown hands, run by white station agents committed…

Before the Fall by Noah Hawley
Literature , Recommended , Review , Thriller / 27/07/2016

Noah Hawley has written a number of novels but is probably best known as the writer of the television reimagining of Fargo. While Fargo lives in the American mid-west, in Before the Fall, Hawley is mainly concentrated on the East Coast, the lives of the mega-wealthy and the people with whom they come into contact. But Before the Fall is many things – a mystery and a thriller, a meditation on fate and a critique of modern media. Before the Fall opens with a plane crash. David Bateman, head of a FOX-like 24-hour news and opinion network is flying his family home from a holiday in Martha’s Vineyard on a private jet. Also on board are his personal security guard, another wealthy couple and a struggling artist, Scott Burroughs, who has been offered a lift to New York by David’s wife Maggie. Eighteen minutes later and only Scott and the Bateman’s four year old son JJ are alive, adrift in the Atlantic Ocean. The thriller element comes as Hawley explores the aftermath of the crash. Scott, who manages to rescue both himself and JJ, is caught up in a media and legal storm as people search for answers. And when those…

The Toymaker by Liam Pieper
Historical , Literature , Review / 08/07/2016

The opening of Liam Pieper’s The Toymaker is fairly confronting. Adam Kulakov, a successful middle aged man is thinking of ending his affair (not his first) with a sixteen-year-old school girl. This is just the start of Adam’s problems, problems that are juxtaposed against the struggles of his wife Tess to keep their family business afloat and the traumatic history of his grandfather, transported to Auschwitz during World War 2. The Toymaker has some finely observed, if not always particularly likeable, characters. Adam Kulakov is the epitome of the privileged Australian male. Second generation, living high on the money generated by a company started and grown by his grandfather, arrogant and entitled. Adam’s problems, which become his family’s problems, are grounded in his own hubris and stupidity, in his belief that he is somehow better than those around him. His wife Tess has come from a different direction – her family fortune squandered, and finding herself in a loveless marriage she finds meaning in the company and her connection with Adam’s grandfather. All this is held against the struggle of Arkady Kulakov, a young man transported to Auschwitz and blackmailed into working on medical experiments, finding some meaning by bringing…

Ruins by Rajith Savanadasa
Literature , Review / 06/07/2016

As the war in Sri Lanka ended and a kind of normality slowly returns to the country, a number of novels have emerged exploring the war and its effects. Last year saw The Island of A Thousand Mirrors by Nayomi Munaweera (reviewed here). That book followed a family touched by the violence who choose to leave their country behind. In his debut novel, Australian author Rajith Savanadasa takes readers past that time, to the middle classes of the “new” Sri Lanka. But the war is never very far from the surface. Savanadasa’s novel focusses on a middle class Sri Lankan family in Colombo. He starts from the point of view of their servant Latha and subsequent chapters are from the points of view of the younger teenage daughter Anoushka, newspaper editor father Mano, his wife Lakshmi and their elder son, and prospective venture capitalist, Niranjan. Each of these characters give a different perspective on the “new” Sri Lanka in which they live. Issues of class, government control, racism, the influence of the West against ancient traditions are aired from different generational and cultural perspectives. Each of the characters has their own arc and trajectory. Each is well drawn and while…

This Census-Taker by China Mieville
Fantasy , Literature , Review / 21/06/2016

Last year, China Miéville released Three Moments of an Explosion (reviewed here), a book of short stories that once again confirmed him as one of the pre-eminent voices in world fantasy. While readers are waiting for the next full length Miéville novel, expected around August this year, he has released a story described as a “novella”. At just over 200 pages long, This Census-Taker was probably a little too long for the recent anthology, but possibly not long enough to be called a novel. This Census-Taker opens with typical Miévillian flourish: a young boy is running down a hill – away from what? towards what? is that blood on his hands or dirt? how old is he (even he isn’t sure)? The first paragraph is part third person, part first person, the facts are in question – but it is immediately engaging. The story only becomes both stranger and more obscure from there. The boy lives on a mountainside above an unnamed town that exists on two sides of a bridge in the mountains. There has been a war of some sort, there is a distant city on the coast but few go there and fewer return. The boy’s father,…

The Last Painting of Sara de Vos by Dominic Smith
Literature , Recommended , Review / 16/06/2016

At one point in The Last Painting of Sara de Vos it is the late 1950s and a young Australian art student is in conversation with a middle age New Yorker. She is trying to explain to him why an Australian audience would be more likely to identify a good piece of classical music as European rather than Australian. “What does that say about Australians?” He asks, and she replies: “That we don’t trust our own talents. That anything foreign or exotic is automatically better or more refined.” Australian cultural cringe in a nutshell. An observation which has little to do with the plot or major concerns of the novel but just one of the many themes of this accomplished and engaging novel. The events of 1958 are the fulcrum of the novel. Ellie Shipley, a young Australian art restorer and academic is talked into creating a forgery of a painting by a female 17th century Dutch artist. When he discovers the theft of his family heirloom, the painting’s owner Marty de Groot takes on a false identity to track her down. Forty two years later, and Ellie is an art expert in Sydney, assisting with the curation of an…

Six Four by Hideo Yokoyama
Crime , Literature , Review / 25/05/2016

The first thing to understand about Hideo Yokoyama’s epic police procedural Six Four is that it is not a crime novel in the traditional sense. There are plenty of crimes, including a fourteen year old kidnapping case, a hit and run and some corruption, and the plot centres squarely on the police force. But the crimes themselves are merely the catalyst for the action and little of this action is directly connected to solving these crimes. Most of the procedural action that readers might expect from a traditional crime novel either happens off the page or not at all. And even when the action ramps up, most of the tension comes from internal police department politics and the external pressures of the press. Six Four is the code name for a child kidnapping case from fourteen years before. The ransom was paid, the perpetrator escaped but the child died. Many years later, this famous case is still in the public consciousness and is still being pursued by the local detectives. The shadow of Six Four hangs heavily over all of the action of this novel, still impacting on many of the lives of those who participated in the investigation. The narrative…

The Butcher’s Hook by Janet Ellis
Historical , Literature , Review / 23/05/2016

Georgian London, Summer 1763, a year in which, to quote Janet Ellis’s note, “nothing much happened”. This means there is nothing to distract the protagonist of The Butcher’s Hook or her family from their seemingly ordinary, upper middle class lives. The Butcher’s Hook is a fairly macabre character study. Anne Jaccob, eldest daughter of the Jaccob family, bursts from the book from the first page. She appears contemporary but is also very much of her age. The way she and her family behave, though, is shaped by the mores and expectations of the time. Anne is a clever girl but is not sent to school, she has a tutor who leaves her father’s service under a cloud. Left to her own devices, Anne becomes a singular personality, finding it hard to make connections with other girls her age when the opportunity is presented and creating an intense inner life. Anne is a teenager and full of passion, unwilling to be shackled to the odious Onions, the man who her parents have chosen for her. Instead, she falls deeply for the butcher’s nephew and they begin a clandestine relationship. She then bucks against a system that forbids this relationship, going to extreme…