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…

Zero K by Don Delillo
Literature , Review / 09/05/2016

Don Delillo is one of the greats of American literature and Zero K finds him still at the top of his game. It is in turns a contemplative, existential and incisive exploration of modernity. Jeffrey Lockhart has come to a facility in the middle of Central Asia to support his father and stepmother. His stepmother, Artis, is dying and, in order to give her a chance at survival, she is being put into a form a cryogenic suspension in the hope that a cure can be found in the future. But not everyone at the facility, known as the Convergence, is dying. Some have decided to take the cryogenic plunge into the future anyway through a facility called Zero K. They have been sold on the quasi-religion of the Convergence, that the world is sick and that there may be a better world waiting for them in the future. In the first half of the novel, Jeffrey spends his days wandering around the Convergence. He is given glimpses of meetings, encounters strange and often disturbing physical and video artworks, and meets with a man dressed as a Monk who tends to the dying. Jeffrey spends time with his father discussing…

Everyone Brave is Forgiven by Chris Cleave

Chris Cleave opens his forth novel with a sentence that sums up his main character: “War was declared at 11:15 and Mary North signed up at noon”. Mary does not get what she expects, ending up in the teaching service and helping to evacuate children from London to the countryside. Mary is just one of the rounded and unforgettable characters in Cleave’s new novel set in the first half of World War Two. But she is the heart and soul of this work – a jaunty but fierce, undaunted young woman trying to find her way in a world that is coming apart around her. Mary is not the only character that Cleave follows into the war. There is Mary’s best friend Hilda, her new boss Tom, who is happy not to fight, and his friend Alistair Heath, an art conservator with the Tate who has gone to war and ends up defending Malta from the Germans. Also trying to survive the war is ten year old American boy Zachary. Zachary is African American and does not fare well when evacuated to the country with the other children. Zachary ends up back in London during the Blitz with his father…

Eleanor by Jason Gurley
Fantasy , Literature , Review , Young Adult / 18/04/2016

Eleanor is a book steeped in loss and grieving. It opens in 1963 when the pregnant mother of a small child abandons her family and moves quickly to a tragic car accident involving the woman’s daughter and her own children twenty-two years later. Jump again to 1993, and fourteen-year old Eleanor is living with her alcoholic mother, trying to hold the household together in the face of her mother’s pain and cobble together some type of normal life. So far so naturalistic, and Gurley handles these early scenes well, engaging the reader in Eleanor’s world and tragic history. And then the book takes a swerve to the fantastic. As Eleanor herself observes – “over the rainbow, down the rabbit hole, through the cupboard”. It turns out that Eleanor is being watched by strange, otherworldly beings and, in their attempt to communicate with her, they pull her out of the world into other realities. Each time they do this, Eleanor disappears for long periods of time and, on a couple of occasions, ends up dangerously injured on her return. But she is determined, with the help of her friend Jack, to find out what exactly is happening to her. Secrets and…

Where the Trees Were by Inga Simpson
Literature , Review / 14/04/2016

Inga Simpson’s Where the Trees Were is a story that, at its heart, is about growing up and living in modern Australia. Its connecting tissue, the issue of cultural appropriation and the ongoing tousle between preservation of Aboriginal culture and land use, gives the story a depth and resonance beyond the individual characters and their lives. It is 2004 and Jayne is a conservator at a major cultural institution in Canberra. As the book opens she is organising the theft of a carved tree from the museum collection. The tree, once one of many that dotted the Australian landscape and marked places of cultural significance to the Aboriginal communities who lived there, has been reduced from its previous significance to an exhibit. Why Jayne does this and how she deals with the fallout are examined through the rest of the book. Flashback to Jayne’s childhood, told in first person, growing up the only child of a farming family in the Lachlan Valley, central New South Wales. Starting in 1987, this aspect of the novel follows Jayne and her close group of friends, all boys.  In alternating chapters, Simpson follows the group as they leave primary school and enter the adolescent…

How to Set a Fire and Why by Jesse Ball
Literature , Recommended , Review / 06/03/2016

It is easy to compare any novel narrated by a disaffected American teenager with the seminal Catcher in the Rye. Holden Caulfield has become the archetypical American teen – intelligent, insightful and with plenty of promise but constantly fighting against a system which seeks to pigeon hole and repress. Lucia, the eighteen year-old narrator of How to Set a Fire and Why, fits into this mould but this is a very different tale and a very different world. Lucia has been dealt what can only be described as a losing hand by life – her father is dead, her mother is in an asylum, she lives with her elderly aunt in a garage and she has just been kicked out of school for stabbing another student with a pencil. But Lucia, despite all of her protestations to the contrary, still tries to find a place where she can fit. In her case, that place is the school’s mythical Arson Club – a group of students who are keen to burn things down. Lucia’s character comes across strongly from the first sentence. Jesse Ball’s first person narrative absolutely inhabits the mind of this troubled teen. While sometimes not as smart as…

The Midnight Watch by David Dyer

The sinking of the Titanic, now over one hundred years ago, is still one of the most famous disasters in history. So it is no wonder that it has been the subject of countless books and films. Given this, the question has to be whether there is the appetite for yet another novel exploring this incident. The answer, strongly given by David Dyer in his debut The Midnight Watch, is an unqualified yes. The Midnight Watch is not primarily the story of the Titanic itself. Its focus is on the SS Californian, the ship closest to the Titanic on the night that it hit the iceberg. The Californian had stopped due to the pack ice and its radio operator had warned nearby ships, including the Titanic, of the danger. The second officer, on the midnight watch, saw white rockets, traditionally a distress signal, coming from the distant ship, which he had not identified as the Titanic. He reported his observations to his captain who did not order any response and so the Californian did not do anything to respond until the following morning. The question that emerged later, and that David Dyer explores, is what stopped the Californian going to…

Undermajordomo Minor by Patrick DeWitt
Fantasy , Literature , Review / 05/01/2016

Patrick deWitt has gone into fractured fairytale territory in his latest novel. Undermajordomo Minor, set somewhere in Europe, sometime in the nineteenth century comes complete with castles, dukes, battles, pickpockets, chambermaids and the titular majordomo. Lucien “Lucy” Minor needs to leave home. He lands himself a job as assistant to Olderclough, the majordomo  of the Castle von Aux. On arrival, Lucy finds that Olderclough’s previous assistant has disappeared in mysterious circumstances and that only one other member of staff is left in the once grand castle. Even the Duchess has left, and the Duke himself is never seen. Lucy is warned to lock his door at night as strange creatures haunt the castle. Lucy befriends two of the villagers – Memel and Mewe and falls hard for the beautiful Klara who is betrothed to a soldier fighting a not too distant war. Lucy Minor is a fascinating protagonist while being a hard character to like. A liar, a coward, a man who really does not much from life but passionate nonetheless. These are the traits that make Lucy the perfect guide through deWitt’s gothic world. Just as fascinating is the cast of minor characters. Each initially comes across as a…