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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…

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…

The Long Count by JM Gulvin
Crime , Historical , Review / 08/06/2016

JM Gulvin is initially a little coy about the timeframe of The Long Count, the first in a new series centered around Texas Ranger John Quarrie, or John Q to his friends. Hints are dropped through the early text – Vietnam gets a mention and it appears that student rioters are taking up the time of the police – slowly building a picture of the late 1960s.  The secrets that drive this book are also closely held and sparingly doled out, through to the startling revelations left to the very end of the book. When the book opens, John Q, his young son James and his friend Pious are grabbling – freediving for catfish in the submerged wreck of a train. The long count of the title refers to the length of time an experienced grabbler can stay submerged. But their idyll is disturbed by the discovery of bones in the wreckage. This is closely followed by John Q being called out to investigate the killing of a policeman. That killing, followed a separate murder, and spirals out into a wave of other crimes and John Q starts to track the killer across Texas. Soon the trail points to Ishmael, an…

A Kiss From Mr Fitzgerald by Natasha Lester
Historical , Review , Romance / 31/05/2016

Natasha Lester’s latest novel takes readers into the heart of Jazz Age New York. Despite the promise of the title, F Scott Fitzgerald does make an appearance even as a cameo, although a few historical figures appear or rate a mention. The reference to Fitzgerald in the title, dropped fairly heavy handedly at the beginning of the novel, is the idea of the more modern woman, unshackled from the Victorian mores that pervaded American society through the early twentieth century. Evie Lockhart, the protagonist takes this approach to life to heart. After being unable to save a woman in childbirth, she determines to become an obstetrician despite all of the pressures on her to not even apply, never mind succeed. Evie joins the Zeigfried Follies to fund her way through medical school, despite an undertaking to the school not to do anything to bring it into disrepute. At that time only one woman had graduated from medicine and was not celebrated for her achievement. Evie’s struggles to succeed against a disapproving establishment and its escalating attempts to remove her, coupled with her double life as a singer and dancer is one of the highlights of this novel. Lester has other…

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…

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…