Random honourable mention: Euphoria by Lily King

I read Euphoria two years ago among the flurry and haze of caring for baby twins. It is one of the few things I haven’t already forgotten about that period and I still find myself recommending it to anyone silly enough to ask me if I have read anything good lately (well of course I have). It is quite simply one of the most excellent novels I have had the pleasure of reading. Skilfully told and written, it is a fictional account of the relationship between three anthropologists in isolated Sepik River communities in New Guinea in the 1930s, though inspired by the life and works of Margaret Mead.

One can hardly imagine the research entailed in a creation that reads so authentically, and yet at no time is the research conspicuous. It is an enthralling story involving fascinating characters in an almost unimaginable situation, and though for most of the book we are among people who say so little to each other (whether due to secrets, emotional reserve, mistrust, language barriers or complete cultural incomprehension), you feel as if you learn quite a lot about these people, and you quickly become invested in Andrew and Nell and their futures, not to mention standing beside them in this rare world that was alien then and, to the vast majority of us, still is now.

Euphoria is a novel with a beating pulse that will capture your mind and spirit. Wonderfully written, enthralling, emotional, tense, heartfelt, intelligent. It is a book with its own soul and completely unforgettable. And that is why, when you ask me for a book recommendation this is still one of the titles that immediately comes to mind. Simply brilliant.

Random honourable mention: The Poet’s Wife by Rebecca Stonehill

Without further ado, explanation or a long list of excuses for a lack of general posting, here is the first in a series of short posts of books once read, but yet to be mentioned, that I want to share.

The Poet’s Wife by Rebecca Stonehill

A sweeping family tale set during last century’s Spanish Civil War, The Poet’s Wife, is a truly enthralling story, populated with memorable characters and infused with emotion and drama. The strong female characters particularly appealed to me, as did the Spanish setting – most of the narrative takes place in Granada – as I have a special place in my heart for Spain and the Spanish culture. Well-researched and well-written, I was intrigued, entertained, thrilled and put to both despair and joy at different stages of the novel. It was also a book that after reading I felt as if I knew a little more about the world, and that is always a good thing in my view. I would thoroughly recommend this novel to historical fiction readers and those who enjoy a sweeping tale.

 

 

 

The Brave by Nicholas Evans

Back in 1995 Nicholas Evans’ novel, The Horse Whisperer, was a mega-bestseller. In 1998 Robert Redford made a film based on the book and the world went horse-whispering crazy. All of a sudden—in Australia at least—morning television chat shows and weekend current affairs flagships were running stories about moustachioed silent-types in checked shirts who could make a pony dance to their bidding (which anyone who grew up in Sydney and longed for weekend visits to El Caballo Blanco can attest, is a mighty fine thing). More important than this equine-talking fad, Nicholas Evans became a successful author and went on to write some very good novels, in particular The Loop, but also The Smoke Jumper, The Divide and most recently, The Brave.

Mr Evans is a fine writer and his narratives are well-honed. I would describe them as ‘quietly told’ but I always find myself helplessly wrapped up in them and eager to continue paddling along. He is very good at communicating the private sides of his characters, and can write of slightly ‘damaged’ individuals and their soul-searching without resorting to clichés.

His stories tend to be set in natural environs, perhaps because he knows he has strong skills in describing landscapes, or perhaps because he just prefers writing about them. In any case his tales are mostly set in mountains, on farms, in small towns, on the plains. (And in America, although he is an Englishman who lives in England.) Because of these settings, sometimes his narratives include an animal-theme, for example in The Loop we learnt a lot about wolves.  But sometimes, they don’t. This doesn’t bother me, but it seemed to bother some of his publishers. Well, they at least sometimes appeared to ignore this fact, and continued to attempt to shove an animal onto any of his covers that they justifiably could. After all, this is the man who wrote The Horse Whisperer, the reading public might not be smart enough to work that out if they didn’t see a furry creature staring back at them.

All I can say is thank god Mr Evans went back to the horsies so that novel, publisher, cover and reader were aligned again. Not that The Brave is really about horses, but there are storylines involving hollywood westerns, cowboys and indians, horse handlers and mountain riding. I certainly won’t quibble with the equine-flavoured cover, which is, in my opinion, quiet stunning. What the novel mostly discusses, though, is courage and what it means; when it is false, when it is true and when it falters.

Tom Bedford is our protagonist and we hear his tale from two ends: 1959 when he is a quiet English boy obsessed with westerns, who is thrust into Tinseltown when his sister marries a TV-star cowboy; and 2007 where he is an academic and writer living with a secret from his childhood that is brought to the fore when his soldier son is charged with murder.

When I was reading The Brave, I struggled somewhat to succinctly explain to others what the plot was because, like Mr Evans’ previous novels, there was a complexity to it that warranted more than a one or two lines from the likes of me. When I call the novel ‘complex’ I don’t mean that it is difficult or convoluted; I mean that it is layered, involved and considered. The experience of reading The Brave is a quiet one; but it is an intense quiet, full of emotion and raw introspection, cleverly constructed by a talented author who deftly leads you through his tale. Layered, involved, complex, and there are key plot points you don’t want to reveal to others for fear they will ‘ruin’ the story, plus a general sense that this is not a book to summarise for others; more one to suggest that they should read and experience for themselves, and hopefully enjoy.

I may not have been able to quickly outline the plot of The Brave for you while I was reading it, but I could have told you that I was absolutely taken with it. I could have told you that I felt as if I carried some of the emotions of the characters around with me during this time, and that I used any spare moment to pick up the book and read a few pages more. I could have told you that the parts of the story set in 2007 were very good, but the parts set in 1959 were excellent. I could have told you that I had always been a fan of Nicholas Evans’ books and that I was just so pleased that he’d had another book published and that it was, plain and simple, a very good book.

Here: Torn Apart by Peter Corris

The city of Sydney, Australia, is many things. Sitting on one of the most beautiful harbours, edged by stunning beaches on one side and breathtaking mountains on the other, it is brash, sparkling, fast-paced, expensive, sprawled, traffic-choked, obsessed with real estate and restaurants, and full of workaholics who play hard and live hard. It is exciting, interesting, fun, confident and charming and knows how to have a good time. It can also wear you down, isolate you and make you hate public transport with a vengeance.

Sydney is sometimes accused of being a ‘hard’ city; all shine and gloss without much substance.  And though I am a Sydney lover (born and bred), I do believe it’s a city which lacks introspection. Sydneysiders don’t often think about what Sydney means, about its special character. Sydney just is. And perhaps because of this, one of the things you don’t associate with Sydney, sadly, is literature. That’s not to say we don’t have wonderful resident writers, nor books which are set in this town, yet the city doesn’t often feature in novels as anything more than a backdrop. But there are a couple of authors who write the Emerald City marvellously, and Peter Corris is one of them.

It was day one of the new year’s cricket test (an institution), and I was sitting in a stand, parallel to the pitch, munching on a corn beef sandwich, sipping on a beer and reading my book, Torn Apart by Peter Corris, during a break in play. Life does not get much better. All I needed was to be enthusiastically conversing about books, and lo I did as one of my co-spectators and I went on to discuss how we both viewed Corris as possibly the best writer of Sydney.*

It is one thing to write a book where the setting is written such that it inspires people to travel to that destination, it is another to write a book where the people who live in the place you are writing of nod their heads in agreement and feel a flutter of affection in their heart for their hometown, it is another again to inspire this beating of romance as your character trails around the city’s seedier domains looking for a killer.

Peter Corris has been writing novels starring private detective Cliff Hardy for as long as I’ve been alive (both Cliff and your little  blogger were ‘first published’ in 1980). Cliff Hardy is a man who knows his city inside out, from the big end of town to the dingiest back room. Beach, bush or high street; park, bar or boxing ring—Hardy has Sydneytown and its people pegged. This doesn’t mean he is a Sydney evangelist (Hardy sometimes seems to loathe it in the way you can only loathe something you are close to) it is more that he acknowledges the way the city pulses beneath his skin, that we are all shaped by the living culture around us, and that we in turn shape it. Hardy would not be Hardy without Sydney, and the Sydney in these books would lose some of its substance without Hardy. 

Peter Corris may not stand on a sandstone block and wax lyrical about the natural beauty and appealing customs of his people, his Cliff Hardy novels may not resemble Oprah’s take on the harbour city, but dammit if he doesn’t write Sydney to a T. You will be equally happy to tag along with Hardy whether he is buying a coffee in the inner city, taking a stroll along an eastern suburbs beach, conversing with a particular subset of the greater Sydney crime population, or trading blows with some deadbeat. It is all so honest and gut-feelingly ‘true’.

Corris writes about the city in a knowledgable and effective way that speaks to those who also know it. But you don’t need to be a dyed-in-the-wool Sydneyphile to enjoy a Cliff Hardy story. But if you do know and (mostly) love this city, you will like his excellent crime novels all the more. Corris’ writing, like his protagonist, is succinct, uncomplicated, intelligent and to the point. As a result, his novels are not long, though you will experience more story than you would in many a weighty crime thriller. And despite the relative slimness of his books’ spines, Corris still manages to include a healthy sprinkling of social commentary, the odd twist, and to delve ever deeper into the ticking of his character. In Torn Apart Hardy meets up with a long-lost cousin, who is his spitting image, and they befriend each other and journey to Ireland to discover their Travellers’ roots. On their return to Sydney his cousin is murdered and Cliff is obliged out of personal loyalty to find the killer, and also to satisfy his curiosity about his newfound family member, who, his instincts had already told him, had a shady side. 

It’s lovely to read books which transport you to exotic, picturesque, inspiring locales. Goodness knows I’m quite a fan of them. But sometimes it’s heartening to spend time in a more authentic place. To notice the unmade beds, the uneven footpath, to acknowledge the everyday business of catching a bus, of contemplating life and other people in the little ways we do most days. Peter Corris succeeds in giving his readers enjoyable, intriguing, original crime stories, against a background of reality. And that reality just happens to be the city I call home, which is why I like them all the more. The Hardy books give glorious fiction-life, to a glorious living, breathing city.

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* Ruth Park was a wonderful writer of Sydney and I just so happened to be having this conversation with another author who ‘gets’ Sydney, Malcolm Knox. There is also John Birmingham’s biography of Sydney, Leviathan, which details the metropolis’ life in glorious, mucky splendour. It was published over a decade ago but is still one of my favourite non-fiction books.