Books I read in June.
- Stars Across the Ocean by Kimberley Freeman #aww2017 ♥
A search for a mother’s love that takes the protagonists of two of these story lines across the world and back. I truly loved this. In the present-day, Tori flies to England to be with her mother after a traffic accident, and learning of her dementia, stays to tidy her mother’s office. There she finds the start of a letter, ‘To my child, whom I could not keep’. In 1874, Agnes Resolute leaves Perdita Hall, an orphan in pursuit of the mother who abandoned her. She has a clue and very little money, and both take her to London, Paris, Ceylon, and Melbourne, to find the place where she belongs. Poor, poor Agnes. Every step of her way is thwarted, and though I was not surprised by the ending, I was gripped to the very last page. The research and evocation of setting is incredible, and the weaving of the three story lines impeccable.
2. The Spare Room by Helen Garner #aww2017
I must confess this is the first book I’ve read by Helen Garner and I can see what the fuss is with her prose style. Her writing is spare and elegant, studded with gems that smack you across the face. This slim book tells the story of Helen, a writer, who prepares for her friend Nicola’s visit. Nicola has terminal cancer and is seeking alternative therapy at the Theodore Institute for three weeks. From the start, Helen is skeptical of the doctors and their methods, especially as Nicola becomes violently ill after Vitamin C therapy, forcing Helen to spend endless nights and days, washing out vomit and sweat, hauling mattresses, cooking and caring. But how much can one person stand? And who gets the say in how we choose to live out our final days? A deeply compassionate story.
3. Birdcage Walk by Helen Dunmore
I was reading the first few chapters this week when I heard that Helen Dunmore had died, so reading and reviewing this novel feels quite a strange experience. This is especially so as the central theme is of legacies, in particular the written word — what is left of us when we die and how we live on in others. In her afterword, she states that she didn’t know her illness was serious while writing and editing but that her subconscious must have had a role. As her last book, this is Dunmore’s legacy. I preferred her last book Exposure, but the story is a page-turner as I read on to learn of Lizzie Fawkes’ fate. The story is set in Bristol in the late 18th-century, at the time of the French Revolution. Lizzie is the daughter of a radical woman writer who is enmeshed in a circle of British political activists who support the French cause. However, Lizzie is married to John Diner Tredevant, a property developer whose financial dreams suffer as a consequence of the French Revolution. Lizzie is caught between her mother’s ideals, the love for a child, and her husband’s tight control over her life.
4. A Letter from Italy by Pamela Hart #aww2017 ♥
Set in Brindisi and Venice in 1917, Australian journalist Rebecca Quinn has followed her war correspondent husband Jack to the war, filing stories for their editors in England and Australia. But when Jack goes off chasing a story, Rebecca holds the line, following up her own stories but hampered by the gender restrictions of the time. To get around not being allowed at press conferences because she is a woman, she teams up with Italian-American photographer, Sandro Panucci. They fall in love, of course, drawn to each other by a similar sense of duty and adventure. But they cannot overcome their Catholic guilt to fulfil their desire, even though Rebecca rallies against tradition to break local Italian girls out of their restrictions. Rebecca breaks the mould, proving that she is more than her husband’s editor, and gets her own big scoop despite the extra hurdles in her way. This was a really great read, and one I will definitely be reading again.
Set in the early 19th century, Eglantine Stark is the daughter of a Fagin-like thief, Amberline, and brought up in the family trade. But she lives as a lady with a woman named Makepeace as her servant. Interwoven is the story of her mother Patrin, a gypsy, who as a teenaged girl falls in love with her cousin Amberline. He is a thief through and through, not just of things that glitter, destroying a family, and a community. However, Eglantine knows not of these things and cannot help but love her father, even while she learns of her gypsy inheritance. The language and story is glorious.
6. Bel Canto by Ann Patchett
I read this because there had been a Facebook thread raving about it, and honestly, if it wasn’t for the fact that I had brought so few books to read on retreat I would have put it down. The last third was far more interesting, but I would never have got there otherwise. In this story, terorrist guerillas take over the household of the Vice-President of an unnamed South American country (possibly Peru), where an opera singer is singing for a Japanese businessman’s birthday party. Everyone falls under the opera singer’s spell, and soon the terrorists and hostages become interchangeable, nobody wanting to leave the house as it turns into a kind of paradise. I felt like I was a hostage inside this book waiting, waiting to be released.
7. The Choir of Gravediggers by Mel Hall #aww2017
A short novella, the premise and setting of this intrigued me and it was right up my alley. Set during the late-Victorian / Edwardian period at St Kilda Cemetery, this tells the imagined story of the author’s great-grandfather, Charles Truelove, the cemetery manager with his eccentric choir of gravediggers, the Esprit de Corpse. There are many pearls of authentic historical detail here, such as the underground seepage of water that made corpses turn in their graves. Truelove’s daughter discovers papers after his death that unravel how her father became undone and disappeared.
8. A Talent for Murder by Andrew Wilson
This is the second book I’ve read this year that imagines what really happened during Agatha Christie’s eleven missing days in 1926. This one is more faithful to Christie’s voice, as well as to the net of connections she manages to draw between her minor characters until they tighten like a noose at the climax. But no one can match the original, and while I enjoyed reading this book, I felt like the wheels fell off a little towards the end, when minor characters proved more red herring and plot knots became unravelled far too easily. However, I did admire how the story was woven between the ‘facts’.
9. Blockbuster! Fergus Hume and The Mystery of a Hansom Cab by Lucy Sussex #aww2017 ♥
In 1885, Fergus Hume (an Australian New Zealander) wrote the first bestselling detective fiction, The Mystery of a Hansom Cab, selling it for 50 pounds and missing out on the fortune earned by his patrons, publishers, and all manner of middle men and women. Sussex covers a great many aspects of the creation, distribution, and legacy of this novel. I read that she is a ‘literary archaeologist’, an apt description for the forensic detail contained within this book. For anyone interested in the origins of the detective fiction genre, literary history, and how some things have hardly changed for Australian authors trying to break into the overseas market. I enjoyed this thoroughly.
10. The Walworth Beauty by Michèle Roberts
A dual timeline narrative, set in London 1851 and 2011, this tells of one of Thomas Mayhew’s researchers, Joseph, who is tasked with investigating the living conditions of Southwark’s prostitutes, and Madeleine, who walks and cooks and eats after losing her job as an English lecturer. This is a plodding book, in both a reading and walking sense, and there is much made of authors’ tendencies to roam the streets of London — see Virginia Woolf. This book feels more like metafiction than a satisfying historical novel, as Roberts alludes to feeling the ghosts of authors behind the stories that are written. There are so many beautiful passages in this novel, but unfortunately, the stories about prostitutes and women’s limited choices, circle around each other without really any point.