30 August 2019

Review: The Outsider by Stephen King

The Outsider by Stephen King book cover
* Copy courtesy of Hachette Australia *

The Outsider by Stephen King is essentially a crime novel with a light supernatural twist. An eleven year old boy is brutally murdered in Ohio and Detective Ralph Anderson investigates.

The meticulously gathered evidence - including DNA, fingerprints and witness statements - all points to much loved local coach Terry Maitland, however he has an air tight alibi for the crime.

The first half of the novel was a tightly written exciting crime investigation that I was very much enjoying. The arrest scene and the disturbance at the court house was action packed and reminded me that King writes an excellent crowd scene. In fact, I was instantly reminded of the supermarket riot scene in Under the Dome.

However, as the supernatural element was slowly introduced, the story began to lose my interest. I enjoyed the dusty and hot scenes in Texas and it made for a pleasant change in surroundings, but I wasn't gripped by the gravity of the suspect being pursued.

There was a significant crossover with the Detective Bill Hodges trilogy by Stephen King that I wasn't expecting but which fit in nicely with the plot. The trilogy includes: Mr. Mercedes, Finders Keepers and End of Watch and while I haven’t read any of these novels, (I’ve only watched the TV adaptation of Mr. Mercedes) the crossover was very well done.

Despite a strong start, I did find The Outsiders to be a tad repetitive and slow at times and definitely thought it could have been edited down another 50-80 pages or so.

I'd recommend The Outsider by Stephen King to die hard SK fans and readers reluctant to read his horror or supernatural thrillers but looking for an easy way 'in' to the bestselling author's oeuvre. Having said that, I think The Green Mile and The Shawshank Redemption are far better entry points.

My Rating:
★ ★

23 August 2019

Review: Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier

Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier book cover
This month it was my pleasure to co-host a buddy read with my bookish friend Theresa Smith. A number of eager bibliophiles joined us and together we read Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier. Theresa created a space for us to discuss the novel via an online event on her book club Facebook page which elevated the buddy read to a 5 star reading experience for me. I won't be giving the book 5 stars though.

Rebecca was published in 1938, therefore this review is going to unashamedly contain spoilers, so beware.

It's clear from the prologue that our narrator is in some form of exile, haunted by what happened at Manderley several years ago. The narrator is a young female protagonist, and we begin when she is the paid companion of Mrs Van Hopper, on holiday in Monte Carlo. There she meets recently widowed Maxim de Winter and they strike up a friendship.

The age difference between the couple is significant and when Maxim proposes marriage it catches our protagonist off guard. Faced with the alternative of accompanying her employer to New York and continuing her life as a paid companion, she accepts Maxim's proposal and becomes Mrs de Winter. After their honeymoon they return to Maxim's ancestral home, the infamous Manderley.

Mrs Danvers is the stern housekeeper at Manderley and resents the arrival of the new Mrs de Winter. Maxim's late wife Rebecca still very much overshadows Manderley and our protagonist cowers at her memory. It's true she is nothing like Rebecca, who was renowned for her beauty, her accomplishments and bigger than life attitude. There is an underlying feeling of unease and unrest during this part of the novel that I enjoyed very much. Mrs de Winter is almost haunted by Rebecca and can feel her presence everywhere. I enjoyed these gothic elements immensely.

Our protagonist is shy, reserved and extremely sentimental. She continually daydreams, imagining the past, present and future in long internal monologues available to the reader. She lacks confidence, suffers from low self esteem and is constantly comparing herself to Rebecca and coming up short.

Our protagonist learns Rebecca took her boat out one night and was never seen again. Maxim identified her body washed up on the shore months later, and which now rests in the family crypt. However when a boat runs aground, the remains of Rebecca's yacht are discovered, along with a body locked in the cabin.

The body is Rebecca's and consequently Maxim confesses to our protagonist that he never loved Rebecca. He tells his new wife Rebecca manipulated people into loving her, however she was a bitterly cruel woman, unfaithful and vindictive, living behind the facade of a dutiful wife. He confesses that he was goaded to kill her after Rebecca told him she carried another man's baby and was going to force Maxim to raise it as the heir to Manderley.

We expect our protagonist to be horrified and repulsed to find her husband murdered his first wife, but her only reaction is relief! Her only care is relief that her husband never loved Rebecca and loves her instead. Ugh! This was the last straw for me and any respect I had left for our protagonist evaporated.

An inquiry is held and Rebecca's death is ruled a suicide. Rebecca's cousin and the ever faithful Mrs Danvers appear to disagree and suspect Maxim to be responsible for her death. On their way back from London, Maxim and Mrs de Winter find Manderley in flames and the novels ends.

Given the slow pace of the rest of the novel, the ending seemed sudden and left me with plenty of unanswered questions. Who started the fire? Was it Mrs Danvers, the cousin or both of them? Why would Mrs Danvers want to destroy Manderley when she loved it so much? Was anyone injured in the fire? What of Frank and the other house servants we came to care about? Were charges laid? Why did Maxim leave Manderley and exile himself and his wife overseas when his name had been cleared?

It seemed to me our narrator escaped one relationship as a paid companion in favour of another as Maxim's companion. Their union was an odd one, and the age difference wasn't the only concern. It seemed Maxim wanted any kind of company and she just wanted to be loved. There was no evidence of any physical love or meeting of the minds going on here.

The writing is flawless, descriptive and evocative, however many of the readers in the buddy read found it heavy going, as I did. Here's a charming example from Chapter 2, I just loved the phrase 'healthy irritation'.
How I blessed those solid, flannelled figures, for in a few minutes his face had settled back into repose, the colour had returned, and he was deriding the Surrey bowling in healthy irritation.
The fact that we never learn our protagonist's name was clever but simultaneously irritating. I'm presuming our narrator remained nameless to indicate she doesn't have a strong sense of self/identity, however the narrative achieves this quite comfortably. She only acquires an identity when she becomes Mrs de Winter. Throughout the novel, I began to form the opinion that this was an attempt by the author to demonstrate her writing superiority in a 'look what I can do' kind of way. And in writing this review, I began to appreciate how difficult this must have been.

Having read Rebecca I can now understand why it is an enduring classic. There's the writing of course, but the fact that one of the main characters was a murderer without being a villain must have been quite a shock at the time. This would have been a major twist of sorts, and learning Rebecca's true nature would have been another unexpected revelation to readers.

Nowadays, there are plenty of examples of an anti-hero or likeable villain, (You by Caroline Kepnes and Hangman by Jack Heath are the first to spring to mind) and a tonne of unreliable narrators mean we're less likely to be shocked by this kind of revelation now.

Having had time to let my thoughts settle, I believe my enjoyment reading Rebecca stemmed from co-hosting and participating in the buddy read. The ability to swap thoughts and share reactions created a reading kinship that was so much fun. (You can read Theresa's thoughts on Rebecca here). I also enjoyed the satisfaction and joy that comes from reading a classic you've been meaning to get to for years.

When I separate out the reading experience, I actually found the novel to be a solid three star read for me. I didn't like the protagonist, I wasn't shocked when we learned Maxim killed Rebecca and the ending left me with unanswered questions.

Of course, I can see how Manderley (which I later learned was based on a real property) has inspired the creation of a host of family estates, gothic mansions and manor houses in fiction since publication in 1938 and I understand why Rebecca has never been out of print. It's a modern classic and I suspect this won't change.

My Rating:
★ ★

Carpe Librum!

16 August 2019

Review: The Warlow Experiment by Alix Nathan

The Warlow Experiment by Alix Nathan book cover
RRP $29.99AUD
* Copy courtesy of Allen & Unwin *

The Warlow Experiment by Alix Nathan has the best premise I've read all year. Can a man live for 7 years underground without seeing another human face?

It's 1792 and Herbert Powyss is a rich middle aged bachelor living in Moreham House in Herefordshire. Powyss enjoys reading scientific papers and cultivating rare plants and vegetables in his vast gardens and greenhouses. He is essentially a man of leisure and learning.

Seeking mention in the scientific journals he reads and the accolades he dreams will follow, he devises an experiment, converts the cellar beneath his house into a fine set of apartments and places the following advertisement.
A reward of 50 pounds a year for life is offered to any man who will undertake to live for 7 years underground without seeing a human face: to let his fingernails grow during the whole of his confinement, together with his beard. Commodious apartments are provided with cold bath, chamber organ, as many books as the occupier shall desire. Provisions will be served from Mr Powyss's table. Every convenience desired will be provided.
To his disappointment, the advertisement attracts just one applicant. John Warlow is a rough labouring man who drinks, beats his wife Hannah and has trouble putting food on the table for his six children. He claims he won't miss seeing anybody for 7 years and is fixated on the guarantee of 50 pounds a year for life if he stays the duration of the experiment.

Warlow enters his lavishly furnished apartments in 1793 and is due to come out in the new century, 1800. Although semi-literate, Warlow is asked to write a regular journal and has ready access to as many books as he wants. There is a dumb-waiter that will provide food, wood, candles and other supplies.

Written in the third person with chapters focussing on different characters, we're given insight into Powyss, Warlow, Hannah (Warlow's wife) and several of the household servants. I definitely enjoyed Warlow's chapters the most. His thought process and experiences were transfixing and I longed to know what he was up to. 

Ironically, these same thoughts quickly begin to plague Powyss as he too becomes fixated on Warlow's existence just a few floors beneath his sumptuous library. Powyss assuages his guilt by reminding himself Warlow is a willing participant and focussing on how the money from his experiment is transforming Warlow's family.

I was eager for the experiment to work and for each of the characters to 'play their role' without messing it up. Unfortunately, accomplished author Alix Nathan had other plans. Powyss's experiment doesn't quite go to plan for a variety of reasons, and it reminded me just a little of the experiment failing in Frankenstein by Mary Shelley.

It was exciting to learn in the Author's Note that the author had based her novel on a real advertisement she stumbled across in the Annual Register from 1789 to 1814, and specifically the volume for 1797. 

Presented in a small hardback volume with a beautiful cover and stunning endpapers, I was easily transported back in time in this gothic exploration of solitude, scientific learning, mental anguish, transformation, love, penance and regret.

If you're at all intrigued by the premise, then The Warlow Experiment is for you. Highly recommended for historical fiction readers and fans of the gothic genre.

My Rating:

14 August 2019

Interview with Ben Hobson, author of Snake Island

Author Ben Hobson
Author Ben Hobson
It's my great pleasure today to interview Australian author Ben Hobson. Ben is currently on a book tour promoting his latest release, crime thriller Snake Island. Set in Yarram (South Gippsland) and encompassing the townships of Alberton and Port Albert, locals in the area will love the realistic setting and convincing characters. Ben took some time away from his hectic book tour to answer some questions for Carpe Librum.

Thanks for joining me Ben. Is it true you started the creative process for Snake Island by writing the plot down on cue cards?
I actually started the creative process while driving down to Victoria to visit my sick Aunty, who was in hospital. While driving through the night I decided to try and plot a novel! When I eventually made it back to QLD I did write down the entire plot on cue cards. Because Snake Island is far more plot-heavy than To Become a Whale, my first novel, I really had to make sure I had the plot down well before putting pen to page.
Snake Island by Ben Hobson book cover
Published by Allen & Unwin

What was your favourite scene to write in Snake Island?
This is a tough question without giving too much away! I actually think one of my favourite scenes is between Reverend William Kelly and Vernon Moore in the Anglican church. I feel I was really able to articulate a lot of what the novel was about while sticking to the characters, and not just putting words in their mouths. It took a lot of goes to get that scene to feel authentic.

Do you have any writing routines? Neat or messy desk? Do you need background noise or prefer to write in silence?
When I'm writing I aim to write 1,000 words a day. I don't care if they're good words, or bad words, they just need to get written. This normally takes me around half an hour to an hour. And I try to write at night. I normally write in front of the television or wherever I can rest a laptop on my lap. I'm really not fussy.

While editing this novel, though, I did have some of the Snake Island Soundtrack on in the background! It really inspired me to keep myself tonally consistent.

I understand you’re a school teacher, how did your students react to the news you’re now a twice published author?
They ask a lot of questions about how much money I make! I think some of them googled me. Hopefully they're impressed!

Tell us about the word jelspiration and who inspires you?
Hah! I love this word. Jelspiration was coined by writer Sarah Bailey, but it describes those moments wherein you feel equally discouraged and encouraged all at once, on account of somebody else's art. I feel like that when I read Cormac McCarthy. I marvel at his writing and know I'll never equal him, but at the same time I'm encouraged to try!

What are some of your favourite books/authors?
Cormac McCarthy is definitely one of my favourite authors, and his novel The Crossing is something I aspire to. I really love Australian novellist Rohan Wilson, too. Richard Flanagan, too. I love these mythic feeling stories. For some reason they feel more authentic to real life for me.

What are you reading at the moment?
The Revolution of Man by Phil Barker book coverRight now I'm reading five things at once! Main one though is The Revolution of Man by Phil Barker. I'm talking on a panel with Phil on fatherhood for Brisbane Writers Festival. It's a very interesting read about the current state of masculinity in Australia.

Do you have a secret reading pleasure?
Not sure it's secret, but I do love reading Michael Connolly. His books are reliably fun and interesting!

What was the last book to really move you?
Again, another Brisbane Writer's Festival book: Lenny's Book of Everything by Karen Foxlee. A beautiful novel about a lovely young man. It made me really take the time to value my children, which is something I love being reminded to do more of.

What’s the best book you've read so far this year?
Oh man, tough question! Probably Boy Swallows Universe by Trent Dalton. I know that's one a lot of people are talking about, but it really is very good. It's a bit of a masterclass in how to plot without feeling plotty.

What's next? What’s your next writing project?
I'm in the very early stages of writing something about the worst guy I can possibly come up with in a clash with the best guy I can come up with. So I'm really enjoying exploring their relationship.

That sounds exciting. Anything else you'd like to add?
Not that I can think of.

Thanks so much for your time Ben, and good luck with the rest of your book tour! Visit Ben Hobson's blog for more background on how Snake Island came to be.

12 August 2019

Review: Tidelands by Philippa Gregory

Tidelands by Philippa Gregory book cover
* Copy courtesy of Simon & Schuster *

Tidelands by Philippa Gregory is my most anticipated new release for 2019 and I was excited to get my hands on it. Set in England 1648, this is a brand new series from one of my favourite historical fiction authors.

In this new series, Philippa Gregory is going to be tracing generations of the same family through their lives beginning in 17th century England, and following them all the way to Europe and the United States. Spanning more than two centuries, this series will show how regular, everyday women shape history. Hell yes! Called the Fairmile series, it all starts with Tidelands.

Alinor lives in poverty with her two children, having seemingly been abandoned by her abusive fisherman husband. Struggling to scratch together a living, Alinor is a midwife and uses her skills with herbs to heal the sick and injured in her district. She also works at the nearby mill with her daughter, and earns money where she can.

Alinor describes how she makes a living on page 27:
I'm a midwife. I used to have my licence, when the bishop was in his palace and could grant a licence - before he was thrown out and ran away. I can draw a tooth and set a bone, cut out a sore and heal an ulcer, but I do nothing else. I am a healer and a finder of lost things.
Descended from generations of wise women, Alinor is constantly treading a fine line between healing and helping and being accused of witchcraft by locals who love to gossip. With her husband missing feared drowned, Alinor is in the unenviable position of being neither a widow nor a wife and is forced to take counsel from her brother.

Set against the backdrop of English Civil War between the Royalists and the Parliamentarians, news of these political issues is slow to reach the mire. Alinor's fortunes begin to change when she aids a young gentleman in hiding even though she suspects he is working to save the King. Meanwhile, Alinor's daughter falls in love with a wealthy farmer's son and they long to be together; despite Alinor having no means to raise a dowry.

The concept of class and station is a prominent theme in Tidelands, making it seemingly impossible for Alinor or her daughter to marry for love. The lack of rights for women was not a shock, but was still hard to read and the obvious difference between those in poverty and those from wealthy families was clearly apparent. I found this excerpt from the character of James (the young Royalist) on page 189 most revealing:
He shivered with distaste. He felt that he could not bear the ugliness of these people's lives on the very edge of the shore, with their loves and hates ebbing and flowing like a muddy tide, with their anger roaring like the water in the millrace, with their hatreds and fears as treacherous as the hushing well. .... James's shudder told him that he wanted nothing to do with any of them. He wished himself back with his own people, where cruelty was secret, violence was hidden, and good manners more important than crime.
I largely came to love Philippa Gregory's writing via her Plantagenet and Tudor novels however she has left the Tudor courts and the wars of the roses behind. Whilst I enjoy reading about monarchs and famous women from history, Gregory is equally able to convincingly write about the everyday lives of regular people in England at the time. Fishermen, farmers, and millers populate the cast of characters in Tidelands and I thoroughly enjoyed learning about the rhythms of their lives and how they eked out a meagre wage. I was also inspired by just how hard Alinor and her daughter work to save for her dowry and their hardships reminded me how fortunate I am.

There was plenty of foreshadowing going on in the novel though and I just knew something was going to go terribly wrong. Feelings of foreboding permeated the writing and it was almost a relief when events started to take a turn for the worse.

Knowing this was the first of a series I felt Tidelands had a very fitting ending. It wasn't a cliffhanger but a clear separation preparing the reader for a future direction. I'm definitely eager to follow the Fairmile series and find out what happens next. Tidelands is recommended for readers of historical fiction and fans of Ken Follett will enjoy the beginnings of this generational family saga rooted in English history.

My Rating:

05 August 2019

Review: Snake Island by Ben Hobson

Snake Island by Ben Hobson book cover
RRP $29.99 AUD
Published 5 August 2019
* Copy courtesy of Allen & Unwin *

Having grown up in Gippsland, the title of Ben Hobson's novel Snake Island immediately grabbed my attention. Snake Island is a real island that sits off the coast of southern Victoria. Uninhabited, it covers about 35 square kilometres and has been used by farmers, bushwalkers and tourists. Australian author Ben Hobson is now based in Queensland but grew up in regional Victoria in the 1990s. He has expertly used this district as the setting for a fast-paced crime thriller that had me from the get go.

Vernon Moore's son Caleb is doing time in a minimum security jail nearby for domestic assault. Vernon and his wife haven't seen their son since his incarceration, both believing he needs tough love.

Sharon Wornkin is a Policewoman in the service of the local crime family, the Cahills. Brendan Cahill and his family grow marijuana and sell it to guys from Melbourne who travel to their district to collect the packaged product. The Cahill family are secretive and carry a lot of sway in the town with many residents afraid to speak out against them.

Things kick off when Vernon learns Brendan Cahill has assaulted Caleb in jail. Vernon's paternal protective instincts kick in and he'll do anything to get Brendan to back off and leave his son alone. This crisis swiftly unites the Moore family and they're forced to respond.

Fuelled by small town gossip and a sense of family loyalty by both families, the situation goes from bad to worse. Others get caught up in the feud and I was on edge the entire time wanting to know what was going to happen.

Each of the characters is flawed in their own way and each made decisions that either failed to halt the crisis or added fuel to the fire. Each character was memorable and realistic as they explored the often complex relationships between fathers and sons as well as themes of duty, forgiveness, regret, retribution, the cycle of violence, familial love and legacy.

I was able to recognise several places in the rural landscape by their descriptions alone and this added to my reading enjoyment. The novel moved towards a tense and action-packed finale that left me pondering the motives and lives of those living alongside us.

Snake Island by Ben Hobson is a terrific rural crime thriller. And for those of you wondering, there are no snakes. If you enjoyed Scrublands by Chris Hammer or Boxed by Richard Anderson, this is for you.

My Rating:

01 August 2019

Review: Muse of Nightmares by Laini Taylor

Muse of Nightmares by Laini Taylor coverStrange the Dreamer by Laini Taylor is one of my favourite books of the year so far and Muse of Nightmares is the sequel to this Young Adult fantasy duology.

The story picks up right where we left off in Strange the Dreamer and I was immediately thrust back into the world of Zosma and into Weep with Sarai and Lazlo. Early on I felt there was way too much time spent on the romance between Lazlo and Sarai and I longed to get back to the action of the previous novel.

The action soon returned and we begin to learn more about the history of the Mesarthim and the gods, Lazlo's origins, Minya's back story and so much more. The writing is of the same calibre as the first in the series, and I especially enjoyed this description from page 227:
She had seen horrors hidden in a biscuit tin and planted under a seedling so the roots would grow around it and hold it fast. The mind is good at hiding things, but there's something it cannot do: It can't erase. It can only conceal, and concealed things are not gone. They rot. They fester, they leak poisons. They ache and stink. They hiss like serpents in tall grass.
Despite great writing, I'll admit I did start to feel a little out of my depth as the rest of the world building fell into place and the full scope of Weep's place in the world/s came to light. The use of powers by the godspawn and the revelation of the purpose behind the nursery in the citadel led me to the realisation this is a complex fantasy novel with lashings of magical realism. Muse of Nightmares doesn't have the same general appeal to readers as Strange the Dreamer and I wasn't anywhere near as entranced or gripped by the narrative.

As the title suggests, this sequel is about Sarai who is the muse of nightmares, with the ability to enter the dreams of a sleeping human or godspawn. I wasn't as interested in her story as Lazlo's and I'm sure this contributed to the fact this wasn't another 5 star read for me.

Themes of love, obsession, race, power, revenge and redemption were explored by the characters, with some succeeding and others failing. I wasn't left with any questions and all characters were neatly wrapped up by the end of the novel in a satisfying conclusion. 

Several times the author alluded to the fact something was 'another story' so I wouldn't be too surprised if Laini Taylor returned to this universe in the future. There is more to explore but if she doesn't, I think readers can finish this duology satisfied in the ending.

My Rating: