Good dog, good dog.

A Different DogA Different Dog by Paul Jennings

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is not your usual Paul Jennings fare.
Is it well written? Yes
Does it have characters your care about? Yes
Is it a page-turner? Yes
Is it hilarious and tinged with magic realism? Nope
Is that a bad thing? Absolutely not.
The boy (we do not learn his name) does not speak when in the company of other people. On his own, or with animals, he finds his voice. Rendered mute by the heavy burden of guilt about the death of his first dog, Deefer, the boy is a child who is suffering. The boy’s mother is out of work and she and her son live life on the poverty line. It is cold, it is bleak, but she loves her son.
Trying to win a race to climb a mountain for the $1000 prize, the boy witnesses a fatal car crash on the icy road. Inside the dead man’s van is a dog. The boy rescues the dog and names him Chase. When they are alone, the boy can talk freely to Chase. When he is carrying Chase from the wreck of the car, he tells him “You’re heavy, but you’re not a burden.” This is echoed when we read a flashback to when Deefer went missing and the boy’s mother carried him home. She says exactly the same thing. The ones we love can sometimes be hard to carry, but they are no burden.
I don’t want to populate this review with spoilers, but this story is full of important things. Love, sacrifice, guilt, courage, honesty, justice, persistence, resilience, and most important of all – hope.
This would be a lovely book to read aloud to a class of Year 3 or 4 students, but could also be used for older students too.

The most annoying protag ever

Olmec Obituary (Dr Pimms, Intermillennial Sleuth, #1)Olmec Obituary by L.J.M. Owen

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Review copy supplied by publisher in exchange for a fair review.

When I was first contacted about possibly reviewing this book, I was excited by the prospect of the central character. Not only is she an archaeologist and expert in paeleogenetics, but she is a librarian too! As a librarian myself, this book was high on my TBR pile. What a shame it didn’t live up to my expectations.
Dr Elizabeth Pimms is called back from a dream dig in Egypt to attend the funeral of her beloved father in Canberra, her home town. She leaves her boyfriend, Luke, behind and ends up having to stay in Australia to help support her quirky family so they can afford to pay for her brother Matty’s surgery. She completes a post graduate library qualification and starts work at the National Library to work on old maps. Along the way, she makes friends with Nathan (my favourite character in the book) and an enemy of a woman named Mai – who takes an instant dislike to her.
Elizabeth is asked by an old archaeology classmate to do some work on identifying and classifying some bones from a dig in Mexico – from an Olmec cemetery.
Throw in underlying guilt and blame from the car crash that killed their mother (and left Matty unable to walk) years earlier, a boiling conflict with a bratty sister and a family home that sounds like a cross between Hogwarts and the Brady Bunch and you would think I would find this an enjoyable read.
I did not. I really wanted to like Elizabeth, but I found her incredibly annoying. She is quick to pass judgement, remarkably naive and pretty conceited. Her family treats her like a princess, and not in a good way. I found myself yelling at this book several times as I read it – saying “Just take CONTROL of your life, you wimp!” For someone so accomplished, her character is infuriatingly skittish and lacks confidence. It drove me crazy. Her friends, Nathan, and philologist Henry are far more appealing and just as quirky, but somehow they both have their lives sorted out. I just got so impatient with Lizzie. She is only 26 years old in the book, so she is still quite young, but everyone around her, including her younger brother, just seems to have a better handle on life.
The reason for my frustration might stem from the fact that Owen really locks in some librarian/academic woman stereotypes with Lizzie. She lives at home with her parents, she has 4 cats, she is a librarian, she’s a bit of a loner, she likes correcting everyone. L.J.M. even makes her a literary snob. When Elizabeth works on the customer service desk in the Library, a teenage girl asks for a copy of the latest vampire novel (we are led to believe it is Twilight or something similar). Elizabeth actually asks herself:

“…was it right to be complicit in people reading nonsense when better books were so readily available?”

How dare she? How dare L.J.M. Owen diss “popular” fiction like that? I mean, I don’t like Twilight myself, but if someone wants to read it, more power to them! Especially a teenage girl! Things like this constantly frustrated me about this character. By far the worst thing, though, is Elizabeth and her phrenic library. I assumed this was a device used by Elizabeth to aid her eidetic memory, but there was not explanation of what it was or how it worked until the very end of the novel. There was not even a reference at the end of the book (with all the recipes and other paraphenalia) with a working definition! For someone who is a librarian, the author dropped the ball here.
Leaving Elizabeth aside, there are other things I find appealing about this book. Firstly, the flashbacks to the Olmec period are great – loved the painting of the story behind the bones. Secondly, the mystery of the bones and why some evidence doesn’t add up (the mystery) is also great- I really enjoyed the progress of that part of the story. Nathan, Elizabeth’s colleague at the Library, is a sweetheart – a bit of a fantasy librarian in many ways. He’s funny, smart, sensitive, loves cats and I think is a little bit in love with Elizabeth – though nothing happens between them except friendship in this novel.
I am now reading Mayan Mendacity to see if Elizabeth can win me over. The rest of her family, and the support cast have – now she has to step up and show me she is more than the stereotype, that she can break away from it. I really want her and Nathan to become flatmates. Fingers crossed…review to follow soon.

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Thirsty for more

The DryThe Dry by Jane Harper

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

An absolute page-turner from beginning to end, I read this in record time. Jane Harper’s debut is a corker.
Aaron Falk has returned to Kiewarra, his drought-ridden country home town, for the funeral of his childhood friend, Luke Hadler. Hadler’s wife and son were shot and Luke apparently turned the gun on himself in an act of desperation – leaving little baby Charlotte an orphan. A Federal Police investigator, Falk is soon suspicious about the circumstances of the Hadlers’ deaths and begins to poke old wounds in his quest to find the truth. Ably assisted by Sergeant Raco, local cop, Falk begins an off the books investigation that stirs up tension and ill-feeling across the town.
The atmosphere is tense, tinder-dry, and expectation builds as you read your way towards an explosive conclusion. I loved that there were no neat ends pulled together in this novel – some of the denouements are messy, just as in real life. I won’t post anymore for fear of revealing too much more about the plot. Suffice to say, you will not be disappointed in this debut offering from Jane Harper. I look forward to reading many more mysteries of this calibre from her.
Ages 15 and up

Unnaturally affecting

The Natural Way of ThingsThe Natural Way of Things by Charlotte Wood
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Where to begin? Do I start by confessing that I wept openly for a full five minutes after finishing this novel? Do I add that I am still weepy thinking about it as I write this review? Do I step back from the subject matter (misogyny, gender politics, the nature of violence, self, nature, landscape) and look at it analytically? Or do I leap in with emotions raging and expunge everything this book made me think and feel?
This book is a landmark in Australian literature for me. It is a book that I think every Australian woman should read and clasp to her breast as her own. It is raw, powerful, brutal stuff. But it is also lyrical, dreamy and lush with descriptive language and imagery.
Yolanda and Verla are the last two women to arrive at a facility in the middle of a desert, somewhere in Australia. Women who have been judged unworthy of living in society – because of perceived sexual transgressions – have been extracted and dumped in a dry and baked landscape, surrounded by an electric fence and kept there by two brutal and inept male gaolers, Teddy and Boncer, and their “nurse” – a woman named Nancy. Stripped of their clothes, and other possessions, forced to wear old fashioned tunics and bonnets and shoes, these women work by day clearing boulders and rocks from a road and spend their nights in dogboxes, in filth and degradation. Some cling to each other, some stand up to their captors and are brutalised, and others fall silent and slowly plot their escape or suicide. When the power is switched off and the food begins to run out, the women realise their captors are now jailed along with them. While some battle on as best they can others, like Verla and Yolanda, realise the only way out is to rescue themselves.
Verla, bonded in an unspoken way to Yolanda because they arrived together, starts to hoard toadstools and mushrooms, hoping beyond hope that one of them is a death cap. Plotting in her mind to feed it to Boncer and Teddy and escape this prison. In denial about her fate for about half the book, Verla is a character who slowly toughens up mentally, if not physically. Once she realises she is not going be released she becomes resolute about solving her situation, possibly with Yolanda’s help. Either way, she knows she is either going to kill the men or save the death cap, for herself.
Yolanda is a wonderful character. Feisty, arrogant, she was the only inmate who did not go to the prison willingly. And it is Yolanda who also proves to be the most adaptable of the women. When the Boncer announces that Hardings, the company who run the facility, are “not coming” it is Yolanda who offers to use the rusting rabbit traps on the property to secure a food source for the inmates. A sense of purpose emerges in Yolanda and it becomes her life. Once she successfully traps the rabbits, she feels powerful, and works well in her surroundings to make sure nothing gets in the way of her new-found purpose. When Boncer tries to assault her, she realises he is afraid of her and stands her ground. After all the road-clearing and other physical labour, Yolanda is a ball of muscle and Boncer knows he is no match for a woman with nothing to lose. He backs down and Yolanda’s ascension is complete. Teddy tries to tell Yolanda that rabbit traps are cruel – Yolanda and Verla just “snigger up at him, showing their small grey teeth.” (p.150)
The other interesting character is Nancy – at first the prisoners view her as someone who is privileged, who enjoys the perks of good food and the good graces of Boncer and Teddy, but it soon becomes apparent, especially when Hardings turn off the power supply, that Nancy is as much a prisoner as the rest of them. As Nancy descends into a drug-addled existence, the women realise how weak she is, how reliant on the two men she is, and they see their former selves. When Nancy dies of a drug overdose late in the novel (not a spoiler, there was no doubt for me this was her fate), the women are the ones who take care of her body, washing her and laying her on a stained sheet. They hold a vigil as her body burns, “they see she is only one of them, just skinny bone and sunken flesh, and for the first time they wonder if she has a mother too, somewhere in that little town she came from once.” (p. 271)
“Would it be said they were abandoned or taken, the way people said a girl was attacked, a women was raped, this femaleness always at the centre, as if womanhood itself were the cause of these things? As if the girls, somehow, through the natural way of things, did it to themselves.” (p. 176)
I cannot stress enough that this is not a pleasant book to read, but it is urgent, and compelling, and speaks volumes about the struggle to be female in a world of men in a way I have not read before in Australian contemporary literature. The only novel I can find some common ground with is The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Attwood, and that was hard going too. Don’t be put off by the subject matter. Women will feel empowered by this book, men might feel disgusted and afraid for the women they know. These are not bad things. Novels such as this are written to make us question the “natural way of things” and this book does just that.

Recommended for mature readers over the age of 16.

A Narrow Road to an Emotional End

The Narrow Road to the Deep NorthThe Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

What can I say about this book that has not been effusively said already? I am sorry to say I put off reading this book for a while because I knew some of it dealt with POWs along the infamous railway in Burma. Whilst the passages about the camps and the railway are harrowing, I feel for the first time after reading them that I finally have an inkling of how horrendous these places, and their place in history, were. Flanagan does not step back the atrocity, he takes it on and it is a memorable and emotional experience. As one by one members of Dorrigo Evan’s company die or cholera, malnutrition, gangrene or beating by the Japanese colonel and his guards, part of him dies too and us as well.

Not all the imagery is horrific, thankfully, and Flanagan’s prose soars. His descriptive powers are elegant and precise.
“Backdropped by woodlands of writhing peppermint gums and silver wattle that waved and danced in the heat, it
was hot and hard in summer, and hard, simply hard, in winter.” (p. 4)
This can only be an Australian landscape being described here. A few pages on, there is a superb description of a game of kick to kick in the school yard, with its pecking order and etiquette (recently featured in the sport section of the Sunday Age) that captures it perfectly.

“The smell of eucalypt bark, the bold blue light of the Tasmanian midday, so sharp he had to squint hard to stop it slicing his eyes, the heat of the sun on his taut skin, the hard, short shadows of the others, the sense of standing on a threshold, of joyfully entering a new universe while your old still remained knowable and holdable and not yet lost – all these things he was aware of, as he was of the hot dust, the sweat of the other boys, the laughter, the strange pure joy of being with others”

Sublime.

Dorrigo Evans is an enigmatic character and the book swings back and forth between his life before and after WWII, and the years in the POW camp where he served as doctor. In his life before the war, Dorrie has an affair with Amy, who happens to be his uncle’s wife. Amy is his touchstone through the rest of his life – as the one woman whom he really truly loved.
As well as Dorrigo’s story, we also glimpse the lives of some of the Japanese officers and guards after the war, as well as some of Dorrigo’s men who survived the Camp.
I will not give spoilers here, but my favourite part of the book occurs quite late in the story, at a place called Nikitaris Fish Shop. As you read the novel, look for this name – you will understand once you reach the end of the novel. The other moment I found very affecting involved Dorrigo finding out more about Darky Gardiner (a prisoner brutally bashed to death in front of the other prisoners over the course of several hours) – it was truly a gasp-out-loud moment.

Thank you, Richard Flanagan, for being a beacon in the Australian literary landscape, both as a writer and a damned fine human being too.

Defintiely a book for ages 16 and up. Anyone younger would find it too much to bear I think.