And the winner of the 2013 Prime Minister’s Literary Award for Fiction is:
Questions of Travel by Michelle de Kretser.
Hachette Book Group, LITTLE, BROWN AND COMPANY
Little, Brown and Company
A brilliant literary debut, inspired by a true story: the final days of a young woman accused of murder in Iceland in 1829.
Set against Iceland’s stark landscape, Hannah Kent brings to vivid life the story of Agnes, who, charged with the brutal murder of her former master, is sent to an isolated farm to await execution.
Horrified at the prospect of housing a convicted murderer, the family at first avoids Agnes. Only Tóti, a priest Agnes has mysteriously chosen to be her spiritual guardian, seeks to understand her. But as Agnes’s death looms, the farmer’s wife and their daughters learn there is another side to the sensational story they’ve heard.
Riveting and rich with lyricism, BURIAL RITES evokes a dramatic existence in a distant time and place, and asks the question, how can one woman hope to endure when her life depends upon the stories told by others?
Hannah Kent has written a moving and powerful debut historical book of fiction which is loosely based on the true story of the last woman executed in Iceland in 1829. Before we begin this book we all know how it will end. There are no surprises here. What is remarkable is the way that Kent tells this story: it is simply stated, it is well researched, it sets scene and place perfectly – Iceland in the 1800’s is a disparate place for the poor and those in servitude as compared to those who are of the Church or the wealthy, times are even harder for women without means, and as Agnes came to find, even harder for those who have been judged wanting or judged for trying to rise beyond their place in society.
Kent has written a brilliant feminist work – her words are subtle yet her message is clear; Agnes was punished because she could read, because she had a mind of her own, because she wanted to be the master of her own destiny, because she dared to try and break free of the traditions that held her in poverty and dependence.
Kent writes with a powerfully emotive voice; her power is in her quietness, in her subdued style that perfectly describes the isolation and bleakness of the landscape that reflects the bleakness in Agnes’s heart. This is a style that allows the reader to form their own opinions about the justification of this end of life sentence. I sit here having just finished reading the last few pages of this novel trying hard to swallow the tears that want to pour from my eyes. I weep for Agnes, for the unfairness of her world, for her lack of power, for her death.
All the Birds, Singing
Random House Australia Pty Ltd
The eerie, compelling second novel from award-winning writer Evie Wyld. That morning, before the light came through, I found another sheep, mangled and bled out, her innards not yet crusting and the vapours rising from her like a steamed pudding. I had to shove my foot in Dogs face to stop him from taking a string of her away as a souvenir. At first the crows had been excited by the body, stalking around it, strutting and rasping, their beaks shining, but now they sat in the trees, flaring out their wings, drunk and singing together. Something is killing Jake Whyte’s sheep. She’s not sure if it’s an animal, or the local kids, or something worse. But there’s something making noises at night and making her deal with things she’d hoped were long buried. When a man arrives in the darkness, asking for shelter, against her instincts she lets him stay… Set between Australia and a remote English island, All the Birds, Singing is the story of one how one woman’s present comes from a terrible past. It is the second novel from the award-winning author of After the Fire, A Still Small Voice. ‘Wyld has a feel both for beauty and for the ugliness of inherited pain’ — New Yorker
A bleak, grim and unrelenting tale of hardship, pain and guilt that is a compelling read. A very disturbing yet enchanting book that has you devouring page after page trying to discover the ugly secrets that the reader knows are haunting Jake Whyte. Wyld writes an intriguing story, peppered with mystery, doubts, suspicion and self loathing. Jake punishes herself on a daily level; she treats herself and her body with distain and distance. Over the chapters Jake’s story is slowly revealed by the writer’s trips into Jake’s past, piece by piece we slowly begin to put the puzzle pieces together and a patchwork history is revealed. Slowly we start to feel empathy and sympathy for this lonely and surprisingly naive young woman. We also feel fear…so much is hinted at, the single ear ring found in the shed…the sheep mauled and killed by something almost paranormal…
I read and read and read wanting all to be revealed and put right. Unfortunately I felt the story ended too soon – I felt cheated – I checked and rechecked and reloaded the ebook thinking I had somehow missed the final chapters. For me a great chunk of the story was missing; yes we do discover how Jake ended up alone and why she was punishing herself for a tragic mistake she made as a mere child. We leap frog our way through her life after she leaves her rural home in Australia; hurt, tortured with guilt and struggling to survive on the streets. We follow her journey of exploitation and self harm (the life choices she makes are about self punishment) but we learn nothing of how she arrives in England and her time there – aside from her self imposed isolation, and we learn very little about Lloyd.
I really enjoyed this grim and revealing story of naivety, of a young woman on the cusp of woman hood haunted by a simple, tragic unintentional mistake but for me there were too many gaps. I think that Evie Wyld is an author who has much to offer and look forward to reading her next foray into the world of writing.
The Best Contemporary Fiction of 2013
Bone Ash Sky
Hardie Grant Books
When Anoush Pakradounian steps off a boat and feels the Levantine heat on her cheek like a caress, she thinks she knows what she has come to Beirut to do: bear witness to her long dead father’s trial for war crimes, and discover the truth behind years of secrets and lies.
Yet nothing about her family is black and white. Anoush is poised to unravel four generations of war, genocide, love and renewal amongst the relics of her past.
In 1915 one million Armenians were marched into Syria by the Turkish and killed in the first genocide of the twentieth century. In 1982 Beirut came under Israeli siege for three months with thousands killed. Anoush’s quest for answers is interwoven with the memory of ruined cities and vanished empires: Lake Van before the genocide, Beirut in civil war, Ottoman villas and desecrated churches, Palestinian refugee camps and torture chambers turned into nightclubs. Her search to find out the truth about her father, her grandparents, and her own place in the story spans three generations against the backdrop of war and genocide in the Middle East.
With echoes of Barbara’s Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible and Geraldine Brooks’ People of the Book, Bone Ash Sky is a powerful work that examines family, loyalty, love, and secrets long-hidden in the chaos and horror of war.
For once I am speechless, words fail me. I cannot describe how incredibly good this book was to read – the prose so beautiful, the descriptions so eloquent and elegant and then…horrific. Cosgrove is a true storyteller – a master of words, of delicate prose and a teller of three dimensional stories; I could feel the silk, I could see the light refracted in the tulip shaped tumblers ( p.39 ) I can see and hear the death train (p.117) “There was an unfocused brutality in its movements in the sickening, shrill sound of wheels grinding on tracks…People started to scream; at least, those who were still well enough to expend the energy did. She screamed with them. The mechanical movement so final. It was more terrifying than anything else, this fiery beast that held them in its belly.” Echoes of the Holocaust.
I felt the sadness and despair as Lilit tried to think of a way to help the woman with the crying baby p. 117 “She knew the woman’s milk had dried up, knew the baby would soon die. But there was nothing she could do. She thought of latching the baby to her own small breasts, praying milk would come in sympathy, but, somehow, she was too tired. Too sleepy. Too indifferent. Too afraid of what the Turks might do again if they saw her.” Such hopelessness and despair. Such pain. Then… p.119 “Lilit saw the mother make for a well with the bundle of concealed baby under her arm. She was shaking now, her head jerking from side to side like a hen’s, the movement of her legs spasmodic….In an instant of despair, she dropped her baby like a wishing stone into the well. He would bring her good fortune. He cried too much. She was too tired to carry him anymore. There was no milk left to give him. She wanted him to drown, have a swifter, easier death.” So emotional, so real, so much pain, so much hopelessness.
It is the hopelessness that struck me more than anything. Having no choices. No existence. The endless cycle of violence based on nothing more than superstition, history, and prior bloodshed. Where no lessons learned?
Cosgrove states in the opening pages of this novel, “The historic circumstances in this novel are real. Many of the characters are not. This is a work of fiction and liberties have been taken with some dates, events and places.
The author does not seek to blame, defame or offend any race, creed or culture for their beliefs or their past and present actions. There are no villains in this story – and no heroes either.”
Such a poignant and remarkable multi-layered expose of society – past and present. What has changed? Not a lot. Truly sad, moving and memorable.
False Witness – Dorothy Uhnak
Description (Open Road):
After surviving an unspeakable crime, a victim identifies a shocking attacker
Lynne Jacobi gets the call a few hours before dawn. Model-turned-television celebrity Sanderalee Dawson lies on the kitchen floor of her sumptuous Manhattan apartment, hanging on to life by a tenuous thread. The victim of a savage assault, she stuns everyone when she survives and identifies her attacker.
So begins a case that leads law enforcement down a twisting path of secrets, lies, and false leads. Lynne, bureau chief of the district attorney’s office, is fueled by ambition and her vow to bring a brutal killer to justice. But Chief Investigator Bobby Jones isn’t sure they have the right man, and he hesitates to put his legal career—and his affair with Lynne—at risk. The victim herself, as the only witness to her rape, must go up against a monster who just might get away with it.
Uhnak has been credited with paving the way for authors such as Sue Grafton, Sara Paretsky, Patricia Cornwell, and many others who write crime novels and police procedural ‘s with strong heroines. This novel is being re released.
A compelling read. The first frantic violent pages introduce us to the horrific assault that leaves celebrity Sanderlee Dawson in a coma fighting for her life. Uhnak spares none of our senses as she graphically describes the location and the horrific events which set her protagonist Bureau Chief Lynne Jacobi of the DA’s office on a roller coaster ride of manipulations, political game playing, deceit, lies and frustration. “The discordant, unanticipated color, dominating all the overturned furniture and tossed about lamps, was the darkening brownish-red thickly shimmering blood. Sanderlee’s life force was sprayed and splattered and pooled all over the room…There would be no cleaning up. There would have to be a complete cleaning out.”(p11) “All that blood, Jim? My God, what the hell did he do to her? …..More blood than I have ever seen in one place before. And I have been on the scene of some very gory homicides. There was a heavy meat clever on the floor, professional type. Bloody…..” (ps13-14)
Jacobi investigates the attack with a “prosecutor’s point of view: that anyone, at all, can do anything, at all: is capable of committing the most unimaginable acts, given a set of circumstances – emotional, physical, personal, mental, environment, whatever.” (p118-119) False Witness is a procedural crime novel with a strong feminist protagonist who is battling crime and all the isms of the time –at nearly forty years old she has been “doing battle for many, many years without too many compromises along the way. My young female associates haven’t been in the war long enough to learn that there are necessary times of truce.” (p9-10)
I read this compelling novel with a hunger that could only be satisfied when the last page was turned. Except it wasn’t satisfied, I felt the frustration and the weariness and the bitterness that Jacobi was wearing, like a heavy cloak and I needed more. An excellent read. I will most certainly be seeking other books by this author.
A Bitch Called Hope – Lily Gardner
Synopsis (Diversion Books)
Bitch Called Hope is the poker term for drawing the queen-eight in Texas Hold ‘Em. There’s not enough luck in the world to build a winning hand with those cards, but it’s so tempting to try.
Meet Lennox Cooper. She’s a smart poker player, a smart detective, but she’s got issues. A year ago her affair with a married cop got her fired from the Portland Police. Now she’s trying to build a new life as a private investigator, but all she’d landed so far are surveillance gigs.
The murder of a wealthy developer gives her a chance to re-establish herself as a homicide detective. During the course of the investigation she meets Mr. Right. Only problem, he’s on the short list of suspects. Lennox bets on her lover’s innocence. The odds aren’t much better than drawing A Bitch Called Hope.
The title drew me in– the explanation of the poker term reference had me intrigued and I was not disappointed. What a ride! What a hand Lennox Cooper had drawn! A roller coaster ride of action and intrigue, violence mixed in with the humanity of human failings and the universal need for love. Lennox Cooper is a modern day Kinsey Millhone – she is gutsy, heroic, smart, good at her job; the woman just needs a break and Mr Right.
This novel is a well crafted, fast paced explosion of action and drama. I didn’t guess the killer. I didn’t guess the ending. I didn’t put the book down till I had reached the (almost) satisfying end. What a debut novel. I cannot wait for the next book and to follow Lennox Cooper on her next adventures. Lily Gardner where have you been hiding?
Enjoy with a chilled glass of Juniper Estate Cane Cut Riesling.