Book review time

#blogjune has been spotty, but I have at least gotten some ideas that I want to write about. So, as long as I actually write them, it’s not been a waste.

I have tried to review every book that I’ve read this year, even if it’s only a line or two. Not that I’ve managed that, either.

Treachery at Lancaster Gate (Charlotte & Thomas Pitt, #31)Treachery at Lancaster Gate by Anne Perry

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

An interesting story – five police officers are given a tip-off about a possible opium deal. Rushing to the house, a bomb explodes, killing two and grievously wounding the other three. The bomber seems to be an addict revenging himself on behalf of a friend he believed falsely accused and hanged for the shooting of a bystander in an arrest gone wrong.

A fundamentally interesting story about possible police corruption (with strong modern resonances) is marred by Pitt’s long internal monologues. The dialogue, replete with an excess of exclamation marks and a tendency for characters to have ‘exclaimed’ rather than rely on the old ‘he said/she said), tended to come across as a preachy tirade. Consequently, the story felt poorly paced.

This was especially evident at the denouement – which look place in the courtroom – at which point the story ended. There was no sense of how the characters might react to how the events unfolded, nothing to tie the story up.

Fans of the series may also be disappointed that some of the characters that were more central in previous stories are reduced to cameo performances. This is the bare bones of an interesting story that felt rushed to meet deadlines.

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Burial Rites – Hannah Kent

Burial RitesBurial Rites by Hannah Kent
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In January 1830, Agnes Magnúsdóttir became the last person executed in Iceland. She was accused, along with Fridrik Sigurdsson and Sigrídur Gudmundsdóttir, of the murder of Natan Ketilsson and Pétur Jónsson (the former her employer) in March 1828. Of the three, only Agnes and Fridrik were executed. Sigrídur’s sentence was commuted to life imprisonment in Copenhagen. It was presumed that her youthfulness made her suggestible and thus influenced by the others.This story is of her final months with the family of District Officer Jón Jónsson.

Kent’s prose is sparse, befitting the setting. The District Commissioner and one of his servants are distinguished simply by their coats; ‘bright red’ for the former, and ‘worn’ for the latter. One can readily imagine the fierce winds whipping across the skins used to cover windows.

Written alternately in the third and first persons, some readers might feel some disorientation moving between modes. But it is well handled in Kent’s deft prose. Reading Burial Rites gives you the sense of a writer in command of their craft. This impression is confirmed by the research that the author has undertaken. While the work is obviously an imagining of Agnes’ thoughts (and of what really happened), it is clear that much research has informed the writer’s views. What I also found particularly impressive was that, though there was a lot of knowledge behind the writing, the writing never became a display tableau for it.

In general, the characters are well drawn. The District Commissioner is not simply keen for the executions to serve as a deterrent to the district’s peasants (though he is certainly that). He expresses a desire for the islanders to share the modernisation enjoyed in Denmark, for example by having glass windows. The Assistant Priest’s attraction to his charge is deftly drawn. If I were to level one criticism, it would simply be that we don’t feel the antagonism towards Agnes felt by most of the Jónsson family (in particular). While we slowly see the relationships between them thaw, we don’t feel the revelation that they did. Instead, we feel that she cannot be guilty of murder, and simply await the truth to be revealed.

What we have here is a wonderfully told story of a woman whose own was ignored. Though I have only given it 4 stars, it deserves 4.9 out of 5. It is a story that you should hear.

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Review – Murder by Absolution

Absolution by Murder (Sister Fidelma, #1)Absolution by Murder by Peter Tremayne
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Sister Fidelma, an Irish nun, travels with a party of coreligionists to Whitby Abbey. There, a Synod is to be held presided over by Oswy, Saxon King of Northumbria. At stake is which set of rites, Celtic or Roman, the kingdom will follow. At issue is the form of clerical tonsure and the dating of Easter. When the Abbess Étaín, the leading speaker for the Celtic faction, is murdered Fidelma must investigate the crime.

An advocate in the Irish Brehon Court, she is well suited for her task. But Oswy, known to favour the Celts, must be impartial. She must work with Brother Eadulf, a Saxon from the Roman faction. As their investigations proceed and as the Synod continues, more murders threaten to plunge Northumbria into civil war.

There is much to like about this first work in the series. The clash of Irish and Saxon cultures maintain a dynamic tension through the work and while Fidelma is a more rounded character Eadulf is certainly not two dimensional.

Peter Tremayne (the pen name of Peter Beresford Ellis) is a Celtic scholar, and it shows in the detail that he brings to the work. Unfortunately, at times, it reads like an anti-Roman polemic. But, though it’s in the third person, the novel is clearly told from Fidelma’s point of view. Also, as her working relationship with Eadulf strengthens, Fidelma comes to appreciate (though still not necessarily agree with) the perspective that he brings.

I found the clues a little telegraphed, having guessed the guilty party less than half way through the book. However, the political intrigues stop it from being too predictable. If you like this period of history then this should be a series worthy of your consideration.

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#blogjune #aww2014 Goodreads Challenge 14/65: Ducks on the Pond – Anne Summers

Australian Women Writers Challenge 2114 – Review 2

One of the things that I do like about Elizabeth campus library is that we have a good Womens’ Studies collection. We had to weed a lot of older material that was long unused, but there are still a goodly number of classic titles. This is one of them.

Ducks on the Pond







Ducks on the Pond by Anne Summers

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Anne Summers is rightly famous for her ground-breaking Damned Whores and God’s Police: the colonisation of women in Australia. Ducks on the Pond is her autobiography from 1945 until the publication of Damned Whores in 1975.

As exprected, Summers tells her story well, and there is a wealth of wonderful details on growing up in post-war Adelaide. Living not far from Cabra Dominican College, where she attended school, I was fascinated by her description of navigating a muddy and unpleasant Cross Road.

One of six children, her parents were devoutly Catholic. Summers’ relationship with her parents was never easy. Her father served as a pilot in the RAAF during the Second World War, and was an alcoholic. He was also, she discovered later, an informer for Australian domestic intelligence on post-war Communist political activity in Australia. One day, her father took the family to Port Adelaide when a Soviet passenger ship was in dock, and was bemused by his constant note-taking.

But despite the political gulf that separated them, glimmers of affectation shine through. Like many returned veterans, her father rarely talked about his war service. There were only ever glimpses of it. One day she rang him from Surabaya in Indonesia. When she described to him where it was he responded, ‘I know. I laid mines there during the war.’ When Damned Whores was published, she learned that he had visited local bookshops and surreptitiously rearranged stock to that her book was more prominently displayed.

I was fascinated by her descriptions of ANZAC Day because I remember similar experiences of not knowing when men would come home, nor how drunk they would be. She wrote;

It was the first time that I can remember being revolted by men’s behaviour, though I did not think to reproach the men themselves. I blamed the day. The day acquired a dignity in the 1990s that was missing in the 1950s.

Her insights into being raised as a Catholic in this period said a lot about why many moved away from the church in general (and not Catholicism in particular). One lesson, Summers’ class studied Saint Maria Goretti, an Italian peasant girl elevated to Sainthood in 1950. Stabbed 11 times by a would-be rapist rather than submit to his advances, she was promoted as a paragon of chastity. ‘Reading this, I could only conclude that the church valued our chastity more than our lives.’

Yet these values didn’t apply to men. Date rape was relatively common, and it seemed to her that it was Catholic boys who tended to be the worst culprits. Working for the National Civic Council (Bob Santamaria’s Catholic political movement) in Melbourne, Summers was fired because her dress sense ‘inflamed the men’.

The thing that really stands out is how little role women had in public life before the 1960s. ‘Women only got written about if they were murder victims or murderers, or had lax morals like a woman I remember only as Joan, a Sydney bus conductress who was engaged in a very public fight to keep the child she had given birth too out of wedlock.’

Ducks on the Pond charts the author’s political evolution through her student activism in opposition to the Vietnam war. Her descriptions of the birth of the Women’s Liberation Movement in the early 1970s were fascinating in their detail, and for description of the opposition that they faced. She was involved in setting up Australia’s first women’s shelter in Sydney, and the book is worth reading for this section alone. Yet they found it difficult to secure government funding, even from a reforming Whitlam government.

A Labor activist in the 1960s and 70s would usually have had some trade union exposure (I wonder if that’s the case now). The book’s title came from a phrase that Summers heard in the shearing sheds. It was a warning that women were present and that the hands had to behave themselves.

She herself benefited from industrial muscle. Summers was fired from her job at the Duke of Brunswick Hotel when the then-owner discovered that she was a student. In the hotel at the time was ALP parliamentarian Clyde Cameron and AWU official Jack Wright. When they learned of her plight, both men threatened to declare the hotel ‘black’ unless she was reinstated. Faced with the loss of hard-drinking trade union regulars, Summers was quickly reinstated.

It was a pleasure to read. There is triumph, certainly, but also personal heartbreak in spades. The final chapter was particularly touching. There were statements here and there that I disagreed with. But it shows how far women have come as a result of the feminist movement. It also tells us that the need for a vibrant and active feminist movement is as important as ever.

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#blogjune – Goodreads Challenge 13/65 – Stephen King, ‘On Writing: a memoir of the craft’

I read this some months ago, but hey, I’m already way behind with my reviews. What really struck me was that:

1) he came across as a thoroughly decent human being

2) he was candid about his issues with alcohol and the effects it had on those around him

3) his dedication to his craft. The image of his rejection slips stuck on the nail, which became a spike because there were so many of them, is still very vivid for me.

If you’re even vaguely interested in writing, read it.


On Writing: A Memoir of the CraftOn Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I’ve never read anything by Stephen King, nor seen any of the movies based on his books. Not that I ever thought that there was necessarily anything wrong with his work. I’d simply not ever been interested in horror as a movie genre. I read it just fine, but on the screen, thank you but no. And that prejudice probably prompted me to not pick up one of his books. So when his On Writing was enthusiastically recommended to our writing class earlier this month, I wasn’t sure what to expect. What I got was a fascinating story on the making of a writer.

On writing; a memoir of the craft is part biography and part ‘this is how I do it folks – maybe it’ll work for you’. He lets his life story do his work. His journey in perfecting his craft was not a smooth one. Maybe the best craftspeople are forged through adversity. King’s father left the family when King was two years old. His mother worked at a variety of jobs but financial hardship was an ever present reality. Leaving high school, he worked in a fabric mill, and after he qualified as a teacher spent time working as a laundry labourer while looking or teaching work. On the way he married Tabitha Spruce (who he met in the library stacks at the University of Maine). He wrote that, “[f]from a financial point of view, two kids were probably two too many for college grads working in a laundry and the second shift at Dunkin’ Donuts” (p. 71). His first two published novels were written in the laundry room of the large trailer that they were living in (p. 177). So when King talks about what’s necessary for a writer to become good at their craft, he talks with the authority of one who has had to do it tough himself.

On the way King deals with the questions all writers get asked at some point. Quite early on, he makes it clear that ‘there is no Idea Dump, no Story Central, no Island of the Buried Bestsellers; good story ideas seem to come quite literally from nowhere… (p. 29)’. He then describes process of coming up with the central idea for one of his early short stories, which he got when his mother was licking the type of shop coupon stamps that disappeared by the 1970s. These turned her tongue green. He thought how nice it would be if you could make them yourself, and a story was born.

Writing was a passion for him from early on. He wrote for a mimeographed newspaper that older brother Dave produced in high school. When he produced his own newspaper (as it turned out it ran for one issue), he learned that you have to be careful when you write about real people. Lampooning an unpopular teacher landed him a couple of weeks’ suspension.

But out of that incident came his first paid writing job, as a sports writer with the local newspaper. Not that King knew much about sports, but being willing to learn to get the gig is something else that a good writer should cultivate. The editor “taught me more than any [English Literature class], and in no more than ten minutes (p. 54)”. His editor said that “when you write a story, you’re telling the story… [when] you rewrite, your main job is taking out all the things that are not the story (p. 56)”.

If there are two central issues that King returns to, the first is the need for persistence. When he received his first rejection notice, he stuck it on a nail stuck in his bedroom wall. But,

By the time I was fourteen… the nail in my wall would no longer support the weight of the rejection slips impaled upon it. I replaced the nail with a spike and went on writing. By the time I was sixteen I’d begin to get rejection slips with hand-written notes a little more encouraging… ‘This is good. Not for us, but good. You have talent. Submit again.’ (p. 34).

The second central issue is that if you want to be any good you have to spend time at it. There are no short-cuts dangled in front of our eyes. “If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot (p. 164).” He goes on;

“I’m a slow reader, but I usually get through seventy or eighty books a year, mostly fiction. I don’t read in order to study the craft; I read because I like to read. It’s what I do at night, kicked back in my blue chair. Similarly, I don’t read fiction to study the art of fiction, but simply because I like stories. Yet there is a learning process going on, Every book that you pick up has its own lesson or lesson, and quite often the bad books have more to teach than the good ones.”

Why so many books? ‘The real importance of reading is that it creates an ease and intimacy with the process of writing… [constant] reading will pull you into a place where you can write eagerly and without self-consciousness” (p. 171).

What constitutes ‘a lot’ of reading and writing? ‘The sort of strenuous reading writing program advocate – four to six hours a day, every day – will not seem strenuous if you really enjoy doing these things and have an aptitude for them.. (p. 171). That’s twenty eight to forty two hours a week, folks – about a full working week. Well, I don’t much like watching TV anyway. Helpfully, he gives aspirants hints on where to read (though you probably won’t need these). He takes books everywhere (a writer after my own heart). “The trick is to teach yourself to read in small sips as well as in long swallows” (p. 168) So movie lounges, checkout lines, the toilet, on your way to work are all fair game. At the time of writing he listened to between six and a dozen audio titles each year.

As you’d expect from a successful writer taking about writing, there is a wealth of ideas to savour. He describes the sort of toolbox that a writer needs. Like a toolbox, the tools you use most are at the top. “The commonest of all, the bread of writing, is vocabulary (p. 125).”Good rich vocabulary can produce a good heart prose, and he gives some fine examples from Lovecraft and Cormac McCarthy. But simplicity has its own virtues, and he gives us his favourite simple passages from Hemingway, Sturgeon and Steinbeck

Next is grammar. “Take a noun, put it with any verb, and you have a sentence (p. 134).” A writer needs to know why some things work and others don’t. But it’s not enough to simply say avoid the passive voice, because your writing will be the stronger for it. King re-writes some sentences from passive to active so that we see what he means. More helpfully, he gives us his opinion of why people use it anyway:

I think timid writers like them for the same reason timid lovers like passive partners. The passive voice is safe. There is no troublesome action to contend with; the subject just has to close its eyes and think of England… I think unsure writers also feel the passive voice also lends their work authority, perhaps even a quality of majesty (p. 136-137).

Other specific advice covers adverbs (hint – don’t trust them). This is especially so in dialogue, where the best form of dialogue attribution is said. All writers slip into it sometimes, either timidly, or because of the onrushing deadline, but he reminds us that if we’ve told our story well enough, the reader will know to read that dialogue exasperatingly (p. 143).

There is a core simplicity in the English language… but it’s a slippery core. All I ask is that you do as well as you can, and remember that, while to write adverbs is human, to write he said or she said is divine (p. 144).

As we delve deeper into King’s toolbox, we come to the paragraph, which he argues is the basic unit of writing. It’s ‘the place where coherence begins and words stand a chance of becoming more than mere words” (p. 152). The paragraph structure tells us something about a work;
You can tell without even reading if the book you’ve chosen is apt to be easy or hard, right? Easy books contain lots of short paragraphs – including dialogue paragraphs which may only be a word or two long – and lots of white space… Hard books, full of ideas, narration, or description, have a stouter look. A packed look. Paragraphs are almost as important for how they look as for what they say; they are maps of intent. (p. 145)

How those paragraphs come together depend the way you want to use narration, description and dialogue (the three parts of a story – p. 187) to bring it to life. Plot is by and large not part of King’s universe;

I won’t try to convince you that I’ve never plotted any more than I’d try to convince you that I’ve never told a lie, but I do both as infrequently as possible. I distrust plot for two reasons: first, because our lives are largely plotless…; and second, because I believe plotting and the spontaneity of real creation aren’t compatible… I want you to understand that my basic belief about the making of stories is that they pretty much write themselves (p. 188).

And more:

The situation comes first. The characters – always flat and unfeatured – come next. Once these things are fixed in my mind, I begin to narrate. (p. 190)

And to make sure that we get it;

Please remember… that there is a huge difference between story and plot. Story is honorable and trustworthy; plot is shifty, and best kept under house arrest. (p. 197)

I really recommend doing the exercise that he gives us soon after this passage.

King told us earlier how much reading and writing we should do each day. How much writing is that. He tells the (probably) apocryphal story of James Joyce. Joyce seemed to be struggling to get his words onto paper;

‘How many words did you get today?’ the friend pursued.
Joyce (still in despair, still sprawled face down on his desk):


‘Seven? But James… that’s good, at least for you!’

‘Yes,’ Joyce said, finally looking up. ‘I suppose it is… but I don’t know what order they go in!’ (p. 172)

More helpfully, King tells us that he likes to get ten pages a day, which is about 2000 words, which is a good-ish length for a book in three months (p. 176). Sometimes those pages get done before lunch, sometimes in the afternoon, and occasionally around teatime (p. 176). To manage your goal (perhaps begin with 1000 words a day), you need one thing: a door that you are willing to shut (p. 178). By the time you get to your second draft, you should be looking at cutting your work by around 10% (p. 246). So if you’re looking at a 200 page work, your first draft needs to be around 220 pages.

This was simply a joy to read. The advice is invaluable, but it was told by someone who was, quite simply so very likeable. When he was writing this book, he struck by a truck while out walking, It made it a hard book to write. Perhaps his candid discussion of his struggle with alcohol did as well. His descriptions of family and friends are lovingly drawn. He comes across as a nice guy. Not because of how he describes himself, but because of the way he describes those around him.

Of course, being a successful writer, we learn about the path that led to the publication of Carrie, his first novel. His family were, if not on the streets, at least living close to Penury Road. I wanted him to get a big fat cheque, as much for Tabitha’s sake as his. The discussion of Carrie’s gestation is itself fascinating, and you should read it for yourselves.

You should borrow or buy a copy of this and read it. Right now. But before you do, I’ll leave you with Stephen finding out that his agent had sold the paperback rights. It was worth $400 000, of which Stephen would get half. In 1973, that was an enormous sum of money (and it’s still not a shabby sum today). He tried unsuccessfully to call his wife with the news. On his way home, he bought her a Mother’s Day present – a hair dryer.

“When I got back home she was in the kitchen, unpacking the baby bags and singing along with the radio. I gave her the hair dryer. She looked at it as if she’d never seen one before. ‘What’s this for?’ she asked.

I took her by the shoulders. I told her about the paperback sale. She didn’t appear to understand. I told her again. Tabby looked over my shoulder at our shitty little four-room apartment, just as I had, and began to cry.” (p. 95)

At that point, so did I.

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Goodreads Challenge 12/65 – The Limpopo Academy of Private Detection

I had to good fortune to hear Alexander McCall Smith speak at the Adelaide Writers’ Festival earlier this year. One of the themes that recurred was the usefulness of gentle humour in writing. One of the things that is apparent throughout the series is that the very real problems faced by Africa are only obliquely refereed. There is no overarching context, for example, to the story of the labourer in this volume who is a migrant worker afraid of losing his job.

But perhaps not every book needs to lecture us about the impact of capitalism on modern Africa, or the role of multinational corporations, or the impact of the AIDS epidemic (though these have all have all quietly featured). Sometimes, people will listen to gentler voices.

In a sense, these are rather like a medieval morality play. His villains (who are generally quite two dimensional) are like the archetypes of the morality plays. the protagonists would battle the personification of greed, or envy, or whatever the play was about.

The idea may seem ludicrous to to a modern audience, but they had a specific purpose. They imparted their messages by making the audience look inwards. To me, reading these is a similar experience. If we are concerned about something, how do we act ethically in response? If we are appalled by corporate greed, how do we respond? Yes, there needs to be a political response, but there are differing levels of consciousness about what is required – if anything. If we admire the gentle pace of life with some longing, are we as a society too invested in acquisition?

I was surprised that I enjoyed the first in the series. I haven’t enjoyed them all equally but they are all, as intended, full of quiet, gentle humour that prompt a little self-examination. I hope that there’s always a place for that.

The Limpopo Academy of Private Detection (No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency, #13)The Limpopo Academy of Private Detection by Alexander McCall Smith
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The Limpopo Academy of Private Detection continues the exploits of Mmas Ramotswe and Makutsi, punctuated by tea-drinking and cake-munching. This time, Grace Makutsi and new husband Phuti Radiphuti arrange to have a new house built, but the builder seems too slick to be trusted.

Meanwhile, trouble looms at the orphanage. Mma Potokwane, opposing a move catering into a large and impersonal dining hall, is unseated by the new head of the board who proposed it. Finally, into Gaborone comes Clovis Andersen, whose Principles of Private Detection has been their constant source of mentorship. He too carries a secret.

Like the denizens of Tlokweng Road, the Number One Ladies’ Detective Agency is drifting into quiet domesticity. We have gotten use to Grace Makutsi’s talking shoes, the frequent breaks for tea and cake, and Mr. J. L. B. Matekoni’s old fashioned common sense.

But there’s also something to be said for comfortable familiarity. For fans of the series, it’s the literary equivalent of a nice fire, dressing gown and slippers, and a nice cup of hot chocolate.

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Goodreads Challenge 2014: 11/65

This is one of the finest historical novels that I’ve ever read. It was an utter joy. That is all.

Good reading, folks!

AugustusAugustus by John Edward Williams
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is a remarkable piece of fiction. It is told as a series of epistles that chronicle the career of Octavius Caesar. Friends and enemies, admirers and detractors, write letters and pen memoirs that give their take on his career. The effect is that the character of Augustus in the shadows between these letters. It’s rather like creating a portrait by putting sticky notes in close formation on a wall and spraying with paint. The portrait is what’s left when you remove the notes.

It also means that Williams can’t fall into the trap of telling us what the character is feeling. He *must* show us. At best, we can be told what the main character says. It also adds a layer between the reader and the action which gives just the right touch of remoteness. It does not feel contemporary, but not because it’s unnecessarily archaic in style.

Williams divides the work into three books of very uneven length. The first covers his his rise to power, and the second his consolidation of it. Revealed like a mosaic laid by many hands, we see a man who seems most alive discussing philosophy and poetry. Yet he commanded the respect of Julius Caesar’s veteran legionaries and defeated those close to Caesar, as well as Caesar’s enemies. Williams deftly displays a talent for adopting multiple voices. We hear the Agrippa, the gruff soldier, Cicero the orator and jurist, and Augustus’ daughter, Julia.

Apart from a very brief Senate decree, we don’t hear the voice of Augustus at all until the final book. His letter, written from his yacht, while making his final voyage deeply reflective and philosophical. It is a voice weary from power, but resigned to its fate. We hear a voice that loved deeply and grieved frequently. It reminded me very much of Marguerite Yourcenar’s Memoirs of Hadrian. There is no higher praise that I could give it.

This is quite simply a beautifully written piece. I loved every exquisite page. If you have no interest in the period, or in historical fiction in general, you may find that it doesn’t quite resonate with you. But persevere. I have a few pieces of fiction that I re-read every few years; The Lord of the Rings, The Dispossessed, Les Miserables. And now I have another.

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