Clarissa’s Warning by Isobel Blackthorn

Clarissa’s Warning is the best sort of read: apparently staid bank-teller-now-lottery-winner Claire Bennett buys a crumbling ruin on the stark, beautiful island of Fuerteventura. She has grand plans to restore the building’s glory, only to find that the ghosts of inhabitants past are apparently set against any such ideas.

What an adventure! I am reminded of Mary Stewart at her best (My Brother Michael, Airs Above the Ground etc). Lone woman faces danger with grit and intelligence. Lovely!

Paranormal mystery spices the intrigue as Claire strives to bring her dream to reality. Despite the reluctance of the owner to sell, the dire warnings of her supernaturally-gifted aunt Clarissa, the superstitions of the local workment, the greed of the local council, the general unhelpfulness of the people in the neighbouring village, and the sheer scale of the project, our heroine buckles up for the long ride. Claire is a doer, and a brave one at that, and she spends much of the story relying on her own ingenuity and heart. Her unresolved grief over her mother’s death (when Claire was only seven) lends emotional depth and context to her experiences with the spirits of the place.

Clarissa

Are there ghosts – poltergeists who cause damage and mischief? Or is there a malign human involved? What of love interest Paco … is he too good to be real? The agreeable builder Mario – is he up to something? What about that reluctant former owner who had to ditch his plans to demolish the place? Is he the one scaring off the workmen and doing his best to terrify our Claire?

No spoilers here about the answer, but it is a very satisfying one. (I love the last line!) As well as this bounty of story, we are also treated to a divine immersion in the stern romance of the Canary Islands, and discover the interesting history of the Spanish dominion over the area. The house has its own special history, a fascinating one worthy of its own tale. I remember feeling just such a fascination many years ago on reading Norah Loft’s The House at Sunset, one of my all-time favourites.

House at Sunset

Isobel Blackthorn has delivered in spades and I will be recommending this to so many of my reader-friends. A very enjoyable read!

The Bookshop of the Broken Hearted by Robert Hillman

This story has much to admire, and Hillman’s writing is beautiful – spare and striking. There is a marvellous clarity about the emotions and situations in this novel.

One cannot help but like Tom. He has a heart, albeit broken, of pure gold. Athough Hannah is rather more complicated, and our engagement with her is threaded through with an uncomfortable and aching pity, we heartily wish her well. Yes, she does seem a bit odd to Australian eyes. That is perfect evidence of Hillman’s masterly rendering of an exotic female character.

The arc of this story is perfectly composed, and the ending realised with suitable tenderness. I found myself feeling most desperately for the boy Peter.

I won’t include spoilers because there is quite a tale – actually quite a few tales – clasped inside this book, with a couple of the weightier storylines bending the main narrative a little out of shape. Some of the character and place names have also been given a cipher-like simplicity, as though they are claiming the archetypal status of an everyman, which sometimes brought me out of the storyline.

These are mere minor quibbles. Overall, this is a wonderful book.

For We Are Young And Free by Maddison Stoff

for we are young and feee book cover

Sub-titled ‘a short collection of experimental cyberpunk’, Maddison Stoff’s tales are strange and intriguing. Cyberpunk may not be quite the right term to use for this collection of fascinating short stories, because the motivations and situations feel all too humanly-real. The settings in near-future Australia are recognisably possible, even when they seem completely impossible.
I love the title ‘For We Are Young and Free‘, which is a line from the Australian National Anthem – it’s like invoking the Stars and Stripes, and used ironically to highlight the dissatisfaction and despair of the children of the future – or today’s children grown into a world too miserable to nurture them, a world completely at the mercy of neo-liberal, capitalist priorities. The scenarios which Stoff conjures – such as elixirs of youth for the baby-boomer elite, the tyranny of choice which enables cyber-control of humanity, the backbreaking reality of terra-forming another planet after un-terra-forming our own – are, like the best of dystopian sci-fi, firmly connected to current day reality. George Orwell wrote 1984 in 1948 … Stoff may just have written 2081 in 2018.
I’d actually like to see the vast majority of these stories worked up into novellas or novels, because the world-biulding, plot lines and characterisation could sustain it. Nice.

For readers of Steven Amsterdam, Emily St John Mandel, and Karen Heuler. And if you like Tim Winton’s more pessimistically whimsical tales, give this a try. You won’t be disappointed.

for we are young and free

Voyage of the Dogs by Greg van Eekhout

book cover voyage of the dogs

Voyage of the Dogs is a delightful space adventure that has many of the ingredients to ensure success. The cast of Barkonauts is varied in personality and physical attributes, but they all retain the most essential quality that dogs can offer – undying loyalty, selflessness, and love. We may be in the 22nd century, where both humans and dogs have been fitted with modifications to improve their inter-species communication, but the fundametal nobility of the dog shines through.
There are interesting comments on life and the interaction between humans and animals as we learn a bit of backstory from each of the space pups. Their ability to think independently is prized in this situation, but their pack love is strong. We also learn some interesting facts about space – sufficient to carry the plot without making us scratch our chins about how possible/impossible certain events would be. And anyway, it’s the 22nd century. Who can say?
This is a bit of a tear jerker, though not quite as dire as I feared when I realised that their spaceship is called the ‘Laika’.
Middle grade readers who love dogs OR space – but especially those who love dogs AND space – will thoroughly enjoy this wonderful book.
Those of us who are adults and still love dogs AND space love it too.

voyage of the dogs

Stone Circle by Kate Murdoch

stone circle by Kate Murdoch

Historical fiction with some fantasy for added spice: I am tempted to say it’s the 16th century Italian version of Camelot, complete with Savinus as the Renaissance Merlin. But there is quite a different vision to this story, and hereditary kingship is not among the qualities to be celebrated.
Kate Murdoch’s Stone Circle follows the story of Antonius, a poor lad in Pesaro who works as a servant in the local palazzo’s kitchen to help support his widowed mother and his siblings. Antonius gets the chance to audition to be the new apprentice to the town’s aging seer Savinus, and his mind-reading abilities set him well above the other talent on offer.
Complicated by Savinus’ social obligation to add the Conte’s slightly-talented son as second apprentice, the story gathers emotional depth as the antipathy between the two young men grows to dangerous proportions. At stake is not only the future post as a fully-fledged seer, but also the love of the seer’s clever, self-reliant and talented daughter Giulia.
I’m resisting spoilers here, as usual, but I think readers will enjoy this fully-imagined historical fantasy. There is sumptuous detail and breathless action, mind-reading and shape-shifting, bullying by the church and the rich, and a wonderful rounded finale. Plus a beautiful cover. If you enjoy the likes Juliet Marillier, Mary Stewart, and Katherine Kerr, transport yourself immediately to Pesaro!

perf6.000x9.000.indd

Now We Shall Be Entirely Free by Andrew Miller

This book rewards the slower reader, and is full of gentle, perceptive insights into the mysteries of the human art of war and its effects on people. I found it a little slow in parts but I think that the story needed it.
There is quite a lot about how we see ourselves and how we see the world, and this is encapsulated in the story of Emily who is slowly going blind. The story is more about the characters and their thoughts and feelings, even though there is also a terrifying plot line in which the determined assassin Calley strives to find and kill the ‘hero’ Lacroix.
We are invited to consider how we see people, their motivations and their actions. We are also misled and made to view the characters and the action from different points of view. Some of these deliberate misleadings were a little annoying to me, although I do agree they fitted the overall theme. In particular, I found it a bit disconcerting that every chapter and section began with pronouns only, so one must read one or two sentences, or one or two paragrapghs, or one or two pages, to work out who we are reading about now. Also, some characters (eg Nell), in whom we had invested some time and emotion, completely disappear from the story. I think this is a brave and effective way of introducing realism into the story, but it wouldn’t be my preference.
I highly recommend this book as a reflective, poetic, thoughtful and beautifully written exploration of the ongoing effects of violence.

The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker

Pat Barker is a consummate storyteller, and this book is no exception. Her depiction of the Trojan War brings a freshness as well as a sameness, but that may be because I have studied (and taught) The Iliad.
Nothing can truly rescue the women from the ravages of war, but Barker has given some of them a voice in this work. It is undeniable that the women are not the major protagonists, because all the action is quarantined to the men – partly because that’s the way the original story was written, and partly because that is the nature of the times in which the story was written (thought to be a few hundred years after the action took place – if it did).
I’m interested to see that even though the bulk of the story is told through Briseis’s first person narrative, it doesn’t seem possible to progress the story without following Achilles, which we do in another voice, third person. Both narratives proceed in the present tense. Add this to the occasional jolt of modern-day colloquial language (Achilles actually says ‘OK’ at one stage!), and the reader is forcefully reminded that nothing much has changed across the centuries. Warriors fight; all of society suffers, and women most of all.
I rate this book very highly, although I admit I’d prefer not to have the colloquial language included (“She’ll do!”; “Look at the knockers on that!” etc.). However, Barker has made a deliberate choice to do use this language, and her astonishing record would say she has every right to make such editorial decisions.
Read it – see what you think.

Guardian of Giria by June Molloy

I love animal stories as you may know – but not just any animal stories – they have to be well-thought out, and not rely on easy cliches about animals, and not turn animals into furry-four-footed humans, plus they have to evoke the natural world convincingly. With love, care, intelligence and compassion.
Aimed at middle grade readers but definitely able to be njoyed by older readers, June Molloy’s Guardian of Giria does exactly that. All of it. And well.
The story is immediately immersive and completely believable (no spoilers here). The differing perspectives of the animal characters in this story all make sense and offer unique insights. There is a lot to learn, a lot to wonder about, but especially a lot to love. I would read more about these characters any time – more books in the same world please!
The interactions between the creatures in their own groups and between groups of other animals is fascinating. Although I have said that these characters are not pseudo-humans, the clever representation of their widely varied world-views does give the reader some cause to reflect on the differences between humans – why they fight – why they go to war – why they love each other.
Felix is probably the most rounded character, though it was Indigo who won my heart. What can I say? I’m a sucker for wolves.
Many readers of fantasy and other speculative fiction will love this book just as much as I did. Similar authors – Kathryn Lasky, Michelle Paver.
More please!

A Perfect Stone by SC Karakaltsas

“It’s for every child who was, and is, a refugee seeking the right to a better life”, says SC Karakalsas of her latest novel. Seeking any life at all, one might say.
Elderly Australian Jim is grieving for his wife Anna, and finding life more and more difficult to manage despite the help of his daughter Helen. When a stroke causes Jim to lose his ability to speak English, his secret history as a Macedonian child refugee during the Greek Civil War (1946-1949) becomes impossible to hide any longer.
“A Perfect Stone” is a vivid and engaging novel that brims with believable characters and a great deal of observational wisdom. Jim – Dimitri – as an older character is a little muddled in his thinking, and the tenderness of the narration makes us understand perfectly why he might seem cantankerous to those around him. Without his wife Anna, he has less direction and certainty about the world, but somehow he has to let Helen know the truth of her heritage.
As a child, Dimitri and his friends suffer the privations and dislocations of a country at war with itself, with whole families never entirely safe from the demands and decrees of the opposing warring parties. Families are separated and children are evacuated to neighbouring countries, travelling with great hardship through difficult territory that is being fought over by partisans and government troops. Add to that the unsettled status of Macedonian families in the new Greek state, and the awful situations of otherness/refugees/them-us/poverty/disenfranchisement appear endemic.
Jim/Dimitri and his wife Anna face their difficulties with courage and sheer hard work. Their contributions to the sanctity of life and to their new country are a wonder and an inspiration. The ending of the book was handled with great care too.
This book will be enjoyed by readers who love history, family stories, migration stories, and historical mysteries. This is also a great book for everyone who’d like to know a little bit more about where we all come from.

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