Book Review: Rough Diamond by Kathryn Ledson

9781742537559This is a terrific first novel by Kathryn Ledson that women everywhere are going to find hard not to love.

ROUGH DIAMOND has all the ingredients for an irresistibly entertaining read…a likeable heroine who helps save Melbourne and Sydney from terror attacks whilst caring for her demanding cat, shopping for clothes and shoes as well as emotionally ridding herself of her troublesome ex-husband! All this takes place under the auspices of the delectable Jack Jones, a hero who is perfectly charming, admirably successful, dashingly good-looking with impeccable manners and an unselfishly noble purpose in life….a wonderful combination of Mr Darcy and James Bond with Bruce Wayne’s lifestyle!

The heroine, Erica Jewell, is loved by loyal and long-suffering friends, who assist without reservation in her increasingly complicated life. She is invited to join “The Team” after finding one of them outside her house, injured with a bullet wound that cannot be drawn to the attention of the authorities.

Forced by the burden of huge debts incurred by her ex-husband and a large mortgage, Erica takes on the lucrative role assigned to her. This new double-life brings excitement, danger and tests her resourcefulness to the full. Erica and Jack fight their smouldering attraction for each other, both reluctant to commit emotionally after having been painfully burnt in their respective previous relationships.

Jack Jones is destined to be one of the memorable heroes of Australian fiction. He is unselfish, caring and unspoilt by his luxurious lifestyle – he is fussy about material comforts and having the best of everything money can buy, but is completely without snobbery where people are concerned. Their undercover work for “The Team” takes Erica to a completely different world for her, of expensive dressing-up and exclusive parties.

The Melbourne Cup and the Sydney Opera House also feature in their operational fields and, joy and bliss, Erica finds herself tasked to buy whatever she wants to wear on a company credit card with an unbelievably large limit! The downside is that her life is at risk at every turn, but that seems to be a small price to pay with Jack Jones at her side…

A very enjoyable read that will lead to a ravenous hunger for the next forthcoming Erica Jewell and Jack Jones adventure, “Emerald Isle”. Kathryn Ledson is indeed a real, rare and, despite this being her first novel, rather polished, diamond.

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Book Review: "An Unknown Sky: and other stories" by Susan Midalia

anunknownsky_web_mainEdnThis second collection of short stories by Susan Midalia is perspicacious, pertinent and irresistibly entertaining. There are seventeen stories capturing an everyday moment or event, each inspiring a greater consciousness and consideration of other people and their feelings.

The charm of Midalia’s short stories is that the glimpse they provide into ordinary people’s lives make them universally applicable and so extraordinarily moving. As the daily business of living grinds on, there is comfort provided in the illustration that the true meaning and beauty of life is in the minutiae of living, that the ordinariness of life can be interesting in itself. With wonderful mastery of language and awareness of the wide range of experiences and sorrows that afflict humanity, she provides windows into an incident in someone’s life, significant perhaps only to the individual involved, but which somehow resonates emotionally universally.

Midalia’s settings are relevantly Australian, though there are two stories located abroad, in Moscow and Vienna, seen from Australian points of view.

“Underground” is the experience of a teacher’s visit to Moscow and her musings of what her nephew would have thought of Lenin’s tomb. “The study of falling cats” is another moving story, capturing the painful witnessing of blind prejudice, which forever taints what should have been a pleasurable moment eating the famous chocolate cake in the Sacher Hotel in Vienna.

“Sacred” embeds in the mind, the heart-breaking tale of a little boy who is punished for fighting and cannot explain and justify to his mother why he was doing so, without causing her undue hurt. Defending her reputation from a cruel and vicious insult, he would rather suffer the unjust accusation of being mindlessly violent than to cause her the deep distress of knowing what she was being called by other boys at school.

All these briefly and so perfectly encapsulated moments in other people’s lives are compassionately illustrated in Midalis’s distinctive style. They encourage the resistance to make assumptions about other people and negate the impulse to judge. They provide the insight needed for greater tolerance, courtesy and consideration for the feelings of others. They make for a better, kinder world.

Her first collection, A History of the Beanbag, also contains stories of everyday occurrences that, without exception, stir sentiments of recognition, sympathy and empathy.

Midalia has such a glorious use and understanding of words and the power of language which marries perfectly with her deep understanding of people and the problems that trouble them. Such gifted authors guide their readers to see the world in a different, more detailed way, to look twice at people that may not have initially warranted more than a fleeting glance and to give their lives greater thought and importance.

Each of her short stories is structured so well, their compact brevity makes the ordinariness they depict all the more memorable and poignant. Midalia lays bare love, compassion, kindness, cruelty, people’s hopes and fears – all the things that make us human, with our incessant need to understand more about why we feel the way we do.

Life-enhancing and with a gracious simplicity devoid of ego, An Unknown Sky will be immensely enjoyed by those who embrace the many wonderful attributes Midalia’s short stories have to offer.

Book Review: Drink, Smoke, Pass Out by Judith Lucy

Drink, Smoke, Pass Out by Judith LucyIn her first book, “The Lucy Family Alphabet”, comedian Judith Lucy deals with the outstanding issues that she had with her parents. In this one, she chronicles her descent into alcohol-fuelled despair where she loses control of her life. This is a period of hazy blackouts and wasted opportunities that comprise the lost years of her youth.

Even in this day and age, it is still difficult enough to be a woman in many professions, let alone a comedian in the entertainment industry. In the course of her career, Judith Lucy has sustained some deep scars.

In this, her second book, she lays bare her life from childhood right up to her recent television series for the ABC, “Judith Lucy’s Spiritual Journey”. In this series, she explores the diverse paths to spiritual enlightenment – from a breakaway Catholic group in Brisbane all the way to travelling to the Ganges in India, in search for answers to life’s eternal questions.

With benign maturity, Judith Lucy replaces previous prejudices, long and strongly-held views on religion, with a more tolerant acceptance of beliefs that she now appreciates work for other people very different to herself. This milder approach is accompanied by surprise that she has actually gained new-found calmness and serenity derived from yoga and meditation which had not initially appealed to her scepticism.

Having rejected her Catholic upbringing and having not found a satisfactory replacement for spiritual nourishment, her desolation is exacerbated by the sudden loss of her parents, both dying within a short period of each other. Suffering bereavement with issues unresolved between her and her parents cause her to descend into a spiral of alcohol and drug addiction so dark, it is a miracle that her life is now back on track.

Throughout the entire painful recollection, her trademark sense of humour remains intact and in the midst of so much pain, Judith Lucy provides welcome moments of mirth and laughter. Honest, frank and opinionated, it is well worth reading this story of survival and escape from “the dark nights of the soul”.

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Book Review: The Golden Land by Di Morrissey

The Golden Land by Di Morrissey interweaves the beauty and troubled political turmoil of Burma, its culture and people, with the life of Natalie living on the Gold Coast in Queensland. This is a beautiful story of resolution and putting right the past to heal the present, of the role of women in rebuilding a devastated country and the richness of Australia’s diverse society.

The novel spans from the Burma of 1885, beginning with Natalie’s great-great uncle Andrew’s attempt to put right what he considered to be a dishonourable wrong, all the way through to modern-day Australia, where Natalie is faced with a moral dilemma connected with Andrew’s unfulfilled wish from so long ago.

Natalie’s interest in an old family heirloom, that is nearly thrown out in her mother’s house clearance, unexpectedly becomes the source of a new dimension to her life and the beginning of her journey to greater self-knowledge and maturity.

She is intrigued by this exquisitely illustrated “kammavaca”, an old Burmese sacred religious text, which her ancestor, great-great uncle Andrew had gone to such great lengths to secure. She feels a strong bond, a connection with Burma and great-great uncle Andrew, that transcends time and place.

Attempting to find out more about this artefact opens up a completely new world to her. It also brings her new friendships that greatly enrich her life in so many ways and on many different levels. However, the kammavaca also represents a time of crisis in her life. She is faced with hard choices at a difficult time when unexpected personal problems make decisions more complicated.

Natalie’s growing understanding of Burmese culture and appreciation of its warmth and graciousness are instrumental in her development from a young woman who has never ventured outside her comfort zone to one eager to learn and embrace new experiences. Distraught at the brutality of the political situation in the homeland of her new friends, Natalie tries to do what she can to help.

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Title: The Golden Land
Author: Di Morrissey
Category: Contemporary Fiction
Publisher: Pan Macmillan Australia
ISBN: 9781742611358
RRP: $32.99 AUD
Publication Date: 1 November 2012

Book Review: PILGRIMAGE by Jacinta Halloran

People react in various ways to the diagnosis of a terminal illness. In this novel, Celeste and Nathalie are two very different half-sisters whose mother develops Motor Neurone Disease.

Their mother is convinced that a miracle will cure her of this progressively incapacitating illness and plans a pilgrimage in the belief that she will be healed through doing so. Celeste, a doctor, is sceptical about the wisdom of allowing anyone as sick as her mother to embark on what, in her opinion, is a fool-hardy and arduous journey with only disappointment at its end. Her medical training and knowledge support her unyielding view that medicine and religion are mutually exclusive and that her mother needs medical help, not a wild goose chase with no scientific basis engendering false hope.

Nathalie, on the other hand, is easy-going, emotionally compassionate and with greater empathy for other people than Celeste. She is open to trying anything that might help their mother and supportive of her wish to embark upon a pilgrimage. Nathalie thinks that they should simply do what their mother feels will help her, instead of what anyone else thinks she should do.

The sisters decide to please their mother and make the visit to the pilgrimage site in Romania a family trip across Europe.

Celeste, with greater financial resources than Nathalie, hires a private driver rather than subject their mother to the discomfort of public transport. But despite the small indulgence in having a local driver and car, it is still an arduous journey. This enforced proximity inevitably tests their relationship with each other, but also fosters a new understanding and respect between them.

Having a stranger with them helps them to see things in a different light, forcing the sisters to examine and face up to issues left unresolved in their own personal lives.

As they approach the final destination, Celeste and Nathalie have to cope with more than just their mother’s increasing debility. Decisions regarding who to put first under these difficult circumstances mean hard choices have to be made. This pilgrimage has become more than their mother’s search for a cure, it has been a vehicle for healing within their own lives.

An extremely worthwhile read.

Jacinta Halloran lives in Melbourne, where she works as a GP. She has written on medical science for The Sunday Age, and her short stories have been published in New Australian Stories 2 and The Pen and the Stethoscope. Her first novel, Dissection, was published in 2008.

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Book Review: Unnatural Habits by Kerry Greenwood

Rating: ★★★★☆

After returning from her summer holiday in Queenscliff, Phryne Fisher finds herself caught up in yet another mystery that will delight fans of the elegant cocktail-sipping sleuth. Pretty blond girls are going missing — including some who are pregnant and had been incarcerated in the Magdalen laundry in Abbotsford — adding a baffling twist to a complex series of events that takes the reader on a journey through inner-city slums, middle-class suburbia, gay clubs, high-end brothels and white slavery.

Phryne’s household join the quest to solve the puzzle, along with a cast of colourful characters that includes a few old friends. It is probably worth noting that if your only acquaintance with Phryne is via the recent television series, Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries, you may be slightly bewildered by the differences in the book. Here Mr Butler has a wife, Phryne has an additional adopted daughter and there is no discernible unresolved sexual tension between our heroine and Detective Inspector Jack Robinson.

Kerry Greenwood has applied her customarily meticulous standards of research and provides an insight into the day-to-day minutiae of late 1920s life in Melbourne. But this is not a novel about the usual — it includes a murky mix of unrelentingly harsh convent conditions, an Arcadian feminist farming collective in Bacchus Marsh and a vigilante with a particularly pointy-edged means of obtaining justice. While the anti-racist and pro-feminist sensibilities sometimes feel slightly anachronistic, they can certainly be forgiven in the context of the story. This is, after all, an entertaining read rather than literary fiction — although it does not shirk at describing some very horrible truths about the utter powerlessness of women and girls’ lives in the past. Phryne is deeply affected by what she finds in the convent and it would be hard for any reader to remain dispassionate about the dire fate of the young women condemned to the laundry, in many cases for simply being the victims of sexual abuse.

Kerry Greenwood has written more than forty novels and six non-fiction works. Previous novels in the Phryne Fisher series include Cocaine Blues, Flying too High, Murder on the Ballarat Train, Death on the Victoria Dock, Blood and Circuses and The Green Mill Murder. The most recent offering was Dead Man’s Chest. The earlier Phryne Fisher novels have been adapted for television as Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries and the first series was shown on the ABC earlier this year. She is also the author of the Corinna Chapman crime series (set in present day Melbourne), several books for young adults and the Delphic Women series. When she is not writing she is an advocate in Magistrates’ Court for the Legal Aid Commission. She lives in Footscray (in Melbourne’s west) along with her cats and a registered wizard. She is not married.

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Book Review: In the Shadow of the Banyan by Vaddey Ratner

In the Shadow of the BanyanThis is undoubtedly a very fine novel, bearing witness to one of the most appallingly cruel periods of history in living memory. Authentic and crafted with language as delicate as woven gossamer, it is a testament to the resilience of the human spirit and a mother’s love for her daughter.

In the Shadow of the Banyan is a breathtaking novel of exquisite lyrical beauty, based on the author’s own life and experience, as seen through the eyes of seven year old Raami. Her secure, privileged world, full of love and beauty, is shattered when the Khmer Rouge seizes power in Cambodia in 1975.

Chaos ensues as ignorant, incompetent youths kill at will and without cause, full of hate and spite for anyone educated or qualified in any way whatsoever. Forced to flee their homes and resettled in uncertain and degrading conditions, city dwellers are “re-educated” to serve the “Organisation.”

Monks, doctors, teachers and professionals of any kind are hunted down tortured and killed – punished for being undesirably intellectual, even for merely having the ability to read and write. In this climate of fear and oppression, innumerable lives are irreparably damaged by this inhumane regime inflicting suffering beyond comprehension. Families are wrenched apart and decimated. Many are forced to watch their loved ones brutally murdered and the mental scars run deeper than the physical suffering.

Raami’s story is about survival and endurance. Crippled by polio, she had always considered herself second-best compared with her perfect baby sister. Guilt torments her when she unwittingly reveals her father’s true identity as a member of the royal family, not realising, in her innocence, that it meant certain death for him. Her father gives himself up willingly to draw attention away from his family and his sacrifice leaves a gaping hole in their lives. Her guilt is compounded when she feels responsible for her baby sister’s death from malaria, having forgotten to protect her with a mosquito net.

However, in the midst of enduring immense deprivation, degradation and hardship in the labour camps, Raami comes to the realisation that she has never, in fact, ever been second-best in the eyes of her parents. She finally appreciates the depth of her mother’s love for her and the strength of her mother’s determination that Raami should survive and not die.

Not physically strong, Raami is sustained only by remembered stories from childhood and poetry that transcends the horror enabling glimpses of beauty and heaven despite the heartache. She copes with the pain and suffering of losing those she loves by seeking escape in their solace. Words have the power to give her, handicapped as she is, metaphorical wings to escape the horrors, however fleetingly. A work of outstanding merit in every way, a much, much recommended read.

About Vaddey Ratner
Vaddey Ratner was five years old when the Khmer Rouge came to power in 1975. After four years, having endured forced labor, starvation, and near execution, she escaped while many of her family members perished. In 1981, she arrived in the U.S. as a refugee not knowing English and, in 1990, went on to graduate as her high school class valedictorian. She is a summa cum laude graduate of Cornell University, where she specialized in Southeast Asian history and literature. In recent years she traveled and lived in Cambodia and Southeast Asia, writing and researching, which culminated in her debut novel, In the Shadow of the Banyan. She lives in Potomac, Maryland in the United States.

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Title: In the Shadow of the Banyan
Author: Vaddey Ratner
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
ISBN: 9781849837590
RRP: $29.99 AUD
Publication Date: August 2012

Book Review: You Don't Want To Know by Lisa Jackson

You Don’t Want To Know by Lisa Jackson is a gripping mystery thriller that holds the reader’s attention from the first page to the very last.

The story centres around Ava Garrison, wealthy, supposedly mentally unstable, living on a private island surrounded by family and staff. Two years ago, her baby son disappeared and her mental disintegration began soon after.

Hazy recollections plague Ava’s present and she is desperate to find out why she does not believe what she is told about her health and state of mind. She is perplexed by the constant vigilance from her carers to prevent her from self-harm and wonders why the scars on her wrists do not feel like those of a suicide attempt. Torn between the facts put before her and how they do not reconcile with her most heartfelt instincts – she is isolated, bereft and unable to trust the very people living under the same roof as her.

Before her son’s disappearance, Ava was strong and successful. Now confused and alone, she has to find the strength to take control of her own life once again and find a way to discover the truth before the inexplicable hatred directed at her succeeds in completely destroying her.

There is no-one she can trust: nothing is what it seems on the island. She is surrounded by a web of treachery, betrayal and evil, tormented by strange occurrences which make her question her own sanity. People connected with her in some way are viciously murdered.

How will her fragmented memories gradually piece themselves together to enable her to unravel all the inconsistencies and inexplicable clues concerning her son’s disappearance?

There is enough hatred, jealousy, greed, envy, anger and duplicity in this story to advocate never taking anything at face value.

Vulnerable but with immense determination and inner strength, Ava is a true heroine – one who has suffered and been unfairly victimised most cruelly.

Lisa Jackson portrays loss and betrayal in epic fashion, yet manages to weave, within that mire, redeeming love and real friendship in the midst of all that is evil in human nature.

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Book Review: The Unfinished Journals of Elizabeth D by Nichole Bernier

Book Review: The Unfinished Journals of Elizabeth D by Nichole BernierThe Unfinished Journals of Elizabeth D is a haunting story of bereavement, friendship and the pain of its loss, beautifully and skilfully told by Nichole Bernier.

Sometimes women share an affinity, a support network with each other that men often find mystifying and difficult to understand. Kate and Elizabeth were such friends, enjoying a closeness that left a huge void in Kate’s life when Elizabeth was killed in an air crash. Elizabeth’s unexpected bequest to Kate of the journals she had kept came as a surprise to both Kate and Elizabeth’s husband, Dave.

Strongly adamant that his wife’s intimate memoirs should not be given to a mere (even if very close) friend, Dave is against them leaving the confines of Elizabeth’s own family. He is also curious about their contents and wary of an outsider prying into their personal life. Kate, who only wants to do the right thing with the memoirs Elizabeth has entrusted to her, understands Dave’s resentment but feels she has to abide by Elizabeth’s wishes.

Mourning the death of her friend, Kate copes with her loss by immersing herself in the journals and spends the summer holiday with her family engrossed in the diaries. She finds them compelling, disturbing and irresistible, revealing an Elizabeth she had never known and details of her friend’s life that she had never suspected. The disclosures in them leave Kate wondering if she had ever known the real Elizabeth at all. Intriguingly, Elizabeth mentions a Michael none of her friends have ever heard her mention before and Kate worries about the implications of the disclosure of his existence to Dave.

There is also friction with Kate’s own husband, who feels that she is too obsessed with her dead friend’s life and neglecting their own family life.

Torn between loyalty to her dead friend whom she misses terribly and the fulfilment of her obligations to her own husband and children, Kate needs to read on until the very end, to find out who the mysterious Michael is and why Elizabeth was going to meet him when she was killed. She has to decide what is best, what to do with the diaries, what she should tell Dave about the diaries and what she should do with her own life.

Often an event is a trigger for bringing to the surface unresolved issues and Elizabeth’s death makes Kate take the time to consider her own life. This a recommended read that women everywhere will enjoy.

About the Author
Nichole Bernier has written for magazines including Elle, Self, Health, Men’s Journal, Child and Yankee, as well as Boston Magazine, where she was a senior editor. A fourteen-year contributing editor to Conde Nast Traveler magazine, she was previously on staff as a features writer. She is one of the founders of the literary blog Beyond the Margins, and a recipient of the literary journalism award from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism.

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Title: The Unfinished Journals of Elizabeth D
Author: Nichole Bernier
Category: Literary fiction
Publisher: ALLEN & UNWIN
ISBN: 9781743311226
RRP: $27.99 AUD
Publication Date: August 2012

Book Review: THE BELOVED by Annah Faulkner

THE BELOVED by  Annah FaulknerBertie is the “Beloved” of the title. Set in the 1950’s to early sixties, beginning in Melbourne, with interludes in Sydney and then moving on to Port Moresby, the novel follows Bertie’s development from child to teenager.

Aged six, she falls victim to polio which changes her future forever, the handicap and disfigurement affecting her young life profoundly. Her strong-willed mother is determined to ensure that Bertie will live a normal existence and eventually have a career as a doctor.

Her mother’s idea as to what Bertie should want, however, is not what Bertie needs or wishes for herself. The relationship between Bertie and her mother is at the heart of this novel. Bertie’s gift and calling as an artist is everything her mother hates, but it is the very thing that gives her life meaning and purpose.

Family tensions permeate Bertie’s childhood through to adolescence. In the midst of emotional upheaval and uncertainty, the one constant in Bertie’s life is her passion for drawing, where she is free to find expression and escape. She discovers to her dismay, that the person she wants to hate is actually someone deserving of her love and respect, whose behaviour had been in fact, irreproachable and unstintingly unselfish and generous.

It is her art and not her deformity that she allows to define her as a person, even if it means defying her domineering mother. The resolution of guilt, resentment and thwarted hopes accompany the discovery of family secrets in a dramatic climax of events which finally give Bertie the courage to embark upon life on her own terms.

This is a beautifully-crafted story of unconditional and conditional love, the struggle to accept changes in life that may not be of one’s own choosing. The characters and their relationships with each other, are memorable and real. There are illuminating masterclasses in painting and drawing, expositions on perspective and art.

It is unsurprising that the unpublished manuscript of “The Beloved” won Annah Faulkner last year’s Queensland Premier’s Literary Award for an Emerging Queensland Writer. A much recommended read.

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