Rules of Civility; A Gentleman in Moscow, By Amor Towles



Reading Rules of Civility was bliss. 

I came across Amor Towles’ A Gentleman in Moscow when I was rummaging through a bookshop in London looking for a good holiday read. I don’t usually want a big blockbuster in those circumstances, I want something engaging, not stupid but not too intellectually demanding either. Just a good story, well told.

And it was a nice choice, if I say so myself. This is a joy of a book – beautifully understated, engaging and with wonderful characters.

Everything about it made it the most unlikely kind of best-seller. It was interior, quiet, reserved and there was very little action. It sat right in the middle of so much historical drama – but that mostly happened off stage.

There were aspects that were maybe a bit set up, but I forgave it everything for the warmth and affection that came through on every page.

Fast forward a couple of years. Last week I found his earlier novel Rules of Civility in my favourite local second-hand bookshop.

The central character, with the overly cute name of Katya (Katie) Kontent, is the daughter of a Russian immigrant, determined to make her way in New York. She has excellent typing skills and a competent demeanour.

In her boarding house she meets Eve, who has rejected her family’s money and is finding her own way, too. The friendship they form is forged in fun and independence.

One broke New Year’s Eve in a dingy jazz club they meet Tinker – handsome, likeable and well-heeled. Their friendship blossoms, and seems unshakable until a damaging accident.

The story occasionally cuts into the future, where we glimpse the strengths and triumphs Katie’s grown-up life. But mostly it’s about how she negotiates her way through issues of money, class, friendship and love in the shadows both of the Depression and WWII.

It’s quite a slow-paced book with undoubted echoes of The Great Gatsby and Breakfast at Tiffany’s, but it’s certainly not a copy of either.

Katie/Katya is a powerful, principled, resilient character and spending time with her as she negotiates her New York life is a total pleasure.

I loved both books. But I could not put Rules of Civility down.

• There’s been a long gap on this blog, but it’s nothing to do with a lack of reading – just too much work. I’ll catch up on some of the missing books as I go along.

Updated Shakespeare leaves a sour taste

I’m not sure what it is about updating a classic story, but it often goes awry.

I have just come across the latest from the much-loved Anne Tyler  – Vinegar Girl, an update of The Taming of the Shrew as part of the Hogarth Shakespeare series.

There have been a swag of positive reviews in the major press for this book, but I wonder how much of that is based on the fact that there is a great deal of affection for Tyler as a writer, and reviewers might be reluctant to be seen to be nasty to such a popular figure.

But this is a silly book (as quite a number of non-professional reader reviews have pointed out). It’s not really an update to the plot, since much the same stuff happens in the same order. If you plan to tell exactly the same story except with modern characters, I’m not sure what the point is.

Vinegar girl Anne tylerParticularly when the original’s treatment of Kate is so at odds with the 21st century, and Kate doesn’t get an easier time of it this time. At the end she spouts a modern version of that speech defending her husband, all about how hard it is to be a man (“they’re a whole lot less free than women are, when you think about it”) and therefore women should be nice to them. Sure thing. Try selling that to anyone who’s supported the #metoo movement.

An earlier book in the Hogarth Shakespeare series – New Boy, by Tracy Chevalier,an update on Hamlet – seemed to me to be just as flawed, with unbelieveable characters doing unbelileveable things.

And that’s often the problem with updating an old, famous story. Unless you’re trying to say something new, there’s no real point. If it’s just the same story in modern clothes, don’t bother. It can be difficult to step outside the straitjacket of the original, but if you don’t take it somewhere new, I think the writer’s own voice – the power that comes with characters and a story the writer has created themselves – is stifled. The story seems lifeless. Partly because you always know where it’s going and what’s going to happen.

A great example of a way to do it right is 1000 Acres, the Pulitzer-Prize winning novel by Jane Smiley, which took a new look at King Lear. It was undoubtedly the same story, but she told it told from a wholly different angle, and the result was incredibly powerful.








New young fiction from Garth Nix, Sean Williams, Jaclyn Moriarty, and John Green


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I’ve had a burst of middle-grade books, all of them wonderful in their own ways. Two are by much-loved Australian authors, and I hope they will find a large audience. 


It goes without saying that anything from Australian writers Garth Nix and Sean Williams is going to be fun.

These two prolific writers have – separately and together – produced a wealth of hugely enjoyable fantasy stories for younger readers.

And this first of a new series is no exception. Odo, at 12, is the seventh son of the village miller, while his best friend Eleanor is the daughter of the local apothecary.

One day, hunting for eels in what’s left of their dying river, Odo sees something glint in the muck. It’s an enchanted, talking sword, and it’s a little confused about who has woken it from its long sleep.

Since only a knight could have done so, that must mean that Odo is a knight, so the sword – Hildebrand Shining Foebiter – makes him a knight on the spot, unsettling Eleanor who is sure she is the one destined for that role.

Since a knight needs a quest, they find one – and it introduces them to battles and magical creatures and dragons, and an understanding of what it really means to be a knight.

This is a story that is pure delight from start to finish, tackling a range of social issues without ever being heavy handed or preachy.


“I was ten years old when my parents were killed by pirates” begins Bronte Mettlestone’s tale.

She quickly reassures readers that it’s OK, because she didn’t know them very well. They left her with her aunt Isabelle as a baby, and had been off on adventures ever since.

When a telegram arrives announcing their death, she discovers their will gives her a range of very specific tasks to carry out – on her own.

And it’s edged with faery cross-stitch, which means if she breaks any one of its commandments, there will be terrible consequences.

It’s terrifying, but Bronte is determined to do her best, even if she’s only 10. It’s quite a journey too – there are elves, dragons and water sprites, life-saving heroics, cousins and aunts she’s never met before, as well coming face to face with the terrifying Whispering King.

Jaclyn is one of the Moriarty sisters, with Liane and Nicola also regulars on the bestseller lists.

Jaclyn is best known for her YA stories, with this being her first foray into middle-grade books, with more to come. The delightful illustrations are by Kelly Canby.

It’s a r remarkably sweet story, that’s magical and fun too.


John Green has had a special place in many hearts since the publication of the phenomenally successful The Fault In Our Stars.

It looks like he’s done it again with Turtles All The Way Down, which is aimed at a younger audience of middle-grade readers.

Aza, 16, suffers from OCD and anxiety, which makes everyday events like school brutally difficult. Lucky she has her best friend Daisy, who has been through everything with her.

When Daisy hears of $100,000 reward for information about a missing billionaire – and discovers Aza has a link to the billionaire’s son, Davis – she’s keen to get involved.

Aza discovers her old connection to Davis is still there, and the friendship grows, but none of that stops the uncontrollable, destructive thought spirals that take over when she becomes anxious.

She knows her obsessions put pressure on her relationships with Daisy, Davis and her mother, but that knowledge doesn’t help her find a way out.

The characters are as thoroughly engaging as Green’s many fans will expect, even though the missing billionaire plot doesn’t make much sense (as with the author plot in The Fault In Our Stars).

These books were published in October/November 2017. 

The Trauma Cleaner, by Sarah Krasnostein


A remarkable story, and a remarkable piece of writing.

So who is it who cleans up the mess left behind after a suicide or a murder – that mess of human blood and faeces, the vermin and the rubbish?

Turns out it’s Sandra Pankhurst, whose professional cleaning service takes on the most horrific scenes, both in dysfunctional life or after brutal death.

It also turns out she’s even more startling and fascinating than the job she does. It is a circuitous path that connects Sandra to the person she was when young – Peter, tall blond husband and father to two boys.

Between those two points – young man, ageing woman –  is not just her transgender transformation, but the long path from public pariah to respected businesswoman. She’s been a drag queen, a prostitute, married again, run a hardware store, suffered violence and rape, lived large and been left with nothing.

Large parts of her life are a mystery to her – was she present at the birth of her sons? She has no idea.

But she has fought to do her best every step of the way. Sarah Krasnostein’s exploration of her amazing life is sensitive and fascinating.

This review first appeared in the Herald Sun’s Weekend magazine. The book was published in October 2017

Little Secrets, by Anna Snoekstra

Aussie thrillers seem to have arrived, and this is a decent addition. 

Anyone who grew up in an Aussie country town and dreamed of getting out – at any cost – will have some sympathies for Rose Blakey.

She’s working at the local pub in tiny Colmstock with her best friend Mia, in despair because her latest application for a newspaper cadetship has been rejected again.

She has to find a story to make them finally pay attention. And then she notices something unusual: her little sister playing with a doll that looks uncannily like her.

She discovers there are more around town, each looking eerily like its new young owner.

Rose senses the beginnings of a story the newspaper might be interested in. She gives those creepy dolls a dark and dangerous undercurrent, and the paper loves it.

But as she pursues a follow-up, the stakes seem to be getting higher. There’s a mysterious new man in town, and her personal safety seems to be under threat.

The Melbourne author is making a name for herself in the local thriller/mystery market and Rose is a compellingly likeable but flawed heroine.

A better understanding of how journalism works would have helped.

The Last Hours, by Minette Walters


This is the first part in a new series from the multi-million crime best-seller Minette Walters. It’s a new direction, but she’s still just as riveting.

The Black Death quietly entered England at the Port of Weymouth in 1348, and rapidly wiped out about 50 per cent of the population.

The Last Hours focuses on a small estate in Dorsetshire, as the first hints of the arrival of the pneumonic plague are being felt.

The hated Sir Richard takes a journey to arrange a marriage for his 14-year-old daughter, Eleanor, to a nearby estate already touched by the plague.

His wife, Lady Anne, hears the rumours and decides to quarantine Develish and its occupants from the outside world, hoping to stop the disease from entering.

As it gets worse, there are other threats – from rogue soldiers and people desperate for help –  as well as heightened tensions inside the self-imposed prison.

Lady Anne faces some big questions: when will it be safe to emerge? And what does a community that has lost most of its population look like?

Walters abandoned crime writing a decade ago after selling 25 million books, and seems certain for a return to the best-seller lists via historical fiction.

Part two is out next year.

This book was published in September 2017.

Memory Wall, by Anthony Doerr

More beautiful writing from Doerr, who gave us one of the great books of 2015 with All the Light We Cannot See. 

Readers around the world fell in love with Anthony Doerr’s beautiful WWII story All the Light We Cannot See, which picked up the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2015.

This collection of six stories – which explore the idea of memory, and travel easily across genres, continents and time – has be re-realesed, presumably to bring his back catalogue to readers’ attention.

The title story is set in South Africa, set in a time when people can store memories, accessible to anyone with the appropriate adaptation to their skull. Alma’s mind is failing, but she knows something that could be valuable.

In Village 113, a Chinese seed-keeper prepares for the loss of her garden and her home of many decades to a dam.

And in what was for me the most touching of all, Afterworld, Esther constantly finds herself back in her past – Germany in WWII – whenever seizures take over her body.

Doerr’s collection is often dark and is always moving. The language is simple but evocative, and he takes readers inside deep each story from the opening page.

Also included is the bonus story The Deep, which won a major international short story award in 2011.

The Girl from Munich, by Tania Blanchard


This is from a new Australia writer, drawing on her family history. 

Lotte at 17 has big plans, but this is no easy time to be thinking of the future. She is in Munich in 1943, and the tide is turning against the Germans, though Lotte still sees Hitler as her country’s hero.

She finds work as a secretary in the local Luftwafe, happy to be doing her bit while she prepares to marry her long-time sweetheart, Heinrich.

But the war puts increasing demands on everyone, and she finds herself thrown together with her boss, Erich.

As it becomes clear Germany has lost – with Heinrich missing and Erich’s wife and children believed dead – she and Erich are forced into a dangerous trek to safety. And that is only the beginning of her struggles.

Sydney writer Blanchard based this book on stories and letters her German grandmother shared about her life in the war years, and she is now writing a sequel, based on her grandmother’s post-war life in Australia in the 1950s.

This novel focuses heavily on Lotte’s personal struggles and relationships, with the true horrors and difficulties of the war largely taking a back seat.

Personal disclosure: In many ways this book was difficult for me. This story has many similarities with my mother’s life, and what happened to her in the latter stages of the war as teenage girl in Germany. I know her experience left her traumatised, unable to speak about aspects for most of her life. I accept that degree of disclosure isn’t necessary for a story of this kind, and that it chooses to avoid the full emotional impact of what happened on the local population.

This book was published in September 2017. This is a slightly expanded version of a review that ran in the Herald Sun’s Weekend magazine. 

Anna, by Niccolo Ammaniti


It’s bleak, but there his hope. Dystopian fiction, all focused of the children left behind.

It is 2020, and the world has been devastated by a virus that kills adults, leaving only children not yet through puberty.

In a small house in the Sicilian countryside, Anna looks after her younger brother, Astor. Behind the locked bedroom door, the beautifully decorated remains of her mother lie in state on the bed.

She wrote a detailed notebook before she died, giving instructions to help her children survive, and to give them hope.

But life is getting harder with each passing year. As Anna scours the region on supply raids, she has wild dogs and other dangers to face.

One day, when she returns from a successful trip, Anna’s world collapses: Astor is gone.

To honour all her promises to her mother, she goes in search, finding a friend and many foes as she battles to get her brother back into her care.

A dystopian future that features a savage world of children isn’t new, nor is a killer virus, but Ammaniti is a fluid and powerful writer who picks you up and drags you along for the ride.

The Italian writer is best known for the international hit I’m Not Scared.

This book was published in September 2017. 

Bridget Crack, by Rachel Leary

There is a lot to like in this debut novel from the Australian writer. It feels like a realistic, if very bleak, view of what women faced when transported to Australia.

Van Diemen’s Land in 1826 is even worse than Bridget Crack imagined.

Transported for seven years, she is placed in indentured service. She rebels against the rules and the attitudes of her masters, and finds herself resassigned.

But that’s an even worse situation, and this time when it fails she finds herself condemned to a place in the interior.

Isolated, angry, under threat, she decides to take her chances on the run in a wilderness that is both beautiful and brutal. When bushrangers find her, she has no choices left.

One, Matt, has his eye on her, and he makes sure she stays close. In Hobart Town, the bushrangers are notorious, and there is big price on their heads.

Soon enough, there are rumours they have been joined by a woman – one known to be rebellious – and she joins them on the Wanted posters.

Leary’s debut novel is a powerful, bleak telling of the terrible conditions that faced female convicts in Van Diemen’s Land, and she pulls no punches in detailing the degradation and despair they faced.

But the story jumps around at times and many of the minor characters seem interchangeable.

This book was published in July 2017. This review first appeared in the Herald Sun’s Weekend magazine.