The Little Breton Bistro, by Nina George

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Sweet and a little dark. An enjoyable piece of fluff, with the great plus of featuring love and friendship among mature adults.  

Marianne, at 60, is stuck in a loveless, cold, and lifeless marriage.

Frustrated and depressed, she decides she’s had enough, and plans to end her life in the Seine.

But her suicide attempt doesn’t go as she hoped, and the hospital she finds herself in is even worse for her state of mind. She walks out, heading for the sea, and for the chance to do it right this time.

But life – and a certain Breton magic – intervenes.

She finds a town in Brittany that has a little bistro by the sea, and a desperate need for some of her skills.

Bit by bit, as she works and gets to know the locals, Marianne finds purpose and happiness – and discovers that she can start finally to remember who she is, and what she is capable of. And perhaps that might even mean love, finally.

But, having had her attentions for 41 years of marriage, her husband isn’t ready to be forgotten quite so easily.

Though this is somewhat darker than her previous novel – the international best-seller The Little Paris Bookshop – George looks likely to have another hit here.

It’s part of its undeniable charm that the romance that infuses the whole is focused on mature citizens well past their first blush of youth. Corinna Hente

This book was published in April 2017. This review will appear in the Herald Sun’s Weekend magazine. 

Disappearing off the Face of the Earth, By David Cohen

This is one of the strangest books I’ve read. I’m still not entirely sure what I think of it, except that I couldn’t put it down. 

Ken Guy runs a storage facility on the fringes of Brisbane, and he’s feeling quite hopeful.

After a bit of a checkered work and life history, it seems things might be starting to go his way. Business is steady, and he’s in the promising early stages of a relationship, with someone he really likes.

But just down the road, Pharoah’s Tomb Self Storage – a national chain that could put him out of business – is starting construction of a new facility.

And Bruce – a former work colleague who got him involved in some dodgy practices in the past – reappears in his life.

At the start it seems like he’s a useful addition, but strange things start to happen, often at odd times of the night.

People are disappearing, and the one thing that connects them is his storage facility. And why are there so many flickering florescent lights everywhere?

Described as a “surprisingly funny study of physical and mental deterioration”, Disappearing Off The Face Of The Earth is one of the oddest books I’ve read.

It is funny at times, engrossing throughout, and really quite disturbing. This is Brisbane writer David Cohen’s second novel.

This book was published in May 2017

The Last Garden, by Eva Hornung

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Amazing book from one of Australia’s best writers.

Benedict Orion comes home from boarding school – excited to get away from books and into the everyday work of the family farm – to find his parents dead in a murder-suicide.

In deep shock, he retreats, unable anymore to step foot into the home he loved. He finds refuge in the barn, in close quarters with the old mare Melba, and the young feisty stallion Fell.

His neighbours in Wahrheit, a close-knit Germanic religious farming community in South Australia, are patiently waiting for the second coming of the Messiah.

Benedict – now living in the barn, never leaving the farm – remains withdrawn from the horrors of the past or thoughts of the future, existing solely through the horses and the needs of the farm and the passing seasons.

Wahrheit’s pastor keeps watch, visiting and bringing food from the community, seeing the gawky teenager slowly rediscover himself. But there are other pressures building in Wahrheit, and the pastor has to find his own way through doubts and trauma.

Hornung won the Prime Minister’s Literary Award for her last book, Dog Boy, which explored some similar territory in the close bonds between boy and animal.

Full of symbolism but not overwhelmed by it, this is a powerful and wonderful book, and the writing is mesmerising. Corinna Hente

This book was published in May 2017

Memoirs: a bit of a whinge, and some bouquets too

A great memoir/autobiography is, to my mind, a combination of two things – powerful writing full of personal insight and understanding, and the story of a interesting or remarkable life.

Great writing can transcend a non-famous life, though fame isn’t enough if the writing is ordinary.

Brian Thompson’s Keeping Mum, which won the Costa Biography Prize in 2006, is one example. It was the story of a bizarre wartime childhood, though in many ways it wasn’t so unusual in what were extraordinary times.

But the way he wrote about it was magnificent. What could have been a misery memoir (I am so sick of them, even if the horror of them demands compassion), was full of humour and compassion. It was moving and funny and wonderful.

Music legend Patti Smith’s Just Kids is magnificent. Certainly she has had an interesting life in a pretty big spotlight, but what makes this book remarkable is the quality of insight, and the beauty of the writing.

Melbourne writer Kate Holden’s In My Skin took what could have been a tawdry and ugly tale – a descent into drug addiction and prostitution, and out again – and turned it into a triumph. Beautiful writing, and a keen understanding. A great memoir.

Anything by David Sedaris. Though I pity his family.

But there seems to be a trend lately in fairly famous people writing memoirs about lives that really aren’t very interesting. And the writing isn’t great enough to make up for this deficit. They are lauded by their literary friends, and sales go through the roof.

But really, just dull.

(I must state here, these are strictly personal views, reflecting what I want in a memoir. I am aware many people will not agree).

A recent example is Magda Szubanksi’s biography, Reckoning. It received a lot of positive press, particularly around the revelation of her father’s work as an assassin in the war.

In part the positiveness of the response is a reflection of the warmth and sweetness of her presence on our TV screens and stages.

But getting to that revelation in the book took a long time. I was at least 150 pages in, and it was still dealing with primary school! And seriously, nothing that interesting was happening.

As she moved into high school there was confusion about sexuality, and some tricky stuff to deal with. But no more than almost everyone suffers in school.

And the writing, while clear and appealing, was fairly procedural. This happened and that happened and then that happened. If I’m going to read about everyday stuff, I need the quality of the insights or the writing to raise it above the ordinary, to give it a reason for me to want to keep reading.

If I want to read about ordinarily-odd and tormenting primary school days, I can write my own. So could most of my friends.

Then came Clementine Ford’s Fight Like A Girl. I picked this up wanting to read more of her terrifically bolshy, outspoken, uncompromising feminist manifesto. She is saying what needs to be said, and I applaud her for it.

But again, for the chapters I managed to get through, this seemed to be a misery memoir, all about how as a girl she got bullied, people were horrible (how dare they!) …

Yes, I’m sure it was bad, but I thought I was buying a political treatise, not a memoir.

Perhaps my lack of connection is a reflection of my age, since she and I are different generations. For a younger generation, it sometimes seems it’s enough to claim victimhood, and then everyone rallies around. In mine, it would never have occurred to us. I’m not saying it was a better way of dealing with things – I’m sure it’s more personally destructive – but perhaps some aspects have stuck. I don’t much like wallowing.

In any case, it’s that kind of sideways memoir I find particularly annoying. I think the writers know their life isn’t actually interesting enough to write about, but they really want to. So they find an acceptable framework and slip it in there.

The latest is a new one, My Life with Bob, by Pamela Paul. She’s the editor of the NY Times Book Review (that earned an instant girl crush from me), and it’s about her “book of books”, a journal she has kept since she was a girl detailing every book she’s read.

It’s about the “deep and powerful relationship between book and reader”, about how and why we read, and about our own stories.

Well, yes. Kinda.

Again, it’s mostly a memoir. Her dating life, her disastrous first marriage, her children, her job history, scattered through with the books she was reading at the time.

And as much as I desperately wanted to love this, because I understand that obsession with reading deep in my bones, the reality is, her life isn’t that interesting. And there is not enough actual insight to make reading about it worthwhile.

Consequently, I find myself reading about one of my favourite topics – books – and I’m bored. And that’s some kind of crime.

However, the memoirs I don’t like have probably outsold the ones I do, which puts me in a big minority, while books like Keeping Mum are long forgotten by the market, if not by me.

On the other hand, it’s clear that books like Reckoning and Fight Like A Girl struck a chord in the local market and people love them.

I just want more.

Some more great memoirs

Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly, by Anthony Bourdain 
Poum and Alexandre, By Catherine de Saint Phalle
Hunger Makes Me A Modern Girl – A memoir, by Carrie Brownstein
The White Road: A pilgrimage of sorts, by Edmund de Waal
West With the Night, by Beryl Markham
Dry, by Augusten Burroughs. Or Running with Scissors
H is for Hawk, by Helen MacDonald
Three Cups of Tea, by David Oliver Relin and Greg Mortenson

Coming up soon on my bedside table

Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance, by Barack Obama
An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth, by Col. Chris Hadfield
What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, by Haruki Murakami

The Lost Book of the Grail, by Charlie Lovett

Some fascinating history, some amusing dialogue, and (for me) an unbelievable romance. Generally quite good fun. 

The Grail, ancient secrets, hidden chambers deep under cathedrals, forgotten ruins, lost books, the legend of Arthur, generations of brave guardians of a precious artifact, an intrepid investigator and his pretty co-conspirator.

So far, so Da Vinci Code.

But this is a universe away from that genre of historic religious thriller. Arthur Prescott is a book-loving university lecturer who is impatient with modern technology.

His passion is the Barchester Cathedral library, where ancient books give him an opportunity to pursue his interest in the Grail, a secret calling passed on to him by his grandfather.

In comes Bethany Davis, there to “digitize” the ancient manuscripts to make them available to all. At first at odds, they become companions in the search for the lost book of Ewolda, the little-known Saxon saint associated with the site, racing against time to save the precious library from being sold and dispersed.

Charlie Lovett, best-selling author of The Bookman’s Tale, is the American son of a Professor of English and his love for Britain shows on every page, to the point where the Englishness of everything threatens to become overly twee. (It’s a thing you see in the books of a few American writers of English crime. Early Elizabeth George is a classic example). And yes, even Jeeves gets a mention.

It could easily have been titled: What ho, Jeeves! Is that the Grail?

But in all, this is a fun and light-hearted romp through history. Some will recognise Barchester as the creation of 19th century British author Anthony Trollope.

Quicksand, by Malin Persson Giolito

I’m not a big reader of Scandi crime, but this is terrific, and very different from the usual. A courtroom drama that’s also a sharp critique of modern society. 

Eighteen-year-old Maja Norberg was always popular and smart, a star student at her high school.

The icing on the cake comes when she starts going out with Sebastian, the charismatic, golden son of the richest man in Sweden.

Everything seems perfect, until it all starts going off the rails. Now she is on trial for murder, after a mass shooting at her school.

When police arrive at the massacre site, Maja is sitting on the floor of a classroom completely unharmed, with Sebastian lying dead in her lap. The four other people in the classroom have been shot.

Maja, near catatonic, is arrested, charged and jailed pending her trial on a whole range of charges. But what brought them all to that point, and how guilty is Maja really?

As she sits through the traumatic trial, supported by Sweden’s best criminal lawyer, we learn the back story – from the joy of her first weeks together with Sebastian to her growing unhappiness, particularly with Sebastian’s vicious father, Claes.

Her closest friendships, with Amanda and Samir, came under strain as drugs and violence increasingly surround her.

Quicksand, which won Best Crime Novel of the Year in 2016 in Sweden, is a belting read, gripping from the first page to the last. Giolito knows her stuff, having worked as a lawyer in a major law firm.

This book is published in April 2017. 

The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley, by Hannah Tinti

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I expect this book to be one of my favourite of the year.  It’s a great, big, brutal, riveting read.

Samuel Hawley has a daughter, Loo – a fierce, independent teenager.

He also has a past – and 12 bullet holes on his body that tell a story of brutality and danger.

After years of wandering, he’s back in his late wife’s home town, a small fishing town in Massachusetts, trying to build a life.

Loo is an outsider at school, but she learns to create some space. And she also makes a connection with a boy – a friendship that absolutely no one approves of.

The story switches between present day and the past, one by one detailing the bullets that have scarred Hawley’s body.

It becomes clear that the past is about to catch up with Hawley, and he’s prepared to do whatever it takes to protect Loo from the consequences.

This is a big, cinematic, violent story – one that you could imagine the Coen Brothers or turning into a great film.

It also has that mythic resonance, which is not surprising given it is loosely based on the Greek tale of the Labours of Hercules, a reference that’s interesting but not intrusive for the reader, or necessary to know.

Hannah Tinti’s 2008 hit The Good Thief was a classic example of word-of-mouth success. It’s been a long wait for her fans, but worth it. Brilliant.

This book was published in March 2017

Insomniac City, by Bill Hayes

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This was a beautiful book – for the writing, the observations, the people and the photographs. Quite short, and very sweet.

Memoirs, not surprisingly, are usually all about the writer, but this moving book turns the tables.

Insomniac City is written largely as an observer – someone who pays close attention and notices and loves.

His first subject is the insomniac city itself – New York. Hayes arrives there after the death of his lover, needing a new start.

The second subject is the man he falls in love with when he moves to that city, the acclaimed neurologist and writer Oliver Sacks, perhaps best known for Awakenings and The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat.

Hayes and Sacks’s relationship begins almost accidentally. Sacks writes to Hayes, complimenting him on one of his books. When Hayes responds, they get into the habit of writing – Hayes from San Francisco and Sacks from New York.

When they meet, they discover they have more in common than both being insomniacs, and a late-blossoming love affair begins.

The portrait of the man that emerges is every bit the sweet genius any reader of Sacks’s books would recognize.  It’s a gentle, loving and deeply intimate view of a remarkable man.

Until they met, Sacks had mostly hidden his homosexuality and been celibate for decades.

The delight he takes in the relationship is almost heartbreaking, given how few years they have together before Sacks dies of cancer in 2015.

The book is a collection of Hayes’s diary entries, short essays, poems and photographs, sometimes focused on “O”, and sometimes on New York – on the people he meets on the streets and the subway, and photographs, and scenes that touch him.

This book was published in February 2017. The review appeared in the Herald Sun Weekend magazine. 

Romeo’s Gun, by David Owen

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David Owen has been writing excellent fiction for many years, but with shame I say this is the first in his Pufferfish series that I’ve read. It deserves every success. 

The Tasmanian Police Force’s Detective Inspector Franz Heineken, aka Pufferfish, is as prickly and full of attitude as the creature he’s named after.  Which is no bad thing for a “seasoned Tasmanian rozzer”.

His small team is called in when the dashing and outrageously good looking sommelier Romeo Ferrari goes missing from his home, leaving behind bloody drag marks across the kitchen floor.

They have a horrified witness who is certain she saw a dead body on the rug, but by the time the police can get there, it’s gone.

As Pufferfish starts to investigate, the fingers start pointing in some very murky directions, including right into the heart of a major drugs operation in Victoria.

In the background, a killer strikes again, and it is a case that Heineken cannot ignore, even when it becomes professionally dangerous.

This is the seventh Pufferfish novel from Owen, an adopted Australian who now lives and works in Hobart.

The writing is funny and sharp, and loaded with attitude and local colour. The names, as might already be obvious, are often outlandish – it’s a good indicator of the fun Owen has with his writing.

For those lucky crime fans who will discover him for the first time with this book, the good news is his new publisher has indicated his back catalogue will be re-released.

This book was published in November 2016. This review first appeared in the Herald Sun’s Weekend magazine. 

Norse Mythology, by Neil Gaiman

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 My first Gaiman book was American Gods, which I loved without reservation. Every book since has confirmed what I knew then – this is a master storyteller at work. 

norsemythology_hardback_1473940163The arrival of a new book by fantasy legend Neil Gaiman is always a major event for his legions of fans.

In the year that his fabulous best-seller American Gods is coming as a TV mini-series (HBO, April), Norse Mythology is a timely exploration of what has been one of his enduring interests.

We already know a lot of the basics of Norse mythology – mainly through the Thor movies and the TV series Vikings and even Game of Thrones, but also through such high-culture explorations as Wagner’s The Ring Cycle.

In this carefully researched collection, the charismatic (if not very bright) Thor and trickster god Loki are centre stage as the story traces the gods from their beginning to Ragnarok – the total destruction of the gods and their home, Asgard.

Along the way, we meet Odin, chief among the gods, the great beauty Freya, frost giants, dwarves, the terrifying wolf Fenrir, the world serpent, the Valkyries, demons, elves and the ruler of the dead, Hel.

It’s almost a given that almost everyone behaves very badly if given the opportunity and lots of creatures die horribly.

As gods, they may be magnificent in their powers, but they are often remarkably petty and childish. As expected, Loki can be guaranteed to cause maximum trouble, just because he wants to – which is, of course, the point.

While the stories themselves are fascinating, what Gaiman brings to the party are his peerless story-telling skills.

He hasn’t “updated” the original tales or turned them into a novel – what he has done is turn dusty myth into page-turning fun.

This book was published in February 2017.