A Map of Days (Miss Peregrine’s Peculiar Children, #4) by Ransom Riggs

‘It’s strange what the mind can digest and what it resists.’

This is the fourth novel of Miss Peregrine’s Peculiar Children, and the story shifts to America.  Jacob Portman returned to Florida at the end of the third novel where, as his parents are convinced he is insane, he is joined by Miss Peregrine and a number of the peculiar children.  The peculiars are trying to fit in to modern life, with varying degrees of success and some quite humorous moments.

But all is not well in American peculiardom as Jacob and his friends will soon find out.  You see, Jacob’s grandfather Abe had a few secrets, and Jacob begins to learn more about the peculiar world and his part in it.

‘The problem, really was that I was trying to navigate a world for which I had not been prepared.’

My reactions to this book are mixed.  The first two novels held my attention completely.  The third book was not quite as enthralling and while this book will appeal to many fans, for me it was a book too far.  I enjoyed parts of it (although there were fewer photographs) but the story itself barely held my attention. All good series need to come to an end and for me the logical end of this series was the third novel.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

This Water: Five Tales by Beverley Farmer

‘Is the first time something ever happens to you imprinted for good?’

The five tales in this collection are two short stories (‘This Water’ and ‘Tongue of Blood’) and three of novella length (‘A Ring of Gold’, ‘The Blood Red of Her Silks’ and ‘The Ice Bride’.) Each features an unnamed woman, each explores a permeable boundary between our known world and the mysteries that might exist beyond it.  Such mysteries are reflected in various myths and legends.  Each of the women in these stories has (or will find) her own power.  It’s part of their female experience: based in nature and extended into legend or myth.  While I recognise some of those myths, what really held my attention in each story was the way in which Ms Farmer incorporates quite amazing descriptions of water.  Water (as ice) is a prison in ‘The Ice Bride’.  Water (as a vehicle) in ‘A Ring of Gold’. And what about the role of rings? Who owned the ring in ‘A Ring of Gold’?  Do such rings signify possession or ownership?  How does a reader’s own experience influence their reading of these stories?  I’d like to read these stories again in twenty years to see whether my own reactions change.

My favourite tale was ‘The Blood Red of Her Silks’. In this tale, a jealous stepmother turns a princess and her brothers into swans, forced to move between the sky, the water and the land for 900 years.  There is no happy ending (I wanted one, desperately).  While the permeable boundary can allow us to travel between our known world and the mysteries beyond, travel back may not be as easy.  Should it be?

‘A book is too small to live in but you make yourself small while you are in it, and ever after, and whenever it comes to mind.’

Beverley Farmer (7 February 1941 to 16 April 2018) was a Melbourne author.  Her works include four short story collections: ‘Snake’ (1982); ‘Milk’ (1983); ‘Home Time’ (1985) and ‘Collected Stories’ (1987).  She also wrote three novels: ‘Alone’ (1980); ‘The Seal Woman’ (1992) and ‘The House in the Light’ (1995). I’ve not yet read any of these works, but I will.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

 

#AWW2018

All The Tears in China by Sulari Gentill

You’ll have to wait until January 2019 to buy this, but if you are a fan of the series, you won’t want to miss it.

‘Perhaps it was a good time to be despatched to China.’

Rowland (Rowly) Sinclair’s efforts to assist the Communist Egon Kisch at the end of 1934 and into early 1935 (read ‘A Dangerous Language’) has made him very unpopular with some Australians. As Rowly’s nephew, Ernest, says:

‘Pater said that half of Sydney wants to kill you.’

So, when Rowly’s brother Wilfred asks him to represent him at international wool negotiations in Shanghai, leaving Australia for a while is not unattractive.  Especially when his friends Edna Higgins, Milton Isaacs and Clyde Watson Jones are to accompany him.  Rowly is under clear instructions from Wilfred:

‘Your purpose is to hold our place in these meetings.  Just listen and be pleasant.  For God’s sake, don’t sign anything.’

In 1935, Shanghai is a glittering, glamourous place.  It’s also a dangerous place, where loyalties and the law can be difficult to navigate.  It seems that everyone is welcome in Shanghai: there are impoverished Russian nobles and badly behaved English-speaking expatriates.  There are opium dens and sing-song bars.  East meets west in Shanghai, but there is a strict hierarchy, and a marked difference between those with means and those without.   But all Rowly needs to do is attend meetings and listen.  What could possibly go wrong?

A woman is murdered.  Her body found in the suite occupied by Rowly and his party. Suspicion falls on Rowly.  Naturally, Rowly fights to clear his name.  Naturally, his friends try to help.  And naturally, because this is Rowland Sinclair, things become complicated, other people with vastly differing interests are involved.  There are red herrings to sort, complicated relationships to try to make sense of, and plenty of action.  In order to clear his name, Rowly Sinclair needs to find out who killed the woman and why.  There are plenty of twists and turns in this story, with a bit of a surprise at the end.

Each chapter of the novel opens with an excerpt from a contemporary newspaper or magazine article.  I enjoyed these excerpts which serve to ground the novel in its time period and give an indication of contemporary concerns and attitudes.

This is the ninth novel in Ms Gentill’s Rowland Sinclair series.  While I think it possible to read and enjoy the novel as a standalone, I’d recommend reading the series in order.  Why?  Because Ms Gentill has created such marvellous main characters that one encounter will surely not be enough.

Note: My thanks to NetGalley and Pantera Press for providing me with a free electronic copy of this book for review purposes.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

 

#AWW2019

The Fish Girl by Mirandi Riwoe

 

‘Remember the day you must return to me, …’

In fewer than one hundred pages of storytelling, Ms Riwoe creates a character who is now haunting me. Mina is an Indonesian girl living with her parents in a small fishing village.  She is chosen by a Dutch merchant to work in his household.  Mina did not want to leave home, but the decision is her father’s and she has no choice.  Once she arrives, she works in the kitchen with Ibu Tana. One of the things that makes Mina’s new life more bearable is Ajat, the boy from her village who also works there.  Mina longs to return to her village, to what is familiar.

‘The fish girl has brought the smell of the sea with her.’

Ms Riwoe brings Mina’s world to life, with her descriptions of food, of people, of the bustle of markets, and of the tropical weather.  But while Mina may have the limited freedom to make some choices, her life is no longer her own.  And choices often have unforeseen consequences.  I find myself wondering whether (and how) Mina’s life could have been different once she left the fishing village.

This novella was a joint winner of the 2017 Seizure Viva La Novella Prize.  It was sparked by the description of a ‘Malay Trollope’ in W. Somerset Maugham’s story ‘The Four Dutchmen.’

 

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

 

#AWW2018

How to Make Gravy by Paul Kelly

I’m a big fan of Paul Kelly’s songs.  I’ve been listening to them for a long time.

‘A book that sings and talks and plays.’

Back in 2013, I went to the National Portrait Gallery in Canberra and saw an exhibition entitled ‘Paul Kelly and The Portraits’.  While I was wandering around, checking out the portraits, I realised that there was a lot I didn’t know about Paul Kelly and his music.  On the way out of the Gallery, I saw copies of ‘How to Make Gravy’.  I borrowed a copy a few weeks later, then bought a copy of the book and a copy of the CD boxed set ‘The A to Z Recordings’.

I’ve only read the book twice, but I play the music frequently.  It’s my ‘go to’ music for driving and for writing book reviews.

So, what can I tell you about the book (or the music)?    The book grew as a result of a series of concerts first staged in 2004.  Over four nights Paul Kelly performed, in alphabetical order, one hundred of his songs.  In between the songs he told stories about the songs, and together the stories and the songs became ‘How to Make Gravy’.  If you are a fan of Paul Kelly’s songs, then this book will give you some insights into how he writes.

‘Writing songs is a magpie business.  You build your nest and fetch and carry to it the bright shiny things that catch your eye.  You don’t care where they come from just so long as they fit just so.’

It’s a fascinating memoir: there’s a bit of family history, some personal reminiscences, life on the road while touring with the band, some of the things that matter to Paul Kelly.  I learned a little about the man behind the musician, about sources of inspiration.  And along the way, I was listening to the songs, making my own connections.

‘When you’re young you think everything’s possible.  All of a sudden you’re past the middle of your life, you’ve done only a fraction of the things you could have, and the field of possibility grows smaller each year.’

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

 

The Slipping Place by Joanna Baker

‘What’s the worst thing you’ve ever seen?’

Veronica Cruickshank’s youngest son, Roland, is always the child she’s felt needed most protection. He’s always available to help a friend, even when that is not in his own best interests.  Veronica still lives in the family home in Hobart, her children grown and independent.  She’s not seen Roland for a while, but when she hears he’s back in Hobart helping an old school friend, Treen McShane, she tries to track him down.  But instead of finding Roland, Veronica can only find where he might have been.  She’s hearing about violence, about a small child being hurt.

Then Veronica receives a text message from Roland, asking her to go to a place known in the family as the Slipping Place, high on Mount Wellington.  Here Veronica finds Treen’s frozen body.  What has happened?

‘Roland was no fool, but he’d always been an idiot.’

Veronica tries to find out what has happened.  She’s concerned for Roland, and for the little boy orphaned by Treen’s death.  She knows that the police will also be looking for Roland.  Why is Roland not contacting his mother when he’s clearly in contact with her friend Lesley and her son Paul?

‘The strongest of our childhood memories are often flavoured with sugar.’

Ms Baker brings aspects of Tasmania to life in this novel: from the brooding presence of Mount Wellington/kunanyi which looms over Hobart, to the drive to Spring Beach through Bust Me Gall and Black Charlie’s Opening, I felt like I was there.  As for the story itself, while I wasn’t completely satisfied with some aspects, I admired the way in which Ms Baker drew the various strands together.  Believable?  Not entirely.  But by the end my focus had moved beyond Treen’s death, beyond the ‘how’ and the ‘why’ to Veronica’s determination to get to the truth of ‘who’.

I finished the book with mixed feelings.  While there are aspects of the story that didn’t work well for me, the setting and Veronica’s sense of loyalty and purpose kept me engaged.  And made me think, too, about just how far our perceptions are impacted by relationships and loyalties.

Note: My thanks to NetGalley and Simon & Schuster (Australia) for providing me with a free electronic copy of this book for review purposes.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

#AWW2018

The Concubine’s Child by Carol Jones

‘Better to be a rich man’s concubine than a poor man’s wife.’

In Kuala Lumpur in the 1930s, sixteen-year-old Yu Lan is the daughter of an apothecary.  She dreams of marrying her friend Ming, whose father owns one of the busiest coffee shops in Petaling Street.  She believes that Ming is waiting for the right time to ask his father.  But Ming’s family do not see Yu Lan as a suitable wife for their son: her father Lim is a gambler.  Lim decides to sell Yu Ming as a second wife, a concubine, to the ageing Towkay Chan.  Towkay Chan is the wealthy owner of a tin mine whose wife has been unable to bear him an heir. Madam Chan becomes jealous of Yu Lan and makes her life even more difficult. After her son is born, Yu Lan tries to escape.

‘You must be fluid like water, for water defeats the strongest stone in time.’

Four generations later, Nick Chan in Hampshire, UK, is searching for his family history.  An opportunity for Nick to work in Kuala Lumpur presents, and he takes it.  Nick’s wife Sarah doesn’t accompany him, staying behind because of her own work and other commitments.  And then, two years later, fate emerges to insert yet another twist.

Yes, Gentle Reader, there are links between past and present.  Some of those links will seem obvious, some may seem improbable.  But who can be sure, really sure, of how lives are shaped, of the influences of ancestors, of how destiny is decreed?

I was totally caught up in the story set in Kuala Lumpur, but for me the story lost some momentum with the shift to the UK. Even so, I found that I couldn’t put the novel down.  I wanted to know how it would end.  Yu Lan might only appear in part of the novel, but she casts a long shadow across the rest of it.

Note: My thanks to NetGalley and HarperCollins Australia for providing me with a free electronic copy of this book for review purposes.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

 

#AWW2018

Holy Ghost by John Sandford

‘Honest to God, what is the world coming to?’

Wheatfield, Minnesota, is one of those small towns teetering on the edge of oblivion.  A small town with a declining population, probably down to around 650, located off the main highway.  Why would anyone need or want to visit?   But then a vision of the Virgin Mary appeared at St Mary’s Catholic Church in front of the congregation of worshippers, some of whom take photographs.  And when the Virgin appeared a second time, well Wheatfield was on the map.  Religious tourists descended on the town.  Accommodation was at a premium, business was booming.

What could possibly go wrong?  How about a series of shootings followed by several murders? Wardell Holland, the Mayor, whose successful campaign slogans included ‘I’ll Do What I Can’, calls in Virgil Flowers from the state Bureau of Criminal Apprehension.  Shootings and murders were not part of his plan for putting Wheatfield back on the map.

So, who is behind the shootings and murders, and why?  It seems like plenty of people have both the equipment and the opportunity, but motive?   And where are the clues that usually help an investigator solve such crimes? In his search for answers, Virgil Flowers has some humorous conversations with some very interesting characters.

Virgil Flowers is an unorthodox crime investigator, he’s quite happy to speculate about what might be happening as part of his information gathering.  He’s also happy to involve the locals if this might help him flush out the criminals.  Unconventional, but ultimately effective.  There’s some great dialogue, some interesting characters (meet John Jacob Skinner), and more than I need to know about the awfulness of diner food and chicken pot pies.

This novel held my attention from beginning to end. This is the eleventh novel in John Sanford’s Virgil Flowers series.  It is the first I’ve read (and it reads fine as a standalone novel), but I’ll be looking out for some of the earlier ones.

Note: My thanks to NetGalley and Simon & Schuster (Australia) for providing me with a free electronic copy of this book for review purposes.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

The Western Wind by Samantha Harvey

‘Thank you, Lord, some said under their breaths.  Thank you, Thomas Newman, said others.’

In 1491, during the early hours of Shrove Tuesday, near the small and isolated village of Oakham in Somerset, the body of a man seen in the river.  By the time rescuers arrive, the body has been swept away and only a fragment of a shirt remains.  The fragment is enough to identify the owner: his name was Thomas Newman, the most prosperous and industrious man in the village.  It has been raining heavily, the riverbanks are slippery, he could have slipped. Was Thomas Newman’s death an accident, was it murder or could it have been suicide?

Our narrator is the village priest, John Reve.  He has secrets of his own, and it’s difficult to judge just how reliable a narrator he is.  How can we judge who knew what and when?  Does it matter? We start on Day 4 (Tuesday 17th February 1491) and work back to Day 1 (Saturday 14th February 1491). A story is gradually revealed, complicated by this reverse chronology.

Thomas Newman occupies a curious place in this novel.  His death provides a starting point, his life seems to have been important in protecting Oakham from forces external to the village.  How can one man be so significant?  Why do some villagers seem so convinced that they are responsible for his death? What was the role of Thomas Newman in this village, of John Reve, of the visiting dean?

And what of the confessions, the small transgressions and the larger sins?  John Reve prays for a western wind to blow away evil spirits:

‘The strongest west wind, to blow away the locusts.’

He worries that the prevailing eastern winds will bring more problems to Oakham.  There’s a nearby monastery in search of Oakham’s land.  Could Thomas Newman have prevented this?

The visiting dean, who occupies Thomas Newman’s house, is keen to have someone confess to killing Thomas Newman.  It is John Reve who listens to the confessions and tries to make sense of what is said.  The community is unsettled and feels threatened.  The villagers are trying to make sense of their claustrophobic, bleak world by looking for symbols and portents in what is happening.

I kept reading.  The more I read, the less certain I became of what I thought I understood.   And yet, I am not dissatisfied.  Perceptions become reality, confessions have their own versions of truth.

Note: My thanks to NetGalley and Grove Atlantic for providing me with a free electronic copy of this book for review purposes.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith