Book Review: The Peacock Summer, by Hannah Richell

Available in bookshops nationwide. 

cv_the_peacock_summer.jpgThe Peacock Summer is the latest novel by bestselling Australian-born and England-based author, Hannah Richell. Narrated in the first person, the story centres on the lives of two women, Lillian and Maggie.

In the prime of her life, Lillian finds herself trapped. Encouraged by her aging guardian, Lucinda Daunt, and out of concern for her invalid sister Helena’s medical expenses, Lillian marries the wealthy investor, Charles Oberon. At twenty-six years old, she has become a porcelain beauty in a delicate dollhouse, burrowed within the paintings, ornaments, and collected objects of Charles’s manor. Now Lillian must navigate a world of cake tins and floral dresses, of high-society men and their wives with their expectations and illusory glories.

At the hands of her manipulative husband, Lillian becomes the victim of domestic abuse, which leads to her barrenness. The pains of maternal yearning and a loveless marriage plunge her into a world of deep loneliness. Nevertheless, what keeps Lillian going is Albie, her stepson, whose playfulness and curiosity remind her constantly of the joys of living and loving. Life takes a dramatic turn that summer, when Lillian meets the young artist, Jack Fincher, whom Charles has commissioned to paint the nursery.

Fast forward to the present day: At age twenty-six, Maggie Oberon feels like she is going nowhere. Her parents, Amanda and Albie, left her at a young age, going their separate ways. The rock of Maggie’s whole life was her grandmother, Lillian. Now that the aged Lillian is very ill, Maggie travels from Australia to Lilian’s English manor, Cloudesley, at the foot of the Chiltern Hills. As Maggie learns of Lillian’s story, she finds that they are very much alike. Lillian reminds Maggie about the brevity of life and the necessity, therefore, to live boldly and fully.

The Peacock Summer is a call to the genuine celebration of life and family. Richell’s prose is highly descriptive, tender, and vibrant. The story touches on the poignant themes of parenthood, loss, longing, and the indefatigability of authentic, sacrificial love. I strongly recommend this excellent book for the upcoming spring and summer months.

Reviewed by Azariah Alfante

The Peacock Summer
by Hannah Richell
Published by Hachette
ISBN 9780733640438

Book Review: The Blood Road, by Stuart MacBride

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cv_The_blood_road.jpgThis is the first Stuart MacBride book I’ve read, although I have several of his older books waiting their turn in my bookcase.

The story centres on detective inspector Bell, who supposedly committed suicide by setting fire to his caravan two years earlier. When he turns up dead in the driver’s seat of a crashed car, questions start being asked – especially when it’s discovered he was stabbed before the car crashed.

Logan McRae is now working for the Professional Standards division of the police, meaning most officers don’t want anything to do with him. He needs to find out where Bell has been since he was thought dead, and who stabbed him. Why did he disappear – and more importantly, what made him return from the dead?

Deaths start piling up as Logan works tirelessly to discover Bell’s secrets. If it wasn’t his body in the caravan, whose was it – and was Bell responsible for his death?

That’s only one of the storylines weaving their way through The Blood Road. Alongside this there are a number of missing children and rumours start flying about them being stolen to order for something called the livestock market. Witnesses aren’t telling the truth and Logan also has to deal with a young police officer who goes off on her own, seemingly reluctant to share any leads she has with her superiors.

Logan has a lot to do with the parents of the missing children, one of which is hiding her own secret, a secret that could put her life and the life of many others in extreme danger.

This book took me a few pages before I really got engrossed in it, but that may be down to the fact I had to keep looking up some of the words MacBride uses that may only be familiar to the Scots! It kept me guessing until close to the end, the mark of a good thriller, and as soon as I finished it I started on one of his earlier books, which showed how much I enjoyed it. (That and the fact he has cats, which instantly made me like him!)

Reviewed by Faye Lougher

The Blood Road
by Stuart McBride
Published by HarperCollins
ISBN 9780008208240

Book Review: Promising Young Women, by Caroline O’Donoghue

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_promising_young_womenJane Peters is twenty-six and newly single after getting out of a comfortable but unexciting long-term relationship. Her advertising agency job isn’t exactly scintillating but it pays the rent, more or less. And there’s a cute colleague she’s had her eye on for a while. Jane’s secret side hobby as an online agony aunt gives her an outlet for her snark and provides a nice ego boost whenever her advice goes viral.

Irish writer Caroline O’Donoghue’s debut novel begins as an enjoyable, relatable read about a young woman fresh from a break-up, plodding away at her mediocre corporate job.  Fun, light, and rather formulaic you’re thinking.  But things take a surprisingly dark turn: Bridget Jones’s Diary this is not.  After a drunken encounter with her charismatic boss at a work party, Jane finds herself quickly out of her depth and struggling to maintain a hold on reality.

In the #MeToo era, where the news is (rightly) full of horrendous stories about the likes of Harvey Weinstein and the Old Boys Club of some local law firms, this is an exceptionally timely novel. Reminiscent of Stephanie Danler’s Sweetbitter, this is a story about power and sex, and gender politics in the workplace.

‘Our company is teeming with women under thirty, and men approaching or over fifty.  That is how the food chain works. Dozens of attractive young women do the grunt work for a handful of men, and the women get filtered out by motherhood. It’s the corporate version of natural selection.’

This novel is dark and cuttingly funny. That I, a reasonably busy working parent, made time to read this book over just two days is testament to how compelling a story it was. This is a book that you will want to recommend to your bookclub, just so that you have friends to discuss it with afterwards.

Review by Tiffany Matsis

Promising Young Women
by Caroline O’Donoghue
Published by Little, Brown
ISBN 9780349009919

Book Review: The Crooked Staircase, by Dean Koontz

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cv_The_crooked_staircase.jpegI am a big fan of Dean Koontz so was delighted to be able to read and review this book. This is the third book in the Jane Hawk thrillers – The Silent Corner and The Whispering Room being the ones previous to this one.

Former FBI agent Jane Hawke, the central character is on the run. Her husband Nick is dead, made to look like a suicide, but Jane knew he would never have committed suicide. She is convinced he was murdered, but how to prove it? Her son Travis was in hiding staying with trusted friends. Her husband’s so-called suicide is one of many that seem to be occurring around the country which in Jane’s eyes, is too much of a coincidence.

She is being hunted by Government agents but also a rogue organisation, the vengeful Techno Arcadians, who are assumed to be behind the murder/suicides. They seem to have unlimited power and money to hunt her down. Jane’s is able to outfox them at every new development, thanks to her ability to access technology and hack into systems.

What Jane uncovers about the Techno Arcadians makes for a great read. I struggled to put this book down at times, so caught up in the story I wanted to read just another chapter. By the time I came to the end I felt a little disappointed. I was expecting a conclusion but there is none, so we will have to wait for book four.

Reviewed by Christine Frayling

The Crooked Staircase
by Dean Koontz
Published by HarperCollins
ISBN 9781460756546

Book Review: Afternoons with Harvey Beam, by Carrie Cox

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cv_afternoons_with_harvey_beam.jpgIf we listen to talkback radio, we form a relationship with the host, love them or hate them, and Afternoons with Harvey Beam is a book which takes the reader into the life of a talkback host, his problems, his loves and his family.

Harvey Beam left his small home town of Shorton to work in talkback radio in Sydney but after many years his popularity is waning and he is facing redundancy.

When the head of HR says, ‘What I see is a man no longer making connections, a man who is not happy in himself, a man who is not playing nicely with the other kids, and all of that equals bad radio,’ Harvey believes his biggest mistake is ‘not sleeping with the head of HR’.

Being called back to Shorton because his father is dying gives Harvey time to think and reflect on his life and where he is going in the future.

Beam’s entire family still live in Shorton and the reader is introduced to his mother, brother, and two sisters as well as his father Lionel .He still has a good relationship with his ex wife and his daughters as well as his mother but finds his sisters behaviour challenging and his brother Bryan is not at all welcoming. But it is his father’s hostility which is at the heart of the book and the reader is never fully informed what has caused the dysfunction between the male members of the Beam family. As Harvey takes time to reflect we learn about his divorce as well as his parents split, but a talkback session reminds him ‘it all starts and ends with family.’

I enjoyed this book. It was well written with pockets of humour, and the author is able to write with great clarity to reveal the strength and emotions flowing amongst the characters. There is hope for the future as new relationships develop and family ties are strengthened but I was disappointed more was not revealed about what had caused the hostility between Harvey and Lionel.

An interesting Australian family drama, the book will appeal to a wide age group both male and female.

Carrie Cox is a journalist , author, tutor and mother who lives in Perth Australia This is her first novel but she has written two non fiction books, Coal , Crisis, Challenge and You Take the Road and I’ll Take the Bus.

Reviewed by Lesley McIntosh

Afternoons with Harvey Beam
by Carrie Cox
Published by Fremantle Press
ISBN  9781925591088

Book Review: The Sparsholt Affair, by Alan Hollinghurst

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cv_The-sparsholt_affair.jpgThe Sparsholt Affair by Alan Hollinghurst is an ambiguous tale of the permeating aftershocks of encounters with the charming David Sparsholt: war-hero, strong-man, closet gay man prior to the British sexual liberation of 1967. Set over five parts, numerous narrators give us peep-hole insights to the influence and lasting touches of Sparsholt, and cleverly leaves the unspeakable to occur behind blinds, during blackouts (of both varieties), and between parts. Be warned: the Sparsholt Affair is not entirely what it seems.

We are first introduced to David Sparsholt as an entry in Freddie Green’s memoir of Oxford during the war, in ‘that brief time between sunset and blackout when you could see into other people’s rooms’. Spied by Green and his contemporaries Evert Dax and Peter Goyle, Sparsholt’s impressive aesthetic ignites a male infatuation that will both mire Sparsholt’s life and carry the novel. Sparsholt is an engineer and athlete training for the RAF, and is embroiled in sexual scandal from the outset thanks to the ‘rhythmical creaking’ from his room during visits from his to-be wife, Connie. Sparsholt’s blatant heterosexuality seems to only fuel the intrigue as Green, Dax, and Goyle each fall into pursuit of Sparsholt in their own ways. Between the suggestive war time black-outs, this competition is won by Dax, and recorded as told to Green. Sparsholt is doused in secrecy and scandal, spoken about in the same way neighbours may trade gossip in whispers before an inevitable disgrace.

Leaving Sparsholt’s war to occur in the part break, the novel now jumps to 1965, where Freddie Green’s literary journal has been replaced with a contemporary yet equally insightful narrative from the perspective of Johnny, Sparsholt’s adolescent son. Sparsholt is now a war-hero and established industrialist, married to Connie. Together with Connie, Johnny, French exchange student Bastien, and the Haxbys, the story moves to summertime in Cornwall. The Cornish setting allows air to two flames: that between David Sparsholt and the noisome Clifford Haxby, conducted in secrecy yet with a recklessness that makes one’s stomach turn somersaults, and simultaneously for Johnny – the typically sexually repressed English teen – who is besotted with his liberal French counterpart, Bastien. Should Johnny not have been so consumed by his own pubescent crush, he might have had warning of the scandal his family was on course for.

The story jumps again, this time into Evert Dax’s house in London post the 1967 decriminalisation of homosexuality. We re-connect with Evert as Johnny Sparsholt, now a strapping young gay man, enters Evert’s house as an art restorer. Oblivious to the relationship once shared between his father and the paunchy old art enthusiast, Johnny is both eager to gain a place in the gay scene based at Cranley Gardens and naïve about the intentions of those around him. We learn that the actual Sparsholt affair that was so pregnant in the previous setting has been and gone between parts, and we turn the pages in eagerness for a climax, trembling for the revelations that might come with it.

But Hollinghurst holds back, denying us any juicy details, giving us only scraps: ‘money, power, gay shenanigans…it had everything!’ This is somewhat frustrating, as up until this point the reader has been led to believe the explosiveness of the affair was the carrot we’d been patiently chasing. Once the disappointment abates, however, the Sparsholt Affair morphs away from a legacy instead into a story of life’s vice and drama, particularly for gay men in a liberated London. It is a generational comparison, pulling a colourful contrast of experience from each side of 1967.

By the 90s we are led by Lucy, the child (born in the part-break) of Johnny and a lesbian couple who had requested him to ‘do a baby for us’. We see Johnny finally in the new millennium, where parenting and dating apps have again revolutionized the gay landscape. Johnny does his best to adapt, as a successful portrait painter who suffers love, loss, and reincarnation.

As a first-time reader of Hollinghurst, his tendency to let pivotal scenes happen between the parts can leave you feeling crestfallen, but the Sparsholt Affair withstands these temporary disappointments as one begins to recognize the larger, comedic, and charming design of the story.

Reviewed by Abbie Treloar

The Sparsholt Affair
by Alan Hollinghurst
Published by Pan Macmillan
ISBN 9781509844937

Book Review: A Long Way From Home, by Peter Carey

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_a-long_way_from_home.jpgThere is so much life in this novel, such exuberance and energy. It was a delight to read, at times flamboyant in its language, always deliciously descriptive and vivid, rich and colourful from beginning to end. How does one make the arid and rugged landscape of Australia lush and stunning? I don’t know, but somehow Peter Carey, twice winner of the Booker Prize, as well as numerous other awards, does.

It’s a bit of a romp, but there is also a serious side to this novel, essentially about two people finding themselves, discovering who they really are, emerging from the restraints society has placed on them. This is 1950’s Australia, still dealing with the consequences of British colonialism, dealing not terribly successfully with the Aboriginal people, and simply trying to make it, to get ahead in life, make a better life than one’s parents had.

Irene Bobs is married to Titch Bobs, the most successful Ford car salesman in his region of Victoria. They have two young children, life is pretty good, except for Titch’s appalling father Dan. To get away from Dan, Irene and Titch move the family to the town of Bacchus Marsh, 33 miles from Melbourne and home town of Peter Carey himself.

Irene is one clever woman, under rated and under-appreciated as many women in post-war Australia were. She thinks a Holden dealership is the future for her and Titch, but there is the problem of raising enough money to open their own dealership. Winning the Redex Trial, a wild and crazy car race all around the perimeter of Australia would set them up perfectly. Irene is also a most talented driver, she loves to drive fast, by the seat of her pants, and she knows they have a chance. So she enters herself and Titch, and their navigator Willie Bachhuber.

Willie is an intriguing young man, only 27 years old, a school teacher who loves geography, a failure in love – he has also got himself into a spot of bother at his latest school. He happens to live next door to the Bobs family and is slowly pulled into their slightly chaotic family life. Recognising his incredible talent with maps, geography and anything to do with direction, Irene talks him into becoming the navigator. And so the scene is set for an endurance test, not only in the physical race sense, but also in a whole lot of other ways, as Willie and Irene face some pretty tough personal challenges along the way.

Maps and navigation become an analogy for Willie’s search for himself. While in the car race, Willie is confronted with some very big life issues, literally turning everything he knew about himself upside down. It is at this point the story sort of veers off the car race path, and into Aboriginal culture, the dream time, pathways, the long-term effects of British imperialism. I actually found of lot of this hard to enjoy reading. Much like a map it meandered, had some dead ends, lost threads, strange illustrations.  I am sure a true-blue Aussie would get far more of this than I did!

However, this book is still a great yarn from a master storyteller. There are some wonderful characters – Irene is marvellous – loving mother, wife, unbelievably feisty and determined, she is the heart and soul of the book. The novel becomes more about Willie, but it is Irene that holds everything and everyone together.

Within the fast action and high energy level of the narrative there is a serious side, in that people aren’t always what they seem, and that family secrets always, always, always cause more harm in the long run than any thread of good the short term may offer.

by Felicity Murray

A Long Way From Home
by Peter Carey
Published by Faber & Faber
ISBN 9780143787075