Into The Water – Paula Hawkins

I have to admit, I was not the biggest fan of Hawkin’s first novel, The Girl on the Train. I found the protagonist difficult to identify with, which made it difficult to enjoy the book. I was a little apprehensive trying Into The Water but thanks to Erica from Libretto Reviews I was lucky enough to win a copy. Into The Water starts wth the death of Nel Abbott only days after calling her estranged sister Jules for help. Now Jules must return to the old Mill House to care for her orphaned niece all the while trying to find what happened to her sister, while suppressing her terrible memories of this place. See, Nel was obsessed with the town’s river and the Drowning Pool, where many women have lost their lives over the years and Jules is certain she wouldn’t have joined them willingly.


I have to say I definitely enjoyed Into The Water much more. The concept immediately drew me in: the fascination with the Drowning Pool, the stories of women past, a fresh murder, estranged sisters. There is so much going on in this story, yet not too much to confuse the reader. There are so many threads to this story that the reader finds themselves racing to see how they knit together in the end. There were many aspects of the writing that appealed to me. I love a short chapter, particularly in books that written to be fast-paced, I find it keeps me interested. I also enjoyed the changes in perception, it was a little confusing at first but then I settle into the varied perspectives nicely. Each character narrating the story slowly revealed a little more of the twisted plot slowly tightening to one complete, tragic story. In particular I enjoyed learning about the individual stories of the past women who fell victim to the drowning pool.


Each of Hawkins’ characters were fascinating in their own way. I liked the range of unique characters, men and women, children to older adults, each had something to add to the novel and in my opinion, none were excessive. I loved the way Hawkins wrote Jules’ perspective and how she related and spoke to her deceased sister, it was unique and made sense to the characters and their relationship. The only slight let-down with this story for me was the ending. Don’t get me wrong, the twists and turns and the actual conclusion was great – I had no issues there. Somehow I just lost the pacing and the urgency in the last part. Perhaps the ending was little too protracted for my liking? I’m not quite sure but I found the first half of the book more of a page-turner for me. Overall, I would recommend Into The Water and found it an enjoyable read. I give Into The Water three books, an important part of this story, whether it be Nel’s manuscript or a young Jules reading The Secret History.


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The Queen of Whale Cay – Kate Summerscale

There is no better way to describe this novel than truth really is stranger than fiction. In fact I’m going to follow Margot from Project Lectito and say after reading this biography Joe Carstairs would most definitely be one of the five people dead or alive I would want to have dinner with. If, like I was, you are completely unaware who Joe Carstairs is firstly she was the fasted woman on the water in the 1920’s. Born to an American oil heiress and a British army caption, Joe was born Marion Barbara Carstairs and worked as a driver during WWI. Post-war she named herself Joe, dressed as a man and embarked on affairs with a host of actresses and young women while aspiring to be the fastest woman on water. Eventually she tired of the limelight and the fickle whims of the media and bought an island in the Bahamas to live on with the love of her life Lord Tod Wadley, a doll given to her by her girlfriend Ruth. On Whale Cay she built a thriving community, championed for the rights of the Bahamians and threw debaucherous parties.


Joe Carstairs was an enigma, a more fascinating person you will not find. From her childhood and relationship with her mother to her flair for the dramatics and practical jokes. To Lord Tod Wadley and her many girlfriends, to her lifelong generosity and passion for the local Bahaminans and mission to make them self-sufficient. Joe had many contrasting personality traits, both negative and positive in equal amounts but regardless she always meant well. All I can say really is read this book! To go into more detail is to spoil all these amazing stories for all you potential readers.


Summerscale’s writing and tone was a highlight of the book, apart from Carstair’s escapades of course. Her comments speculating on the psychology of Corsair’s actions were well-placed and not ver-done. There was not too much or too little detail. This biography engages the reader throughout. The photographs and other mages were a great addition to add to the readers experience. Overall, this was a great non-fiction read for a giggle and a unique story that if someone were to fictionalise would be thought to be over the top and too ridiculous. While many of Carstair’s actions were laughable and entertaining she had much more depth than one might initially assume. I give The Queen of Whale Cay four dolls to keep Lord Tod Wadley company.


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Station Eleven – Emily St John Mandel

I just can’t seem to get enough of post-apocalyptic fiction and Station Eleven was no exception. One winter’s night a well-known actor dies on stage performing King Lear. Hours later the world as we know it collapses as a deadly flu pandemic breaks out killing those who come into contact with it. Twenty years later Kirsten is an actress performing Shakespeare with the Travelling Symphony when an encounter with a self-proclaimed prophet threatens to disrupt their delicate way of life in a world without electricity, medicine or modern comforts. As the story switches back and forth from past to present the threads of the story slowly come together.


One thing that struck me about this novel was that it seemed a little more hopeful than your average post-apocalyptic tale. Don’t get me wrong this story did’t shy away from the harsh realities of life without civilisation or sugarcoat anything but there was an undertone of hope or maybe just a lack of desolation? There are still a band of people dedicated to bringing some joy and beauty in a broken world that still remembers what they have lost and who would have thought Shakespeare is what the post-apocalyptic society wants?


I loved getting to know each of the characters across the novel and learning about their stories before and after the end of the world. The storyline shifts across several characters from the past to the present as the reader watches the pieces slowly fall into place, which I loved and savoured. Their lives tell as story of humanity and life and the constant shift of whims and desires. How do we keep humanity in times of emergency? This novel explores some of these ideas in a beautiful, simplistic manner. The prose was beautiful and the mood and tome were superb keeping the story flowing towards the climax.


My favourite chapter describes an incomplete list of all that has been lost in this post-apocalyptic world, which I found elegant and reflective. I haven’t come across a chapter like it in any other apocalyptic novel and thought it put so much into perspective, what life could be like should a similar disaster befall us. Some great concepts are also explore and touched upon within this story, such as is it worth remembering the past and all that has been lost or is it better to move forward and let the old ways slip away from the newer generation? So many thought provoking ideas flowed from these pages.


Overall, I would highly recommend this evocative and descriptive read. I found it a pleasure to read and devoured it in two evenings. Besides, how could I not fall in love with a novel that references one of my other favourite post-apocalyptic novels: The Passage. That being said, if you don’t typically read this kind of book I would urge you to give it a go as it is much more than just a post-apocalyptic story, it is literary and unique. I give Station Eleven four seahorses living in the Undersea.


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The Narrow Road to the Deep North – Richard Flanagan

Ohh dear, I didn’t quite love this one as much I was hoping to. I may have suffered from too high expectations here. Don’t get me wrong this is an important and beautifully written novel. The Narrow Road to the Deep North is a harsh but beautiful account of how war ravages us all, of life and death, expectations and truth and everything in between. This book for the most part follows Dorry Evans and his life before and after the war where he served as an Australian surgeon in WWII and found himself a POW in a Japanese camp. We also follow the paths of his comrades as they struggle with a daily battle for life in the harshest of conditions and, uniquely, those holding them captive: Japanese and Korean officers upholding the will of the Emperor.


At first I found the changes in time, pre-war past, the war and post-war present and then the changes of perspective at little difficult to follow. It took probably the first half of the novel to find my feet. By the second half I was settled and enjoyed the rest of the novel a lot more. The writing in this novel was beautiful. Flanagan has a gift with words and I loved his prose, the beautiful passages about life and death. They were bleak but beautiful showing the ugly flaws of humanity at it’s worst, and yet, small pockets of hope and mateship. I feel as though this was a realistic narrative of war showing both the ramifications during the experience, as well as, quite importantly how it affects life afterwards.


Once I had settled into the book I loved the mixture of perspectives. Each unique story showed the variety of paths that were taken and a range of reactions that are each acutely realistic. The language and descriptions were perfection. Flanagan puts the reader directly in each of the character’s shoes. He describes not only what the scenery looked like but what it smelt like so the reader feels like they are right there too. I also loved that Flanagan included perspectives from the enemy, the Japanese, both during and post-war. It truly shows than no one thinks of themselves as the villain, everyone is working for the greater good and their side is correct. I enjoyed the way Flanagan captured the Japanese psyche of honour. Upholding their honour is paramount and this aspect is captured perfectly in the text.


The one  thing I did not like was Dorrigo and Amy’s love affair pre-war. I found their story frustrating, their actions pointless and selfish and after it all they never fought for each other. I did think that Flanagan nailed post-war Dorry and how he copes and inserts himself back into society. I do know that this is a book I would like to read again in the future further down the track, without expectations to see if my opinion changes. Overall, it is an intimate and realistic portrayal of war and all it’s consequences and I understand why this is such a celebrated novel. Flanagan is a gifted writer and I look forward to reading more of his work. I give The Narrow Road to the Deep North three stars, which I hope to increase in the future.


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See What I Have Done – Sarah Schmidt

See What I Have Done is one of the most creepy reads for me so far this year. This novel is a fictional take on the infamous Lizzie Borden case. For those not familiar with the story Lizzie Borden was charged with the murders of her father and step-mother back in 1892 and was famously acquitted of both murders. Schmidt tells her version of what may have happened that fateful day.


The absolute highlight of this novel was the evocative writing. You feel as though you are right there with Lizzie and her family. This is not necessarily a happy thing. This is a brutal story that is stifling and leaves the reader feeling repulsed. This isn’t even necessarily in regards to the murders but the daily life within that house. It was creepy and gross and you wanted to look away but couldn’t help but continue. I would go as far as to say at times the writing almost feels like you are in a horror novel. The reader experiences this constant feeling of impending doom, a quiet menace within the pages. I found myself hooked and drawn in from the very beginning.


In all honesty there is minimal plot within this novel and most of it is pretty well expected from the beginning. There is, however, such detail within the characters and their nuances that you feel as though they are real people. Each of the characters we meet is vivid and layered. Lizzie was a terrifying character and incredibly addictive at the same time. She was intense, selfish and quite creepy. It is hard to imagine her as an adult, her behaviour is quite childlike and this sets the scene perfectly. Emma, Lizzie’s sister, was a fascinating character that as a rider you develop sympathy for. Two further characters narrate chapters of the book and are fascinating in their own unique ways.


I loved the slow build of the novel into the climax that we are all anticipating. The ending was perfect, the writing exemplary and I found a sense of gratification at the conclusion. If you want a novel that leaves you feeling creeped out and wanting to wash your hands after reading it, then this is the book for you. The tone and writing was perfection and one understands how Schmidt created such a vivid, whole character in Lizzie when you read how she came to write this novel (seriously, go look it up). I give See What I Have Done four of Lizzie’s pigeons.


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The German Girl – Armando Lucas Correa

The German Girl adds to the plethora of historical fiction that centres around WWII, however, this is a unique story that you likely have not heard before. The German girl is Hannah Rosenthal, from a wealthy family living in Berlin she sees the ugly side of humanity when her family is shunned for their Jewish background in a country on the brink of war. Her family find hope aboard the SS St Louis, a ship leaving Berlin to the safety of Havana in Cuba, a promise of a new life in New York. Seven decades later we meet Anna Rosen, living in New York with her ghost of a mother still grieving her father’s death. Their lives are changed forever when they hear Anna’s great-aunt Hannah and make a pilgrimage to Havana to meet her, to learn about her father’s history.


This is certainly not your typical historical fiction, this story is based heavily in fact around the stain that was the SS St Louis on Cuba, America and Canada’s conscience. Even now there is no mention of the St Loius in Cuba’s historical archives. What I found incredibly special about this novel was the inclusion of the manifesto of the 937 passengers names that boarded the St Louis with hope at a new life and some photos of the fated passengers at the end of the novel. This brought the reader back to earth, realising that while, yes, this story and the characters are fictional, this situation, this history is truth and this could very well have been a reality for those aboard this ship, well the lucky ones at least.


What I also found striking within this novel was another difference to your typical historical fiction based around WWII. Most of the action happens prior to the war really ramping up and outside of Europe. There isn’t a lot of “war action” as such and therefore the characters arena’s your typical heroes that you find within the pages of novels such as The Nightingale and All The Light We Cannot See. These characters were allowed to be flawed, more relatable, more conceivable. It gave the novel so much colour and unique characters to fall in love with and become frustrated with. Hannah’s mother, Alma, in particular was a great character. She was prideful, haughty and refused to back down or accept that her place in society had changed. Hannah herself had many problems with herself and the world around her. I found her preoccupation with the idea that she was dirty fascinating and loved that she was unapologetic and stood her ground in her beliefs. These traits were also the downfalls of these characters, allowing their pride and stubbornness to rule them for the rest of their lives, trapped living in protest of a country who let them down. The relationship between Hannah and Anna was another highlight, you almost imagine them as the same person but in two separate time points.


I do have to say this is more a tale of the lifelong struggle with displacement, loss and tragedy and how that manifests as grief, how people survive and carry on, rather than your average historical fiction within a war. It stood out for that historical aspect, a slice of WWII history that I had never heard of, would likely never discovered had I not read this book. There is a deluge of WWII historical fiction but this is a memorable tale of multiple countries failing the doomed Jewish people of Germany. It is chilling to think how most of the signatures on the list at the back of this novel ended up perishing in concentration camps before the end of the war. This is a tale of the lucky ones, that made it to the mecca of Cuba, but we still see how tragic and difficult their lives are. This is a unique, beautiful and tragic story that I urge you all to read. I give The German Girl three ships bearing Hannah away from danger.


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The Mercury Visions of Louis Daguerre – Dominic Smith

The Mercury Visions of Louis Daguerre was a surprise package for me. I didn’t know what it was about and had little expectation going into it so just rode with the book. This novel tells the story of Daguerre, one of the father’s of photography. After a decade working with the lethal mercury he suffers a prophetic hallucination. The world will end in one year and he must photograph ten objects before the apocalypse, including the mysterious Isobel Le Fournier.


I do love the concept of taking a sliver of history and weaving a fictional narrative around it. The writing in this novel is simple, easy to read and evocative creating a fascinating plot driven by the historical figure of Daguerre. I did note that this book is distinctly different at the beginning, middle and end. Each portion of the story was unique focusing on different aspects of the plot. I certainly did not predict where the end was going from the beginning or even the middle.


The characters are interesting and keep the reader is invested in the story. Daguerre is a fascinating character intent on fulfilling his goals before the world ends and his affinity for mercury, what gave him his fame, was fascinating especially as the reader knows that the element he loves so much is doing him much harm. Pigeon is a great character playing the role of a beautiful bohemian making her way in life. The mysterious Isobel is a fascinating character that the reader spends the first half of the book wanting to know more about, learning more and more as the chapters slowly reveal her role in this book. I did find some of the characters started to frustrate me further into the novel but just as they began irritating the plot changes it’s course again.


This novel is a bit of a slow-burn rollercoaster, if that even makes sense? The beginning is very promising and draws the reader right in, particularly with chapters cutting to Daguerre’s childhood. The plot seems to dip a little in the middle before heading in a completely different direction and finishing strongly. This novel was very easy to read and was highly enjoyable. It is also easy to under-estimate due to the subtle complexities of the plot. I do highly recommend this read and I plan to read more of his work in the future, starting with the award-winning The last Painting of Sara de Vos. I give The Mercury Visions of Louis Daguerre three paint pallets, where Daguerre started his journey.


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