Book Review: The Choke

The Choke, by Sofie Laguna, is a piercing and at times shocking coming of age tale. Set in small town Australia, its protagonist is Justine Lee who is ten years old when the story begins. She is playing a rough game with her two half brothers, Kirk and Steve, in woodland near her remote and neglected home. The family is fractured and often violent. Each has been shaped by cruelties inflicted by those from whom they might have expected affection.

Justine’s mother, Donna, left her daughter when she was three years old and hasn’t been heard from since. Justine’s father, Ray, is rarely there. The girl has been raised by her grandfather, Pop, on his three acre patch of land by the Murray River. They exist side by side talking more to their hens than to each other.

Kirk and Steve live with their mother, Relle, who Ray left for Donna. All three children seek Ray’s attention on the rare occasions when he returns. Ray is a callous father who amuses himself by baiting those in his vicinity. He has told Justine it is her fault her mother left. The boys idolise him but he pays them little attention.

Pop looks after Justine because nobody else would. Damaged by the war he has his own history of violence and regret. The one person who appears to be relatively happy is Pop’s daughter, Rita. She has made choices her father disapproves of leading to lengthy periods of estrangement.

Justine lives much of her life in her imagination. She cannot read or write so struggles at school. When she is forced to sit by a disabled pupil, Michael, her supposed friends expect her to mock him as they do. Instead, Justine learns to understand Michael’s mannerisms and utterances and he becomes her first and only true friend.

Growing up Justine had played with a neighbouring family, the Worlleys. Then Pop got into a fight and told Justine to stay away from them. Later, one of the older boys assaults her. Justine shuts down the part of her that understands why. She struggles to deal with the many violences, mental and physical, that she has suffered in her short life.

On one of his visits Ray favours Justine over his sons, ignoring her suggestion that he should be including Kirk. Later Ray tests her loyalty, having used her to gain access to a former girlfriend. Justine copes by suppressing thoughts of the damage he inflicts.

The friendship with Michael adds light to Justine’s grim existence but their shared pleasures are short lived. Left only with the memories of the different way of living she briefly glimpsed, they become something else she tries to forget in order to survive what is left.

The story jumps forward to when Justine is thirteen years old and starting high school. She is ill equipped to face the challenges this brings. Craving some form of affection she attracts attention as her body changes. With no one to notice or offer support, she suffers the consequences of being her father’s daughter.

Justine has no knowledge or experience of the words that could express the emotions she has been conditioned to suppress. This silencing, the years when her voice has been ignored, leads her to blindly accept a path until she finally realises she can no longer live this way.

Ray may be a monster but the author offers mitigating circumstances. Pop’s prejudices are damaging but he too is suffering the fallout of horrific experience. These are not excuses – Rita had the same upbringing – but they add depth.

The themes explored have been covered many times before in a plethora of stories but The Choke is still something special. It has a raw and compelling heart that lays bare the contrast between a child’s acceptance of the only life they know and their need for even some small measure of affection. It is emotive but never sentimental.

The land and the people are vividly portrayed as is the poverty and repetition of mistakes across generations. Although bloody and upsetting the denouement is fitting. This was a powerful and rare read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Gallic Books.

Book Review: Bridge of Clay

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

The best storytellers draw the listener or reader into their tale with a mixture of voice, content and anticipation. At each stage in the telling they must provide sufficient background for context but not become waylaid by irrelevant tangents. Their audience must remain eager to know what happens next, attention effortlessly retained.

Bridge of Clay is close to six hundred pages long so holding this reader’s full attention was going to be a challenge. I prefer short books, devoid of padding, where every word is necessary for pleasure and progression. Markus Zusak exceeds beyond expectations, and these were high given his last publication was The Book Thief.

Set in and around Sydney, Australia, the focus of the story is the Dunbar family. The narrator is the eldest of five boys. They are Matthew, Rory, Henry, Clay and Tommy. They live in the family home with a menagerie of unusual pets. Their mother is dead and their father disappeared. Matthew has been breadwinner and de facto parent since he was in his late teens.

It is hard to pin down where the story begins because it is a family history with many players. The pivotal point is the bridge, but to understand why it comes to be built it is necessary to get to know how this family lived.

And so there is a beginning, because the teller must start somewhere. There is before the beginning, and the time around building the bridge. Each part of the tale relies on strands of history – of the boys, their parents, grandparents and key friends.

Somehow the author makes it work. The narrator’s voice is original, compelling and richly resonant. He takes us through the devastating challenges of loss but also the joy of being loved. He takes us through what it means to live.

The boys’ mother is Penelope, born in the USSR and a talented pianist. The reader learns how her father quietly plotted to give his daughter the chance of a better life, and the heartache caused bringing his plans to fruition.

The boys’ father is Michael, a small town Australian and talented artist. By the time he met Penelope his heart had already been broken, his aspirations irredeemably scarred.

There is also a girl is involved, an apprentice jockey named Carey. She and Clay share their love of a book, The Quarryman, which also has a history.

All this we learn in fragments. It is the necessary context to enable the reader to understand how the five boys ended up alone, viciously fighting each other as a day to day occurrence. Matthew worked hard to keep his brothers together after the loss of their parents. When their father reappears asking for help and Clay decides to leave, it is an end that feels like betrayal.

The reader needs to understand Clay’s reasoning, and it is this that Matthew aims to convey in typing out his story on the old typewriter, dug up from a garden where it lay buried for years alongside a dog and a snake. Clay grew up listening to his mother tell him the family stories. He has now tasked Matthew with their excavation and reveal.

There are reasons why beloved boys become vicious young men. Hurts manifest in differing ways. All may not be as it first appears.

Every life is filled with endings and beginnings. Yet still they continue, however difficult each day may feel.

The short chapters switch between the various threads, progressing each along different timeframes and points of view. Even the best meant actions and decisions in life have cause and effect. Bad things sometimes happen, traumatising survivors in misunderstood ways.

The writing is lyrical, powerful and spellbinding. The threads weave in and out around Clay’s pivotal secret. This reader suspected the truth early on but this in no way detracted from the pleasure of reading. The storyteller has perfectly balanced the crescendos, tragedies and reliefs throughout his tale.

Any Cop?: A book to savour, a reading pleasure, a voice that will linger – this is storytelling at its best.

 

Jackie Law

Book Review: Only Killers and Thieves

“Listen to me now. I’m going to tell you what will happen if we were to let that man live. He will hate us. Not only you and I personally, but all white men.”

“Remember, he will breed also. He will produce a dozen heirs, all with this hatred in their blood.”

“It is laughable, the ignorance of the educated classes, sitting in their parlours and their clubs. The blacks don’t want to integrate. They want us to leave. So either we domesticate them or we kill them”

Only Killers and Thieves, by Paul Howarth, is set on the frontier lands of Central Queensland, Australia, near the end of the nineteenth century. Much of the local area has been claimed by a white man, John Sullivan, whose grandfather first cleared it for the raising of cattle. Sullivan has expanded, taking over settlement after settlement, intent on driving out the indigenous population. To this end he calls on the Native Police Force, employed by the Queensland government, to disperse those who remain. The local force is led by Inspector Noone whose methods are pitiless. He is widely feared.

The McBride family live on a neighbouring settlement. When the story opens the region is suffering a lengthy drought and the teenage McBride boys, Billy and Tommy, are out hunting for food. Against their father’s orders they stray onto Sullivan territory where they observe Noone and his men with captive natives. They are discovered and warned away.

Unlike the cattle kept by Sullivan, which have somehow remained healthy, the McBride livestock are dying. When those that remain are rounded up for selling they do not raise what is needed to provide for the coming year. Tommy watches as his father clashes with Sullivan, who he once worked for. Although the boys are required to help – their father can no longer afford to employ other men – they are given no explanation for the animosity with their neighbour.

All this is set aside when Tommy and Billy arrive home late one afternoon to discover that their parents have been killed. With their little sister grievously injured they turn to Sullivan for help. A native is suspected so Noone is called in. Sullivan coaches the boys in how they should testify thereby making them complicit in the ensuing retribution. Leaving their sister in the care of Sullivan’s young wife they ride out beyond the land claimed by settlers.

This is a vivid evocation of a bloody period in Australian history. It is also a story of family and the challenges faced by pioneers. With their parents dead the teenage boys are left in a precarious situation. Sullivan and Noone offer them a type of protection but it costs the boys dear. Billy looks up to the wealthy Sullivan as a success his father could never hope to emulate. Tommy sees things differently.

Rarely have I read such a powerful account of the racial oppression and abuse perpetrated by those at the forefront of white man’s empire building. It is vivid and disturbing yet never overplayed for effect. The reader is not spared the graphic detail yet the account remains nuanced and balanced. The inhumanity is sickening, and based on fact.

Although a work of historical fiction the story is written as an adventure and a thriller. The tension throughout makes it a compelling read. Each character is rounded and believable, earning their place in the narrative and adding to the readers depth of understanding. Even the most horrifying of actions are portrayed with explanations, the skewed personal justifications for brutal acts of terrorism.

An impressive debut and a timely exploration of the potential impact of dehumanising an entire people. This is an engaging and satisfying read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, One.

Book Review: Sealed

“I’d felt it too, the too-muchness of being in love. But I hated Pete for it at the same time. I hated his freedom and how guiltlessly he lived, how easily he took love and gave love, and how much danger he’d put me in. And most of all, I hated that he might be right, that he was living the right way and that I was wrong: too frightened, too careful, too guarded to really enjoy life.”

Sealed, by Naomi Booth, is set in a near future Australia. Rising temperatures have brought with them storms and deadly heat events. Wild fires, pollution and other environmental catastrophes make day to day living uncomfortable for all.

Alice and her partner, Pete, are expecting their first child. With less than a month to go before the baby is due they leave the city, its toxic air and growing climate of fear. They move from their cramped apartment to a remote house overlooking the Blue Mountains. It is planned as a fresh start in cleaner air, somewhere to establish their little family.

Alice has recently lost her mother. She lives in fear of a new condition known as cutis which causes skin to grow where it should not. People have died and Alice suspects a cover-up as few cases are being reported. Pete believes she is looking for problems that do not exist.

The government is trying to manage the growing threats from all quarters by moving its poorer citizens into camps where they may be cared for, monitored and controlled. As part of her job in the city housing department, Alice had visited one such camp during its regular inspection. Privately run, it ensured records of residents’ health and behaviour reflected only good practice. Detailed causes of death were not disclosed, the manager citing reasons of patient confidentiality.

Pete is excited at the prospect of fatherhood. He becomes frustrated when Alice fixates on what he regards as imaginary threats and conspiracies. Eager to fit in he befriend locals. They question why he has taken Alice from the city to a place such as this but will not explain to her what they mean. They regard Alice as a killjoy as they try to make the best of a situation they cannot change. Pete dismisses Alice’s concerns as the irrational behaviour she agreed to leave behind. She mingles with their new acquaintances but cannot put aside her fears.

“She gasps with laughter and I can’t help it, it’s totally contagious, I’m not even stoned and I start to laugh a bit too. She squeezes my hand again. This is how I used to make friends, when I didn’t see every person and every place as a contagion to be guarded against.”

With Alice’s due date approaching she tries to register for medical care but what little exists is already overwhelmed. Alice tells Pete she believes she spotted a case of cutis. He does not wish to face such a possibility.

The tension in the story builds as Alice and Pete’s backgrounds are revealed. The reader cannot be sure if her paranoia is justified, if there is any point in fighting back given the wider situation. The climax is reached when Alice goes into labour. The denouement is horrifying yet somehow inevitable.

As with the best dystopian fiction this is a parable for today. The reader fears what is being gradually revealed yet cannot look away. Government reactions are all too believable.

A tale that I flew through and shuddered at the possibilities presented. By the end both Alice and Pete’s behaviours are better understood, the outcome as complex as the circumstances all had to deal with. As grotesque as the premise may be, this is a compelling read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Dead Ink.

Book Review: Blue Dog

This review was written for and originally published by Bookmunch.

Louis de Bernieres’ short novel, Red Dog, was loosely based on the true story of a Kelpie cattle dog that travelled around Western Australia’s Pilbara region in the 1970s. The book was adapted for film and proved popular in the legendary canine’s home country. Although little can be confirmed about Red’s origins, a prequel was commissioned and this film released in 2016. It covers the imagined early days of the Pilbara Wanderer, known during this time as Blue. Louis de Bernieres was approached by the filmmakers about novelising the story. Although initially hostile to the idea, the author changed his mind when he read the script. He writes of Blue Dog:

“Novelists are routinely appalled and dismayed by what scriptwriters and film directors do to their stories. I have therefore been completely shameless about diverging from the script, excellent though it is, because revenge is sweet.”

The story opens with an eleven year old boy, Mick, being flown to the bushland area of Pilbara where he is to live with his paternal grandfather following the death of his father. Mick’s mother has suffered a breakdown and is being cared for back in Sydney where the boy was raised. Mick is eager to explore his new surroundings after his Granpa installs him in his father’s old room. The farm is staffed by a mix of natives and incomers, all men.

The practicalities of living in such a remote region result in Mick being granted freedom to roam and lessons in fixing anything that is damaged or that breaks. Whilst he enjoys adult supervision his activities involve helping out and learning independence. He rebuilds a motorbike which he is then permitted to ride. He learns to recognise and respect the wide variety of local wildlife.

In the wake of a cyclone Mick rescues a puppy from a flooded creek. He calls it Blue and it soon settles with the farm residents. Blue joins Mick on his many games and adventures. The dog is unimpressed when a woman is engaged as Mick’s tutor and keeps the boy inside for lessons.

Boy and dog mature with both discovering an interest in the opposite sex. Granpa meanwhile has worries of his own – rumours of a buyout for the farm and potential health issues.

The story is aimed at twelve year olds and this age group will likely regard the liberty Mick is granted appealing. It is somewhat Boy’s Own in aspect, although Granpa enjoys his rum and occasionally forgets himself in conversations with Mick. This adds to the humour; there is no inappropriate content. Emotions are acknowledged lightly as are the aboriginal culture and its loss at the hands of white settlers.

The denouement asks more of Mick than any of his challenges living in the bush. Blue’s reaction places the tale as the prequel it was intended to be.

As one would expect from an author of this stature, the writing is fluent and engaging. It certainly appealed to this adult reader. There are regular illustrations that add to the sense of place. I was also delighted by the little blue dogs on each top right hand page which move playfully when the book is flicked through at speed.

Any Cop?: A story of a boy more than his dog but one that charms without descending into schmaltz. It is good sometimes to read of the positives in human nature.

 

Jackie Law

Book Review: Resurrection Bay

Resurrection Bay, by Emma Viskic, is the first in a proposed series of crime thrillers featuring Caleb Zelic. Set in and around Melbourne, Australia, it opens with the brutal murder of the protagonist’s friend, Gary, who the police then insist must have been involved in some dodgy dealings. Caleb has known Gary since they were children and refuses to believe this can be true. He sets out to find the culprits, and their motive, for himself.

In a packed genre the author has succeeded in creating an original lead character. Caleb is deaf but determined to prove that he can cope independently in a hearing world. His reluctance to accept help, or admit when he is struggling, has cost him his marriage. Now he finds that his continuing love for his ex-wife, Kat, can be used against him.

Kat is a talented artist of Koori descent. They grew up a few streets apart in Resurrection Bay. In this small community, where everyone takes an interest in each other’s business, it can be hard to keep secrets. With the death count rising Caleb starts to question his innate ability to read body language. He is unsure who he can trust, including his brother, Anton, a recovering drug addict.

Together with his business partner, Frankie, Caleb attempts to work under the far-reaching police radar to uncover what Gary had been working on and if, as he suspects, this led to his death. Gary had made a series of frantic phone calls, including to Anton and Frankie, so knew his life was in danger. Caleb comes to realise that whoever took his friend’s life may wish him to meet a similar end.

The denouement is bloody with an excellent twist. There were perhaps a few too many threads thrown out before it all came together but this did keep me guessing. The pacing was balanced whilst maintaining the tension. The writing flowed effortlessly which always takes skill.

Enjoyable and compelling with sufficient originality to keep this popular style of storytelling fresh. A recommended read for all crime thrillers fans.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Pushkin Press.