Review: The Midnight Watch by David Dyer

25666052As the Titanic and her passengers sank slowly into the Atlantic Ocean after striking an iceberg late in the evening of April 14, 1912, a nearby ship looked on. Second Officer Herbert Stone, in charge of the midnight watch on the SS Californian sitting idly a few miles north, saw the distress rockets that the Titanic fired. He alerted the captain, Stanley Lord, who was sleeping in the chartroom below, but Lord did not come to the bridge. Eight rockets were fired during the dark hours of the midnight watch, and eight rockets were ignored. The next morning, the Titanic was at the bottom of the sea and more than 1,500 people were dead. When they learned of the extent of the tragedy, Lord and Stone did everything they could to hide their role in the disaster, but pursued by newspapermen, lawyers, and political leaders in America and England, their terrible secret was eventually revealed. The Midnight Watch is a fictional telling of what may have occurred that night on the SS Californian, and the resulting desperation of Officer Stone and Captain Lord in the aftermath of their inaction.

Told not only from the perspective of the SS Californian crew, but also through the eyes of a family of third-class passengers who perished in the disaster, the narrative is drawn together by Steadman, a tenacious Boston journalist who does not rest until the truth is found. The Midnight Watch is a powerful and dramatic debut novel–the result of many years of research in Liverpool, London, New York, and Boston, and informed by the author’s own experiences as a ship’s officer and a lawyer.

This is one of those books that grabs you by the throat and won’t let go until you’re staying up way past your bedtime just so you can keep reading it.

I started reading this, feeling I needed a break after reading quite a few tough books in a row, and wanting something a bit fun and interesting. I’ve been obsessed with the Titanic ever since I first learnt about it way back when I was little. My little brother and I would pore over great big books about it, read any kids books featuring the disaster, watched all the documentaries and went to see several exhibitions on the ship. I visited the Titanic museum in Belfast and cried, buying my brother all the merchandise and books I could carry; if you’re ever in Belfast and have even a smidgeon of interest in it, I thoroughly recommend the museum!

Anyway, this book was going to be mine once I saw it on the ARC shelf and work, and it did not disappoint me at all.

I was instantly grabbed by the reporter, Steadman’s, introduction, which captivated me and dragged me straight into early 20th century Venezuela, and then Boston. I enjoyed his point of view immensely, though I wish it hadn’t been the sole POV through the whole 2nd portion of the novel. I enjoyed the switching between him and members of the crew of the Californian, who were experiencing the disaster on the water, whilst Steadman unearthed it from the offices of Cunard shipping.

Lord, the enigmatic captain of the Californian, remained a very difficult person to understand. I still don’t really understand why he acted the way he did that night, but that’s the point. His actions were thoroughly reprehensible, despite his suave exterior. You never see the disaster from his point of view, but only that of the people around him. He’s the destabilising feature of the novel as much as the wreck of the Titanic is.

The final section is told from the fictional perspective of Titanic passengers during the disaster. I do like how it is brought into the story, though in some ways I feel it could have been woven through it before a final reveal. Regardless, I was moved to tears and lay there contemplating the ending for hours… needless to say, I didn’t sleep much that night!

This book should be released in March or April, depending on your region, and I really do recommend getting your hands on it. I am really glad I took the chance and read it, because it would have been a shame to have it laying there unread any longer!

5/5 stars and a different Leo… because this is Titanic, not Gatsby!

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Thank you to Penguin Australia for the ARC. This review is entirely my own opinion and is in no way affected by the fact that this is a review copy.

#CCWomensClassics Review: Bush Studies by Barbara Baynton

15832465Barbara Baynton’s short-story collection Bush Studies is famous for its stark realism—for not romanticising bush life, instead showing all its bleakness and harshness.

Economic of style, influenced by the great nineteenth-century Russian novelists, Baynton presents the Australian bush as dangerous and isolating for the women who inhabit it.

‘The terror Baynton evokes,’ Helen Garner writes in her introduction to the book, ‘is elemental, sexual, unabashedly female.’

Oh, dear. What a disappointing collection. It had so much promise, so much potential to be wonderful, but it failed. I have had a run of bad luck with Text Classics books, which I’m sure is not indicative of their value, but of my hopes and desires. They are all great examples of Australian Gothic literature, but are deeply flawed and uneven in quality.

If all the stories in this collection were as good as the last one, I would have enjoyed the experience and recommended it. “The Chosen Vessel” was gripping and frightening, and had me well within its clutches. Swagmen are an essential part of Australian colonial culture, and are almost always depicted as a jolly nuisance that one must feed, give work and tolerate. Baynton flips this on it’s head and turns him into a figure of terror. The “heroic” stockman is a figure of idiocy and religious fervour, not the lighthearted saviour of the usual kind. The villainy of the patriarchy is on show, from the husband who sneers at his wife’s fear to the swagman who feels he has the right to not only take her body, but her life.

Baynton knew too well the horrors of living alone in the bush, and how frightening it could be for a woman. Each woman in the stories is a different archetype, from the masculine Mary in “Squeaker’s Mate” to the timid governess in “Billy Skywonkie”. All face a myriad of terrors, not only in the stories, but before and after them. Baynton is not optimistic or positive about life in the bush for a woman, setting the role of a bushman’s wife as a hellish experience, contradicting the typical 19th century ideas of life on the land.

However, Baynton’s storytelling technique is at points nigh on impenetrable, her dialogue a complete mess and the narration confusing. I found myself backtracking over and over, having missed what on earth was going on, and jumping back to find my question is inexplicably unanswered. I’m not sure if Baynton actually intended this, or if it’s just me, or her fault as a writer. Action scenes were hard to follow, and I ended up skim reading stories like “Scrammy ‘And” because I simply couldn’t work out who was who and what was happening.

The dialogue is stilted and makes very little sense at times, even with reading it aloud and having a pretty decent knowledge of Australian slang, accents and older terminology. In her attempt to depict language as it sounded, Baynton has completely muddled it and made it far more difficult for the reader than necessary. The better stories are those with little dialogue, namely the first half of “Squeaker’s Mate, “The Chosen Vessel” and “A Dreamer”. The others are dialogue heavy, making them confusing and unenjoyable.

“I know who yer thort ’twas, Warder!” They were sitting side by side, yet he spoke very loudly. “Scrammy ‘and, ehm?” He had guessed correctly. “An’ yer thort yer see ‘im lars’ night!” He was right again. “An’ yer thort ’twas ‘im that ‘ad bin ramsakin’ the place yesterday, when we was shepherdin’. An’ yer thort ‘t must ‘ave bin ‘im shook the tommy!”

(Scrammy ‘And, pg.28)

That’s a pretty standard set of dialogue, which does make sense, but takes a little bit of interpreting. That, set over the length of a story, (and it does get worse) then over several stories, gets old really quickly. I don’t even mind a bit of phonetic dialogue, but Baynton has taken it too far.

Helen Garner, in her introduction, is tough but fair on the collection. She raises many of the points that I have, and critiques Baynton’s attitude towards the bush and humanity. I enjoyed the introduction more than half the stories, which is a first for me!

If you would still like to read them, and I do recommend the three that I mentioned as good earlier, you can find them here for free. I wouldn’t spend too much money on them, though they are published by Text Publishing, so a free pdf is a good idea, and one I wish I’d known about before purchasing the book.

These are a grim set of stories, but unfortunately I will not be recommending more than three of them and regret buying this. But hey, you live and learn and there are plenty more books on the shelf!

2/5 stars

#AusReadingMonth Review: The Enchanted Island by Ellie O’Neill

When Maeve O’Brien’s boss sends her to a dreary old island to finalise some paperwork, she couldn’t be happier. It’s the career boost she needs to become a fully-fledged lawyer – besides, it hasn’t been so great on the home front in Dublin.

Maeve’s oldest friend and flat-mate has kicked her out, and moving back in with her uptight mother has been less than cosy. But her reception on Hy Brasil, a remote island off the west coast of Ireland, couldn’t be any more hostile – it’s as if the island itself wants her gone. The locals are all ancient – and spookily well preserved – and they’re all so nasty. And what is that terrible screaming noise that echoes around the island?

I had really high hopes for this book, spurred on by this interview with Ellie O’Neill. It sounded totally up my alley, for a light and fun read. Light and a bit fun it was indeed, but unfortunately I found the main character, Maeve, almost totally unbearable. 

Maeve is a typical self absorbed, selfie loving young woman, who has dug an enormous hole for herself. She has a huge credit card debt and has really messed up her social life. I thought she sounded pretty relatable, but it turns out she was rather self centred and annoying, and didn’t change fast enough for me to be able to like her. I got the impression that whilst her attitude changed on Hy Brasil, she would go back to Dublin and carry on how she was before. She reminded me of one of those selfish dumb women on a reality show, all bleach blonde hair and eyelash extensions (and she had both, if my memory serves me correctly!) She was, however, perfectly voiced and characterised, which shows me that O’Neill is a good writer and a whiz at getting personalities right.

The mystery behind the island was the only thing that kept me going, to be perfectly honest. I considered giving up a few times before the 30% mark, but then decided to continue on to find out what happened. There was an air of menace through the book, which kept me interested, and I kind of wanted to see Maeve eaten by some kind of mystical Irish bog monster. Unfortunately, the ending kind of sputtered to a halt, with a kind of solution-dump to wind off the mystery. I was pretty gobsmacked by it, but I wish the revelation had happened earlier, with some kind of resolution to the whole debacle.

The side characters were interesting and quite fun, and I thought the old people were pretty interesting in their weirdo ways. Killian was probably the least interesting of the lot, but I wasn’t bothered by it, since I didn’t feel any great love for Maeve either. I did laugh out loud at a few points, which is always a nice thing!

The elements of Irish mysticism were fabulous, and O’Neill’s writing style does draw you in, but unfortunately this just wasn’t really the book for me. I’d definitely recommend it to anyone who likes light and funny books, with a twist of Ireland and the supernatural. Other people might have a higher tolerance for people like Maeve, or perhaps this just came at the wrong time for me. I did enjoy it enough to finish it, and was drawn in and excited to find out the conclusion. I’d like to read another of Ellie O’Neill’s books, since my problem was more with the main character than with the writing or story!

2.5/5

#AusReadingMonth Review: The Three Miss Kings By Ada Cambridge 

The Three Miss Kings – Elizabeth, Eleanor and Patty – were brought up in a remote seaside settlement in Victoria, Australia, their father a mysterious man of ‘preposterous eccentricity’, their late mother a dignified, accomplished woman who instilled in the girls an appreciation of ‘spiritual and intellectual aspirations’ which compensates for their lack of worldly experience. Such virtues serve the sisters well when, on the death of their father, they begin a new life in Melbourne. Under the watchful eye of one of society’s more respectable patrons, they learn quickly about ‘life, and love, and trouble, and etiquette among city folks’ – to emerge radiant in their succession to both marriage and gentility. First published in 1891, The Three Miss Kings was one of Ada Cambridge’s most popular novels, a delightful story of young women’s gentrification in a colonial society still tied to the aspirations of its English forebears.

A friend of mine wrote part of her honours thesis on this novel, which is one I’d never come across before, despite having read quite a bit of colonial Australian literature. I was expecting it to have more of a “Little Mother Meg” vibe, but it was quite different.

I didn’t find myself connecting with any of the three sisters until late in the book, when I decided that Patty was by far my favourite. At first, they had very similar personalities, which made them rather difficult to tell apart, but as the novel went on they became more distinctive. I’m not entirely sure if that was deliberate on Cambridge’s part, but it worked well. Elizabeth became more of a doormat, Patty more feisty and Eleanor more insipid. It showed how money and romance can change a person and their outlook on life, which added to what was a great social critique.

I wasn’t overly convinced of the romances, except that of Patty and Paul, who reminded me very much of Margaret and Thornton in North and South. I felt Yelverton and Elizabeth were odd, and Elizabeth became way too much of a doormat, to the point of allowing his exclusion of her sisters from her first childbirth, then saying nothing when he was challenged about it. Come on, lady!

The sisters are pretty much adopted by Major and Mrs. Duff Scott, the latter of the two being the pinnacle of Melbourne Society. I found her to be awful, and sincerely think that she should have backed off a lot earlier, particularly about Patty. She takes two years to decide that an engaged couple should be allowed to see each other, and repeatedly tries to marry Patty off to elderly dukes… Why anyone could want that for a young girl who already has money is beyond me, even if she has a fiancé you disapprove of. However, it is obvious that the girls had no hope of being accepted without her.

I particularly liked Paul, even though he was a grump. It seems he had the worst run of luck any man could have, poor bugger! As for the mystery that he helps solve, I worked it out very early on, which made the waiting game a tiny bit frustrating, but then satisfying when all was finally revealed.

The rooting of the story deeply into Melbourne in 1880 gave it such a character, which I loved. It specifically mentions events and personalities, such as Ned Kelly, which make it easy to pin the story down. Even the Melbourne Cup is attended, so any Australian would know that it is the first Tuesday of November. I really like that kind of detail in a book, especially when it’s set in a place I’m familiar with. The 1880 Melbourne Exhibition also takes a starring role, opening the girl’s eyes to the wonders the outside world can offer.

I liked the questioning of conventional religious thought, especially after having just read North and South, which also discussed religion as a key theme. They had quite different views, though both show people who do question authority and religion in a positive light. Sexual and gender politics are also explicitly dealt with, and Cambridge shows how jarring and strange those social rules are for a person who never had to adhere to them… It definitely showed the silliness of some of their social norms.

The narrator was quite funny at times, cutting in and embellishing the story. Sometimes I did want the explicit details they said we didn’t need, which was disappointing, but most of the time they were a good narrator to follow. But overall, the narrative intrusions were amusing and stopped the story from being too sickly sweet.

I’d recommend this for anyone who liked Victorian literature (either the state or the era- this book has both!) and those who like Classic women’s literature. It is a really interesting comedy of manners and class distinctions, which I found rather impressing. I’m gong to be keeping an eye out for Cambridge’s other books in the future, and I do hope this novel gets noticed a bit more in the future. It’s definitely up there with the best of Australian men’s writing for it’s era, and does truly deserve the recognition.

4/5 stars.

October In Review

This October was my first month of freedom since beginning Semester 1 of university in February last year, so I’ve gone a bit crazy in the book department. I’ve read a fair few books, and had a fantastic month in general, so I’m a very happy lady right now!

I got engaged!! That was a nice surprise! I’m a very lucky and very happy woman indeed.

This month, I’ve read:

Affinity by Sarah Waters (***1/2)… which has spurred me on to pick up Fingersmith as my next read.2015-10-05 14.30.14

Names for the Sea by Sara Moss (***)

The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger (**1/2) …which I STILL haven’t decided what my opinion really is about it!)

Summer Crossing by Truman Capote (**1/2)

North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell (*****)

Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day by Winifred Watson (*****)

The Lake House by Kate Morton (*****)

The Three Miss Kings by Ada Cambridge (****)

Lots of quite high rated books, with the latter half of the month being packed full of winners for me! I still haven’t quite got my head out of North and South, and The Lake House was so exciting that I feel I have a bit of whiplash going on from it. I did expect to read more books, but with work, medication changes making me sleep a lot, general laziness, plus a holiday AND an engagement to announce (seriously, no one told me that would be so stressful… thank god for The Lake House and the off button on my phone!), it just didn’t happen. In my defence, those were all pretty time consuming, and a few of the books were very lengthy, with several being over 500 pages long.2015-10-18 19.11.21

I’ve also been plodding through Les Miserables, which makes me feel rather miserables myself. I believe I’m at the 300 page mark at present. Whoever designed my copy ought to be taken out and shot, because bible paper and a size 8 font do not bode well for a comfortable reading experience. Generally, I can read in bed without my glasses, but not with that beast, oh no! It’s glasses, a bookmark in my hand to mark my line as I go, and another stuck in the back for the endnotes to help me with my non-existent French knowledge, a pen in my hand and preferably an assistant/slave to fan me as I go.

I did mean to read Rush Oh! by Shirley Barrett, but it had a terrible water bottle accident and I fear it will prove to be unreadable in the end, despite my best efforts. I’ll have to find myself a new copy, as the book looks lovely! I did see two real whales, a mother and calf swimming south to Antarctica the day after that accident, so perhaps that will make up for the delay in reading the novel for now. They’re astonishingly big, somehow bigger than I expected, even the baby!

I bought a ton of books, which is pretty much a given, really. Most were second hand, and made me very, very excited. Some of the stand outs were first edition copies of The Walls Do Not Fall  and Tribute to the Angels by H.D. in almost perfect condition, as well 2015-10-17 17.08.35
as a clean copy of Bid Me to Live by H.D. (i.e. not annotated by yours truly… this was an effort and a half to find under $60, but find it I did!). I also found old Penguin paperbacks of a stack of Monica Dickens’ books, Tea With Mr Rochester by Frances Towers (currently published by Persephone) and some Daphne Du Maurier books that I didn’t already have. I also got a few more books by and about Virginia Woolf, and some more of my darling Rebecca West.

I’m looking forward to reading lots in November, and right now I think at least one of the books will be The Silkworm by Robert Galbraith, since it’s almost a year since I read The Cuckoo’s Calling and her newest book, Career of Evil was released in October. I won’t be buying it as yet, as I want all my editions to be in the fame format, because I’m picky like that. I’m also looking forward to reading Greenery Street by Dennis Mackail and possibly something by Monica Dickens, with maybe a Du Maurier thrown in for good measure. We shall see.

My blog has been getting a lot of love recently, so thank you to all my new followers for coming on board! It’s recently occurred to me how much I can’t believe that a little thing I started, not really believing it would go anywhere (or that I would stick to it, for that matter) has actually begun to get noticed! I’m so thankful to all of you, especially those who have been with me for the ride- you know who you are!

Hope you all have a lovely month, and I’ll see you in my next post!

Review: The Lake House by Kate Morton

A missing child.

June 1933, and the Edevane family’s country house, Loeanneth, is polished and gleaming, ready for the much-anticipated Midsummer Eve party. Alice Edevane, sixteen years old and a budding writer, is especially excited. Not only has she worked out the perfect twist for her novel, she’s also fallen helplessly in love with someone she shouldn’t have. But by the time midnight strikes and fireworks light up the night skies, the Edevane family will have suffered a loss so great that they leave Loeanneth forever.

An abandoned house.

Seventy years later, after a particularly troubling case, Sadie Sparrow is sent on an enforced break from her job with the Metropolitan Police. She retreats to her beloved grandfather’s cottage in Cornwall but soon finds herself at a loose end. Until one day, Sadie stumbles upon an abandoned house surrounded by overgrown gardens and dense woods, and learns the story of a baby boy who disappeared without a trace.

An unsolved mystery.

Meanwhile, in the attic writing room of her elegant Hampstead home, the formidable Alice Edevane, now an old lady, leads a life as neatly plotted as the bestselling detective novels she writes. Until a young police detective starts asking questions about her family’s past, seeking to resurrect the complex tangle of secrets Alice has spent her life trying to escape.

I just cried my little heart out over this book, handed it to my mother in law and said “Drop what you’re doing and read it”… which she promptly did. I’m thinking of beginning a new book tonight to avoid getting a serious book hangover… I’ve lived and breathed this book for a few days now, thinking about it constantly, riddling it all out in my head. I eventually did come to the right conclusion, but only just before the characters did, and with many red herrings along the way. My fiancèe said to me last night as I was buried in the book, “I can see I’ve become second fiddle to Kate Morton…”

My initial thoughts and feelings on the book can be found here.

This is the most “mysterious” of Kate Morton’s books, only for the fact it has a police officer following up on the case. It gave me a kind of Rivers of London vibe, but mostly because of the setting and because I liked Sadie so much. I was very pleased to discover that she takes her tea the same way as me: milk and one sugar. I saw quite a bit of myself in Sadie, which made me very, very fond of her. She solved the mystery and stuck to her principles, honouring her gut feelings the whole time. I was pleased with the final moments of the novel, as so many things that I’d hoped for came true. Alice was a perfectly terrifying character, though I do with Peter was slightly more developed, because I really did like him and wanted to know more about him.

Morton is a master of place, making you feel as if you’ve been picked up and dropped into the setting. Cornwall is her specialty; in fact, all kinds of wild, windy places in England have been drawn perfectly by Morton’s loving hand. I do hope she’ll set a book in Australia at some point, but for now England is a good spot for her lovely mysteries. The scenes switch seamlessly between London and Cornwall, and between 1933 to 2003, and from character to character, who each had their own distinctive voice and perspective on the novel’s events.

The book didn’t have as much of a romance edge as her previous novels do, particularly for the modern characters (though it isn’t entirely missing) which I quite liked. It didn’t feel as obvious to me this time, which is a huge improvement on The Distant Hours, which I was very disappointed in. I kind of felt the mystery’s solution was slightly too coincidental, but the clues were there from the get go to set it up, just very cleverly hidden, though I have read that some people were unsatisfied with it.

In response to more criticisms, yes… I believe Morton can’t keep recycling her “formula” forever, because sometimes it works, and sometimes it falls disastrously flat. She’s at risk of becoming too predictable, but for me, this book wasn’t so. She’s tried her hand at the police procedural mystery here, but with her own twist, which she hasn’t done before. As for Morton being “fluff”, as she has been repeatedly described, I beg to differ. Just because something is written to be entertaining and enjoyable, and is written by a woman- because all too frequently, that label is attached to female writers, regardless of their content- doesn’t mean it isn’t good and people should feel guilty about reading it. Tight plotting, a hell of a lot of research and great characterisation and setting went into this book, and shouldn’t be ignored.

I thoroughly enjoyed the latest Kate Morton offering, and can almost forgive her for making me wait 3 years to get it! Now, I must endure the waiting game for a new book once again… or maybe I should go back and re-read some of the ones that are a bit blurry in my memory, like The Secret Keeper.

5/5 and Leo!

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#AusReadingMonth Sign Up

I’ve been hunting down some Australian novels by colonial women for the past couple of weeks, because I want to:

a) Read more 19th century fiction from my own country; and,

b) Review more Australian women’s classics for the Classic Club’s woman’s classic event, to counteract the amount of European and North American women who will be reviewed. The Australian ladies need (LOTS!) more love!

In my search, I picked up The Fortunes of Richard Mahony by Henry Handel Richardson, aka. Ethel Florence Richardson. I’m dreadful and never realised that she was a woman until very recently, though I’d purchased The Getting of Wisdom earlier this year!

I bought a darling (okay, it’s pretty ugly, but it was the cheaper of two editions. It does smell good though!) copy of Richard Mahony from Lamda Books in the beautiful Blue Mountains, for a very nice price, which includes the three books in the trilogy.

Ada Cambridge

It follows that perhaps I should read and review the book next month, as Brona’s Books is holding a readalong. I may not finish all three, because let’s face it, I want to read other books too, and that thing is a beast. I do intend to review at least one of the three books!

I’m not sure what other books I’ll pick up for this challenge, but I have a good assortment.

I’m also currently reading The Three Miss Kings by Ada Cambridge, who migrated to Australia from England in 1870. I’m really enjoying it thus far, but I’m finding the poor girls’ lack of social knowledge a bit cringeworthy, I must admit! The Bingham sisters would be appalled, though I’d much rather be one of the King girls!