Jennifer McDonald

Crime with a sense of place - by Jennifer McDonald

Our CEO Jennifer McDonald reflects on crime fiction and sense of place ahead of exciting events with acclaimed crime writer Dorothy Johnston this week.  This much I know - books take me places in my head, and I never have to leave my armchair or get up from my bed to arrive there. So much the better if the book I’m reading is a crime novel. I not only become intimately acquainted with the look and feel of a location, I get a glimpse of its darker underside as well. This is where I experience that strange combo of intrigue’s thrill while doing nothing more dangerous that sipping hot tea as I turn the pages.

It seems to me that crime novels in particular derive maximum benefit from the locations in which they are set - the more placid and benign-looking the location, the greater the import and impact of the crime.

Dorothy Johnston is an author who clearly understands this. She well remembers the blank stares and raised eyebrows that greeted the announcement that she was writing a series of crime novels (the Sandra Mahoney Quartet) set in Canberra of all places. In answer to those funny looks, Dorothy would quote another Canberra cohort and novelist, Margaret Innes who, with a nod in the direction of Joseph Conrad said, ‘You don’t have to go all the way to Africa to find the heart of darkness. It may be at the end of your street.’

The same could no doubt be said about Dorothy’s ‘sea change mystery’ novels set in the seemingly placid seaside town of Queenscliff on the Bellarine Peninsula. Her sentiments on this made it onto the back cover of Through a Camel’s Eye, the first in the series, and a novel that ‘juxtaposes the idyllic surroundings of a coastal Victorian town with the gravity of murder’.

The second book in the series – The Swan Island Connection – goes even further to expose the murky underbelly of its quaint seaside setting. A shocking murder rocks the town and  the two local cops who preside over it – Constable Chris Blackie and his deputy, Anthea Merritt. They expect the investigation to be directed by detectives from the larger centre of Geelong, but are blindsided by the interest shown in the case by shadowy figures from the secret military training base that’s operated on Swan Island off the coast of Queenscliff for decades.

2017-10-07 12.25.35Use of the word ‘secret’ here is at best a misnomer and at worst an outright untruth – the locals have known since the year dot that Swan Island has been used for training spies. Last October when The Swan Island Connection was launched in Queenscliff I got a snap of Dorothy standing next to the well-fortified gate to the bridge connecting the island to the mainland, bearing a sign that says anything but clandestine.

The ‘gravity of murder’ set in a place as lovely as Queenscliff is further enhanced by the sheer ordinariness of the local police-people, where their work would normally comprise minor traffic infringements and dealing with the occasional Saturday night drunk. But when confronted with murder Chris and Anthea prove themselves anything but ordinary in the investigative stakes. Indeed, their knowledge of the town and the eclectic personalities among its permanent residents, are always the key factors in resolving the case.

20180319 - death-of-a-gossip This charming-yet-alarming coupling of benign locations and local cops who are normal human beings, with crimes like murder, reminds me of M.C. Beaton’s Hamish Macbeth series, set in the fictional west coast Scottish town of Lochdubh. Like Chris and Anthea, Constable Hamish Macbeth is a canny character whose knowledge of the town and its people is instrumental in solving murders that occur with staggering regularity in the area.  There are upwards of 30 books in the series, all with death in the title and all belying the sleepy surroundings of rural Scotland in which they are set.

In a 2017 Sisters In Crime article entitled Sea Change or Tree Change? Negotiating the Scene of the Crime, Dorothy Johnston says, ‘I believe in using real place names and real historical and contemporary settings for my books. I think this gives my stories an authenticity they wouldn’t have if I invented places.’

Whether the location of a murder is real in the case of Johnston’s Queenscliff, or fictional in the case of Beaton’s Lochdubh, the original contention still holds. When it comes to writing (or reading) crime fiction, the sleepier the place in which the book is set the better!

Red Sparrow - A Film and Book Review by Jennifer McDonald

Be the first to comment on this blog and we’ll send you Jen’s ‘one owner – low mileage’ print copy of Red SparrowHonestly, boring and predictable wasn’t quite the look I was going for with this blogpost, but it has to be said - the book Red Sparrow by Jason Matthews is so much better than the film version starring Jennifer Lawrence and Joel Edgerton.

This film story of Dominika Egorova, a Bolshoi prima ballerina whose career is cut short by a horrific physical injury that’s not an accident. As the Bolshoi foots the bill for the apartment Dominika shares with her sick mother, and because Dominika can no longer dance for said ballet company, the two are about to become destitute when Dominika’s Uncle Vanya steps in. A high ranking official in the Russian spy bureaucracy, Vanya coerces his niece into Sparrow School where intelligence agents are trained, in the most sadistic and humiliating ways, in the art of ‘sexpionage’. (Just as an aside here, Charlotte Rampling plays the sadistic principal of this Dominika-described ‘whore school’ to a spine-chilling tee.) From there Dominika is sent to Budapest to become acquainted with CIA agent, Nate Nash (Joel Edgerton) who the Russian’s suspect is the handler of mole buried deep within their ranks.

The film gets a thorough bollocking from Luke Buckmaster in the Daily Review  who calls it ‘idealistically shallow’ and ‘intellectually putrid’. That’s certainly an eye-catching headline and one I’m not sure I agree with in total, but he does make some valid points. My vote for best quote in Buckmaster’s review is, “…maybe there is a bluff going on, or a double bluff, or a bluff of a double bluff. Boy, have we seen this movie before – usually with a modicum of chemistry between the two leads.” Ouch.

Kevin Fallon in the Daily Beast takes a slightly less pointy-ended approach in his March 1 article, questioning how it is Jennifer Lawrence is such a good actor when her films are so terrible.

I’m not a fan of overly graphic films. I guess that’s why I prefer books and loathe anything Quentin Tarantino. And while I’m not squeamish about blood and gore, I can’t un-see or un-hear the human responses to torture – and there’s a lot of physical, mental and emotional torture in the Red Sparrow movie.  While a number of those scenes are derived from Jason Matthews’ book, I’d go as far as to say they are gratuitous at best and downright grotesque at worst.

As is always the case with book-to-movie transitions certain scenes are merely embellished and others are fabricated to enhance the dramatic effect.  Unfortunately, the embellishments, fabrications and story changes in the movie version of Red Sparrow only serve to deplete any empathy the viewer might have developed for poor Dominika, a victim of an arcane, brutal, patriarchal system if ever there was one.  In his previously mentioned review Mr Buckmaster describes Jennifer Lawrence’s Dominika as having an ‘eat-puppies-for-breakfast demeanour’. Ouch again and not entirely undeserved.

20180304 - Red-Sparrow BooktopiaThere is one scene early in the films that puts exclamation marks after this stark observation!! Remember how I told you Dominika’s ballet injury is not an accident?  Well, in both the book and the movie she is deliberately injured by her dance partner at the behest of his lover, another Bolshoi dancer who’d missed out on the prima ballerina role. When Dominika discovers her career-ending injury had been contrived, she sets her mind to exacting revenge.  Here’s where the book and the movie versions diverge.

In the book, the reader is made aware of the fact that the Bolshoi company strictly forbids its dancers from engaging in any type of extra-curricular relations. Dominika cleverly sets the lovers up to be discovered by a Bolshoi manager, which in turn leads to their expulsion from the company. She muses afterwards how little it took to ruin the lives of these two dancers, and how little remorse she felt for it.

However, in the movie there’s nothing clever about Dominika’s revenge – she bursts in on the lovers mid-coitus and beats the crap out of them with the walking stick she’s using during her own recovery. Any contextualisation of this act of unfettered violence (which, like many others in this movie, was overly graphic and drawn out) is confined to a moment when Dominika notices that the handle of her cane is covered in blood.

For my money, this is the starkest and the saddest example of how the movie fails to portray the complicated essence and motivations of our heroine/anti-heroine.

Clearly, there’s vastly more opportunity for nuance and context in Red Sparrow’s 547 print pages than in the movie even if the latter is two hours and 19 minutes long. In a bid to justify my boring-but-truthful ‘the book’s better’ opening comment I’d like to spend the last few paragraphs of this blogpost telling you why.

Red Sparrow’s author Jason Matthews is a retired officer in the CIA’s former Operations Directorate, now known as the oddly poetic-sounding National Clandestine Service.  As one might expect, the book’s descriptions of international intelligence gathering and espionage ‘tradecraft’ are detailed and compelling. Unsurprisingly, the book reeks of authenticity from start to finish. What did surprise me however, is the humanising and at times, amusing manner in which the book is written.

Don’t misunderstand me - there’s plenty of detailed descriptions of bloodlust, sexual violence and torture in Red Sparrow, but there are surprising moments of lightness and quirkiness too. A Russian operative ‘handling’ a high-maintenance US government mole in Washington fantasises about the good old days when informants who caused trouble where simply despatched in ‘accidental’ circumstances.

Or when our American spy, Nate Nash, apologises to our Russian spy, Dominika Egorova for inviting her to meet at an Afgan restaurant. ‘I was worried you would think I was being provocative,’ he said, to which she responds, ‘I do not think you are provocative.  You are an American, you cannot help yourself.’ But by far the quirkiest and most delightful thing about Red Sparrow (if one can call a spy thriller ‘delightful’) are the recipes that appear at the end of each chapter.  Yes, you heard right – recipes for something that has been consumed by one or more characters during the chapter.  ‘Blinis served at Vassily Egorova’s (Dominika’s father’s) wake’ appears at the end of Chapter 3. ‘MARBLE’s Rustic Tomato Pasta Sauce’ cooked in his own apartment no less, appears at the end of Chapter 30.

Once I got over the weirdness of seeing recipes in a spy novel, I realised how clever Matthews was to include them.  When all’s said and done, spies are still human beings who eat, drink, think and feel, despite their rigorous training and the daily skulduggery of their work. Humanising them in this way opened the door to a more thorough exploration of the characters’ underpinning beliefs and motivations for doing the shadowy, dangerous work they do.

Sheer genius in my opinion, and a pity this level of context and nuance didn’t have a hope of making it to the big screen.





Why For Pity Sake?

By Jennifer McDonald, our CEO and Founder. During 2017, I’ve had the privilege of launching three books – As the Lonely Fly by Sara Dowse, The Swan Island Connection by Dorothy Johnston and The Last Double Sunrise by Peter Yeldham.

Each of these authors have previously been published by larger and more established players and when I’ve fronted launch events as principal of a nascent, indie publishing outfit, I usually get asked two questions - ‘Why the name For Pity Sake?’ and ‘Why go into publishing now when the industry is so disrupted and uncertain?’

The answer to question one is easy - I blame my dad, Keith McDonald, an Australian media executive of some note who begat four lively, headstrong daughters.  He exclaimed ‘For pity sake!’ liberally on all manner of occasions while I was growing up, anything from spending too long on the telephone to crunching the gears during a driving lesson.

Keith McDonald cropDad was also a dyed-in-the-wool numbers man who started his long career in newspapers as a finance writer.  And while numbers dominated his working life, he retained an abiding love for elegant words, artfully strung together. Bedtime stories read by Dad were a fixture of my childhood as is the memory of him occupying his favourite chair in the lounge room, a pile of books and magazines on a side table, his head buried in The Economist. The way Dad peered over his spectacles at you when looking up from whatever he was reading is an image we’ve captured in our book stamp, affectionately referred to as ‘Keith’. You can read more about my wonderful father here in one of the first blogposts on, dated 26 November 2014.

The second question about starting a publishing enterprise in an industry (and a world) where disruption is now the norm is a bit harder to answer.  Truth is, I only started For Pity Sake to publish my own stuff because I’m a coward and couldn’t face the inevitable rejections from traditional publishers. Weirdly though, as soon as the shingle was hung, previously published authors of no small notoriety started crossing my path.  While the eventual publication of these worthy writers’ works has come with its fair share of commercial challenges (read more about this here), I’ve never once gotten the message from the Universe that this is the wrong thing to be doing.

As a commercial boffin of newspaper publishing, my Dad may have questioned the financial motivations behind establishing a publishing company in such uncertain times. However, I believe he would have heartily approved of the books we’ve published to date in various formats (print, ebook and audio), the authors we support, and indeed, the notion that there’s no greater joy in this world than abandoning oneself to a good read. For pity sake!

Compliments of the season from all of us here at For Pity Sake Publishing. Let’s do it all again in 2018.

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'The Tales of Beedle the Bard' - Review

A short story by any other name simply has to be a tale, cautionary or otherwise.  That’s why I’ve chosen a collection of ‘tales’ to review in honour of For Pity Sake Publishing’s current creative writing competition for short stories and poetry. That and the fact that 2017 marks 20 years of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter phenomenon.

I’d hardly classify myself as a Harry Potter devotee. I never drew a lightning-shaped scar on my forehead, changed the frames of my glasses to nerdy round, nor joined the queue at the local bookstore on the day new additions to the series were released.

But I was certainly reeled into the franchise hook, line and sinker. I didn’t want the series to end with Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, I wanted the magic, quite literally, to continue.

J.K. Rowling truly is a marketing wizard. For all the people out there  like me, (and I suspect there are more than a few) she’s produced, or had a hand in producing, fabulous little offshoots to the main Harry Potter series, such as Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them and most recently, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. The former poses as an official Hogwarts text book and the latter is the script of a West End theatre production.

And while none of the offshoot offerings are substitutes for an eighth book in the Harry Potter series, The Tales of Beedle the Bard comes closest to keeping the magic alive in my view.

There are five tales in the compilation – The Wizard and the Hopping Pot, The Fountain of Fair Fortune, The Warlock’s Hairy Heart, Babbity Rabbity and Her Cackling Stump and the most famous story of all, The Tale of the Three Brothers, the ultimate cautionary tale expounded in the last book in the series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.

The Tales of Beedle the Bard presents in every way like a real-world short story collection complete with explorations of each tale by none other than Professor Albus Dumbledore (headmaster of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry) written some eighteen months prior to his untimely demise in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince.

Hermione Grainger, one of Harry Potter’s closest cohorts and widely credited as being ‘the brightest witch of her age’, gets a nod for her translation of the tales from the original Ancient Runes.

But it is J.K. Rowling’s own introduction to the collection that seals the magical contract, so to speak.  The author never once concedes the smallest amount of territory to the notion that a secret wizarding parallel universe is, indeed, a fantasy.  She stays completely in character, referring to Dumbledore as if he actually existed and even footnoting some of his observations throughout the collection in order to make the deeper wizarding concepts clearer to Muggles or non-magic folk.

Rowling also deftly describes two key differences between Beedle the Bard’s tales, read to wizarding children for centuries, and the fairy tales of the Muggle realm. The first and most prominent of these is that magic isn’t a panacea for the trials and tribulations of everyday life. Witches and wizards have as many problems as Muggle women and men and, it could even be argued, that the application of magic to ordinary life-problems exacerbates them in surprising and often gruesome ways.

The second difference is a more feminist one. Rowling compares the inert female heroines of Muggle fairy stories (think Cinderella or Snow White who need to be saved by a handsome prince) to the witches in Beadle’s tales who are generally more self-directed, even ingenious, in their quests to solve their problems. It’s an interesting take and one that’s the prerogative of the female author to articulate. And yet I suspect it’s real purpose is to further underpin the whole scrupulously constructed concept that there really is a magical realm operating in parallel to the one we mere Muggles currently know.

Which reminds me of the exchange between Harry and the now deceased Dumbledore ‘in the beyond’ in the final chapters of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.  The place where these two meet resembles Kings Cross Station only much cleaner, as Harry himself observes, and filled with heavenly white light.

Harry says, “Tell me one last thing. Is this real? Or has this been happening inside my head?"

To which Dumbledore replies, "Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?” (Relive the movie moment here.)

Way to keep the magic alive, J.K. Rowling!

Get your copy from Booktopia:


Writing a Big Breast Adventure

I guess you could say I come from a family of writers.  My dad started his career as a finance journalist and one of my sisters is a sports writer for The Australian. Both my older sister and I married journalists and our younger sister is the author of several academic works.

Writing is writ large in our family, so to speak. I’ve have made a career out of it as a public relations practitioner for almost 30 years, but never in my wildest dreams did I think writing would actually save my life.

On Tuesday December 17th  2013 I was diagnosed with an infiltrating lobular carcinoma in my left breast.  Up until that moment I’d thought I was pretty in tune with my body, but this was a bolt from the blue. There’s no breast cancer in my family. I have three sisters, two older and one younger, none of whom have been diagnosed with anything more than an easily dispatched colorectal polyp. This prompted my son, 13 at the time, to ask the aunt who looked after him while I was in surgery, “Why did it have to be my mum?” Why indeed.

In a bid to make sense of the what was happening to me I started writing a series of blogposts entitled My Big Breast Adventure while undergoing (if you’ll pardon the expression) the ‘pointy-end’ of treatment throughout 2014 and 2015.

There were 32 posts during this time and while I didn’t set out to deliberately shock, some of the headlines were a bit provocative, including Cut, Poison, Burn and Laugh, Dying and Other Inconveniences and What the FEC? the latter in honour of the acronym given to the chemo cocktail many breast cancer sufferers are forced to endure. It stands for Fluorouracil (also known in oncology circles as 5FU – yes, you heard right), Epirubicin and Cyclophosphamide – FEC for short. Who knew oncologists had a sense of humour?

I confess, my reasons for blogging while going through treatment were purely selfish. I was trying to rationalise the tremendous shock of becoming a cancer patient, while finding a way to keep my tribe informed about my progress. I literally didn’t have the energy to return all the wonderful phone calls, texts and emails I received at the time.

At first my posts attracted the kinds of comments one might expect – messages of love and support in the main. But as I progressed people started relating my musings on this ‘adventure’ to things they were going through in their own lives – an acrimonious divorce, the death of a parent, a crisis at work.

While the blogs were a fantastic form of personal therapy, the comments and reactions from readers provided the greatest healing of all.

And now the whole shebang is available as a book entitled My Big Breast Adventure or How I Found the Dalai Lama in My Letterbox. I, for one, hope that many more people might be helped by hearing my story.

And if you would like to secure your very own copy, For Pit Sake Publishing will be offering a 10% discount to anyone who uses the coupon code 'WRITING' at the checkout in the For Pity Sake online shop.

Breast Regards.

'The Circle' - Review

There’s a one-word endorsement from The Times on the front cover of The Circle by Dave Eggers – ‘Unputdownable’. Aside from my lack of surety that unputdownable is even a word, my reaction to this pithy assessment is binary – yes-no, one-zero, agree-disagree - which is pretty funny given The Circle’s subject matter.

In Eggers’ fictional yet just-over-the-horizon world, the Circle is the largest and most pervasive internet company on the planet headquartered in an impressive, manicured and ordered city-state-style campus near San Francisco. Think Mountain View, Menlo Park or Cupertino and you’d be very warm.

Anyone with a mobile phone anywhere in the world with wi-fi (and that’s everywhere it seems) has a Circle TruYou account which is so much more than a social media platform.  TruYou aggregates all of a person’s online presences and transactions into one – one identity, one profile, one password, one set of ubiquitous and free online tools – everything one needs to negotiate (and be tracked) in this brave new perpetually online, uber-connected and algorithmed-beyond-all-reason world.

As Mae Holland, the main protagonist in the story says of the Circle, ‘It’s the chaos of the web made elegant’, that and virtually compulsory. Add to this equation another Circle innovation - SeeChange cameras that are tiny, cheap, easily installed and always connected - and the Circle’s corporate push to have all elected officials wear one of these for complete transparency.  Not too far into the book the cult-like, ubiquitous, ‘all that happens must be known’ credo of this Circle-world starts to come into unsettling focus.

Helped by her college friend Annie, Mae lands the job of her dreams at the Circle declaring ‘it’s heaven’ the first time she walks onto the campus. Pretty soon she never wants to leave the campus which really is a world of its own, specifically designed to encourage/coerce ‘Circlers’ to stay inside its gates with free food, curated events every night and on weekends, a myriad of social interest clubs and support groups, and even dormitory accommodation.

It’s here, while Mae undergoes orientation to her new place of work, that my binary reactions to this book’s ‘unputdownable’ claim started bubbling up. Actually, saying I agree/disagree with unputdownable is too clean-cut.  My reactions to three particular events in the early part of the book are better described as ‘don’t want to watch but can’t look away’.

The first time this happens is when Mae attends a ‘Dream Friday’ session where Eamon Bailey, one of the Circle’s so-called ‘three wise men’, demonstrates SeeChange cameras. During the presentation Bailey shows footage from Cairo where several dissidents have placed cameras along the route of a protest rally.  Bailey exhorts the congregation of eager Circlers to imagine the possibilities for enhanced democracy and human rights when these always-on cameras broadcast everything to the world.  No longer will riot police deployed by oppressive regimes be able to drag activists down dark alleys to administer rough justice without witness or impunity. The assembled Circlers roar their approval as the mantra of ALL THAT HAPPENS MUST BE KNOWN appears on the screen.

Then the scene switches to something a little closer to home. With one-click Circlers see Bailey’s own elderly mother padding down a hallway in her house wearing nothing but a towel.  To a chorus of laughter Bailey freely admits that he placed SeeChange devices throughout his mother’s home without her knowledge because, “she wouldn’t have let me do it otherwise”. Any privacy or outright creep-factor concerns are far outweighed by the benefits of Bailey being able to ‘keep an eye’ on his increasingly frail mother who lives alone. The assembled wholeheartedly agree.

The second time my can’t-watch/can’t-look-away reaction popped up is when Mae is sent for a routine health check as part of her orientation. Her assigned doctor is already in possession of Mae’s medical records and is already aware that her father suffers from multiple sclerosis. Mae is asked to drink what looks like a wheatgrass smoothie and after she’s drained the glass, the doctor informs her that she’s just swallowed a sensor that tracks and analyses her vital signs. The data is visible to Mae via a bracelet monitor which she wears all the time and, naturally, that real-time data is also received and stored on the Circle medical centre’s database. Spooky doesn’t quite cover it.

The third time something like this happened while I was reading The Circle I almost disproved the theory that the book is unputdownable.  I felt actual physical discomfort when, not too long into her new job, Mae gets a visit from Denise and Josiah from HR to ‘counsel’ her on lack of input to the social media life of the Circle.  D and J know Mae went off-campus at 5.42pm the previous Friday and did not return until 8.46am on Monday morning. Mae’s father had had a turn and, understandably, she’d headed home to help her mother deal with the situation. Over that weekend, however, Mae missed a couple of on-campus events but worse than that, her Circle social media feeds had gone dark.

Under the guise of caring for Mae and her family’s welfare, Denise and Josiah explain that while social media activity is not a pre-requisite of employment at the Circle, it is, nonetheless, an important measure of a Circler’s commitment to the job.  Mae is sure she’s about to be fired but saves the day by quickly acquiescing to the assertion that she’s been incredibly selfish, causing worry and hurt to her Circle-family by not sharing her every waking moment both on and off campus.

For someone who regularly ditches the always-on demands of social media in favour of actual work or home duties liking washing clothes and cooking meals, Mae’s exchange with the HR drones made my flesh crawl.

And it gets worse from there. Before long Mae’s life within the Circle extends outside her place of work to invade and inveigle the lives of her parents and her old boyfriend, Mercer, with creepy, voyeuristic and ultimately tragic consequences.

And it’s here we see the stark juxtaposition between those inside the Circle, like Mae, Annie and several thousand other Kool-Aid drinking ‘Circlers’; and those on the outside, desperately trying to get in or trying desperately to avoid being sucked into the Circle’s all-encompassing, global connectedness, ‘all that happens must be known’ vortex.

In the wash-up, however, I guess I’m more often in the agree camp than not in relation to The Times’ claim that The Circle is ‘unputdownable’.  It is eminently so due undeniably to the way in which Dave Eggers has written it. The book is an intricately detailed, inexorable march of a story overlaid with blink-and-you’ll-miss-something compulsion. A bit like a Twitter feed in fact.

The Circle is not so much a cautionary tale for our times but a billboard on a busy highway screaming THIS IS ALREADY HAPPENING!

The Circle movie, directed by James Ponstold, starring Emma Watson, Tom Hanks and Karen Gillan, has just been released in Australia.


Click on the cover image to buy your copy of the book from Booktopia.

'My Cousin Rachel' - Review

Daphne du Maurier’s My Cousin Rachel could quite rightfully be described as a genre-buster. Don’t let the Bronte-esque style of the writing and the stitched-up 19th Century setting fool you into thinking this is another handsome yet turgid English period piece. My Cousin Rachel is, all at once, a work of literature, a mystery-thriller, a romance-tragedy, as well as being quite the feminist observation of the patriarchal mores of the time and place in which it is set.

In 1951 when the book was first published, and even today, genre-busters present a dilemma when it comes to ease of categorisation.  Unfortunately, by labelling a book with a one word descriptor as to its ‘genre’, a pigeon-holing quite often occurs. While commercially successful, two of du Maurier’s previous works, Jamaica Inn and Rebecca, had been consigned to the category of romance or ‘women’s fiction’, a term that many critics at the time used as little more than a slur. My Cousin Rachel managed to transcend that relegation, albeit very slightly, when The Guardian described it as ‘a consummate piece of story-telling’ at the time of its release.  Well, by God, it is so much more than that.

If I were in charge of choosing the genre with which to tag My Cousin Rachel, I’d definitely go for ‘mystery-thriller’ because that is my abiding impression.  And it is a mystery novel in every sense of the word, from the gothic literary tone at the very start of the book (a bit reminiscent of Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw) to the tightness of the twisting plot and the dropped-in clues along the way that exquisitely enhance the sense of foreboding. The book’s ending is not so such much a door closing on an intricate drama but another door opening onto a dark room of vexing and conflicting presumptions.

Sadly, as a mystery-thriller, it’s difficult for me to provide you with a plot line here that will inform but not spoil the experience of reading the book nor seeing the recently released movie.  But I shall do my very best.

Philip Ashley (played by Sam Claflin in the film) was orphaned at a young age and brought up by his cousin Ambrose, a wealthy Cornish landowner.  Philip grows up in a world almost completely devoid of women. Ambrose has never married, nor seen the need for it; there are no women servants because the butler believes they bring trouble, and the only females in the household, by Philip’s own admission, are dogs.

Philip loves Ambrose as a father and Ambrose loves and trusts Philip as his own son and sole heir. When Ambrose is forced to travel to warmer, Italian climes due to his health, the pain of separation is palpable for them both. This quickly turns to jealousy when Philip learns via letter that Ambrose has married their distant, recently widowed cousin Rachel (played by Rachel Weisz), who has lived in Italy her whole life. Soon after the nuptials, however, Ambrose’s letters become infrequent and increasingly troubling. Alarmed, Philip travels to Florence, only to learn that Ambrose has died while he was in transit, and his widow has vanished with all of Ambrose’s belongings.

Grief-stricken and very suspicious as to the nature of Ambrose’s death, Philip returns home to Cornwall where he is now the master of the estate, although he is not due to come into his inheritance until his twenty-fifth birthday some months hence. All returns to normal until Philip’s godfather Nick Kendall (played by Iain Glen) is informed by Rachel that she has arrived in England with the intention of visiting the Ashley estate. Having built his cousin Rachel up in his mind as some sort of ugly, conniving and possibly murderous character, Philip is taken aback by the beautiful, cultured and gracious woman that appears at his door. He’s even more surprised at the beguiling effect she has on the servants and, indeed, anyone, male or female, with whom she comes into contact.

The just released movie of My Cousin Rachel is a very fair representation of the story of the novel, so I suppose it is possible to see the film and not bother reading the book.  I’ve done that many times myself when I think a book won’t suit my reading taste and I just want to get the gist of the story.  However, in the case of My Cousin Rachel and despite the film production’s aplomb, I would strongly urge you not to eschew reading the original text.

While highly enjoyable, the film version of My Cousin Rachel doesn’t quite do the mystery-thriller genre of the book justice. As always happens in screen adaptations of books, certain plot trajectories and intricacies must be changed, distilled or dispensed with for reasons of condensed viewing time.  The trick here for the screenwriter is to take care over which plot intricacies to change, distill or dispense with, or indeed what to add in to, presumably, make the on-screen ending more complete for the viewer. However, the ‘closure’ afforded by the film version of My Cousin Rachel does not exist in the book, a change that waters down both the intrigue and the tragedy of the story.

Alas, I cannot justify this assertion without revealing too much.  What I can tell you is that My Cousin Rachel is an excellent and compelling read, and the movie a well-cast, beautifully rendered and worthy representation of same.  Whether you see the film without reading the book, or vice versa, you are likely to be on the edge of your seat either way.

My Cousin Rachel is now showing around Australia and I saw it at my favourite cinema, the Hayden Orpheum in Cremorne, Sydney.

My Cousin Rachel - book coverClick here to buy your copy of My Cousin Rachel by Daphne du Maurier from Booktopia.

'A Dog's Purpose' - Review

I got a letter from a dog once. Sammy the Labrador.  Entitled ‘Be Good Not Naughty’, the letter informed me that dog training services were now on offer at a kennel we’d recently booked our own pup into. Sammy extolled the virtues of the training, saying his mum and dad ‘never go mad on me anymore’ because now he’s ‘a good dog, not a naughty one’.  The letter was written completely in Sammy’s voice and to this day, it was the most memorable and effective piece of direct mail I’ve ever received.

Now, picture that letter as a book written entirely in the voice of one dog over four separate incarnations and you’ll get close to the genius that is A Dog’s Purpose.  I say genius although some may describe the writing style as facile and simplistic.  To those people my retort would be ‘cool your literary jets - the narrator is a dog after all’. Any book that manages to make the reader laugh and cry while considering the meaning the life, deserves to be written and read.

A Dog’s Purpose is a wonderful tale (no pun intended) told entirely from a dog’s perspective. But the book doesn’t only dwell in the realm of cute, furry and funny, it goes well beyond that to explore some of life’s biggest questions, ‘why am I here?’, ‘what happens when we die?’ and ‘will there be bacon?’

These questions are explored in all four incarnations of our canine narrator, first as the stray Toby, then as Bailey, Ellie (a girl-dog this time) and finally as Buddy.  Each incarnation imparts certain lessons that build on one another until the denouement when Buddy finally puts together the reason for his serial existence.

A Dog’s Purpose has recently been released as a feature film with the screenplay co-written by the author of the book, W. Bruce Cameron.  I didn’t know that when I saw the film but it makes sense. The movie is also told completely from the pup’s perspective and many of the lines straight from the dog’s mouth (so to speak) are exactly the same as the print version.  That makes for a nice sense of continuity for those who have read the book before seeing the movie while those that haven’t would be none the wiser.

The storyline was mostly the same too with only minor changes for the purposes of distilling a 320 page book into a 100 minute feature film. However, that distillation seems to do away with the book’s subtle yet emphatic daisy-chain of lessons learned by Toby/Bailey/Ellie in their lives, culminating in Buddy’s final awakening about his purpose.  This is a great shame to my way of thinking.

The book gives the reader a strong sense that the experiences of each of these dogs are leading to ‘the big answer’.  As a serial reader of many ‘what’s-it-all-about-Alfie?’ spiritual texts, I recognise that pattern and have come to expect and look forward to it. But this gentle epiphany-ridden journey was not as evident to me as a viewer of the movie version of A Dog’s Purpose, despite the film being very enjoyable.

To me it was another disappointing example of nuance being lost in translation from text to screen. Instead of the slow build experienced by the reader, the viewer ends up being pummelled in the last scene with worthy yet clumsily rendered advice from a dog about the secret of life. ‘Be here now’ is the final message of the film, vastly different from the written word, delivered on screen as if from some guru, albeit a four-legged one.

That heavy-handedness aside, there are many scenes in the book and in the film that are subtly and powerfully portrayed.  One that springs to mind is when our canine narrator observes that humans are very complicated beings. In his own simplistic, doggy way, Bailey implies that humans make things that should be simple, like love, kindness and doing what makes you happy, much more complex than they need to be.  Therein lies the genius of A Dog’s Purpose – that we two-legged types might receive some insight into those big life questions through the eyes of a human’s best friend.

Which reminds me of that old joke - what do you get when you cross an insomniac with an agnostic dyslexic? Someone who lies awake at night wondering if there really is a dog.

a dogs purpose cover

Click here to buy your copy of A Dog’s Purpose by W.Bruce Cameron from Booktopia.

The Zookeeper's Wife

When I first saw the subtle, ethereal cover of The Zookeeper’s Wife with the words ‘A War Story’ set against a small but startling red background, I assumed this was a novel. And if the intriguing cover was anything to go by, I was willing to wager this would be a thumping good read.

There’s nothing I love more than historical fiction novels where I learn through imaginary characters.  As much as the experiences of the make-believe characters are based on actual happenings, the characters themselves are only fictional.  Call me a wimp but this distinction is a great comfort to me when reading war stories, in particular. When the going gets tough for the characters in which I’ve invariably become invested, the left side of my brain can acknowledge the horrors and hardships as being historically factual while my brain’s more emotional right side takes shelter under the blanket defence of ‘it’s just a story’.

No such luck with The Zookeeper’s Wife, I’m afraid.  This is not a novel but an astonishing work of non-fiction by poet and naturalist, Diane Ackerman, acclaimed author of A Natural History of the Senses. This is a painstakingly researched, highly detailed reconstruction of the real story of Antonina Żabiński, wife of Jan Żabiński, instigator and keeper of the celebrated Warsaw Zoo.

Located in urban Warsaw, this zoo was a standout in European ‘city zoos’ because of the diversity of species and the innovative environments in which the animals were housed, mimicking as much as possible their natural habitats. While Jan is the documented zoological brains of the operation, Antonina is surely his willing accomplice, one who possess a ‘shamanistic empathy’ for animals.  In a diary entry quoted in the first chapter of the book, Jan describes his wife as having, ‘…a precise and very special gift, a way of observing and understanding animals that’s rare…a sixth sense.’ As such, Antonina’s talents are much in demand as the zoo nurse - calming the fractious, treating the sick and injured, and most tellingly, nurturing and protecting orphaned animals.

As the story opens, the white villa in the Warsaw Zoo grounds is not only home to Jan, Antonina and their young son Rhyś but to a menagerie of other critters in various states of repair or development. Alas, this harmonious human/animal kingdom existence was short lived. The invasion of Poland by the Germans in September 1939 brought incessant bombing of Warsaw, resulting in the destruction of the zoo and annihilation of the bulk of the animals.

Almost as soon as the war starts, Jan becomes active in the Polish underground while Antonina keeps the home fires burning at the zoo villa. With their unique approach to human and animal co-existence and the villa’s location amongst what remains of the zoo’s customised animal cages – the Żabiński’s managed to hide more than 300 people from the Nazi’s over the course of the war.

Based on diaries, notes, sermons, memoirs and even media interviews with the Żabiński’s and many of their contemporaries, Ackerman tells this amazing drama through Antonina’s eyes, as if she were a character in her own story. Simultaneously, however, Ackerman keeps the reader firmly rooted in facts.

For example, in one paragraph Ackerman writes as if Antonina is a witness, like a character in a fictional work complete with dialogue and personal observations.  Then in the very next paragraph, the author describes a scene as if it is from the pages of a reference text – ‘As Antonina’s eyes travelled the room, she would have seen fixtures popular during the 1930s, a time when Baltic décor ran from Victorian to Art Deco and modernist…’.

This technique certainly demonstrates the author’s extensive command of her subject matter from every conceivable angle, be it detailed botanic descriptions of diverse flora in a forest to the calorie-count of rations based on ethnicity enforced by the German occupiers of Poland.  (In case you’re interested, German people got 2,613 calories a day, Poles 669 and Jews only184.)

The deftly applied technique of juxtaposing novel-like descriptions with reference text detail makes it impossible for the reader to lapse into the more comfortable refuge of fiction. The Zookeeper’s Wife may read like a novel but it is, in fact, a stark, true account of wartime Warsaw and all its horrors.

I loved this book because of this detail and its strong foundation of facts and eye-witness accounts.  That’s not to say it was a comfortable read for me – far from it. It was excruciating to absorb Antonina’s descriptions of the minute-by-minute terror of being discovered sheltering Jews in wartime Poland when, as Ackerman describes in her author’s note, ‘handing a thirsty Jew a cup of water was punishable by death’.

Likewise, Antonina’s roiling concerns for her son Rhyś who, at a tender age, is thrust into a terrifying, violent and unpredictable world where lives depend on secrets being kept and the places once thought of as ‘safe’ are anything but.

Ackerman’s razor sharp accuracy and detailed descriptions informed me about Poland’s unique situation and subsequent suffering during the war. This is overlaid with the singularly strange environment of the Żabiński’s Warsaw Zoo, where the lines between people and animals are frequently blurred. Jan and Antonina’s pre-war connection with one Lutz Heck, director of the Munich and Berlin Zoos and, paradoxically, a big game hunter who becomes a favourite of Hermann Göring, shines an unexpected and very harsh light on the Nazi’s obsession with racial purity in both humans and beasts.

I thought I’d seen (and read) it all when it came to the systematic barbarism the Nazi’s applied to their quest but through the pages of The Zookeeper’s Wifes we’re introduced to a wider playing field and previously unexplored depths to this depravity.

And now this book has been made into a movie by the same name, starring Jessica Chastain and directed by New Zealander Niki Caro of Whale Rider fame. In researching this post I came across a review by Jacob Soll in the New Republic hailing the film as the first ever feminist Holocaust movie. If Antonina’s voice is as strong and clear in the film as it is in the book, I’d have to agree.



Click here to buy your copy of The Zookeeper’s Wife by Diane Ackerman from Booktopia.

Big Little Lies & Role Reversal

This isn’t going to be some whinge about how the TV mini-series isn’t faithful to the book, although there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that Big Little Lies isn’t. The location change to Monterrey instead of Sydney is a shining example.

To my mind, this change of scenery tranquilises the severity of the domestic violence, school bullying, adultery, sexual assault and ultimately murderous themes of both works.  It’s not that I can’t believe these things actually happen in Sydney – they surely do - it’s more the fact that we Australians are spoon-fed an unending stream of American productions that focus on this type of darkness (think acronyms here - SVU, NCIS, CSI).  Heck, even the news of the latest real-life gun rampage seems to confirm that America is a location where this sort of stuff happens with vastly more regularity than here. I believe setting the book in Sydney was Moriarty’s master stroke. It’s dark twists and turns were somehow more shocking because of their usually sunny location.

But I digress.  I did say this wasn’t going to be a diatribe on the differences and merits of the book over the TV version and it isn’t.  No – what really surprised me was my reaction to the real and imagined age disparity in the casting of the two couples central to the story. These are Nicole Kidman as Celeste and her on-screen husband Alexander Skarsgård as Perry; and Madeline’s Reese Witherspoon and her on-screen husband Ed, played by a much younger-looking (but actually not younger than Reese) Adam Scott.

Normally I don’t care about those often awkward, age-disparate on-screen pairings that require a giant leap of faith on the part of the viewer.  God knows we’ve seen enough of them. Who could forget Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall in Key Largo, Woody Allen and Mariel Hemingway in Manhattan, Michelle Pfeiffer and Robert Redford in Up Close and Personal, Gwyneth Paltrow and Michael Douglas in A Perfect Murder and even our own Nicole with Sam Neill in Dead Calm!

I also have no problem with actresses like Nicole Kidman and Reese Witherspoon as executive producers, securing rights to books like Moriarty’s Big Little Lies with meaty female characters and then casting themselves in those plum roles in the screen version. Why not run the racket so you can start rigging it when the game’s been stacked against you for decades?  Actors of the male persuasion have been doing that for years (think Tom Cruise, George Clooney, Bradley Cooper and more recently Tom Hiddleston and Hugh Laurie, producers of the acclaimed Night Manager).

More power to the women, I reckon.  But if I thought this empowerment might translate into less jolting age pairings of major characters, in the case of Big Little Lies, I was clearly mistaken.

In isolation, Nicole Kidman is ideally cast as the gorgeous, intelligent and wealthy Celeste, she of the seemingly ‘perfect life’.  That is until you put her next to her on-screen husband Perry, played by Alexander Skarsgård. While he is only nine years Kidman’s junior, alas (as beautiful as she is) Nicole looks so much older than Alexander.

Neither of them are miscast but their pairing made me focus more on how they looked together than how they played the parts of two people at the centre of one of the most disturbing concepts of the book and the show. That bothers me.

Then we come to Reese Witherspoon’s character, Madeline, who’s on-screen second husband Adam Scott (as Ed) is actually three years older than her and yet the pairing still doesn’t seem to work.  This may be due to the fact that, in the book version of the story, Madeline is a divorcée previously married to Nathan (played by James Tupper in the TV show) who, BTW, looks more aligned to Madeline in the age-stakes.

Maybe Adam Scott’s Ed is meant to look younger than Witherspoon’s Madeline in the TV version of the story because she is supposed to look like someone who’s been married before and is, perhaps, a little older than a previously unmarried first wife might be. But that can’t be right. As noted earlier, TV show narratives don’t always stick to the storyline of the books they’re based on. So, I guess we can rule that out as a reason for the apparent (but not real) age difference between Ed and Madeline in Big Little Lies.

Ironically, Reese Witherspoon is no stranger to this age-disparity thing. In 2004 she played the lead role of Becky Sharp in Vanity Fair. At the ripe old age of 27, Witherspoon was cast as the mother of Robert Pattison, aged 17 at the time.  The scenes between the two were cut from the final version of the film, which is probably fortunate as it didn’t impede a second outing for this pair in Water for Elephants in 2011. This time, Reese, Robert and their 10-year age difference, were cast as lovers.

I know what you’re thinking – I’m too stuck on the ironies of this age thing in Big Little Lies. Please believe me when I say I really don’t care.  Why should it even bother me that women characters are, these days, more often being paired with younger men when so often, it’s the other way around?

I guess is comes back to my need for credibility in on-screen drama – credibility that is underpinned by appropriate casting that helps me suspend my disbelief about the fictional storyline. For some reason this is particularly so when the screen story is based on a book I’ve already read. I fully accept that the screenplay I watch will not mirror the exact storyline of the book for such reasons as timeframe, nuance or plot intricacy that impedes ‘watchability’. I’m happy to be surprised, delighted even, by the accurate screen representation of people and things I loved in the book, as well as the adjustments and additions to the print storyline that make the viewing more compelling.

But sometimes, little things like age-disparity in the casting (perceived or otherwise) seriously undermines my ability to believe in the screen story and indeed, my interest in what happens to the characters themselves. Instead of getting lost in the fascinating depths of Celeste and Perry’s complex and violent relationship, I find myself pre-occupied with an entirely superficial and yet very distracting age difference.

And instead of applauding Kidman and Witherspoon for successfully subverting the culture of man/girl on-screen couplings in Hollywood, I confess to being a little disappointed. As executive producers of Big Little Lies, couldn’t these acclaimed actresses have demonstrated just a bit more finesse in the casting department?

Click here to buy your copy of ‘Big Little Lies’ by Liane Moriarty from Booktopia.