Snow Falls from a Stone Sky

Not to mention pouring cold water on it. Yet another literary weather forecast.

Issue # 16, Sunday 20 February, 2022

Bookish News

New and Forthcoming Releases

Again, here’s just a few interesting-looking books I’d consider getting hold of.

Cold Water by Dave Hutchinson

I really enjoyed this author’s “Fractured Europe” series starting with Europe in Autumn. So I’m delighted to see that there’s another novel coming set in the same timeline. And I love this cover. This is a must-buy for me.

This stunningly pertinent thriller is perfect for fans Le Carre, William Gibson and Neal Stephenson, and is a standalone addition to Hutchinson’s renowned Fractured Europe Sequence – Europe in Autumn, Europe in Winter, Europe at Midnight and Europe at Dawn. [Publisher website]

More details

Only a Monster by Vanessa Len

This looks intriguing, yet another Australian author whose work I should track down.

Don’t forget the rule. No one can know what you are. What we are. You must never tell anyone about monsters. Only a monster would kill a hero. Right?

Local Melbourne-based author Vanessa Len has created a breathtaking debut in Only a Monster, the first in a new trilogy. I was completely absorbed by every detail in this time-travelling wonder, where the main character, Joan Chang-Hunt, is one of the monsters, not the hero. [Readings review]


Buy it at Readings.

Wake by Shelley Burr

And yet another debut from a local crime writer.

What Really Happened to Young Evie McCreery? A searing debut crime novel where the grief and guilt surrounding an unsolved disappearance still haunt a small farming community . . . and will ultimately lead to a reckoning. [Publisher website]

More details

Book Launch

The Millennium Job by Rob Gerrand

An exciting new crime novel by an Australian author who is a good friend of mine. I did the interior design for the book, though not the cover. It’s due to be launched on March 2nd by Shane Maloney at Readings St. Kilda.

Book launch

My Reading

Not Previously Reviewed

Metal Fish, Falling Snow by Cath Moore

This YA novel won a heap of different awards last year: the Prime Minister’s Literary Award, the Victorian Premier’s Prize, the Griffith University Young Adult Book Award, longlisted for the Stella Prize, honourable mention in the CBCA Book of the Year. I can see why it did so well and I liked it a lot.

It’s obviously a very personal story for the author, who was born in Guyana to Irish and Afro-Carribean parents but raised in Australia and now lives in Melbourne. Metal Fish, Falling Snow is her first novel.

Like the author, the book’s young protagonist is of mixed parentage, her father coming from Guyana and her mother from France. She frequently experiences racism because of her dark skin, and one can imagine that the author draws from personal experience here.

The first-person protagonist is a young girl called Dylan. She’s now 14 years of age but for whatever reason she hasn’t yet completed the process of puberty and reached menarche, and her mental condition is also a strange mixture of the wayward child and the sophisticated adult: she’s often very childish, but nevertheless knows a great deal about the world and the ways of grownups. She behaves in odd, impulsive ways and continually sees the world through a peculiar lens. If fact, she seems to have something like telepathy, in that she often understands what people are thinking, or she experiences dreams as though from another person’s point of view. This mix of innocence, mature insight and secret knowledge often gets her into deep trouble.

As the book opens, she’s about to set off on a journey with a man called Pat, who is a travelling salesman for a brewing company. We soon discover that Dylan’s mother has recently died and that Pat was her boyfriend, Dylan’s father having abandoned the family some years ago. Pat is a world-weary man addicted to the pokies, but who is as grief-stricken as Dylan at the accidental death of her mother. He does his best to protect Dylan and do what he thinks is right for her, despite her frequent provocations.

Dylan and Pat set off on a long road journey across rural Australia, heading for the coast. Dylan believes Pat is taking her to the sea so they can get on a boat, on which they’ll somehow meet Dylan’s mother again, and sail off to France to live in Paris. The reader, of course, soon understands that something else is going on.

I really liked this book. It handles the serious themes of love, grief, belonging, family ties and entrenched racism in a solid fashion. Dylan is an intriguing, frequently disturbing young character, and we also develop a lot of sympathy and respect for Pat, despite his obvious flaws and difficulty as a substitute parent.

I’ll certainly be looking out for future books by this author.

Completed Since Last Issue

Stone Sky Gold Mountain by Miranda Riwoe

This is an historical novel, set in Northern Queensland in 1877, and follows the fortunes of a teenage brother and sister who have travelled to Australia from Hong Kong in search of their fortunes on the goldfields. They have left behind their mother and father and several siblings, some of whom have been sold to help repay their father’s gambling debts.

Life on the goldfield is very hard, and gold is scarce. The Chinese are continually harassed and racially abused by the white miners, and are subject to arbitrary raids to check their miner’s licenses, without which they are put in chains.

The sister, Mei Ying, has disguised herself as a boy to avoid attracting attention from the men on the goldfield, and maintains this disguise even when she and her brother, Lai Yue leave the goldfield and travel to a nearby town to seek different work after their hopes of finding a substantial quantity of gold are dashed.

Lai Yue is a tormented young man, consumed with his responsibility as the eldest child of the family, and who believes he is visited by the spirit of his betrothed, Shan, who drowned in a flood before they could marry. The imaginary voice of Shan is constantly critical of Yue, denigrating him and destroying his sense of self-esteem, which is further eroded by the attitude of the whites with whom he is forced to associate.

Mei Ying, on the other hand, settles well into a job in a store owned by a Chinese man in the town. Here, Ying, still pretending to be a young man, comes in contact with Merriam, a young white woman, who is also treated as a despised outcast by most of the town, because she works as the housekeeper for a local prostitute. Against all odds, and the lack of a common language, a deep affection grows up between this unlikely pair.

When Merriam’s mistress is violently attacked one night, suspicion immediately falls on the Chinese community, and in particular on Ying, who had been visiting Merriam.

This is a really interesting, very well described depiction of life on the goldfields from the point of view of Chinese immigrants, how they were scorned and abused by the whites yet managed to survive by supporting each other as a community.

Overall, it’s not a cheerful book—several reviewers have described it as “heartbreaking”—but it nevertheless ends on a hopeful note.

Buy it at Readings.

The Way It Is Now by Garry Disher

This is a stand-alone crime novel from Disher, mainly set in Menlo Beach, a seaside town on the Mornington Peninsula, near Melbourne.

The book opens with a section set in January 2000. Charlie Deravin is a young man working as a probationary policeman. His father, Rhys, is a Detective Sergeant, now in the process of divorcing Charlie’s mother Rose, from whom he is separated but who still lives nearby.

Charlie helps his mother get rid of an annoying lodger and a few days later is tasked with helping search for a young mixed-race boy who has gone missing from a school camp at a nearby beach. The boy’s clothing and towel are found on the beach, and it is assumed he went swimming and has drowned. But later that night Charlie is shocked to learn that his mother’s car has been found abandoned several kilometres from her home, and she also has gone missing.

We then skip forward twenty years. Charlie is now a Detective Sergeant himself, but he’s on suspension for, among other things, assaulting a superior officer. He’s divorced, with a 20 year-old daughter. His mother’s disappearance has never been solved, but many people suspect Charlie’s father of having killed her and concealed the body. Rhys remarried not long after Rose’s disappearance, and it’s suggested that his knowledge of police procedure would have helped him cover up the crime.

Charlie can’t believe that his father is guilty. But he’s not entirely sure, and his older brother has always been convinced that Rhys murdered their mother. So Charlie has never let the issue go, continuing to try to investigate in his spare time, this obsession being part of the reason his wife broke up with him.

The disgruntled lodger who Charlie evicted from his mother’s place, Scott Lambert, was an obvious suspect, but he turned out to have a perfect alibi: he was in a police lockup at the time for being drunk and disorderly. Nevertheless, Lambert shortly thereafter went missing and Charlie only manages to track him down after twenty years of searching.

Then there’s a breakthrough, which seems to turn everything on its head. Bodies are found on a nearby building site.

Disher, as always, keeps the tension at a high level, brings in a variety of interesting characters, handles a number of sub-plots and builds up the complications of the main plot step by step. It’s all very readable, and overall I liked this book. But I felt the reveal at the end of what had really been going on and who is really guilty was rather delivered to us on a plate in the form of a dying man’s confession, rather than as the result of clever investigation, and so I don’t feel that it’s as good as the other novels by Disher which I’ve read.

Just as a postscript: this is the first novel I’ve read which incorporates our experience of the COVID-19 pandemic into the story; Rhys Deravin contracts COVID while on holiday on a cruise ship and is hospitalised in Japan, so that when he returns to Australia he’s in poor shape to be interrogated by the Homicide Squad.

Buy it at Readings.

The Last Woman in the World by Inga Simpson

I have to say I was disappointed by this book, mostly by the way it ended, though there is some good, effective writing in it, some well-described scenes and thrilling moments. But as a whole, it didn’t work for me. Warning, spoilers abound!

At the most crude description, we could say that this is a post-apocalyptic story with most of humanity wiped out, and something not too dissimilar to zombies at large. But that is crude. The book is better than that, and has a very Australian spin to it.

The title, however, is a bit of a false promise. Rachel, the protagonist, is far from the last woman in the world, though I suppose that description could be applied metaphorically. Even as the book ends, there are still many women, and men, alive in the world.

So, what’s it about? Rachel is an artist, a glass sculptor who lives alone in a remote location in the bush, somewhere in the Great Dividing Range, a long way from neighbours, though she gets weekly supplies delivered to her. She’s pretty much a recluse, due to a number of traumas she has endured, as we discover later in the book.

As the book opens, her usual supplies haven’t turned up on time, and though Rachel is puzzled, she’s not yet concerned. But late at night, as she sits by the fireside, there’s a knock on the door. This shouldn’t be possible: her house is surrounded by a high stone wall and locked gates. Nevertheless, the knocking continues and a woman’s voice pleads to be let in. She has a baby with her, and Rachel eventually, very reluctantly, opens the door. The woman, Hanna, tells her that there’s been an incredibly fast moving plague of some sort which has literally killed almost all of humanity within a few days. We ultimately learn that this plague doesn’t seem to be of a virus or bacteria, but some sort of psychic influence, perhaps of an alien visitation, it’s not clear.

Hanna’s baby is very sick, and Rachel eventually decides to leave her compound and travel with Hanna and the child on foot over the mountain to try to reach Rachel’s sister, a doctor. This seems a pretty poor decision, since surely there are many abandoned vehicles out there.

The book shines in its loving description of the Australian bush and its wildlife, and its account of the women’s trek is well done, as is a later account of a hair-raising, tension-filled passage through a bushfire.

Where the book starts to fall down for me is when the women reach Canberra and we learn that there are still people surviving. Some kind of antidote to the plague, or “them” as the shadowy influences are called, has been developed. But there are groups of evil-intended “militias” out there trying to destroy supplies of the antidote (kind of weaponised anti-vaxxers). Not only that, but they are intent on kidnapping babies (why they need to do this is not at all clear, given that people can, you know, still make babies pretty readily).

After defeating one serious assault by the bad guys, Rachel then decides she’s going to go back home. Alone, by herself, except for Hanna’s baby (you’ll have to read the book to find out what happed to Hanna). She reaches her house, which is untouched, and settles down to a happy ending.

Excuse me? Almost all of human civilisation has been destroyed, there’s going to be no manufacturing for decades, and she’s somehow going to survive comfortably, with a baby she has to feed using formula, with no supplies from the outside world? I don’t think so.

Nevertheless, despite my reservations, the book was worth reading and I’d be prepared to read others that the author writes. Interesting, too, that like The Way It Is Now it incorporates and comments on our recent experiences of the pandemic, as well as the devastating bushfires of 2019-2020, making a number of good points about our relationship to the natural world.

Waiting on the Shelf

And that’s your lot this time around. Please feel free to comment, and to share this post with your friends.

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