December Raves: Book Review: The Iron Line by L. M. Merrington

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Digital: 177 pages

Published by PAC books

Blurb:

“There’s a ghost train that runs along here at night. They say it carries the souls of those bound for hell.”

Jane Adams is only twenty-three, but she’s already a widow. A daughter of the railway, after her husband’s death she takes a job as a level crossing gatekeeper in the little town of Tungold, out at the end of the line. But all is not right in Tungold. The townspeople are frosty and unwelcoming, and Jane’s only ally is the new young police constable, Alec Ward, an outsider just like her.

When a railway official is murdered, Jane and Alec become determined to get to the bottom of the town’s secrets. Who killed Brian Mathieson? And what is behind the mysterious ghost train? But Jane is also hiding a secret of her own — one that will put her life and everything she cares about on the line.

 

Set in the late 1800’s in the fictional town of Tungold, a small country town in rural Australia, The Iron Line is a murder mystery with an air of Australian Gothic.

Newly widowed Jane Adams arrives from Goulburn as the new level-crossing gatekeeper and is warned of a mysterious ghost train that rattles along the line in the dead of night. Unwilling to believe in ghosts, Jane soon finds she has more pressing concerns in the mundanity of everyday life and in finding her place in a small town with more than its fair share of politics and prejudice. That is, of course, until the murder…

Jane can’t resist either the mystery of the train or the mystery of the murder, and soon teams up with the handsome Constable Ward, although her blossoming relationship is rightly complicated by her memories of her late husband.

Jane is an outspoken and enjoyable heroine. A feminist and self-professed bully-hater, she’s a likeable and relatable if somewhat mysterious character. Jane’s past is deftly handled by the author, gently feeding us the smallest titbits of her history and how she came to Tungold.

Although Tungold is fictional, Merrington’s historical research is such to breathe life and authenticity into the small town and its inhabitants. In fact, The Iron Line offers plenty of historical commentary as Jane faces many of the hardships of a single woman in rural Australia in the late 19th century – monetary worries, social ostracism, sexism, snakes and spiders, the endless chores that existed before vacuum cleaners, refrigerators and motor cars, as well as a pervasive sense of danger that comes from living isolated and alone.

Merrington makes the most of Jane’s isolation, and Jane’s home on the outskirts of town beside the railway gives ample opportunity for her to be awakened by the spectral, creepy locomotive: ‘The locomotive was black, I thought, but glowed with a strange, eerie luminescence, independent of the moonlight…Mr Bailey had said there was no driver, but as I peered towards the cabin I caught sight of someone. Then he turned towards me and I thrust my hands into my mouth to stifle a scream…’

The Iron Line is great length too, and I’m so glad too for the digital age which has once again made the 60,000-word murder-mystery a viable exercise (after all, Agatha Christie herself is said to have supported 50,000 words as the perfect length for a murder-mystery). The Iron Line feels fresh and fast-paced without any unnecessary padding or spurious sub-plots to slow down the main story.

It has a fantastic twist at the end too. Gripping from start to finish with plenty to love from the painstaking historical research, to the nod to Boldrewood’s Captain Starlight, to the enjoyable and well-handled mystery plot, this novel should definitely be joining you for holiday reading.

Highly recommended.

You can get it here on Amazon 

or click here for links to your other favourite retailers (itunes, nook, etc)

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Book Review: Watership Down by Richard Adams

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484 pages
Published 1972 by Avon

Greetings Brave Adventurers,

Although Watership Down is considered a fantasy classic, I had never read it until recently. The reason for this was partly due to half-remembered snippets of the movie version of Watership Down that I had seen in my childhood, and the vague lingering notion that this book would be very grim and very sad.

To my pleasant surprise, this was no dirge, although at times it was sad, and dangerous and grim. The story goes thusly: Fiver, a young buck who sees the future, receives a frightening vision of the destruction of their warren. After failing to convince the Chief, a group of rabbits led by Hazel set out on a dangerous journey to found a new warren on the eponymous Watership Down.

So what makes a story about talking rabbits a fantasy classic? In part it is the story itself. Adams anthropomorphizes the rabbits, yet they still remain animalistic in their behaviour. Adams himself commented that he didn’t want his rabbits to do anything a real rabbit couldn’t do. He made good friends with a rabbit expert, and the two of them often took long walks on the downs together, lending his writing a detailed and beautiful sense of place. Adam’s military background is apparent in his structure of rabbit society, in the Owsla and the concept of chiefs and generals.

But the real joy of this novel is the rich tapestry of history Adams imagines for his characters. He creates for his rabbits a rich oral mythology, a folklore and a strong belief system which defines them. The novel is scattered with stories of Frith, the sun-god and El-ahrairah, the trickster. Although not a linguist, Adams also scatters the novel with Lapine, a simple rabbit language.

All of this leads to a wonderful tale, worthy of its place amongst the classics of fantasy.

10 out of 10 fluffy-tailed dragons
10 dragons

Book Review: Daughter of the Forest by Juliet Marillier

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Book One of the Sevenwaters Triology
538 pages
Published 2000 by Pan Macmillan

Greetings Brave Adventurers,

For me, the best gauge of a fantastic novel is my inability to put it down. That was my experience with Daughter of the Forest. This beautiful and haunting story was an absolute delight to read.

The story follows the plot of the Grimm fairytale ‘Six Swans’, but is set in a mysterious Celtic world. The style of Marillier’s writing reminded me a little of Mary Stewarts Arthurian Legend series, for its beauty and natural setting.

Daughter of the Forest recounts the tale of Sorcha, a young girl whose six brothers are cursed by an evil witch and turned into swans. Sorcha learns that the only way for her to break the curse is to weave six shirts of starwort, one for each of her brothers. If she tries to tell her story, or even utter a sound, her brothers will remain swans forever.

As you can imagine, the tale itself is one of suffering and endurance. And then there is the rape scene. I am glad I knew about it beforehand, and I can see why this scene has received much discussion. It comes at the centre of the book, when we are well invested in Sorcha, and is shocking for both its brutality and senselessness. It colours the rest of the story, and changes Sorcha’s character, adding an extra burden for her to overcome.

This is a truly amazing tale of love and loss and sacrifice and I am looking forward to the sequel.

10/10 Silent Dragons
10 dragons

Book Review: Black Juice by Margo Lanagan (short stories)

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Published by HarperCollins 2005

Greetings Brave Adventurers,

I’ve been ploughing through some longer works for the past few months, and I felt like I just needed to read something lighter this week.

By lighter, I mean only in terms of physical size, because Black Juice by Margo Lanagan could not easily be described as light reading. Even though it appears in the Young Adult section, this little 200-page book of short stories packs a punch, and is as dark as its name implies. This is fantasy, but expect no elves or cute dancing fairies (oh, there are fairies, but not as you’d imagine).

Death features heavily as both a theme and an event around which her stories evolve. Her first short story deals with an execution. Then comes a betrayal, a shooting spree, a jail-break, a wedding (of sorts), a death, a funeral, and a plague of monsters.

Each tale is as haunting as it is beautiful. Lanagan has a rare talent of teasing the wondrous from the mundane, catapulting the reader into bizarre, unusual, confronting and often uncomfortable worlds. Her writing tips you off centre, leaves you bewildered, clutching the little clues she offers like Hansel and Gretel morsels, inexorably leading you to the witch’s house.

Lanagan does not simply hand you a tale to swallow whole. She makes you work for it, but oh, it is so worth it. A fabulous book by a truly gifted Australian talent.

Ten out of ten short dragons, with a sting in their tails.

10 dragons