Review: The High Places by Fiona McFarlane - Stories of what life looks like from above

Tuesday, 10 April 2018

The High Places by Fiona McFarlane
Released: 1st February 2016
Published by: Penguin Australia
Genre: Short stories
Source: Library
Pages: 288
My Rating: 4.5 of 5 stars
The dazzling stories in this collection find those moments when people confront the strangeness and mystery of their lives.

The revelations of intimidating old friends on holiday. An accident on a dark country road. A marine biologist in conversation with the ghost of Charles Darwin. The sudden arrival of American parachutists in a Queensland country town. A lottery win. A farmer troubled by miracles in the middle of a drought . . . The people in The High Places are jolted into seeing themselves from a fresh and often disconcerting perspective.

Ranging around the world from a remote Pacific island to outback Australia to the tourist haunts of Greece, these stories are written with extraordinary invention, great emotional insight and wry humour. Each one of them is as rich and rewarding as literature can be.
This review also appears in Vertigo 2018: Genesis

Each of the thirteen stories in The High Places offer a glimpse into those who find themselves slightly off-kilter, leaning over the precipice of a new beginning. Spanning multiple geographical landscapes and time periods, McFarlane’s sharp observations bring to light the nuanced ticks and mannerisms which make individuals their own unique selves. In a style which focuses on detail threaded through the fabric of the characters’ hopes and dreams, you can’t help feeling that you are part of these people’s lives, if only for a few pages.

He felt grateful when he looked at her. He felt an expansion in his brain that he enjoyed – a feeling that finally he had found his life, or was finding it, was on the verge on finding it, although he was still a graduate student and suspected he always would be. He said to himself, This is my youth, at this moment, right now…
          - Exotic Animal Medicine

McFarlane’s clever storylines are vividly imagined and compelling, reeling you in before a disquieting truth is revealed. In 'Exotic Animal Medicine', a young couple who have just married in secret are soon faced with the startling consequences of what began as an innocent drive through a small English village. Set in Sydney, 'Art Appreciation' depicts a relationship in its fragile early stages, questioning how sincerely we accept the interests of our lovers once our lives become entwined with theirs. What makes this collection so memorable is that each protagonist is written with an acute self-awareness and honest faults. As readers, we are able to look on from above while taking the moral high ground, until forced to realise that we are just as fallible as any of these characters. I love how thought-provoking every scenario was, communicating the subtle caution that even as we endeavour to construct the perfect house of cards, it only takes the smallest disruption for domestic bliss to fall from its eagle height.

Although McFarlane writes in lush, intelligent prose, she sensitively captures the innate self-consciousness we possess around people who are inexplicably self-assured. In the story Rose Bay, Rose considers that her sister would think it ‘immodest of her to live in a place that shared her name’, while recognising that ‘her instinct to please people, without being over-eager, came from a dislike of disagreement’. A character who similarly navigates conflict in quiet acquiescence appears in one of my personal favourites, 'Mycenae'; a wry tale of two couples on holiday among the whitewashed streets and ancient ruins in Greece. In both of these examples, not only is there a vivid sense of place, but a fresh perspective provided for the women who unknowingly stand at a tipping point in their lives. For Rose, it comes in the form of anchoring her identity outside familial ties, finally content with the life she had made for herself. On the journey to Mycenae, Janet realises that the Andersons are not necessarily experiencing the apotheosis of marital paradise, even if the mirage they so carefully projected said otherwise. The precise effects of these revelations are not explicitly explored, and what some may find frustrating is that each story lacks a proper sense of an ending. However, while I was often left on the verge of a plot point left unresolved, the first line of the next story always hooked me right back in.


Overall, McFarlane has showcased her versatility as a writer without losing sight of creating characters whose attributes are reflected in ourselves. What I took from The High Places is that our lives are full of defining moments, with countless opportunities to begin anew - if only one would look up to see them. Where this book truly shines is in its message about assessing where we stand and what we want out of life. We can crane our necks higher and strive for more, but it’s only while remaining grounded in reality that we can finally say with confidence: “I know who I am.”

Books about Books Part 3: Do you come here often?

Sunday, 8 April 2018

Part 1 of this feature looked at the beauty of books about bookstores and libraries, and part 2 was about some of the picture books budding bookworms can be inspired by. So, in this next edition the focus is on the heartwarming fiction set in and among bookstores; from meeting the most unexpected personalities while browsing the shelves, to the solace that can be found in stories that reflect our own narratives.

Lost for Words

    You can trust a book to keep your secret . . . Loveday Cardew prefers books to people. If you look closely, you might glimpse the first lines of the novels she loves most tattooed on her skin. But there are things she'll never show you. Fifteen years ago Loveday lost all she knew and loved in one unspeakable night.

    Now, she finds refuge in the unique little York bookshop where she works. Everything is about to change for Loveday.

    Someone knows about her past. Someone is trying to send her a message. And she can't hide any longer. Lost for Words is a compelling, irresistible and heart-rending novel, with the emotional intensity of The Shock of the Fall and all the charm of The Little Paris Bookshop and 84 Charing Cross Road.

    I have a copy of this book on my shelf still to read, and it sounds like a quirky story with heart. Plus, how often do you come across a character with a name like 'Loveday'?

    How to Find Love in a Bookshop

    Everyone has a story . . . but will they get the happy ending they deserve? 

    Emilia has just returned to her idyllic Cotswold hometown to rescue the family business. Nightingale Books is a dream come true for book-lovers, but the best stories aren't just within the pages of the books she sells - Emilia's customers have their own tales to tell.

    There's the lady of the manor who is hiding a secret close to her heart; the single dad looking for books to share with his son but who isn't quite what he seems; and the desperately shy chef trying to find the courage to talk to her crush . . .

    And as for Emilia's story, can she keep the promise she made to her father and save Nightingale Books?

    Who wouldn't want to work in a store that sounds as enchanting as 'Nightingale Books'? The idea of exploring the lives of some of the customers is a concept that I'm sure will make for a fun read.

    84 Charing Cross Road

    In 1949 Helene Hanff, 'a poor writer with an antiquarian taste in books', wrote to Marks & Co. Booksellers of 84 Charing Cross Rd, in search of the rare editions she was unable to find in New York.

    Her books were dispatched with polite but brisk efficiency.

    But, seeking further treasures, Helene soon found herself in regular correspondence with bookseller Frank Doel, laying siege to his English reserve with her warmth and wit.

    And, as letters, books and quips crossed the ocean, a friendship flourished that would endure for twenty years.

    This has to be one of the most popular 'books about books' out there. It was made into a movie and is actually a true story - time to move it closer to the top of my TBR!

    The Little Paris Bookshop

    Monsieur Perdu calls himself a literary apothecary. From his floating bookstore in a barge on the Seine, he prescribes novels for the hardships of life. Using his intuitive feel for the exact book a reader needs, Perdu mends broken hearts and souls. The only person he can't seem to heal through literature is himself; he's still haunted by heartbreak after his great love disappeared. She left him with only a letter, which he has never opened. After Perdu is finally tempted to read the letter, he hauls anchor and departs on a mission to the south of France, hoping to make peace with his loss and discover the end of the story.

    Joined by a bestselling but blocked author and a lovelorn Italian chef, Perdu travels along the country’s rivers, dispensing his wisdom and his books, showing that the literary world can take the human soul on a journey to heal itself. Internationally bestselling and filled with warmth and adventure, The Little Paris Bookshop is a love letter to books, meant for anyone who believes in the power of stories to shape people's lives.

    A love story set in Paris, influenced by books, on a floating bookstore - what a combination! I haven't read any books set in France before so this might just be a good place to start.

    The Reader on the 6.27

    An irresistible French sensation - Mr Penumbra's 24-hour Bookstore meets Amelie - The Reader on the 6.27 explores the power of books through the lives of the people they save. It is sure to capture the hearts of book lovers everywhere. Guylain Vignolles lives on the edge of existence. Working at a job he hates, he has but one pleasure in life ...Sitting on the 6.27 train each day, Guylain reads aloud. And it's this release of words into the world that starts our hero on a journey that will finally bring meaning into his life. For one morning, Guylain discovers the diary of a lonely young woman: Julie. A woman who feels as lost in the world as he does.

    As he reads from these pages to a rapt audience, Guylain finds himself falling hopelessly in love with their enchanting author ... The Reader on the 6.27 is a tale bursting with larger-than-life characters, each of whom touches Guylain's life for the better. This captivating novel is a warm, funny fable about literature's power to uplift even the most downtrodden of lives. 'The humanity of the characters ...the re-enchantment of everyday life, the power of words and literature, tenderness and humour.

    Another French book, this time 'man on the train' (with a twist). Also, it's really useful looking at these blurbs and seeing even more recommendations - 'Mr Penumbra's 24-hour Bookstore' is another one I'll be checking out!

    What are some of your favourite bookish love stories?

    Waiting on Wednesday: Give Me Your Hand

    Wednesday, 28 March 2018

    Waiting on Wednesday is a weekly meme hosted by Breaking the Spine where the participants tell their readers about an upcoming release they are waiting to read. This week I've picked Give Me Your Hand by Megan Abbott.

    Kit has risen to the top of her profession and is on the brink of achieving everything she wanted. She hasn’t let anything stop her. But now someone else is standing in her way – Diane.

    Best friends at seventeen, their shared ambition made them inseparable. Until the day Diane told Kit her secret – the worst thing she’d ever done, the worst thing Kit could imagine – and it blew their friendship apart.

     Kit is still the only person who knows what Diane did. And now Diane knows something about Kit that could destroy everything she’s worked so hard for.

    How far would Kit go, to make the hard work, the sacrifice, worth it in the end? What wouldn’t she give up? Diane thinks Kit is just like her. Maybe she’s right. Ambition: it’s in the blood...

    Megan Abbott has to be one of my all-time favourite psychological thriller writers - her prose is always mesmerising and atmospheric, leaping off the page with every twist. Her past few releases have featured the dark sides of teenage girls and toxic friendships, so it'll be interesting to see how she brings some of those similar themes to life here. If you're looking for a great read, I'd definitely recommend picking up Dare Me, The End of Everything or You Will Know Me.

    Releasing 17th July 2018 from Little Brown

    Genie's Weekly News (62) - Shakespeare with a twist, new books on my shelves and the latest thrillers I'm recommending

    Sunday, 18 March 2018

    I always enjoy seeing how Bell Shakespeare Company interprets Shakespeare's classics, and 'Antony and Cleopatra' did not disappoint! Of course, there's always room for some creative license, and the' ultra-modern set with the lighting effects and brilliant cast made all the difference. It was definitely a refreshing take on an ancient tale of love and the all-consuming quest for power which holds its roots in actual historical events. 

    I'm looking forward to watching how Julius Caesar' compares later this year, though in between I'm sure their take on Moliere's The Misanthrope is sure to be a hit - according to the site it features a strong female lead who is 'savvy and sophisticated' and 'rejects false flattery' in a witty satire. It sounds like it might be the most relatable and sassy play of the year, I can't wait until tickets are released!

    Now that uni has gone back for the semester, I've been trying to squeeze in as many books as I can between my compulsory readings, going through more than a few post-its and mugs of coffee in the process. While I haven't been posting as often on this little corner of the internet, some of my writing has been featured in Vertigo magazine with a review of The High Places by Fiona McFarlane.

    Currently Reading

    This book has been surrounded by hype since its release in January, so I've been keen to see if it really is the next Gone Girl or The Girl on the Train. The verdict so far? I'm already halfway through and there are subtle hints to the malice lurking behind closed doors, but I'm waiting for a big reveal to surprise me. It's a funny coincidence that I've started reading The Woman in the Window after finishing another one which also has a focus on questioning just how well you know your neighbours...

    Recommendation of the Week

    Like Sally Hepworth's previous releases, The Family Next Door offers a portrait of the challenges motherhood brings and secrets simmering beneath the surface of a perfect facade. But this latest novel is so much more, with suspenseful drama playing off every page, leaving you wondering just what the neighbouring women in Pleasant Court really have to hide. There was a twist I did not see coming, and that's what every good thriller needs! 

    On the interwebs

    • The Stella Prize 2018 shortlist has been announced, with a few on there that I haven't heard of but hope to read by the end of the year.
    • Applications are open to bloggers, artists and other content creators to be part of the National Young Writer's Festival, closing on the 31st March. 

    New additions to my shelves

    • The Beginning of the World in the Middle of the Night by Jen Campbell: The hardcover of this book looks stunning. and I can't wait to begin exploring the short stories inside.
    • Glitter by Aprilynne Pike: I discovered this on the shelf at work the other day and it sounds amazing already, depicting the scandals at the Versailles palace in a near-futuristic setting. It's reminding me just slightly of Claudia Gray's A Thousand Pieces of You with the past-meets-future vibe. 
    • Small Spaces by Sarah Epstein: This is next on my list to read and releases on 1st April! I'm always excited for debut Australian writers, and this riveting YA thriller is going to be big.

    What are you reading this week?

    {Blog Tour} Goodbye, Perfect by Sara Barnard

    Friday, 16 February 2018

    Goodbye, Perfect by Sara Barnard
    Released: 8th January
    Published by: Pan Macmillan Australia
    Genre: YA Contemporary
    Source: Publisher
    Pages: 320
    My Rating: 3.5 of 5 stars
    When I was wild, you were steady . . . Now you are wild - what am I?

    Eden McKinley knows she can’t count on much in this world, but she can depend on Bonnie, her solid, steady, straight-A best friend. So it’s a bit of a surprise when Bonnie runs away with the boyfriend Eden knows nothing about five days before the start of their GCSEs. Especially when the police arrive on her doorstep and Eden finds out that the boyfriend is actually their music teacher, Mr Cohn.

    Sworn to secrecy and bound by loyalty, only Eden knows Bonnie’s location, and that’s the way it has to stay. There’s no way she’s betraying her best friend. Not even when she’s faced with police questioning, suspicious parents and her own growing doubts. As the days pass and things begin to unravel, Eden is forced to question everything she thought she knew about the world, her best friend and herself.
    Thank you to Pan Macmillan Australia for sending me a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review

    Goodbye Perfect portrays a complex situation between best friends and the secret between them which spirals out of control. Illicit relationships between teachers and students have been on the newsfeeds on a number of occasions, and this book goes some way into analysing the fallout and consequences of police involvement through media coverage. Aside from the investigation is a glimpse into Eden's family life and how her own relationships are influenced by how she feels about Bonnie's actions.

    It was of course frustrating to read in the beginning how Eden truly struggled with telling the authorities what she knew about the scandal, but you can see how Barnard has written this story in the hopes that it reads authentically. While this drama surrounding Bonnie's relationship with their music teacher was the main plot point as Eden questioned her loyalty and who to trust, there was the other side of the book which was more heartwarming. It would have been interesting to delve deeper into the history behind Eden's adoptive family, but even so it was a great point of character development to see how she interacted with her older sister over the course of the novel.


    Friendship, family, and the consequences of a relationship which should never have happened all converge in this YA contemporary novel which questions how far you'd go to protect the secret of someone you care about.