Review: The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin - "As long as you can transform, my friends, you cannot die."

Tuesday, 8 May 2018

The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin
Released: 11th January 2018
Published by: Headline Publishing
Genre: Adult fiction
Source: Bought
Pages: 352
My Rating: 4 of 5 stars
It's 1969, and holed up in a grimy tenement building in New York's Lower East Side is a travelling psychic who claims to be able to tell anyone the date they will die.

The four Gold children, too young for what they're about to hear, sneak out to learn their fortunes. Over the years that follow, the siblings must choose how to live with the prophecies the fortune-teller gave them that day. Will they accept, ignore, cheat or defy them? Golden-boy Simon escapes to San Francisco, searching for love; dreamy Klara becomes a Las Vegas magician; eldest son Daniel tries to control fate as an army doctor after 9/11; and bookish Varya looks to science for the answers she craves.

A sweeping novel of remarkable ambition and depth, The Immortalists is a story about how we live, how we die, and what we do with the time we have.
This review also appears in Vertigo 2018: On Thin Ice

If you found out when you would take your last breath, how would you spend the moments you have left? The Immortalists confronts the reality of our mortality in the form of a sweeping family saga. Featuring four siblings over forty years, Chloe Benjamin’s poignant work follows the Gold’s as they navigate the rest of their lives after a visit to a fortune teller reveals the day each of them would die. The result of this singular event is a story which branches into the relationship between faith and fate, transformation of familial ties and whether profound knowledge acts as a blessing or a curse.

The novel’s structure brings particular attention to the Gold children at different periods in their lives, examining the subtle yet irrevocable shift in consciousness that comes with supposedly knowing when their time would be up. Would the predictions morph into a self-fulfilling prophecy, or is it possible to rebel against a fate written in the stars?

Where this book makes its biggest impact is through Benjamin’s prose that captures her characters’ deepest insecurities with remarkable clarity. Simon in particular struggles to find his place in the world. A young idealist, he begins his new life in San Francisco to break free from the constraints of his widowed mother Gertie.

Is this not what he wanted? His mother has relinquished him, given him to the world of which he’s longed to be a part. And yet he feels a spike of fear: the filter has been taken off the lens, the safety net ripped from beneath his feet, and he is dizzy with dreadful independence.

Alongside Simon, Klara also wishes to subvert her fate. As a magician with her signature ‘Jaws of Life’ act, she embraces a lifestyle which is equally exhilarating and precarious. It is interesting to note how the author has juxtaposed these two with Daniel and Varya whose paths are arguably more conservative. However, while Daniel works as a military doctor deciding which men are fit for the perils of war, Varya’s occupation as a scientist brings her to the brink of discovering the secret of longevity. Even as their lives diverge so drastically, Benjamin tenderly brings to light the invisible thread of kinship holding families together through their darkest hours.

She could not bear that kind of life: dangerous, fleshy, full of love so painful it took her breath away.

The complex characterisation probes the reader to wonder ‘if I knew when I would die, how would I choose to live?’. In The Immortalists it seems that people either adopt an affinity for facile hedonism, or measure each waking minute according to the minutiae of every decision to be made and where it will lead. The former is pure recklessness, the latter a recipe for a tedious existence devoid of joyous spontaneity. Perhaps it is only as we live with cautious awareness of our return to dust that we can appreciate all aspects of the human experience; from the crushing weight of loss to the soaring weightlessness of pure happiness.


If there’s anything to be learnt from The Immortalists, it’s that the future will always be uncertain, with cracks formed long ago from the mistakes of years gone by. Nonetheless, there is comfort to be found in the surety that as long as our hearts keep beating, nothing compares to the sensation of feeling well and truly alive.

{Blog Tour} The Things We Can't Undo - Author Interview with Gabrielle Reid

Monday, 30 April 2018

The Things We Can't Undo by Gabrielle Reid
Released: 1st May 2018
Published by: Ford Street Publishing
Genre: YA Contemporary
Source: Publisher
Pages: 300
My Rating: 4.5 of 5 stars
There’s no backspace key for life’s decisions.

Samantha and Dylan are in love – everyone knows it. So it’s no big deal when they leave a party for some time out together.

But when malicious rumours surface about that night, each feels betrayed by the other.

Will Sam make a decision she can’t take back?
Author Interview with Gabrielle Reid

Something I found really interesting about this book is how you really delved into the issues of the perceived ‘grey area’ that can surround the idea of consent between Dylan and Samantha. What was the catalyst for you to write a book that explores these topics?

Without wanting to go into too much detail, there were some personal experiences that led me to being very aware of how “no means no” is an insufficient standard. The world has been coming to realise that too, with cases involving victims who didn’t fight back or say no, because they were drunk or drugged, assaulted in their sleep, groomed by someone in a position of power, or stopped protesting after their first few “no”s were ignored. There were many times as a teen - not just when it comes to sex - where I froze or felt unable to stand up for myself and allowed things to happen that I didn’t want to. And some of that is part of being human and learning to be my own advocate, but I think when we are talking about sex, the standard needs to be higher.  It can feel like such an intense violation to have someone encroach on your body - the parts of your body that you try to protect most - so it’s more important to have clear consent. When I was writing, it was also important to me to demonstrate that “the perpetrator” can be the nice guy you trust who doesn’t think of himself as a rapist, so Dylan had to miss some signals that Sam was trying to stop things as best she could.

The impact of social media and how it can act as both a support network and rumour-mill in the wake of a tragedy or scandal was also quite prominent throughout the story. How much of an impact did it have on the direction of the plot?

That aspect really came about by accident. I was writing alternate chapters in epistolary format, so social media accounts were just a natural part of how to do that when setting a book in 2018. But then as the story went on, the bits I was writing from those accounts started to take more of an influential role, which again, I think reflects the way social media does influence people’s lives. Social media is really just a modern communication tool with a uniquely extensive reach, and people do communicate in both positive and negative ways..

It was good to see a focus on not only the teens in this story directly involved in the scenario, but the families around them as well. How did you find striking a balance between portraying how the students were reacting in comparison to the adults behind them?

The editing process helped! One of the earliest criticisms of my early drafts was that there was too much adult perspective (from teachers, counsellors, witnesses) so I did pare it back a bit. But for most teenagers, parents and teachers are an inescapable part of life and when an event as huge as this happens, they’re going to be involved whether teens like it or not. It is a YA novel though, so I tried to keep the majority of the focus on how the adult responses impacted my teen characters and how the teens decided what to share with the adults. I think the main “rule” I tried to stick to was to have the teens make their own decisions and mistakes, with the families there to react and be part of the consequences without making the decisions for them or directing where their lives go.

What are the most important messages you hope readers can reflect on from The Things We Can’t Undo?

I hope readers, male and female but particularly young men, will reflect on how much better things are with a clear “yes”. It’s not just about whether something is illegal or *technically* one thing or another, it’s about having high enough standards to want good sex with an active participant.
More generally speaking, I hope readers think about how their decisions impact those around them. The thing Sam can’t undo has a devastating impact on her family and friends, and Tayla’s good intentions don’t protect anyone from the consequences when she loses control of her message. I don’t want people to be afraid to act, but I do think trying to make sure our actions are active and helpful rather than reactive and vengeful, can prevent some regrets.

What was your biggest challenge in writing a novel compared to the shorter works you’ve had published before?

It’s a different process, that’s for sure. I actually find short stories the hardest, anything from about 2000 words to 20 000. Flash fiction means I can focus on a particular moment, event or action and just explore that without thinking too much about the backstories and deeper character profiles, whereas in a novel I feel like the length gives me freedom to create whole people with realistic lives, thoughts and relationships. I have written a couple (not published). I’d say the two biggest challenges are 1) running out of motivation midway through and having to push to get to a point where the end is in sight and it doesn’t feel so unachievable, and 2) finding people to offer ongoing constructive criticism to help improve it. I’ve been lucky with the latter in that I now have a “team” who will stick with me, reading the latest bits every week and brainstorming through all the plot changes and rewrites that happen before I get to the end of a complete draft. A good writer’s group is pure gold.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve received as an author which you would share with other writers who hope to get published?

I think I just shared one about a good writer’s group, but if I’m allowed a second, I’d say don’t get too hung up on one project. The Things We Can’t Undo isn’t the first novel I’ve written, and I only started it (rather than spending all my writing time on editing, polishing, and continuing to pitch my previous manuscript) because I had an agent already trying to find me a publisher for the previous book. That was ultimately unsuccessful, but I know writers who after several years are still obsessing over their first unpublished manuscript. Sometimes, like first loves, it’s better to let go. Besides, if it does get picked up, your readers are going to want to know about the next thing!

Could you give us any hints as to what you’re currently working on?

See, you conveniently proved my previous point ;-) I’m in the ugly stage of brainstorming whether I should continue trying to fix a project I keep getting stuck on, or starting something new. I have vague plans for either option - the current manuscript deals with issues like eating disorders and Australian asylum seeker policies, while the new idea is mostly about family relationships and the closeness of two sisters who are separated by distance.

You can find Gabrielle Reid on her Website | Twitter/ Instagram @reidwriting | Facebook

She is also represented by Creative Net for school workshops

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