SummerHousewith Pool

I’m a fan of Herman Koch’s writing after reading The Dinner, and his new book Summer House with Swimming Pool did not disappoint. It lived up to Koch’s style of drawing the reader in, then exposing the main characters’ flaws and the lengths they will go to to avoid being held responsible for their actions. Even if that means committing unlawful acts, which they then justify as serving a higher purpose.

Generally the focus in Koch’s books is on the gentrified middle class, which in many ways makes these acts more shocking, less acceptable because they are educated, well-to-do people who know better but their sense of entitlement and arrogance gets in the way and they succumb to committing horrible acts against others, or covering them up. Koch’s characters are so real that they trigger intense reactions – discomfort, indignation and even outrage. It makes for some excellent reading.

Summer House with Swimming Pool revolves around the sudden death of famous actor, Ralph Meier, and if his high profile doctor, Marc Schlosser was involved in his patient’s demise. Ralph and Marc knew each other outside of doctor/patient parameters: Marc, his wife and two teenage daughters spent the previous summer with the Meiers at their summer house in the Mediterranean. During that holiday personal boundaries are crossed, the relaxed atmosphere generates a relaxing of morals, and a violent incident triggers suspicion, blame and the desire for revenge.

Summer House with Swimming Pool is written with precision and sharp cutting insights into narrator, Dr Marc Schlosser’s detached and oft scornful view of his patients and the people around him. The writing is well sculpted and slices away any pretence. From Mark’s perspective the patient is reduced down to bodily form, in all its naked sick ugliness, that he loathes to touch, but has no qualms with issuing drugs when asked. (I’ll never look at a standard doctor’s appointment the same way again.)

The tension builds slowly in this book, winding and twisting with psychological angst, and just when you think you have the answer to who did what, you turn the page to find out you’re wrong. Overall, a kicker of a psychological thriller, with the quick pace of a holiday read, and tied together by some truly great literary writing.

Summer House with Swimming Pool by Herman Koch (Text Publishing 2014)

Translated from the Dutch by Sam Garrett

eISBN: 9781922148919

Great Summer Reading

Buzz Aldrin, What happened to you in all the confusion? by Johan Harstad

In today’s image-saturated, hyped-up, drama-infused world Buzz Aldrin is the equivalent of taking a walk down a meandering country lane: the pace is slower; there’s time to stop and smell the roses, take in the surrounding scenery and really appreciate everything happening around you.

Written in a stream-of-consciousness-style, Johan Harstad takes the reader on an epic journey alongside main character, Mattias, who has developed an obsession with Buzz Aldrin, the second man on the moon. Mattias’s obsession is as much with the man Buzz Aldrin as it is his status of being number two. Mattias is content, make that determined, to live his life not as the main man but as ‘number two’, the man who is part of something bigger than himself, anonymously contributing to the whole. The fact that Mattias has a brilliant singing voice that can bring a room to a complete standstill and his friends want him to join their band is something that Mattias resists with irreversible consequences.

A loner, Mattias’s world comes crashing down around him when he loses his job and his long-term girlfriend leaves him for another man. A series of events culminating in a blackout sees our protagonist awaken wet and bloodied on the roadside of one of the Faroe Islands, unable to remember how he got there. Havstein, a passing motorist and psychiatrist, stops and convinces Mattias to accompany him back to the Factory, an outpatient centre that Havstein runs for people who have trouble integrating back into society after being institutionalised. Mattias, unbalanced by the direction his life has taken, decides to stay at the Factory as a guest until he finds his centre again.

Is Mattias mad like the other patients at the Factory? It’s difficult to tell: if he is, then so am I because much of his logic, his reflections and his interpretation of life resonated with me. And that is the power of Harstad’s writing. Characters are keenly developed, the story unfolds, layer upon layer, amidst a plethora of pop-culture references, which I personally felt enhanced the storyline and gave Mattias depth and credibility, and both haunting memories and heartfelt moments are revealed with just the right amount of tension. Harstad’s writing is such that I felt as though I was right there alongside Mattias experiencing his highs, his lows, his confusion and his insights. As I read, Mattias changed from a character that I observed to a friend that I cared about and he lingers still, even though I’ve moved on to another book. Buzz Aldrin, What happened to you in all the confusion? is a book that will change the way you view life and what you think it means to be crazy.

Published by UWA Publishing

Johan Harstad will be appearing at the 2012 Perth Writer’s Festival. For more information go to:

More new ‘must reads’

The Perfume River: writing from Vietnam edited by Catherine Cole

This is a fabulous anthology of stories told by writers from within Vietnam, expats, and those living out of country but for whom Vietnam holds a special place in their hearts. The stories these writers tell are honest, evocative and compelling with themes such as migration, war, love, cultural displacement, and the struggle between retaining old traditions whilst embracing new ones.

I couldn’t put this book down and the stories and poems painted vivid pictures of a Vietnam reborn, the frenetic energy of a country rebuilding itself, its people and their struggles and triumphs, of love found and lost. I was touched by the lives of the characters portrayed in these stories and you will be too.

My Driver by Maggie Gee

Vanessa, a brittle, somewhat neurotic British writer, has been invited by the British Writer’s Council to attend a conference in Uganda. While in Kampala Vanessa plans a surprise visit to see Mary Tendo, her former housekeeper, (who is now the Executive Housekeeper at the Sheraton where Vanessa is staying)  but she can’t track her down. Mary meanwhile has secretly whisked Trevor, Vanessa’s ex-husband, away to her home village with plans of getting him to build the village a well. Despite war looming, Vanessa insists on travelling to the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, on the border of the Congo, to see the gorillas. Along the way she offends her driver so badly that he abandons her at the forest and it’s up to Trevor to rescue her.

This book is very well written and Gee creates a strong, vivid background against which to tell her story. She skillfully navigates between the two cultures, showing the highlights and flaws of all her characters, and provides surprising insights into how the two cultures, British and Ugandan, view each other. Gee’s rich writing drives this book and you’ll feel yourself drawn into the both countryside and humorous foibles of the characters.

Great New Reads

Murdering Stepmothers by Anna Haebich

Three small children are dead. Did they die of natural causes or is Martha Rendell  the evil stepmother who killed them? Perth in the 1900s is a harsh place to live and children often fall victim to diphtheria and typhoid. Arsenic and spirits of salts are common ingredients in home remedies. The citizens of Perth, incensed at such a shocking crime, demand that Martha be punished.

Based on a true events,  this compelling novel brings to life the story of Martha Rendell – the last woman to be hanged in Western Australia. Told through the voices of the photographer, the detective, the doctor and the reverend, Haebich successfully portrays the people, the mood and the harsh realities of life in Perth in the early 1900s.

There are startling flaws in the prosecution’s case, the press incites the general public into a frenzied state, and bigotry, slander and the dismal state of women’s rights makes this a compelling yet tragic story.

Haebich handles the subject matter well and the different voices are a great way to introduce varying viewpoints as well as introduce the facts of the case. Did Martha kill the children or was an innocent woman hanged? You’ll have to read the book to find out.

Sustenance by Simone Lazaroo

On a tropical Balinese island, the guests and staff at a small resort are taken hostage. Perpetua, the cook, finds herself providing nourishment to the guests, staff and their captors.  Her love and understanding of the sustenance of food helps the hostages to navigate their  through the trauma. Everyone emerges changed in some way.

This enchanting novel combines Australian and Balinese stereotypes and then disintegrates them. The characters are well-rounded and while they reflect the cultures that they come from, they are given room to change. Lazaroo weaves love, greed, racism, sensual food and the frailty of the human condition into this rich and suspenseful novel. A wonderful read  that should be on everyone’s bookshelf.

Holy Water by James P Othmer

Henry Tuhoe works for a multi-national conglomerate that has just made him redundant. They have, however, offered him a position setting up a bottled water call centre in the far-flung Kingdom of Galado. Henry’s marriage is on shaky ground: his beautiful wife demands he get a vasectomy, then won’t let him touch her. The job in Galado put’s Henry in the path of a sociopath monarch, moral conundrums, an Aussie intent on getting lost, and a woman intent on redeeming his soul and her country.

This novel confronts the myth of contentment attached to settling down, buying a house in the ‘burbs and having 2.5 children. It tackles the subject of large corporations outsourcing to third-world countries and the resulting repercussions in an engaging and entertaining way. Othmer’s advertising background gives depth and credibility to the story and his flowing writing style make this book an easy read.

Where Have You Been? by Wendy James

A house in the Northern  beaches suburbs, two cars, two kids: Ed and Susan Middleton couldn’t ask for more. Life is just about perfect. That perfection is shattered by the death of Susan’s mother and the sudden reappearance of Karen, Susan’s sister who has been missing for the past twenty years. Only Karen, now known as Carly, seems different. Susan can’t quite put her finger on why. Carly reveals different things about herself to different people. Is she really Karen? Susan’s life will spin out of control before she finds the answer.

Wendy James writes this thriller with conviction. Is Carly really Karen? James keeps you guessing right until the end. This story twists and turns and twists again and just when you think the game is up, it takes off again. Told through Ed, Susan and Karen’s eyes, this techniques gives the reader a sense of being right in the story with the characters, adding to the tension.