Buried? What the Ground Can’t Hold

Do you like neat resolutions? Tidy conclusions? Questions answered? If the answer is yes, maybe look away now…

But if, like me, you don’t mind a little open-endedness, a bit of mystery in your reading, then you’re going to love Shady Cosgrove’s What the Ground Can’t Hold (Picador).

what the ground can't holdWhen I first started this book I figured that the title could be taken both literally and metaphorically…

Two Americans are presumed dead and nine people are trapped in a cabin after an avalanche in the remote Andes… Among them is Emma, an Australian faced with an impossible decision that could see her parents jailed. Jack, a teenager obsessed with Jack Kerouac, guided by a skewed moral compass. Carmen, a tango dancer whose estranged father is dying of cancer. Pedro, the cabin manager who’s in hiding from those he loves most. And Wolfe, an American on a deadly family quest.

With food supplies dwindling, these unlikely companions are forced to extremes and discover they are bound by more than their surroundings – each has a secret that links them to Argentina’s Dirty War. ‘What the Ground Can’t Hold’ is a gripping exploration of the ways the past closes in on the present, and destroys the foundations upon which we build our lives.

The ground can’t hold you steady, the snow can bury – but does what is once buried, stay buried?

One thing’s for certain, what the ground can’t hold is secrets.

This story is full of skeletons in closets, guilt, loss and emotional baggage heavy enough to bury its carrier. Without exception, this cast of characters carry secrets with them that threaten to crush them. Through five narratives; Emma Woods, Hans ‘Jack’ Meyers, Carmen Conzalez, Pedro Cariman and Wolfe Goldberg, this novel deals with a series of heartaches as each character deals with the sins of the fathers’ and faces the truth of what these sins should mean to them now.

This deeply personal soul-searching is set against the claustrophobic backdrop of a very real, physical predicament. They sit together, trapped in the Andes and sheltered in Pedro’s refugio (cabin). The weather is unseasonal, the snow precarious. An avalanche has buried two of their party and more slides threaten to come down on them should they make one false move.

They are faced with a choice – stay and starve or walk out against soft snow and unstable ground. The comparison between their emotional and physical situation is pretty clear, and works well.

What the Ground Can’t Hold is a cleverly constructed story. It’s full of false leads, many of which are not revealed fully until the very final moments of this gripping novel. The characterisations are complex and as with all really interesting novels, it is difficult to decide whether to like each character or not. They are inherently fallible, haunted and sensitive humans. I’m sure that each reader will be endeared to different characters for different reasons.

I also think that this story will leave readers wondering about different aspects of history. I was fascinated as I knew little about Argentina before reading the book. I’m going to have to do some research – about the Dirty War, the fall of the Peso, the Andes – just to satisfy my new curiosity.

I’ll admit, I almost threw this book across the room as I reached its final page. I don’t mind the odd loose end, but even I was surprised by how much I still needed to know at the end of the book. Many ghosts haunted Emma, Carmel, Wolfe, Pedro and Jack and I’ve been left to imagine how they might be exorcised.

This of course, in and of itself, is very skilful storytelling. In my opinion Cosgrove’s novel is well worth reading, I’d recommend it highly.

If you’d like to find out more about Shady Cosgrove’s What the Ground Can’t Hold, visit here…


Foreboding: Burial Rites

It’s pretty exciting when a book comes along that captures everyone’s imagination. Last month, that book was Hannah Kent’s Burial Rites from Picador.

Helped in no small part by the ABC’s fascinating Australian Story featuring this talented new author, often when I mentioned that I was reading this book, the response was a rapid-fire ‘Me too!’.

burial ritesIn northern Iceland, 1829, Agnes Magnusdottir is condemned to death for her part in the brutal murder of two men.

Agnes is sent to wait out the time leading to her execution on the farm of District Officer Jon Jonsson, his wife and their two daughters. Horrified to have a convicted murderess in their midst, the family avoids speaking with Agnes. Only Toti, the young assistant reverend appointed as Agnes’s spiritual guardian, is compelled to try to understand her, as he attempts to salvage her soul. As the summer months fall away to winter and the hardships of rural life force the household to work side by side, Agnes’s ill-fated tale of longing and betrayal begins to emerge. And as the days to her execution draw closer, the question burns: did she or didn’t she?

Based on a true story, Burial Rites is a deeply moving novel about personal freedom: who we are seen to be versus who we believe ourselves to be, and the ways in which we will risk everything for love. In beautiful, cut-glass prose, Hannah Kent portrays Iceland’s formidable landscape, where every day is a battle for survival, and asks, how can one woman hope to endure when her life depends upon the stories told by others?

It’s proving popular with book groups too, which give you some indication of how people are reading the book – they can’t wait to talk about it. I put this down to, for me, the intense sense of isolation that comes from the book, one that made me crave conversation with the next person I meet.

The haunting, desolate Icelandic setting created a really unique feeling as I read this ‘speculative biography’..

“I should like to hear you describe it,” Toti prompted.

“It’s not much more than the base of the mountain, and the shore of the sea. It’s a long line of rocky ground, with one or two smooth fields where winter fodder is grown, and all the rest is wild grass, growing around the stones. The shore is of pebbles, and huge tangles of seaweed float in the bay and look like the hair of the drowned. Driftwood appears overnight like magic, and eider ducks nest upon nearby banks of rocks near seal colonies. On  clear day it’s beautiful, and on others it’s as miserable as grave-digging in the rain.”

Hannah Kent, in her debut novel, has worked her craft expertly. She’s handled the difficulties of language, words of a different time and place, deftly. In a less disciplined hand the accents and mouthy surnames might have been difficult to pick through. Not so here though, rather, they create an authenticity without disrupting the flow of the narrative.

Hannah has clearly (and by all reports) completed incredibly thorough research in order to tell Agnes’ story. I’d venture to say that she’d know just about as much as any other person about the life and eventual fate of the last woman executed in Iceland. As such, she paints a sympathetic and quite heartbreaking picture of this woman condemned…

They have strapped me to the saddle like a corpse being taken to the burial ground. In their eyes I am already a dead woman, destined for the grave. My arms are tethered in front of me. As we ride this awful parade, the irons pinch my flesh until it bloodies in front of my eyes. I have come to expect harm now. Some of the watchmen at Stora-Borg compassed my body with small violences, chronicled their hatred towards me, a mark here, bruises, blossoming like star clusters under the skin, black and yellow smoke trapped under the membrane. I suppose some of them had known Natan.

The unforgivingly puritanical society, one operating on a harsh class system which is heavily reliant on a servant-class has the reader doubting the fairness, if not the accuracy of Agnes’ guilty verdict. This is a difficult time and place, where women are horribly mistreated as a matter of course. Agnes’ has clearly been a victim of repeated abuse, which of course one is tempted to use to excuse her her crimes. But, still there are things about her, mostly stories from others,that could maybe suggest that she is in fact the cold-blooded killer that people say she is.

The characters of the young Reverend Toti, sent to save Agnes’ soul and Margaret, the lady of the house where Agnes is billeted until her execution are well-drawn, compassionate and believable characters. They add an extra dimension to the story, and to Agnes herself.

I really enjoyed this book and found its meandering pace balanced nicely with a sense of foreboding and borrowed time, a really interesting reading experience.

I’m pretty sure that we’ll see this book pop up a lot over the next 12 months, and I’d recommend that you take a look. It’s great to see such impressive literature coming from a young Australian author.

You can find out more about Hannah Kent’s Burial Rites here…


Out Now! TBYL News: All Things Bookish…July 2012

It’s wintery and chilly, and perfect weather for reading. I hope you’ll enjoy this month’s issue of TBYL News: All Things Bookish…

TBYL News is a great way to catch up on recent reviews, upcoming news and words from my lovely special guests. This month, I fired a couple of questions Rachael John’s way, about her writing and about her country romance Jilted.

You’ll also find exclusive newsletter specials at The Store and excitingly, newsletter-only competitions! This month I’ve got a copy of Edward St Aubyn’s At Last to give-away, with thanks to Picador.  Plus, in this issue, I happily announce that TBYL is partnering with the fantastic National Year of Reading!

Click here to read TBYL News: All Things Bookish, July 2012

If you’d like to subscribe to the newsletter, you can click here. This’ll mean that you get our monthly news by email, on the first Monday of the month. Perfect!

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The TBYL Book Club is warm!

I woke up yesterday morning, proud as punch and happy as Larry.

Wednesday night’s TBYL Book Club Housewarming Party was a hit and lots and lots of fun. By all accounts everyone had a good time, and I think we’ve all had a chance to get to know each other and the club house a little bit better.

The evening flew by, the games were quick and punchy and everyone got into the spirit of the evening! Thanks so much to everyone who contributed, you made the evening a blast and our new home a very warm one.

Because the night went so fast, I thought it might be nice to give a run down on who won what…

The Lucky Door Prize was won by Patricia B. The prize was a copy of the perplexing Fall From Pride, by Karen Harper (Harlequin)

The winner of the Reading Corner Photo Challenge was Karen B. The prize was a copy of Dare Me, by Megan Abbott (Picador) The photos and descriptions that you guys shared where fabulous, thanks!

The winner of the Desert Island Book give-away was Kate B. Kate won a copy of The Beloved, by Annah Faulkner (Picador)

Tamela D. won the Would You Rather game, and she’ll be getting a copy of Summer at Willow Lake, by Susan Wiggs (Harlequin)

The Reading Pile Photo Challenge was won by Anne H. who shared her list of great reads. She’s won a copy of Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, by Ben Fountain (Allen and Unwin)

Next we had a bit of trivia about Books to Movies, and you all proved yourselves very clever. The winner was Megan O., and she’s won a copy of Unholy Night, by Seth Grahame-Smith (Allen and Unwin) PLUS an in-season double pass to see ‘Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter’ in cinemas in August.

The winner of the Favourite Front Cover Photo Challenge was Leah W. She’s won some bling! A stylish and practical crystal set Handbag Holder from our friends at iBare Giftware.

We had two winners of the Who am I? game, Sherie B. and Bec W. No tricking these guys, and they’ll both be getting a copy of Ish, by Peter H Reynolds, courtesy of The TBYL Store.

I ran two extra give-aways throughout the evening, one for anyone who subscribed to TBYL News: All Things Bookish (winner was Bec W.) and one for anyone who joined one of the June, July or August TBYL Book Club groups (the winner was Jo B.). Bec chose the lovely Mad Hatter Button Bookmark from The TBYL Store as her prize and Jo has chosen the prize of a gorgeous O-check diary from The TBYL Store.

Finally, we wrapped up the evening with a conversation, and you all told me what you were going to be reading once you were all partied out. Jane D. told us What She Was Reading and won! She’s won a copy of The Taliban Cricket Club, by Timeri N Murari (Allen and Unwin)


I had more prizes than I had time, so keep an eye on TBYL for chances to play and win, I’ve got some fun games up my sleeve still.

And the first game is TODAY!! All you need to do is leave a comment on this post telling me what you hope the TBYL Book Club will do next. I can’t wait to hear your ideas!

I’ll draw two winners at random on Thursday 28 June 2012. As usual, you’ll have 4 days to claim your prize or I’ll redraw.

Winners will have a choice of one of these three Harlequin titles; Fiona McCallum’s Wattle Creek, Boomerang Bride by Fiona Lowe or Temptation, by Karen Ann Hopkins.

Thanks so much to everyone for joining us, and of course a HUGE thank-you to our sponsors Allen and UnwinPicadorHarlequiniBare Giftware and The TBYL Store.

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Sign up for TBYL Book Club here…

Subscribe to TBYL News: All Things Bookish… out monthly!