Review: “Fishing for Stars” by Bryce Courtney

Spoiler Alert: This review is for “Fishing for Stars,” by Bryce Courtnay. It is a sequel to “The Persimmon Tree.” I will be discussing elements of both books. If you haven’t read “The Persimmon Tree,” I highly recommend that you do. And then skip “Fishing for Stars.”

“The Persimmon Tree” is how I discovered writer Bruce Courtnay. Born in South Africa, he had a notable career in advertising before retiring, moving to Australia and becoming a highly successful novelist. “The Persimmon Tree” was a complete surprise to me. It is the story of a young boy, Nick Duncan, and Anna Till, his first love, and it opens at the beginning of the Japanese invasion of Indonesia in WWII.

Nick escapes on a sailboat that belonged to Anna’s father and after run-ins with the Japanese, winds up in Australia, now of combat age. He has an affair with an older woman, Marg Hamilton, fights at Guadalcanal with the Americans, and much later, rediscovers his lost Anna.

Anna’s story is weirder and more harrowing. She is forced to become a “comfort woman” by a high-ranking Japanese officer, Konoi Akira, forcibly addicted to heroin to keep her under control, and trained in the art of kinbaku, a ritualized form of rope bondage and sexual torture. This is why the officer wanted her—to perform kinbaku on him.

Long story short, Nick finds Anna (still addicted) running a kinbaku house in Australia, and decides to take her for a heroin-free cruise on her father’s former sailing ship, in an effort to help her go cold turkey. (Not Anna’s idea, by the way.) They sail into the sunset at the end of “The Persimmon Tree,” leaving us hopeful for their future.

Though I read this book years ago, it made a huge impression on me. It was tightly plotted and pulled me right through the story without a pause. I cared about the characters and rooted for Anna and Nick’s happy reunion.

I subsequently read Courtnay’s magnificent “Potato Factory” historical trilogy based on the life of Ikey Solomon, the model for Dickens’ Fagan character in “Oliver Twist,” plus several other tales. I enjoyed every one of them, even the last one he wrote, “Jack of Diamonds.” I didn’t think it was his best, but he was dying of stomach cancer while writing it, so I thought he deserved a pass.

Which made reading “Fishing for Stars” all the more dismaying. It is, in my opinion, a hot mess. Anna did not respond well to the amateur intervention and stays addicted. She has morphed into a skilled businesswoman with an insatiable appetite for more. Mostly more money, and she isn’t overly choosy how she makes it. She and Nick are lovers, but she won’t allow any touching below the waist as she suffers from vaginismus—a painful cramping of the vaginal muscles. She believes her power lies in preserving her virginity.

Nick admits to being completely satisfied by Anna’s sexual ministrations, but he chunters on ad nauseum about his “need to possess her fully” for YEARS. If I were Anna, I would have dumped him.

Marg Hamilton, the woman with whom he has an affair in his youth, reappears, newly widowed. After several years, she consents to sleep with him again. (I don’t know any men that patient. Do you?) Marg has become a green activist in direct opposition to most of Anna’s commercial activities. The two women call each other “the green bitch” and “Princess Plunder,” and settle down to really despising each other’s guts.

The first third of the book sets the scene and fills in the background for those who haven’t read “The Persimmon Tree.” Not brilliant, but readable. The second part of the story is an action-filled, well-plotted visit to Japan, where Anna confronts her old nemesis Konoi Akira. We get into Yakuza, the Shield Society, kidnapping, Manga porn, murder and mayhem, and it’s all pretty interesting.

The third part of the book is about Marg and her conservation efforts. It is essentially a long and tedious history of the Green political movement in Tasmania and I almost gave up.

In the end, Marg screws Anna (metaphorically), and Anna screws Marg. Nick spends the whole book as a sort of pingpong ball being batted between these two women.

I have always admired Courtnay’s portrayals of women. They are always three-dimensional, strong portraits, contrasting dramatically with the way men often write female characters. However, the way Marg and Anna are written in “Fishing for Stars” turns them into two equally unpleasant viragos—an impression heightened by the narrator, Humphrey Bower. (I listened to the audiobook.) Bower—who is brilliant at accents, from southern Black American to Japanese­—plays Marg as an unusually sniffy school librarian, and Anna as a bitch.

In the final analysis, “Fishing for Stars” is a bad book by a good author, and a very disappointing finale to the characters I loved in “The Persimmon Tree.” I strongly encourage you to read Courtnay’s other work, in particular “The Persimmon Tree,” “The Potato Factory Trilogy,” and “Brother Fish.” You won’t be disappointed.

The Dead Authors Society

A disturbing number of my favorite authors have died recently, and it’s bugging me. I’m talking about the kind of writer whose prose delights you, for whatever reason. Maybe reading a certain author’s work feels like sinking into a warm bath, comforting and deep. Or thrills you with action. Or galvanizes you into action. Or makes you feel as though you are traveling through faerie realms. You own all of their books and re-read them from time to time, just for the pleasure of the visit.

I decided to share some of my favorite deceased writers with you. If our tastes are similar, maybe you’ll like them, too. A caveat: Not all of these authors are great prose artists. But they all have a special, um, je ne sais quois.

Terry Pratchett

Terry Pratchett

Sir Terry Pratchett. If you’ve been reading this blog, you already know I’m in sackcloth and ashes over Pratchett’s untimely demise from Alzheimer’s earlier this year. If not, or if you’re a glutton for punishment, you can read my tribute to Sir Terry or my review of his last Discworld book, The Shepherd’s Crown.





L.A. Meyer. Louis Meyer authored the young adult “Bloody Jack” series. I have actually never “read” one of these, but I own all of them as audiobooks. This is because the narrator for all of them, Katherine Kellgren, is absolutely brilliant. She perfectly captures the heroine’s Cockney cockiness, her bounce, optimism, kindness, and impulsiveness. Bloody

L.A. Meyer Photo Credit: Bangor Daily News

L.A. Meyer
Photo Credit: Bangor Daily News

Jack starts life in the late 18th century as Mary Jacqueline Faber, daughter of a respectable couple fallen on hard times. Her parents die and she is coldly ejected into the streets of London at age 8. She falls in with a gang of street children, and after observing that life in the streets was a short-term proposition for most kids, she disguises herself as a boy and signs on as a cabin boy with a naval ship. Her ensuing adventures are grand and hilarious to boot. Kellgren does an amazing range of male and female voices and accents. The only one she just can’t do is Scots. Fortunately, there’s only one significant Scottish character, and he’s only in the first few books.

Meyer created a memorable, lovable, and downright addictive character in Jacky Faber. The other major characters are also well delineated and engaging. He manages to sneak in a good bit of history in the process of entertaining us.

L.A. Meyer died in 2014 from Hodgkin’s lymphoma. But he finished his series before he set sail into the great beyond. I’m listening to the final book now with a mixture of enjoyment and sadness that this is the last I’ll see of Bloody Jack.

The Bloody Jack series in chronological order:

  • Bloody Jack: Being an Account of the Curious Adventures of Mary “Jacky” Faber, Ship’s Boy (2002)
  • The Curse of the Blue Tattoo: Being an Account of the Misadventures of Jacky Faber, Midshipman and Fine Lady (2004)
  • Under the Jolly Roger: Being an Account of the Further Nautical Adventures of Jacky Faber (2005)
  • In the Belly of the Bloodhound: Being an Account of a Particularly Peculiar Adventure in the Life of Jacky Faber (2006)
  • Mississippi Jack: Being an Account of the Further Waterborne Adventures of Jacky Faber, Midshipman, Fine Lady, and the Lily of the West (2007)
  • My Bonny Light Horseman: Being an Account of the Further Adventures of Jacky Faber, in Love and War (2008)
  • Rapture of the Deep: Being an Account of the Further Adventures of Jacky Faber, Soldier, Sailor, Mermaid, Spy (2009)
  • The Wake of the Lorelei Lee: Being an Account of the Adventures of Jacky Faber, on her Way to Botany Bay (2010)
  • The Mark of the Golden Dragon: Being an Account of the Further Adventures of Jacky Faber, Jewel of the East, Vexation of the West, and Pearl of the South China Sea (2011)
  • Viva Jacquelina! Being an Account of the Further Adventures of Jacky Faber Over the Hills and Far Away (2012)
  • Boston Jacky: Being an Account of the Further Adventures of Jacky Faber, Taking Care of Business (2013)
  • Wild Rover No More: Being the Last Recorded Account of the Life and Times of Jacky Faber (2014)

Source: Wikipedia

Elizabeth Peters

Elizabeth Peters

Elizabeth Peters. Elizabeth Peters’ real name was Barbara Mertz. She wrote mysteries under the name Elizabeth Peters and supernatural/gothics under the name Barbara Michaels. She was an Egyptologist by education and wrote books about the everyday life of ancient Egyptians under her own name. She died in 2013.

As Elizabeth Peters, she had several series, but my absolute favorite is the Amelia Peabody series. Amelia Peabody is a wealthy English spinster of Victorian times who decides to travel. Intrigued as many Victorians were with the mysteries of ancient Egypt, she winds up in Cairo, encounters a nasty, rude male archeologist and a few murders. She winds up saving the day with British aplomb, a stiff upper lip, and a sharp umbrella. Amelia tells her own stories, and her prose is delightful to anyone who has read much Victorian literature. Here are some selections of Amelia’s wisdom:

  • “Men always have some high-sounding excuse for indulging themselves.”
  • “Abstinence, as I have often observed, has a deleterious effect on disposition.”
  • “Godly persons are more vulnerable than most to the machinations of the ungodly.”
  • “I do not scruple to employ mendacity and a fictitious appearance of female incompetence when the occasion demands it.”


Amelia waxes positively purple over her husband, Emerson, and there are references to his “sapphirine eyes” and “manly physique” that are clearly intended for us to giggle over.

The characters in this series age and change over time. The stories are informed by the geopolitical realities of each era, as Amelia moves from Britain’s Age of Empire to the wars and disruptions of the early 20th century. Here are the Amelia Peabody books in chronological order:

  • Crocodile on the Sandbank
  • The Curse of the Pharaohs
  • The Mummy Case
  • Lion in the Valley
  • Deeds of the Disturber
  • The Last Camel Died at Noon
  • The Snake, the Crocodile, and the Dog
  • The Hippopotamus Pool
  • Seeing a Large Cat
  • The Ape Who Guards the Balance
  • Guardian of the Horizon
  • A River in the Sky
  • The Falcon at the Portal
  • The Painted Queen

Source: Wikipedia

The author knew an enormous amount about ancient Egypt and the history of Egyptology, and this background made the books fascinating on yet another level beyond the delights of the characters and the murder mystery plots.

In all honesty, not every book in the series is brilliant, but I never cared. Spending time with Amelia was worth a little disappointment once in a while.

Mary Stewart Photo Credit: Australian Consolidated Press

Mary Stewart
Photo Credit: Australian Consolidated Press

Mary Stewart. To tell you the truth, I only just looked her up to see if she were still among us—and she is not. She died in 2014 at the age of 97. Born Mary Florence Elinor Rainbow (Yes! Really!), she authored a number of thrillers with romantic subplots that made them perhaps more appealing to women than to men. Her POV character was always female. My mother and I started reading these in the 1960s and thoroughly enjoyed them. I have never liked romances, but the intelligence and eruditeness of Stewart’s writing engaged me. A few from this era that I particularly enjoyed are “Madam, Will You Talk?,” “The Moonspinners,” “This Rough Magic,” and “The Ivy Tree.”

Then she jumped genres in 1973 with the publication of the “The Crystal Cave,” the first book of what became her “Merlin Trilogy,” beautifully written and researched historical fantasies. “The Crystal Cave” was followed by “The Hollow Hills” and “The Last Enchantment.” Having always been an Arthurian enthusiast, I devoured them. Related books include “The Wicked Day” and “The Prince and the Pilgrim.” The trilogy made her an internationally famous best-selling author and she won many awards and honors for it.

So then, as far as I can tell, she went on to write little romances about rose-covered cottages in the forest and whatnot. I have read these but don’t recommend them.

Bryce Courtnay

Bryce Courtnay

Bryce Courtnay. Bryce Courtnay was a South African advertising executive who emigrated to Australia and decided to write a book. “The Power of One,” was published in 1989, and Courtnay quickly became one of Australia’s best-selling authors. He died in 2012 of gastric cancer.

Courtnay primarily wrote historical fiction, mostly set in Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, though his last novel, “Jack of Diamonds,” was set in the U.S. and Canada. He seems to catch the feel and taste of each era and locale he writes about. His stories can contain pretty dark material, but somehow you feel that it comes right in the end—mostly, anyway. His characters feel like real people, even the most bizarre ones. In “Brother Fish,” he has a German immigrant housewife living on a New Jersey farm during WWII who poisons her lumpish husband and takes a young lover­—and you completely sympathize.

Among Courtnay’s best is his “Potato Factory” trilogy, in which he follows the fictionalized family of the real-life model for Dickens’ Fagin, Ikey Solomon. “The Potato Factory” takes place in Victorian times as Ikey and his horrible bawd of a wife are deported to the prison colony of Australia. “Tommo & Hawk” follows the lives of Ikey’s adopted sons. “Solomon’s Song” takes the family into the WWI generation. Each book is dense, rich, complex and a treat to the senses as Courtney makes his stories come alive. There is something for everyone: action, tragedy, revenge, mystery, murder, love, beauty, friendship and horror.

Well, that’s it for dead authors—for now, anyway. I just wanted to say a thank you to these writers for taking me to places I have never been to meet people only they have imagined. They have given me so much enjoyment over the years, and perhaps as long as people read their work, they will never truly die.