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The Book Thief
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Books in Discussion - Round 2

I have a couple of spare hours and will endeavour to cover more of my backlog: books read over the past twelve months that I never had time to review. It’ll be so nice to clear away another pile of books off my desk!

foretelling of georgie spiderThe Tribe trilogy has to be one of the best Young Adult fantasy series I’ve read in a long time – beginning with The Interrogation of Ashala Wolf and then The Disappearance of Ember Crow, the trilogy is fresh and original, very well-written and peopled with characters I quickly came to love and care for. Not only that, but it interweaves Aboriginal culture and philosophy to present a less westernised view of the world, and as flawed and tragic as this post-apocalyptic world is, I actually want to live there, in this place where the trees and the spiders are just as valued as human life.

In Ambelin Kwaymullina’s The Foretelling of Georgie Spider (Walker Books, 2015) the story comes to a satisfying conclusion. Georgie is Ashala’s friend from her old life; the two fled rather than be captured and held forever in a detention centre. Yes, this series goes straight to the heart of a cruel and inhumane government policy of Australia’s: holding refugees and asylum seekers in awful detention centres both on-shore and off-shore, where they are subjected to abuse and fall into severe depression. Here, the “mutated” children of this world are treated in this way, because they are different and declared “unlawful”, again speaking so clearly to the ease with which white people decide who is worthy and who is not (I say “white people” deliberately, because this is an Australian series and speaks so empathetically to this cultural practice, and because the Aboriginal author is also directly addressing past government policy in which Aboriginal peoples were classed among the flora and fauna, not as human beings).

As political and philosophical as the story truly is, it is also the compelling story of human determinism, love and courage, trust and an appreciation for life in all its forms. Having finished the trilogy, I feel both bereft and impatient to re-read it (Which, sadly, will have to wait). If I could endlessly recommend any book or series to you, it would be this one. It has all the things I love in fiction, and the only negative is that Kwaymullina took it down from an original four-book series to a trilogy. But it was a good call; no drawn-out, padded and over-bloated story here! I’m eager for what she writes next, though, that’s for sure! (Read in January 2016.)

paranormalcyBefore school started again for the year, I made an effort to read some fun stuff, and to pick something off my shelf that had been there for years. I got Paranormalcy by Kiersten White (HarperCollins, 2011) back in 2012 after hearing lots of love from other book bloggers, and while I didn’t love it as much, it was enjoyable. Problem is, it’s also a bit forgettable. The main character and narrator, Evie, has a sassy, stereotypically adolescent voice (the first chapter is called “Oh, Bite Me”, which lets you know exactly what you’re in for); while this can be grating at times, her sense of loneliness and stifled growth and development rings true: she lives in an underground bunker-type place, top-secret government facility that captures and nullifies supernatural creatures – and uses Evie to do it.

She has a fairy ex-boyfriend who won’t leave her behind – and is very persuasive – and a mermaid for a best friend (suffice it to say, but they don’t go out much). Evie’s gift is to see through glamours to the real being beneath, which means she gets sent out a lot to “bag” paranormals and bring them back. Then she meets a boy called Lend who uses a glamour to break into the facility, and is treated like an enemy. But Evie is intrigued: after all, he’s the first, well, thing her age that she’s encountered, and he can turn himself into anyone – even her. Lend, though, has a purpose, and it’s serious: something is out there killing paranormals, and it’s unstoppable.

There were highs and lows for me, with this one. I couldn’t help rolling my eyes at the emphasis on the typical American (white, middle class) teenage life that Evie so craved and, as it turns out, is a real thing (I’ve just read too many American YA stories that all present this world in exactly the same way, and it’s so repetitive and bland that it has become the shonkiest cliché and lost all sense of realism). Lend was an engaging and intriguing character, but Evie is a bit self-obsessed (again, meant to be typical?) and the world too-little fleshed-out to really endear me to it. A quick, enjoyable read with some exciting moments. (Read in January 2016.)

engagementOnto a completely different novel, this adult psychological mind-fuck is both clever and creepy. The Engagement by Chloe Hooper (Vintage, 2014) is about a woman, Liese, who moves to the city to work for her uncle’s real estate agency and ends up using listed properties to have an affair with a man. Sounds sordid and ordinary, doesn’t it – well add this: he’s from the country, an old farming estate, and she may have said or done something to make him think she was a prostitute (second job, perhaps). She thought it was a joke, that he always knew she wasn’t actually a prostitute – that they were role-playing. But the money did help, and she went along with it and never broke the charade with ordinary conversation. Now, having almost saved up enough money to go overseas, he – Alexander – has requested her for a whole weekend, at his home in the country, and offered her a lot of money for her trouble.

In his world, though, things are noticeably different from the outset. This man whom she barely knows is strange and even intimidating, and the old family home is unpleasantly gothic and unrenovated, with closed-off wings and relics from the past. Alexander has taken over the farm and seems out-of-touch, to say the least, while his sister appears to be sane to Liese. Alexander’s understanding of Liese as a prostitute has gone so deep that he tries to save her, to rescue her from that life: he asks her to marry him, and has her whole future planned for her. Liese feels increasingly trapped in this tacky, rambling house, in the child’s bedroom – all pink and white and frills – that he’s put her in (and locked her in?). The whole weekend begins to turn into a nightmare, and no matter what Liese now says, her words get twisted.

I have a weird relationship with this novel – I don’t know what else to call it other than ‘weird’. I love psychological thrillers, and this is one of the creepiest. Liese’s sense of entrapment and isolation, that feeling of being gagged because whatever you say isn’t really heard, it all adds to a very tense, uncomfortable reading experience that I normally love. But there was something off here, for me. Something about Liese, I think, that made her an unlikeable narrator who created the mess she was in – which I resented thinking, because it smacked of the whole ‘blaming the victim’ mentality that still pervades so strongly in Australia and other countries across the world. I can’t even decide if I like this book or not – which I think is a successful outcome for the author! (Incidentally, I have read Chloe Hooper’s expository non-fiction book, The Tall Man: Death and Life on Palm Island, but it’s another book I haven’t reviewed yet!) She’s certainly a good writer, I’ll say that much.

In terms of landscape and setting and character development, it’s all there, all so real and vivid and, even, a bit too real. From Alexander and that loping farmer’s stride to the dry paddocks and beaten dogs, the ageing furniture and cheap extensions, it wasn’t such a leap from rural Victoria to the more familiar rural Tasmania, for me. Even the attitudes and values of rural and farming people spoke true to me, not to mention Alexander’s own attitudes towards women, which is perhaps at the crux and core of this novel. I think I would need to read it again, yet knowing how it ends might spoil the whole thing, I’m not sure. Hooper is certainly a talented writer, and it’s not often that a book is too uncomfortable a read for me – maybe that’s also the stage of life that I’m in, and what I bring to my reading of it. The more stressed and anxious you are in your own life, the more you want to read fluffy, fun things. But I hope I’ve intrigued you enough to make you want to check this out for yourself. (Read in January 2016.)

children actThe Children Act by Ian McEwan (Vintage, 2015) is the first McEwan novel I’ve read in years, and quite different from Enduring Love or Atonement. The premise is straight-forward enough: a 59-year-old High Court judge, Fiona Maye, presides over the family court in London. A new, time-sensitive case comes her way: a seventeen-year-old and his parents are refusing a blood transfusion as part of his cancer treatment because they are Jehovah’s Witnesses. Because he’s not yet eighteen, the age at which he can legally make such decisions, the hospital has asked for a legal intervention based on the idea that Adam doesn’t know the agonising death he will endure, and that his faith has essentially brainwashed him.

Fiona goes to meet him at the hospital to find out for herself whether he is ‘in his right mind’, and discovers an intelligent, sensitive and humorous boy with a love of music and a curiosity to learn new things. They bond over music – Fiona plays classical piano and can sing – and rules in favour of the rights of the child: he is given the blood transfusion. His parents, devout Jehovah’s Witnesses who supported the decision to refuse it, cry with happiness: the decision was taken out of their hands, and they can have their son without the guilt of going against their religion. But Adam sees hypocrisy in it, and denounces the faith he grew up in. Not only that, but a rift grows between him and his parents, and he leaves home.

In his search for something to fill the void left by the religion – and his parents – he begins to write to Fiona, and even to stalk her. His pleas and childlike yearning for someone to offer him unconditional love go unheard by the childless judge, who is preoccupied with her own struggling marriage (her sixty-year-old husband wants to have an affair with a younger woman, with Fiona’s understanding and, even, blessing!), leaving Adam alone, isolated, adrift.

McEwan’s short novel deftly speaks to that human need to belong to something bigger than ourselves, to matter, and the loss of identity that can come from having the basis of our being challenged, confronted and destroyed. Adam’s story is a heartbreaking one, a tragic one, but the tragedy lies in the mistakes Fiona makes, in letting her own ego and her own perspective on things to be the only thing she listens to, rather than seeing Adam for what he was: a child whose understanding of the world had been upended, and who was desperately in need of an anchor and a guide. For most people, religion fills that need, as does a community, or strong family ties. When you have none of those things, you can still be a well-adjusted, compassionate person, but McEwan focuses on what happens when a young person whose whole world was shaped by the certainty offered by religion, loses that certainty. It’s a deeply human story, nicely ambiguous with a strong and successful female protagonist who has trained herself to categorise messy human experience into something neat, with precedent. The effects of the past on how we interpret the present is also a feature of this book. (Read in March 2016.)

turningWhat can I say about Tim Winton’s The Turning (Penguin, 2014) that probably hasn’t been said before? This 2004 collection of inter-connected short stories set in Western Australia is beautifully written, atmospheric, at times tense and always deeply compelling. Many – most, all? – are coming-of-age stories structured around small moments, small revelations, even the confronting of the past or of others as adults. The stories and the characters all feel comfortably familiar, yet also distinctly unique and individual – I don’t know how Winton does it, marrying that together without creating clichés, but he does.

I can’t go into great detail in terms of plot, as there are 17 stories here that are distinct in their own way, yet also overlap – sometimes clearly, other times less so. Sometimes it’s just a place that connects them, while in other stories it’s a past event coming back to haunt someone. A sense of nostalgia permeates the stories and creates that sense of familiarity and time that’s so rich here. The past, childhood, hopes and dreams – and where they end up. I have to re-read this. There’s so much going on here, and it’s exceptionally good story-writing. Other than that, it’s just been too long since I read it to say more. (Read in October 2015.)

golden ageJoan London’s The Golden Age (Vintage 2015) came highly recommended by reviewers taking part in the Australian Women Writers Challenge, it’s a short, quick read at a mere 240 pages, but I think it’s a book that needs to be read in just a sitting or two; with my constant interruptions, The Golden Age failed to connect with me. I loved the premise, about children struggling to recover from polio in Perth in the 1950s – a sense of time and place is something I always look for, and found it here. But I think the author’s way of chopping up the story into small pieces and shifting the perspective from thirteen-year-old Frank Gold and twelve-year-old Elsa to Frank’s parents and a nurse at the Golden Age Children’s Polio Convalescent Home was somehow disruptive for me. While the parallels between the children’s stories and that of their parents and other adults helped structure the novel and develop some of the ideas here, it made it increasingly hard for me to build up a sense of flow and momentum, and to really care for any of them.

The fate of migrants in Australia, of the drift between children and their parents, of class divides and ethnic divides, of misunderstandings small yet profound, and the suffering felt by all during the polio epidemic makes this a rich and heartfelt historical novel. Poetry plays a role, and the ability of art – be it words or music – to convey emotion and help people connect to others. So it is possibly ironic that London’s own art, her own words here, didn’t quite manage to connect with me. Sometimes, that third-person omniscient narrator has an alienating effect on me, in which you are both told too much and not enough. I’ve always been turned off by stories told this way, in which my own engagement is an unnecessary thing, superfluous to the story. London writes mostly in this style, telling me what is deemed important, what characters are thinking and feeling, but she does at times drift into a more poetic style, holding back on the omniscience. This uneven quality didn’t help matters, and at the end of it I was left feeling only mildly sad at the outcome of Frank and Elsa’s lives.

A sense of nostalgia helped, and the most strongly written part for me was the dip into the past, in Poland during the Nazi occupation, and how Frank lived for a time with his mother’s piano teacher, hiding in the ceiling when a client came. I think I might have loved this had it been longer, more drawn-out – not to make it self-indulgent, I do hate that with a passion, but just to make the characters more alive, more human, and less like sketches of people. (Read in March 2016.)

firelightAnother YA paranormal-romance taken from my shelf is Sophie Jordan’s Firelight (Oxford University Press, 2011), which I’ve had hanging around since 2012. I’ll say this upfront: it’s not good. An interesting premise – a species descended from dragons who live in tight-knit, protected communities and who are hunted by small groups of well-funded humans (we’re talking helicopters here) – is made humdrum and clichéd by the plot and the rather dull and annoying protagonist.

Jacinda is a draki; her true form is her dragon one, and as a dragon she can breathe fire, making her rare amongst her kind. When the draki elders want to force her into a marriage that her mother strongly disagrees with after Jacinda is nearly caught by hunters, Jacinda and her twin sister are taken by their mother out into the human world, to live as humans. While her sister was born human (since they are meant to be a different species, how this possible is never explained), living in the human world will turn Jacinda human in time, as her ‘draki’ fades (this, too, isn’t adequately explained – it’s like saying, Okay, you were born gay, but if you go and live amongst heterosexuals all that gayness will just slowly disappear entirely! You could exchange ‘gay’ with ‘black’, ‘Chinese’ – take your pick).

And of course, biggest cliché of them all, at her new all-American school (as every high school in every YA novel is: I could predict the arrangement of desks, the ridiculous teaching pedagogy and the cliques) Jacinda meets the hunter, Will, who nearly caught her but let her go, who is of course her own age and very attractive. And his cousins, also hunters, are mean thugs, bullies and sinister. And, of course, Jacinda just has to get involved with him despite the danger, and despite him saying – another cliché – that he’s too dangerous to get involved with. I’m not sure how I made it through this book, probably just because I hate leaving things unfinished, but suffice it to say I won’t be continuing with this series. Oh yes, there are more books! (Read in January 2016.)

Flash Fiction ~ "Punishment"

Friday Fictioneers is a weekly writing challenge hosted by Rochelle at Addicted to Purple. The challenge is to use the photo prompt to craft an original story in only 100 words or less.

PHOTO PROMPT © Madison Woods

PHOTO PROMPT © Madison Woods

As a barrier, protection, the fence was flimsy. It wobbled when he grasped a post. Staring out over the dry plain, unbroken to the horizon but for three lonely trees, he felt only a sickening lurch of fear.

“There’s nothing there.”

His own voice sounded dull and monotonous in his ears; it couldn’t fill the silence. He glanced over at the small graves, marked with the rocks dug up to make them. So small. Even now, years later, it pained him.

“Nothing,” he muttered again, looking down at his big, capable hands, curled around the fence wire. “Nothing but me.”

Word count: 100 words

See my previous entries here.

Books in Discussion - Round 1

I’m a slow reader of late, and an even slower reviewer, but I still hold to my goal of reviewing each book I read (with the exception of the giant piles of picture books we borrow from the library and read over and over every two weeks!), and the reading experience now feels eerily unfinished until I’ve discussed the book here.

a monster callsLast year I read several books that I didn’t get around to reviewing. I’ll start with A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness, which I read in May 2015. I have a lovely hardback first edition (Candlewick Press 2011), with black and white ink illustrations by Jim Kay. I didn’t fall in love with The Knife of Never Letting Go: the narrator’s voice became so grating that I couldn’t stand him by the end. No such trouble with this children’s horror story. Part fable, part legend, part contemporary coming-of-age, A Monster Calls is about a boy, Conor, who lives with his terminally ill mother, sometimes visited by his surly grandmother. He has a recurring nightmare, which he’s kept to himself, but on this night it’s the sound of his name being called that wakes him. A monster has come for him, but it’s not the monster in his nightmare, so he’s not particularly scared. No, this monster is one from ancient British legend: the Green Man is one of his names, and he has some stories to share with Conor in return for the one thing Conor doesn’t want to give: the truth.

This is as wonderful as everyone said it would be, both atmospherically scary and hauntingly, achingly sad. The illustrations add to this effect. It’s no wonder that I loved this book, as on one level it is about the importance of stories, and the oral storytelling tradition, and the lessons to be learned from stories – or using stories to convey ideas or questions assumptions. Truly, stories are versatile things! At its heart, A Monster Calls is vivid and memorable because it deals with something that is becoming ever more common: cancer, or really, those who are effected by cancer without having it themselves. Conor is just a boy, a lonely, scared boy, and his ‘truth’ is a tragic truth, the truth of one who gets no help or support for living with a dying mother. It is heart-achingly sad, precisely because you know there are so many kids feeling as Conor feels, in a wide range of contexts, who need a Green Man of legend because society expects them to bravely ‘deal with it’.

persuasionOn a completely different note, I re-read Jane Austen’s Persuasion in July last year, and enjoyed it even more than I did the first time. I find that’s often the case with adult novels, in particular, that age matures my reading and understanding of them. My edition is part of a set that I bought from a mail-order Doubleday bookclub back when I was a uni student, published in hardcover by Book-of-the-Month Club (1996). The text inside is in the old style, with thick black ink that looks like it has been punched onto the page rather than printed, and illustrations by Hugh Thomson – I’ve always wondered if he just has a talent for reproducing a much older style, or if they’re reproductions of original ink illustrations.

Persuasion is the story of shy but intelligent Anne Elliot, the middle daughter of a particularly vain baronet, Sir Walter, now a widower. The youngest daughter, Mary, has been married off to the son of a gentleman farmer, or landholder, while the oldest, Elizabeth, holds herself too fine a prize to settle for just anyone. When Anne was eighteen she fell in love with a sailor, Frederick Wentworth, but was persuaded off the match by Lady Russell, a close family friend. Seven years later Anne is older and past the bloom of youth, and resigned to spinsterhood. But then Captain Wentworth arrives back in the neighbourhood and Anne’s predictable, calm world is suddenly full of tension and envy. While a hurried, sketched summary like that does make Persuasion sound like a boring Regency Romance, this is far from it. More interested in social values, attitudes and the glaring disparity between appearance and reality (a common Shakespearian trope), her last novel (first published the year of her death, 1817) is, by my reckoning, one of her finest and her sharpest, full of her trademark wit, astute observations and compellingly realistic, even unflattering, character descriptions. Was so worth re-reading!

a little lifeI picked up A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara from Dymocks last September – the cover caught my eye, and the blurb intrigued me. I didn’t get it straight away, though – it is a big fat book at 720 pages and my ability to finish even a slim volume is shaken these days. But when I saw it the next time I popped by for a browse my interest in it hadn’t waned. I loved the idea of a story about a group of friends in New York City, and the ‘literariness’ of the styled cover filled a need for something intense at the time. (I saw the North American edition online later, and have to say that I would never have picked up the book with that ugly cover!) I started reading it in September and read most of it while on term break, but didn’t finish the last hundred or so pages until January this year. And this really was one of the most intense books I’ve read in a long while.

The four friends are JB, a black, gay artist; Malcolm, a part-black, well-off architect; Willem, a handsome actor; and Jude, a lawyer with a tortured past. While the story follows their friendship from the time after graduating from university through to their middle years, the novel is really about Jude: his past, his secrets, his deep friendship with Willem, the scars on his psyche. I loved the first few hundred pages, which are full of detail and the characters’ neuroses (it has a distinctly New York flavour to it, this book). After a while, though, it started to get a repetitive tone to it – the characters never seem to change or develop all that much, and I think the subtleties of individuals as they traverse the decades was somewhat lost. Interspersed with their story are scenes from Jude’s past, and finally, finally, we learn the whole sordid, twisted, cruel details of what he has endured. Yanagihara gives no quarter and does not spare her readers’ feelings. It’s not easy reading, and with it comes that bigger truth: there are kids everywhere going through things like this, all the time, invisible.

There’s nothing invisible about Jude, though. While he has injuries to his legs that makes him almost crippled, he draws the love and respect of others around him with his quiet intelligence. I can imagine him quite well, and what captivates others, but after a while it is hard to believe that they would stick by him as they do, with such utter love and strength of will. But that’s ultimately what the novel is, a story of love and loyalty. The love between men, especially, is celebrated here, enlarged and engorged as it is. After learning the full truth of Jude’s past, however, the last two hundred pages were a real slog. I have trouble reading about characters who are, for want of a better term, self-indulgent, and it’s a shameful truth that Jude’s wallowing self-hate became tiresome to read. For the whole of the novel he’s on a path to self-annihilation, and while he becomes a respected and hugely successful lawyer and finds some happiness, you always know it’s just a matter of time: his past has so permanently shaped him, scarred him, that there can be no real recovery.

This emotional and confronting book is worth reading, even if I do think it could have been shorter. It is certainly memorable in its deeply tragic nature, and at times, a real page-turner. I do love a book that leaves me conflicted and engages so deeply with my emotions; I just wish the characters weren’t quite so two-dimensional and so full of unconditional love. But that’s just me.

regenerationI read this in August 2015 for a class I was teaching – I didn’t need to teach this book, just read it, but I loved it so much that I wished I was teaching it! Regeneration is the first book in a trilogy by Pat Barker, first published in 1991 (my edition: 2008) but set during World War One and featuring characters based on real historical figures. That is to say, I would hope you’ve heard of Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen, well-known war poets. This historical fiction novel is set in Craiglockhart War Hospital, Scotland, in 1917; this is the hospital for convalescing soldiers suffering from a range of physical and mental ailments go to recover. The final line of the blurb sums it up well: “Regeneration is the classic exploration of how the traumas of war brutalised a generation of young men.” The story is told from the perspectives of Sassoon, an officer and recipient of medals who has become a pacifist – being sent to Craiglockhart was a favour done by a friend; the alternative was a court martial; and Dr William Rivers, a psychiatrist who, officially, must always support the war effort and the government’s propaganda, but who is finding it increasingly hard to send these men back to the front.

One of the delights of this book – and for a book about the tragedy and hypocrisy of war, there are many delights to be found – is the subtle exploration of people’s attitudes about the war, the propaganda associated with it, and the idea of silence. In a way, these men were sent to this hospital to silence them – they were neither seen nor heard, a perfect place for someone like Sassoon. Barker has written it in a voice distinctive to the time and place, and the sense of a ‘boys’ club’ comes across clearly – and of boys playing at war (I’m referring to the men in charge, here, too). What really drew me in, though, is the characters: a diverse, eclectic mix of men, some of them suffering from terrible post-traumatic stress disorders, who are brought vividly alive and given that otherwise-silenced voice by Barker. This is a powerful novel, both sad and uplifting, that fascinates and captivates while, ultimately, stripping the glory used to sell war and presenting us with the human side of conflict. A must-read, and one I’d love to re-read already. (The other two books are The Eye in the Door and The Ghost Road.

life formI didn’t read these books in the order you see them here, by the way. I’m writing about them in a messy way, and it will take a few posts to get them all covered. But switching from WWI to the more recent Iraq War, in December I read Belgium-French writer Amélie Nothomb’s slim 2010 novel Life Form (translated by Alison Anderson and published by Europa in 2013). Life Form is equally compelling but very different from Barker’s Regeneration. For a start, Nothomb herself is the narrator, a Belgium writer living in France who receives a fan letter from an American soldier stationed in Iraq. At first, she gives a rote reply and is not too interested, but as the letters continue to come she gets caught up in the young man’s story. Melvin Mapple is grotesquely obese, and his over-eating is a side-effect of the shock and horror of war, and a protest against it.

I saw my first combat, with rocket fire, tanks, bodies exploding next to me and the men I killed myself. I discovered the meaning of terror. There may be some brave people who can stand it, but I’m not one of them. Some people lose their appetite, but most of them, including me, have just the opposite reaction. You come back from battle in a state of shock, terrified, amazed that you’re alive, and the first thing you do after you change your pants (you’ll have soiled them for sure) is make a beeline for the food. […] You go crazy. There’s something broken in us. It’s not exactly that we like eating in this way, we just can’t help it, we could kill ourselves eating, and maybe that’s what we want.. [pp.24-5]

Mapple has put on two hundred pounds since going to Iraq, he tells Nothomb, and has even named his fat Scheherazade. ‘She’ gives him a sense of happiness, and protection. Amélie is increasingly riveted by Mapple’s story, and encourages him to make a statement with his girth. As their epistolary friendship grows, she reveals things about her own public and private self and develops a kind of fondness for this obese soldier and his sad story. But this friendship built on shared words on paper is a fragile thing, and not entirely what it seems.

This is such a great book – I loved the premise, and the idea of using fat to protest the war, fantastic! But also tragic, because I can completely relate, or empathise with the idea of eating to deal with trauma; seems surprising it hasn’t actually happened already (I think army rations has something to do with it – and once they’ve returned to their home lands, no one pays any attention to veterans, do they?). It is an odd feeling, reading a fictional story in which the writer has made themselves the main character – you don’t know whether they’re wearing a persona or not. Why do that? Why not simply make someone up, like usual? Or maybe this is Nothomb’s style, I don’t know – she might be prolific in Europe but she’s not so well-known in English. I’m just curious, really, but I get the sense that all the details about her letter-writing and attitude are autobiographical. That reminds me: another aspect that is enjoyable about this book are her discussions around writing, letters and the blurred boundaries between public and private spheres for a writer.

to have and have notThe last book I want to discuss today is the first book I finished in 2016, Ernest Hemingway’s classic To Have and Have Not, first published in 1937 (my edition published by Arrow in 2004). This slender book is only 180 pages, but achieves a lot in that space. It’s the story of Harry Morgan who ‘runs’ (smuggles) rum out of Cuba and into Florida, where he lives with his wife and kids. The opening sequence is a graphic and violent story, showing Harry in action in Cuba where he and his boat have been hired by an American to take fishing. On his way to meeting the man, he stops at a cafe where there’s a shooting; when the man doesn’t pay Morgan for the fishing trip, he’s forced to take on illegal Chinese passengers to make up his losses.

In true Hemingway fashion, there’s no introspective thoughts or reflection going on, only finely-detailed descriptions and a lot of dialogue. There are several more escapades that Harry is involved in, and the ending was a surprise to me because I’m so accustomed to the main characters ‘winning’ in the end. The story also switches from first-person narration, in the beginning (told in an anecdotal style, almost) to third-person, watching Harry from outside. The book is also very much a product of its time: if you’re sensitive to the ‘N’ word (for African Americans), you’ll have trouble here – personally, being Australian (where the N-word isn’t as relevant), I did find it hard to hear the way the African Americans – young men hired by Harry to help on the boat, mostly – were referred to and talked about. They rarely had names, and a general sense of them as dexterous but unreliable animals came across strongly. But I often read with my English teacher’s hat on, and on another level I find it fascinating how words so clearly convey – and betray – our attitudes, and how these have changed over time.

Towards the end, Hemingway went speculative and thoughtful, dipping into the minds and lives of several other characters on board their moored boats: again, my interest in them was focussed mostly on what they revealed about Hemingway’s values and attitudes towards women, class, sexuality – there’s never any point being offended, I tend to think, but you can learn a lot simply by having such attitudes rendered stark and plain.

While I’ve read Fiesta (or, The Sun Also Rises) twice, the only other book of his that I’ve read to date is one of his memoirs, True at First Light, which I really enjoyed. I think when you read Hemingway, not only can you delight in a distinctly 30s voice and style (truly, reading one of his books is like being immersed in an architectural style), but you are immersed in Hemingway, himself. There is a sense of sadness and fatalism here that surprised me, and a world-weary cynicism. Hidden beneath the laconic dialogue and unreliable characters is a more biting commentary on class, wealth, power and the effects of war. The fact that it’s not very obvious makes his work more appealing to me, and reminds me that I really must read more Hemingway.

Review: Hope Farm

hope farmHope Farm by Peggy Frew
Scribe 2015
Trade Paperback
343 pages

Parenthood is no simple or straight road, and long after birth there exists, still, symbiosis between parent and child. Peggy Frew’s novel Hope Farm deftly explores the consequences of youthful decisions, the effect of silence on love, and how a parent can represent home to a child.

Thirteen-year-old Silver Landes is used to moving around between ashram and commune with her young, single mother Ishtar, but that doesn’t stop her from yearning to have her mother to herself, and a place of their own – to just stop for long enough to have a real home. The move to Hope Farm in central Gippsland, Victoria is just the most recent dislocation in young Silver’s life, another grand idea that Ishtar has bought into, another new man that Ishtar is following. This time it’s a man Silver only knows as Miller: thirty-six, bearded and large, he sweeps her mother up in his plans for the hippie ‘commune’ of Hope Farm, a run-down property rented by an odd mix of ageing hippies who have become increasingly jaded. Ishtar hands over her savings to Miller to buy a car, which he registers in his own name, and then Silver accompanies her mother on the train while Miller uses the car to get new supplies for the farm.

While Ishtar disappears into Miller’s possessive, intense and narcissistic embrace, Silver is – as always – left to fend for herself. She befriends fourteen-year-old Ian, a neighbour, though the constant bullying he receives at school creates a darkness in him that Silver begins to glimpse, and is scared by. She is also scared of Miller, with his complete possession of her mother and his pornographic and violent drawing hanging over the bed that clearly show his fatherhood aim. With the arrival of a surprise guest on the farm, this temporary home is further shaken and Silver is drawn along in the adults’ wake, heading towards disaster.

Silver’s narration of this period in her life comes from decades later, as a middle-aged woman still haunted by events and the emptiness and loneliness left by her mother. Her silent, pent-up rage and impotent hopes are clearly drawn, sharper-edged by time and honestly come by. Ishtar – as we learn from her own poorly-spelt journal writings that intersperse Silver’s narration – was only sixteen when she fell pregnant, and completely ignorant of how it happened. Living in an ordinary suburb in Queensland with religious parents in the 70s, her mother’s reaction is predictable and acutely heart-breaking: she is furious, and keenly aware of the shame that Ishtar will bring to her family. Ishtar has seen what happened to another girl who was in the same situation, around whom judgements and opinions still collect, and is passively swept up in her mother’s plan. She is taken to Brisbane, to a home for girls like her; after the baby is born she will sign it away for adoption and return home, all in secret. But at the home she learns from another girl who has been there before that she has a choice, and Ishtar takes it.

The repercussions of Ishtar’s choice are just as hard on her as they are on Silver, in the long term. Her mother refuses to see her again, leaving Ishtar to live without support or guidance in an ashram, with the people who helped her. At such a young age, Ishtar – who took that name to replace her own when she started living there – has to give up the remains of her childhood and work for no personal gain. She loves her baby dearly, but feels increasingly guilty for the noise the baby makes, and for loving her so much. Soon, depression takes hold of her and she grows colder towards her child.

Finally when I went to bed she was still awake she must have been feeling better because she laughed and reached out her arms but all I wanted was sleep. I looked in to her face and no warm feeling came. I lay down with my back to her. She cuddled up to me and touched my hair but I lay like a block of concrete, there was this heavy sadness and some where deep under everything I wanted to break the spell and turn over and face her, it felt like an important thing to do but I just couldnt. I didnt move or make a sound and after a while she left me alone. And after that it was like some thing had broken and I couldnt fix it, I seemed to feel more and more tired like the love had been buried under the tiredness and every night I turned my back on her I lay there but I could never fall asleep because of the sad feeling I just lay listening to her breathing until she fell asleep. [p.146]

The moves begin: she finds a man and moves to his commune, then moves to another ashram to escape, and so on. Her relationship with Silver becomes rote and silent, and while there are things about Ishtar that Silver has always known – like what her real name is – there are bigger things that Ishtar never speaks about, and Silver has no words for her mother’s moods, and no one to turn to.

The consequences of shaming girls and women about their bodies, the secretiveness associated with sex and pregnancy and the judgemental attitudes of others all play their part in ruining Silver’s relationship with her mother. I’m not sure that we’ve come all that far since, though at least we don’t pack girls off to wait out their pregnancy in hiding, away from the neighbours’ eyes. This happened to my own mother, who wasn’t in a position to marry when she accidentally got pregnant, and who was sent off to a home run by nuns in Melbourne, and treated like she wasn’t even human. Unlike Ishtar, though, my mother’s story had a happy ending: she and the father – my father – did marry and start a family, and the baby they had to give up for adoption came back to us and is just as much part of the family, and loved, as the rest of us. The point remains, though, of what we do to each other in the process, and the unnecessary pain and feelings of being unloved it brings. For Silver, love for her mother is the emotion she has long buried. She feels like a burden, and the silence between the two only exacerbates this.

The irony in the name ‘Hope Farm’ is inescapable, and encompasses not only the dead dreams of the hippies who hoped to live self-sufficiently but who now work in factories in the nearby towns, smoking pot and aimlessly strumming the guitar when at home. It also highlights the hope that fills Ishtar, temporarily, with energy, and the hope that has long been suppressed within Silver but that surges up when the two find themselves living in a decrepit old miner’s cottage that, at best, resembles a cubby-house with its shabby, makeshift furniture and lack of amenities (like a toilet). It is there that Silver’s dream, her one real desire to live with Ishtar, just the two of them, in a place of their own is finally, but partly, realised. Ishtar falls into her worst depression yet, and the only upside is that she turns away Miller.

Miller is the character who wasn’t quite realised for me, or not in the way that he was for Silver. It wasn’t until towards the end of the book that I even realised that Silver saw him as a monster – this just didn’t quite come across to me. I certainly didn’t like him, and his brutishness – captured in the descriptions of his hair and size, the way he ‘claims’ Ishtar in a physical way – was exceptionally unappealing, but I didn’t fear him. I didn’t realise that Silver feared him. It could partly be because, as engaging and readable as this is, I had a lot of interruptions and took about two weeks to read it; those interruptions can make it hard to feel the tension and threat. Tension was another aspect that I didn’t genuinely feel: Silver directly foreshadows the impending disaster when she tells us that they were all on a “collision course”, but the only tension I felt was when Ian showed her the abandoned mine shaft and she was, rightly, spooked, and things were never quite so easy between them again. The tension was in wondering what role the mine shaft would play in the story, and knowing that it would. But that tension didn’t grip me, certainly not in the way I want it to, or the way the novel implies I should have been. Still, his effect is made clear:

I glanced at Ishtar’s one suitcase and duffel bag sitting in the corner. They looked their usual compact, neat selves, but even they were being encroached on by the huge, looming tide that was Miller’s mess – and her bedspread, crumpled down at the foot of the mattress, appeared more worn that I remembered, and smaller. I turned slowly in the small central clearing. So much stuff. As if he conjured it with his hands, brought it bouncing and skittering into his orbit, to then fly along in his wake like iron filings following a magnet. Into my mind came the twin images of Miller lifting Ishtar and putting her into the car, and then lifting and carrying her into the room at the ashram – her yielding body, her transformed face. Then I saw him raising Jindi towards the night sky. The power in those arms, and the speed with which they snatched something up – a body, a whole person – and then just as quickly let it go again. [p.90]

This is, undoubtedly, a sad novel. The sadness is in the sense of nostalgia that is vividly and realistically imagined, and in the disconnect between Silver and her mother, between a young girl desperately wanting to love her mother, and a mother trying to live life as if she weren’t one. There is sadness in the dinginess and squalour of Hope Farm, in the painful, lonely and unloved nature of Silver’s coming-of-age story. I came close to loving this novel, and in many ways I do love it: it is superbly written, even if the hoped-for tension wasn’t quite there for me; it is memorable in its realism; and it is easy to connect to and empathise with, from the rural living ‘out bush’, which reminded me of where I grew up in central-north Tasmania, to the painful school bus rides and, most especially, the simple, unfulfilled hopes of Silver Landes, whose past – and especially her time at Hope Farm in 1985 – shaped her just as Ishtar’s did, and not for the better.

This story will stay with me, as all well-written novels do that work on multiple levels, rich with symbolism and hidden layers just waiting to be unpacked. Above it all, I am left with this strong sense of familiarity, almost as if I had read this novel before, heard this story told another, earlier time – and I think this is not because it’s a cliché, or Frew has ripped off some other book, but because it is such a human story, one that can speak to me and the girl that still lives inside me, suppressed maybe, but who – despite having had the loving family and stable home that Silver so yearns for – can still empathise with that hope and desire precisely because it is so vital. And because that sense of isolation and loneliness that Silver feels is so reminiscent of that period of our lives when we straddle childhood and adolescence. Frew writes with an openness that leaves me feeling vulnerable as I read, which directly relates to my ability to empathise with Silver. Mistakes are made on both sides, life is messy, and love is fragile and easily smothered.



Other Reviews:

“With precise writing, Peggy Frew bares the effects of choice on her characters. Taking control of their own lives both Silver and Ishtar make choices that effect and change their lives, but like the ripple in a pond, they effect each other and those around them, some with devastating consequences; ones that they bury and live with, but that will haunt them to their death.” Welcome to My Library

Hope Farm is a tenderly written story, acutely observed and masterly constructed. Frew’s writing is impressionable, memorable and highly enjoyable.” The Book Kat

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Review: To Be a Child

to be a childTo Be a Child by Debra Schoenberger
Blurb 2015
244 pages
Non-fiction: Photography

Publisher’s summary: Give a child a cardboard box and his imagination will turn it into anything but! Today, it is less common to see children playing in the streets, especially in urban areas. The plethora of ready-made toys should make any child happy. What usually happens is that the box the toy came in becomes the toy! This book documents children at play (and at times at work) from 10 different countries. A child’s ingenuity never ceases to amaze me and I hope you will share these images with your children as well.


This would be the first time I’ve (attempted to) review a photography book, but it’s certainly not the first time I’ve pored over the pages of one. Between my upbringing in an arty-farty family, my love of art and my photographer husband, I’ve long been interested in photography as an artistic form of expression and a mode of storytelling – though my attempts to learn the art itself have met with extremely mixed results. A book of photography taken around the world, focussed on children in their natural element, sounded promising. However, as beautiful and well-executed as some of the photos are, I feel that the story is missing.

There are indeed some wonderful shots here, ‘caught in the moment’ shots that make you feel instantly connected – like the one of the little Mongolian girl standing in front of the goats, legs splayed wide, face turned away, mischief and joy writ large in her body language. Many photos are understated, such as the one of the two boys playing the street piano, or the young Tibetan boy reading a comic book. But after scrolling through these photos – loosely divided into such categories as ‘play’, ‘work’, ‘discovery’ – I couldn’t help but feel the lack of a narrative.

With any picture, be it a photo or a painting or some other kind of image, it is through a story that we connect and make meaning from it. The context of this collection is perhaps too broad, or there are too many images that are simply nice shots (or, with some, merely okay shots), that are too disconnected to make a coherent story out of. The theme – children at play – is much too general for me to come away feeling like I’ve learned something, or gained some new insight. There was only, actually, one photo that I felt spoke of a story: a black-and-white image of a boy on a swing in front of his house, two women out-of-focus on the steps behind him. He has a slightly sad or dispirited look, his body language a bit slumped, that I instantly started asking questions: who is he? Why does he look sad? Why is he alone? What kind of family life does he have? and so on. It’s interesting to note, but the quieter, possibly sadder photos are the ones that generate interest. (Some of the especially happy shots are too much like regular happy-snaps.)

There was also the problem – a “problem” that shouldn’t really be a problem, but seems to go hand-in-hand with children – that more than a few of the photos were simply cute for cute’s sake. Do I sound unbearably pessimistic, that I’m struggling to find joy in experiencing these photos? I did experience joy with some – I especially loved the Mongolian photos, scattered though they are (that might have been a better way of organising them, perhaps?) and some of the Nepalese, Tibetan and Indian photos. I just needed some other angle, a bit of ‘edge’, some insight into social justice themes or the contrast between first-world and third-world. This collection lacked a sharper purpose, one that I kept looking for. (The idea that children are children – human – no matter where they live or how they live, their skin colour, religion, language, rather than an Other, is a valid and important one, but not one that spoke to me here, despite the breadth of the photos.) As nice as the photos are, overall that’s all they remained for me: nice. I would rather be slugged in the stomach, in good and bad ways, and close the book with the images imprinted on my brain. That didn’t happen.

To Be a Child shows evidence of talent, an ability to make use of natural lighting – accomplished well in places like Mongolia, less well in Canada – and a good eye for capturing understated and sometimes poignant moments. Towards the end there were some contrasting scenes – mother and child on subway or train, in different countries, but I struggled to make any profound meaning from them. The collection is interesting but needs tighter culling, or some kind of over-arching thesis or critique to complement the images. There’s no such thing as an objective photo, so essays of the photographer’s interpretation and experiences in these countries, her insights, anecdotes and context, would have rounded out the book and guided the reader.

My thanks to the author for a copy of this book via iReads Book Tours.

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Debra SchoenbergerAbout the Author:

Debra Schoenberger aka #girl with camera

My dad always carried a camera under the seat of his car and was constantly taking pictures. I think that his example, together with pouring over National Geographic magazines as a child fuelled my curiosity for the world around me.

I am a documentary photographer and street photography is my passion. Some of my images have been chosen by National Geographic as editor’s favourites and are on display in the National Geographic museum in Washington, DC. I also have an off-kilter sense of humour so I’m always looking for the unusual. Plus I usually have a lot of scars on my knees.
​(le sigh…)

I live with my creative director, Miss Pickles (my budgie) in Victoria, BC, Canada.

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Connect with the photographer’s website: Website

Review: The Natural Way of Things

natural way of thingsThe Natural Way of Things by Charlotte Wood
Allen & Unwin 2015
Trade Paperback with Flaps
313 pages
Speculative Fiction

Charlotte Wood’s fifth novel is a disturbing yet beautiful and thought-provoking exploration into the misogyny lurking beneath Australia’s good-natured, laid-back, egalitarian image. It is inspired, in part, by the Hay Institution for Girls, “an offshoot of Parramatta Girls Home that was reserved for the 10 worst offenders in the state in the 1960s and ’70s. They were drugged and put on a train to the decommissioned men’s prison in south-western NSW, where they were forced to march, look at the floor, never talk to each other, and endure rape and other violence.” (Susan Wyndham, SMH) It is also inspired, or influenced, by the reaction to sex scandals over the years – far from being seen as victims, or equally responsible, the women in these scandals are vilified and denigrated – and hated.

In such ways do incredible true stories and a confronting dystopian fiction come together. In Wood’s alternate present day setting, ten girls are drugged and taken to a remote sheep station, long abandoned and falling into ruin, in outback Australia (the state isn’t clear but it would be either Victoria or NSW, most likely). They wake groggy and fearful, without their clothes or possessions, wearing old-fashioned clothes to which a leash can be attached and locked. Their heads are shaved, they’re served small portions of the least nutritious food you can think of – Kraft-style Mac and Cheese, two-minute noodles, no fruit or veg – and bullied and beaten by the two men hired to guard them. Boncer and Teddy – and a young woman of dubious background herself, Nancy, who dresses up as a nurse with paper costume pieces and plastic toy stethoscope – are their guards. Surrounded by a high electrified fence, they are all locked in, trapped, but for the ten young women their lesson is to learn what they are, not who; and for the men, it is to teach them this.

This nightmare situation (as a female reader, I couldn’t help but feel vulnerable, even threatened) is vividly rendered in Wood’s delicate, descriptive prose and made all the more frightening by the idea, lurking beneath the surreal every-day existence depicted, that this plan wasn’t even thought through all that well; or that, if it was carefully planned, it was planned by a truly cruel, evil fuck who has no regard for human life, health or sanity. It is the not-knowing, the ambiguity, the lack of information and facts that add to the tension and terror for the reader. Trying to imagine adults sitting down and planning this, justifying it, and then seeing it through makes my brain want to shut down. And yet, as evidenced by the real-life inspiration from the Hay Institution for Girls, it is entirely possible, today as well. It comes down to attitudes, to ideological mind-sets, to what a collective group of people believe is true and right. That’s how we justify all manner of things, from bombing foreign towns to imprisoning Aboriginal peoples for minor infractions. Wood’s ultimate triumph, in terms of ideas, is to remind us mutable our ideologies really are, and how, for as much as we like to think we are advanced, civilised, better than before, we actually have an awful long way to go. The reason, the ultimate reason why The Natural Way of Things is so disturbing and terrifying, is that there is a part of me that gets it, that understands that there is only a thin membrane of love, compassion and strength keeping women safe in this and many other Western countries.

I hear accounts of people claiming that feminism is no longer needed, isn’t necessary, isn’t important – that plenty of women not only don’t consider themselves feminists, but have come to believe some strange version of reality in which feminism is a negative thing, a repressive or virulent, angry and hateful thing. What could be more successful to the largely-unconscious patriarchal agenda than this re-writing of feminism? Whoever owns the definition of a word, owns the word, and sadly, these days, women no longer own their own word. “Women are their own worst enemy” is a common enough saying – I say it myself – and I believe it is often, sadly, true. We constantly sabotage our own efforts at being – not just taken seriously, but treated equally.

This is captured in rather pessimistic ways by Wood’s characters, from the two main female narrators – Verla, in first-person present-tense, and Yolanda, in third-person past tense – to the other eight girls unjustly imprisoned with them. Verla was involved in an affair with a politician and still, naively, believes that Andrew will come and rescue her, that she’s different from the others, whom she judges almost as harshly as everyone else has done. Yolanda is the most clued-in, but she is also the only one who wasn’t tricked into signing her rights away. She knew something was up, and she fought. They overwhelmed her and drugged her anyway, and she knows no one is coming for them because even her beloved brother was in on it. The other young women, all involved in various different kinds of scandals for which they took all the hate, represent different kinds of women, but none of them are particularly flattering. Barbs, the swimmer, is a big girl who suffers such a violent beating on their first day for speaking out that her jaw is permanently crooked, is obviously the butch one. Three of the girls become obsessed with their body hair, tweezing them out of each other’s bodies, trying to maintain a look that they have long been trained to want. Hetty, “the cardinal’s girl” (and doesn’t that just make you cringe?) is depicted as small-minded and somewhat malicious. The list goes on, none of it flattering.

Yet such is the way Woods has crafted this novel that you come away with a clearer understanding: we’re all flawed, none of us are perfect, we all make mistakes, and while you might not want someone like Hetty as a friend, or even value her as you would Verla, does she deserve this? Hopefully, the answer for all readers is a resounding NO! And as much as I’d like to think, “Oh this could never happen”, a part of me doesn’t really believe that.

I read this – in a day – just as the Briggs scandal broke, and the cricket player Chris Gayle got in trouble for his comments to a female sports reporter. An Age article brought attention to how the woman at the receiving end of Briggs’ unwanted attention was being turned into the scapegoat rather than the victim, while following the Gayle story showed how quickly most of the country went from “His comments to a professional journalist were a swift means of reducing her from a serious journalist to an object for the male gaze” to “this is a complete over-reaction, lighten up, his comments were meant innocently, the political correctness police are going too far”. That reporter understands her male-dominated world and distanced herself from it all, saving her job and her reputation, while the public servant in the Briggs’ case was close to experiencing complete demolition because she made a complaint. It’s telling. There is also the on-going discussions of the high rate of domestic violence in Australia, which is a huge problem and caused by, among other things, this over-arching lack of respect for women.

But none of this would be as memorable and hard-hitting if it weren’t for Wood’s writing. While I thought her control wasn’t consistent and I found the use of present tense annoying and pointless for Verla’s narration, overall it is beautifully and poetically written. Something incredible is done to violence when written in such simple yet beautiful language as this:

One big girl, fair-skinned with fleshy cheeks and wide, swimmer’s shoulders, said irritably, ‘What? We can’t hear you,’ and then closed her eyes against the sun, hands on her hips, murmuring something beneath her breath. So she didn’t see the man’s swift, balletic leap – impossibly pretty and light across the gravel – and a leather-covered baton in his hand coming whack over the side of her jaw. They all cried out with her as she fell, shrieking in pain. Some of their arms came out to try to catch her. They cowered. More than one began crying as they hurried then, into a line. [p.24]

The contrast of Boncer’s ‘swift, balletic leap – impossibly pretty’ with the violent beating of Barb increases the shock value, the sense of wrongness and the realisation of powerlessness. Violence against women (such as domestic violence) has long proved an effective tool in the hands of misogynistic men.

At other times, especially after the power goes out (except for the electric fence) and they run out of food, and begin going crazy in their own separate ways, Wood’s prose captures a primordial truth as well as day-to-day reality:

Yolanda hugged the squishy mint-green and baby-pink packages to her chest, squatting in the grief and shame of how reduced she was by such ordinary things. It was why they were here, she understood now. For the hatred of what came out of you, what you contained. What you were capable of. She understood because she shared it, this dull fear and hatred of her body. It had bloomed inside her all her life, purged but regrowing, unstoppable, every month: this dark weed and the understanding that she was meat, was born to make meat. [p.122]

It is a theme I’ve been interested in for some time now, this idea of shame and women’s bodies, of the successful rewriting and control of women’s bodies by, really, the Catholic Church and then, really, everyone. I’m very much of the mind that women need to reclaim their bodies, their right to their bodies but also how they value them and their needs and desires. I’m resistant to Yolanda’s view, but I can understand it. And in many cultures around the world, past and present, women are controlled through the social traditions dictating behaviour and menstruation. As if, by teaching girls and women to see themselves in this low way, they remove the power that females rightfully possess, out of the age-old fear of woman’s ability to create life. And as is often the way in literature, where this discourse of womanhood and power appear, so too does a representation of the landscape, the natural world:

When she wakes, her face printed with grass blades, she finds her way to a hillside of scrub. She walks in it like a dream, climbing the slope in the noisy silence. Silty leaves cling to the soles of her feet. There is the patter of wet droplets falling from the gently moving leaves far above. High squeaks and tin musical turnings of tiny birds. Sometimes a hard rapid whirr, a sprung diving board, and a large dove explodes from a vine and vanishes. A motorised insect drones by her ear. She looks upwards, upwards, and sees long shreds of bark, or abandoned human skins, hanging in the branches. The bush breathes her in. It inhales her. She is mesmerised by pairs of seed pods nestled at the base of a grass tree: hot orange, bevelled, testicular. [p.135]

A dichotomy of human-made vs. nature is a common-enough theme, but here rendered all the more turbulent and visceral by the circumstances, the very premise of the story. Even the title, The Natural Way of Things, speaks of this idea. It can refer to our determination to claim, possess and control – through language more than anything else – the natural world, which is also representative of womanhood (Mother Earth etc.), and also to a primordial, primitive and thus ‘natural’ way of life, an absence of so-called civilisation – relevant to Yolanda’s increasing strangeness as she becomes one with the land, and Verla’s ultimate decision. It speaks to the sadness I was left with at the end, which presents a kind of either/or scenario: either you live in the ‘civilised’ world and let it dictate who and what you are, or you shun it entirely, abandon it and become ‘primitive’. Again, this is how we often grasp the world, and attempt to tame it: through words, and the positive or negative connotations of words. The ambiguous ending, with its taint of further horror balanced by a thin brush of hope, makes it clear who has really won in this world, which is really our world in disguise.

Make sure, when you start this book, that you have nothing planned for the day, because you’ll want to read it all the way through in one sitting – and should. This is a book I will enjoy re-reading, and pondering anew. It has so far been nominated and longlisted for a couple of awards, and I hope to see it appear on more lists this year. It is a deserving book, working on multiple levels and one of those lovely rare treasures that can be interpreted and experienced in different ways by different readers, making it rich and unique. Comparisons have been made (in the blurb) to The Handmaid’s Tale and Lord of the Flies, but ‘comparison’ is the wrong word for it: it is more that The Natural Way of Things has joined an on-going exploration into human behaviour, the powerful dominance of ideologies and their effect on both individuals and culture, and violence.


Other Reviews:

“I’d be stunned and disappointed if The Natural Way if Things isn’t shortlisted for both the Miles Franklin Award and The Stella Prize.” Devoted Eclectic

“This book is beautifully written and ridiculously clever. Readers cannot help but be swept along—entranced by Wood’s stunning prose—even when the subject matter may be confronting.” Debbish

“Wood’s portrayal of the stark beauty of rural Australia, which heavily uses imagery (such as the mysterious white horse) and allusion, is powerful and sensual. Even at its most brutal there’s something intensely lyrical about her writing.” Still Not Fussed

“There is a deep undercurrent of rage running throughout this novel, but it never quite comes to the surface. For me this caused the book to suffer, but I think for other readers this will perfectly capture how they feel about issues of gender inequality. There is a real sense of powerlessness pervading every word on every page, which makes it a not altogether pleasant experience to read, but does not diminish the accomplishment with which it is written.” Babbling Books

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Review: Who's Afraid?

Who's AfraidWho’s Afraid? by Maria Lewis
Piatkus/Hachette 2016
ARC (print manuscript)
340 pages
Urban Fantasy

Maria Lewis’s debut novel is a smoothly-paced, exciting and refreshing urban fantasy with more emphasis on a coming-of-age journey than the usual crime-mystery sleuthing prevalent in the genre. The story introduces blue-haired, fun-loving, smart-mouthed Tommi Grayson, born in Scotland after her pregnant mother left her native New Zealand in a hurry. Eight months after her mother’s accidental death, Tommi is finally ready to head off to her mother’s homeland to try and find her father – not to meet him, just to see. After all, her mother had once confessed that her pregnancy was the product of a rape, so she hardly wanted to sit down to a cup of tea with the man.

Armed with a possible name, Tommi’s search leads her to a large house on a quiet street at the end of town, where she learns a lot more about her father and his family than she ever wished for – and about herself.

The strength of this story is without a doubt Tommi herself, who narrates with humour, intelligence, compassion and strength. Due to her werewolf heritage, she has a temper and so was directed into martial arts, and her post-New Zealand training builds on that. But the other key character whom you can’t help but love is Lorcan, the ex-Praetorian Guard turned Custodian for the Trieze, the ‘rulers’, if you will, of this new paranormal world Tommi finds herself well and truly caught up in. Lorcan reminded me of Joscelin from the Phèdre series by Jacqueline Carey – a bit of a romantic dream, to be honest, but such a good one! If you’re not familiar with the series, think beautiful, noble (and rather sweet) man who is also a fierce and highly skilled warrior and, to top it off, devoted and protective but not domineering (that’s it, right there, the romantic dream!). Lorcan is in that vein, and Tommi’s relationship with him builds slowly and believably, adding that extra layer of tension that keeps you invested.

That isn’t to say, though, that this is a romance, only that it is romantic with guts – the ideal kind for an Urban Fantasy. Speaking of, I was so relieved that Who’s Afraid? didn’t follow the usual pattern of Urban Fantasy novels: that of the mystery, detective kind. While dead bodies do turn up, it’s always clear who is behind it, and Tommi is on no quest beyond mastering her werewolf self and training before the next full moon. Tension and suspense is maintained because you know something’s going to happen, and it’s also maintained by showing Tommi’s normal days – normalcy always raises the stakes.

While the plot has its formulaic moments, especially in regards to the showdown climax with her insane young relative, Steven, it also surprises. Lewis takes the time to develop Tommi’s character, to let you experience what ‘normal’ looked like for her, to meet her friends and come to love them too, so that your emotional investment is well and truly secured. And with Tommi narrating, I flew through my reading of this, easily glued to the page, and made a nice pile of soggy tissues at the end (really, Lewis holds no punches). Things have been set up for a clean sequel with a fresh new story, and Tommi is the kind of character you want to accompany for the long haul.

My thanks to the publisher for a copy of this book.

TOUR BANNER2 aww2016


Other Stops on the Tour:

12 Jan – Reading Lark
13 Jan – Words Read and Written
14 Jan – Confessions From Romaholics
15 Jan – Tiffany Books
16 Jan – Jessica’s Bookworld
17 Jan – Duffy the Writer
18 Jan – Book Nerdigans
19 Jan – Giraffe Days
20 Jan – Jess Resides Here
21 Jan – Aussie Bookworm
22 Jan – Reading, Writing and Riesling
23 Jan – Read at Midnight

(Some of the stops have giveaways, so if you’d like a chance to win a copy of this book, click on the links above.)

Review: The Husband's Secret

husband's secretThe Husband’s Secret by Liane Moriarty
Penguin Books UK 2013
Trade Paperback
402 pages

In Sydney’s North Shore, Cecilia Fitzpatrick is well pleased with her life. Her husband, John-Paul, is still a catch and a lovely father to their three young daughters: Isobel, Esther and Polly. She’s president of the parent committee for St Angelus primary school, which her kids attend just like she and her husband did decades ago; her house is beautifully and obsessively organised; she is one of the most successful Tupperware ladies in Australia – making more money than her husband realises – and she’s involved in pretty much everything.

But Cecilia’s cosy little world comes to a crashing halt when she learns her husband’s secret. Finding an old letter in the attic, addressed to her in the event of John-Paul’s death, it isn’t until she realises just how desperate John-Paul is to get it back and destroy it that she opens it. What she learns can’t be unlearned: it’s big, it’s horrible, it changes everything. What is she to do with this new knowledge? Already it’s eating her up inside, but letting the truth out will have equally tragic consequences for her three small girls.

In Melbourne, Tess also is content with her life: she has a wonderful husband, Will, and an even more wonderful six year old, Liam. She runs a successful advertising business with Will, a marketer, and her cousin Felicity, a graphic designer, out of their house. Everything comes to an end when she learns her husband’s seedy little secret: he and Felicity have fallen in love. They tell Tess about it early one evening, after she’s talked to her mother in Sydney who’s just broken her ankle, and in her fury and sense of betrayal she immediately gets on a plane with Liam to stay with her mum, Lucy O’Leary. Lucy, who separated from Tess’s father when Tess was ten, is supportive and understanding, and encourages Tess to enrol Liam in the local Catholic school, St Angelus, so he doesn’t miss out. At St Angelus, Tess is re-introduced to Connor Whitby, an ex-boyfriend from university who now works as the PE teacher. Also at the school is Rachel Crowley, the secretary and all-round office lady.

Rachel Crowley, now in her sixties, has spent decades mourning the death of her eldest child, Janie, in 1984, while almost entirely ignoring her younger child, Rob. Now a real estate agent, Rob announces that he is moving to New York City because his wife, Lauren, who works in banking, has a new job there for the next two years. It’s not the loss of Rob that upsets Rachel, though, but the loss of Jacob, their toddler and her only grandchild, whom she cares for two days a week and who makes her feel alive as she hasn’t felt since the day Janie died. What makes Janie’s death so hard to live with even after all these years is the fact that she was murdered, and the case hasn’t been closed: they never found who did it. Rachel has always been sure that Connor, the last person to see Janie alive, is guilty, and an old VCR tape she suddenly discovers makes her think she’s finally found proof. Eagerly, she passes it over to the police and waits for the news, for a resolution, for penance to be rightfully paid.

All three women’s lives converge in the small neighbourhood around St Angelus, where secrets are let out of the jar, marriages are tested and, ultimately, children pay the price.

Ideas around truth, love, betrayal, marriage, family and religion bind this story together as well as the characters and Moriarty’s insightful, drily funny and sharp prose. Questions are raised around all these themes, and all are delightfully complicated, human and real. I have previously read The Hypnotist’s Love Story, by the same author, and absolutely loved it. This is a different story and somehow has a lightier, less dark tone to it, even though some pretty dark things are at its core. This effect could be due to the more flippant black humour and frank personal observations that fill its pages. It deals so honestly with married life, with raising a family, with our ideas of love and loyalty and trust, that while reading it you feel like you’re gaining an honest look inside the hearts and minds of women.

For this is, indeed, a woman’s story – a story of women, though not necessarily a story that’s only for women. The women who silently keep the world ticking over, generally unacknowledged though not unloved. When Tess is discussing the breakdown of her marriage with her mother, Lucy tells her that it’s important to put your ego aside. It’s a lesson at the heart of all the characters: can they put aside their own, sometimes childish emotions, their wants and hurts and upsets, and think of someone else?

While women are at front and centre of The Husband’s Secret, they are not the only ones hurt by these secrets. Children, always present but never centre-stage, are often the ones who pay the price. At a simple level, in one way, Janie paid with her life because of her parents’ strict Catholic refusal to allow her to have a boyfriend, resulting in her secret relationship and inability to be open with her mother (I wouldn’t want to say that this is actually why she died – nothing is that simple and I would never want to imply that a woman is to blame for what happens to her at the hand’s of a man’s temper, only that it was a contributing factor in Janie’s silence). What the women go through in this novel will break your heart, but what the children endure will devastate it.

Moriarty shows off her deft skill at creating believable, diverse characters, each with their own distinct voice and perspective, and weaving the threads of the narrative in such a way that it flows with impeccable timing yet never feels predictable. (I thought I knew where it was going and I thought there would be a big moral message, which I dreaded, but I need to have more faith in Moriarty: the ending is both perfect and realistically messy, full of possibilities and hope and anger.) All three main female characters felt like people I know; I even felt like there was a bit of myself in all of them. Provided with a distinct third-person point-of-view for Cecilia, Tess and Rachel, you not only get to see inside their heads and hearts, but the additional empathy means that the ethical and moral mess they’re all in has no clear solution. I honestly had no idea how Moriarty would bring it all together and close the story, and that only added to the tension.

While The Husband’s Secret delves into one particular hypothetical, it provides exquisite insight into the human response to tragedy, to betrayal and to the even bigger test: what would you do if you learned a secret that threatened your family’s happiness, yet the disclosure of it could bring peace and justice to another? What are we capable of enduring, of living with? What are we prepared to do to reassert a sense of justice and order in our world? And, how well does love endure? With nods to the legend of Pandora, Liane Moriarty skilfully constructs a compelling story that posits possible answers but leaves things just as ambiguous and complicated as life really is; it’s within these possibilities that our minds are free to roam and expand and, in turn, question ourselves.



Other Reviews:

“With consummate skill, Moriarty winds her way through a minefield of moral ambiguity as her story explores the very personal implications of choosing between right and wrong. […] The Husband’s Secret is a compelling, thought provoking novel, inspired by an article about real life deathbed confessions and their surprising consequences. An intriguing examination of conscience, love, betrayal and forgiveness this novel will stay with you well after the last page has been turned.” Book’d Out

“There are so many layers to appreciate in this novel. It is a story of motherhood, love, relationships, secrets, friendship, grief and forgiveness. It is a story of possibilities, both known and unknown, and a reminder that small acts (and more significant ones) can have consequences that we might never know or anticipate.” Reading Upside Down

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