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Australian Women Writers Challenge - 2016 Wrap-up

I have been participating in the Australian Women Writers Challenge for a few years now – I track my progress here – and it’s by far my favourite of all the challenges (yes, including the one I used to host!).

In 2016, I set myself the goal of reading and reviewing 10 books by Australian women writers, and managed 12:

1. Who’s Afraid? by Maria Lewis
2. The Natural Way of Things by Charlotte Wood
3. The Husband’s Secret by Liane Moriarty
4. The Foretelling of Georgie Spider by Ambelin Kwaymullina
5. The Engagement by Chloe Hooper
6. The Golden Age by Joan London
7. Hope Farm by Peggy Frew
8. Red Queen by Honey Brown
9. This House of Grief by Helen Garner
10. The Dressmaker by Rosalie Ham
11. Leap by Myfanwy Jones
12. Mateship with Birds by Carrie Tiffany

I didn’t count picture books this time, only because I couldn’t keep on top of it (and it’s harder to know where picture book authors are from, unless they’re super-successful/famous). So this list is for novels and non-fiction work only.

Of the titles above, my favourite would have to be The Natural Way of Things, which I read in a day in the summer holidays and is so memorable, confronting, tense, gripping, thought-provoking – all those things you want from a great book (well I do: I love confronting, disturbing books!).

I finished reading Ambelin Kwaymullina’s YA Fantasy trilogy, The Tribe, which ended as strongly as it began and puts me firmly in Kwaymullina’s fan group! I can’t recommend it highly enough. Hope Farm, Leap and Mateship with Birds were also wonderful and quite lovely to read – I plan on using Leap in one of my courses next year – whoops, I mean this year! I haven’t quite got my head around the fact that it’s 2017 already! Liane Moriarty is always a great read, too, and This House of Grief is as compelling as it is upsetting.

For 2017, I am setting myself the same goal: 10 books, the “Franklin” level, and hope to not only meet it but to also review them when they’re fresh in my head.

I have already started the year strong, reading two novels by female Australian writers: The Better Son by Katherine Johnson and The Grass is Greener by Loretta Hill, and I am currently reading Rosalie Ham’s 2005 novel, Summer at Mount Hope.

Books I’m currently reading and need to finish soon are:

Other titles high up on the TBR mountain include:

Review: Mateship with Birds

Mateship with Birds by Carrie Tiffany
Picador 2013 (2012)
Trade paperback
208 pages
Literature; Historical Fiction

I’ve never before labelled a book as “literature” on my blog – the term comes loaded with elitism and the beginnings of a boggy mess – but I felt that to position this novel in the historical fiction genre alone doesn’t quite capture the true nature of the book. Perhaps this, too, speaks to the snobbery inherent in literary circles: that ‘historical fiction’ is akin to ‘women’s fiction’ and, as such, easily dismissed as ‘lite’ and not quite worthy. Mateship with Birds IS historical fiction, in that it takes place in the 1950s (beginning at 1953) – that 50+ years’ gap is really all you need; however, ‘historical fiction’ comes with its own set of expectations – of an authentic historical voice, of period details and links to real-world historical events, and a somewhat older ‘style’ of narration even – which are not really met here.

Instead, Tiffany has created a story that transcends time. The 1950s is a relevant setting, and the period details are present and pertinent (though not overdone), but in terms of personalities, a sense of time and place, of the unravelling of what’s known and the beautifully slow development of new, tender connections – it feels so close and intimate, so personable, that it is easy to forget its place in our past.

Maybe this all seems irrelevant, but since genres affect our expectations, I felt it worth unpacking. Because if you’re at all curious about that elusive, oft-times pretentious label ‘literary’, Tiffany’s novel is a wonderful example of the deft skill and deceptive simplicity that is, I think, the bedrock of excellent literature.

Mateship with Birds is, primarily, about Harry, a divorced dairy farmer outside the small regional town of Cohuna, Victoria. He’s a quiet, observant man who takes holistic care of his cows – which have names like Big Joyce, Pineapple, Enid and Linga Longa Wattle Flower – while imagining himself as their manager and they, star performers on the road. He keeps a notebook in the shed in which he records, in verse form, the goings-ons of the resident kookaburra family: Mum, Dad, Tiny and Club-Toe. His nearest neighbours are Trevor Mues and single mother of two, Betty. Trevor is useful to call upon for help when needed, though his personal habits and sexual interests are disgusting. Betty, though, he is both close yet distant with. Harry helps fill the role of missing husband when something needs fixing or taking care of around the house she rents, but his attraction to her goes unspoken and, seemingly, unrequited, while Betty, in turn, daydreams about Harry while working at the aged care home in town.

Harry also tries to fill the role of father to Betty’s oldest, Michael, in providing sex education for the boy after he walks in on Michael masturbating over a copy of Woman and Home. He does this through letters in which he details his own experiences and provides his own insights – which are quite endearing, really. But his comfortable yet stationary relationship with Betty is ruined when she finds the letters.

The character of Harry is a superb one. Having grown up in the country surrounded by farmers – including my father and grandfather – I am familiar with their distinctive, slow-moving, laconic style of being present. In fact, I would say it feels like home to me. The image of two men standing side-by-side, dressed in soft, well-worn and often stained but clean cotton trousers (navy blue or dark green), the obligatory shirt, sometimes with worn, holey jumper on top, hefty boots and terry-towelling bucket hat. They’d stand beside each other rather than facing, arms crossed or hands in pockets or leaning over a gate, chatting – philosophising. There’s something gentle and tender in the lack of urgency, the low rumbling tones, that I miss – and it’s this something (for which I’m so nostalgic) that Tiffany captures in her portrayal of Harry. On top of that quality, Harry really is a lovely sort, quietly helping out, secretly decorating Little Hazel’s bedroom to make it look like winter, using the stuffing from his pillow for snow.

They walk for a while along the edge of the bank, Harry stopping now and then to measure the channel depth and test the flow of water around his outstretched fingers. The hot edge has gone off the afternoon. There doesn’t seem much need for talk. The bank is narrow so they walk slowly, in single file. Betty is in the lead; Harry hangs far enough back so he can watch the way she moves. He likes her plump forearms, the cardigan pushed up around them; the gilt band of her watch digging into her wrist. He likes the sound of her clothes moving around her middle. When she turns to speak to him he notices her softening jaw and her mouth – the lipstick on her front teeth. He’s been watching all of this, over the years, watching her body age and temper. [p.22]

The lines are blurred between human and animal; Harry anthropomorphises the birds that he watches, the cows that he tends, constructing a language of sex and sensation that binds humans and animals together in a warmly organic world of agriculture. I don’t know how else to describe it except to connect those words together. Tiffany’s own experiences working in the agricultural field show: the book is speckled with interesting glimpses into the details of caring for animals and running a farm, as well as observations about birds – all of which, again, can be seen as a metaphor for humans.

A quality milker demonstrates a calm authority. He milks the herd fast and dry. The atmosphere is of relaxed arousal. [p.129]

The descriptions of sexual activity in all its forms are couched in this language of farming, which we tend to forget is all about reproduction and nurture. Tiffany, here, has also created an atmosphere of ‘relaxed arousal’. The ease with which the lines can become blurred is captured in the shocking moment of discovering that Mues has crossed the line and doesn’t even see a problem with it. This, too, taps into that essential loneliness and isolation which can be the farmer’s lot, even with close neighbours and daily contact. Harry is a deeply sympathetic character, a man of integrity, patience and humility with that hint of childlike innocence that so many farmers have, here in Tasmania (I’m not so familiar with Victorian farmers, but if Mateship with Birds is anything to go by, it seems to be much the same). This quality is amplified by the inclusion of glimpses into Harry as a little boy – the time he stayed at his aunt’s house and took down the cuckoo clock, only to feel complete disappointment at the ‘trick’ of it – and to be punished for breaking it. Betty, too, has a past tinged with sadness and instances of love missing their mark.

There’s an edge to Tiffany’s writing that add tension – hard to grasp but present nonetheless – and the unabashed descriptions of sex and sexual activity actually had the power to discomfit me – a reflection more of my cultural context, I think, than any real kind of prudery. (I’m quite curious about this.) Her descriptions of the landscape are simple yet beautiful – one of my favourites: “The eucalypts’ thin leaves are painterly on the background of mauve sky – like black lace on pale skin.” (p.125) Such descriptions are used sparsely but create vivid images in the mind’s eye. There’s an element of social realism to Mateship with Birds that made the characters feel incredibly real to me: it’s in the skilful simplicity of Tiffany’s sentences, her artful way of capturing a mood, a person, a moment of nerves or a hesitation in the doorway. The birds, too, are characters in their own right, as captured by Harry’s writings and Little Hazel’s nature diary. And it is a bird – the “winking owl on the washing line” – that helps bridge the sudden gap between Harry and Betty and repairs what has been damaged. Subtly colouring everything is this touch of nostalgia, a faint layer of Australiana that isn’t really celebrated or indulged, it just is: part of the setting.

Tiffany’s second novel is fairly short, at just over two hundred pages, but packs a lot. The lives of Harry and Betty and everyone else are interconnected by birds, birds being watched, birds being accidentally killed, birds being befriended and tended. Mateship with Birds is about life, the ugly, sometimes bloody parts of it, the sex and sweat and tears of it, and the love and laughter and dying. The blurb ends with a wonderfully tidy sentence: “On one small farm in a vast, ancient landscape, a collection of misfits question the nature of what a family can be.” This, too, is an essential part of the novel, though not the one that stuck with me the most. But in Harry’s attempts at being a father for someone else’s children, the tender innocence at the core of life is presented as something both humbling, and fraught.

Highly recommended, an excellent read.


Review: Moon Chosen

moon-chosenMoon Chosen by PC Cast
Tales of a New World #1

Pan 2016
Trade Paperback
597 pages

In PC Cast’s new fantasy series, climate change and polluting industries have devastated what we know of our world. The survivors have fled to new environs, living off the land in more harmonious methods. Those who wanted to keep their pets, their dogs, were forced to make their own way, finding sanctuary in the treetops. And those who refused to leave the ruined cities stayed, their bodies decaying and rupturing. These are now known as Skin Stealers, as they capture and skin living creatures – including other humans – in the belief that they will be made stronger from it. The humans they capture are the Tribe of the Trees and their canine Companions, with whom the Tribespeople have a lifelong, almost telepathic bond. If the Tribe are prey for the Skin Stealers, they in turn prey on the Earth Walkers, or ‘Scratchers’ as the Tribe dismissively calls them. Because they die from a rotting fungal infection when their skin is broken, the Tribe have long been abducting female Scratchers to work on their farm for them. But removing an Earth Walker from her clan means certain death, after long depression. Every month, all Earth Walkers – male and female – need to be ‘washed’ by their Moon Woman, who calls down the cleansing power of the moon in a secret ritual. Without it, the men turn into made, violent monsters lacking in rational thought, and the women fall into despair, ultimately dying of depression.

Mari is an Earth Walker, but one with a big secret. Her mother, the Moon Woman for the Weaver Clan, fell in love with a Tribesman: Mari is the result of their short relationship nearly two decades ago. Her father is long dead – executed by the Tribe – and Mari must disguise her features, the colour of her hair and even her skin in order to live among the Earth Walkers. Her heritage catches up with her, though, when a pup from the Tribe of the Trees finds her and bonds with her, making her a Companion – and a target for Hunters from the Tribe. One such Tribesman, desperate to find the young dog, is Nik, only child of the Tribe’s Sun Priest, their leader, who can channel the sun’s fire. It is through Nik’s awakening understanding and compassion of the Scratchers’ humanity that things between the Tribe and the Earth Walkers looks set to change, but not before the poisonous manipulations of the Skin Stealers finds its way in, taking advantage of a long history of entrenched dogma to destroy a promising new peace.

After a slow start, Moon Chosen becomes quite absorbing and enjoyable. The three distinct peoples have clearly differentiated perspectives and narrative voices: how they see the world and their place in it, and their view of the others. Each is rendered human and knowable through their separate focalisers: Mari, Nik and Dead Eye, who becomes the leader of the Skin Stealers in the nearby ruined city. It is one of the strong elements of the novel, the world-building and the writing, that Cast is able to make each of the main characters quite sympathetic, even if both the Skin Stealers and the Tribe do such horrific things to others. Amongst themselves, they experience tribulations and a painful history, but it shows quite clearly that, in order for one people to take charge of their destiny and create a new, more advantageous world to live in, another people must suffer for it. At the bottom of this world’s class stratification are the Earth Walkers, who are rendered less than human by the Tribe and are deeply misunderstood. Their affliction – so far unexplained – only makes them more vulnerable and easily denounced. Their ongoing subjugation has clear parallels in our own world – take your pick, really – as well as representing the more feminised world of Nature and Paganism. Ultimately, the fact that Moon Chosen does not utilise a more traditional, medieval-Europe type setting, as does most epic fantasy written in English, enables it to present a more open-minded, egalitarian world view, free of the misogyny and heterosexuality that bogs down a lot of fantasy.

I’ve previously read a few of Cast’s paranormal series, The House of Night, co-authored with her daughter Kristen, which began interestingly but soon grew to be rather perplexing to me. In those YA novels, the adolescent characters spoke with a strong teen vernacular, making them sound like stereotypical, urban high school students. It was rather over-the-top at times. It is one of the disappointments of Moon Chosen that many of the characters, especially Mari, use the same register and syntax as an American teenager might, today. It makes her sound too contemporary for this post-apocalyptic world, which is jarring.

The magic (“magick” here), the connections between humans, animals and the land itself are all compelling features; while it is similar in some superficial ways to Ambelin Kwaymullina’s Tribe trilogy, the latter is by far the more superior story – though of a different sub-genre (and thus with a different audience in mind) to this. Cast’s novel is more in the vein of epic fantasy, rich with details and a sense of place and time, slowly and carefully building a complex world of history, tradition, religion, fear and hope. The epilogue leads me to understand that the series will be structured much like a paranormal romance series: each volume the personal story of a different character. While Moon Chosen is predominantly Mari’s story, the epilogue makes central a minor character vaguely introduced in the final chapters: Antreas, from a different Tribe, and his Companion, a Lynx called Bast. So, not every Tribe lives in the trees or bonds with dogs. I know I’ll want to read his story, as I do love the big cats, and the larger plot involving the Skin Stealers has only just got started. What role Mari and Nik will play in it, I am also curious to see.

Overall, a successful foray into fantasy from Cast, with a slightly older audience in mind than her House of Night series. With an exploration of fear-based prejudice that highlights how easily – and how misguidedly – human nature falls into this pattern, Cast shows the predilections of humans to form societies based on mutual (shared) ideologies, and to exclude or even demonise those who represent differences. I am quite curious to see where she goes with this, in this setting and with this particular, gritty and often unpleasant world.

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

Books in Discussion - Crime Fiction

Crime is a genre I don’t read a lot of, mostly because – and this may sound contrary to the reason why so many people read and love it – I just find it to be rather boring. I’m more likely to enjoy psychological thrillers because they get deeper into characters and their neuroses, and can ask some unanswerable questions, but I haven’t had much luck with those lately, either. Am I getting harder to please? Is my scope of what constitutes ‘good’ writing narrowing, becoming less forgiving? Am I just so stressed with work that even popular fiction can’t help me unwind? I don’t need to dwell on these questions to know the answer is probably ‘yes’ to all three, which just makes me sad. I’m trying to come to terms with the reality of getting older – you go through your twenties and you’re not really ageing, but once you’re well into your thirties the years don’t just fly by, they also suddenly feel that much more precious, and that much more fleeting, with little, it seems, to show for it. It’s a flip in your psychological outlook: from viewing time as an endless resource (if you waste a year or two, it doesn’t seem that important because you feel like you can make it up later – there’s always a later) to viewing time as the sudden roller-coaster rush towards The End at a speed you can’t control, everything flashing by while you experience an odd mixture of paralysis and frantic, often futile scrabbling.

Sounds a lot like the tenor of Crime Fiction, actually, so you’d think we’d be a perfect match. I have to say, though, that teaching the genre has been more fun than the books themselves. Learning about the role of the sleuth, whether amateur or professional, as the reader’s moral compass, and what cultural values represented in the books, films or television episodes are being privileged by the author, which you can ascertain by studying the denouement and who is punished. The genre is an interesting one to study, it really is, but this is the last year for us senior secondary teachers in Tasmania to teach it – it’s out of the curriculum. (I’ll be teaching dystopian fiction next year.) So perhaps it’s fitting that I write this post now, at the end, to make way for something new.

red queenIn April I finally read a Honey Brown novel, which I’d been trying to find the time for ever since I got back to Australia in late 2013 and was able to get copies of her books (they weren’t available in Canada). This Australian psychological thriller writer came highly recommended by other bloggers, and in many ways Red Queen did not disappoint. It had the additional intrigue of an apocalyptic setting, which I love. In this case, it’s a global breakdown of society following a contagious, plague-like disease. Brothers Rohan and Shannon Scott have isolated themselves at the family cabin in the bush, which their father – one of those types who expected the world to end and wanted to prepare for it – had fully stocked, complete with hidden containers full of everything you could possibly need to survive the apocalypse. Rohan is the older, highly controlling and charismatic brother, Shannon his less reliable dependent. They take turns with the gun, keeping watch all night, knowing that should anyone find them not only do they risk catching the disease, but their stores could be stolen. So it is Shannon’s fault – for putting down the gun and picking up his guitar – when they discover that a stranger has got into the house, touched everything, even left a note to taunt them. The stranger is Denny Cassidy, a beautiful woman desperate to join them. Rohan doesn’t trust her, but both brothers are drawn to her. Is it a trap, is everything just a cold-blooded strategy to lull them into dropping their guard – is someone else out there, waiting for a signal?

Red Queen has the tension and suspense, the intrigue and mystery, and the complicated characters that good fiction like this needs. I think, though, that the ending took me by surprise. After all the edginess and the near-constant pendulum swing between Denny is a manipulator to Denny is a victim and Rohan’s the bastard, the ending was both pleasing and somehow a let-down. It was just too nice. Maybe it’s the adrenaline comedown. I can imagine it is supremely difficult to write in this genre without the ending turning into a cliche, because there just aren’t many options available and audience expectations are high. This book also highlighted for me my trouble with genre fiction in general, as I look for those unanswerable questions about life, existence, being human, relationships – questions that make me see things in new ways without ever trying to answer them (god forbid), that isn’t the role of art. Unfortunately, for as much as I enjoyed this novel and found it as engrossing as I wanted it to be, it didn’t really seem to take on any big ideas, or issues. Monogamy, maybe, and trust. Compassion as the root of being humane. The idea that selfishness and isolation are the prerequisites for survival is challenged; more predictably, the need men have for the comfort of women in order to be more balanced and human is emphasised. Still, with this debut novel Honey Brown proves herself to be a very promising writer, and I’m glad I have a few more of her books to read. [Read in April 2016]

sharp objectsOver a year ago I first read Sharp Objects, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel from 2006, and never got around to reviewing it. It is a slightly Gothic, psychological thriller-crime-suspense novel set in the American Midwest. I’ll be honest: I wouldn’t have thought of reading this had I not (somewhat randomly) selected it as one of the texts for the Crime Fiction module I was about to teach. There is an excellent review of the book on The Female Gaze blog, which explains much – and better than I could right now.

Camille Preaker is a hack journalist from Chicago who is sent by her editor back to her home town, the fictional Wind Gap in Missouri, because a little girl has gone missing and he wants their paper to be the first to break the story. One missing girl is hardly enough to catch anyone’s interest in Chicago, but the previous year another girl was found murdered, her teeth pulled, and the case was never solved. Camille – our amateur sleuth – is less than keen to return. Her relationship with her mother, Adora, is one of strain and unmet expectations, while she barely knows her half-sister, thirteen-year-old Amma.

Adora is “old money”; she owns the large commercial pig farm and hog butchering factory, raking in over a million dollars a year in profits to live on in her Gothic Victorian mansion at the top of a steep hill. Camille, the child she had as a teenager to a man she never speaks of, was too hard to love; instead, Adora turned her attention onto Marian, her second, sickly child, until the girl died. Camille loved her sister, but Adora offered no comfort to the lonely child, choosing instead to shut herself up in her large bedroom with the famous ivory-tiled floor, accepting visitors to witness her grief but never helping her remaining child with hers. Into this repressive, tense household Camille reluctantly returns, fuelling her courage with alcohol and keeping her mutilated skin covered.

The town of Wind Gap is one of women, gossip and class division. It is a place where popularity is based on looks, conforming to dominant expectations of feminine behaviour, all represented by Flynn as problematic, inauthentic and even poisonous. I very nearly started talking about the outcome of the mystery plot here, before reminding myself that this is not the place. It tackles the repression that women willingly buy into and enforce, thus effectively policing themselves and so maintaining the patriarchal status quo. The idea that women, too, watch other women through the male gaze is prominent in Camille’s observations and the various characters’ treatment of each other. While I quite enjoyed the book the first time I read it, its dark, gritty side, the chilling nature of the murders and the motives behind them, and poor Camille’s screwed-up life became less effective the more I read it – it was not a book that held up to a vigorous re-read. But I am drawn to confronting, disturbing books, and this was certainly one of those. [Read in June 2015]

gone girlI’ll just briefly talk about Gone Girl – by the time I got around to read it, I’m pretty sure I was the only one left who hadn’t read it (or seen the film)! I meant to read it years ago, and I really meant to read it before a student did their project on it last year, because I knew it would be spoiled for me if I didn’t. Unfortunately, I just couldn’t find the time or opportunity to do so, so all the interesting elements of the plot were revealed in their work. I still wanted to read it – had a copy of it from years ago, looking all unloved and forlorn. But it’s a sad truth: once you know the plot twists, they strike you as pretty obvious.

That said, I did quite enjoy the psychological elements of this, which reminded me of a really old Elliot Gould movie (forget the name of it) which begins with a man looking for his wife, who’s gone missing – I think they were on holiday, somewhere where there weren’t many people around. Everyone acts suspiciously, strangely, and the husband seems like the victim of some larger conspiracy with them all plotting against him and making out like he’s irrational, mad. It has one of the most satisfying denouements, though, a beautiful plot twist: the man was a big fat liar and had killed his wife, then pretended she was just missing; there was a conspiracy: the others were really the good guys – police etc. – driving him mad to the point where he confessed. I watched it as a kid; it’d be pretty dated now.

Gone Girl wasn’t the same story as that film at all, of course, but I do enjoy stories where people aren’t who they seem to be, especially when they’re the protagonist and are fooling you, the reader, as well as everyone else. The ultimate unreliable narrator! Plus, the way it all works out in the denouement is truly disturbing, and made me think about the idea of appearances versus reality, of the versions of reality we create, the facades we keep, the lies we tell – even as good people. Even having the plot and the twists spoiled for me, it was a good, fairly gripping read, which speaks well for the novel. [Read in November 2015]

deep waterAt the end of last year I considered teaching Deep Water, this year, a) because it’s an Australian crime fiction text, and b) because it seemed to have an environmental angle that I thought would be good for studying. This is the only Cliff Hardy book I’ve read – it’s #34 in the series – and it was a major disappointment, reminding me why I don’t read more books in the detective genre. Hardy is more along the lines of hard-boiled private eye than a ‘classic’ detective (an American rather than British style), with his drinking, getting hurt and estranged relationships. The novel both begins and ends with Hardy in hospital – in America where, according to this book, Medibank Private is covering his hospital bills. Uh, no. It doesn’t work that way, and this kind of inaccuracy always destroys the credibility of a story for me.

I approached this book with no preconceptions but a willingness to hear a good yarn. I may have forgotten almost all the details of the plot by this point, but a lingering impression of dullness remains. Perhaps if Cliff Hardy had been a nostalgic or beloved character for me, as Phryne Fisher is, I would have had a different experience. Instead I found it formulaic – and not in a fun way – and not even particularly strong on social justice issues, questions of family, the environment or any of the other elements that I look for. Plot holes, inaccuracies and a narrator whose thought patterns didn’t really gel made this quick read a fairly forgettable one. [Read in December 2015]

a most peculiar malaysian murderInstead, I turned to Shamini Flint’s Inspector Singh series, of which A Most Peculiar Malaysian Murder is the first volume. This detective novel, more in the ‘classic’ or ‘golden age’ British style than the American hard-boiled one, delivered the good stuff: while the majority of my teenaged students reported that they found the book slow and boring, and the many characters hard to keep track of, it has proved to be very effective for the particular English course that I teach, where we study the representations of cultural values in texts and how these ‘versions of reality’ position (the new term is: “invites”) readers to endorse or challenge particular ideas, values and attitudes, and what prevailing ideologies are ultimately privileged.

Inspector Singh is a fat, sweaty, ‘fleshy’ Sikh man from Singapore who is sent to Kuala Lumpur to ensure that ‘justice is seen to be done’ in the case of a high-profile Singaporean ex-model, Chelsea, who married a wealthy Malaysian businessman, Alan Lee, now murdered outside the family home. The couple had divorced and were in the midst of a bitter custody battle over their three young sons, when Alan suddenly converts to Islam. According to the law – which in Malaysia is both secular and Islamic (they have a two-court system), this conversion automatically made the children Islamic as well, and case would move to the Shariyah court which would rule in favour of the Muslim parent. Chelsea reacted violently to this news in court, attacking Alan and threatening to kill him. Not long after, he was shot and Chelsea immediately arrested as the prime suspect. However, Singh – using the hunches or instinct that separate the protagonist-sleuth from other police officers – just knows she is innocent. Here, in this novel and this world, the Malaysian justice system is the antagonist, a system that cannot truly protect the innocent or the disadvantaged. It is a story of wealth against poverty, the powerful against the lower classes, capitalism against conservationism. This aspect is captured in the other, parallel (and related) storyline which concerns Alan’s two brothers, Jasper and Kian Min, his timber company and what the company is doing – illegally – in the Borneo rainforest.

I don’t want to give too much away, and I can’t, unfortunately, discuss the denouement, but for once the sleuth character seems not to be the real protagonist – there are two other characters who are equally important, but it is telling that the sleuth, Inspector Singh, is only directly involved in one of the two parallel denouements – in order to maintain the integrity of the sleuth, he remains with the Chelsea storyline, doing something noble but not all that illegal. It’s a very interesting resolution, one that speaks of the grey areas in morality, of the idea that some bad deeds are worse than others, some murders more evil than others. Really interesting book to discuss. As I remind my students when they start complaining, “You might prefer Sharp Objects, to read, but Malaysian Murder is the better book to write on in the exam!” [Read in January 2016]

girl-on-the-trainWhen term break rolled around (today marks the last day – back to work tomorrow!) I thought about how nice it would be to go and see a film, something entertaining, a no-brain-required affair, and saw that the adaptation of The Girl on the Train was about to be released. It’s always best to read the book first, and since I already had a copy, it was just a matter of finding it (which, on my densely packed shelves, took about half an hour!) and then making the time to read it. The novel, a psychological thriller set in and around London, reminded me somewhat of SJ Watson’s Before I Go to Sleep, both in terms of tone, setting and cheesy denouement. And as with Watson’s debut novel, after reading this I had zero interest in seeing the film.

The Girl on the Train is an okay read, but I can’t give it much more than that. I quite liked having a protagonist who is an alcoholic with a failed marriage, who has lost her job and is, in general (and by most people’s terms), a bit of a loser. Hawkins takes the idea of the flawed sleuth to new heights, as with Camille in Sharp Objects, but Rachel does wear your patience down a bit. She’s not the only narrator in this novel, though: Megan, the missing-then-found-dead woman narrates, beginning a year earlier up until her death, and Anna, the woman Rachel’s husband Tom left her for, also increasingly gets her voice heard. What’s interesting about this book and these three women is the idea, captured in the dominant male characters, of women’s voices being silence in a patriarchal society – and not just silenced, but redefined. It is the men who decide what the women are, and the women who absorb that and take it on as fact, before turning on each other. That aspect of the book makes it worth reading, but as a psychological thriller there was virtually no tension, absolutely no twist – the truth is so gradually revealed and carefully constructed that you see it a mile before Rachel does – and the ‘thrills’ are completely absent.

The crime – the disappearance of Megan Hipwell which, later, turns into a murder investigation – begins on a Saturday night, a night when Rachel, drunk, returns to Whitney where she lived with Tom in the house by the train tracks, on a ridiculous errand. Megan and her husband, Scott, lived just a few doors down. Rachel wakes up on Sunday in a sorry state and with absolutely no memory of what happened. It’s this absence of memory that drives her to involve herself in the case, making her an amateur sleuth. As an alcoholic, the police consider her to be an unreliable witness and this, coupled with Anna’s vehement hatred and fear of her, pushes Rachel into the fringes: with a stable place to live (renting a room at a friend’s house), she’s only one step up from a homeless person. The memory lapse is the only thing that kept me reading what is, essentially, a rather slow and uneventful book – wondering, for a while, not what she saw, but what she did. I think a previous review I had read led me to think that Rachel was the real villain, some kind of disturbed character – and the idea of a psychological thriller told from the perspective of the stalker intrigued me. Well, that’s not it at all. I must have misread that review entirely. The Girl on the Train is simple, rather straightforward and, after about the halfway mark, fairly predictable. [Read in October 2016]

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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