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Review: The Better Son

The Better Son by Katherine Johnson
Ventura Press 2016
Large format paperback
273 pages

In 2002, after being away for much of his life, Kip returns alone to his family’s farm in Mole Creek, Tasmania. His mother is dead, his father – suffering from dementia – living in a nursing home, and his wife and young son are back in Amsterdam with her own, dying father. Only Squid, the old farm hand, remains on the property, but Kip avoids him. He is here with a purpose: to find his brother Tommy, who disappeared when Kip was nine years old, and atone.

I am automatically drawn to books written in or about places, people and events in Tasmania, my home state. I love this island, it has a tight hold of my heart, and after many years away I was drawn back as surely as fate. It is a rich, diverse landscape, roughened by harsh histories, home to the Gothic of its British colonial heritage as much as it is to an ancient Indigenous legacy – I can well imagine that it is much like Briton itself, with its older history of Celts and Saxons and Druids. It is an island with a tangible sense of time and timelessness: a paradox that makes utter sense when you live here. And because so much of it is unmapped, unknowable and frankly downright eery, it is ripe for imaginative work in the British tradition (I am still waiting for an Indigenous-authored novel but I don’t know of one, and being of British ancestry myself, any understanding I feel I have of their stories and relationship with the land is automatically tainted and an unwanted act of appropriation. Such is the fraught discourse we find ourselves enmeshed in here).

The Better Son is Queensland-born Johnson’s second novel and her sense of place is vividly realised. The cave in the book, Kubla (after Coleridge’s poem Kubla Kahn), is modelled on the nearby Marakoopa cave in the Karst National Park, though there is a cave called Kubla as well. Marakoopa was first discovered by two brothers, James and Harry Byard, who kept it a secret for several years until it was opened for tourism. There is another famous cave nearby, called King Solomon’s Cave, which I visited on Boxing Day last year. It doesn’t have the ginormous cathedral caves of Marakoopa but it is beautiful, splendid and amazing all the same. Johnson says that her novel is a “fictional fusion of the two ideas: one of the world’s most incredible caves and two small boys” who keep its discovery a secret. The small town of Mole Creek in Tasmania’s north – not far from where I grew up – is rich farming land, but it sits on porous limestone country where sinkholes can open up quite suddenly and randomly. Underneath, it is an extensive cave network millions of years old. The idea of disappearing into a sinkhole or getting lost in a cave system is an aspect of Tasmanian Gothic, itself part of Australian Gothic – think Picnic at Hanging Rock as a good example.

Kip’s story begins in the summer of 1952, and it is one of the strengths of Johnson’s writing that he and his family are so believable. Perhaps his father, Harold, verges on cliché, but as an archetype veteran of WWII as well as an angry farmer, he rings true. Kip’s mother, Jess, is educated and loving and the only thing standing between Kip and the father who seems to hate him. His older brother Tommy, on the other hand, is beloved by Harold and can do no wrong. Still, the brothers are close, and the adventure of descending (by knotted rope) into a vast lightless cave and then exploring it is the highlight of Kip’s summer. It ends in tragedy, though, when twelve-year-old Tommy decides to explore a small tunnel and is never seen again.

If the characters are tautly drawn, the landscape is represented as a slumbering, other-worldly entity, breathtakingly inhuman and utterly uncaring, yet with a presence both awe-inspiring and ominous.

They picked their way through a forest of stone. Stalagmites connected with the stalactites from the ceiling to form giant columns as tall as city buildings; others, the height of men, were like the frozen soldiers of some ancient army. Kip held his candle high above his head, but the darkness devoured the light. [p.36]

The boys name it Kubla, after the Coleridge poem their mother taught them, and the parallels between the poem and Kip’s story are made clear throughout the novel. The depiction of the porous, fragile landscape holding its secrets close is used by Johnson as an analogy for the troubled family, an analogy that is both fitting and, at times, spelt out too often. Herein lies the overall weakness of Johnson’s novel: it tells more than it shows. There is a distinct “accounting” style to the storytelling as it faithfully follows Kip, after the tragedy and into adulthood, but without the detail and scenes that made his childhood so engaging to read about. Kip is sent to boarding school, then he goes to university, then he studies insects, then he goes to the Netherlands for his Ph.D to work with saving the tulips, then he meets Isle and so on. This recounting of Kip’s life is woven amongst a recounting of Jess and Squid, who become lovers until her death. It’s a short novel; I actually think it would have been stronger if those later years were handled differently, perhaps with clearer, lengthier scenes and less telling. It felt rushed, those chapters, as if the author were just accounting for those lost years until she could get Kip back to Mole Creek.

The final scene only makes the previous years feel even more rushed: Kip’s descent into Kubla and hunt for his brother’s body is nicely drawn out and tempered. His psychological descent into childhood – which verges on insanity – feels true as well as tragic. It’s an emotional journey through the dark caves with their hidden, breath-taking beauty, a journey that provides Kip, now fifty-nine, a chance to decide whether he will be forever formed by what happened fifty years ago, or if he will break free of his own guilt, the sense of responsibility that has shackled him for so long. Ultimately, it is Squid who saves him from himself and reminds Kip of his own nine-year-old son: the idea that life keeps going and you have a choice as to what kind of person you will be, and that your responsibilities change with time. Now, as a father himself, he has the opportunity to do a much better job of it than Harold did with him.

Squid is easily the best character here, though I did like Kip and Jess as well. My husband read this book at the same time (we have our own copies – we treat our books differently so it’s best that way!) and Squid was his favourite character as well. Through Squid we get another perspective – he is a third-person focaliser for some chapters, providing us with greater insights and details after Kip leaves Tasmania. Squid is a ‘salt of the earth’ character, a quiet, patient, loving man who looks after the farmland just as tenderly as he cares for Jess after her diagnosis. He provides a more politically-charged glimpse into farming practices – spraying versus using plants and insects as natural insecticides (which to him is common sense, while Kip works so hard convincing people of its worth), and the damaging forestry and land-clearing practices still carried out in the state today. So it’s easy to like Squid, as our philosophies seem to align.

The Better Son is a wonderful story that, for all it felt rushed in the telling and, at times, a bit obvious, shows the sickening damage that some parenting can have on children, with far-reaching repercussions. The secrets themselves, which poison Kip’s soul, are only a side-effect of the family dynamics, yet Johnson is careful not to make Harold an inhuman villain. At its peak, it made me cry, and that cannot happen without an emotional connection to characters and a story that is believable and poignant.

Review Catch-up #1 - Mixed Fiction

It’s that time again: time to scramble up some reviews of books read over the last year that I never had time (or brain energy) to discuss before. I even have a couple from 2015 that I didn’t get around to, oh dear. This is all part of my pledge-to-self to review every book I read, which I cling to stubbornly, even though it gets harder and harder to keep up.

The Dinner by Herman Koch
Translated by Sam Garrett

Atlantic Books 2012 (2009)
Mass Market Paperback
309 pages
Fiction; Thriller

When I reviewed Herman Koch’s 2014 novel, Summer House with Swimming Pool, fellow reviewer Brona noted that my description of that book mirrored her own to The Dinner, Koch’s first successful book (and first to be translated into English). Now that I’ve read both, I would have to concur that they share similar themes and ideas, from the compelling yet morally unpleasant male narrator to the confronting scenario of protective fatherhood versus wanton violence.

The Dinner, in ‘real time’, takes place over the course of a dinner at a fancy restaurant, but within this present-day setting – structured over a five-course meal – the narrator, Paul, takes us back through recent events so that we slowly build a fuller understanding of just what the tension and undercurrents are at this dinner. Paul and his wife, Claire, are dining with Paul’s politician brother, Serge, and his wife, Babette. Serge is a virtual shoe-in for next Prime Minister of the Netherlands, and something of a celebrity – incurring Paul’s annoyance and envy. The last thing Serge would want on the eve of an election is a scandal, but that’s exactly what is brewing: a scandal centred around Serge and Paul’s sons, Rick and Michel, and the murder of a homeless woman.

This social realism story is a deceptively simple one: it’s not about solving a mystery so much as delving into some pretty dark neuroses at both the individual level – Paul, we slowly discover, has some kind of mysterious (unrevealed) condition and is prone to moments of violence – and at a social one. How we care for each other, the divisions of class and wealth, expectations of parents and children, how we interact and socialise. The ethical dilemma at the heart of this book gives it great thrust, and is sure to unsettle and disturb any reader – thus providing much food for thought.

Read in July 2016.

Amnesia by Peter Carey
Penguin Books 2015 (2014)
Trade Paperback
377 pages

I actually hesitated in selecting the Australian flag here, rather than the U.S. one – it often feels as if Carey has turned his back on his birth country, but then along comes a novel like Amnesia (which, to my more cynical mind, seems like a book to prove this point) and Carey’s complete Australianness becomes apparent. With its connection to politics, the law, ethics and forgotten 20th century history, Amnesia reminded me a bit of the ABC television show, Rake. The main character, Felix Moore, is a similarly rabble-rousing trouble-maker, fallen out of favour, though not a womaniser or scoundrel of that ilk. Moore is one of the last investigative journalists in the country (again, my cynical mind argues that Australian journalism has disappeared almost completely, though certain current affairs programs, particularly on the ABC, continue to soldier on as best they can).

However, Amnesia is really the story of Gabrielle (Gaby) Baillieux, a hacker from Melbourne whose own mother, Celine, was a baby born from the rape of a woman by a U.S. soldier stationed in Australia during World War II. This incident is a good example of the chilly, tense tone between the two countries, as Felix explains an American (CIA) involvement in getting rid of Gough Whitlam in the 70s and installing the conservative prime minister, Robert Menzies – all because Whitlam cancelled a deal between the two countries that enabled the US to continue using Australian territory for some of its Cold War operations. How much of this is true I don’t personally know, but it’s highly plausible. If it is true, it fits in exactly with the premise of the novel, as put forward by the title: that we forget these things, that as a country we have deliberately chosen to forget, making historical ‘fact’ slide into myth and then disappear entirely.

This is all stirred up when Gaby uses a worm to infect the computer systems that operate the private American prisons – and, by connection, the Australian ones too (a dig at the continued out-sourcing of things like prisons to private, for-profit corporations is ever-present), thus releasing all the prisoners. On the run and in hiding, Gaby’s mother Celine and an old friend, Woody Townes – a wealthy (but seemingly dodgy) businessman – hire Felix to write the book on Gaby. He barely gets to meet her, though, instead dumped on an isolated island in a river to transcribe old-fashioned cassette tapes and make sense of both Gaby and Celine’s version of the past – and each other.

In many ways, Amnesia is riveting and wonderful in its old-fashioned style, connecting contemporary concerns with forgotten history. It highlights the importance in understanding the past in order to not only make sense of the present but to more intelligently question it, and deal with it. But it is also a deeply disappointing novel for how it is structured and what it chooses to delve into, at the expense of the present. The ending is also a bit of a let-down, feeling sadly anti-climactic. I greatly appreciated learning about Gaby’s motives, her youthful activism when trying to bring justice against a water-polluting company, Agrikem, but as engaging as her childhood and adolescence is to read about, it’s also quite lengthy and for a long time you’re not at all sure where it’s going. The links between Agrikem, the prisons, the overturning of Whitlam’s government and, frankly, everything else seemed a bit tenuous, in that elements of the plot seemed to get dropped and forgotten (the irony!). Though it could also be the effect of several months having gone by since I read this.

There is a lot to enjoy here, and enjoy it I did, for all its tendency to be a bit convoluted (even bloated) at times.

Read in May 2016.

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler
Serpent’s Tail 2014 (2013)
Trade Paperback
308 pages

It is always hard to review a novel that contains an unexpected twist about a third of the way through – rather like Never Let Me Go (though everyone else spoiled that, especially when the movie came out). What’s especially annoying in this case is that something I read somewhere gave away the twist in this wonderful book – something read in an unguarded moment, just as Nikki Gemmell gave away the twist of Gone Girl (without warning) in her column for The Weekend Australian Magazine. I was pretty pissed about that.

So I already knew about Fern when I started this book, making the twist vanish entirely. I don’t want to do that to anyone else, but I’m not sure how to discuss this book without it – which is probably why I’ve let it go so long before attempting to review it.

I will say this: I loved this book, regardless. The narrator, Rosemary, a uni student in the present, explores her unusual childhood and where – when – everything changed. Her older brother Lowell is on the run from the FBI; Rosemary has made a new friend, Harlow, who gets her in trouble with the police; and, finally, Rosemary learns the truth about Fern and goes looking for her. The non-linear nature of the story’s structure, as well as the tenuous nature of memory and false memories, make this a rich and unpredictable book, while the ethical and moral questions posed are compelling.

The nature of childhood, loyalty, love and envy are all explored here, as is human nature and the meaning of our relationships, not just with each other but with other creatures too. I may have been slightly disappointed by the ending, perhaps because I was expecting something darker or more climactic, but it works and feels true.

Read in June 2016.

Jasper Jones by Craig Silvey
Allen & Unwin 2010 (2009)
Trade Paperback
394 pages
Historical Fiction

I first bought this book in February 2011, when I was back in Australia and wanted to grab a few titles I couldn’t, at the time, get in Canada. It’s sad that it’s taken me nearly 6 years to get around to reading it, especially considering how enjoyable it is. It certainly would have increased my homesickness at the time – maybe that’s why I didn’t read it then. Jasper Jones has been liberally compared to To Kill a Mockingbird (most notably, by The Monthly); some go so far as to call it “derivative” while it has also made the First Tuesday Book Club‘s Top 10 List of Aussie Books to Read Before You Die (which, for posterity – because things disappear sometimes – I have saved here as well, including the top 50 list). For the record, I didn’t find it derivative at all. There are parallels between Jones and Mockingbird, which Silvey tips his hat to on numerous occasions through his young, well-read narrator, Charlie Bucktin, but this is a novel that stands on its own. It both highlights the universality of racial prejudice and discrimination, especially amongst ex-colony countries, and adds new layers to the issue – distinctly Australian layers but also stretching out into sexual abuse and class divides.

Taking place over the summer holidays (December to February) in 1965-6, the story begins with thirteen-year-old Charlie’s late-night reading being interrupted by the unexpected arrival of Jasper Jones, the fifteen-year-old half-Aboriginal outcast boy who is blamed for absolutely everything in the (fictional) small mining town of Corrigan, WA. Charlie has never met Jasper Jones before, but his reputation precedes him. He feels somewhat dazzled to be singled out and seeks to impress Jasper in small ways. But Jasper has called on him for help in desperate circumstances: in his secret clearing in the bush by a small dam, where Jasper goes to escape the town’s censure, is a girl, hanging by the neck from a tree. It is Laura Wishart, wearing her nightie, dead. Jasper knows for sure that the cops will arrest him for murder and no real investigation will take place: he is the culprit for everything, expendable and unwanted – except on the footy oval, where he excels.

Enlisting Charlie’s help, the two hide the body to give them time to discover what really happened. Charlie’s youthful crush on Laura’s younger sister, Eliza, adds to his sense of personal guilt, while the townsfolk crack down on their children’s freedom in the wake of Laura’s disappearance. Charlie’s best friend, Jeffrey Lu, whose Vietnamese parents mourn the deaths of relatives while being persecuted by the locals – Asians taking jobs from white people, or blamed for the deaths of Australian soldiers fighting a proxy war in Vietnam – is a cricket fanatic and an excellent player, but is sidelined because of his ethnicity. This is the summer in which Charlie Bucktin grows up, falls in love, has his first kiss – and many more – and faces up to the paradoxes of human nature: that we are capable of extreme acts of cruelty towards others, that life isn’t fair or just, but that there is great depths of good in people too.

While at first I worried at the amount of internal reflecting from Charlie – especially problematic with the use of present tense, which requires a much faster pace in order to maintain its ‘in the moment’ dynamic (my dislike for present tense – or the over-use and inappropriate use of present tense – is well documented on my blog) – it develops a nice rhythm as well as Charlie’s character development. This coming-of-age story requires it, in the end, though I maintain that Silvey really didn’t need to use present tense (it was distracting at times, and muddied the flow: ironically, present tense can achieve the direct opposite effect of what it is often intended for, and Silvey is guilty of those narrative tics like “Later…”, which can really only be used when a character or unnamed focaliser is narrating the story as if to an audience).

This is often labelled a Young Adult novel, because of the age of its protagonists, but while To Kill a Mockingbird is quite clearly meant for younger readers (children, in fact), Jasper Jones is much more ‘adult’ in its handling of the themes and broader ideas. From the inherent racism in Australian society, which continues to this day, to the nifty parallels between the Lu family, the Wisharts, Charlie’s own family and, of course, Jasper Jones and the tragic story of his Aboriginal mother, as well as the questions Charlie poses regarding cruelty – all of this makes for a more sophisticated read than Mockingbird, which I foolishly first read as an adult and, while enjoying it and its famous characters, found to be too obvious and moralising for my taste. Here, setting is just as vividly used as in Harper Lee’s book: the mining town of Corrigan is tangible, from the heat to the singletted men to the cricket pitch.

At its heart is Jasper Jones, one of the most sympathetic characters I’ve come across in a while. Jasper Jones – he is often referred to by his full name, like a celebrity – is evidence of all that is wrong in Australian society. You could make this a 2016 novel and not much would change, except the sense of nostalgia would be gone, to be replaced by a dark and disturbing realism. I wonder at that choice, what the mid-60s setting does to the element of hope at the end of the book: how much we need the illusion that all we be well, even though, fifty-odd years later, we know it won’t be.

Read in December 2016.

Disgraced by Ayad Akhtar
Back Bay Books 2013
Trade Paperback
87 pages (plus author interview)

Ayad Akhtar, author of the successful novel American Dervish (still on my TBR pile), is a Pakistani-American novelist and playwright whose 2013 play Disgraced has been a hit on the stage. I haven’t seen it, unfortunately, but I suspect that the stage production would have all the intensity, dynamism, energy and tension that the script eludes to but lacks. This is a play that doesn’t read all that well, but would be, I’m sure, a strong story in the hands of the right actors and director. That said, it is still a memorable and interesting play to read.

Disgraced is the story of a successful New York couple, Amir and Emily. Amir, a lawyer, is of South Asian origins while his wife, Emily, is a white American. This miscegenation creates instant tension for the audience in the context of place and time, not only because of our cultural understandings around mixed-race couples in post-9-11 America, but because Emily, an artist, is sketching Amir after being inspired by an old painting of a slave. Emily has an interest in middle eastern art and culture, but as much as she understands and sympathises with people like Amir, she doesn’t really know because she’s never lived it. Her white privilege – as well as her class and apparent wealth – shelter her, and cause her to miss the simmering tension in her husband, his prickly argumentativeness.

Religion is, as you might expect, a key element in Disgraced. Amir was raised Muslim but is now an atheist with little patience for any religion, or religious excuses. Still, he lets his nephew and his wife get him involved in the case of an imam being accused of funding terrorism. As a lawyer, he works for a profitable law firm and feels confident that he will make partner, while Emily is given a big break with a solo exhibition at the Whitney, a gallery curated by Isaac whose wife, Jory, is a lawyer at the same firm as Amir. Jory is African-American while Isaac is white; there is clear sexual tension between Emily and Isaac, two white people in mixed-race marriages.

The play builds up to a dinner scene between the two couples, where things get heated. The climax of the play, though, is both shocking in its swift and hideous violence and also inevitable. It is also the moment when you lose respect for the characters and start to feel like we are instruments of our own doom because we are incapable of escaping or surmounting cultural differences, expectations and prejudices. For all Amir is intelligent, highly educated, self-reflective and, in some small ways, a victim, he is also just as human – just as fallible and flawed – as anyone else. Ultimately, it is a play about people who disappoint, in a culture or society that disappoints even more. Several big issues and themes are raised in four short scenes, and Akhtar does well presenting the characters in all their flawed glory without moralising or making clear what course of action is the ‘right’ one. It is clear, however, what is wrong, and one of the interesting things about this play is just many different kinds of things can be deemed ‘wrong’, from adultery to disowning your birth culture, from domestic violence to terrorism.

There are so many ways human beings can stuff up, which Disgraced explores, as well as what we can lose of ourselves and each other in doing so, and what externalities we can be a slave to.

Read in October 2016.

Finding Audrey by Sophie Kinsella
Corgi Books 2016 (2015)
Trade Paperback
280 pages
YA Fiction

I’m a tentative fan of Sophie Kinsella’s novels – some I have absolutely loved, others have been slightly annoying, while The Undomestic Goddess left me cringing. Finding Audrey is Kinsella’s first Young Adult novel, a sort of John Green-type story but with more human warmth, humour and, frankly, realism than Green (I might be the only person who isn’t gaga over John Green, who is seriously over-rated, but the comparison is a fair one I think). Audrey Turner is a young teen suffering from severe anxiety after an incident at school the year before, in which three girls bullied her to the point of giving her a breakdown. She is slowly showing signs of recovering, but hides behind dark sunglasses, even inside, and rarely ventures out. Her older brother, Frank, spends all his time on the computer playing Land of Conquerors, and their younger brother, Felix, is a delightful toddler. Their parents are showing signs of stress, especially their mother, who puts most of her energy into combating what she sees as Frank’s computer addiction – to the point of throwing his computer out of the upstairs’ bedroom window. In Audrey’s view, the whole family is nuts.

Her psychologist, Dr Sarah, encourages her to make a film, hoping that being behind the camera will help Audrey interact with others. But it is the arrival of Linus, Frank’s teammate for LOC, that makes the most significant change. Audrey’s attraction to Linus and Linus’s patient bridge-building with her pave the way for real improvement, but it’s a tenuous one, easily damaged.

Finding Audrey is both funny and serious, combining real-world issues like bullying with a wry, deprecating tone that helps balance the stresses I feel are coming to dominate the lives of young people. Audrey’s case is an extreme one, but the number of teenagers with anxiety and/or depression seem to be rising. People, even young people, have the capacity to be truly awful to each other, but Finding Audrey is really about the positive, hopeful, loving and loyal connections we make with each other, which can help save us from our worst qualities.

Read in July 2016.

Ruben Guthrie by Brendan Cowell
Currency Press 2011
Trade Paperback
64 pages

The play Ruben Guthrie, which was made into a feature film (released 2015), is about a young, successful advertising executive (Ruben) whose fiancée, a model called Zoya (whom he started dating when she was just a teenager), challenges him to quit drinking after yet another booze-soaked party leaves him with a broken arm. After Ruben attends his first AA meeting, he celebrates by opening a bottle of champagne; at this point, Zoya walks out, returning to her native country, the Czech Republic, to study documentary filmmaking.

Ruben’s journey to give up the drink is beset on all sides by his parents, his best friend, his boss and the general Australian culture, which links drinking to sport and masculinity. His father, also an alcoholic who has left Ruben’s mother for the Asian chef from his restaurant, tries to get him to drink again, while his boss, an alcoholic who’s been dry for years, tells him point-blank to start drinking again because Ruben just isn’t good at his job otherwise. The perceived connection between alcohol and being creative (a la Hunter S Thompson) is reminiscent of the view that smoking weed is a must for artists. Ruben’s best friend, a gay man recently returned from a failed job in the States, presents the biggest challenge for Ruben when he turns up with bottles of duty free booze. All around him, the message is the same: drink up, you’re a bore without it.

Despite still being engaged to Zoya, Ruben becomes involved with a woman from the AA meetings, Virginia, and the comparisons between Alcoholics Anonymous and a religious cult become apparent. Virginia makes the ‘other side’ less than appealing, and really, when it comes down to it, everyone is revealed as less than worthy in this play. I can’t help but feel it is an apt reflection of Australian society. We sell an image not just to the world but to ourselves, but ultimately, our culture has so many problems – drinking is just one of many.

A timely story about Australian culture’s messed-up relationship with booze, and how we actively sabotage people’s efforts at change.

Read in November 2016.

Unsticky by Sarra Manning
Corgi Books 2012 (2009)
Trade Paperback
562 pages
Fiction; Chick-lit

Unsticky was recommended to me by Angie (Angieville) many years ago, and I am pleased to have finally read it. It’s an interesting novel, not quite what I expected, with Grace being a mix of Sophie Kinsella’s shopaholic and Bridget Jones, and the love interest, Vaughan – a sickeningly rich art dealer – being a far from likeable character. It has humour but it is shadowed by a tense edginess, and overall left me feeling quite unsettled. It’s still compulsive reading; while long, it isn’t slow or tedious. It is a kind of coming-of-age story for Grace, a maligned, lowly assistant at a fashion magazine whose boss, Kiki, is truly quite horrible. I expected Grace to give it the flick but she doesn’t, she soldiers on and actually, finally, makes some progress there – all because of the new confidence and assertiveness, not to mention other polishing skills, she acquires as Vaughan’s mistress.

It’s Eliza Doolittle with sex, really. And there’s plenty of it – not overly detailed, but the tension is ever-present. Vaughan’s no real hero, in fact he’s a bit of a prick, but Manning does a good job of making both Grace and Vaughan believable, and their attraction to each other believable as well – especially on Grace’s side. Grace’s growing up isn’t rushed, but she does mature and improve for the better. I’m not so sure about Vaughan, though, and in the end I still wouldn’t want to spend social time in his company. Having said all that, I like books that make me uneasy, that aren’t always comfortable, so I do recommend this as an edgier ‘chick-lit’ type of read.

Read in October 2016.

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.