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Books in Discussion - Round 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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