Art inspiring fiction: Night Street by Kristel Thornell

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Melbourne is finally embracing autumn: grey skies, rain showers and leaves littering the street. Near perfect conditions to write a book review, especially if the book in question is Kristel Thornell’s atmospheric and Melbourne-centric Night Street, winner of The Australian/Vogel literary award in 2010.

Kristell Thornell

Kristell Thornell

Summary

Sometimes, art moves us to create more art. This is certainly the case with Night Street, where Thronell’s sensitive and tender prose shines a light on the life of Melbourne artist Clarice Beckett (1887-1935), a pioneer of tonal art in Australia. Night Street however is by no means a true rendering of Beckett’s life – it is just inspired by it.

The novel charts the rise and rise of Clarice as an artist. Along with her sister Louise, Clarice begins drawing lessons as young girl, a worthy hobby for a middle-class country lass. The novel then progresses to Clarice’s development as an adult artist, first studying with the National Gallery School, and later, significantly, rejecting it for the tutelage of the controversial Max Meldurm.

It is not all smooth sailing for Clarice who has a series of failed love affairs (include a mysterious character known as The Doctor) and a restricted life due to her duties in caring for her frail and elderly parents.

Despite these odds, Clarice’s work continues to be recognised by some important critics, while others dismiss her ‘tonalist’ art as too modern.

Analysis and Comment:

Certain parts of Night Street are stunning; carefully and beautifully written, reflecting the very nature of Beckett’s art. For example:

“The low sky thickened, like a white sauce reducing in a pan (p57)”

“Clarice loved her city well, comprehensively; all its plain, enticing fragments. A length of half-empty road, a long wistful shadow stretched out over it. An arrangement of telegraph poles. Somewhere offended by change, but she through it a pity to see progress as the enemy of beauty – because then, you were left with only nostalgia, having turned your back on so much that deserved your attention (p51)”

Night Street is also courageous. Thornell has taken on a lesser known figure of Australia’s 20th century art scene, and imagined a life for Clarice that is respectful, tender and realistic. Her novel captures the hard truths faced by female artists at the time (and even now) – sometimes it is hard to be taken seriously because of your gender, and other duties from the domestic sphere take up time that should be dedicated to the creative process.

However, despite its strong points, I felt there was something in Night Street that was quietly lacking. Was it that the scope of the novel was too narrow? After all, it focuses solely on Beckett’s existence, which was limited due to her circumstances. This certainly added to a lack of momentum in the novel overall.

Or is it something else, something it the way it was written? While Thronell’s floaty prose is striking and imaginative, it unfortunately veers into being distracting and excessive from time to time, particularly when describing something simple. For example:

 “Tilting her head and lowering her lashes, she could almost see the shards of broken night, the glittering of their slicing edges.” (p133)

Her word choices too are sometimes unnecessarily complex:

“There was a swift exodus…the few girls screening the daring lustre in their eyes with insouciance; most of there were alternately animated and insecure.” (p8)

Finally, I feel that Night Street may have benefited from a more close proofreading or editing process (a sentiment shared by another book reviewer I follow). For example:

“…the bun loosened over the hour, fine silken tendrils making a goal break.” (p17).

Goal break? Makes me think of football (shudder!)

“Clarice went through the motions, scalding the post, spooning in plump spoonfuls of tea…” (p106)

Overall, I respected this novel and enjoyed huge parts of it immensely, and I can understand why this novel made it on the VCE English reading list for 2014. Thornell deserves respect for her creative subject choice and her unique style, however the sometimes clunky prose and pacing of the novel was distracting and made the novel hard work to read.

I think this is one I will have to re-read at a later date, in an effort to more greatly appreciate its artistry and depth.

Beach boxes in Melbourne

Rating: 6/10

More about Kristel Thornell:

http://meanjin.com.au/blog/post/five-questions-for-kristel-thornell/

http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/beckett-clarice-marjoribanks-5178

More about the work of Clarice Beckett:

http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/beckett-clarice-marjoribanks-5178

http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/1999/07/beck-j22.html

http://www.artgalleryofballarat.com.au/explore-and-experience/collection/australian-collection/beckett,-clarice.aspx

Book details:

First published in 2010 by Allen and Unwin Australia.

ISBN: 9781742373362

 

Posted in Authors L-Z, Contemporary Literature, Reading list - VCE English 2014, Titles L-Z | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Murder most strange: The case of Parker and Hulme

It was well past midnight and New Zealand’s teen killers Pauline Parker and Juliet Hulme stared up at me from the cover of So Brilliantly Clever, Peter Graham‘s latest true crime book. As sole occupant on the ground floor of an creaky farm house, I was already slightly unnerved. Strange bed, strange house and a true-crime book to finish. But I was on holidays, damn it, so I wanted to keep reading. But dare I?

I did dare, well into the night. I hope you enjoy my review of this thought-provoking book on New Zealand’s most famous murder case.

So Brilliantly Clever

Summary:

So Brilliantly Clever is a non-fiction account of the 1954 murder of Honorah (Norah) Rieper by her daughter Pauline Parker and Pauline’s friend Juliet Hulme. This grisly and tragic case of matricide caused great upset in New Zealand and beyond, not only because of the type of murder (matricide by a teen daughter is incredibly rare), but for the disturbing relationship between the killers Parker and Hulme. Much focus was given to their ‘friendship’ (with whispering of lesbianism and insanity) and it still makes ripples today. 40 years after the murder, New Zealand director Peter Jackson made the film ‘Heavenly Creatures‘, based on Hulme and Parker’s friendship (you can view the trailer here.)

Graham’s book provides the details needed to give this sad tale balance: it includes information about the teenagers early lives, including illnesses and their experience with school , as well as an incredibly fascinating look at Hulme’s family. Juliet’s father, Dr Henry Hulme was a gifted mathematical scientist, who held the senior post of Rector at Canterbury  University College, and prior to that Cambridge and the University of Liverpool. Her mother, Hilda, was a marriage counselor and general pillar of the community. But that all unraveled, and not just because of the murder.

So Brilliantly Clever also gives a deep insight into the complex workings of the minds of Parker and Hulme in the lead-up to the murder, citing chilling and unusual diary entries, including an poem by Parker that included the lines:

“Hatred burning bright in the brown eyes, with enemies for fuel,
Icy scorn glitters in the grey eyes, contemptuous and cruel.
Why are men such fools they will not realize
The wisdom that is hidden behind those strange eyes?
And these wonderful people are you and I.”

Comments:

What makes Graham’s account so readable (despite the tragic subject matter) is his use of details and solid source material. He skillfully describes the lead up to the murder, as well as the aftermath. Life lives of Parker and Hulme were surprising – with both ending up in Scotland and Hulme, going under the pen name Anne Perry, became a successful crime writer.

His ability to be removed and balanced about the case without appearing callous elevates So Brilliantly Clever above the sensationalist pulp seen in so many true-crime books. Yes Hulme and Parker are murderers, but they have a back-story, a life. They are human too.

His intelligent account of the murder trial and the attempted defense of insanity (used in the Parker/Hulme case) under British law makes for fascinating reading. This could be attributed to Grahram’s substantial experience as a barrister in Hong Kong.

However, at times Graham’s writing veers into being stilted and overly descriptive, particularly in relation to individuals with little to add to the overall narrative. For example:

In 1953 Airini Grennell had returned to live in Christchurch, accompanied by a struggling expressionist painter called Rudi Gopas, who she would eventually marry. Gopas came from a town on the Baltic coast that had been part of east Prussia but was later annexed by Lithuania. He called himself Lithuanian: had it been known he served in the Germany army in the Second World War he would never have been allowed into New Zealand as an immigrant.” (p97)

Who was Airini again? I forget.

Recommendation:

While the Sunday Star Times proclaims So Brilliantly Clever as one best books of the year (2011), I respectfully disagree. But I do think a good read and a total page-turner, and it reminds us of the underlying issues such as sexuality, gender and class that underpinned New Zealand’s worst murder of the 1950s.

Rating: 7/10

ISBN: 978-1-877551-12-3 (This book was published in the US as: Anne Perry and the Murder of the Century)

Links:

https://vanrossenenglish.wikispaces.com/Pauline’s+diary+notes

http://www.awapress.com/products/published/books/HistoryHeritage/sobrilliantlyclever

http://www.jstor.org/discover/10.2307/40111547?uid=3737536&uid=2&uid=4&sid=21103767173917

 

 

Posted in Authors A-K, Non-Fiction, Titles L-Z, True Crime | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

April Fool’s Day and the best book-related prank of all time

Happy April Fool’s Day! It’s the 1st of April in Australia (and still in the AM)…but no pranks for me, yet.

Now, I love practical jokes, as long as no one gets hurt or is too humiliated. I remember with fondness an April Fool’s Day prank I pulled a few years back. I emailed my boss, informing her of my immediate resignation, along with a much-vauled co-worker. As my boss only read the first few lines of the email on her phone on the way into work, she got quiet worried, only to realise it was a joke after she got into the office, and was able to read the email in full (which included an outrageous lists of demands at the end). Luckily for me, she had a great sense of humour and forgave us for causing her a mini-heart attack.

In the spirit of the day, she then decided to prank members of her family with news she was getting back with an old ex – the results where more fiery than expected….but that’s another story. ;)

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Well, given this is a book blog, I should probably mentioned my favourite hoax of all time –  the classic War of the Worlds 1938 radio prank. You may know the one: In October 1938, actor and broadcaster Orson Welles tricked the radio listening public into thinking they were hearing a genuine new-flash about the arrival of Martins on earth – at Grover’s Mill, New Jersey. This resulted in panic cross the US. With an guesstimated audience in the millions, many listeners did realise this so-called news broadcast was a prank. However, there were some that believed the broadcast to be real and prepared to take flight. Dear Welles had to bit of apologising after it was all over…

Orson Welles in full flight

“Fake is as old as the Eden tree.” – Orson Welles

This clever hoax was, of course, based on H.G. Well’s classic War of the Worlds (written in the late 19th century). This is an old favourite of mine, introduced to me my dear father, who not only read his daughters the book but made us listen to the 1970s musical of the same name (ummm, thanks, I think?).

Do you have a favourite hoax? Any literary hoaxes you’d care to share? Feel free to comment ;)

Documentary link:

A great documentary of the 1938 radio hoax can be found here: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/films/worlds/ (This has received some criticism, suggesting it exaggerates the level of panic in listeners).

Posted in Classics, General musings, Science fiction and fantasy | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

A book dedicated to chocolate? Yes please!

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The Bluffer’s Guide to Chocolate is the perfect pre-Easter read. Written by professional blogger and foodie Neil Davey, it’s a delightfully funny and compact book (just over 100 pages) on all things chocolate. This little gem gives just enough information to whet your appetite and leave you hungry for more (boom boom).

Summary:

Davey begins by giving his readers a potted history of chocolate, (starting with the Olmecs of central America) then moves onto a chocolate tasting tutorials and an overview of chocolate manufacturing. This is where The Bluffer’s Guide to Chocolate really shines. Davey describes the chocolate manufacture process in just enough technical detail for the bluffer, and enough humor to keep things lively. For example:

“Conching….this has nothing to do with feral schoolboys creating their own dystopian society on a desert island, the name does have a shell connection. The paddles used in this stage look like shells and the Spanish for ‘shell’ is choncha.”

Davey’s inclusion of chocolate terminology (for example, winnowing, tempering) throughout the book gives a feeling of authority. As any bluffer (or bull-sh*tter, to put it crudely) knows, the illusion of expertise comes from using the right terminology, the more baffling and obscures the better. And if you want to quickly check a term, there is a glossary included at the back of the book.

For a book and art lover, I am also impressed that this guide includes a section on chocolate-inspired literature and art (even if the examples given are incredibly obvious and mainstream) including Like Water for Chocolate, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Chocolat).

Comment/Recommendation:

This book hit the mark for me because it delivered just the right amount of light-heartedness versus facts. The very concept of a ‘bluffer’s guide’ is also a winner in my eyes. I’m going to read the Bluffer’s Guide to Coffee next…ah caffeinated products, I love you.

After reading this I swiftly marched  dawdled lazily down to my local deli and purchased some quiet expensive chocolate, including a block of Michel Cluizel 64% and a Valhona Noir Guanaja 70%. I ate both blocks peacefully this afternoon (oink, oink!), noting the hints of red fruit, the slight bitterness at the end and the smooth texture – thanks to my Bluffer’s guide! Nothing like applying your book-learning, especially when it comes to quality chocolate.Image

TAKE THE QUIZ NOW: http://bluffers.com/quiz-corner/chocolate-quiz/ 

I received an advanced copy of this publication from Bluffer’s via Library Thing (www.librarything.com) in exchange for an honest review.

Rating: 8/10

Book details:

Published in 2014 by Bluffers, UK. ISBN: 978-1-909937-05-5(e-book). Also available in print.

More details: www.bluffers.com, http://bluffers.com/bluffers-guide-chocolate/

More reviews coming soon, including So Brilliantly Clever by Peter Graham, Burial Rites by Hannah Kent and Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín (VCE list 2014). Stay tuned!

 

 

 

Posted in Non-Fiction, Titles A-K | Tagged , , , | 4 Comments

Book Review: In the Country of Men by Hisham Matar

In the Country of Men

In the Country of Men is the debut novel of Hisham Matar. It was short listed for the Man Booker Prize in 2006 and plus a swag of other literary awards. It’s on the VCE reading list and has been translated into 22 different languages. Sounds very promising, right? I really wanted to love this book but I just couldn’t. Why?  It was just too damn comforting.

Summary

In the Country of Men is a novel set in Libya in 1979, a country living in the shadow of Gaddafi and ‘Revolutionary Committees’. It is told through the eyes of nine-year old Suleiman, a boy living in Tripoli.

Suleiman’s childhood routines are universal – he plays in the street with neighbourhood boys, goes to the market with his mother, meets family friends and basks in the Tripoli summer. Yet even at such a young age, Suleiman has much to grapple with.  His father, Faray, is often absent, explained away as business trips, and his mother (Najwa) if often ‘ill’ (possibly depression or anxiety). During her episodes of illness, she speaks of her arranged marriage, her unhappiness, and even reveals that she didn’t want to have Suleiman, telling himthat:

‘The stupid pills didn’t work. I took too many and all that vomiting squeezed them out of me. Nine months later I had you’ (p14).

Suleiman’s world beings to unravel he spies his father in the town centre while supposedly away on ‘business’. From here the mystery deepens, and facades begin to slip, revealing darkness and oppression. Suddenly, his father is missing, there are mysterious visits from members of the Revolutionary Committee, phone tapping and stalking. It is a summer in Tripoli that will be remembered for all the wrong reasons.

Comment and Analysis

In the County of Men deals with a number of important themes: childhood, parent-child roles, political oppression and surveillance, and Matar’s near prefect observations and strong writing make this novel really shine. Reading this book has also motivated me to understand more about Libyan history and politics – something that I am very grateful for.

This novel is a deeply sad. Suleiman speaks with a child’s clarity and immature frankness of the horror of repression and violence that he as lived with, even if his interpretation is muddied by a lack of true understanding of the situation.

For example, when Suleiman is speaks on the telephone, he knows the phone is tapped, he can hear the tell-tale echo on the line. He see’s the committee operatives waiting outside his home, observing and monitoring.  This regime smacks of the theocratic system in The Handmaid’s Tale, yet chillingly, the regime Matar describes is firmly grounded in Libyan history.

Just has disturbing is the fact that Suleiman is unable to connect to his parents. They are distant, removed, and this is perhaps understandable, given what they are facing on a daily basis. He becomes the parent figure in the relationship with his mother – something a nine-year old boy should never have to do. And this affects him for the rest of his life.

Rating: 6.5/10

I respect Hisham Matar’s vision in writing this novel, and I think he’s captured Suleiman’s experiences very well. Matar is an incredibly talented writer, with a knack for using simple English and short phrasing to create a feeling of tension. I just didn’t enjoy this book in the way wanted. It was very challenging and confronting.

Maybe that’s a shallow reason for not liking this novel. After all, reading is not just about enjoyment and escapism. If it was, I’d just read Joanna Trollope and be done with it. But in the end I felt there was no character I could really like, I felt frustrated at Suleiman’s parents and even (shamefully) a little annoyed at Suleiman and his situation. The fact is, I am just a not brave enough to face the cold reality of the life Matar has outlined so well. I don’t want to believe children are suffering in the world. Yet of course they are, every day.

In the Country of Men does suggest, in the end, that the love between a mother and a son is able to transcend incredible hardship, and will ultimately triumph. There is always hope.

ISBN: 978-0-241-95707-3. First published by Viking 2006.

Links:

http://theculturetrip.com/africa/libya/articles/writing-beyond-the-regime-five-libyan-authors/

http://www.enotes.com/topics/in-the-country-of-men

http://www.merip.org/mer/mer143/libyas-revolution-revisited

http://www.loosechangemagazine.org/2011/06/libya-1979-2/

Posted in Authors L-Z, Contemporary Literature, Reading list - VCE English 2014, Titles A-K | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

Maddaddam – what’s in a design?

Maddaddam is the final book in Margaret Atwood’s stunning Oryx and Crake trilogy, released in August 2013. It concludes the story of Toby, a former member of a environmental religious cult who is fighting for survival in a plague-ridden Earth. Together with Zeb, her love interest, and a group of unlikely survivors, they forge a new way of being. 

This novel has some moments of real beauty and insight, and is a great piece of science-fiction. While not the best book in the trilogy, it is certainly worth the read. Compelling, touching and deeply satisfying. It’s like meeting old school friends and finding out you still have things in common, despite the years that have passed. 

Now, as other reviewers in the blog sphere are sure to write a better review than I ever could, I want to focus on one element: the cover design. Pretty stunning, right? 

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This first edition UK cover has been nominated for the Academy of British Cover Design (ABCD) annaul awards, in the category of literary fiction. I can see why! For more information, go to: http://abcoverd.co.uk/ Also, check out Bloomsbury’s Maddaddam trailer. Very, very cheesy, but an interesting marketing concept. 

Posted in Authors A-K, Authors L-Z, Contemporary Literature, Science fiction and fantasy | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Book Review: Cloudstreet by Tim Winton

Cloud street: (′klau̇d strēt) (meteorology) A line of cumuliform clouds frequently one cumulus element wide, but ranging upward in width so that it is sometimes difficult to differentiate between streets and bands.

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Years ago, when I was giddy with the invincibility of youth, I stole my sister’s copy of Cloudstreet. I did things like that back then. I know, it’s Dante’s inferno for me – maybe there’s a special circle reserved for book thieves? Perhaps Mark Zusak knows? Luckily I’ve confessed all, and she forgives me because I now love this novel as much she does.

Summary:

Cloudstreet is a mystical, rambling novel that has helped shape Australian literary fiction since its publication in 1991. It tells the tale of two rural families, the Lambs and Pickles, who find themselves sharing a huge weatherboard house in inner Perth (Cloud Street) in an attempt to escape dire post-depression poverty.

The Pickles’ household believes in the ‘shifty shadow’, and in luck and fate. It is fate that sees them inherit Cloud Street and acquire the Lamb family as tenants, willing to pay rent for half a haunted house with one bathroom between twelve people.

“We’re rich! Sam yelled from the letterbox. But next day was Saturday. Race day… Saturday evening they were poor again.” (pg 40-41).

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Where the Pickles’ poverty is aggravated by the vices of booze and gambling, the Lamb family’s poverty is borne from something more naïve. The Lambs are ‘Lambs of God’ (p 47), Christian farmers with a brood of six who have made some poor choices. They have also faced incredible tragedy, including the near-drowning on their son, Fish. Yet for their seemingly old-fashioned ways, they work hard to make their luck, unlike their landlords who seem content to wait for it, even if it takes a life time.

The narrative is carried along by stories of key family members via an omnipotent narrator (except for the rare lapse into first person). For example, through the character of Rose Pickles, we learn about her life with an alcoholic mother, her dreams for the future, her desire to better herself, her battle with an eating disorder. We learn of matriarch Oriel Lamb’s life of hardship and work, and as Winton reveals, little by little, her values shape her. We learn of her struggle with her with faith, her ambition for the family business and her desire for efficiency over sentimentality.

As the member of the families wrangle with life’s complexities and challenges, with conflicts and humbling love, we gain a greater insight into humanity and spirituality. Winton asks the reader to understand that there is more to being an Australian than the stereotypes would have us believe. He asks us to consider our dark past of violence and indigenous dispossession.

It’s not all beer and meat pies, mate.

Analysis and Comment: [the long, boring bit]

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Cloudstreet is a novel that can be frustrating to read. It requires a great deal of concentration to get through some parts. It can seem slow and, dare I say it, pointless. However I believe it deserves attention. Why? Here are a couple of key reasons:

Internal and external spaces

Cloudstreet is about the internal and external spaces in our existence. It makes us consider the private and the internal, including: family, home, emotions and our spiritual nature. It’s part of the reason why this novel resonated so strongly with Australian baby boomers; they looked back on the 1960s as a social and political turning point for Australia.

It is, of course, also a novel about the external spaces in our lives: the role and influence of  national identity, class and gender issues, international politics and conflict (in Cloudstreet these include World War Two, Korea, the cold war and the Cuban missile crisis) , race relations in Australia, as well as the dispossession of indigenous people in Australia.

Mystical realism and spirituality

Cloudstreet’s circular and complex narrative structure reflects the mystical nature of novel. Winton depicts suburban family life with roots firmly in reality, and yet, this is a reality which smacks of ‘other’, a mystical universe on the edge of another space. Winton  hints at this throughout the novel. Would a family really (really?) pay rent years in advance, like the Lambs? Or is there something more keeping them at the house, keeping them linked to the Pickles family? And a pig generally doesn’t talk, or does it? Does Fish Lamb, due to his (diagnosed) acquired brain injury, have a second-sight, an ability to commune with the spiritual realm?

But is the house that is the most importing space for spiritualism in this book. The Cloud Street house settles, sings and moves more than a house should (unless it’s a house in a Stephen King novel) and ‘blackfellas’ appear at random intervals, in unsettling points in the novel.  Winton is deliberate with his purpose here: these apparitions serve as parables, reminders, of the horror of European assimilation policies and of ‘stolen generations’.

Tim Winton’s writing style

Winton’s ability to conjure up stunning imagery is superb. His power lies in the use of metaphors and idioms, in his skilfully way of combining two words to make one compound term. For example: brownslick, goodlooking, crotchpong, shitpoor.

He also skilfully uses bygone Australian vernacular to render post-depression Australia with a rare and intense clarity. It is with this language that Winton appeals to his audience’s sense of nostalgia but, importantly, not sentimentality.  I am sure many an anlgo-celtic boomer could recall a grandparent or parent using the delightful working-class vernacular of the Cloudstreet universe:  wacko, bonzer, kybosh, ‘rough-as-guts’, ‘you’re a card, you are’.

Winton also dispenses with conventional punctuation, most notably quotation marks. Usually this kind of postmodern anti-grammar irks me – but not in this novel.  By using this approach, Winton allows the speech of the characters to flow unencumbered, to truly mimic the eddies of real-life conversation. His satirical use of names (Lamb, Pickle, Fish, Quick, Cloudstreet) too, is clever and well-considered, adding to the mystical, almost biblical, quality to the novel.

Conclusion:

Cloudstreet is a tough read that teeters on the absurd. But it is also haunting, hilarious and timeless. Yes, it is set within an Australia that is white and male-breadwinner skewed, and that can be hard to reconcile at times. And yes, it is 426 pages of chunky-love read.

However, Cloudstreet recognises, in a powerful and original way, our past transgressions. It reminds us of the terrible impact our racist, paternal polices had on generations of indigenous Australians. And yet, it also gives us hope that change is possible.

Besides, it made me cry at the end, so there must be something in it, right?

Rating: 9/10

Book details: ISBN: 0140171193. My edition (errm, I mean my sister’s edition) by Penguin Books Australia, 1996.

Study Links and Essays:

http://readingaustralia.com.au/Secondary/Cloudstreet/Essay.aspx

http://www.sydneyhometutoring.com.au/wp-content/uploads/2013/02/Details-Cloudstreet-notes.pdf

http://www.insightpublications.com.au/pdf_preview/TG-Cloudstreet-10-pages.pdf

http://bhsyear12english.weebly.com/cloudstreet—structure-and-language.html

http://www.austlit.edu.au/common/fulltext-content/pdfs/brn633345/brn633345.pdf

Mini-Series Trailer:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xQMOa7vXRjY

Cloudstreet Awards:

Cloudstreet received the National Book Council Award, the West Australian Premier’s Award and the Miles Franklin Literary Award. In 2003 the Australian Society of Authors conducted a poll to determine the top 40 Australian books. Cloudstreet was rated number one.

(Source: http://www.austlit.edu.au/common/fulltext-content/pdfs/brn686834/brn686834.pdf )

Posted in Authors L-Z, Contemporary Literature, Reading list - VCE English 2014, Titles A-K | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Cowzat! A quick little review for Friday

Cowzat! is a wickedly funny children’s book all about Australian cows inventing cricket. It is written by Bruce Atherton and illustrated by Brisbane based Ben Redlich. The illustrations are hilarious, the ensemble of cows-turned-cricketers is endearing and poem memorable and catchy. A future classic? Maybe. Certainly the digital edition of this book has been winning international accolades recently, including the 2014 Digital Book Award.

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Rating: 8/10

ISBN: 9781921136658. Published by Windy Hollow Books, Australia.

Posted in Children's fiction, Titles A-K | Tagged | Leave a comment

Adelaide Writers’ Week on now!

Adelaide Writers’ Week kicked off on Saturday 1 March 2014. Check out their blog for more info! Posts on a range of different fiction and non-fiction, including Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North. 

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Book Review: Spies by Michael Frayn

Spies - VCE Reading List 2014

It’s easy to see why Michael Frayn’s novel Spies won the Whitbread Award in 2002 (now known as the Costa Book of the Year award). It is an intriguing book that gently and tenderly explores of childhood, propelled by a dark undercurrent of espionage and secrecy.

Summary

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Spies is a beautifully written and intricate coming-of-age story set in the ‘make-do-and-mend’ England of the 1940s, where the reality of war is to be dealt with practically, frugally. It tells the story of Stephen Wheatley and his childhood friend Keith Hayward, who live in a London cul-de-sac on the edge of farmland known as the Close.

Wheatley and Hayward’s every-day existence of school, siblings and childhood adventure shifts to something more serious when Hayward confides in Wheatley that his own mother could be is a German spy.

Comment and Analysis

We are introduced to Wheatley as an old man, who is revisiting the Close fifty years after he lived there as a boy. It is through his memories of childhood that the story unfolds. This narrative technique is what makes Spies such a personal and moving story. As John Mullan, Professor of English at University College, London, observes: ‘the narration does not so much recall events as re-enact them. He [Frayn] uses the present tense to narrate his childhood experiences, helping him to inhabit the consciousness of himself as a boy.’ (The Guardian, May 2012).

The use of memories to progress a narrative is not unusual or unique. Frayn presents us with a story telling technique that we is familiar and comfortable. An old man is physically revisiting his past, remembering a time in his life that was very special. Well. isn’t that sweet? As Wheatley recalls: “What I remember, when I examine my memory carefully, isn’t a narrative at all. It’s a collection of vivid particulars. Certain words spoken, certain objects glimpsed…Certain individual moments, which seem to mean so much, but which mean in fact so little until the hidden links between them have been found.”

But there is something more going on. Wheatley the elder talks about himself in the third person – as Stephen. For example, ‘Stephen spent a lot of time concealed in the midst of those unremarkable dull-green bushes that had once been a hedge’ (p 30). This is a very unusual technique, and is initially confusing. Why does Frayn choose to take this path? It is almost as if he wants to explore the tension between our present self being so perplexingly different to our past self, the adult that was once a child. It Wheatley observes this effect, noting ‘Stephen has become an old man who seems to be me’ (p 85). The importance of this technique is revealed at the end, which does allay some initial confusion.

Spies has a very limited setting, and there are times throughout the novel when this can be tedious. However, on balance, the containment of the setting allow Frayn to take us right into the world of the Close and its surrounds (including the squalor of Lanes, an area just outside the ‘civilisation’ of the Close). He does this breathtakingly.

By using a first person narration, the reader is given privileged access to Stephen’s friendship with the arrogant and latently sadistic Hayward and his awkward (and sometimes humorous) exploration of his emerging sexuality with the impervious Barbara Berrill. Berrill, it seems is a bit of a bad influence, introducing young Stephen to shameful, oh-so-risky habit of smoking tobacco (GASP!).

Key Themes

This text is a great choice for VCE English 2014. Not only does Fryan have an excellent command of the English language, he has a knack from bringing out themes that English literature teachers love (or they did in my day. Mr Ingoldsby, darl, I’m thinking of you).

A list of major themes include:

  • Family relationships and their importance
  • Loyalty and trust
  • Authority
  • Age and the passing of time
  • Sexuality and sexual awakening
  • Power and parental authority
  • Friendship and bullying
  • Class and social status
  • Spies and espionage
  • War and race struggles
  • Gender and gender roles.

Conclusion and Recommendation

Spies is a thoroughly enjoyable and beautifully written novel that manages to say so much about childhood in a limited setting. The depth of detail, of really being there is what really sets this novel apart from others of a similar genre (it’s as if you pause and listen for a while, you’ll start to hear The Close children playing, and smell freshly-cut grass). Frayn’s use of dialogue and language is also very well done.

However, there is a downside to Frayn’s lyrical ramblings. His use of dense, detailed passages borders on tedious in some parts of the novel. No matter how sophisticated the imagery is, I always like a paragraph that makes a point.

The twist at the very end is surprising, and was, for me, a real ‘a-huh!’ moment.

Ranking: 7/10. Overall, very well done with some memorable images and one-liners.

Links:

http://www.theguardian.com/books/2012/may/25/book-club-spies-michael-frayn)

Study resources:

http://www.thestudentroom.co.uk/wiki/revision:spies_-_michael_frayn

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RQPD_gKgYLQ

http://mentoneyear12english.files.wordpress.com/2013/04/spies20insight20text20book20article-1.pdf

https://www.blendspace.com/lessons/ziBWEWhwiUiUYg/whose-reality-spies-michael-frayn

Glossary of Literary Terms

http://www2.uncp.edu/home/canada/work/allam/general/glossary.htm

ISBN: 9780571268856. My edition published in 2002 by Faber and Faber, http://www.faber.co.uk/catalog/spies/9780571268856

Posted in Authors A-K, Contemporary Literature, Reading list - VCE English 2014, Titles L-Z | Tagged , , , , , | 7 Comments