Does this book hold the answer to Agatha Christie’s disappearance?

Well well it’s been a busy couple of weeks in Melbourne town, so here is a quick ‘n’ dirty review (or lazy review, call it what you will) of my most recent read….

a finished portrait

In this fascinating but sometime tedious book (sorry is that a bit nasty?), Dr Andrew Norman tells us about the life and loves of Agatha Christie, as well as hypothesizing about the mental condition that promoted her disappearance in 1926. No only did she disappear, but left behind her prized car and fur coat…..foul play? Perhaps, but perhaps not. Regardless, public and police attention was well and truly captured across the UK and beyond.

In this book, Norman details Christie’s early life, including her idyllic and comfortable childhood at the family home of Ashfield, her first marriage to a guy that turned out to be a bit of a cad, and her work with poisons during the war. Early on in the book, Norman hits at instability, or trauma, through Christie’s re-occurring dream involving a threatening figure known as ‘the gunman’. Chilling!

Christie’s life makes compelling reading for any true-crime or mystery fan – this non-fiction work is well researched and well-construed, using Christie’s novel, Unfinished Portraitas a source of clues about Christie’s real feelings toward significant figures in her life.

However, the inclusion of a few short, choppy chapters dealing with off-topic (but Christie- related themes), including her love of flowers and their importance in her stories,  detracted from the major focus: the mystery of her disappearance and the darker issues that lurked behind it.

 

 

achristie

Links:

http://www.theguardian.com/uk/2006/oct/15/books.booksnews

http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/hide-and-seek/201203/dissociative-fugue-the-mystery-agatha-christie

Overall: 

A good read for Christie fans that sheds light on the lesser-known aspects of this famous author’s life. Well-researched and accessible.

Book details:

Tempus Publishing Limited, ISBN 0 7524 3990 1

Posted in Authors A-K, Non-Fiction, Titles A-K, True Crime | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton

the luminaries

Starting Eleanor Catton’s award-winning The Luminaries  was like cracking open an exotic beer you’d heard about but never tasted. So much promise, so much to look forward to. Well, I commenced my reading adventure with Catton in one Sunday afternoon, but by nightfall, I’d already quit in frustration. How long does it take a lead character to enter the room? Seven pages? Really!?

A few nights later I resumed reading with vigour. Surely I was not giving this novel the attention it deserved. If The Luminaries was a beer,  it would be a dark, heavy NZ stout (Moa anyone?), an acquired taste.  So, with that in mind, I picked it up and started to read.  Then put it down. Then re-started a week later.

You get the idea…..

However, after a long while (at page 400 or so), the flat strange characters in the novel began to grow on me and take shape, much like the world around them – and then I was hooked! The mystery and rhythm of of The Luminaries keep me reading well into the night. 

Summary:

The Luminaries is a masterfully written and intricate novel that tells of weaves together the lives of (mostly male) characters, eking out an existence in the New Zealand gold rush village of Hokitika. They are drawn together by a mystery that spreads beyond the town, and beyond the shores of New Zealand.

The story beings when Mr Walter Moody, a new arrival  from the mother country, stumbles across a secret meeting of twelve men, all with a connection to the death of a local hermit, Mr Crosbie Wells. As events unfold, it is revealed that on the night of Well’s untimely passing,  Miss Anna Wetherell, lady of the night and opium eater, is found insensible in the local vicinity.

Is she connected to the hermit’s death? If so, how? And what about the strange appearance of Wells’ widow, Lydia, who appears to have links to Anna, and her ‘profession’?

Analysis and Comment:

In term of practice, or art, of reading, sometimes it is good to ‘take on’ a complex and challenging novel such as The Luminaries. Effort that pays off!

To me, The Luminaries is a stunning re-interpretation of a Victorian-ear mystery novel, replete with characters that are familiar yet not (the street-walker/whore, the politician, the journalist, the ship broker, the adventurer looking to strike it big, the madam, the crook etc), with language and dialogue that skillfully transcends time.

This novel is also incredibly well-researched and engaging, transporting the reader right into the gold-rush era New Zealand. You can almost smell the ocean, feel the wooden jetty underfoot and hear the muted bird-calls from Well’s cottage.

Another striking feature of this novel is Catton’s deliberate decision to tell this tale from the points of view of a number of different characters, in the third person, and base the length of chapters around the phases of the moon (well that’s my take on it anyway). A real feat of coordination and continuity. I have never come across such an organizing principle for a novel.

However, there are a few points of contention (of course!). I found the lack of commentary of any of the characters experiences a little disconcerting. The fact that Anna’s fate as  street-walker (or as she is refereed to in the novel, a whore. An ugly term, in my opinion), is really treated as one of straight-forward fact, when of course, we know from historical evidence of the time, sex workers had it tough – with rapings and beatings a regular occurrence (we do get some sense of this ‘gold rush town’ violence in Catton’s novel, to be fair). How did Anna end up in such a position, other than what is described in the novel? And what about her interactions with the other characters, specifically Crosbie Wells? Are we, the reader, expected just to take it as fact, to not judge, not to be appalled by this situation?

My other major criticism (as voiced by countless other readers and bloggers) was the pace of the novel, and the sheer amount of detailed description. Was it all really necessary? Probably not.

Overall, the The Luminaries is deeply satisfying story of adventure and mystery, entwined with romance and passion. It is a book that leaves the reader a little unsure as to what really happened, where all the pieces fit in the end. However, this is, in itself, somehow satisfying.

Recommendation:

A true original and I (begrudgingly) have to agree with the Booker judges – it deserved the win in 2013. A must of readers of award-winners, fans of historical fiction and those with unlimited patience.

For a more well-rounded and detailed review of this novel, check out FictionFan’s review here. Highly recommended!

Book Details:

ISBN: 978 1 84708 876 5. Published by Granata Publications, London, 2013

Links:

http://www.eldred-grigg.com/index.php/non-fiction/22-diggers-hatters-and-whores-the-story-of-the-new-zealand-gold-rushes

http://www.outbackfamilyhistoryblog.com/2014/04/22/violence-murder-and-dispossession-the-human-cost-of-the-australian-gold-rush/

http://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/apr/04/john-mullan-book-club-luminaries-eleanor-catton

Posted in Authors A-K, Contemporary Literature | Tagged , , , , , | 6 Comments

Burial Rites by Hannah Kent

burial-rites

Last time I looked, Burial Rites was sitting at number 8 on the independent best-seller list in Oz, pipped only by heavy hitters such as The Silkworm, The Goldfinch and that searingly honest YA novel, The Fault in Our Stars (a novel that more sophisticated than I expected.) Now, there are a number of reasons why Burial Rites has occupied the top 10 for so long. For one thing, it is easy to  read, strikingly well-written and intellectually engaging. But the true genius of this novel lies in the simplicity of its central story – that of Agnes Magnúsdóttir, the last woman to be executed in Iceland. As the character of Agnes confirms on page one:

‘They said I must die. They said I stole the breath from men, and now they must steal mine.’

A taste of things to come, no doubt.

Summary

During 1828 on a farm in northern Iceland, two men are viciously murdered, their bodies discovered amid the burnt-out remains of the elder victim’s farmhouse. Three people are charged with the murders and sentenced to death; this includes Agnes Magnúsdóttir, a young house maid.

In the months before her execution date, Agnes is placed in the custody of the District Officer of the region, on his family farm in the north of the country – a bleak and monochrome land. She is to work on the farm, as well as receive spiritual guidance from Assistant Reverend Thorvardur Jónsson (Tóti). Despite the precautions taken (Agnes is bound when she arrives, and is under supervision), the family (including two sisters) are repulsed and frightened at the reality of sharing close living area, or badstofa, with convicted murderess.

Yet during Tóti’s regular visits with Agnes, more of her sad life is revealed. As with any conflict or act of violence, there is always so much more than what meets the eye – and this is certainly the case with the Iceland murders. The bottom line is that context and history are so important in shaping present actions and events.

Comments and Analysis

One of the important elements of this story is the use of multiple points of view. An omnipotent narrator interchanges with Agnes’ first person view, allowing the reader to place Agnes in the context of her narrow, rule-bound society. This technique also allows Kent to reveal an Iceland with little compassion for those who step outside the rules, and those sentenced, by virtue of their birth, to a life of hardship.

The introduction and continuation of the first person narrative allows of deep personal insights, memories and, of critical importance to the novel, the revelation of the truth (as Agnes sees it anyway) of what actually happened on the night of the murder.

Kent also does a great job of tapping into our appetite for the less savoury aspects of life: murder, passion and revenge in an icy landscape. But Kent should not be seen as a writer who is cynically fishing for readers of a certain genre. Rather, Kent’s interested in Iceland and its culture is so genuine it is almost palpable.

Burial Rites is carefully structured, aligning historical documents with well-considered, sharp prose. With her carefully allusions to a society that sits uncomfortably with modernity, Kent’s Iceland is a land of ‘otherness’, just as Agnes, a woman who strayed outside of society’s patriarchal conventions, is ‘othered’.

Of course, as with all works of fiction, there are always a few quirks and minor irritation. Kent’s prose comes across as stiff and formal in the early stages, like she is trying just a bit to hard. It is also incredibly dark passages, filled with vivid descriptions of a harsh, cold landscape populated with judgmental, evil and selfish people. This can get wearing. But there is certainly a balance. Kent uses Agnes’ relationship with Toti, and her reflections about her life, to show there is hope in the most bleak situations, and the glimmers of compassion the District Officer’s family show to Agnes also serve to provide relief from the sheer terror of her situation.

A beautiful and compelling novel built on a strong foundation of robust historical research.

Other Reviews:

For more insights into Burial Rites, I highly recommend Chris Sullivan’s excellent review here. Some interesting insights into the novel, includes parallels with Atwood’s Alias Grace.

Links:

http://www.picador.com/blog/august-2013/burial-rites-a-photo-essay-from-iceland

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Architecture_of_Iceland

Book Details:

ISBN: 9781742612829. Published in 2013 by Picador Australia.

STOP PRESS: Hannah Kent in Melbourne!

Oh and Ms Kent is visiting the Melbourne Writers’ Festival (huzzah!) and is also speaking at the Wheeler Centre this weekend. But of course, I have just found out both sessions are BOOKED OUT! Anyway….maybe there is a waiting list…maybe!

Until next time, good night all!

 

 

Posted in Authors A-K, Contemporary Literature, Titles A-K, Writing news and resources | Tagged , , | 3 Comments

Shot in the Head: A Sister’s Memoir, a Brother’s Struggle

 

shot in the head

Before I begin….yes, I know, I know, it has been a while between posts. I blame the ‘flu for giving me a fuzzy head these past few weeks (that and the fact I am working my way through The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton.…hmmm!). Oh and the tragic loss of dear Rik didn’t help either. 

Anyway….here’s the new review. Enjoy!

Summary

Shot in the Head: A Sister’s Memoir, a Brother’s Struggle is first time author Katherine Flannery Dering’s account of a family grappling with a diagnosis of serious mental illness. Dering’s brother Paul was diagnosed with severe schizophrenia as a young man and then, devastatingly in his later life, was diagnosed with lung cancer. In this memoir, Dering has succeeded in sensitively telling her brother’s story in an uplifting way, despite the two serious illnesses he faced during his lifetime.

dering

Katherine Flannery Dering – Author

Dering begins her story with an account of childhood, one that involved international travel, adventure and glamour. Her father was a ‘car company executive who was going places’, (including Sweden, where Dering spent some of her childhood). It was a charmed existence for the family for many years, complete with European travel and a live-in au pair to support the large crew (Dering was one of 10 children).

But their fortunes turned after Dering’s father  was retrenched, forcing the family back to the United States. Then in 1976 Paul, Dering’s ‘baby’ brother, was diagnosed with schizophrenia after his first psychotic episode. Not only were the symptoms of Paul’s illness incredibly frightening, but the impact on Paul was life-long.

In this memoir, Dering skillfully weaves together the story of her own life (as a business woman, mother, writer and sister) along with her memories of family life and of her relationship with Paul. The details of Paul’s journey with schizophrenia, including treatment – firstly in an institution and then within the community – and his day-to-day life is eye-opening reading.

A primary theme throughout this memoir is the special relationship between Dering and her brother. As his much older sister, she helped care for Paul when he was a baby – she fed him, played with him, even changed his nappies. Her love for Paul is a constant and gentle undercurrent through the entire book. Yet despite this love, Dering is not overly sentimental about the challenges their relationship faced – she is honest about how tough it was a times. She recalls that visiting Paul was sometimes frightening due to his erratic behaviors and odd comments, that the management of his care, particularly after the passing of her mother, was a challenge.

Comments and Analysis

I applaud Dering for her courage to write about such a personal issue and to be honest about her experiences. Life is hard. It is even harder when you have a  family member who has a serious mental illness – an illness that brings with it unfair stigmatization and generalizations. Add a diagnosis of cancer into the mix and you have a very tough situation indeed.

Balanced accounts like Shot in the Head are vital tools for ‘health consumers’ (i.e. Paul, his family and carers) to have a voice in a system where it is sometimes hard to be heard, a way to share their valid and unique insights into mental illness treatment.  In sharing her own experiences, Dering’s account should offer some comfort to others in a similar situation.

Shot in the Head is also valuable in raising awareness about the correlation between psychotic illnesses (like schizophrenia) and the incidences of lung cancer. Researchers have acknowledged the increased rate of smoking in individuals with schizophrenia, and also higher rates of lung cancer diagnosis than the general population.  (Sources: Victorian Government Health Guidelines, Consti 2007 , Tran et al 2009).

So, while this memoir was incredibly readable, and very important as a work of health consumer literature, I did have few minor quibbles with it.

Firstly, the title is unusual. The title phrase ‘shot in the head’ is linked to Paul’s delusion that his illness was due to being literally shot in the head. The phrase represents a significant turning point for the old Paul to the new (sometimes frightening) Paul, the brother living with a mental illness. However, the phrase ‘shot in the head‘ makes the book a little tricky to search for online and may also be misleading to some potential readers (leading them to think they are picking up a murder mystery or a trashy thriller, rather than a well-written memoir). To be fair, I acknowledge that the full title makes it clear to the reader what kind of a book they are in for, but as an initial ‘grab’ phrase, it didn’t work for me.

Secondly, the inclusion of longer family emails in the text (in relation to Paul’s treatment) slowed the pace of the story a little,  despite making fascinating reading. Perhaps these could have been edited down, or placed in a different way.

Thirdly, I personally found the very specific details given of US mental health policies not particularly compelling. However, I am reading this as a non-US citizen. For US readers, or those specifically interested in that side of the story, some policy detail is important to include. Also, given the family’s advocacy efforts regarding mental health treatment and care options for people with psychiatric illnesses, I understand what the author was wanting to achieve.

Recommendation:

Overall, a very compelling and thoroughly moving read, and a great effort for a first book. Katherine’s story of her brother serves to reminds us all of our humanity, of the fragile nature of existence we lead and how precious it is.

I recommend this book for people with an interest in family memoirs, biographies and in modern mental health treatment.

Oh…and kudos to Dering and her publishers for using such incredible and original cover art. Just brilliant.

Book Details:

226 pages, Published March 24th 2014 by Bridgeross Communications. ISBN 192763721X

Acknowledgements:

I would like to thank the publishers at Bridgecross Communications (via Library Thing) for providing me with an advanced copy for review. Apologies for the delay in the posting of the review.

 

Posted in Authors A-K, Non-Fiction | Tagged , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Sydney Writers’ Festival 2014 and Literary Criticism…

The Sydney Writers’ Festival is running now until the 25 May 2014.

If you are in that part of Australia I urge you to check it out. Or, if you are dwelling down south like me (or just live in another part of the world), you can always listen to podcasts from previous years (including an interesting overview on literary criticism fro 2013) here or visit the Festival blog for more links and information.

Alex Miller, author of Coal Creek, spoke at the Festival on Wednesday. Sadly, as I lack a magic carpet or transporter, I missed seeing him…sigh! 

Stay tuned for a new review next week….:) Yep, it’s been a busy week. Luckily there is always time for coffee!

 

 

 

 

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Book Review: Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov

lolita

Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov

Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down on the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo.Lee.Ta. (p1) 

I am confounded, confused and very curious. How is it possible that a self-confessed feminist like me could appreciate a novel like Lolita, a book that is confronting and deeply disturbing in its subject matter, yet masterful in its execution? It is a story I have avoided for many years, ever since starting to watch the 1990s movie of the same name. (Why did you agree to act in this film, Jeremy Irons, why?)

So what is all the fuss about? What is Lolita?

Summary:

For those who haven’t, or couldn’t, read Lolita, it is a novel about love, obsession and control. Narrated in the first person, it charts the life of one Humbert Humbert, a European-born academic with a sexual predilection for girls (or nymphets, as he refers to them), and his obsessive love of one girl: Lolita.

Humbert H meets and falls ‘in love’ with Delores Haze, or Lolita (aged 12) after moving into her mother’s house as a boarder. So begins his obsession with ‘plain Lo'; Humbert believes himself to be in love with Lolita and will do anything to be with her. He even goes so far as to marry her mother, Charlotte, in order to remain under the same roof. During this time, he begins secretly abusing Lolita, fueling his desire and obsession.

Then, an unfortunate accident ensures that Humbert gains complete control over Lolita as her sole surviving ‘parent’. He takes Lolita on a journey that leads them from state to state; a journey that was, at the beginning, something that excited to Lolita. Yet it becomes clear that young Lolita (at 12, still a child) is an unwilling participant in this adventure, with her very limited choices forcing her to remain with Humbert.  As Humbert famously acknowledges: “You see, she had absolutely nowhere else to go.”

That is, until she meets Carol Quilty,  a [male] screen writer and film maker with limited morals, who offers her a new, but not really better, existence. This heralds the next stage in Humbert H’s story – revenge and his quest to find (and reclaim) his ‘Lo’.

Analysis/Comment:

Lolita is a novel of rare brilliance. It is part love story, part road story, part fictional memoir. It is also incredibly upsetting, violent and disturbing.

Nabokov’s mastery of English language is particularly evident in Lolita, despite English being his second or third language. His word plays are very clever and quiet funny. Humbert’s gun is affectionately called Chum. The actual road Humbert drives down to a major plot point is called Grimm. Humbert and Lolita drive through a town, Soda, Pop 1001. Even the characters names have hidden (or not so hidden) meanings, for example Clare Quilty rhymes with guilty; the choice Nabokov makes in spelling Lolita’s last name (Haze, not Hayes) leaves us with no doubt about the character of the Haze family.

Nabokov also deftly weaves threads of absurdity throughout the novel, lending a surreal quality to the narrative. This device, along with his word plays, provides at least some relief from the subject matter, making the novel more of a ‘story’, reminding us that we are inhabiting a fictional place and a fictional mind, no matter how believable Humbert and his narrative seem.

The main characters in Lolita are incredibly sophisticated. Lolita, far from being  perfect or sexually advanced (or a little seductress), is actually a typical bratty twelve year old: shallow, keen on popular culture, manipulative and a wee bit bit unhygienic. Initially Humbert offers her something exciting – a true love interest, an escape from her mother. She is interested in him, that is clear. Yet I think Nabokov never intended her to be seen as the instigator of the relationship (although some critics and commentators do view Lolita in that way).

The character of Humbert too is intensely complex, written so skillfully that we the reader can almost (only almost) pity him. After all, what a miserable situation he finds himself in: an unwell man, unable to form proper relationships, is perhaps delusional, and clearly believes he can be in love with a child. And yet…for me, I can’t have pity for a man that takes advantage of young girls, that knows what is he doing is wrong (at some level) but persists, and persists.

Recommendation:

I admit, there are passages in this book that I could not bring myself to read. And yet…I came away really admiring this novel for specific elements, and can see why it is considered a classic. But that makes me conflicted. Can I recommend this one or not? Well, yes, but read it with caution and don’t expect to really like it, or feel good about it.

As Margaret Atwood noted:

‘We love to watch bad people do awful things in fictions, though we would not like it if they did those things to us in real life. The energy that drives any fictional plot comes from the darker forces…’ Source: The New Yorker Book Blog, 16 May
2013 ‘Would you want to be friends with Humbert Humbert?’

In writing Lolita, Nabokov created something deeply moving that is still relevant and controversial nearly sixty years on.

An aside….

Maybe I’ll revisit Lolita for a more detailed analysis someday. But as of next week I am back at work (seeya later maternity leave, it was fun), so not anytime soon. ;) I do hope to keep posting reviews and updates weekly. Thanks everyone for reading! It’s been fun.

Further Reading/Links 

http://sherbold.com/docs/nabokov.pdf

http://www.academia.edu/1984297/Nabokov_and_Morality_report

https://www.randomhouse.com/features/nabokov/lo_excerpt.html

https://www.goodreads.com/work/quotes/1268631-lolita

Book Details:

ISBN 9780141182537 (50th anniversary edition, Kindle). First published in 1955. First published in the US in 1958.

 

Posted in Authors L-Z, Classics, Contemporary Literature, Titles L-Z | Tagged , , , , , , , | 8 Comments

Book Review: Coal Creek by Alex Miller

Coal Creek

Australian novelist Alex Miller has won the converted Miles Franklin Literary Award twice (in good company with the likes of Tim Winton and David Malouf), yet I had never heard of him until I read Coal Creek last month. Yep, I blame that literary rock I’ve been living under! Luckily I am a member of an excellent  book club that recommends authors like Miller (thanks gang!), allowing me to save face during cocktail parties…“Alex who? Never heard of him. Pass me a devilled egg.”

Summary:

Bobby Blue (Robert Blewitt), Coal Creek’s first person narrator, lives in the fictional country town of Mount Hay in outback Queensland. [Random aside, Coal Creek is a faux village in Victoria, Australia.]. When the recently orphaned Bobby begins working with Mount Hay constable, Daniel Collins, after years of being a stockman and farm hand, his life course changes forever.

Bobby boards with the Collins family, and strikes up a friendship with the oldest daughter, Irie, who helps him with his reading and writing. He also develops a cordial yet distant relationship with Esme, Daniel’s wife. Bobby is dismissive of Daniel and his urban ways – despite his achievements in World War Two, Daniel is an outsider ‘city boy’ who can’t be fully respected.

‘The people of Mount Hay was who they was and that was that. People of the ranges. And they mostly despised people from the coast and laughed at them and their peculiar way of going on’ (p21).

Nevertheless, Bobby begins to enjoy elements of his work, including his time caring for the police horses, and having stable [horse pun NOT intended] employment.

Things start to get complicated when Bobby’s childhood friend Ben Tobin is accused of beating his common-law wife, Deirdre (or Deeds) while living in a shack at Coal Creek, just outside of Mount Hay. Miller hints this may be the start of something ominous, with Bobby acknowledging,

There was anger in Ben in them days that his dad put there by beatings he gave him as a boy. I always feared he would kill a man one day.’ (p39)

While trouble with Ben simmers in the background, the relationship between twelve year old Irie and twenty year old Bobby is turning into something more than a childhood infatuation – a love that is forbidden due to age and class differences.

Analysis and Comments:

Coal Creek is a novel that is surprising and occasionally heart-wrenching. It is a book that can be enjoyed for what it is – a tale with a twist that explores love, friendship and betrayal in the 1950s outback, and be left at that. But it really is more that than. Coal Creek calls to our subconscious,  making us question our beliefs and morals. It shows us what evil can lurk in the heart of ‘good’ people.

An example of this moral question is seen in the relationship between Bobby and Irie. This would usually be interpreted as one of power play – young girl versus slightly older man. Surely she is being taken advantage of, and this is straying into very nasty territory. Yet the way Miller expresses the relationship allows a complexity and true tenderness to be revealed, with a careful balance between the characters negating any ill-feeling.

Coal Creek also has similarities to some of Cormak McCarthy’s work. Perhaps it is the writing style, with the deliberate disregard for formal punctuation and the character-driven plot that takes the characters across familiar landscapes and places in unfamiliar circumstances.

After all, Coal Creek is novel about the importance of place, something that McCarthy always captures well. We know that Bobby’s world view is limited. He is barely literate (he left school at ten), has lived in and around Mount Hay all his life, and could be viewed as immature and uncultured. Yet he is a skilled horse/stock man  who can turn his hand at anything,  and has a remarkable and noble knowledge of the Australian bush and a respect for Aboriginal culture, something Collins, with his formal education, certainly lacks.

‘I heard Daniel tell Esme one time that the Aborigines knew nothing of their country and they all hated each other’ (p23).

Another enduring feature of this novel is Bobby’s voice – incredibly authentic without being irritating. For example ‘Me and Ben was drinking overproof rum like we used to in them days.’ (p36), capturing Bobby’s thinking in a conversational way. Miller lived in central Queensland during his formative years, lending a rare clarity to the people and places in the novel.

Bobby’s trusting nature and balanced thinking makes him a likeable character, yet sometimes he is almost too trusting, too passive. Would he really allow certain things to happen the way they did in the novel? Is his love for Irie influenced, or heightened, by the tragedy in his young life?

Recommendation:

Overall, an excellent novel, if unusual in terms of writing style and expression. Coal Creek would be enjoyed by Australian and international readers alike, but will truly resonate with people that have lived in farming communities. A well-written novel that twists and turns in your mind while you are reading.

Other links:

If you are interested in other works by Alex Miller, I highly recommend this great Australian/New Zealand book blog: http://anzlitlovers.com/2012/04/12/autumn-laing-by-alex-miller/

Book Details:
Published by Allen and Unwin, 2013. ISBN: 978 1 74331 698 6. Can be purchased from http://www.amazon.com.au/Coal-Creek-Alex-Miller-ebook/dp/B00F909E1M  

 

Koala and baby

Just ’cause I can – here is a koala and baby from French Island, Victoria. Awwwh!!

Posted in Authors L-Z, Contemporary Literature, Titles A-K | Tagged , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Book Review: Chocky by John Wyndham

Image

Does anyone remember that fabulous yet disturbing kid’s show Chocky from the 1980s? It featured opening credits with a rotating pyramid and a kid who talked to a hovering blob. You don’t? Never mind…I have discovered the original Chocky, a novel by John Wyndham, author of Day of the Triffids and The Midwich Cuckoos (later made into the Village of the Damned movie). Now, let me give you a run down on this timeless sci-fi novel.

Summary

David Gore is concerned when he overhears his adopted son Matthew talking to an imaginary friend. At eleven years old, isn’t Matthew too old for such things? As Matthew’s behaviour becomes more erratic, affecting his schooling and family relationships, David and his wife Mary being to wonder if this passing phase is something sinister. Who is Matthew really talking to? They enlist the help of an acquaintance, psychologist Mr Landis, to talk to Matthew. This yields frightening results.

Could Chocky be real? And if so who is he/she, and why the communication with Matthew? Would Chocky harm Matthew, or is Chocky merely a figment of a disturbed pre-adolescent mind?

Comments and Analysis

What makes Chocky so readable is the mystery, combined with a likeable, if a little stuffy, first person narrator in David. His voice fits smoothly alongside a cast of similar characters. David is a loving father, though absent from the family home for the majority of the week, and fits the model of a 1960s male breadwinner: “It did not greatly surprise me that I had not encountered Matthew in the mood before. I saw little of the children during the week.’(p9) David is also, I suspect, a teeny bit sexist, (‘I don’t understand women. Nobody does. Least of all themselves.’ p15) and finds family life stifling: ‘When we had got rid of them [the children] I gave Mary the news of the day’ (p111). Never the less, his relationship with Matthew is tender and endearing. Here is a man who is old-fashioned in his outlook, trying to understand something new and complex.

Chocky is populated with characters sporting strong mid-20th century names: Janet, Colin, Mary, Kenneth, and a dialogue that feels queerly formal yet adorable to this generation X/Y reader, with phrases such as ‘old boy’, ‘oh golly gosh’, ‘a jolly cold’. David also has that nasty 20th century habit of smoking inside (cough, cough).

Wyndham’s writing style is straightforward, and while nothing incredibly original, it is economical and pacey. The true genius of Chocky lies in the subtle plot development and subject matter. Within a limited number of pages (153 in my edition), Wyndham makes his reader consider some very fundamental ideas around perception of self, reality and identity. He also successfully re-imagines possession and alien visitation in a unique way. This is while telling the story of a boy who must exist within the shadow of the unknown, who quietly insists that Chocky is not a figment of his imagination.

Published the year before the moon landing, Chocky captures the feeling of a society that is in awe of its progress, yet fearful of where this may lead. The novel also touches on many social issues of the time, including environmentalism, mental health treatment (hypnosis) and attitudes, women’s role in society and the power of the media. I think Wyndham (born in 1903) could not have conceived how connected we are now to the world media and the news cycle, despite his imaginative genius.

Recommendation:

I would recommend Chocky as a quick read that would also be enjoyable for older children/young adults. A tender exploration of childhood and family life, whilst also an engaging work of science fiction.

ISBN: 978-0-141-04218-3. My edition published by Penguin Books 2009 (a re-issue from 1970).

Posted in Authors L-Z, Classics, Science fiction and fantasy, Titles A-K | Tagged , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

2014 Stella Prize Winner: The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka

The Forgotten Rebels of EurekaCongratulations to Clare Wright, the winner of the 2014 Stella Prize for her book The Forgotten Rebels of EurekaIn what looks to be a fascinating and well-researched read, Wright tells the tale of women living on the Ballarat (Victoria, Australia) goldfields in the lead-up to the Eurkea rebellion of 1854. In a recent interview with ABC Radio National, Wright discussed the importance of bringing the women’s forgotten history to light, including the sad tale of Sarah Skinner who died after giving birth.

I think what makes this book so inviting is its potential to give a fresh perspective to political uprising that has become over-simplified and male-focused.

Thanks Clare!

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VCE Book Review: Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín

Brooklyn Yes, I admit it. I have been slack of late with my postings. And no, I wasn’t kidnapped by the Easter bunny or trapped under a pile of Easter egg wrappers. I was helping my dear mother move from the family home to a smaller place ‘in town’. She’s an ex-librarian, so needless to say we had some serious shelf-weeding to do!

Given my recent farewell to a place of childhood significance, it seems fitting that I now write a review of Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín . It is a book that so beautifully captures the complex melancholy that occurs when we leave our family home for something new. What price do we pay for opportunities? And what if those opportunities are across the other side of the world?

Summary

Brooklyn tells the story of Miss Eilis Lacey, a young woman living in 1950s Ireland who leaves her home town Enniscorthy for Brooklyn, New York, in pursuit of full-time employment. This is not something Eilis has consciously considered for herself, it is something her family (including her mother and older sister Rose) believe will benefit her. Rose is an important role model in Eilis’s life:

‘Rose, at thirty, Eilis thought, was more glamorous every year, and, while she had had several boyfriends, remained single; she often remarked that she has a much better life than many of her former school mates who were to be seen pushing prams through the streets.’ (p18)

Despite leaving her family, Eilis is not completely without a community in New York – she is established in a guest house and secure employment in a department store with the assistance of the kindly Father Flood, a catholic priest known to her family.

Somewhat predictably, Eilis experiences life as one would expect of a newly arrived immigrant. She attends work, getting used to her duties and her co-workers, she continues her studies, she navigates the hazards of boarding house life. As Eilis’s new life becomes more familiar and secure, she grows to enjoy specific experiences of Brooklyn, including a fledgling romance with Tony, an witty Italian-American who shows Eilis a deeper side to New York life.

When a family crisis calls Eilis home, she has to weigh-up her homesickness and family obligations with her new identity and vision for her future, which is squarely in Brooklyn, New York.

Comment/Analysis 

There is so much to say about this story that seemed, at first, so straight forward it was almost dismissed as dull.  Thankfully, as the story progresses, the complex nature of the narrative is revealed. What makes this novel so memorable is a combination of Tóibín’s spare, understated writing style and an original exploration of the female immigrant experience.

The story of Eilis could be written in a sentimental and emotional way, yet Tóibín resists this with a reserve I haven’t experienced before. His sophisticated use of language and dialogue makes characters and interactions come to life, particularly the harsh reality of the immigrant experience. Most memorable is his description of Eilis’ harrowing first night on board the ship to America, with the poor conditions in the third-class leading to some unscrupulous  behaviour. Overwhelmed by seasickness, but unable to unlock the door to the shared bathroom, Eilis is forced to vomit in her cabin and in the hallway, a truly degrading experience.

“Eilis sat up and slowly made her way down the ladder. The smell of vomit was dreadful. Georgina had taken a nail file from her handbag and was already busy working at the lock on the bathroom door. She opened it without too much difficulty. Eilis followed her into the bathroom where the passengers in the other berth had left their toilet things. “Now, we have to block their door because tonight is going to be even worse…it’s the only solution.”

Tóibín also cleverly uses dialogue to explore and expand on specific characters, and to clearly establish power in relationships. For example, when Eilis tells her employer Miss Kelly she is leaving for New York, the response is loaded with simmering hostility:

“Ill be here on Sunday,” Eilis said.

“Ah, no, we won’t be needing you at all. If you’re going, you’re best to go.” [Miss Kelly responds]

“I was hoping I could work until I left”.

“Not here you can’t. So be off with you now. We have plenty of work, more deliveries today and more stacking. And no time for talking.”

Another noticeable element of Tóibín’s style is the way Eilis refers to the characters in her world. She calls some of her friends and associates in a formal manner, i.e. Miss McAdam, Mrs Kehoe, Miss Fortini, yet others are referred to by first name (for example other lodgers such as Patty and Shelia, and her ship-mate, Georgina.) This is most likely used by the author to illustrate that the boundaries of certain relationships exist (even if the relationships are close, such as with Miss Fortini) and need to be maintained. Another key theme, or overarching idea, is the importance of relationships and how they shape our lives, whether we want them to or not. In small-town Ireland, Tóibín confirms that the impact of relationships and networks have a broad reach, with tendrils reaching all the way from Ireland to New York. Therefore, it pays to be respectful and conform to social norms.

Concluding Comments/Rating

Overall, I enjoyed Brooklyn despite taking some time to warm to the novel initially. Some slow passages two-thirds of the way through, as well as tiring descriptions of social dances in Ireland and America, did slow the story down, yet not enough to really detract from the overall momentum.

Eilis’s relationship with Tony was not a great romance, and that was disappointing. I think I was secretly yearning for more emotion and more connection. Yet the relationship between Eilis and Tony was touching in its honestly and respect, leaving the impression of something deeply endearing. 

Rating: 8/10

Key Themes:

  • 1950s Ireland and mass immigrant due to poverty and economic uncertainty
  • The role of religion and its influence on morality
  • Pre-marital sex and attitudes to sexuality in the 1950s, including same-sex attraction
  • Class and social hierarchy in the mid 1900s
  • What is morality? What is good and what is evil?

Study Links: https://www.insightpublications.com.au/pdf_preview/TG-Brooklyn-pages.pdf http://www.ithacalibrary.com/sp/subjects/BFYRI http://www.themanbookerprize.com/sites/default/files/files/MBP09_toibin.pdf http://www.literarytraveler.com/articles/homesick-and-happy-in-colm-toibins-brooklyn-2/

Book Details: ISBN 978-1-60285-530-4, my edition published in 2009 by Centre Point Large Print. This edition is dedicated to his literary agent!!

Posted in Authors L-Z, Contemporary Literature, Reading list - VCE English 2014, Titles A-K, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , | 4 Comments