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‘Rush Oh!’ by Shirley Barrett ****

I so enjoyed Australian author Shirley Barrett’s The Bus on Thursday that I immediately borrowed her debut novel, Rush Oh!, on my next visit to the library.  The stories could not, arguably, be more different, but whilst reading both I could relax, knowing that I was in the capable hands of a great author.

I love historical fiction, and have read some wonderful tomes set in Australasia over the years.  I was a little wary of reading a book about whaling, which I find an abhorrent practice, but the historical element, and the strength which I was already aware of in Barrett’s writing, swayed me.  Rush Oh! takes place in a small seaside village named Eden in New South Wales.  This is still, incidentally, one of the best places to watch whales in the entirety of Australia. Historically, ‘Rush oh!’ is the exclamation called when a whale has been spotted in the bay, alerting the whalers all across the village.

Mary Davidson is the eldest daughter of a prominent whaling family, who ‘sets out to chronicle the particularly difficult season of 1908’.  The story which she tells is described as ‘poignant and hilarious, filled with drama and misadventure.’ Rush Oh! takes as its focus ‘a celebration of an extraordinary episode in Australian history when a family of whalers formed a fond, unique alliance with a pod of frisky orcas.’ 25861094-1

At the outset of the novel, Mary is stunned by the arrival of a man named John Beck, who comes to work on the whaling boat which her father owns.  Beck is an ‘itinerant whaleman with a murky past, on whom Mary promptly develops an all-consuming crush.’  Mary is such a clear, striking protagonist, who has a great deal of character.  Her narrative voice carries us through her story with humour and wit.  Weeks after finishing the novel, I can still conjure her up in my mind’s eye.

Barrett opens her novel with a rather wonderful and incredibly vivid description of Mary’s ingenious garden, with its ‘various vestiges of marine life’: ‘The jaws of a large white pointer shark, in which the children liked to pretend they were being eaten, formed an ornamental feature near the front gate, while the path leading up to the house was laid with the pulverised remains of whale vertebrae, creating an effect not unlike pebbles, although considerably sharper underfoot.’  Mary, when she is not cooking and cleaning, spends much of her spare time sketching whale hunts, examples of which have been placed throughout her narrative.  Of her hobby, she comments: ‘How dreary and bluestocking it seemed suddenly, to enjoy such a pastime.  Nor was this impression helped by the fact that I was indeed wearing my blue stockings.’

The collaboration in hunting between human and orca is fascinating, and this, along with the general history of the period, has been written about with such enthusiasm.  Barrett also addresses the multicausal effects of less whales passing Eden than usual.  The previous season of 1907, for instance, ‘had been the worst on record in sixty years of whaling at Twofold Bay.  Not a single whale had been captured…’.  Some elements of the story are quite graphic, particularly for a modern reader, but they definitely add some grit and harsh reality to proceedings.

Rush Oh! is a wonderfully exciting seafaring novel, which has a lot of compassion at its heart.  I agree entirely with the thoughts of Markus Zusak, another Australian novelist whose work I enjoy; he writes that this is ‘a story of great surprises and a beating heart’.  I am thrilled that so many more Australian authors are available for me to read now, even compared to just a few years ago, and that my local library has such a good stock of them.

Rush Oh! is an excellent example of the historical fiction genre, and I read it with relish from cover to cover.  One can tell that it must have been a great deal of fun to write; it is brimming with vitality and intelligence.  I for one am so looking forward to whatever Barrett brings out next.

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‘Time Enough Later’ by Kylie Tennant ***

I had never heard of Australian author Kylie Tennant before I was contacted by Michael Walmer about a review copy of her 1943 novel, Time Enough Later.  I visited Australia in the winter of 2015, and since then I have tried my best to read as many books by Australian authors as I can – something which has surprisingly not been that easy – and was looking forward to discovering another, particularly by a writer thought of as ‘one of the finest Australian voices of the twentieth century’. 54635817

The Bulletin calls Time Enough Later ‘a very merry little novel’.  It is set in the late 1930s, and follows protagonist Bessie Drew, who is working at a biscuit factory in Sydney.  She soon becomes a ‘helpmeet’ to her dysfunctional family’s newest lodger, Maurice Wainwright, an out-of-work photographer who is ‘ill and down on his luck’.  She becomes his assistant when he opens a new photography studio, and quickly becomes enamoured with him.  Their relationship evolves, but not to Bessie’s satisfaction; she finds herself yearning for something more.

Bessie is described as ‘sturdy and dependable’.  Tennant comments: ‘She had a habit of standing with her feet planted apart as though to repel the buffets of some hostile force.  She was not at all pretty; but she had rigour, the cool imprudence and humour of youth, and was as unselfconscious and independent as a butcher-boy.’  The job which Wainwright offers her takes her life in a different direction to what she had imagined.  I really liked the way in which Bessie was something of a modern heroine; she is stubborn and headstrong, and not at all submissive.

Tennant captures Sydney and its poverty rather well.  Close to the outset, she writes: ‘Archer Street, Redfern, just missed being a slum by a narrow margin.  It had not made up its mind whether it was a busy industrial thoroughfare or a quiet stretch of working-men’s terraces.  A depressing squalor, a respectable squalor, afflicted it; this was compounded of soot from the machine shops, the smells of a brewery and a patent medicine factory, a lack of interest on the part of landlords, and the noise of trams from the street corner.’  With regard to the social history which Tennant offers, and the look at the pre-World War Two class system within Australia, Time Enough Later is undoubtedly an important novel.

Much of the narrative in Time Enough Later is comprised of conversations between characters.  This is a technique which is fine in moderation, but it felt very overdone here.  It perhaps would have been different had the characters been speaking about much of interest, but often their interactions were dull and nothing out of the ordinary.  I also found a lot of the turns of phrase which Tennant uses throughout Time Enough Later odd, or offbeat; for example, ‘That was the effect Maurice Wainwright had on people.  You either hated the sight of him or he would have your liver for breakfast.’

I wasn’t entirely impressed with Tennant’s fourth novel.  Although it is described as a comic novel in its blurb, for me, Time Enough Later just did not hit the mark.  The humour fell flat for me; perhaps this is due to the dated feel which it has in the modern world.  I also did not find the novel overly entertaining.  Whilst there are some profound moments, and I did have some interest in the character of Bessie, many of the scenes are farcical, almost slapstick, in their approach and outcome.  I found that these silly moments detracted from the importance of the novel as a social and historical commentary.  This is not something which I generally enjoy, so it may be that I am simply not the right audience for this novel, or for this writer.  There is a certain kind of reader sure to find Time Enough Later entirely hilarious, but I am evidently not it.

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‘When the Night Comes’ by Favel Parrett ****

Favel Parrett is an Australian author whom I have heard a lot of praise about of late, but she still seems to be relatively under the radar in the United Kingdom.  She has been called ‘a fresh and vital voice in Australian fiction’ (The Australian Women’s Weekly), and a ‘strong voice’ in the field of Australian literature (The Canberra Times).  I have been eager to read many more works set in Australia, and by authors who live there, since I visited in 2015-2016.  Thankfully my local library had a copy of Parrett’s When the Night Comes, which was first published in 2014.

9781848548565When the Night Comes is described as ‘a powerful and haunting novel set on the very edge of the world.’  Told by two protagonists, the novel takes place in Tasmania and Antarctica between 1986 and 1987.  We meet a young girl named Isla, who has moved to a relatively isolated community with her mother and younger brother, and a ‘modern viking’ named Bo, who comes from Copenhagen and is working as a cook on a ship called the MS Nella Dan.  The voyage takes him to Antarctica, as the scientists on his ship have been tasked with surveying krill and zooplankton, as well as conducting a survey of Heard Island.   Bo gives Isla ‘the gift of stillness, of watching birds…  She shows him what is missing in his life.’  I am drawn to books in which quite different protagonists are drawn together, and was suitably intrigued by what When the Night Comes promised.

The novel opens with Isla and her family journeying to their new home on the island of Tasmania.  She recounts the choppy, difficult crossing: ‘I must have fallen asleep because when I woke the whole world was rocking and shaking and I was rolling in my bed.  Not just from side to side, but up and down as well.’  She goes on to comment: ‘It was only the ship that was keeping us safe.  Only thin layers of steel and an engine pumping away in the dark were keeping us above the water, which would gladly swallow us all up like we had never ever been.’

In this descriptive prose, which carries on throughout the novel, Parrett proves that she is great at creating atmosphere.  Of the relatively deprived place which Isla and her family move to, she writes, for instance: ‘Battery Point, where the houses were old and solid like tombstones, and there were never any people on the streets or in the front gardens.  There were never any people anywhere.  Just my brother and me, walking fast, always looking behind us.’

Searching for belonging is a constant thread in this novel.  In Bo’s narrative, Parrett writes: ‘Tonight, all these weeks in, I just wanted to step onto the solid frozen earth and say, I am here.  Only a cook, but here all the same.’  I really admired the way in which Parrett uses loneliness and belonging to pull both of her protagonists together, as well as the way in which she causes their friendship, and in turn their confidence, to grow.  Isla comments: ‘But silence was easy with Bo.  It was not lonely and I could think.  I could think about the sky and about the light and how things changed.  I could stop holding myself so very tightly.’

When the Night Comes is a relatively quiet read, but it is one which I found highly engaging.  The characters are realistic, and Parrett keeps at the forefront of her novel their concerns and their sadnesses.  Her descriptions throughout are lovely, and she maintains believable narrative voices for both of her lead characters.  The novel is philosophical at times, and really causes one to think about what it really means to exist.  Things do happen as the novel goes on, but the focus, really, is upon the protagonists, and how various events affect them.

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Book List: Australian Literature

I have been meaning to pick up a lot more Australian authors since I spent some time in Sydney in 2015-2016.  I found a great list (here) on Goodreads of Best Modern Australian Literature, and thought that I would pick out ten books which really pique my interest, and which I would like to get to soon.

 

1. On the Jellicoe Road by Melina Marchetta 2999475
‘Taylor is leader of the boarders at the Jellicoe School. She has to keep the upper hand in the territory wars and deal with Jonah Griggs—the enigmatic leader of the cadets, and someone she thought she would never see again.  And now Hannah, the person Taylor had come to rely on, has disappeared. Taylor’s only clue is a manuscript about five kids who lived in Jellicoe eighteen years ago. She needs to find out more, but this means confronting her own story, making sense of her strange, recurring dream, and finding her mother—who abandoned her on the Jellicoe Road.  The moving, joyous and brilliantly compelling new novel from the best-selling, multi-award-winning author of Looking for Alibrandi and Saving Francesca.’

 

142362. Gould’s Book of Fish by Richard Flanagan
‘Once upon a time that was called 1828, before all the living things on the land and the fishes in the sea were destroyed, there was a man named William Buelow Gould, a convict in Van Dieman’s Land who fell in love with a black woman and discovered too late that to love is not safe. Silly Billy Gould, invader of Australia, liar, murderer, forger, fantasist, condemned to live in the most brutal penal colony in the British Empire, and there ordered to paint a book of fish. Once upon a time, miraculous things happened…’

 

3. Riders in the Chariot by Patrick White 827327
‘Patrick White’s brilliant 1961 novel, set in an Australian suburb, intertwines four deeply different lives. An Aborigine artist, a Holocaust survivor, a beatific washerwoman, and a childlike heiress are each blessed—and stricken—with visionary experiences that may or may not allow them to transcend the machinations of their fellow men. Tender and lacerating, pure and profane, subtle and sweeping, Riders in the Chariot is one of the Nobel Prize winner’s boldest books.’

 

127384. The Transit of Venus by Shirley Hazzard
‘Caro, gallant and adventurous, is one of two Australian sisters who have come to post-war England to seek their fortunes. Courted long and hopelessly by young scientist, Ted Tice, she is to find that love brings passion, sorrow, betrayal and finally hope. The milder Grace seeks fulfilment in an apparently happy marriage. But as the decades pass and the characters weave in and out of each other’s lives, love, death and two slow-burning secrets wait in ambush for them.’

 

5. The Boat by Nam Le 2599523
‘A stunningly inventive, deeply moving fiction debut: stories that take us from the slums of Colombia to the streets of Tehran; from New York City to Iowa City; from a tiny fishing village in Australia to a foundering vessel in the South China Sea, in a masterly display of literary virtuosity and feeling.  In the magnificent opening story, “Love and Honor and Pity and Pride and Compassion and Sacrifice,” a young writer is urged by his friends to mine his father’s experiences in Vietnam–and what seems at first a satire of turning one’s life into literary commerce becomes a transcendent exploration of homeland, and the ties between father and son. “Cartagena” provides a visceral glimpse of life in Colombia as it enters the mind of a fourteen-year-old hit man facing the ultimate test. In “Meeting Elise,” an aging New York painter mourns his body’s decline as he prepares to meet his daughter on the eve of her Carnegie Hall debut. And with graceful symmetry, the final, title story returns to Vietnam, to a fishing trawler crowded with refugees, where a young woman’s bond with a mother and her small son forces both women to a shattering decision.  Brilliant, daring, and demonstrating a jaw-dropping versatility of voice and point of view, “The Boat” is an extraordinary work of fiction that takes us to the heart of what it means to be human, and announces a writer of astonishing gifts.’

 

56358496. To the Islands by Randolph Stow
‘A work of mesmerising power, against a background of black-white fear and violence, To The Islands journeys towards the strange country of one man’s soul. Set in the desolate outback landscape of Australia’s north-west, the novel tracks the last days of a worn-out Anglican missionary. Fleeing his mission after an agonising confrontation, he immerses himself in the wilderness, searching for the islands of death and mystery.’

 

7. Playing Beatie Bow by Ruth Park 17179385
‘The game is called Beatie Bow and the children play it for the thrill of scaring themselves. But when Abigail is drawn in, the game is quickly transformed into an extraordinary, sometimes horrifying, adventure as she finds herself transported to a place that is foreign yet strangely familiar . . .’

 

206003748. Tirra Lirra by the River by Jessica Anderson
One of Australia’s most celebrated novels: one woman’s journey from Australia to London.  Nora Porteous, a witty, ambitious woman from Brisbane, returns to her childhood home at age seventy. Her life has taken her from a failed marriage in Sydney to freedom in London; she forged a modest career as a seamstress and lived with two dear friends through the happiest years of her adult life.  At home, the neighborhood children she remembers have grown into compassionate adults. They help to nurse her back from pneumonia, and slowly let her in on the dark secrets of the neighborhood in the years that have lapsed.  With grace and humor, Nora recounts her desire to escape, the way her marriage went wrong, the vanity that drove her to get a facelift, and one romantic sea voyage that has kept her afloat during her dark years. Her memory is imperfect, but the strength and resilience she shows over the years is nothing short of extraordinary. A book about the sweetness of escape, and the mix of pain and acceptance that comes with returning home.’

 

9. Past the Shallows by Favel Parrett 10762662
‘Brothers Joe, Harry and Miles live with their father, an abalone fisherman, on the south-east coast of Tasmania. Everyday their dad battles the unpredictable ocean to make a living. He is a hard man, a bitter drinker who harbours a devastating secret that is destroying him. Unlike Joe, Harry and Miles are too young to leave home and so are forced to live under the dark cloud of their father’s mood, trying to stay as invisible as possible whenever he is home. Harry, the youngest, is the most vulnerable and it seems he bears the brunt of his father’s anger…’

 

697478510. The Children by Charlotte Wood
‘When their father is critically injured, foreign correspondent Mandy and her siblings return home, bringing with them the remnants and patterns of childhood. Mandy has lived away from the country for many years. Her head is filled with images of terror and war, and her homecoming to the quiet country town – not to mention her family and marriage – only heightens her disconnection from ordinary life.  Cathy, her younger sister, has stayed in regular contact with her parents, trying also to keep tabs on her brother Stephen who, for reasons nobody understands, has held himself apart from the family for years. In the intensive care unit the children sit, trapped between their bewildered mother and one another; between old wounds and forgiveness, struggling to connect with their emotions, their past and each other. But as they wait and watch over their father, there’s someone else watching too: a young wardsman, Tony, who’s been waiting for Mandy to come home. As he insinuates himself into the family, the pressure, and the threat, intensify and build to a climax of devastating force.  This acutely observed novel exposes the tenacious grip of childhood, the way siblings seem to grow apart but never do, and explores the price paid for bearing witness to the suffering of others – whether far away or uncomfortably close to home.’

 

Have you read any of these?  Which titles are you interested in?  What is your favourite piece of Australian literature?

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‘Springtime: A Ghost Story’ by Michelle de Kretser ****

I love traditional ghost stories, but was drawn to Michelle de Kretser’s Springtime: A Ghost Story precisely because it sounded unexpected.  I am used to cold, dark, usually Western European settings in ghost stories, where atmosphere is built, and the sinister creeps into the scenes which we expect.  De Kretser’s novel, instead, is set during the springtime in Sydney, Australia.  Despite the quite low rating which the book has on Goodreads, I was intrigued by the story in Springtime, and enjoyed her novel The Rose Garden when I read it some years ago.  I therefore ordered a copy immediately.

Springtime is a neat little hardback, and coming in at just 85 pages, it can be read in one 9781760111212sitting.  There are several odd occurrences within it, but it is not a ghost story which harks to conventions of the genre.  Of de Kretser’s authorial decisions, Andrew Wilson writes: ‘… [she] undermines our expectations by refusing to play by the rules…  One reads Springtime not for its shock value – this tale is much more subtle than that – but for the way de Kretser explores the nature of ambiguity and for her deliciously unsettling descriptions.’  It is described in its blurb as ‘rare, beguiling and brilliant’, three words which would draw me to read almost any novel.

Charlie and Frances, our protagonists, have moved from trendy Melbourne to more traditional Sydney, so that Frances can take up a position as a research fellow.  They make their journey with ‘an unshakeable sense that they have tipped the world on its axis.  Everything is alien, unfamiliar, exotic: haunting, even.’  Frances, rather than Charlie, is the focus throughout the story.  At the outset, de Kretser explores how her new surroundings make her feel: ‘She was still getting used to the explosive Sydney spring.  It produced hip-high azaleas with blooms as big as fists.  Like the shifty sun, these distortions of scale disturbed.  Frances stared into a green-centred white flower, thinking, “I’m not young any more.”  How had that happened?  She was twenty-eight.’  As a character, I liked her immediately.  She is a ‘solitary, studious girl, whose life had taken place in books; at least four years of it had passed in the eighteenth century.’

We meet Frances when she is walking through her new neighbourhood.  Almost immediately, de Kretser makes subtle suggestions, planting seeds in the mind of her reader: ‘Picking up her pace, Frances saw a woman in the shadowy depths of the garden. She wore a little hat and a trailing pink dress; a white hand emerged from her sleeve.  There came upon Frances a sensation that sometimes overtook her when she was looking at a painting: space was foreshortened, time stilled.’  After she sees this woman for the first time, she does not stop doing so: ‘These partial visions, half-encounters, were repeated at intervals over weeks.’  This woman proves to be ‘as silent and white as her dog.’

In her story, de Kretser explores the differences, and rivalries, between Melbourne and Sydney.  In Frances’ new city, ‘… the streetscape was so weirdly old-fashioned.  Where were the hip, rusting-steel facades, Melbourne’s conjuring of post-industrial decay?  The decrepitude in their western suburb was real: boarded-up shops, cracked pavements, shabby terrace houses sagging behind stupendous trees.’  Some of the scenes which de Kretser sculpts are beautiful, and others stark and provocative: ‘Charlie gathered up Frances’s hair and balanced the knot on his palm.  At night they slept entwined like bare sheets.’  I loved her quite unusual descriptions: for instance, ‘They were thin eyes and surprisingly inky’, and ‘On the day Charlie left his wife, she had sent Frances an email that could still make Frances want to do unreasonable things: seize the breadknife and saw off her hair, eat stones.’  I also got a real sense of the natural world pushing against urbanisation in the story; de Kretser writes: ‘The river had turned into fierce, colourless glass.  It was a tyrant, punishing anyone who dared to look at it.  Small parrots shrieked with self-importance.  Their emerald broke savagely on the brassy sheen.’

I found Springtime rather an atmospheric read, with a strong sense of place.  De Kretser manages to make a setting which many readers would think of as idyllic, into something with dark edges.  It is told using rather short, unnamed chapters, which add to the sense of tension.  I found the story absorbing from the outset, and found myself really caring about Frances, who felt like a realistic character.  The crafting of the plot is tight, and it feels as though not a single sentence has been wasted.  It is a revealing novella, which has a lot of depth to it, and is ultimately quite powerful.  There is such attention to detail here, and I’m certain that Springtime is a story whose nuances I will be thinking about for months to come.

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Favourite Books of 2018

Another year has come to an end. 2018 has been a crazy busy year and I barely managed to squeeze in 50 books, quite a few being under 100 pages. Although I read significantly less compared to past years, the books that kept me company in 2018 were primarily books I thoroughly enjoyed, which is a big win for me.

Since the ‘bad’ books were so few and since I’d like to focus on the more positive aspects of 2018, I decided to compile a list of 10 of my most favourite reads of 2018. They were not all 5 star reads, but all of them managed to amaze me in one way or another and stayed engraved in my heart and memory. With no further ado, my favourite books of 2018 were the following:

Pachinko by Min Jin Leepachinko

Whatever I say about this book will be too little, any words I choose will be too insuficient to fully express my love for this book. I read Pachinko early on in the year, in January, and it quickly became one of the best books I’ve read in the past few years. It’s a family saga, a chronicle of the life and tribulations of a Korean family as they set foot on Japan after the war in hopes of a brighter future and the harsh reality that they have to face every single day. Through this novel, I learned a lot about the zainichi, the Korean expats that reside in Japan. One wonderful thing about this book is that, although it focuses on the zainichi and their experiences, the everyday struggles and hardships they go through can extend to an international scale and resonate with refugees and expats from any and every country. This book is much more than a story, a tale of loss and family, of race and nationality, of love. It is a life lesson and I really feel a much more enriched person after reading it.

Lullaby by Leila Slimani

lullabyLullaby (Chanson Douce in the original French and The Perfect Nanny in the US edition) is a brilliantly crafted thriller and suspense novel that keeps you glued to every page until you reach the very last one. After hearing so much about it, I finally purchased it at the Glasgow airport during my visit in May. Its premise is rather terrifying, as it starts with a young couple finding both their children dead. Even though the novel begins with the outcome and then goes back and recounts the events leading up to this horrible event, the suspense is ever-present and Slimani’s writing is utterly captivating.

 

The Eye by Vladimir Nabokovtomati

I had wanted to read Nabokov’s works for the longest time, and even though I owned Lolita, the timing was never right for me to dive into its conflicting world. Instead, I came across this short novella in its Greek translation (where the cover is from, as I much prefered it to the English language covers I found) and it truly enchanted me. Nabokov’s writing is smart and witty and he manages to create a very interesting story through which he can critically comment on the society of his time (which, sadly, isn’t radically different from that of today), while also making the reader wonder what really happened and what was a figment of the protagonist’s imagination.

Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata

conveniencestoreReading Convenience Store Woman was such an experience for me. I always enjoy reading about people who are considered ‘outsiders’ and who don’t want to conform to the society’s rules, especially when said rules go against who one is as a person. The matter of having a ‘respectable’ job and panning out your life according to certain standards is a very important one, especially since things have started changing in recent years, and people resort to non-traditional professions more and more. Murata’s protagonist is a Japanese woman who started working at a convenience store part-time but still finds herself in the same job years later. Despite her family and acquaintances urging her to find a ‘real job’, she feels conflicted, since she should abide by society’s rules, yet she feels oddly comfortable exactly where she is. It’s a novel that will certainly resonate with many young people today, myself included.

Old Magic by Marianne Curley oldmagic

To be quite honest, Old Magic is a book I would never think of picking up (at least as an adult), and yet here I am putting it in my list of favourites for 2018. My boyfriend, who never reads, had once told me that he had one favourite book he had read as a teen, and he gifted it to me so I would see what he liked back then. I was infinitely skeptical, but started reading it immediately, as I was in need of some very light reading at the time, and I just couldn’t put it down. Written by an Australian author, the book is about a young witch, her struggle to be accepted at her school since she comes from a ‘weird’ family, a journey back in time and, of course, romance. I can’t quite pinpoint why I liked this book so much – it reminded me of the fantasy books I used to read as a kid/teenager and it made me so nostalgic. I truly enjoyed reading Old Magic and I think I will try being more open to books, even if they initially seem like something I would never pick up for myself.

The Geek Feminist Revolution by Kameron Hurley

26114478A book of essays on a wide variety of topics, but mostly focusing on being a woman writer, a female geek in this (mostly) male-dominated field, something which Hurley proves is very difficult yet possible and rewarding. I haven’t read Hurley’s fiction, yet through reading her essays, some of them being quite personal ones, I felt a deep appreciation for her work and her craft. Some of the stories she told were funny, others empowering and others thoroughly moving, especially those regarding her initial financial difficulties and her health problems. Usually I’m a bit weary when it comes to feminist texts, but this one totally fascinated me and I will certainly seek out Hurley’s fiction in the future.

Το Τέλος της Πείνας (The End of Hunger) by Lina Rokou endof hunger

Once in a while I stumble upon contemporary Greek literary works that are true gems. The End of Hunger is one such example, and, sadly, not (yet) translated in English. The story revolves around a young woman who lives in Athens and, searching for ways to find some money, she starts selling parts of her body to a passing street seller. She sells him her teeth, her spleen, her old diaries and he still asks for more. Rokou’s writing is whimsical and poetic and absolutely beautiful. Her descriptions of the nonsensical and surrealistic events that occur to her protagonist are lyrical and imbued with the right dose of emotion. One could say that this entire selling process described is nothing but the process of falling in love, of giving away every last bit of your self to the other person and then ending up feeling completely empty by the end of it. This kind of blend of surrealism with reality is precisely my cup of tea and I truly hope this book gets translated soon so more people can discover the beauty of it.

A Biography of a Chance Miracle by Tanja Maljartschuk

40800042Another gem of a book which I didn’t expect to enjoy as much as I did. I read A Biography in September and have already posted a full review of it here in case you would like to read more about it (and you should!). Maljartschuk is a Ukrainian author who created a whimsical and thoroughly witty tale full of social satire, magical realism and the cruelty of life. Lena, the main character, always has a tendency to help others and when she gets into university she decides to open her own business selling miracles. The writing is superb, and the translation by Zenia Tompkins excellent.

 

La lettrice scomparsa (The Lost Reader) by Fabio Stassi40242756

Another fabulous read, not yet available to the English speaking world. I read its Greek translation (The Lost Reader is my literal translation of the title) and was utterly fascinated. Originally written in Italian, The Lost Reader is a mystery like no other. The protagonist is an unemployed teacher who opens a booktherapy business, in which he recommends the most fitting book to his patients according to the problems they have, as he’s a firm believer of literature’s healing powers. While trying to get used to this new job and everything that it entails, an old lady from his apartment complex suddenly vanishes and he embarks on a quest to find her and uncover the secrets hidden behind her disappearance. An ode to literature, an inventive mystery and witty quotes hidden in almost every page – what’s there not to love?

The Black Tides of Heaven by JY Yang

33846708Last but not least, I have a book I read during the last days of December, proving that it’s never too late in the year to discover a wonderful book. The Black Tides of Heaven belongs to the recently invented silkpunk subgenre, as it is set an Asian-inspired fantasy world. The first of JY Yang’s short novellas set in this world, this book focuses on one of the twins that we get introduced to in the beginning of the story (and its twin novella focuses on the other twin sibling’s story). I adored the world and all of its fantasy elements and I found Yang’s writing fabulous. I’d like this to be a full novel just so I could stay more in this world with these fascinating characters, and that’s why I read its twin novella, The Red Threads of Fortune, immediately after. The fantasy elements I loved were all there, and even enhanced, but I was very disappointed in other parts of the story, a topic which I might discuss in a different post.

It was kind of difficult to choose only 10 of the books I read in 2018 to feature in this post, but I think I chose the ones that left the biggest impression on me and the ones which I thoroughly enjoyed reading, regardless of their literary merit. I hope my reading in 2019 will focus more on quality over quantity again, and I can’t wait to share my reads with you in the new year, as well 🙂

Have you read any of those books, and if yes, what did you think of them? What were your favourite reads of 2018? Let me know in the comments below.

 

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Around the World in 80 Books: Three More I Didn’t Enjoy

I have encountered some real gems on this year’s Around the World in 80 Books challenge, but as I half expected when I began, there are quite a few books which I just did not get on with.  I am nearing the end of my challenge, and thought that I would collect together the reviews of three books which I ended up giving up on.

 

9789814346207The Bondmaid by Catherine Lim (Singapore)
I had hopes that The Bondmaid would resemble work by Lisa See or Amy Tan, but was unfortunately rather disappointed in this respect. I’ve said this about a few books of late, but The Bondmaid felt purposely complex with regard to its long sentences, and range of less common vocabulary; essentially, it was overwritten.

A lot of the sentences, despite their length, did not say a great deal; for instance: ‘In his time, the author too had stood, trembling, in punitive assembly with his siblings, and his father before him, in a long tradition of that cruelty, not just of parents, but of deities and gods themselves in their temples and river shrines, which sees fit to visit upon all the sins of one.’ This prose style really put me off, particularly when it was contrasted with short paragraphs, consisting of just one or two very simplistic sentences. The dialogue, too, felt unimaginative and matter-of-fact; the whole novel felt ultimately clumsy. The Bondmaid flits about far too much in time, and whilst I did find the cultural information interesting, I felt from the beginning that the story could have been far better handled than it was in actuality.  You can probably see now why I gave up on it.

 

The Gift of Rain by Tan Twan Eng (Malaysia) 9781905802142
The Gift of Rain, which is set on the Malaysian island of Penang, has been on my Kindle for a long time. I have not read anything else by Tan, but his debut novel seems to be rather admired, judging by the reviews here on Goodreads.

From the outset, I found the prose rather overwritten, with the odd awkward paragraph of very matter-of-fact writing; there was simply no balance to it at all. The plot felt meandering from several pages in too, and issues were circled around rather a lot with no real conclusion. The Gift of Rain is long and rambling; whilst I expected it to be really absorbing, I never really found myself getting into the story. The dialogue was stilted, and the depth which I anticipated was simply not here. Whilst there are undoubtedly a lot of descriptions here, Penang never felt vivid; neither did the characters, who did not feel at all realistic to me. The Gift of Rain is a laborious tome, which I became rather frustrated with. I did not have enough interest in the novel as it progressed to read past the 10% mark.

 

9780380018178The Thorn Birds by Colleen McCullough (Australia)
The Thorn Birds has been on my Kindle for such a long time, after purchasing it as part of a Kindle Daily Deal some years ago. I must have done this solely because the novel features on the Virago Modern Classics list; nothing about the plot particularly interests me, and that is probably why it has remained unread for such a long time.

I don’t enjoy romance novels on the whole, and a few reviewers have mentioned that this is like a soap opera; again, a genre which I do not I even like to watch on the television, let alone read. McCullough’s writing is not bad, but the opening was disengaging more than anything. I read the first 3% of the novel, but found it very bland, with its awkward dialogue and shadowy characters. I was unwilling to invest so much time on getting through the whole when I doubted I would enjoy it, and so this tome joins my ever-expanding Kindle graveyard.

 

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‘The Natural Way of Things’ by Charlotte Wood ****

Australian author Charlotte Wood’s The Natural Way of Things was mine and Katie’s March book club choice.  We were both eager to read it, and whilst I have seen some largely positive, but ultimately rather mixed reviews floating around, I am delighted to say that I was immediately pulled in, and could barely put the novel down.

Let us begin with some of the more positive criticism.  The Economist believes that ‘Charlotte Wood’s writing is direct and spare, yet capable of bursting with unexpected beauty’.  The Sydney Morning Herald deems it ‘an extraordinary novel: inspired, powerful, at once coherent and dreamlike’.  Author Liane Moriarty writes that it gives ‘an unforgettable reading experience’.  It is also the winner of 2016’s Indie Books of the Year prize.

The Natural Way of Things is an incredibly dark novel.  In it, ten young women awake from sedation, knowing not where they are, nor what they are doing there.  They are in the middle of the Australian bush, in a camp; they are stripped of their humanity, with heads shaved, and their own clothes taken away upon admission.  The girls find, after quite some time, that they have been taken to this camp as punishment for being embroiled in sexual scandals; from sleeping with several members of a football team, to having an explicit affair with a man in the public eye.  The girls are all markedly different, but their shameful secrets are what brand them the same.

9781760291877From the first, we feel protagonist Yolanda’s disorientation; we are privy to it: ‘So there were kookaburras here.  This was the first thing Yolanda knew in the dark morning. …  She got out of bed and felt gritty boards beneath her feet.  There was the coarse unfamiliar fabric of a nightdress on her skin.  Who had put this on her?’  Wood allows us to see her dilemma: ‘She knew she was not mad, but all lunatics thought that’.  Yolanda also, rather touchingly, takes an inventory of herself during her first morning in captivity: ‘Yolanda Kovocs, nineteen years eight months.  Good body (she was just being honest, why would she boast, when it had got her into such trouble?). …  One mother, one brother, living.  One father, unknown, dead or alive.  One boyfriend, Robbie, who no longer believed her…  One night, one dark room, that bastard and his mates, one terrible mistake.  And then one giant fucking unholy mess.’

There is a nightmarish quality to the novel, and the reader cannot help but put themselves into Yolanda’s shoes.  Her only company in the compound comes from fellow inmate Verla.  The present of both girls is interspersed with memories from their pasts; in this simple yet effective manner, we learn a great deal about them.  Yolanda particularly uses her memories as a coping mechanism against the uncertainty she feels.

The core plot of the novel reminded me, perhaps inevitably, of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, but in a way, I feel that it goes further.  Like Atwood, Wood ‘depicts a world where a woman’s sexuality has become a weapon turned against her’, but there is something darker at play here.  The Natural Way of Things is incredibly tense, and is so horribly vivid in the scenes which it depicts.  Gripping and disturbing, this is a must-read novel, which raises powerful questions.

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One From the Archive: ‘In Falling Snow’ by Mary-Rose MacColl ***

 

First published in 2013, the premise of the novel appealed to me immediately.  In 1978, an elderly widow named Iris Crane, who lives in a quiet part of Brisbane, is invited to a World War One reunion in France, and is quickly ‘overcome by memories of the past’.  As a young woman, Iris travelled to France at the start of the First World War, following her younger brother, Tom, who joined up and left home.  Her intention at first is solely to bring him back to the safety of Australia, but she soon finds herself working at a field hospital at an old Abbey in Royaumont.  She is tasked under the capacity of being a personal assistant of sorts to the sometimes formidable Miss Ivers, merely due to her competence in French.

Part of the present-day story which runs alongside Iris’ memories deals with her granddaughter, Grace, a doctor and mother of three.  Interestingly, Iris’ tale makes use of the first person perspective, while Grace’s is told by an omniscient third person narrator.  This technique worked well to break up the plots and different generations of characters, but Grace’s portion of the plot did also feel rather detached in consequence.  I found myself far preferring Iris’ part of the story; whilst Grace’s had some interesting elements within it, it seemed a little lacklustre, and I could not make myself like her as a person.  Some of the decisions which she made did not seem at all rational for an educated woman in her position, and she did not come across as a believable protagonist.  The only character whom I felt endeared to in In Calling Snow was Grace’s young son, Henry; for the most part, he felt like a realistic construct.  He was also the least predictable of MacColl’s creations, and I believe that this helped towards my liking him.

There is real strength in some of MacColl’s prose, but the conversations let it down somewhat for me.  They did not feel quite balanced, and at times were either unnecessary or unrealistic.  Some of the descriptive phrasing was nice enough, but a lot of the prose lacked depth, particularly given the emotion which should have been packed into every page of such a novel.  I was reminded in part of Kate Morton’s work in In Falling Snow, both in terms of the dual storylines and familial saga aspects of the plot, but I do not think that MacColl quite pulled off the story as well as Morton could have done.  I did find a couple of discrepancies within the plot too – with regard to Henry’s age, for example.

I really liked the general premise of In Falling Snow, but it fell a little flat for me.  Some elements were perhaps not executed as well as they could have been.  The denouement was also quite precitable.  Iris’ gradual memory loss was handled sensitively, however, and I admire MacColl for being able to put this element of the plot, and her sympathy for Iris’ situation, across so well.

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One From the Archive: ‘The Light Between Oceans’ by M.L. Stedman ****

First published in February 2012.

The Light Between Oceans is Australian author M.L. Stedman’s debut novel. It tells the story of Tom and Isabel Sherbourne, a married couple living on a remote island named Janus Rock, 100 miles off the coast of Western Australia. Tom mans the lighthouse on the island, and the Sherbournes are the only people who live there.

The pivotal event of the novel – ‘the day of the miracle’ during April 1926 – occurs in the prologue. Tom and Isabel find a boat on a secluded beach. Inside is a dead man and a tiny baby, with no clue as to who they are or where they have come from. Faced with no other option, the couple, who have no children of their own, take the baby back to their house.

On impulse, Isabel, longing to be a mother, decides to keep the child. She is unable to be parted from the baby, whom she decides to name Lucy. She subsequently persuades the reluctant Tom that a baby girl will be a wonderful addition to their home, making them a family at last. The lives of the Sherbournes alter immensely following Lucy’s arrival. Their entire dynamic changes. Being a mother of sorts alters Isabel’s character and outlook in its entirety. She becomes kind and compassionate, and the earlier grief of several miscarriages which once filled her to the brim begins to dissipate.

Once this irreversible decision is made, the first chapter of The Light Between Oceans consequently goes back in time to December 1918, when Tom is just signing up to the Commonwealth Lighthouse Service after returning unscathed from fighting in the First World War. At this point, Tom and Isabel, eleven years his junior, have only met each other a couple of times, but they soon begin a slow correspondence with one another, he from Janus Rock and she from the mainland. Isabel is soon fixated on becoming a permanent part of Tom’s landscape on the island. Stedman wonderfully illustrates their building relationship and the instances in which their lives begin to intertwine with one another’s.

The narrative contains flashbacks from Tom and Isabel’s past. By making use of their back-stories, Stedman is able to explain in part why their characters are as they are and behave as they do. Consequently, every trait which Tom and Isabel demonstrate seems to be there for a definite reason. Isabel is impulsive and curious. She seems intent to live life to the full and has a seemingly insatiable appetite for exploration. Tom, on the other hand, appears to be a little awkward at times with those around him. He does not always know how to act in a situation, or the best thing to say. This characteristic makes him seem more three-dimensional and really brings him to life. The Sherbourne’s story is at turns both hopeful and incredibly sad.

The plot of the novel thickens when, on a rare trip over to the mainland, Tom and Isabel learn how baby Lucy came to be washed up on the shores of Janus Rock. They hear that her biological mother, Hannah Potts, is mad with grief and still frantically searching for her lost baby and husband. The façades which Tom and Isabel have adopted begin to unravel as the story moves forward. Lucy’s entire life is built around a lie which swells as she grows.

A definite theme in the novel is the ability of humankind to distinguish lies from the truth. Many half-truths are at work throughout. Another issue is the alteration of perceptions, particularly as the novel reaches its climax.

The historical details which Stedman has woven into her plot are accurate and well written. These details help to further set the scene and are balanced incredibly well with the narrative regarding her characters. The period has been very well researched. Stedman has placed emphasis upon the differing societal expectations held in Australia for boys and girls during the first decades of the twentieth century. Great rifts appear in the society of her novel merely due to the genders of the characters. Stedman has also made use of some Australian slang in the dialogue of several of the characters. This technique helps to make all of those who feature in the novel distinctly different to one another. They utilise different phrases and use language in different ways. Some of the vocabulary is also culturally specific, which is a nice touch.

The narrative does not just centre on Tom and Isabel, but embraces all of those who have a part to play in the novel, however small. There are rather a lot of characters which feature in The Light Between Oceans, but their introductions into the story are paced well. Not once does the reader feel overwhelmed by the volume of characters, and it is extremely easy to keep track of who’s who. Stedman’s characterisation is skilful. She uses many small details to describe the minutiae of each individual, and then knits all of these tiny traits together to form a cast of believable characters.

Stedman sets the scene from the outset. The landscape of the island is described so vividly that the reader feels they are there. Her descriptions are so evocative that the places mentioned in the novel become almost like characters themselves. They are essentially personified. The relationship between the land and the characters, and vice versa, becomes an intrinsic fibre of the story, really bringing The Light Between Oceans to life. Stedman’s portrayal really captures the atmosphere of Janus Rock and Western Australia, and the place of the characters within it.

The Light Between Oceans is told from the third person narrative perspective. The narrative is clever – it manages to be chatty in style, yet eloquent in its language and structure. Stedman effortlessly weaves so many elements into the story. Some of the story’s narrative uses the past tense, and some the present tense. Whilst this technique often makes the narrative in other novels seem fractured and unconnected, it works incredibly well in The Light Between Oceans. The writing is incredibly rich, and Stedman’s illustrations of the grief which the characters encounter is described so poignantly. The sheer force of human emotions is highlighted throughout.

The novel is incredibly engrossing and well executed. Stedman wonderfully portrays how one event can cause lives to rupture, to break and to be built again. She illustrates the way in which life’s saddest events can never really be overcome, no matter which paths our lives travel down.

The Light Between Oceans is an incredibly accomplished debut. After a nine-way publishing auction in the United Kingdom, the novel will be published by Doubleday in April 2012.

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