Book Reviews: Literature & Fiction
The Gathering by Anne Enright
Read by Tracy December 2010
Tracy recommends a beautiful and thought provoking look at dealing with grief.
The Gathering won Anne Enright the 2007 Man Booker Prize. Veronica Hegarty's favourite brother, Liam, commits suicide by putting rocks in his pocket and drowning himself in Brighton. It could be argued that Liam had already committed suicide much earlier in his life when he became an alcoholic and his once neat and tidy life became embroiled in the power of his chosen drug. The Gathering, is Liam's wake in Dublin which brings out the worst in families and highlights the dysfunction and propensity towards alcoholism that the Hegartys are prone. The shock of Liam's death causes Veronica to regress into past times and places, resentful of her family for being unable to despair at his death and her own middle-class existence which was now so far removed from Liam's own life. Among the most venerated of Veronica's family, is her mother, who is unable to bring herself out of a vague fog to even grieve for his death, but then again, the family was rather large. As Veronica stuggles to come to terms with Liams death, she gradually cuts off her family and regresses into memories of her childhood and young adulthood with Liam and who sent them down different paths, constantly going back to the time they lived with her grandmother Ada and the realisation that she was unable to protect him during that time. We don't know much about Liam, other than Veronica's memories, but Enright describes him beautifully and how his love for two different women drive him to self-destruction.
Stolen by Lucy Christopher
Read by Natalie December 2010 (OurBookClub book pick of the month for December 2010)
Natalie recommends this as very moving and thought provoking
Told entirely in the form of a letter written from Gemma to Ty, Stolen is both disturbing and moving. It begins when Gemma, a 16 year old British girl is travelling from London to Vietnam with her parents. At their layover in Bangkok, Gemma is approached by a young man with extraordinary blue eyes who seems strangely familiar to her. After he buys her coffee Gemma’s world turns upside down. She is suddenly fascinated by the man, unaware of her strange behaviour and unsure of exactly what is going on. Next thing she knows, Gemma wakes up tied to a bed in the middle of nowhere. Ty has kidnapped her and brought her to Australia, to the middle of the Sandy Desert where there isn’t a single other human being or means of escape. As Gemma battles with the after-effects of the drugs Ty used, she struggles to work out where she is, why she is there and what Ty plans to do with her. She is petrified he is going to kill her and she repeatedly begs to be let go, trying twice to escape. Her second attempt nearly kills her and when Ty rescues her from the heat of the desert, he gently nurses her back to health. After this, Gemma slowly starts to accept what has happened to her. Although in no way ready to forgive Ty, she tries talking to him, negotiating with him, finding out more about him and his reasons for doing this. As it turns out Ty has been planning this for some time, but he is not the monster she first assumed him to be.
Growing up in the Australian outback, Ty was removed from his mother at birth and abandoned by his drunken father at 10. He tried living by himself, but the authorities eventually caught up with him and he entered the system. When he became an adult he received a letter from his mother, in London. She wanted him back, so he journeyed over there to find her and that’s when he found Gemma. Distraught at his mother’s lie, he is drawn to Gemma because she bares a resemblance to the woman who abandoned him. Ty is 19 and Gemma is 10 and he watches her for the next 6 years, even saving her from a potential attack, but never once threatening her himself. They have talked occasionally, although Gemma never realises who he is and throughout this time Ty plans their escape to Australia. Ty’s motives are very sad and despite what he did, I felt sorry for him reading this book. He is lonely but feels trapped by cities and authority. All he wants is to live on the land, enjoy its beauty and have someone to share that with. Company with Gemma, the beautiful girl who might remind him of his mother. Their relationship over the 2 months he keeps her slowly changes and grows. By the end, Gemma has either fallen victim to Stockholm Syndrome or has really understood the meaning behind Ty’s actions and started to feel something more for him. I for one think it is a bit of both.
The letter is a form of therapy for Gemma, suggested by her therapist after she is reunited with her family. The reason this reunion happens is the most moving part of the book, particularly what Ty does for her. It also comes at a pivotal point in their relationship, when things could have gone in a very different direction. Although her therapist doesn’t know she is writing to Ty, it is the only way Gemma knows how to get through her experience. After all, Ty is the only one who was there with her and now he is trapped in a jail cell. Unable to leave Australia, Gemma remains with her family until the trial, struggling to decide what to say and do at Ty’s court hearing. You get the feeling that she genuinely came to feel something for Ty, that she understands what he did, and that some small part of her would like to go back there with him. I won’t ruin the ending by telling you what happens, suffice to say Gemma considers all her options and each of them generates unexpected emotions both for her and the reader.
This is Lucy Christopher’s first novel and began as part of her PhD project (obviously I picked the wrong topic for mine). Born in the UK, she came to live in Australia, before moving back to Wales. Her time in Australia, particularly moving there as a young child and her experiences camping in the outback, were the inspiration behind Stolen. For more, check out her website. Lucy also thanked us for the "great review" of her now award winning book.
Lucy has a website where you can keep up to date through her blog and Facebook. Lucy has also written Flyaway which sounds really interest and may be a good pick for a book with a difference.
Suttree by Cormac McCarthy
Read by Tracy December 2010
Tracy does not recommend and could not finish
I picked this book up as I was intrigued to see what other type of novel Cormac McCarthy could write, especially after reading The Road. According to the hype and blurb, this is a compelling novel which has as its protagonist Cornelius Suttree, living alone and in exile in a disintegrating houseboat on the wrong side of the Tennessee River close by Knoxville. He stays at the edge of an outcast community inhabited by eccentrics, criminals and the poverty-stricken. Rising above the physical and human squalor around him, his detachment and wry humour enable him to survive dereliction and destitution with dignity. '"Suttree" contains a humour that is Faulknerian in its gentle wryness, and a freakish imaginative flair reminiscent of Flannery O'Connor' - "Times Literary Supplement". '"Suttree" marks McCarthy's closest approach to autobiography and is probably the funniest and most unbearably sad of his books' - Stanley Booth. 'The book comes at us like a horrifying flood. The language licks, batters, wounds - a poetic, troubled rush of debris ...Cormac McCarthy has little mercy to spare, for his characters or himself. His text is broken, beautiful and ugly in spots..."Suttree" is like a good, long scream in the ear' - Jerome Charyn, "New York Times".
What can I say, it was again a very bleak book, and I only made it half way through before putting it down, probably for good. Definately not one for me.
Parrot and Olivier in America by Peter Carey
Read by Tracy December 2010
Tracy does not recommend and could not finish
Well I had very high hopes for this book, not only was it shortlisted for the Man Booker 2010, but is also written by an author that has a track record for highly readable books. If you read through the website you will notice that it is extremely unusual for me not to finish a book but this one had me stumped and I was unable to make it through the first three chapters. I found the writing overly complicated, the period the book was set it did not ring true and I found absolutely no empathy with the characters. Unfortunately I gave up, maybe I will return to it at a future day, but until then there are substantially more enjoyable books to read. To check out further Man Booker 2010 Shortlisted Prize Winners.
Keep up to date with Peter Carey through his website.
The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand
Read by Tracy December 2010
Tracy recommends as a beautiful read on altruism and ideals
I picked up this book with much trepidation as another of Ayn Rand's books was totally panned on the First Tuesday Book Club, well everyone but Jennifer Byrne hated - Atlas Shrugged. I can say that after I started to read this book, I could not put it down - fantastic, I just loved the descriptive writing style. Published in 1943, The Fountainhead studies the conflicts between artistic genius and social convention which took place in New York City during the 1920s and 1930s. The hero of the book is architect Howard Roark, who is a brilliant but extremely unconventional architect who will not reduce his ideals - he would rather starve, than build something that would compromise his integrity. This stance is extremely unfavorable in the time where all the other architects appear to be designing traditional buildings, nothing modern or unconventional. Roark goes against the traditional view of architects and wants to build buildings that are true to themselves, not to resemble masterworks from the past.
The book is divided into four parts. Peter Keating, Ellsworth M. Toohey, Gail Wynand and Howard Roark. The central character of Dominique Francon, who was the wife of Peter Keating, then Gail Wynand, an ally of Ellsworth M. Toohey and finally the wife of Howard Roark (although they had a love affair throughout the book) , was interesting and pivotal to the storyline. She was the daughter of the most influential architect in New York City and also wrote a newspaper column which was popular to the masses. She unified the different chapters and I loved reading as she changed and grew, although sometimes she took on the martyre role a bit much. The Fountainhead continually returns to the theme of "second-handers", people who think only about that other people think i.e. Peter Keating, as opposed to those that believe in the philosophical ideal of individualism. Keating spends his life chasing success and rewards through pleasing others - he actually designs very little and his huge successes are designed by Roark and passed off as his own. He is a shallow man who eventually becomes dejected and bitter. Ellsworth M. Toohey is only interested in power to the detriment to all others, his nemesis is Roark who Toohey tries to destroy because Roark stands for his own ideals. Gail Wynand became the owner of a large corporation, working himself up from Hells Kitchen, but he is never truly happy, even after his marries Dominique, I felt he was happiest with Roark when they took the yacht away from everyone and everything.
I initially enjoyed the character of Toohey, but as the book progressed I thought his character was too unrealistic and although he seemed to have a phenominal ability to influence "second-handers", he himself was worse as he appeared to have no thought for anything but power. His niece Katie was the biggest loser in Tooheys desire for power and ended up spending her young adult years being so manipulated by him, that she became a shell that sprouted what she was expected.
Since reading the book, I have done some research into Ayn Rand and now understand that she modelled Howard Roark on Frank Lloyd Wright, which I had presumed while reading the book. I do not know much about architecture, except Wright went against traditional architectural views. The Fountainhead certainly polarised its characters, they were either good or bad, nothing inbetween, this also seems to be the opinions of people reading and reviewing it. There was a movie made in 1949 and Rand's only requirement was that the speech Roark gives at the end of the book was kept in as it explained the ideals and philosophy about life.
Freedom by Jonathan Franzen
Read by Tracy December 2010
Tracy recommends that you stick with it and you will be rewarded
Up front I should state that I haven’t read The Corrections (I corrected this by reading The Corrections in January 2013 - read the review here), so only had the reviews of Freedom to go by. The Corrections was apparently a huge novel, written nine years prior to Freedom. Even Oprah picked it for her book club. The book is a view of the, I suppose, perfect American family, or so they are perceived by their friends and neighbours. They initially sound ideal, but like all marriages or partnerships there are disappointments and compromises to be made. However, there are some very funny parts to the book. The book is full of characters, plots and language that can at times be a little bit superfluous and I felt it was targeted to the American audience with lots of references to Democract and Republican in-jokes, which in some parts were difficult to grasp where the story was going, however, by the end of the book I enjoyed, loved and praised it. Franzen attempts to cut through all the cheap distractions that people so desire in the world today and provide a realistic view of environmentalism and parenthood in this new millennium.
The book starts with Walter and Patty Berglund, college sweethearts who settled in St Paul, Minnesota 20 years previously to raise their family – Joey and Jessica. Things have not turned out ideal for the family, athough they are socially aware and conscious of their place in the world. Patty and Walter are also judgemental and frankly sometimes annoying. Their supposed ideal existence breaks down when their son Joey (who is totally idiolised by Patty), moves next door and lives with his older girlfriend Connie, her mother (Carol) and her boyfriend, Blake. They lead a "horrible Republican lifestyle" according to Patty and she cannot understand why Joey would leave her. I think Walter was secretary pleased to get rid of the smug idiot of a son. The book then digresses and we are taken into a memoir that is written by Patty at her therapists request. This takes us back to before Patty met Walter. Patty had a privileged but unhappy upbringing and was extremely naive – I mean who else would fall for the friendship of Eliza and her ongoing trauma’s. Her relationship with Eliza introduces her to Richard who lives with Walter. It is Richard who captures Patty’s heart and you get the feeling that she only picked Walter because she wanted that great American ideal - house, marriage and a family, something Richard did not want - Rockstars don't want that. The book then also goes through perspectives from Richard, Joey and Walter himself that provides a sanity check to Patty’s memoir.
This structuring of the novel isn’t as confusing as it sounds, in fact it is interesting and allows you to tantalising see the story from all the main characters and you understand the significance of individual actions on others. It also allows Franzen to delve into his characters and you are shown all their flaws and delusions. I think it was only towards the ending that Patty really became herself, even after her time at Nameless Lake, not the person she thought she was expected to be and who had pushed away the majority of her friends and family. I certainly almost cheered when Walter stood up to her. About time he grew a backbone. By that stage he had realised that Patty was suffering depression that he could not help with and he himself was feeling frustrated and disappointed with how his life was turning out. Nobody understood him, except Lalitha (his co-worker) who wanted the same vision for the world. Funnily that started to change as their relationship evolved. It was sad that a marriage should break down so fundamentally but it was the catalyst for Walter finally being able to tell Patty what he really felt. He had come to the realisation that she did nothing, only feeling sorry for herself – at that I laughed, what did she have to feel sorry for. Patty had had ample opportunity to make something of her life, instead she became a zealous mother which pushed her children away, and ultimately she had nothing.
Franzen tries to incorporate a lot of idealistic thoughts into the book, some worked, but some felt like a diatribe on big business, particularly coal in their exploitation of resources for a growing consumer base. The part of the book that lost me and I thought was lengthy was Walters breakdown although his realisation that being an environmental lawyer was not the idealistic career he envisaged and that he had to accept his place in the world. His return to Nameless Lake and the solitude that helped him grow led to a beautiful ending to the story (although I did think bad karma thoughts against Linda and her disregard for wildlife) and a much more open and honest relationship with his family. It has its foibles, but was definitely a great read. I love being engrossed in a different reading style, so give it a go. Freedom is one of Oprah's Book Club Top 10 picks.
This is a fantastic choice for your book club. If you want some further information and book club discussion questions - check out the OurBookClub Book Club page.
Looking for something similar. Try Julia Glass's Three Junes or Robert Olen Butler's A Small Hotel.
The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood
Read by Tracy December 2010
Tracy recommends as a pessimistic then optimistic look at the future
Strange book and not what I was expecting at all. I found it a bit difficult to read as I wanted more of the story and less of the Adam One speeches. I have to be honest as I only picked this book up because of the front cover, it really stood out on the book shelf. I had read Margaret Atwood prior in The Blind Assassin, which was totally different to this book.
The book is set in a time when the world has gone mad with relying on science to solve problems. Everything is genetically modified, including people and animals. However, there is hope with a small disjointed band of people who believe in the old ways, growing vegetables and treating animals with respect. The story starts with Toby who has gotten a job but falls under the cruel grip of Blanco the boss of the SecretBurger store she works at. She is freed by Adam One and thus begins her life with the Gardeners. She doesn’t believe everything that is said which makes her realistic and interesting. There are some great characters, Zeb, Ren, Amanda etc, who have all come under the safety of the Gardeners from the outside and all went back into the outside for different reasons. Things take a turn for the worst as CorpSeCorp, the now Police who are controlled by corporations hunt down the moles that assist the Gardeners and the group disbands into smaller groups. Zeb creates a smaller spinoff group that believes in direct action against the larger corporations. Amanda becomes an outside artist. Ren joins an upmarket sex club as a dancer and Toby is the manager of AnooYoo Spa where she continues the tradition of the Gardeners and luckily creates an Arafat which is a store for food and other items for the predicted “end of the world is nigh” disaster scenario predicted by Adam One. Eventually science goes overboard and a virus is released (the Waterless Flood) that kills or infects most of the people, except those who have been living in isolation. The remainder of the story is the survival of those and you won’t be surprised at which group makes it to the end. Although there is still one or two unexpected survivors.
The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova
Read by Tracy November 2010 (OurBookClub book pick of the month for November 2010)
This was the debut novel to Elizabeth Kostova (in 2005) and fits well within the current obsession of all things vampire. Considering my anthema with vampire stories, this one did capture my attention, probably because it was based on the original Drakula and not the lame vampires depicted today - at least they had fangs, although I was perturbed by the thought that Drakula went out in daylight, but not being an expert can't discount that. The story is about a young woman in 1972 who discovers a book and some old papers in her father’s library which leads her on a quest to uncover the mystery surrounding her father (Paul) and the mother (Helen) she has never known. The letters are the link to a centuries long hunt to find Vlad the Impaler (also known as Vlad Tepes, Drakula etc) who is does not even closely resemble the Bram Stoker classic Drakula made famous in the movies. The original Drakula lived in Wallachia (which later became Romania) and was famous for his torture methods before eventually dying at the hands of the Ottoman Turks in 1476, well not really dying. Her story starts off entwined with her father as he slowly passes on his knowledge of the myths surrounding Drakula and how he was initially plunged into the labyrinth of secrets in finding his missing college mentor (Professor Rossi) who also turned out to be Helen's father. Paul is reticent to explain the story due to the horrors that he must also describe and the desire to protect his daughter, however she is persistent and draws it out of him slowly and starts to document and compile all the information that has so far been uncovered. Rossi had left letters and copious notes on his own attempts to solve the puzzle of Drakula after finding a book left on his study carousel during his undergraduate years, which matches exactly to the book that is left for Paul in the same style. The detail that is within the book really captures the imagination and you are also drawn into the attempts to stay one step ahead.
Following Drakula allows us to be engrossed in the mythology of Istanbul, Budapest and other Eastern European countries before they were opened to the West, so you are also aware of the need for secrecy and avoiding all the political bureaucracy to ensure that Paul and Helen can roam through monasteries and archives that are so secret and hidden you are not sure if they could be true or not. The descriptions of the monastic and medieval archives makes you realise just how much has disappeared over the ages. This book had some beautifully descriptive packages and you yearned to give Paul a big hug and take away all his worries. For me, the book stayed true to the Drakula legend with glimpses of some of the horrors through the ages and there were plenty of twists and turns to keep you reading. Kostova beautifully describes some of the eastern European countries and their inhabitants. I was totally taken by Professor Turgut Bora and his wife and their lifestyle. I have now put these countries on my bucket list, which is growing as much as my book pile. I loved the interactions of the characters and also the little snippets that Kostova leaves in the storylines that keeps you aware of the end goal.
The only problem I had was with the ending, it lacked the drama that had been built through the story and I was left wondering about the inclusion of Barley and Master James, we didn’t find out much about them or why they were also drawn into the story. Of course at 704 pages, the book could possibly have benefited from some tight editing, but you worry that some of the initial story building may be lost.
I won’t spoil the ending, but Kostova has managed to allow a sequel to be written.
The web has information about a movie that apparently had a 2010 release date, but alas it doesn’t seem to have taken the advantage of the vampire myth being popularised.
What I Loved by Siri Hustvedt
Read by Natalie November 2010 (OurBookClub book pick of the month for November 2010)
Natalie recommends this as a beautiful novel that is both romantic and intriguing.
What I Loved is a beautifully written novel about life, love and loss. It's hard to say exactly what it was about this book that captivated me. I neither loved it, nor hated it, but I certainly couldn't put it down. Told from the perspective of Leo, an art history professor at Columbia, he is looking back over his life following the discovery of 5 letters between his close friends, Violet and Bill. He knew of the existence of these letters, but had never read them. After they were found, he felt compelled to tell his and their story. The novel explores Leo's childhood as the only son of Jewish immigrants escaping the Holocaust, to his chance run-in with the woman who would become his adored wife Erica. He also looks back at his deep friendship with Bill, a struggling artist who Leo helped after he was captivated by a painting Bill had done of a young woman. That woman was Violet, who was attracted to Bill, but he is already married to the depressed Lucille. Violet walks away, never knowing he feels the same way about her. When she returns, he has a young son and his marriage is apparently over. They begin their affair, but guilt drives Bill back to his wife for one more chance. Over the next 5 days, Violet delivers Bill a letter and it is those 5 letters from Violet that convince Bill to walk away from his marriage and be with Violet for good.
Their relationship is beautiful and the 2 couples; Bill and Violet and Erica and Leo spend the next phase of their life in a comfortable friendship, exploring art and literature together, holidaying together, working together and raising Mark and Matthew their respective sons. Unfortunately tragedy strikes with the first event marking the start of a change in all of their lives forever.
The book is an exploration of life - as the two couples grow together and raise children together, their dreams and their jobs. It explores love in the form of their marriages, their friendships and the love they have for their children. And it explores loss in the form of death, divorce, separation and heart ache. The central characters are artists and writers - creators whose work acts as a metaphor for their lives.
Although the author is female, the male perspective is both interesting and believable. Initially I liked Leo, although some of his actions left me feeling a little cold towards him. His wife Erica is strong and charismatic, up until the first tragedy strikes and while her reaction is believable, I didn't like her lack of strength following it. I felt she have up too easily and agreed when Leo said to her "you'd think we could at least have each other". My favourite were Violet and Bill who had a beautiful loving relationship that survived everything that was thrown at it. Violet loved and helped raise Mark, the son from Bill's first wife and when Mark became increasingly troubled and dangerous she stuck by him because of her love for both Bill and his son. Unfortunately the tragedy continues and no one walks out unscathed.
I found the book to be very sad, to be beautifully romantic, to be shocking and strange. The artistic descriptions were at times overwhelming, but served to describe an action or feeling by one of the characters. Their lives were not perfect and there wasn't a nice tidy resolution to it all, but it was real, a portrayal of life, love and loss.
Small Island by Andrea Levy
Read by Tracy November 2010
I have read this book before, but as the BBC TV series is currently being shown on ABC and I have reread the book. If you have missed the ABC BBC adaptation, you can access it through iView, or buy the series on DVD. The Adaptation is fairly similar to the book with the exception of a change to the ending, but I didn't think it was out of place or keeping with the book.
There are four main characters in Small Island. Queenie - Gilbert's white landlady. They originally met when Gilbert was serving in the RAF and on his return to England he rents a room from her. Hortense - Gilbert's Jamaican wife who was expecting so much more than a shabby attic room and Bernard who is Queenie's husband. Bernard had gone missing but reappeared mysteriously. The book is set in 1948 in a war torn London. Although there is nothing new about the books plot, I felt drawn into how hard and difficult a post-war Britain would be for migrants who are escaping their own problems. The book was great in reproducing the rhythm of the Afro-Caribbean dialects as well as the wonderful English accents of Queenie and Bernard. It is surprising when you are reading how you put voices to the characters yourself, but Levy's writing style made this so much easier. I think the books strength was in providing an interesting historical insight into the Afro-Caribbean migrant scene as it attempted to explore cultural roots and the impacts on British identity. The novel does not shy away from the difficulties of integrating into a mainly white society and the racism that would have been prevalent. Of course it would have also been hard for the British who were recovering from the war and struggling themselves to adapt to a new era. However, it also shows the compassion that people can afford each other even when they have their own anomalies and beliefs. Strangely it was Hortense that I felt a connection with. She had been brought up to understand that her golden skin makes her superior to darker skins in her own country and is shocked to find that Britain is not the same. Hortense struggles to find employment within the British education system and is unable to lower herself and make friends with the working-class Queenie. Her discovery that her qualifications are worthless almost destroys her, but she sets out on a different path and starts to understand the worth of others, regardless of their skin colour.
The Guardian Book Club has a good interview by John Mullan with Andrea Levy where she continued with the story of the favourite characters. She talked about the baby Michael and his future relationships with the four main character's. Levy also said that one of the main drivers for the book was her own ignorance about the involvement of West Indian servicemen in the second world war and she was motivated by the entanglement of British and Caribbean histories. To find our more about Andrea Levy and her writing processes, she has a very interesting website.
Madigan Mine by Kirstyn McDermott
Read by Natalie November 2010
Natalie recommends for an alternate and slightly bizarre read
A debut novel that is getting rave reviews, I actually found it a little bizarre to be honest (and that’s saying something). Alex Bishop and Madigan Sargood are childhood friends, bonding over a red crayon in school, they spend all their time together, Alex even seeing her family as a better alternative to his. Then one day, Madigan is gone, the family moves to Ireland and Alex doesn’t see or hear from her for 12 years. A chance run-in at the train station sees Madigan re-enter his life. Her mother is now dead and the family are all back in Melbourne, although Madigan herself took longer to return, spending the last 6 years travelling around Europe, her father’s threats to cut off money the only reason she came back. Alex is still as enthralled as ever by Madigan and they immediately embark on a passionate and turbulent relationship. For 2 years Alex thinks he has everything he has ever wanted, his Madigan. So much so, that he puts up with Madigan’s moods, her band of teenage art students that are constantly at the house and the mysterious Serge whom she disappears with for days at a time. Underneath it all, he loves her, always has and his fear of Madigan meeting her mother’s fate, dying of the mysterious heart condition she allegedly has, stop him from questioning her, from ending the relationship, even though it has cost him his friends, his family and virtually his life. Then one night things go too far. During a sex game, Madigan pulls out a knife, cutting Alex and forcing him to drink some of their mixed blood. He kicks her out, finally having had enough and 2 months later she commits suicide. Haunted by her voice talking to him, Alex is consumed by guilt and anger. As his behaviour becomes increasingly reckless and there are huge chunks of time for which he has no memory, Madigan’s voice promises to explain it all to him. But when strangers start acting as though they know him and mysterious items turn up in the apartment, he finally seeks help. Is she talking to him from the grave or is something much more sinister going on? It was at this point that the book kind of lost me, as the big revelation was made – Serge had taught Madigan how to possess a body, and by committing suicide, Madigan has now taken over Alex. As he struggles to come to terms with this, she uses any and everything to prove it to him. As Alex/Madigan become increasingly dangerous, Alex does the only thing he can think of, takes the body Madigan possesses away from her. He succeeds but Madigan isn’t done and by the end Alex and the reader are left wondering if he can ever stop her. The first half of the book was engrossing, switching between the funeral and various times in their relationship, I was wondering what was going on and who this mysterious Madigan was. Even after her death when Alex began to act strangely, it was compelling, but as we learned the how and why of Madigan’s possession, I just got a little lost. Her reasons were bizarre to me and I just didn’t get it. To me, Madigan was just a selfish pain in the arse and Alex was a total wet blanket!
Distance by Kingsley McGlew
Read by Tracy November 2010
Tracy recommends for an alternate read
A friend recommended Kingsley McGlew's first published book "Distance" so to support this local author I tracked it down. Kingsley has a blog and also a Facebook page, so sign up and give him some encouragement. Meanjin has also written a great review which is in addition to the Melbourne Books review which was also great.
So on receiving the book I opened it with much trepidation, totally unsure of what Distance was really about, after all I am not a sci-fi expert. I have to admit that this is a book I would probably not have finished if I hadn't known something about the author prior. The first few chapters were hard going, the language is very "blokey" and the characters appeared to only drink, drive around in their car and not much else. However, about halfway through the book my brain clicked into gear and I started to go with the flow enjoying the discourse and conversation. Some of it even rang true, I mean am I the only person who someone has responded back with "Sorry, I wasn't listening. Did you just say something?" The book is about Hans Angel who is trying to escape his past (or more rightly his immediate past) and along his travels in the North of WA he meets No Shit Harry and Spanish Mack who are the most 'ocker sounding Australian men I have ever read about. They have a fairly barren life not achieving or wanting to achieve much except access to a continually full fridge of ice cold beer. Angel starts to realise what went wrong in his relationship with Mary Rainfall, some of it very indepth - "he has always escaped into his dreams, they are more reality than reality and help him avoid responsibility". As he continues on his journey with Harry and Mack he starts to take on some of their traits, such as relying on alcohol to add clarity and provide the answers. Luckily as the book progresses the trio start to realise there are possibilities still open to them which doesn't revolve around sitting in a shack with a can, albeit not in the true rags to riches scenario, but fitting for the story. So I may not have fully understood the deeper sub-plots but I liked the book for its look at life and how we all try different escape methods but in reality it doesn't always help. Also I love the fact that someone has gone out there and put their thoughts down and published a book - good on you Kingsley, great first effort and will be looking forward to the next one.
Zero History by William Gibson
Read by Natalie November 2010
Natalie recommends this as very cool and very weird, but you should probably read the first 2 books before starting this!
Zero History is different to any other book I have read. Part sci-fi, part mystery/crime, part mind-trip and part work of fictional literature, it is an incredible journey that is both weird and funny. At the end of the book, I felt like I had probably missed about half of what was going on. Having said that, about a quarter of the way through the book I discovered it was the third in a trilogy (Spook Country and Pattern Recognition are the first two), and as I have not read the first 2, this may have contributed to both the weirdness and missing things. In any case, I decided to push on and finish it. Now that I have, I can say, I definitely enjoyed it and will be looking to go back and read the first two. Told from alternating perspectives. Our first character is Milgram (no last name), a former drug addict who spent time in a Swiss clinic getting his blood replaced 15 times to cure his addiction and now lives a life of urine samples and mysterious treatment pills. The second character is Hollis Henry, the former lead singer of the band Curfew, who after a couple of hits, no longer sings, but is still recognised, involved in the scene and attempting to become an author. Both Hollis and Milgram “work” for the mysterious Belgium businessman, Bigend. Exactly what and who Bigend is is a bit of a mystery (maybe not so much had I actually read the first two books!), but he certainly seems to have money, connections and his fingers in every pie. Both Hollis and Milgram are recruited to work again for Bigend, investigating mysterious fashion - Milgram the design of some pants and Hollis a non-branded but fabulously designed jacket. While this in itself is very bizarre, the reasoning behind Bigend’s fascination becomes sort of apparent, and both investigations sort of fuse together. Thrown into the mix are Heidi, Hollis’ drummer from Curfew (who is seriously the coolest character ever – her use of the F word is just f**king fantastic!), Garreth, the base-jumping boyfriend of Hollis who has his own mysterious connections, Fiona, the sort of courier for Bigend who seems to follow Milgram everywhere and Winnie – the myserious American agent, who is interested in Bigend and the fashion investigation. Bizarre right - yes, it certainly is! The language and dialogue is great, although some of the times, I had to stop, re-read and seriously think about exactly what was being said. I do think it would be beneficial to read the first two, if only to learn more about how Hollis and Milgram are connected to Bigend and hopefully learn more about Bigend himself! Gibson is a bit of a cult hero in the sci-fi genre. Having termed the phrase “cyberspace”, his debut novel Necromancer was an underground, word-of-mouth hit that inspired the excellent movie The Matrix. It was also awarded the prestigious trilogy of science fiction writing awards – The Nebula, The Hugo and The Philip K.Dick Awards. He has also inspired and written several short and long films, TV episodes and non-fiction. If you want some kind of surrealistic escape set in present day times, I would highly recommend picking up this books, although perhaps start at the beginning!
Forbidden by Tabitha Suzuma
Read by Natalie October 2010 (OurBookClub book pick of the month for October 2010)
Natalie recommends that if you can see through the taboo subject matter, this is a beautiful and absorbing look at two soul mates unable to love the person they most want to. It will remain with you for a long time after you put it down.
A word of warning, this book is not going to be for everyone. It is beautifully written and it is a heartbreaking love story, but it is also about incest - a brother and sister in love, dealing with a situation they know is wrong, but are unable to stop. Lochan and Maya are 17 and 16 respectively. They have been abandoned by their father and are continuously neglected by their drunk wayward mother. Left to care for their 3 younger siblings, they do everything they can just to keep the family together and stop social services from finding them. Every day they battle just to feed, clothe and get the kids to school, pay the bills, do their own homework and keep everyone happy. Tensions explode because older siblings are left to parent the younger ones, resentment builds, fights start, but through it all, Lochan and Maya have each other. Each of them knows what the other is going through. While Lochan is an exceptionally bright student, he struggles with every day communication. No friends, a complete inability to talk to strangers and shaking panic attacks that derail him, the only time he feels like himself is when he's home with his family, with Maya. Maya is more outgoing, she has friends, she attracts boys and for all intents and purposes seems like a normal girl. But the only time she feels like herself is when she is with Lochan. He gets her and she gets him. They have both been thrown into a situation they never asked for, abandoning their own childhood in an attempt to give one to their younger siblings. Both see the other as more than a sibling, as a best friend, a soul mate and when they finally open up to their feelings, it becomes a daily struggle for them. Initially they fight it, then giving in they try to limit it and when it finally all becomes unstoppable they are discovered and the fall out is huge. The choices each of them make have consequences neither could have foreseen and the grief they both suffer as a result is all consuming. Amazingly through it all the mother, who is the worst member of the family, is able to walk away unscathed and it is the children who are somehow forced to survive.
I don't want to tell you what happens in the end except to say that I had tears in my eyes as I turned the last pages. This is a heartbreakingly sad story of two people denied the very thing they need, burnt because they were born from the same woman. The book never makes light of the situation. The reader is constantly reminded that they are in fact brother and sister, that what they are doing is wrong, but despite this you can't help but feel for them, can't help but wish for their happiness, want them to find a way to be together and it is a disturbing feeling to find yourself wishing for this. The author doesn't take an easy way out and she delivers the story in a painfully honest and gripping way. The book can probably best be summed up by the opening quote "you can close your eyes to the things you do not want to see, but you cannot close your heart to the things you do not want to feel".
The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver
Read by Tracy September 2010 (OurBookClub book pick of the month for September 2010)
This is the first book I have read by Kingsolver and her first book to be published in 10 years, winning her the 2010 Orange Prize for Fiction. It covers a huge range of fascinating history from 1929-1951, including the Mexican revolution, the exile of Trotsky to Mexico, Frida Kahlo and Diego Riviera, World War I and the McCarthy driven communist witch hunts in America - I was surprised I could carry this out of the bookstore. The story is narrated by Harrison Shepard who lived the first half of his life in Mexico (being dictated to by his neurotic mother until she passed away) and the other half in America. He is drawn to Frida Kahlo in a Mexican market and carry her groceries. Not long after he is taken under the wing of Kahlo and her husband Riviera, moving into their household where he becomes cook, bottle-washer, secretary and housekeeper, as well as taking on the secretarial and household duties of the Trotsky's who have been exhiled to Mexico. During this time, Shepard keeps journals of the daily comings and goings of both households and his thoughts on their antics. I loved this part of the book and felt I was there and could imagine the chaotic households of some very passionate people.
During the second part of the book, Shepard moves back to America where after finalising his father's estate, settles in a small community where he writes and publishes the novel he has been working on most of his life. This leads to minor celebrity status and combined with his apparent growing agrophobic tendencies, he employs Mrs Violet Brown - and what a character she is. I would have loved Kingsolver to have involved her more, I desperately wanted to learn her history, but alas she stays a side character. As was prevalent during the time, Shepard eventually becomes in embroiled in the McCarthy and FBI investigations, which was hard for him to avoid with his work during the Mexican revolution and subsequent living arrangements surrounded by Communists. The book has lots of interesting historical content and I enjoyed reading it, sometimes not sure what was fact or fiction. I would however, liked to have seen more of Shepard's personal life, which as the reader you don't get to see.
This is a fantastic choice for your book club. If you want some further information and book club discussion questions - check out the OurBookClub Book Club page.
A Case of Exploding Mangoes by Mohammed Hanif
Read by Natalie September 2010 (OurBookClub book pick of the month for September 2010)
Natalie recommends this as a satirical look at the military and government cover-ups
On 17 August 1988 General Zia, the Pakistani Dictator died as his Hercules C130 mysteriously crashed shortly after take-off. Also killed were several of the Pakistani military's top brass and the US Ambassador to Pakistan. Conspiracy theories swirled about what happened, from mechanical failure, CIA plotting, Russian revenge or even murder from within. This was further fueled by the erratic flying of one of the World's safest planes shortly before it plummeted to the ground and exploded. To this day, the accident has been labelled as sabotage. A Case of Exploding Mangoes takes all these conspiracy theories and goes one step further. A fictional account of the months leading up to this event, along with the CIA and mechanical failure it also suggests the mango season, a blind woman's curse, human error and generals unhappy with their pension plans as other possibilities. Our narrator, Ali Shigri may have also played a role as he believes the suicide of his father was actually a murder ordered by Zia. The story is told to us by Shigri a young officer at the Military Academy and is intermingled with that of the General, a man being driven crazy by Quran verses and tapeworm, while at the same time trying to run a country that only pretends to like him and live with the First Lady who barely tolerates him. The book is a satirical look at the military, government cover-ups and behind the scenes deals, set shortly after the US and Pakistan helped the Afghans defeat Russia. There are some hilarious moments in the book, including when the General puts the country on Code Red on the assumption that someone is out to kill him after his interpretation of a Quran verse leads him to imagine himself inside a whale. The author is clearly taking a dig at the Dictator who ruled Pakistan for 11 years, murdering his predecessor after a bloodless coup, as well as agency incompentency and government arse-kissing. Watch out for the special guest appearance of a young bearded Saudi known as OBL at the US Ambassador's 4th of July party....classic.
There were times when I laughed out loud reading this book, although I think it does help to have an appreciation of the military's way of doing things. The ending is fantastic, especially as everyone thinks they were the successful assassin and what it really came down to was....well I'll let you read it and find out! Shigri is a very funny observer of life who was not at all what I expected and his interactions with his room mate and squadron are really fantastic. I actually felt very sad for him at the end as he eventually found the very thing he thought he had lost, only to lose it all over again, his poor Baby O. This is Hanif's first novel and was short listed for the Guardian First Book Award, long listed for the Man Booker and won him the Commonwealth Writer's Prize in 2009. A former member of the Pakistan Army, he is now the BBC correspondent in Karachi.
In a Strange Room by Damon Galgut
Read by Tracy September 2010
Tracy recommends for a different and evocative travel book.
This book got Damon Galgut onto the 2010 Man Booker Prize shortlist and after reading the snippet on the back cover, I thought it was in the same vein as Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert, which I found to be predictable; someone finding themselves in exotic and spiritual places - ho hum, something new people. This book was different, strangely so and I can't make up my mind whether I am a fan or not. The book is split into three sections, The Lover, The Follower and The Guardian, which are based on different journeys and it certainly captures some evocative prose as each journey is taken for different reasons. In "The Guardian", he describes visiting Hampi in India, and when reading this I was taken back to what I felt when I arrived, sitting on huge boulders, surrounded by magnificant man-made and natural structures, just awe-inspiring, the rest of this section, just made you wonder if there are people that just can't be helped, no matter how hard you try. The annoying part for me was the narrator who kept referring to himself in the first and third person, and in some cases it was confusing.
It may not be perfect, but it is certainly different and unconventional, throwing together unpredictable groupings of people who you never really know, but are left wishing you could drill down deeper in their personal lives, which in reality can be the downside of constantly travelling. I personally liked "The Lover" and the descriptions of the countryside, the flexibility of travelling and being left wondering about what might have been, however "The Follower" was the opposite, I was frustrated and wanted him to stand up and say something. This isn't your usual travel comedy book, more a philosophical musing about travelling, lack of place and the journey which left me with many emotions.
Click here to listen to Damon Galgut talk about In a Strange Room.
Click here for a list of the 2010 Man Booker Prize Winners.
The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas
Read by Tracy September 2010
Tracy recommends as an interesting book but I don't think it was worth all the hype.
Is this how friends and families act - I certainly don't want to be part of that angry seething group. Does anyone believe in monogamy these days? I know some of my friends don't, but I didn't realise it was mainstream as portrayed in this book - if you love someone you should be with that person, if you want to have an affair at least have the guts to stop hiding and confront the issues that make you want to possibly destroy what you have.
The book starts with the slapping of a child - a horrible spoilt child who has been brought up with no boundaries and no idea of what is right or wrong (sounds familiar with today's youth doesn't it!). The parents of Hugo have many many problems but instead of addressing them, they put the child on a pedestal where he can do no wrong. This was only highlighted again at the end of the book where the child thinks it is funny to kick and spit an old man. I personally found the characters self absorbed and uncaring for the world around them - is that what society is becoming?. The interesting part of the book was the division between friends and family on whether the slap was okay! I tended to think the parents should have been the recipients of some hard truths, but that could be said for all the characters in the book. The book certainly made me think about the lifestyles of others and how old fashioned I am.
The Slap is currently being made into an eight episode television adaption where each one hour episode will tell the story from the perspective of each of the main characters. This was a much awarded novel (not that Tracy agreed with the hype) and is attracting some fantastic Australian talent to the cast, including the very gorgeous Alex Dimitriades. In addition one of my favourite actresses - Sophie Okonedo (Hotel Rwanda) has also joined. Although I didn't like the book, I am hoping the television adaptation is the exception to the rule and fires on all cylinders. The Slap tells the story of a group of people enjoying a backyard barbecue together, who are torn apart when one man slaps the child of another guest. The boy's parents are so upset by the assault that they call the police and bring legal action against him, forcing the family and friends to take sides.
Amsterdam by Ian McEwan
Read by Natalie and Tracy September 2010
Natalie recommends this as an over-hyped book with a ridiculous ending, Tracy doesn't recommend it (yes I know it is an award winner)
This is my 4th McEwan book and I have to say, I just don't get the hype about him. Amsterdam is a short novel that won him the Booker in 1999. It tells the story of two friends, Clive and Vernon who are reunited at the funeral of their former lover Molly. Molly died of a rapidly degenerative disease that was closely guarded by her despicable husband, and leads Clive and Vernon to make a deal that each would end the others life should they succumb to a similar fate. Shortly after this, both men make morally dubious decisions, Clive ignores a woman's plea for help and Vernon outs the cross-dressing nature of a right-wing politician who also happens to be one of Molly's former lovers. A huge falling out ensues and the story ends with a trip to Amsterdam with Clive and Vernon faking friendship again to cover their goal of subjecting the other to euthanasia. Unknowingly they both succeed and while the vile politician lives to fight another day, it is the despicable husband who comes out as the winner in it all. I found the text to be pretentious and annoying, full of long sentences and paragraphs that really take the reader nowhere except a state of frustration, only to have the ending quickly and coincidentally wrapped up in a way that is completely implausible. Sorry, I just don't get what all the fuss is about. Tracy also read this book at the same time and was in agreement with Natalie. I can't believe this is the second book in a week I have read where the characters are so self absorbed, the only people I agreed with here were the Doctors in Amsterdam - did the best thing for the rest of the population in my opinion. Click here to read an interview in The Independent Newspaper with Ian McEwan.
Two Caravans by Marina Lewycka
Read by Tracy September 2010
Tracy recommends as a comedic romp that is trying to solve the problems of western capitalism
This is Lewycka's follow up to A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian and We are all made of Glue. Two Caravans is based on a group of immigrant workers trying to make a living in England to enable them to return to their homelands better off, so as they try to survive day to day living and working in horrific conditions they are still constantly exploited by everyone. Through a series of events the group becomes involved in strawberry picking, chicken factory farming, restaurant work and unluckily for two of the group - prostitution. The large group of initial characters are soon left by the wayside and the focus moves to a budding romance involving Andriy and Irina and a new set of characters and exploitation. However more and more characters are constantly being introduced and it becomes hard to remember who they all are and their place within the storyline. Although I did enjoy the narrative of the "Dog".
I felt Two Caravans lacked the wit and comedic writing of A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian, yet again it is also a difficult subject and really highlights the darkest facets of western capitalism at all costs, but maybe the avoidance of some of the weightier issues may have lightened the load for the reader.
In Office Hours by Lucy Kellaway
Read by Natalie August 2010
Natalie recommends this as a funny look at office affairs, although I would have liked the female characters to be stronger
This book is a behind the scenes look at office affairs, sleeping your way to the top and the ramifications of shagging your boss! Set in a fictional oil company in London it follows two women - Bella, a young single mother who despite her obvious intelligence and skill, works as a PA, and Stella, a married mother of two who works as a high-powered executive. Both women embark on affairs with men in their office, neither of whom they would have looked at in the outside world. Bella pursues James, who happens to be her new boss on account of her old boss quitting due to an affair with James (which Bella knows about). James is married and loves his family, but despite this, the previous affair and the fact that he is her boss, Bella throws herself at him. Stella on the other hand is chased by Rhys, one of her trainees who on his first day pretty much does no work and almost embarrasses her. After eventually succumbing to his charms, Stella uses her power to move Rhys around the company as it suits her. The subsequent affairs of Stella and Bella do mirror each other to a certain extent, although one is the seducer and one the seducee, but both women ultimately fall in love with their man, both women try to juggle work and family but eventually get caught out and both women end up leaving the company. It was interesting to have the two sides to the story of office affairs, however I still felt that both women came off as needy and at times very weak. It would have been interesting to have an affair between equals at the company or have one of the women be alot stronger or even one of the women actually getting what she wants. Ultimately at the end, neither of the women end up with her man, but both find themselves in very different positions and I thought Stella in particular had a sad ending. The story itself is quite funny, particularly the emails between them, their attempts to keep things secret and the constant worries and jealousies that plagued these women when trying to interpret the behaviour of men.
The Passage by Justin Cronin
Read by Natalie July-August 2010 and Tracy September-August 2011
Natalie and Tracy recommends this as an interesting but overly descriptive book that was nothing like what they expected.
Where to begin with this book? Well, at 766 pages it is a massive first installment in a post-apocalyptic trilogy. The book itself spans almost 100 years, with many characters and cities introduced to us. In the beginning, we have Amy, a quiet 6 year old girl whose mother desperately tries to keep her, but ultimately leaves her in the care of nuns at a convent. We have Sister Lacey, who takes Amy under her wing and seems to have a direct line to God. We have Prof Lear, a scientist on a military controlled mission into the jungles of South America to search for a virus that has the ability to prolong life. We have Carter, a mentally challenged young man on death row for a murder that he can't quite comprehend how he committed, and we have FBI agent Wolgast, sent on a top secret mission to bring in certain people that no one will miss for something called Project Noah. All of these stories are bound together where Amy somehow forms the central part of the Project. Suddenly this goes terribly wrong, unleashing 12 infected men who take on the characteristics of vampires, the "virals" slowly set about destroying the North American continent. Flash forward 92 years and we are now introduced to a colony of survivors trying to live, each night fighting off the virals who continue to try and attack. One day, 13 year old Amy wanders into their Colony and so begins a quest to find out who she is, why she had a secret message calling her home and how she can protect them against the virals. This journey takes a group from the Colony, lead by Peter across the state of California, into Nevada, Arizona and all the way to Colorado where it began. Along the way they battle constant attacks by virals, discover more survivors, learn more about the virals and the other ways they can affect you and ultimately how Amy can help them. However more questions surface, including what has happened to the rest of the world, why did the virus affect Amy so differently and what is Peter's, the man driven to getting Amy home, role in all of this. The book is overly descriptive at times, with Cronin giving us lengthy backgrounds of each character and enough detailed information to believe you are walking along with them. While this is fantastic writing, it is also the books greatest undoing, particularly when you invest so much time into a character, only to turn the page and find the book has jumped 92 years and all those people are now dead. The book could probably be read as a stand alone, although the ending leaves you with a tantalising look at what is to come, that not only leaves the reader slightly unsatisfied, but has now convinced me to read the second installment. The book came with a Stephen King stamp of approval and the movie rights have already been bought by Ridley Scott. With that much expectation and praise, I only hope the editor culls some of the excessive descriptions from the subsequent novels. All in all, it was an interesting and entirely unexpected book, that is nothing like what the blurb on the back of it suggests.
This is a fantastic choice for your book club. If you want some further information and book club discussion questions - check out the OurBookClub Book Club page.
Home by Marilynne Robinson
Read by Tracy August 2010
Tracy recommends for a beautiful old fashioned read
Robinson's book Gilead won the 2005 Pulitzer Prize and this book won the 2009 Orange Prize for Fiction. I had not read Gilead, but feel that they should be read together as the characters etc are in both books and it would provide a context of family history from a different perspective (they have different narrators).
The story is told through Glory Boughton, who has relucantly returned home at the age of 28 after a broken romance, to care for her aging dying father (Reverend Robert Boughton). She settles into the family home, which seems to be decaying around her, and returns to a simple style of life and routine. Her father becomes animated with the prospective return of his son, Jack, who has been estranged from the family for many years. Jack does eventually arrive back home and also settles into a disturbed routine, but you know that he is on the edge and you just wait for him to fall back into the old ways of his earlier days. This book is all about family secrets that bubble away beneath the surface and tinged with regret and sadness. Jack and his father try to reconcile, but their views just can't be fully aligned, with Glory attempting to make peace with them both. I loved Robinson's creative writing style, but felt the story lacked punch and you didn't really learn much about the civil rights movement and the impact it would have on the Boughton family.
One Day by David Nicholls
Read by Tracy & Natalie July 2010 (OurBookClub book pick of the month for August 2010)
Tracy recommends as a fantastic look back at the 80's and 90's and how some friendships can survive through the times
Yes I know there have been movies (When Harry met Sally) and books loosely based on similar concepts before, but this book made a big impact on me as I lived in London in the 80s and 90s and loved that era. The book starts in Edinburgh on the last day of university (15 June 1988, St Swithin's Day) where working class Emma meets upper class Dexter. Nicholls does a good job narrating between Emma and Dexter and you become conscious that Emma and Dexter realise that there is something more in their relationship, but just can't work out what and are hesitant to let it go. The book then catches up with them on the same day over the next two decades. We learn that Emma struggles through her life, where Dexter is the opposite and glides easily through it, frsutratingly he is one of those people where everything seems to fall in their lap. Emma puts up with a lot from Dexter, he is caught up in the drug and booze scene of the media world. I felt Emma needed this as it provides an escape from her dull life - work and boyfriend, which is as far removed from Dexter as possible. Then the inevitable, the tables turn and Dexter's career stagnates as the decade changes and he loses his youth appeal, and Emma finally finds her place in the world.
This is not a glib romantic novel, it has its fair share of sorrow but Nicholls is able to incorporate the sadness to provide an extra dimension to his characters. It might not win any awards, but it made me laugh and cry. I enjoyed it and selected it for my bookclub choice.
We sent a copy of the review to David Nicholls who responded "I can't think of a better message to receive on a rainy Thursday morning in London - thank you so much".
One Day has been released as a movie Jim Sturgess and Anne Hathaway. At The Movies David Stratton gave the movie 5 stars, although only 3 1/2 by Margaret Pomeranz. Click here to read the full review or check out the movie trailer.
If you want more information read a recent interview David had with The Guardian.
Tinkers by Paul Harding
Read by Tracy July 2010
Tracy recommends as a beautiful love story intertwined with a great storyline
Winner of the 2010 Pulitzer Prize (which Harding didn't know until later). I loved the originality of this novel. George Washington Crosby is on his deathbed, surrounded by family and friends. With only hours left to live, he slips in and out of consciousness and in the process the story intertwines his life with his fathers so that they both seem real. Crosbys' father grew up in late eighteenth century North America, working as a door to door salesman to remote homes, where he is possibly the only visitor, plying his trade of necessities from the back of a mule and cart. He is a dreamer who escapes the constraints of epilepsy by becoming at one with the surrounding landscape, at one time weaving a beautiful grass and flower blanket for his wife, but it is lost during a particularly violent epileptic seizure. George himself is also a tinker, having built the family home and worked as a clock repairer.
I loved the way Harding also had flashforwards and you saw the soft side of his family who are a bit overawed with George's impending death. I loved the story of his wife, who supposedly hated the sound of the clocks, but came to love them as they reminded her of George - see that is a beautiful romance.
Marilynne Robinson (Gilead, Home) was his teacher at Skidmore College, New York. She encouraged him to attend the Iowa Writers' Workshop where he also studied with Barry Unsworth and Elizabeth McCracken.
The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery
Read by Tracy July 2010
Tracy recommends as something totally different.
I don't know how to describe this book except what a strange read. This novel has been compared to Proust except it is more readable and therefore I presume commercial. It certainly seems to have become a phenomenon and has even been turned into a movie.
Set in a small Parisian apartment complex, which is beautifully described and made me want to pack up and move there, where the stories of Renee and Paloma are intertwined. Renee Michel, a 54 year old concierge maintains her lowly status by hiding her passion for literature and art, whereas 12 year old Paloma Josse, a resident, sees no future and plans to commit suicide and burn down her parents apartment - their stories are told in separate chapters. You feel sad that Renee has ended up in this situation just to keep her job, whereas Paloma is so young and trapped in a bourgeous lifestyle. Enter the magnificent Kakuro Ozu who turns both of their lives upside down and makes them realise that they can strive and achieve something more than what they were born into. I found some of the philosophical musings a bit hard going, especially because of the style of the chapters, however, be warned there is a sad ending.
Muriel has a fansite which is full of information including biography, interviews, release dates and notes on her first novel Gourmet Rhapsody which has been translated after the success of The Elegance of the Hedgehog.
88 Lines About 44 Women by Steven Lang
Read by Natalie July 2010 and Tracy in August 2010
Natalie and Tracy found this to be an interesting look at relationships from a man's perspective
Lawrence Martin is the keyboard player of a famous Australian rock band. Not playing any more, he has escaped to the Scottish higlands to try and find himself. From here he tells his story, of his childhood with an emotionally withdrawn father, his time at boarding school in England and Scotland, meeting his best friend Roly, moving to Australia and meeting his future wife Gizelle, forming and touring with the band, success and finally the death of his wife in a sailing accident. In the present, Lawrence is struggling with his relationship with Sam, a Scottish woman who gave up her chance at a life and career after she became pregnant and chose to stay and help her own mother. The title refers to a song written to describe a man's relationship with all the women in his life, and to be honest I didn't think it completely fits with the story being told in the book. It is an interesting look at how men view relationships and sex, although it is hard to know if Lawrence ever actually learns anything from what he goes through. Even his current relationship with Sam is plagued by the almost polar opposite problems he had with his wife. He just can't seem to live without women, but at the same time cannot seem to commit to a proper relationship with them. Lawrence feels a sense of guilt and responsibility for what happened to his wife and we soon learn why. Reading this, I sometimes wanted to slap him for being such an idiot, although it is obvious his problems all stem from his family and childhood. The ending is not completely satisfying and leaves the reader with the feeling that Lawrence hasn't changed, hasn't grown and his life will continue on as it always has. I read the book after Natalie, but I also just could not understand Lawrence's total lack of ability to make a decision - any decision, luckily he had made it through life by cruising from one ridiculours encounter to the next, now faced with the possibility of a serious relationship, he baulks at it. I hope all men aren't like this as it makes you wonder what hope is there.
Let The Right One In by John Lindqvist
Read by Natalie July 2010
Natalie found this to be a very disturbing, but very compelling book
Oskar is a 13 year old boy who lives in an apartment in the Stockholm suburbs with his single mum. He doesn't have any friends and is constantly bullied by the kids at school. His fascination with grisly crimes allows him to imagine himself beating up those boys, but he is still never able to stand up to them. One day he meets the new neighbour Eli, a strange little girl who only comes out at night and doesn't seem completely normal. A series of gruesome murders leads the town to believe a serial killer is on the loose, but eventually Oskar works out that these are due to Eli and her "father". Exactly what Eli is is slowly and frustratingly revealed to Oskar and often leaves more questions than it does answers. There is an amazing twist as to Eli's true identity. While the exact reasoning for how Eli came to be is never fully explained, Oskar struggles with his fear of her and his disbelief that any of this is possible. At the same time he also comes to realise that he is a stronger person because of her. When he is faced with loosing Eli and life once again going back to the way it was, he realises just how much he doesn't want to be there, doesn't want to exist without Eli. There were times when this book was seriously disturbing and I thought that Eli was an amazing character in this story. She is both an innocent and lonely child and an evil calculating monster. I felt incredibly sorry for both Eli and Oskar and the author did a fantastic job of showing their relationship growing to become about true friendship and acceptance. In the end I felt that Oskar saved Eli as much as Eli saved Oskar.
The Swedes have made the book into an award winning film and of course the Americans also purchased the rights and a US remake retitled Let Me In was released in 2010. Click here to see the preview, which although slightly different to both the book and the Swedish movie, was nonetheless very, very good. I would recommend reading the book then seeing the Swedish followed by American movie versions for a true comparison. Just don't watch them alone in the dark!
Beatrice and Virgil by Yann Martel
Read by Tracy July 2010
Tracy couldn't put this book down
This is Martel's follow up to Life of Pi (check out my review). Henrys' first novel is a huge success - book signings, fans, movie etc. His second novel which has taken five years, doesn't even make it past the publishers, editors and experts. He is bitterly disappointed and along with his wife they move to a big city (you don't know which one, but that actually doesn't impact the story). They build a life in this new city and Henry stops writing, filling up his time with a myriad of jobs, tasks and hobbies. One day he receives a package in the post along with a story and a note, this leads him to the "Taxidermist" who becomes fundamental to Henry's life as he unravels the play the "Taxidermist" writes. The play is about Beatrice and Virgil (a donkey and a monkey), although they are just faces to the story which is based on the Holocaust. This is a cause close to Henry as his second book was based on our perception of storys of the Holocaust. In the meantime Henry and his wife have a child which changes Henry's perspectives on life and he comes to the total realisation that the "Taxidermist" is not who Henry (but everyone else) thought he was. I couldn't put this down as the story was just not what I expected and I was fascinated with Beatrice and Virgil - great book Yann.
Watch an interview of Yann Martel discussing Beatrice and Virgil.
Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen
Read by Tracy and Natalie July 2010
Tracy recommends as a novel that sees you running off to join the circus. Natalie says after a slow start and some sadness for the animals, revenge is on its way.
Jacob Jankowski had it all - studying for a prestigous Veterinary Degree at Cornell University when his life is suddenly turned upside down. He is unable to cope with what life has thrown at him and gets involved in the Benzini Brothers circus. This is the depression in America and with so little money around, going to the circus provides an escape for customers. However, it is the running of a circus that is fascinating - all the melodrama in the big tent is nothing compared to what goes on behind it with the performers and roustabouts. Jacob soon becomes the circus veterinarian, where he meets Marlena (married to a violent paranoid schizophrenic August). With the collapse of another circus, the Benzini Circus purchases Rosie a giant elephant who does nothing but eat, until Jacob realises she understands Polish and she is soon the star of the show. Jacob and Marlena snatch what romance they can until everything comes to a head and they have to make a decision that changes everything. The book is written as flashbacks for a 93 year old Jacob who is now residing in an assisted living home. As he watches the circus come to town and is incensed when one of the other residents says that he used to carry water for elephants, Jacob is propelled back into old locked away memories and secrets. I did not enjoy the beginning of this book and struggled to stay with it, but towards the end it really came into its own and was a fantastic escapist novel.Tracy. I also found the novel quite slow to begin with and was saddened to read about the animal cruelty, especially as the author explains so much of it was based on fact. However, the ending is fantastic, for both the animals and Jacob. Natalie.
There is now a movie starring Reese Witherspoon and the heartthrob of all teenage girls Rob Pattinson (he of Twilight fame). Will the movie live up to the book - you will find out in April 2011.
Looking for a follow up book, check our John Irving's or try Siobahn Fallon's You Know When the Men Are Gone.
Ape House the latest book by Sarah Gruen is out. Read the review of Ape House.
Troubles by JG Farrell
Read by Tracy July 2010
Tracy recommends as a frenetic but gripping read
This book is set in 1919 when Major Archer returns from the war and visits his fiance, who lives in Ireland, who he never actually asked to marry but somehow the arrangement was made. Angela lives in the crumbling monolith of the Majestic Hotel in Kilnalough on the Irish coast. The story details the lives of those who live in the Majestic and also the "troubles" that are taking hold of Ireland between the Catholics and the Protestants and the seeming unwillingness of anybody to stop the disintegration of the country. The Hotel, which sounds huge, is like a comedy of errors and has eroded so much that you can only be amazed it is still standing - after all bamboo through the foundations, piglets on the squash courts and the growing herd of cats that have taken over everywhere they can. Strangely this book was the winner of the Lost Man Booker Prize (1970) and seems to have as much relevance now as then, if recent news events are followed. There were so many questions I had, which I did not get answered: what happened to the Major, the old gentlewoman, the twins, Edward, Sarah. There are scandals, love, amazing dialogue. What I can't understand is why this book hasn't been made into a movie - it would just be perfect.
Farrell's book The Siege of Krishanpur won the 1973 Booker Prize. The reason for the 1970 Lost Booker Prize was a change of rules. This change subsequently saw Farrell miss out on being the first author to win the Booker Prize twice. Instead J.M. Cotezee, Peter Carey and Salman Rushdie took out that title before the Lost Booker Prize was awarded.
Farrell said to George Brock in an interview for The Observer Magazine "that the really interesting thing that's happened during my lifetime has been the decline of the British Empire."
The Messenger by Markus Zusak
Read by Natalie July 2010
Natalie recommends this as an interesting book, that wasn't what I expected
After thoroughly enjoying The Book Thief (see review below), I decided to read one of Markus' earlier books The Messenger. This tells the story of Ed, who comes across as fairly pathetic with 3 smarter and more ambitious siblings, a dead alcoholic father, an angry mother, a dead-end job as a cab driver and 3 friends in equally dead-end situations, including Audrey, who Ed is madly in love with, but too scared to do anything about. One day, whilst the 4 friends are in a bank, Ed accidently foils a bank robbery. Shortly after this, Ed starts to receive playing cards with messages on them. He soon discovers these are missions for him to carry out, sometimes they involve something good, sometimes somthing bad, but they are always designed to help a stranger. At first Ed is baffled by these cards, thinking it's just a product of his publicity over the bank robbery, but he soon learns that they are almost a matter of survival for him and after some initial reluctance at being put in this situation, he gradually learns to accept his job and even look forward to the next card in the mail. Both the reader and Ed are kept in the dark as to who these cards are coming from and why they are being sent to him and it's not until the final Joker arrives and that message is carried out do we learn the whys. This was a really interesting story and not entirely what I thought it would be, with the messages having a darker side that I expected. Not quite as good as The Book Thief, it is nonetheless a great read and an interesting look at the journey of someone discovering themselves, accepting certain parts and growing from that.
The Book Thief by Markus Zusak
Read by Natalie June 2010 (OurBookClub book pick of the month for July 2010)
Natalie recommends this as a great read with a unique look at the Holocaust
My pick of the month for June, I know I am alittle behind the eight ball with reading this, but now that I finally have, I can see what all the fuss was about. An interesting concept, the book is narrated by Death and tells the story of Liesel, aka The Book Thief, as she navigates her way through the second world war in Nazi Germany. Sent to a foster home for protection from her Communist mother, she loses her brother which sets the scene for stealing her first book beside his graveside, even though she is unable to read or write. Upon arriving at her foster family's home in a small town outside of Munich, Liesel gradually finds the the family and friends she has been longing for and in doing so, learns to read and write, all of which fuels her book thievery. She is swept up in the books she reads and uses them as an escape from the harshness of war, even settling her fellow occupants of the bomb shelters. Life gets more interesting when Liesel and her family hide a Jewish street fighter in their basement and through this Liesel discovers the art of story-telling and the power of words, finally deciding to write about her own life. The book is told as an observation by Death who often throws in random facts to describe a situation, which are both interesting and amusing. Death sees the world in colours and these often describe the mood of the time. Kept busy by the war, Death can't help but be intrigued by Liesel who Death encounters three times during her life. The book is both very sweet and very sad and Death is surprisingly tortured by the job at hand and the souls to be taken. A very interesting spin on the second world war and a great read by an Australian author.
Marcus Zusak talks about The Book Thief in a recent interview.
Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout
Read by Tracy June 2010
Tracy recommends as a sad look at the inevitable aging process
Strout won the Pulitzer Prize in 2009 for this novel, so I wanted to be impressed and in part I was, the book moved along at a good pace and I had to look for the links between the chapters which kept me thinking and rethinking my opinions throughout the book, but I was disappointed with the ending, too many loose ends. The main characters were frustrating - how can Olive and Henry not end up hating each other (I mean Henry is seriously too nice) and their son, Christopher is just plain weird and unappreciative. The book follows Olive through her depressing view of the world and people which can be depressing, but I was constantly suprised that even though she was abrupt and spoke her mind loudly, people still gravited towards her. Olive was a school teacher, so the story lines involve a lot of characters of different ages which gives the book a wide audience, but I was depressed to read the ending and hope that the loneliness suffered by some of the elderly characters does not happen to me. It seems even though everyone desires children and then grandchildren it does not guarantee you are not alone in your twilight years. I am not sure if Strout won for Olive Kitteridge or her ability to construct some beautifully written passages.
Click here to access Elizabeth Strouts website.
The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet by David Mitchell
Read by Tracy June 2010 (OurBookClub book pick of the month for July 2010)
Tracy recommends for total escape reading
This was my book of the month for June 2010. Starting it's story in 1799 this book takes you straight into the secretive and intriguing Japanese society that has been closed to foreigners since the Portuguese had visited and which now the Dutch were extremely eager to exploit for trading purposes through their small stronghold on the tiny island of Dejima, linked to Nagasaki via a bridge which is heavily guarded by the Japanese. This historical novel starts with one of the most descriptive opening chapters I have read for a long time and from there just draws you into the whole period. I can't get over how fascinating it would have been to enter a society that was relatively unknown to outsiders. It is set in Dejima in Nagasaki Harbor which is the Japanese Empire's only port and window to the outside world. This book follows the stories of Jacob (junior clerk of the Dutch Trading Company) who has allocated five years to make his fortune, which he originally wanted to use to win the hand of his wealthy fiancee back in Holland. However, he meets Orito Aibagawa (Japanese mid-wife) and becomes fascinated by her story. Their love is forbidden by tradition, culture, politics and law - however, this is not your standard love story. There is plenty of intrigue and betrayal and I could not put this book down.
Still Alice by Lisa Genova
Read by Natalie June 2010
Natalie recommends this as a good look at Alzheimer's disease, although as soon as I started I was reluctant to continue reading it
Still Alice is about a 50 year old Harvard psychology professor who is diagnosed with early on-set Alzheimer's disease. After the initial stages of denial and anger, followed by genetic testing for her and some of her family, Alice tries to make the best of the situation. When her disease progresses rapidly and she quickly discovers just how bad things are going to get, she attempts to make a plan to avoid ending up confused and forgotten in an old-people's care facility. Her family and how they cope with the disease and particularly it's genetic fall-out are also thrown in, although the book is largely about Alice trying to remain Still Alice. I thought the book was very well written, particularly with respect to Alice and how she saw every day life once her memory started to go. Her family's reaction was mixed and probably fairly true to the situation. I did think the ending was a bit of a cop-out, as Alice never got to fulfil her plan, and her husband didn't help, despite knowing exactly what the plan was and how Alice felt about living with the disease. To end the book with Alice on "good days" was not true to the disease and leaves the reader feeling as though things are going to be ok, when in reality that is far from the truth. Still it was an interesting read and particularly well done with respect to the memory recall.
Lisa Genova graduated valedictorian from Bates College with a degree in Biopsychology and holds a Ph.D. in Neuroscience from Harvard University. She has done research on the molecular etiology of depression, Parkinson's Disease, drug addiction, and memory loss following stroke. She is a member of the Dementia Advocacy, Support Network International and DementiaUSA and is an online columnist for the National Alzheimer's association.
Click here to see an interview with Lisa Genova.
Beautiful Malice by Rebecca James
Read by Natalie June 2010
Natalie recommends this as a great read
Beautiful Malice is a fantastic read that opens with a cracker. From the outset we know that Katherine, the narrator of the story has suffered a terrible tragedy with the death of her sister. We know her former friend Alice is dead and we know Katherine has a 4 year old daughter. What we learn throughout the book is how all these events came to happen. While I guessed at most of them long before they were explained, this doesn't detract from the book, because the story is in how these things came to be. Told from three different time points, that almost feel like the past, the present and the future, it is dark, disturbing and sad as a supposed friendship becomes toxic and malicious and Katherine's already sad life is even further destroyed. Alice is one hell of a character and from the outset I knew her to be fake and evil. What she does is beyond belief and will leave you feeling very sad for Katherine, even if initially I thought she was a little stupid and naive. The final incident is just so sad. Interestingly, this is Rebecca's first published novel, which she managed to write even with four boys under 4yrs running around at home! After being turned down repeatedly in Australia, the book eventually went on to start an international bidding war that saw it earn into the six figures. It is a great read and I am certainly looking forward to her future books.
Jasper Jones by Craig Silvey
Read by Tracy June 2010
Tracy recommends as a great teenage read.
This is Silvey's second novel and has been short-listed for the 2010 Miles Franklin Award. This book follows Charlie Bucktin who lives in a small Australian country town and is tragically unable to fit in with his peers as he doesn't have any hand/eye coordination which precludes him from playing sport. So when Jasper Jones (the local football legend, who himself is a loner due to his aboriginal mixed-race) turns to him for help, he can't avoid being drawn into his world. This book is set in the 1960's when Australia is drawn into the Vietnam war, so Bucktin's best friend Jeffrey (who is Vietnamese) and his family are faced with unbelievable discrimination. This book looks at peer pressure and how seemingly small things can escalate to unbelievable tragedy because people are afraid to face them and stand up. Topics covered in Jasper Jones were wide and varied, from discrimination, mystery, racism and teenage romance. I liked this book and would like to see Silvey's next novel.
Click here for Jasper Jones Book Club discussion questions.
Underworld by Don DeLillo
Read by Tracy May 2010
Tracy recommends as an absorbing read about America in the 20th century
This book was first published in 1997 and is an enormous tomb of a book and seemed like perfect holiday reading material. The book is split into different sections, starting with a baseball game and ending with the internet and focusing on different people and their families through the last half of the 20th century. DeLillo moves between a multitude of plot lines which can be hard to track, but he gives you a sense of the difficulties and paranoia of Americans in the 50s and 60s when the cold war changed people's perspectives of the world. Culminating in more modern times and society's more recent ability to absorb death without becoming enraged just saddened by the lack of fight or interest. The ability to describe in so much detail such a wide range of years makes this a fascinating read. DeLillo has not answered all the questions that are raised and I personally wanted to read more about Cotter and Esmerelda and what their histories were, not just their impacts on people, but I suppose the book was already huge. I did find it particularly interesting that the book had a large focus on recycling as a busines and how that interlinks with society today.
Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel
Read by Tracy May 2010
Tracy recommends this as a historical romp through Britain in the 1500's
Wolf Hall won Hilary Mantel the Man Booker for 2009 and deservedly so. The book is based around the life of Thomas Cromwell and his rise to prominence during the reign of Henry VIII's and his desire to make Anne Boleyn his wife and the subsequent break with the Catholic Church. This book won Mantel the Booker Prize. I tried really hard to enjoy this book, but felt that it tended towards the sensational and although it attempted to be biographical, it tended towards the bodice ripper category set in the 1500's. Cromwell was an exceptionally driven man who modernised Britain through administration processes in an attempt to help the common people, of course making himself a wealthy man in the process. I wanted to read more of the man not just the wheeling and dealing, but had to keep reminding myself this was a historical fiction novel, not a true account of the times. Mantel does however write a romping novel which is quick paced and realistic. It left me yearning for more so now I am starting to read a biography of Cromwell to really get an understanding of the man.
The Guardian has a very interesting podcast about how the historical fiction genre is acquiring more and more critical clout.
The Girl She Used To Be by David Cristofano
Read by Natalie June 2010 (OurBookClub book pick of the month for June 2010)
Natalie recommends this as a great read
This book was sent to me by a friend and when I finally found time to read it, I quickly devoured it in 24 hrs. It is the author's first novel and it is very easy to read with an interesting and gripping story that keeps you wondering how it can all end. Melody is a 26 year old woman who has never had a life because for the last 20 years she has been in the Witness Protection Program. As a child, her and her parents witnessed a crime committed by a well known Mafia member and have been on the run ever since the Feds roped them into to testifying (they still lost the case). After her parents died, Melody has been plagued by loneliness and bordem, brought on by never being able to reveal who she is or form any lasting relationships. To combat this, she routinely changes indentities every 2 years through the Program, even though the "threats" to her are made up. Then one day, the threat seems real, when a member of the Mafia family finds her. However, he claims to not want to hurt her and in fact wants to give her the one thing she has always wanted - a chance to be herself. He reveals that he has in fact been watching her for a long time and knows who she really is. Now Melody must face the decision of staying with the Feds and never being who she is or taking a chance with the Mob and becoming the girl she used to be.
I found the ending profoundly sad and I won't ruin it by telling you why. The book is not just a fantastic story, but also about a young woman lost, identity, relationships, who you are as a person and what you need from life to be that person.
So Much For That by Lionel Shriver
Read by Tracy 2010 (OurBookClub book pick of the month for June 2010)
Check out Our Favourites for the full review.
The Repossession Mambo by Eric Garcia
Read by Natalie April 2010
Natalie recommends this is an interesting look at the impact of technology on our lives
The Repossession Mambo is set sometime in the future, although we are never told when and it's not too different from now, with the exception that artifical organs now exist. Because of this technology, people rarely die of old age, instead they upgrade their failing organs and continue on living. This can include anything from a pancreas, heart, eyes, ears, liver and even neuro system. Included in all this new technology, are the optional extras such as 200x optical zoom with your replacement eyes or even ventriloquist setting on your new voice box. Of course, these organs don't come for free, but instead are offered via a line of credit, that often includes extortionate interest rates. If you fail to pay on time, they send in the bio-repo men to repossess your organs (the law says they don't have to have an ambulance on stand by unless you request it), regardless of your actual need for them. So this is the story of Remy, a bio-repo man, and what his job entails. Told to us both in the present as Remy is holed up in an abandoned hotel urgently trying to write his story down before he is caught, and as flashbacks to his past, his time as a solider in the war in Africa and the 5 wives he had along the way. By switching between stories, he provides us with an account of his life so far, why he became a bio-repo man, why each of his marriages failed and eventually we learn why Remy is on the run from the very company he used to work for and what artifical organs he has and how he came to have them. Along the way he meets the 7th woman he falls in love with, Bonnie, who is also on the run. The book is very funny in parts and also an interesting look at the impact of technology on our lives and what we value most. I thought it was a great read, and the ending very good.
Click here to see the Repossession Mambo movie trailer.
Plan B by Jonathan Tropper
Read by Natalie April 2010
Natalie recommends this as a light and funny read
Plan B is the story of 5 college friends who are all about to turn 30 and realise that life is not what they thought it would be. Each of them is stuck in a rut and realises that maybe they need to grow up. The story is told from Ben's perspective, who is in the midst of a divorce, hates his job and just can't seem to finish that novel he dreams of writing. Lindsay is the girl Ben is really in love with, but she dumped him to go travelling and experience life, only to find herself unemployed and unhappy. Chuck is an intern who has much success with the ladies, but can't seem to actually make a relationship work. Jack is a successful and famous Hollywood actor who also happens to have a cocaine problem and Alison is desperately in love with Jack and won't consider looking at anyone else. The five of them come together over a long weekend when they try to help Jack kick his coke habit by kidnapping him and taking him up to Alison's family house in the mountains. They get more than they bargin for when the press get wind of a major movie star having disappeared and then somehow Jack manages to escape and no one can find him. The story is very funny with loads of references to the 80s and many of life's questions explained through Star Wars analogies. I did think the ending wrapped up a little too quickly and particularly with respect to Jack and Alison, but overall it was a fun read - particularly if you like 80s culture and Star Wars!
The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood
Read by Tracy April 2010
The Blind Assassin depicts women who have been trapped by circumstance and society as dictated in the era in which the book is set. The book has many sub-plots and attempts to give voice to characters through different interweaved stories. The opening scene resonants with "Ten days after the war ended, my sister drove a car off the bridge." They are narrated by Iris Griffen who, you realise, although born to privilege, it has not stopped her enduring tragedy in her life. The stories are told through edictorialized newspaper reports following an inquest report proclaiming the death as accidental, which provide an interesting unfolding of events within Iris's life. Although the Blind Assassin is loosely a family epic, it does focus on women finding small independencies in their otherwise trapped lifestyles.
I wanted the women to take responsibility for their decisions and drive their own lives, but as the book is set in the 1930's this was obviously something "not done" in those times and I was left feeling furstrated at the predicaments that Iris and her sister Laura become embroiled in which I felt was caused by their insulated childhoods and societal pressures that saw obligations reside over love.
Solar by Ian McEwan
Read by Tracy March 2010
Tracy recommends for a funny look at climate change (trust me there aren't many books like that)
I bought this book because of the central theme on climate change which is the basis of my Masters thesis, besides I did not know that Ian McEwan was a comedic writer and wanted a different perspective. The main character of the novel, Michael Beard is a philandering scientist, at the end of his fifth marriage, who finds the issues surrounding climate change to be an engineering challenge not necessarily a political problem. There has been an explosion of books on climate chnage but it was interesting to read a novel which combines the science with comedy as it is a subject that can be difficult to negotiate and avoid the hyperbole - even I get fatigued from the scientific books that are either for or against the concept with both sides sprouting gloom and doom.
McEwan looks at the issues from a lighter more comical viewpoint but still provides a good amount of suspense through the continual movements of Beard through the climate change institutes and advisory positions all positioning new technology that may save the world which quickly disappears as the next piece of technology is spruiked. I am not sure how much McEwan knows about the ironies surrounding climate change, but I felt persuaded that he had done some research into the culture and science surrounding the subject. It was a nice lightearted read and comes to the rescue of a world overshadowed by notions of environmental apocolypse. Click here to find more about Solar and click Click here to read an interview in The Independent Newspaper with Ian McEwan.
Watch an interview with Ian McEwan as he discusses Solar and There is a good article in the Guardian Book Club about the flak his is taking for Solar in his bid to bring humour to the vesed debate about climate change.
The Road by Cormac McCarthy
Read by Tracy March 2010
Tracy recommends if you are not looking for a light hearted read, it is however thought provoking and beautifully written.
I picked this book solely on the review of the film. Any book that includes in its opening paragraph the sentence "Nights dark beyond darkness and the days more gray each one than what had gone before", does not bode well for a light hearted read on the couch. The book follows the story of a man and his son as they stumble through a post-apocalyptic landscape and as the story progresses we are faced with flashbacks of earlier times. This book won Cormac McCarthy the 2007 Pulitizer Prize and as you read through the novel you are just drawn into and captivated by the journey. Even the process of heading to the coast to escape the winter in the north is heartbreaking, scavaging through cities that have been plundered many times, just to find enough sustenance to keep going and enable them to elude the most horrific marauding gangs who have long ago lost any regard to human life. The constant theme through the book is what the father must do if they are captured and whether he can really go through with it. It may be a dark and depressing book, but you keep reading just on the hope that some goodness happens in this land of gloom and constantly blowing ash and hope that you are never in the situation of the father. I had to keep believing that there is some fundamental goodness in everyone, but alas....
Awesome in the totality of its vision, The Road is an unflinching meditation on the worst and the best that we are capable of: ultimate destructiveness, desperate tenacity, and the tenderness that keeps two people alive in the face of total devastation. Tim Flannery discusses The Road in Here on Earth, his latest book, believing that if we do not change the course we are on in relation to environment protection this may provide a look into what the future could hold.
The Boat by Nam Le
Read by Tracy in March 2010
Tracy recommends for an interesting and quirky read
I picked this book as I am going to visit Vietnam and thought it might provide an insight into its history. Hmm very wrong. Le declined to write about Vietnam as he calls it "ethnic lit" instead writing a book about seven different stories with only the first story called "the Boat". I started to get a bit confused about which story related to what and how they were interlinked - not not. I enjoyed the story about childhood and how mental/physical abuse has the ability to affect you into adulthood and the trauma of escaping political persecution in Vietnam, however the story about Cartagena involving gang members was so difficult to align with the first story I felt unconnected to the book. I would have instead liked to see Le focus a whole book on each story so that the characters could be developed. That said, he has a way of storytelling and I am looking forward to his next book.
Le has added the PEN/Malamud Award for short fiction (commemorating the life and work of Bernard Malamud) to his long list of prizes for his debut collection, The Boat.
Click here for the Nam Le official website.
I, Lucifer by Glenn Duncan
Read by Natalie March 2010
Natalie recommends this as both hilariously funny and slightly annoying
I, Lucifer is about the Devil and a little trip he makes to Earth where he will be inhabiting a human's body for a couple of months. The reason for this trip is because God wants to let him back into heaven (he fell from there some years ago, taking a couple of other Angels with him) and this is his test, to see whether he can behave himself. Lucifer approaches it as a holiday, pretending to God that he will consider the deal, but all the while knowing he is never going to take it. Why? Because despite all the pain and fire and terrible people he's surrounded by, he rather likes Hell and the freedom this gives him. Heaven by comparison is a bore, constantly having to say how wonderful God is and never being allowed to think for yourself. The poor body he inhabits is Declan Gunn (nice anagram by the author), a depressed writer who decides to take his own life, only for God to stick him in limbo while Lucifer takes over both his body and life. When he does, he basically reeks havoc with it, although some of his far naughtier things are curbed by visits/threats from Angels just in the nick of time. At times this book is hilarious, although I must warn, it is probably very offensive to religious people. However, the Devil, or Glenn Duncan, does tend to go off on these long winded tangents that can be both annoying and confusing. Still I like the idea that Lucifer, as a human ultimately ends up smoozing with Hollywood and writing a movie about his life - maybe that's saying something! Rumour has it, the book is being turned into a movie starring Daniel Craig and Ewan McGregor, which will be good for the eye candy alone.
A Fraction of the Whole by Steve Toltz
Read by Tracy March 2010
Tracy recommends this as a great book for curling up on the couch
This book is full of sub-plots and more sub-plots narrated through a viarety of digressions and distractions which provides an original and funny debut novel from Toltz. The book is based on Jasper, who is in a prison cell writing about his family's life, with flashbacks to how he ended up in there. By writing the novel, Jasper takes a cathartic look at how his famous and infamous relatives have impacted his life. One the largest influences on his life has been left by his crazy, despondent and hated father and this has left Jasper with no sense of individuality. In such a large book there tended to be some repetitiveness in several areas, but it provided plenty of highlights and I could make an emotional connection with some of the characters.
For me I felt that the chaotic and episodic storylines were in ways a mirror on life and whether we really know our true selves. A great first novel and I can't wait for the next one.
Toltz won the People's Choice Award in the NSW Premier's Awards in 2009.
Sea of Poppies by Amitav Ghosh
Tracy read in February 2010.
Tracy recommends for a superficial look at India during the time of the Raj and at the peak of the nineteenth-century opium trade.
I really enjoyed the The Glass Palace and The Hungry Tide, so had the same high expectations from Sea of Poppies (also shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2008). The novel starts in the Bay of Bengal in 1838 on what is the eve of the opium wars between Britain and China. Deeti has an opium addicted husband, who works in the British opium factory (convenient for an addict) who soon leaves her a widow - lucky for Deeti as I thought he didn't have many endearing traits. Deeti finally escapes the village with Kalua, her knight in shining armour. On another story, we find the ex-slaver boat "Ibis" and her crew who quickly become linked with Deeti through their travels and desires of escape and freedom.
This book provides an historical account of India during the days of the Raj and English occupation and how deeply rooted the caste system was (and still is). Ghosh provides romantic interests both English and native, but I felt it was slightly superficial and not absorbing as promised on the cover of the book.
Game Control by Lionel Shriver
Read by Tracy February 2010
Check out Our Favourites for the full review.
We Are All Made of Glue by Marina Lewycka
Read by Tracy in February 2010
Tracy recommends as an odd look at the old age health care system in England
I enjoyed Lewycka's first book A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian, as it was actually something different and her writing style was quirky. However, this book attempts to be a comedic romp under the guise of a Holocaust drama which was slightly disturbing and Lewycka tended towards the ridiculous in some of her characters. Georgie Sinclair is now a single mother (with the departure of her husband, Rip) who wants to be a novelist instead of a contributor to Adhesives in the Modern World magazine. Georgie meets an elderly Naomi Shapiro when she catches her going through a neighbours rubbish skip and becomes fascinated with Naomi's life and her nauseating living conditions - it still baffles me that people can live in such conditions with nobody caring about them. Naomi has concocted a life of lies that is starting to unravel and you do not know what is fact and fiction. Georgie and Naomi become further connected with Naomi has an accident which focuses authorities attention on her moving her to an aged care facility - also helped by the fact that the authorities seem to be in collusion with real estate agents to sell Naomi's crumbling mansion. Georgie takes on her case and defends Naomi's right to live independently, although she is also motivated by a desire to find out everything regarding Naomi's past life.
Lewycka was a poet before she decided to try her hand at writing a novel. She had given up on being published, so decided to try her hand at a more comedic writing style. After being short-listed for the Orange Prize, Tractors also made it onto the long-list for the Man Booker Prize. Also check our Marina's other book Two Caravans review.
Life of Pi by Yann Martel
Read by Tracy January 2010
Tracy recommends for a truly original reading experience.
This was a very unusual novel (and deservedly won the Man Booker Prize in 2002) and I was quite capitvated in wanting to know the ending. How can a boy manage to survive in a lifeboat with a fully grown Bengal Tiger? The book is about Pi (his real name is Piscine Molitor Patel), an Indian teenager whose father runs a zoo and the first part of the book is about his father passing on knowledge about the interconnections between man and beast, which obviously stands Pi in good stead for the tragedy that unfolds. Then India comes under increasing political changes, the family decides to leave Pondicherry in India and move to Canada and dismantle the zoo, taking the remaining animals with them. They board a boat that soon sinks, which leaves Pi as the only survivor and on the aforementioned lifeboat. Initially there is a variety of animals, but time dictates their demise according to the food chain. Pi realises that his survival is dependent on him asserting his own will and sets about on a grand scheme to ensure he is not Richard Parkers next meal. Pi keeps himself sane (sort of) by filling his days with practicalities and surviving at sea, catching fish, water and protecting himself from the elements. Some of the stories are poignant and obviously chart Pi's passage into combating thirst and hunger.
As Yann Martel has said in one interview, “The theme of this novel can be summarized in three lines. Life is a story. You can choose your story. And a story with an imaginative overlay is the better story.” The end of the book is extremely interesting and could be seen as some to be inconsistent, but I like a twist and the fact that his story was called to question made me sad as it happens not just in fiction. I can't wait for Martel's next book.