Book Reviews: Literature & Fiction
The Twelve Tribes of Hattie by Ayana Mathis
Read by Tracy in December 2012
Tracy recommends as a story of survival
Does the power of Oprah make everything better - certainly does for debut novelist Ayana Mathis. Her novel The Twelve Tribes of Hattie received a positive review by Oprah and although it was scheduled for release in January 2013, its publisher (Knopf) doubled its print run and released it a month early. Nothing can beat the "Oprah Book Club" sticker on the front jacket which guarantees an audience far greater than the book may have received. So is the hype justified?
The Twelve Tribes of Hattie follows the journey of a fifteen year old Hattie Shepherd as she moves from Georgia to Philadelphia in the mid-1920s to avoid the oppressive white regime and into relative freedom. Even as she exits the train station she sees Negro women laughing and behaving as white women and they don't even jump into the gutter to let whites pass - I can't believe people allowed this to happen. Instead of grabbing this freedom, Hattie marries August, who she later acknowledges as the greatest disappointment in her life. Quickly after marriage the babies start to come and come and come. The book starts with the death of her twin babies, Philadelphia and Jubilee. The family has no money and relies on old-wives tale remedies, but to no avail. Hattie seems to then lose her tenderness and sets out to raise her children to accept the hardships in life and to survive.
The remainder of the book interlinks narratives of Hattie and her children all the way through to the 1980s, in some ways showcasing the changing times. As with other books at the moment, I am not sure if I like the short story feel of the book, sometimes it felt disjointed and there were a couple of times, I wasn't sure which child was the narrator. Things weren't always so bleak for Hattie, she did find love with Lawrence, and did attempt to walk away, but her decision to stay for the sake of the children was difficult and you know that from then on, happiness was something she never found again. Floyd is a musician in the 1940s and known as a ladies man, but underneath he is deeply unhappy and uncertain about his sexuality having to rely on his religion where he is an abomination. Six, who was badly burnt as a child, finds himself with a calling for god, but is also so full of rage he can't control and which ultimately, sees him unable to align the two parts of himself and he is left feeling inadequate and fraudulent. Cassie who has a mental illness and is eventually sent away, leaving behind her daughter Sala who is unaware of where her mother has gone to and when (or if) she will ever return. Then there is the chilling take of Bell who finds herself with TB and abandoned, having fallen out with Hattie years before when she too embarked on an affair with Lawrence. Eventually Hattie finds her and takes Bell to hospital. It would seem that Hattie's rage at her husband has transcended to her children and although they have wandered far and wide they all still search for her approval. Interesting in the children's narratives they focused on their mothers impact on their lives, but in Hattie's stories the children took a backstage to August, Lawrence and her sisters.
My one gripe of the book is that it didn't bring to life Philadelphia during this cultural change, I can only imagine how much the city changed with such a huge influx of migrants. But it is a debut novel, and I am expecting big things from Ayana Mathis in future as she starts to round her characters, especially as she is at the prestigious Iowa workshop under such literary luminaries as John Updike and Marilynne Robinson.
Flight Behaviour by Barbara Kingsolver
Read by Tracy in December 2012
Tracy recommends as a great story and a great message
Flight Behaviour has been shortlisted for the Women's Prize for Fiction 2013. I must state up front I am a huge fan of Barbara Kingsolver. The Poisonwood Bible, which chronicled the experience of a southern missionary family caught in the post-colonial strife of the Belgian Congo and The Lacuna which invented a character who spent his formative years in Mexico with the likes of Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera and Leon Trosky, only to later eloquently defend himself before the anti-Communist Un-American Activities Committee, where both great reads. As usual when I get super excited about a novel coming out, it is a double edged sword as all too often it lets me down and I have to saw for the first chapter, I thought Flight Behaviour was going down that path, but then bam - I was captured.
Dellarobia Turnbow ventures onto a path that she hopes will let her escape her empty marriage and the drudgery of scraping a living with her husband, Cub, and two children, Preston and Cordelia, on an Appalachian farm owned by her in-laws. She is a tiny woman with flame coloured hair who has ventured up the mountain and lured by the prospect of a tryst, probably more at the anticipation than the actual consummation, we learn she is smart but undereducated and bored beyond words, she feels that her life is measured in half dollars, clipped coupons and culled hopes. As she nears her assignation, she realises that something is wrong. "Nearly all the forest she could see from here, from valley to ridge, looked altered and pale, the beige of dead leaves. These were evergreen trees, they should be dark, and that wasn’t foliage. There was movement in it. The branches seemed to writhe." She can't make out what she sees but as the sun emerges she sees "Brightness of a new intensity moved up the valley in a rippling wave, like the disturbed surface of a lake. Every bough glowed with an orange blaze," yet it isn't a fire, although she can only think it is "The flames now appeared to lift from individual treetops in showers of orange sparks, exploding the way a pine log does in a campfire when it is poked. The sparks spiralled upward in swirls like funnel clouds. Twisters of brightness against grey sky." Dellarobia is not religious, but finds herself in a Moses moment and abandons her plans, returning home determined to "steer her family toward something better than this." This is a life of utmost poverty, bleak to its extreme, unchangeable and unfathomable to most people.
She soon finds out that the farm is in dire financial trouble and her father-in-law wants to log the whole farm to bring in some much needed money, so after convincing Cub to walk their land before he makes the decision to sign over the trees to a logging company. Dellarobia is desperate for someone, anyone to see the fire and flames. As the whole family walk the mountain, the sight that seemed so godly only days before, turns out to be Monarch butterflies who are encrusting the Turnbow family trees: millions of monarch butterflies, alighting to spend the winter on their farm which is far from their usual Mexican migration spot. The family are torn and soon reveal the sight at church where Dellarobia is seen as somewhat of a visionary. This vision brings the outside world very quickly to the family’s front door. Enter Ovid Byron, an entomologist researcher who arrives on Dellarobia's front yard one morning and asks to see the butterflies. The Turnbows’ have never been outside the state, so the appearance of Harvard educated Ovid has them fascinated and they soon allow him to set up camp and use their barn with a variety of graduate assistants as a lab. Ovid is much more worthwhile of Dellarobia's affections, than the previous recipient of her love tryst, alas their relationship doesn't develop on a physical level, but Ovid soon engages with Dellarobia and her five year old son Preston on an intellection level where he nurtures their inquisitive natures. Ovid is fascinated by her ability to articulate situations, her intelligence, her humour and I think is even a little bit in awe of her, wanting to try and help her achieve something she gave up in her teenage years - the hope of college. He soon employs Dellarobia in the lab to help with research and she becomes further aware of how her life could have turned out.
The Turnbows are the embodiment of poverty. They are farmers; but constantly battling the elements to raise their flock of lamb for both wool and meat. You start to realise that there are two groups of people, those that can address climate change in their own lives, but just don't care and those that have no means to change their lives for better or worse, and this is the Turnbows’. They don't understand the concept of buying anything new, reducing air travel, buying only ethical stocks - to assist climate change, for them it is something unknown. You can see how Dellarobia almost escaped the small town, even making it to a College exam, but finding that she could only pass English and failed Maths and Science, as these subjects were not encouraged a school. Even today when Ovid visited the local high school to find students who may be interested in some research experience, he left feeling that the education system was failing a huge amount of people, who least needed to be failed. When Dellarobia fell pregnant at 17 she married Cub, who has subsequently become hen pecked by his mother and does everything in life in first gear. So she let her dreams disappear to do what was right even though she knew she could never be happy. There is a constant battle with her mother-in-law, Hester, who gradually reveals why she has never accepted Dellarobia in the family, you even feel some sympathy for her because of her own marriage to Cub’s father, Bear, not least for her own tragic past. Now married for more than a decade, Dellarobia realises that the Monarch butterflies can provide so much for their family, helping them to change their beliefs in the world. Her job with Ovid earns her $13 per hour, making her by far the largest money earner and also allowing the family for once in their lives to put some money away, realising that living hand to mouth could be something of the past. One of the highlights in Dellarobia’s live is her best friend Dovey – through thick and thin they have stuck together and even though Dovey has now ties, she doesn’t abandon Dellarobia, instead offers her a kind of serenity and even the occasional laugh.
The arrival of the Monarchs as a town phenomenon brings in some much needed revenue, but also brings in some much maligned press. When Dellarobia tries to get the journalists to speak to Ovid so he can lucidly explain their appearance and the threat to the species, as so often happens, the press only wants the feel good part of the story and eventually even the ever placid Ovid loses his temper. Luckily Dovey captures the whole interview on film and uploads it to the internet to ensure that the truth is seen by some, they find that the film becomes a viral internet hit. I think this rage is what is needed by scientists, they need to yell and scream and put their point across - their message so far hasn't worked. As Ovid reveals that the previously stable pattern of migration is leading to a continental ecosystem breaking down – he becomes even clearer on the culprit and how climate change has disrupted this system. We learn a lot about the Monarch's and how they cling to life, the colony is traced Angangueo, Mexico, where they escaped the catastrophic flooding of their traditional winter habitat, but now find themselves in a worse situation - if the mercury drops into the mid-20s, it could spell the demise of the species.
Flight Behaviour was voted 25 in the BookPage top books for 2012 - do you agree?
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.
The Lighthouse by Alison Moore
Read by Tracy in November 2012
Tracy does not recommend if you are after an uplifting reading experience
The Lighthouse was shortlisted for The Man Booker Prize 2012 and was the debut novel for Moore. Not bad for an independently published book up against some stiff competition and ultimately beaten by Hilary Mantel for her historical novel Bring up the Bodies.
Futh, is separated from his wife Angela, and to find himself embarks on a solitary walking holiday in the Rhineland (his father's family is German). On the North Sea ferry crossing he meets Carl who is visiting his mother and Futh offers him a lift as it is on his way. Throughout the story Futh regresses back to his extremely unhappy childhood after his mother left, leaving behind a lighthouse-shaped perfume container that Futh now cherishes. After a very strange meeting with Carl's mother, Futh continues on to Hellhaus where he is to commence his walk, arriving at his hotel later than originally planned, he finds himself trapped in a series of events and misunderstandings that don't bode well. His boarding house is run by an even stranger couple - Ester, who seems to sleep with all the male guests and her resentful husband, Bernard. Futh seems to be a loner, only getting married by accident and seemingly has no friends in his life to help him. Now in his mid-forties, he has not gotten over his mother's abandonment. I felt the past and present narrative slightly off putting, I kept becoming lost as to who and what the purpose of the story was. I understand he felt abandoned and having to put up with his father who was not sympathetic must have been hard as a child, but he has had thirty years to come to terms with the breakdown of his parent’s relationship. Instead he stays within his own self-imposed isolation, even his job as a synthetic perfume creator is solitary. Of course his career allows him to pursue the recreation of his mother’s perfume - a bit creepy I think.
Ester's story is similar, she has a non-existent relationship with her husband and other than her daytime dalliances, seems to sit in the bar drinking gin and fantasising over Mills and Boons novels. Her past is just as melancholy as Futh and you wonder why she has stayed in such a depressing situation, sometimes you just have to walk away. I couldn't understand why her husband was so jealous, he didn't love her. Both storylines offered little consolation, they were both trapped in misery and didn't seem to want to change.
I have to say, as usual, I was disappointed with the Booker shortlist novels, against public opinion, I found the book very lonely and erring towards depressing, there was nothing to make me want to keep turning the pages, except I was just waiting for something, anything to happen. For me, the description of place was lacking, I wanted to be transported onto Futh's walk, but it could have been anywhere.
Breed by Chase Novak
Read by Tracy in October 2012
Tracy recommends for a squeamish horror/thriller reader
Breed has been penned by Chase Novak, or as others might know him, Scott Spencer who has written some interesting books including Endless Love
When one of New York's most eligible bachelors, Alex Twisden, meets Leslie Kramer their relationship moves at head spinning speed and they are soon married and ensconced in the Twisden family townhouse in Manhattan, leading a life that a very old and prominent family provides. There is only one problem; no matter what they try they are unable to become pregnant. Alex becomes increasingly desperate to continue his family line and this just highlights that some people will stop at nothing to have children. After an eye-popping amount of money spent on everything from IVF to spiritual meditation, Alex and Leslie bump into another couple who have managed the unattainable - they are finally pregnant. They are very secretive about how, what and why and it is only after some great blackmailing strategies that sees Alex and Leslie arrive in Ljubljana in Slovenia (been there and the city is beautiful) for a very mysterious meeting with fertility expert, Dr Kris. Slovenia is coming out of a depressing and very secretive political time in its history; plus medical research isn't as restricted as a lot of more westernised countries. The fertility specialist is Dr Kis who has come up with an aggressive fertility treatment which is based on hormones and you can only imagine all sorts of other bits and pieces from vigorous animals, amongst them the Goby fish - doesn't sound too bad, however, the Goby fish has a rather strange trait - it is cannibalistic and eats its young. After a somewhat strange appointment they are both given injections and then a vial of liquid to take later. The treatment is a success but the effects are immediate and Alex and Leslie find themselves in the grip of savagery, animalistic urges, a desire to feast on raw meat (dead or alive) and not to mention the phenomenal increase in hair growth.
After the birth of their twins, Alice and Adam the family disappear for ten years and we have no insight into how much their lives have deteriorated. Suddenly we are taken back in the Twisden-Kramer household to find it in ruins with much of the antiques now sold and what is left damaged beyond repair. By now the twins have realised that being locked up at night isn't normal and there are secrets, so many secrets. Even though they attend one of the most prestigious schools in the area, they do not interact with anyone but each other. Eventually the strange happenings in the home cause the twins to flee. Alex runs to his teacher Michael Medoff and Alice finds herself in Central Park. She stumbles onto a group of children who too are the offspring of other New York families who have had treatment from Dr Kis. Obviously the fees for Dr Kis are significant, so these children are all from extremely wealthy families, although not much is left of their privileged lifestyles and the children are left to uncover the truth of their existence. I struggled to believe in Adam and Alice, their characters seemed plastic. However, the stories of Leslie and Alex are much more realistic. They gave up everything to have children, but was the price too high?
As Adam and Alice continue to run through the city escaping their parents, it is scary to think that they had nobody to go to and the school's headmaster was too worried about the school’s reputation to help. Instead it falls to their teacher to step up facing a somewhat demonic Alex and Leslie. There were a lot of characters and small snippets of story that were not followed through - what happened to the neighbour, she witnessed packages being buried in the Twisden-Kramer’s garden and also saw the children escape out of a window at night, but they didn't tell anyone until the very end. I couldn’t understand why Michael’s personal life was something to be held over him – he was in a happy and stable relationship, surely that outweighs what society dictates. He was obviously a great teacher and able to connect with the students.
The story wasn't as much of the horror/thriller as the synopsis led me believe, after all it is a fantastic idea; a fairy tale with a very dark side. It did have some interesting concepts and did keep me turning the pages but it just didn't enthral me - not to mention the spelling mistakes!
Mr Penumbra's 24-hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan
Read by Tracy in October 2012
Tracy recommends for those wanting to be seduced by a book all about the written word
I was almost salivating at the thought of a book all about a 24-Hour bookstore, eccentric characters, digitised books, old knowledge, unbreakable codes, a secret society with underground reading rooms and I have to say Robin Sloan's debut novel certainly didn't disappoint. It seems like e-books are taking over the world and discussions constantly revolve around the death of the physical book. Whereas in reality there is a place for both - what does it matter how you read, just that you read. Of course I am a sentimentalist and the look, feel and smell of a book can capture you emotionally unlike a digital reader. Mr Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore started with a tweet - Robin Sloan clearing remember the moment when on November 15, 2008, his friend Rachel Leow posted a tweet that said simply: “just misread ‘24hr bookdrop’ as ‘24hr bookshop’. The disappointment is beyond words.” This comment made him smile and he was soon intrigued into what a 24-hour bookstore would look like.
Our main protagonist is Clay Jannon who has recently found himself unemployed and almost unemployable in a very depressed job market in San Francisco. He spends the days wandering the streets looking for work, when he isn't getting distracted by online articles that is. He stumbles across a bizarre shop called Mr Penumbra’s 24-hour Bookshop with a Help Wanted sign and as he ventures inside, he is greeted by Mr Penumbra himself. Clay's job interview consists of three penetrating questions: "What do you seek in these shelves"; "Tell me about a book you love"; and, "But can you climb a ladder?" Clay convinced Penumbra he is the man for the job with an impassioned description of his childhood favourite book The Dragon-Song Chronicles by Clark Moffat. The bookshop consists of two very distinct areas. The front contains a few shelves with a small selection of well-known books. Customers sometimes stop by to browse, but few ever buy anything. The real action is in the back, where, on several tall, laddered shelves, there are thousands of books that are unique, Clay dubs this area the "waybacklist", although it is in actual fact the area housing codex vitae. It is accessible only to a handful of patrons who seem to belong to a book club. Members of the club “arrive with algorithmic regularity,” trading an old book for a new one, and never paying for anything. Clay is given the late-night shift (from 10pm to 6am) and to ease the boredom, he soon finds himself absorbed in finding out about the books on the highest shelves and the eccentric customers who come for them. To keep his job, Clay agrees to abide by three requirements; he must be there from ten pm to six am, he may not browse, read or otherwise inspect the shelved volumes and finally he must keep precise records of all transactions. He does this quite well, until his flatmate Mat visits and after some encouragement they climb the immense vertical shelves full of dusty books, several stories high and open the books finding that they contain long, unintelligible strings of characters. Clay is unable to comprehend how the bookstore manages to survive with so few customers so he takes it on himself to program a model of the bookstore, track the customers borrowing habits and focuses on a Google hyper-targeted local advertising program.
Also central to the book are relationships; Clay has many friends who are soon all willing to help him investigate this strange bookclub. When Kat Potente walks into the bookstore after receiving a voucher via the Google marketing campaign, she convinces Clay that computers can help solve the puzzle he is starting to reveal. First they must steal one logbook VII – the logbooks are where all interactions are documented, luckily, Clay's flatmate Mat is a wonder kid with visual effects and is able to fashion a duplicate. Clay finds himself on the huge Google campus (where luckily Kat works) and the book scanner is soon placing its spidery arms onto the pages as it turns it from a physical book to a digitised book. In a surprisingly short time, all the data is sorted, indexed and re-input into Clays model. The results are startling and after Clay eventually reveals to Penumbra how computers have aided him in the book puzzle, Penumbra he is aghast, but soon realises that "computers may hold the key, something he has suspected but has never been able to provide. Penumbra also starts to tell the story of the 500 year old secret society of the Unbroken Spine which is made up of novices, bound and unbound members all currently led by the First Reader.
With the additional help of his best friend, Neel; the trio start on a quest to unravel the secrets that the waybacklist represents and to delve past Mr Penumbra's bookstore. The Unbroken Spine, a Knights Templar of typography, is dedicated to solving cyphers and codes. The group's origins extend from sixteenth century Venetian printer Aldus Manutius, who, according to this novel, left his legacy locked in an unsolvable code. This code hinges on the Gerritszoon font that was specifically created and is what is featured on all the massive, leather-bound tomes shelved in the bookshop. Not to mention its popularity on e-readers and computers.
At the heart of the story is people and in particularly the younger generation who have not had much cause to touch paper, with the growth of computers, find themselves fighting for knowledge that is contained within them. This knowledge can't be translated to computers and without giving away the plot lines we find that not everything is able to be solved by Google, in fact, good old human brains can be surprising. What is intriguing about this book is the focus on modern-day attitudes towards reading and the who/what/why of our own approach to technological change. As we pursue the future, we must not forget the past can hold a lot of answers. I also loved the analogy of Google and America; still the biggest game in town, but inevitably and irrevocably on the decline – both are faced with fast-growing rivals, and both will eventually be eclipsed.
Looking back, it was a convoluted plot that hinged on coincidence, but it certainly wasn’t like that when I was reading the book; there is a certain charismatic naivety. Robin Sloan isn't new to the literary world, he has authored an iPhone app Fish, has years of experience at digital-era companies Poynter, Current TV and Twitter, has pulled off a delightful paean to paper, print, the Internet, and technology, including some innovations that are still just a glimmer in Googlers' eyes.
Where’d you go, Bernadette by Maria Semple
Read by Tracy October 2012
Tracy recommends as a funny look at what happens when an artist stops creating
Bernadette Fox, we all have a little bit of her in us. She doesn’t quite fit in, teetering on the edge of social convention, but if you scratch the surface you realise that she isn’t too smart, she is just trying to find her niche. After giving up a something labelled a Huge Hideous Thing in Los Angeles, Bernadette, along with husband Elgin Branch and daughter Bee find themselves in Seattle. Elgin’s animation company has been bought Microsoft and he is a highly paid Level 80 VP haven given the fourth most-watched TEDTalk. Balakrishna (or Bee as everyone calls her) is a child prodigy, born with hypo plastic left heart syndrome; she has grown into an intelligent 15 year old. Since their move Bernadette has become agoraphobic, socially awkward and even more scarily having lost her ability to create and herself. Where’d you go, Bernadette is told by Bee as she gathers letters, notes, reminiscences, emails, bills, reports and any other document or conversations she can find to document her mother’s increasingly rash actions up to and including her disappearance. This could have been a risk by disjoining the storyline, even becoming chaotic; however, it was invigorating, giving you an insight into people’s perceptions. It hasn’t always been this way for Bernadette. She was an extremely successful architect and even today she hasn’t been forgotten by the architectural community still being held in high esteem and a legend to architect graduates.
The story starts with Bernadette, Elgin and Bee planning a trip to Antarctica as a reward to Bee’s exceptional grades for a whole year. This seems to be the catalyst for Bernadette’s increasing mental breakdown. The family live in a 5,000 square home on top of a hill that is now tumbling down around them, having now become the main residence of the local blackberry bushes. In her growing hatred of living the home, Bernadette has secured the services of a virtual assistant in India – Manjula who charges a huge sum of USD $0.75 per hour.
Bee attends Galer Street School, one of those new-age schools where they believe in different grading systems i.e. S, A and W standing for Surpasses Excellence, Achieving Excellence and Working towards Excellence respectively. Galer Street finds itself in the precarious position of trying to break into the top tier of schools and employs a marketing guru to help them come up with some very strange ideas to encourage breaking out of the Subaru Parent mentality and break into the Mercedes Parent mentality. A function is organised in the home of Audrey Griffin who lives below Bernadette and someone who has almost become the nemesis to Bernadette. They are both at different ends of the spectrum – Audrey is involved in everything, whereas Bernadette eschews the idea of living through her daughter and also refuses to volunteer. ‘So neither of you believe in community?’ one of the mothers asks her. ‘I don’t know if community is something you do or don’t believe in,’ Bernadette replies.
As the story evolves we find Bernadette confiding more and more in Manjula. She divulges her feelings, particularly about those on the periphery of her life. Manjula soon holds copies of the family members' passports so she will have all of their information necessary for buying tickets, accessing their bank account, and ordering supplies.
The documentation of the story lets us glimpse into Bernadette’s life prior to Seattle and how she became the youngest recipient of the MacArthur Prize. After building the spectacular sounding Beeber Bifocal house where she transformed a derelict factory into an architectural home using objects found within the building. She became known as a ground breaking architect particularly in relation to the green movement. Her greatest building was the The Twenty Mile House which had to meet the requirement of building a 3 bedroom, 4,200 square foot single family residence in Los Angeles where every material used came from within twenty miles of the building site. Eventually the house would take three years of her life and sadly only one day to demolish. This heartbreak has not diminished over time and is at the root of her unhappiness.
What is the highlight is the supporting characters who provide hilarity, I even found myself shaking my head thinking, sadly, these storylines are too realistic. The main character, or nemesis, is Audrey Griffin, the neighbour and also a fellow Galer Street mother (or gnat as Bernadette calls the other mothers). Audrey is just one of those people that must stick their nose in everyone’s business, ignoring that their life has major problems. As the rivalry and hatred between the two continue to escalate, underneath it isn’t all bad. Audrey lives beneath Bernadette and when she insists that Bernadette removes all the blackberry’s, what she doesn’t realise is that, they are all that hold up the hill which has disastrous effects at the aforementioned fundraiser.
The next character is Soo-Lin, best friend of Audrey and a Microsoft admin who has transferred to work in Elgin’s department which sees a very dark storyline appear which involves unrequited love. Soo-Lin is lonely and gets caught up in various self-help groups which seem to speak only in acronyms – at the VSV she finds herself reading a WYP where she gets TORCHed.
It starts to appear that Bernadette becomes increasingly erratic, Elgin attempts to arrange an intervention to get Bernadette to realise that something must change as well as have her committed to a psychiatric facility. It doesn’t go according to plan, instead Bernadette escapes through a bathroom window with the aid of an unsuspecting ally and disappears and actually takes the Antarctica cruise.
In an effort to find closure, Bee and Elgin embark on the Antarctica cruise and start to piece together Bernadette’s last days unable to believe anything had actually happened. By then Bee and Algin have a relationship that has turned to almost hatred and misunderstanding so when they get on board they avoid each other. Although I understood Bee’s issues with sea sickness. Lots of people say it is mental, but then they have never suffered the complete and utter devastation that it brings. I was sailing from Punta Arenas in Chile to Ushuaia in Argentina to spend a lot of the trip under the complete daze of sea sickness tablets or just hanging on with nausea a constant companion. However, we did see quite a few cruise ships where people get off, all dressed the same, onto their zodiacs to travel a bay, take photos and head back, at least we had the flexibility to go swimming near glaciers and spend days wandering through remote and unbelievably harsh landscapes. We also saw how quickly the weather can change, from pleasant to a blizzard where visibility is at its minimum.
Bernadette does send a letter at the end of her cruise, but in true postal style it is misplaced and doesn’t reach Bee and if it had, it would certainly have solved a lot of problems and heartbreak. The story doesn’t push for Bernadette to change and come home to live happily ever after; it looks at what has changed around her that has seen her change from someone who created beautiful buildings to someone that lived in a broken down house. It isn’t just about a person, but more a look at society what expects the unachievable. Even funnier is the discourse about the Microsoft Corporation and how much it drains the creative geniuses and leaves you asking what is the truth. Plus there are some hilarious and witty outsider views on private schools, eco-culture and architectural fetishism. Not all is perfect though, we do find that Manjula isn’t all she purports to be – I think that is more of an important discussion in the day of identity theft.
Author Marie Semple isn’t knew to writing, she was a collaborative writer on shows like Arrested Development, Mad About You and Saturday Night Live. Find out more at First Tuesday Book Club. Where's You Go Bernadette was voted 19 in the BookPage top books for 2012 - do you agree? It has also been shortlisted for the 2013 Women's Prize for Fiction.
Mr Chen's Emporium by Deborah O'Brien
Read by Natalie September 2012
Natalie recommends as an old-fashioned story about love and finding yourself
This debut novel tells the story of seventeen year old Amy, who in 1872, is sent to the tiny Goldrush town of Millbrook to care for her pregnant mother and two younger brothers, while her father, the local clergyman, attends to the church. Taken from her comfortable and relatively free life in Sydney with her aunt, she spends her journey to Millbrook dreaming of cowboys and excitement, only to discover an isolated and dust filled town. Slotting back into her role as dutiful and obedient daughter, Amy both cares for her bed ridden mother and schools her two younger brothers. However, one day she stumbles across Mr Chen's Emporium, a veritable Aladdin's Cave right in the main street. Enchanted by both it's beautiful wares for sale and it's attractive and mysterious owner, Amy delights in several trips to the store before her father finds out and bans her from going. Amy however, is not to be deterred and through the help of Charles Chen's foster family, she continues to see him and eventually the two of them admit to their love for each other. Despite now being 18, Amy still requires her father's permission to marry, however with the help of a book she is currently reading (Aladdin), Amy and Charles concoct a plan to escape to Sydney and with her aunt's blessing, marry so they can officially be together. Retruning back to Millbrook as husband and wife, Amy is shocked at the treatment both she and her new husband receive from her father. Refusing to give up on her wonderful husband however, Amy settles into life as Mrs Chen and is excited to discover she is expecting their first child. However, just when she thinks life couldn't get any better, fate steps in with a tragedy that changes everything.
The novel also tells us a modern day story of recently widowed Angie, who on a trip away with girlfriends to the town of Millbrook, falls in love with a run down old house on the edge of town. Deciding a change will help her cope with the recent death of her much loved husband, Angie shocks her friends by agreeing to rent the house, with a possible view to buying it in a years time. As Angie slots into town life, providing painting lessons to a friendly group of women and becoming friends (and eventually more) with Jack, an American engineer trying to get a mine set up in the tiny town, she gradually starts to accept her husband's death and deal with her grief. But when her eccentric landlord Richard provides her with some treasures from the past, which feature both his and Angie's new house, she sets out to research a mystery young woman named Amy Duncan. As Angie continues with her clandestine affair with the married Jack, as well as her research into Amy, she gradually uncovers the secrets behind the clergyman's daughter and the mysterious Mr Chen, a man whose portrait she is drawn to in the town museum. Eventually piecing together their life, she is saddened to discover what Amy and Charles went through, but at the same time discovers she and Amy have more in common that she thought. As Angie decides to permanently make Millbrook her home, she discovers that not only has she finally come to terms with her grief, but there might be the spark of new love on the horizon.
For the most part, I did enjoy this book. The movements back and forth through time were well done and as they progressed you could really start to see the similarities between Amy and Angie's lives. This was particularly so when both of them began clandestine and perhaps taboo love affairs: Amy with a Chinaman and Angie with a married man blacklisted by the locals. In fact, I would say when these two relationships began is when the book really picked up. My main issues with the book however were firstly the language. For the most part this was extremely formal, which worked well for the scenes set in 1872 when one would assume people spoke and acted this way, but seemed very out of place in present day Millbrook. In addition to this, the writing was at times overly descriptive and bogged down with excessive detail on things which didn't really contribute to or advance the story and then rushed over segments that were crucial parts of the plot. Having said that, it was a relatively easy read and certainly a nice little story about two women finding themselves, it just wasn't the mysterious and life-affirming tale I thought it would be.
This book was kindly provided by Random House although that did not influence my review.
The Light Between Oceans by ML Stedman
Read by Natalie August 2012 (OurBookClub book pick of the month for September 2012)
Natalie recommends as a very moving look at the question; what’s right and what’s wrong
The Light Between Oceans has been longlisted for the Women's Prize for Fiction 2013.
In 1918, Tom Sherbourne, a WWI survivor, arrives in Point Partageuse to take over as the lighthouse keeper on Janus Rock, a remote island of the south coast of Western Australia. On his journey over, he rescues a woman on board his boat who is about to be attacked by a drunk soldier still reeling from the effects of fighting in a distant war, before stumbling across another young woman with a zest for life, when he first steps off the boat. After several years initially spent alone out on the rock, Tom finally agrees to marry Isabel, the woman who first brought a smile to his face when arrived in Point Partageuse. As the two of them return to Janus Rock to maintain the lighthouse and start a life together, Tom doesn’t think his life can get any better. However, two miscarriages and one stillbirth later and Isabel and Tom are despondent at the family that seems to continuously be taken away from them. Refusing to seek medical advice and wanting only to keep trying, Isabel can’t believe her luck when a boat washes ashore one morning carrying a dead man and a crying infant.
As the couple clash over the right thing to do, Isabel believes that all of their prayers have been answered, that this baby has been sent to them for a reason. Although Tom is meticulous and a stickler for the rules, his love for Isabel means just this once, he’s willing to break them. Failing to report the boat or the dead body, the couple bury the man and claim the child as their own. As Isabel instantly bonds with her new daughter, Tom struggles to reconcile himself with what he’s done. Yet baby Lucy slowly finds a way into his heart, opening something in him that the war had previously shut down. When the happy family eventually return home for a holiday however, things take a turn for the worse when they discover the background of their daughter, including the fact her mother is still alive and desperately searching for her in Point Partageuse. As Tom and Isabel argue over the best course of action, Tom is even more surprised to discover he has met Lucy’s mother long before these events ever took place.
Somehow convincing Tom to let it go, the family returns to Janus Rock, but not before a mysterious message is left for Lucy’s real mother, informing her that her daughter is still alive. Trying to get on with life and remain a happy family, Isabel, Tom and Lucy continue to live out at the rock, the child bringing them together, despite the questionable decision they made when she first came to them. Years later, on another trip home, Tom is still consumed with guilt at all they have done, particularly as he already feels he scored a second chance simply by surviving the war. When Isabel still refuses to reveal Lucy’s real identity, another clue is left in her mother’s letterbox and this is the catalyst for their lies to start unravelling. As the police are called in and Lucy is taken away to be reunited with her real family, both Tom and Isabel struggle with the fall-out. Tom, wanting only to do the right thing, is desperate to hang onto the wife he loves more than anything. Isabel however, is consumed with grief and hurt at Tom’s betrayal, so while Tom confesses and takes he blame for everything that happened, Isabel choses to do nothing, thus implicating Tom further. As the next few months play out, family bonds and friendships are tested, as everyone in this tiny town has their opinion on what really happened out at Janus Rock. Caught in the middle of it all is five year old Lucy, desperate to return to the people she sees and loves as her parents, yet forced to remain with a mother she has never known.
As Tom sits in gaol awaiting his trial and Isabel remains mute at what really happened, Lucy continues to question why she can’t return home to the lighthouse on Janus Rock. What happens next? Well that would be giving the story away, but suffice to say, it wouldn’t matter what did happen, because someone was always going to lose here. This was a beautifully written and incredibly moving story that looks at the consequences of a single decision made with the best of intentions. Examining loyalty, choices and above all love; between both a husband and wife and a parent and child, Stedman’s narrative weaves in the surrounding landscape, particularly the ocean as a beautiful metaphor for so much of the story’s characters and their emotions. Despite everything Tom and Isabel had done, keeping their child from her true mother, I felt incredibly sorry for both of them, particularly by the end. The love between the two of them was beautiful and despite everything they had gone through and done to each other, I’m glad that in the end, that was the one decision they eventually both got right. A gorgeous story that will leave you wondering if right and wrong aren’t sometimes the same thing. Perhaps keep some tissues handy too.
This book was very generously given to me by Random House Australia, although that in no way influenced my review.
Listen to a discussion on the book at First Tuesday Book Club. The Light Between Oceans also won the 2012 Goodreads Choice Award for best historical fiction and was voted second in the BookPage best books of 2012.
Pushing the Limits by Katie McGarry
Read by Natalie August 2012
Natalie recommends as a gritty little read
Echo Emerson used to be a popular girl, dating the basketball star and a member of the cheerleading squad. Now she’s a loner, shunned by most of her friends and covered in scars from a night she has no memory of. Forced into counselling by her strict, yet absent father and evil step-mother/former babysitter, she misses both her brother, who was recently killed in Afghanistan and her mother who is blocked by a restraining order from seeing Echo. Desperate to fix the car her brother left her and still wanting to see her mum and uncover the truth about that night, the truth her father and this new councillor are keeping from her, Echo doesn’t think anyone can help her, especially when so many have failed in the past.
Noah Hutchins is the pot-smoking bad boy, more famous for his long list of one-night stands than anything else. Yet underneath the tough exterior is a man still reeling from the death of his parents two years ago and the forced separation from his two younger brothers. Now living in a dysfunctional foster home with two other outcasts, his only contact with his remaining family is through monthly supervised visits. Forced by the State and his school to also undergo counselling, he’s determined not to let the latest shrink inside his head, preferring instead to figure out things on his own, including how to get his brothers back.
When Echo and Noah are forced together by Dr Collins, they initially judge and ignore the other. However, the two of them eventually realise they have more in common than either of them thought. Initially united by their common desire to get inside the file Dr Collins keeps on each of them – Echo so she find out the truth about what happened to her and Noah so he can find out the address of his brother’s foster parents and prove they are bad people, like the ones he’s had to endure. However as their plans continue to fail, Noah and Echo recognise the pain each other is suffering and somehow find a deeper way to connect. They also both discover someone to talk to, someone who’ll listen to them and more importantly, someone who understands exactly what they are going through. As their friendship gradually turns to love they both come to life with the knowledge that someone truly cares for them. However as Echo’s memories continue to stay repressed and Noah fights harder for custody of his brothers, Echo wonders how their relationship will affect Noah’s court hearing. Breaking off with him, leaving both of them devastated, Echo finally finds some strength, telling her former friends what she really thinks of them, no longer hiding her scars from the world and searching for her mum to finally learn the truth. However when a series of incidents cause the cracks in her mind to widen, Echo falls apart and Noah, who has finally realised his brothers are safe and love their foster parents, abandons his custody case and sets out to get Echo back. When all of the secrets are revealed, including the truth about Echo’s mum and the real reason Noah fought so hard for his brothers, the two of them get back together and find a new kind of normal together.
Told alternate POV from both Echo and Noah, I did really enjoy this book and think the author did a very good job creating distinct voices for the two protagonists. The gradual build-up in the relationship between the two of them was a nice change, and the scenes which showed them revealing their scars and personal demons to each other felt very believable. The story was intensely sad, particularly what the two of them had gone through in life. Both were abandoned by all the people who should have cared for, loved and protected them and this was the common thread that ultimately brought them together. The story of Echo’s mum was absolutely heart wrenching, as was the truth about Noah’s parents death. I did think the ending was a little too rushed (although not neatly all wrapped up - which is a good thing) and while I didn’t like Echo’s continual need to feel loved and fit in with her former friends, the very people who shunned her after what happened, seeing her family life does make you understand why she craved it. The main thing I thought was out of place was the sex! Given how dark this novel was, touching on abuse, neglect, drugs, alcohol and murder/suicide, I did find it odd that the author shunned away from the sex. Yes ok, Echo was a virgin and didn’t want to rush into it, and yes Noah despite being a womaniser found that his love for Echo meant he would wait, but that they got all the way to the end and their big road trip without doing it....nope, just didn’t fit in my mind! The book has a number of secondary characters who are all good, particularly Echo’s only friend Lila and Noah’s foster brother Isaiah. Whether Dr Collins could ever really exist is up for debate, but lets hope so! Overall, a really interesting read that was quite dark and sad in places. The follow-up story Dare You To, featuring Beth, Noah’s foster sister is out in 2013.
Revived by Cat Patrick
Read by Natalie August 2012
Natalie recommends as part sci-fi, part romance
Daisy is 15 years old and has already died 5 times. Part of a top secret government program, Daisy was one of the original test subjects for Revive, a new drug that has the ability to bring people back to life. Only four years old and already an orphan when the bus she was in crashed into a frozen river, Daisy was one of 21 passengers on board for whom Revive worked. Now living with two agents, Cassie and Mason, who pose as her parents, Daisy is forced to live a lie and relocate every time something happens to her and she has to be Revived. At first not questioning the situation she has found herself in, believing the director of the program, affectionately known as God, knows what he is doing, Daisy goes along with Mason and Cassie’s (known as Disciples) plans, all the while knowing that her only true friends are fellow bus crash survivors (known as Converts). However, when her latest death (from a bee sting) means the “family” has to once again relocate, Daisy finds herself in Omaha, Nebraska. Deciding to actually try and have a life in this tiny town, she manages to make friends on her first day at school with the beautiful Audrey. Adding to that is the gorgeous boy, Matt, who sits in her English class, and things are finally looking up, despite the lies she is forced to tell on a daily basis. However when Daisy discovers that her new best friend has terminal cancer, she starts to question what death really means. So used to taking risks, knowing she can always be brought back, Daisy has never really questioned the finality of death. Now faced with losing her first best friend outside the program, and desperate for a way to save her, Daisy begs Mason to let Audrey try Revive. When Mason refuses, explaining that it’s never worked on bodies that are already damaged, Daisy is devastated. Seeking solace in her growing relationship with Matt, who is actually Audrey’s brother and so understands exactly how she is feeling; Daisy finally decides to break the rules and tell him the truth about her. As Matt accepts her for who she is, he also asks the ultimate question – while Daisy get some Revive for Audrey. Despite knowing it won’t work, Daisy’s increasing antagonism towards the program she is a part of, forces her to take a risk, stealing some Revive for Matt to give to Audrey, who now lies in a coma in hospital on the brink of death. When Revive fails to work for Audrey, things take an even bigger turn for the worse when Matt pulls away from her and Daisy is left with survivor’s guilt. Throw in a hidden Revive case, some unexpected discoveries and a couple of rogue agents, and the future of the Revive program as well as the lives of everyone associated with it, are at risk. As Daisy finds herself caught in a trap, she struggles to survive, at the same time discovering the enemy is closer to home than she ever imagined, but also that Matt hasn’t let go of her. When the truth about the program is finally revealed, Daisy is once again faced with another move and another new identity. Can she finally find a life for herself and will the love between her and Matt survive?
This was a really interesting concept and definitely a book I was keen to get my hands on, having loved Cat’s first novel, Forgotten. I did really enjoy this book, as it had some interesting observations of life and death, and while the science behind Revive was intriguing and “sort-of” plausible, my biggest issue was with the age of our protagonist. Yes I get that Daisy had been a part of the program her whole life and that Mason was always open and honest with her, treating her like an adult. But it still doesn’t make it completely believable that Daisy could possibly be that mature, that accepting and that able to fall so deeply (and quickly) in love. On the flipside of this, Daisy also managed to be far too trusting, giving up her secret to Matt within days of their first kiss and somewhat stupid with her phone calls and texting, given the situation she found herself in. I just felt if the characters been in their late teens, then it would have added a little more weight to the novel. However, that aside, this was a great little read that throws a different spin on the YA romance novel.
The Sisters Brothers by Patrick DeWitt
Read by Natalie July 2012
Natalie recommends as an entertaining, funny and quirky little western
Eli and Charlie Sisters are notorious gun-slingers in 1850s America. Sent by the Commodore, a mysterious, but powerful man they work for, from their home town of Oregon to California to recover from Hermman Kermit Warm, something that he may or may not have stolen. As the brothers set out on the journey, Eli admits to being tired of their line of work. Longing to settle down in a comfortable town, preferably with a woman, he knows he’s going to have a hard time convincing is brother they should quit, particularly as Charlie, the greedier and more violent of the two, has been given the role of “lead man” on this latest job. As the two of them set out across country, they encounter any number of quirky and memorable characters, including; the inconsolable man walking with his horse, the young boy who continues to be hit on the head by everyone he meets, the dentist Dr Robinson who introduces Eli to the marvel of brushing his teeth, a mysterious witch woman who may have placed a curse on Eli, the hotel proprietor Mayfield and finally Mr Warm himself. In amongst this are the trials and tribulations of Eli’s poor horse Tub, who he only has after his former horse was burnt in barn fire. When the brothers finally reach California, right at the height of the Gold Rush, they are shocked to discover their scout, Morris, has abandoned his post and gone to work for Warm. As the brothers seek information on the traitor, they not only discover that Warm has invented a means to easily find the gold that lies hidden in the California rivers, but that he hasn’t stolen anything from the Commodore, in fact it was the other way around. Finally reaching the camp that Warm and Morris have set up for themselves, Eli and Charlie convince them that they too have quit working for the Commodore and if they can help in the search for gold, they promise not to harm Warm and Morris. However, when Warm’s mysterious formula for finding gold proves toxic for both him and Morris, the brothers are left with it all. But in a twist of karmic fate, they are set upon by a tribe of Indians who steal it all back. Setting off back home, the brothers soon discover their hidden stash in Mayfield’s hotel is gone, as is all the savings hidden in their home back in Oregon. With nothing else left, and Charlie now missing his hand, Eli sneaks in and murders their boss and both brothers head home to their mother.
This was a really quirky little read, that is full of some great dialogue and humour. Narrated entirely by Eli, the younger and more moralistic of the two brothers, I felt like I really got to know them both on their journey across America. While none of the twists in the story were particularly shocking, nor was there any tension in their lead up, I really enjoyed the tale. Although, perhaps a tiny bit rushed in its conclusion, this was easily overlooked as the writing was fabulous and it has one of the coolest covers around. Shortlisted for the 2011 Man Booker, this is DeWitt’s second novel.
Gold by Chris Cleave
Read by Tracy in July 2012
Tracy recommends for those that love cycling, sport, love stories and friendship
Gold is the newest book by Chris Cleave and is particularly poignant at the moment with the 2012 Olympic Games just commencing in London. OurBookClub thoroughly enjoyed one of Cleave’s previous books Little Bee. Similar to Little Bee, Gold focuses on two female characters.
The underlying question to Gold is: what does it take to reach the pinnacle of your career? The Elite Prospects Program held in Manchester, England run by Tom sees the introduction of 19 year olds Zoe, Kate and Jack to the world of first class cycling. They are all the best that Great Britain has to offer in their age ranges. Jack is an irresistible charmer with a roguish air. Kate is a romantic at heart and too trusting of those around her. Zoe is troubled and focuses on only one thing – winning. The story progresses to Athens (2004) which sees both Zoe and Jack take gold in their respective cycling events. Kate is at home in London with baby Sophie. We then race to the Beijing Olympics (2008) which sees Kate, Zoe and Jack at the peak of their training, but when Sophie is taken ill and diagnosed with Leukaemia she promptly returns to England, but Jack falters under the pressure and doesn’t win. Now the focus is on the London Olympics (2012) where we are currently three months out from the event. During this time there have been many ups and downs within the dynamics of this small group; Kate and Jack are married, Kate and Zoe are best friends, Tom is still coach to Kate and Zoe, Zoe and Jack have had an affair, Tom is racked with pain as his body finally succumbs to years of overtraining and Sophie’s cancer has returned.
There are two story lines in the book that really added depth to the characters. The story of Tom is fascinating. He too was a world class cyclist but missed out on Olympic Bronze (1968) by a 10th of a second which subsequently saw his family destroyed; now having no contact with his son after a horrific training incident which saw Tom lose his front teeth. Then there is the story of 8 year old Sophie who is under the thrall of Star Wars, but also finds herself wracked with guilt as she tries to avoid being a burden to her parents and desperate for her mother to finally win a gold medal. She narrates her own sections as if she was one of the rebel alliance and measures her actions in which way will cause her parents the least stress.
As the story progresses we learn what makes these three cyclists who they are today and the demons that keep them racing forward. Throughout everything the group have been through, Zoe is the character that has least changed. She is still psychotically obsessed with winning at all costs, messing with her competitors minds (including Kate) to gain the advantage. The story did lack subsidiary characters. We weren’t introduced to any other cyclists or coaches which did tend to reduce some of the commitment of the central characters. However, I think Cleave made up for this with some fantastic scenes at the Velodrome and also out on the road.
It is a fascinating book and almost captures the sweat, blood and tears of competing at the top level. There are a few gaps that seem to have been neatly filled in post-editing with too much Kate loves Jack, Jack loves Kate, Zoe might love Jack, Tom might love Zoe etc. Of course in the end I desperately wanted Kate to do something other than being perfect, surely not everyone can be nice, kind-hearted and in love with their fellow competitors, there has to be some form of anger that pushes you further forward?
In the end there is a rule twist which sees only one female rider being able to represent Great Britain, so Zoe and Kate must face off in a “best of three” race. This reduction in races is due to sponsors and advertising space – strangely funny as last night watching the Men’s’ Road race for the 2012 Olympics, it was so frustrating that the coverage of ad breaks, crossovers to other events and pointless interviews with previous winners of other events spoilt the flow of the race.
What I found fascinating is that with all the competition, Kate and Zoe needed each other on a personal level even more than as competitors. It kept me up late and had me reaching for tissues at the end. With the current 2012 London Olympics and the rivalry between Anna Meares and Victoria Pendleton, I can only think that behind the scenes they kick back and maybe have a friendship that can lift them to the next level of competition.
All That I Am by Anna Funder
Read by Tracy in July 2012
Tracy recommends for those historical fiction enthusiasts
Anna Funder seems to have won every award going for All That I Am so with extremely high expectations I started reading it. This book took me ages to get into it, and even then I struggled as I couldn’t quite become as absorbed as I expected – did I place too many high hopes on it? I had not read Funders’ earlier non-fiction book Stasiland (2002) which won the Samuel Johnson prize in 2004. Stasiland was a collection of accounts of life in the former East Germany as related by both victims and perpetrators of the regime.
Although a work of fiction All That I Am is based on Funder’s relationship with a surviving dissident Ruth Wesemann (nee Blatt), who lived with Funder, in Sydney, for the last decades of her life. What I don’t understand is why Funder didn’t write this is a memoir or biography, however, it does fall nicely into the historical fiction genre now forging ahead and I am increasingly enjoying this genre to piece together history and stories. All That I Am focuses on a group of German dissidents during Hitler’s rise to power and then their subsequent attempts to flee 1933 Germany and start new lives in London. The story starts in 2001 when Ruth receives a copy of Ernst Toller’s autobiography, I Was A German which had been unearthed in a condemned New York Hotel (The Mayflower). Ruth and Ernst are linked through Ruth’s cousin, Dora Fabian who was Ernst’s lover. In her old age, Ruth has become belligerent and now refers her herself as Doctor Becker finding that with increasing age the humility suits her less and decided she didn’t want to be treated like an old woman. She reverts back to memories when a manuscript arrives, a copy of. On reviewing the amendments to the manuscript, Ruth finds that they give life to Dora, who previously Ernst had excised from his official account. The book subsequently changes narration between Ruth and Ernst.
Ruth and Dora are both middle-class, educated women who find themselves amongst a close knit group (including the famous playwright and ex-Bavarian president Ernst) resisting the rise of Hitler’s National Socialist Party and attempting to circumvent the rise of totalitarianism through writing, however, their ideals are soon challenged and they find themselves outside of their comfort zones. Ruth marries the untrustworthy and ultimately treacherous journalist, Hans Wesemann. I got the impression that although they both wanted the same outcome, it was Dora who was willing to risk everything for independence. Dora balanced on a tight wire in trying to help her friends escape the clutches of Hitler and even put her life on the line to save the writing of Toller. When the Reichstag fire sees Hitler to take over control of Germany, the group must flee, finding themselves isolated and living a bleak existence in London, constantly under surveillance by the Gestapo which leads the group to implode and their secrets betrayed. England does not offer respite as they find themselves under risk of being returned to Germany and instant persecution. It is a fine line to try and draw the world’s attention to the dangers of Hitler and the atrocities already perpetrated and being caught between Germany and an England desperately trying to please Germany and avoid a war.
All That I Am does highlight that there were groups within Germany who stood up to Hitler and his rise, trying to pre-empt the shape of a Germany under Nazism with the slow erosion of freedom, individuality and country. I think it is relatively unusual for a book to write about the pre-war years from a German perspective other than the usual chronology of dates. Although there have been two books lately that have highlighted the individual plight of those Alone in Berlin by Hans Fallada and Half Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan trapped in a country that offers no freedom of speech.
Read more on Anna Funder’s website.
Paris Trance by Geoff Dyer
Read by Natalie in July 2012
Natalie recommends as interesting and unusual
I only came across Geoff Dyer at the Sydney Writer’s Festival and to be honest when I picked up this book I was completely surprised that it was written by him. Having seen him talk at several sessions, the impression I’d formed of him was nothing like how I would picture the author of this book. Guess it’s not just the book that you shouldn’t judge by its cover. Paris Trance is the story of four people, two couples, and all foreigners who are living in Paris and trying to find themselves. Both Luke and Alex are British, while Nicole is from Belgrade and Sahra is American. As Luke struggles to make friends when he first arrives in the city, he eventually meets Alex through his new job, then Nicole and finally Sahra. As Luke and Nicole very quickly embark on a passionate and sex-filled affair, Alex and Sahra dance around each other, until finally they find their connection. As the two couples then spend all of their time together; drinking, taking drugs, dancing and having plenty of sex, life feels like it can’t get any better. Spending Christmas in the countryside and summer fixing up a friend’s house near the coast, the four of them revel in the simple pleasures of their life. As Luke and Nicole fall more and more in love, so to do Alex and Sahra, despite an underlying attraction that Alex has for Nicole, as well as an almost obsessive friendship with Luke.
The story is told to us as a recounting of a memory and often changes from first to third POV within the space of a sentence. At first a little jarring, I quickly worked out that Alex was in fact our narrator and when discussing the present he was in the first POV and when he talked about himself in the past, it was in the third POV. It was effective and clever but did take some getting used to. The story also gives several hints to the ending, which is alluded to as a crashing low, and then about two thirds of the way through, Alex gives away the ending, even taking us briefly to the present, some eight years after the events in Paris took place. After this brief interlude, we are then thrown back into the past and happier times and the memory continues until it finishes on an acid trip where the two couples are happy and still together. I liked the book ending like this, because the reader is left in happier times, thinking they will stay that way, even though we know from Alex that things don’t at all, particularly for Luke and Nicole. What we don’t learn is why things fell apart, particularly for the couple who seemed so completely in love with each other. In fact, it’s Alex and Sahra, who lack the intense connection, that actually survive.
This was certainly an interesting, although somewhat unusual read. Full of drugs, drinking and sex, most of which is written very bluntly and honestly, it is also a beautiful story of romance and friendship, with some interesting observations on life and some great moments of humour. I’m glad I stumbled across this author and I will certainly read more of his work.
The Invisible Circus by Jennifer Egan
Read by Tracy in July 2012
Tracy recommends as a fascinating look at grief and the depths some go to avoid it
I am a huge fan of Jennifer Egan – loving A Visit From The Goon Squad and Look At Me, so when I came across this, her first book, I eagerly devoured it. The Invisible Circus was initially published in 1995 and recently re-released due to her popularity.
Starting in 1976 San Francisco, 18 year old Phoebe O’Connor is at a loose end after graduating. Ever since her sister Faith, had committed suicide (in 1970), Phoebe had been aimlessly drifting through life – longing for life to reach out and grab her, but afraid to change anything. She spends most of her time watching TV with her mother gradually losing contact with her friends, drifting invisibly. Constantly relapsing into her past and the idolised relationship she has built around her deceased father and sister, Faith, both of whose death she has not understood or grasped. Phoebe has built an incredibly close and cloying relationship with her mother, Gail, so when Phoebe sees that her mother is moving on, instead of realising the same, she instead tries to force things stay the same. Gail has managed to compartmentalise the deaths of Faith and her husband and although in a rut, she acknowledges it and wants to start living life again. Faith and her father’s relationship was very strange – he idolised her and when he died, it was a catalyst for Faith to follow a self-destructive path pursuing Sixties radicalism. Their father left Faith, Barry and Phoebe $5000 each, so they could pursue and live life to the full. Barry subsequently turned it into a million dollar software company through some very good investments and Faith went off to see Europe. Now that Phoebe is old enough to appreciate the freedom the money could provide, it takes her mother and brother’s heart to heart conversations and a knee-jerk reaction to seeing her mother kiss her boss Jack, for her to use the money.
When Barry gives Gail some vouchers for a make-over on her birthday; Gail also thinks the time has come to sell the family home which sends Phoebe into a spiral of despair. She tries to force her force her mother into reverting back to their hum-drum life, Phoebe is racked with guilt as she has failed to make herself interesting enough to keep her mother’s attention. At this stage I really questioned the family dynamics, neither her mother, brother nor grandparents seem to have understood that Phoebe was struggling with her understanding of grief and death. Eventually Phoebe leaves a note for her mother and boards a plane to Europe to find out what happened to her sister. She plans to follow her sister’s footsteps through Europe via postcards that Faith sent on a daily basis as a travel guide.
Just after she arrives in London, her introduction to sightseeing sees her introduced to terrorism, which at this time was unknown in America, but something that was part of everyday life in London. I remember many a night waiting hours and hours for a train that had an unidentified package on it; of course there were also the few occasions I travelled to work to find part of my office block or another building nearby missing. But with the usual stoicism the British just vacate where they have been told, disappearing back into their lives. She eventually travels to Munich to deliver a joint from a friend of her sister’s in American to his cousin in Munich and falls under the spell of “Wolf”, Faith’s last boyfriend. Wolf (or Sebastian as he is now known) has moved on with his life and is now engaged to Carla, but it is soon apparent that he has unresolved issues about Faith, her death and there is something he can’t let go of. Soon Wolf and Phoebe are hitting the road heading towards Italy and the site of Faith’s suicide. Surrounded by so much beauty in their surroundings (I can vouch for the spectacular scenery, sometimes it just became exhausting) the inevitable happens and an illicit and passionate affair starts. Of course this also allows them to ignore and talk about their real feelings, instead being caught up in their explorations of each other. After reading the Fifty Shades trilogy and Destined to Play in the last few weeks, Egan certainly doesn’t let the female erotica genre down with a few steamy scenes. As they continue travelling, Wolf gradually starts to let Phoebe know what Faith was really like and had become involved in from violent youth movements to terrorist groups. Seemingly unaware or unknowing what her actions could cause.
Phoebe’s trip around Europe should have given her an idea of herself, but I didn’t feel that she ever really understood her issues and if anything she was probably suffering some very real mental illness. Undoubtedly the emotional trauma of her family past at such a young age affected her ability to maintain a real relationship. Phoebe finally realises that when her sister committed suicide, she had in fact killed them both, but she could take this new knowledge and start to live. Phoebe seemed to lurch from one incident to another in her trip, with several situations becoming downright scary, if not psychotic, but Phoebe never acknowledged the danger she was in. That aside, Egan has created some real characters, all suffering, but unable to come together and share their grief. Even when Phoebe finally returned to her home town, initially trying to fit in and make up for the hurt she caused, underneath she still can’t help herself wanting to be the centre of attention. I also loved the timing of this book - it seems like a lifetime ago when the Sony Walkman arrived on the scene.
Refer to Jennifer Egan’s website for more details of The Invisible Circus and her other books. There is also a film of The Invisible Circus starring Cameron Diaz (Faith), Jordana Brewster (Phoebe), Gail (Blythe Danner).
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.
The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker
Read by Tracy July 2012
Tracy recommends as a glimpse of what could happen
It was, at the beginning, a quite invisible catastrophe as the quote on the front page of the book says. I am a lover of post-apocalyptic novels, I always feel that nature will try and rectify all the damage we have inflicted on her. The Age of Miracles describes a calamity that is sudden and inexplicable, but it does make you stop and think, that the looming environmental catastrophe is something man-made and not exactly sudden, it is also something that is avoidable, if most people could stop thinking in the short term and about themselves that is.
6 October is an auspicious day, it is the day the experts go public. This is the day that we are told about the change, the earth's orbit has slowed and that's what it is known as from then on. The slowing doesn't appear to be anything in the beginning, hardly perceptible, most people don't even realise anything has changed until the press conference is televised. From then on each day lengthens and immediately the doomsayers step forward in droves and people expect the end of the world. We see a sudden rush on the stores where people's neurosis come to the fore and quickly turn to hysteria, the shops are emptied and the freeways clog with people escaping. To try and bring some order, governments agree to stay with the 24 hour clock, which throws day and night out of sync. This causes a rift within the community - those that want to continue living by the Earth’s movements (“real-timers”) and those that abide by the old 24 hour clock and government sanctions (“clock-timers”). This is not a disaster novel - there is no natural catastrophe that immediately wipes out the majority of the planet, instead it is something small and imperceptible that gradually increases. The book is set in southern California and narrated by sixth grader, 11 year old Julia, who articulates the more realistic changes within her community, the changes to her family and her neighbours and how this impacts on her childhood. There are several interesting characters - Sylvia, the neighbour who gives piano lessons, argues that we have been poisoning the planet and its creatures for years and now we're finally paying for it, alas she is one of the "real-timers". We see neighbours turn against each other as they struggle to find their place in the changed time zones. Soon the clock-timers ostracize the real-timers forcing them to leave their homes - so much for neighbourliness. Although I would argue this is how environmentalists must feel whenever they voice their opinions and concerns about our treatment of earth. The story also highlights that no matter what there are winners and losers, there are always the groups of people that can make money from the paranoid public. Julie struggles to be heard and for someone that was always on the periphery she struggles to keep her foothold in her own world. She finds it difficult to keep up with her changing friendships and raging hormones. Julia's parents are also drawn onto the differing sides of the argument - her father believes what will happen will happen and her mother is full of nervousness and panic, frantically filling all the spare space in the house with rations.
Gradually it appears that earth is destroying itself and everything in it. The birds fall from the sky and die (both wild and captive), flora disappears in such a fast way, that soon all you see are gardens made with artificial turf that even gives off the smell of fresh grass. Eventually the wheat point is reached, where wheat can no longer grow in its natural surrounds, instead all food is grown in giant glasshouses lit with artificial light. This brings its own issues with the rationing of electricity as the majority of power is focused on food production. There are also the health issues with "gravity syndrome" which is a harrowing physical and mental illness. No matter what the scientists try, nothing seems to reduce the length of the days or reduce any of the impacts.
This could be a wishy washy novel, but it doesn't dissolve into hysteria, Julia keeps us grounded and we feel her heartache over trying to battle her changing environment and her own adolescence. I enjoyed the pace of the book, it wasn't all action, instead each page held some new problem to be overcome; it was almost melancholy in its thoughts. Although narrated by an 11 year old, the book bridges the gap to the older reader, because a 20 year old Julia also has a voice and imparts her comments into the story when she narrates the events that changed her life forever. Negatives was the rushed ending - all too perfect.
Paper Towns by John Green
Read by Natalie in July 2012
Natalie recommends as half a good book and half a boring book
I had high expectations for this book, having read and enjoyed two of John’s previous novels; Looking for Alaska and The Fault in our Stars. Unfortunately those expectations were not met and this book felt like a drawn out, rehashed version of Looking for Alaska. You know, the same enigmatic, yet unattainable cool girl who the slightly dorky, but nonetheless cool if you just got to know him, boy has been in love with his whole life. Throw in the hilariously witty, yet insanely smart conversations between the friends who are routinely picked on at school and ignored by most, including aforementioned cool girl. Yep, ditto for this book. Quentin and Margo have grown up living next door to each other. Despite being friends as kids, including sharing the discovery of a dead body in their neighbourhood park when they were ten, they haven’t really spoken for the past 9 years. Then, two weeks shy of their high school graduation, Margo shows up at Quentin’s window, dressed as a ninja and requesting his presence (and his car) for a night of fun and revenge. Quentin, despite being basically ignored by this girl, agrees, believing this is his chance with her. As their night of fun and payback ensues, Quentin starts to discover that actually he didn’t know Margo as well as he thought he did, that the girl she is portrayed as at school, is in fact nothing like the girl she really is. Breaking out of his own “play safe” persona, Quentin finally feels like he and Margo are friends again, but when their night ends and Margo doesn’t show up at school the following day, he is actually left wondering where she is.
Margo has habitually vanished. Never for more than a few days, she usually leaves clues about her disappearance, most of which were never investigated before showing back up again. This time however, it seems permanent and between her frustrated parents finally giving up on her, the fact that at 18 she is now legally allowed to leave and her friends still reeling from her last night of revenge, no one is interested in finding her. But then Quentin starts to discover little clues that appear to have been left just for him and as he calls in the help of his friends, he begins the slow and painful process of trying to work out where Margo has gone. As the clues start to point towards her suicide, Quentin’s despair and desperation become apparent, until a cryptic online entry from a tiny “paper town” in New York state, suggests otherwise. With the help of his new graduation present and his friends, Quentin sets off on a 19 hour journey to find Margo, believing he has finally solved all the clues she has been leaving for him. However, when he arrives at the destination, he is surprised to discover that Margo doesn’t actually want to be found. When she left, she really left and she has no desire to go back. Frustrated and angry at everything she has done to both him and her friends, Quentin finally realises the dream Margo he created in his head is nothing like the Margo from school or in fact the real Margo. As the two of them fight, then talk about their childhood, about Margo leaving and the future, they both learn more about each other and in doing so, reach a new level of understanding.
I have to say, the initial premise of this book was really interesting and there were definitely parts I enjoyed. These were mainly the night of revenge that Margo and Quentin went on, and the dialogue between Quentin and his friends Radar and Ben. There were times when I laughed out loud at some of their shenanigans and conversations. Unfortunately this also contributed to one of two problems I had with the book. First, 17 year old boys just don’t talk like that – ever. I don’t care how cool and sophisticated they are, they just don’t. Secondly, Margo. I had major issues with her character. I didn’t fully understand her reasons for leaving and staying away, possibly because her character just wasn’t developed enough as we only saw her through Quentin’s eyes. She was also annoyingly full of herself and her reaction to Quentin showing up, after all the little clues she had left him, just felt over the top and ridiculous. Overall, I thought the first half of this book was enjoyable and certainly kept me turning the pages, wondering what had happened to Margo. Unfortunately by the second half, I just didn’t care anymore.
Untold Story by Monica Ali
Read by Tracy July 2012
Tracy recommends as an interesing idea but lacking the cutting edge humour of previous books
Untold Story is Monica Ali's fourth book. I have previously reviewed Alentejo Blue, Brick Lane which I loved and was also a Booker-shortlisted bestseller and In The Kitchen, so I was very excited to have this one delivered.
Like most people, I remember watching the pageantry of Diana's fairy-tale wedding to Prince Charles and many years later the bitter divorce. Then came her tragic death sixteen years later – I had just finished the Perth City to Surf and heard it on the radio on the way home. Life most people, I didn't know her, but still shed a tear watching her funeral cortege and for what she had represented in my youth. Enter Untold Story where Ali muses, what if Princess Diana had not died, instead faking her own death and living under an assumed name (Lydia Snaresbrook) in America in an effort to flee her intolerable life. The story is told through a variety of mediums, letters to Lawrence Standing (her private secretary), Lawrence’s' subsequent diary and finally narrated by Lydia herself.
The book starts in 2007 and Lydia is now a dark haired woman in her mid-forties. She is not married and to all intents and purposes is childless. She has spent the last decade moving from town to town in America, trying to fit in and it isn’t until she arrives in Kensington, Midwestern America, that she feels settled. As in Diana’s life, Lydia is still faced with constant issues from bulimia to nerve wracking insecurities. Lydia now lives a routine filled life, volunteering at the Kensington Canine Sanctuary, has a small circle of friends and even an on-again, off-again boyfriend, Carson. Her friends all realise that her past is steeped in mystery, she has talked about her controlling husband, lack of intellect and her need to escape from her past, but nobody knows who she really is.
Enter paparazzi, John "Grabber" Grabowski, who is passing through town as he works on a book about the 10th anniversary of Diana's death, collating some never seen before photographs with snippets of gossip. Initially Grabber sees Lydia talking to his Bed & Breakfast proprietor and feels attracted to her, but after viewing a photograph where he sees her eyes, he realises that she is not who she claims to be. Tragically, Lydia had stopped wearing her contact lenses when she settled in Kensington, presuming nobody would recognise her after her plastic surgeries. Of course Grabber had been one of the most persistent paparazzi in her life and had photographed her constantly through her royal life. He starts to follow her and try to uncover some tangible evidence or link back to who he presumes her to be. He even tries to ingratiate himself into her friends lives, asking subtle questions and attempting to draw them out, what he doesn't realise is that they don't know anything about her past.
The book lacks of the insightfulness of Brick Lane but there are still some interesting insights into American life with Ali highlighting that it has become imperative for mothers to make their children attend tap lessons, singing lessons, ballet class because it is so competitive - or is it really the parents living too much through their children? I don’t think this is just the American life, it is everywhere, where children don’t seem to have the freedom older generations did and life has become competitive from even before they are conceived.
As Grabowski starts to fantasise how he will sell the story and the impact his news will have on, not just his own broken down life, but on his bank balance, he does not even stop and think about the impact it will have on Diana/Lydia and her family. One thing that Grabowski never uncovers is how Lydia came into being, he realises she can't have done it all herself, but he never uncovered the assistance that Lawrence Standing provided. Of course Lawrence's story is the most interesting, everything he did was out of duty and love for Diana until his deathbed. As Grabowski closes in on Lydia, Lydia herself mentally starts to return again and again to her old life, following her children through magazine articles, of course pictured by the same paparazzi that were part of the cause of her fleeing - along with the mental breakdown over her love affairs and the cruelty of the royal family. Lydia is finally faced with the decision - flee and start another life again, go back to her old life, or overcome her aloofness and ask for help. It all comes down to Lydia’s ability to outsmart Grabowski.
Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn
Read by Natalie June 2012 (OurBookClub book pick of the month for July 2012)
Natalie recommends as a darkly disturbing look at whether one truly ever knows who they are married to.
Gone Girl has been longlisted for the Women's Prize for Fiction 2013. This book popped into my email inbox via an upcoming book release newsletter and immediately grabbed my attention. When I actually received the book in the post, I was even more excited at both the utterly fabulous packaging (black cover, black lined pages - gorgeous), but also the recommend label stuck right on the front by one of my favourite authors, Kate Atkinson. I immediately dived in and can honestly say loved it from the outset; the acerbic wit, the excellent writing and the insanely good plot; it had it all. There’s a great review on the back that describes it as though “author Gillian Flynn has mixed us a martini using battery acid instead of vermouth and somehow managed to make it taste really, really good.” Yep, that about sums it up. So, what’s it all about?
In part one, Nick Dunne is an out of work New York writer who has found himself at home in Missouri looking after his elderly parents and trying a new career running a bar with his twin sister Margo (Go for short). On the morning of his fifth wedding anniversary, he wakes up with complete and utter disgust for his wife, Amy, who is currently making him breakfast downstairs in their kitchen. Unable to bring himself to feel anything for her, he leaves for work where he cryptically arrives late. After spending the afternoon working with and talking to his sister, including about what to buy for his wife (absolutely HILARIOUS suggestion from Go for her idea on the traditional 5th year wood present), he is called back home where he discovers his front door open, the living room in disarray, the iron on and his wife missing. Immediately suspecting something bad has happened to her, he calls the cops and the investigation into her disappearance begins. Interspersed with Nick’s accounts of the day of her disappearance and some of his memories of their time in New York and how they wound up in Carthage, Missouri; are Amy’s diary entries. What initially start off as wonderful, praising recounts of her first meeting with Nick, their courtship and the early years of their marriage, quickly disintegrate into revelations of Nick’s seeming lack of interest in his wife, his anger towards everything, his apathy for caring for both his dying mother and demented father and his possible abuse of Amy. As the days following Amy’s disappearance progress, Nick too starts to reveal things to the reader, including; the affair he was having with one of his college students, his frustrations with his marriage; his anger towards Amy who over the years changed from carefree woman to withdrawn stranger; and his fears over what has happened to her. While Amy starts to look more and more like an abused and neglected wife who was so scared she felt the need to try and get herself a gun, Nick starts to look more and more guilty. While I personally didn’t think Nick could have killed her, the evidence was mounting; even before Amy’s financially strapped parents, a childhood stalker and a crazy college boyfriend are also thrown into the mix. He just didn’t seem like that type of personality, if anything he was too lazy! So my next thoughts were that Amy had faked it and run off, wanting out of her marriage and believing this was the only way.
And it’s not until you get to part two, that you learn exactly what did happen. Yep, Amy faked it, set the whole thing up. Staged the crime scene so it would look like a staged crime scene, yet made sure there was blood residue to confirm an attack. She even used her annual anniversary treasure hunt for Nick to hide her motives, which not only became a careful ruse to pull Nick in and believe that she honestly wanted to try again with their marriage, but also a beautifully orchestrated plan that allowed Nick to incriminate himself when he visited each of the sites Amy had picked out (which were conveniently where clues to her murder were planted). As we start to hear from Amy as she hides out, biding her time, we learn that not only was her crime a year in the making (begun shortly after she learnt of Nick’s affair), but that she has some much deeper, darker secrets stretching all the way back to her childhood and pointing towards one seriously messed up psyche. As Nick struggles with proving his innocence, which isn’t helped by him hiding his affair from the police along with the final present Amy left in his treasure hunt; Amy’s plan starts to run into trouble when her money is stolen and she is strangely moved by Nick’s (drunken) emotional TV appearance, pleading for her to come home. Reaching out to her former psycho college boyfriend for help, things get even worse when he traps Amy. In the meantime Nick is desperately trying to avoid going to jail, going to any and all lengths to prove his innocence and lure his wife out of hiding, now that he knows she has tried to frame him. As Amy’s actions to get back to him reach disturbing new lengths, Nick suddenly finds himself face to face with his wife again, right in front of a horde of news cameras.
Part three becomes all about the after, when Amy and Nick are reunited. Nick is angry and wants more than ever, to actually really kill his wife now, for everything she’s done to him. And while he doesn’t believe her stories for a second, he still thinks he has a way out of all this, that Amy’s lies are surely going to be revealed and the police will finally believe he was framed. However, once again, he underestimates his wife because Amy has executed another perfect plan that sets herself up as the wronged woman and while her stories may not be entirely believable, the police have no proof to support Nick’s claims. As both Amy and Nick now face the question of what to do next, they also recognise their dysfunctional connection to and need for each other. Despite how disturbing their relationship has become, there is still something between them that neither can deny. But, Nick is still angry and determined to bring his wife down, while Amy is optimistic, believing she can make Nick love her again and recapture the first years of their marriage. As they both go through the motions of marriage, faking it whilst they attempt to outwit each other, as the reader you have to wonder who is going to succeed. Will Nick be strong enough or is Amy just too psychotically smart? What happens next, who wins this struggle….oh well, that would be giving it away!! Lets just say, they both try and try, including writing and selling their own versions of what happened (Nick’s is hilariously entitled Psycho Bitch and Amy’s is simply Amazing a nod to her parent’s hugely successful Amazing Amy series.). But it’s one final action, that I stupidly hadn’t considered (well, had actually forgotten about) that just fucks everything up. Honestly, when I read it, I couldn’t stop myself from throwing my head back and simultaneously laughing and groaning at the fact I didn’t see this coming. My god, was it a great ending and really leaves you wondering not only how the hell either Amy or Nick can possibly live with themselves after all of this, but just how psycho Amy really is.
There were so many things I loved about this book; from the look of it, to the amazing dialogue both spoken and internal, to the constantly twisting plot that leaves you wondering how the hell either protagonist can get out of their situation, to the fantastic observations about marriage and whether we ever really know someone, and finally to the truly sick things that one person can do in a bid to get revenge. It was dark, disturbing, dysfunctional and truly hilarious. Ms Flynn, you have a fabulously sinister mind and I very much look forward to reading more of your work! This is a book that everyone is talking about, and I know why. It's probably best summed up by Sue Turnbull from The Age who wrote that this is a "genre-busting work by a writer who clearly knows the rules but doesn't want to play by them." Perfect! Gone Girl won the Goodreads Mystery & Thriller choice award in 2012 as well as being voted as the 2012 Breakout Book of the Year at Bookpage.
The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel by Deborah Moggach
Read by Tracy in June 2012 (OurBookClub book pick of the month for July 2012)
Tracy recommends as something to wish for before you retire
The basis of the story is a group of seventy-somethings who up sticks and leave the UK to spend their twilight years at the ultimate retirement home – the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel in Bangalore, Southern India. This overseas retreat might not quite live up to the OAP oasis its guests expect; but as their tales unfold and begin to intertwine, they each discover a very individual affection for their new found home and the people they encounter there.
The story starts with an old pensioner (Muriel Donnelly) being left in Accident & Emergency department of a NHS hospital, supposedly forgotten, where she advises that she has an aversion to darkies. Gradually we are introduced to the main group of characters, mainly pensioners, who for one reason or another are unable to afford good care in their old age. The proponent of the story though is Ravi Kapoor, an overworked doctor at the A&E that Muriel was left at who realised that in England and other western countries, the aged are left to their own devices and not cared for by their families, put away in a retirement home out of the way which is something unbelievable in India. Ravi's wife, Pauline has an older father (Norman) who after being evicted from many retirement homes for inappropriate behaviour has to live with them, and this thought sees Ravi dream of being able to send him away somewhere. As the price of aged care rises and spots become scarcer there has to be a viable option. Along with his entrepreneurial cousin Sonny, they concoct a business whereby Sonny's hotel in Bangalore is converted to a retirement home offering high class care, but at a fraction of the price in England and the resultant company is Ravison Ltd. The big selling point is the cost of living and also the warm climate which soon hits the spot with pensioners wishing to leave the bleak and damp pastures of England. Their idea is to recreate a corner of England in a more tropical setting. In reality the Marigold Hotel has seen better days, gradually overtaken in the high tech boom of Bangalore has seen its customer base diminish. In fact in some ways the pensioners are in a better state than the hotel. I haven't been to Bangalore, and as the book explains, there is nothing there to keep the traveller entertained, instead I know we opted for Mysore and Hampi which are fantastic tourist destinations, particularly Hampi. When the subject is first broached with Norman he is not keen to be fobbed off, but changes his mind and soon embraces the thought of something different.
One of the lovely characters of the book is Evelyn Greenslade whose children, Theresa and Christopher have almost abandoned her. Christopher lives in New York with his overbearing wife Marcia and their two brats (Joseph and Clementine) who when visiting India can only whine and whinge about their TV not working and Evelyn suddenly releases they are ungrateful compared to Indian children. Theresa is caught up trying to find herself in Indian religions and blames her parents for their horrible treatment of her and the emotional scars she suffers today, when in reality her upbringing is no different from the majority of children in her age bracket with stoic parents who didn't discuss emotions. In a market looking for a fortune teller, Theresa bumps into a fellow Brit, Keith, embark on a passionate love affair. Evelyn herself is a vague character, but underneath it she realises that she gave up her life for her husband and children and has never been anywhere or done anything that wasn't expected of her and has ended up timid and unable to make a decision. When her retirement home is shut down with the land being redeveloped into a supermarket, she finds her son has lost most of her money on the stock market and is unexpectedly homeless. Once settled in India she starts to come out of her shell, finding that people are not always what they seem and she starts to crave more in life. She also develops a liking for Thums-Up, like I did. I laughed as the book notes (absolutely no natural ingredients) which must be true, however it is addictive and in the same vein as Limca, does not taste the same here in Australia.
Another interesting character is Dorothy Miller has led an exciting life, working for the BBC she has travelled and the world, but as she has grown older she has been left along the way. This was a sad case where she has found herself living in an apartment but having basically no communication with the outside world except an ex-colleague of the BBC, Adam, who finds himself too busy these days. Later in the book we find that Dorothy actually spent the first eight years of her life in Bangalore, even attending a school which later became the Marigold Hotel. So even though some people thought she was suffering dementia or Alzheimer’s, she was in fact speaking Hindi and trying to locate her old home. This story is also given depth when one of the other guests, Graham gives her a book about the history of the Marigold Hotel and includes pictures and information about her childhood. Graham himself had been an outsider in the group, nobody paying much attention to him which was a great mystery as he was incredibly knowledgeable and had his own sad story with the loss of his fiancé in his youth, someone who he never got over nor replaced. One of my least favourite guests was Jean Ainslie and her long suffering husband, Doug. There are relentless travellers and opted for the Marigold when their son Adam showed them a brochure. They seem to be those people that have been everywhere and have an opinion about it. Back in England, Muriel finds herself mugged and in a panic she flees to her son Keith, but his house has been abandoned and his neighbours explain that he has had to flee the country due to some financial dealings. She finds he has gone to India so moves to the Marigold Hotel and tries to find her son. There are several other side guests including Madge who is looking for one final fling and seemingly finds it.
As with a lot of businessmen, Sonny has fingers or family in every pie. On her quest to make a phone call Evelyn enters a call centre and finds the wonderful character of Surinda who is trying to better herself and head to England through her job selling everything and anything you don't want. When Evelyn mentions her visit to the call centre, Sonny has a light bulb moment and soon the employees are over at the Marigold Hotel asking questions about England so they can appear more English on the phone. However, what Sonny and the other Indian call centre workers don't realise is that a lot of the residents are caught in a time warp from their youth and things have dramatically changed.
Of course the book challenges some misconceptions about India and the worries that people have when travelling outside of their comfort zone, something I don't believe in. India has an unexpected effect on most people - you either love it or you hate it, it certainly doesn't encourage ambivalence. I found it totally alluring and would love to visit more often. I think it was the sheer quantity of humanity and even though people want to sell you anything, they always do it with a smile and attempt to be helpful, something that is so different to here. I don't agree with Ravi who states that the British can romanticise India. There is plenty of action is romance, divorce, separation, death, marriage, fish-out-of-water comedy and drama all happening to the residents and workers associated with the Marigold Hotel and when Christmas Day approaches a great feast is prepared in true British style, which is insane considering the difference in temperatures, but everyone rallies after several cocktails of course.
Of course there is a movie of the same name which stars Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, Bill Nighy and Tom Wilkinson which I now can't wait to watch. Although the movie is set in Jaipur so it can take full advantage of the Rajasthan scenery.
The Prisoner of Heaven by Carlos Ruiz Zafon
Read by Tracy in June 2012
Tracy recommends as interesting, but you definately have to have read the other books in the series to fully appreciate the labyrinth of gothic tales
The Prisoner of Heaven is the third book in a promised four-part saga centered on the Cemetery of Forgotton Books. The series started with The Shadow of the Wind and then followed by The Angel's Game where we return ot the world of the Cemetery of Forgotten Books and the Sempere & Sons bookshop. Written as a cycle of novels, the books are also independent and only connected through characters and storylines and Zafon explains at the beginning of his latest book that they can be read in any order.
Beginning just before Christmas in 1957 Barcelona, Daniel and Bea who married a year earlier now have a son (Julian) and living above the bookshop. Fermin is still working with the Sempere's and is preparing for his own marriage to Bernarda in the New Year. However, Fermin is not his usual self and this change is worrying for Daniel and his father. The bookshop is as usual on the brink of collapse and in an effort to draw some business over the Christmas period, Daniel's father leaves the shop, in his absence, however, Daniel receives a visitor who buys on the precious volumes kept locked in the glass cabinet - The Count of Monte Cristo. The purchaser has the book inscribed to Fermin Romero de Torres, who came back from the dead and who holds the key to the future. Daniel then surrupticiously follows the mysterious buyer to a small hotel where he is unable to ascertain his name. He quickly returns to the bookshop to help his father put up a nativity scene which he believes will capture the christmas spirit. As with The Shadow of the Wind and the The Angel's Game the book evokes the history of Barcelona and also provides a history of the political situation.
The sudden appearance of the mysterious buyer makes Fermin finally spill his fears and secrets to Daniel. He finally talks about his time within the prison castle on the slopes of Montjuic after Franco won victory in a bloody civil war. The prison is a death chamber where life is not precious. Except the life of one of its famous inhabitants the mysterious writer David Martin. Martin has been blackmailed into rewriting the prison governor's (Mauricio Valls) own ludricrous literary efforts. Fermin and Martin strike up a friendship that sees Fermin escape but beholden to a promise to Martin to watch over the Sempere family and ensure they come to no harm. This is because Governor Valls is using his relationship with Isabella Sempere over Martin. Fermin escapes in the most awful way, I could almost feel myself gagging at the thought, but even in the political fear of the time there are those that will help Fermin after his escape from the prison, putting their own lives at risk. But then former vagabond, Fermin, is a lovable character, he can be taciturn and annoying, but underneath you know he is a good person and will do anything for the Sempere's. There are lots of side stories and twists as we follow the past of Fermin and the present with Daniel and Fermin attempting to uncover the story of the mysterious purchaser and to also piece together the mysterious death of Isabella (Daniels mother) and what does Governor Valls have to do with the Sempere's. In amongst all that it appears that Bea may be having a rendezvous with a past beau. Having been to Barcelona I love the imaginative descriptions of the area along the Ramblas and down to the port, which is now a thriving tourist destination.
Zafon has left the book with many questions unanswered so there should be more books to this story as you just know there is something with a higher purpose meant for the bookshop and of course the introduction of Fermin to the Cemetary of Forgotten Books and his inquiries about taking over the position of keeper. However, can you read this as a one off as Zafon thinks, I doubt it as it does require you to know the story so far. I don't think it is as good as The Shadow of the Wind, but it does keep the story going and the myriad of different stories within stories doesn't let the pace slow. I do think the character of Daniel, is this book, was undeveloped, why would he think Bea was going to embark on an affair, she is desparate to be part of his life and understand him, but it is he that has the secrets and doesn't seem to involve her.
As usual with Zafon's previous books, Barcelona is divinely described, so gothic in the story and it is in real life - there is a magic around the city which I loved.
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.
Various Pets Alive & Dead by Marina Lewycka
Read by Tracy June 2012
Tracy recommends as a funny look at ex-hippy parents and materialistic children
I loved Marina Lewycka’s previous novels: We Are All Made of Glue, Two Caravans and A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian, so was waiting with almost bated breath for Various Pets Alive & Dead to arrive. Again Lewycka has the ability to capture what is happening in the underlying arena of life, in this case looking at the backdrop of the global financial crisis and how greed and inequality have changed the dynamics of a family from two opposing sides – hippies and capitalists. All her previous novels managed to combine humour with serious issues, not an easy task considering the delicate topics of health care and Eastern European immigration. Various Pets Alive & Dead tells the story of three family members - Dorothy (Doro), her daughter Clare and her son Serge.
Doro and Marcus, both retired teachers whose lifelong relationship has never been formally recognised, are socialists from the 1960’s era who hail from a commune (Solidarity Hall) in South Yorkshire where they espoused a hatred of capitalism instead believing in pooling resources and where they practiced free love and leftists politics. The commune had a floating population of adults, children and various pets alive and dead (where the title is drawn from). Since leaving the commune, Clara has stayed in the north and become a primary school teacher, who wants to make a difference but really just wants a romantic happy ending. Serge is doing his Phd in maths at Cambridge, well that’s what he family believe, when in reality he has taken a job as a quantitiative analyst where he produces algorithms to create risk-based derivaties for Finance and Trading Consolidation Alliance (FATCA). Then there is adopted daughter Oolie, who has Down’s Syndrome. Oolie was left in Doro and Marcus’s care when the commune started to disintegrate and much of the horror of Doro now wants to move into her own flat. I felt a bit dazed with the constant swapping of storylines, just as you get absorbed, Lewycka quickly moves on. I was passionate about the bulldozing of the allotments by developers, but the subsequent story of the councillor, his son, their dodgy financial dealings and the guise of a recycling firm were too hard to keep together.
The family members constantly flash back to events when Solidarity Hall was first created and we gain an appreciation for how the ideal of the Sixties wasn’t as easy in practice. The ideal of commune living was to create a new type of human being: liberated, unselfish, unmaterialistic, committed to the common good but in reality that didn’t always work. Although for the most part, the adults were activists fighting against the spread of capitalism, there was also deep resentment for those that were not viewed as contributing equally or taking more than was expected, not to mention the sexual frustration.
The most interesting story lies with Serge, whose inability to communicate with his parents keeps the narrative engaging. FATCA creates imaginative loans that caused the global ifnancial crisis and on top of that he trades illegally through his bosses illegal account with the hope of impressing and hopefully encourage his co-worker, Maroushka, to escape to far off lands, but Maroushka comes from the eastern block and wants to avoid the grim reality of returning to a less materialistic life and only wants the capitalistic lifestyle. Serge is, however, extremely smitten – after all he reasons “not many couples could share the Fibonacci code or the Gaussian copula for pillow talk”. Funnily Lewycka also mentions Greece – where costs of borrowing rises, publish services become unaffordable and there are riots in the streets; just proves not much has changed between 2008 and 2012. The usual comedy of Lewycka’s writing is most prominent with the character of Maroushka and her lack of understanding of the subtelties of the English language and her direct candour. Serge’s job is so morally and ethically bankrupt it is completely against his parents ideals. Although Doro isn’t totally against everything, when she is invited on a fact-funding mission at the allotments with Councillor Loxley she becomes flustered and even buys new underwear and eschews her usual political logo t-shirts for something more feminine.
Lewycka has done some considerable research into the mathematics involved with the financial markets and she is able to describe the differences between Serge’s life where money flows and Clara’s life where she is trapped at the front end and the economic crash effects everyone personally. These insights into the financial markets, show that nothing has changed in the last four years and the bankers were certainly dealt a different hand from a lot of other private industries. Chicken (Chief Ken) views the government bailout as an ‘unlimited upside’ — ‘everything you win, you keep. And every time you lose, a kind-hearted donkey called Joe Public comes along with a sack of gold to pay off your debt.’
I felt that Clara’s narrative was not given the same attention as Serge and Doro’s. There was plenty of opportunity to try and understand why Clara finds herself stuck in the past, in the secrets of Solidarity Hall while all around her, life is moving on. In the end, the storyline was hastily sewn up, but ultimately I enjoyed the story and can understand that just because you have ideals shouldn’t mean we give them up. The contrast between the left-wing parents and the more capitalistic children is a fascinating social view. Unfortunately we really only get to hear from Marcus at the end of the book, but this also tied together a few of the loose ends which seemed a bit too formulaic.
The Red House by Mark Haddon
Read by Tracy June 2012
Tracy recommends as an interesting look at family dynamics, but lacking the hilarity of previous books.
Mark Haddon is famous for A Spot of Bother (2006) about a family falling apart and reuniting at a wedding, which was hilarious and the good but not quite so hilarious The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (2003) about an autistic boy who attempts to solve the mystery of a dog’s death. The Red House is the much anticipated next release and is against set against a background of family.
Set over a single week, in a self-catering cottage on Hay-on-Wye in rural Wales. The Red House is a Romano-British farmstead which had been abandoned but eventually rebuilt by a rich London family, who had since fallen on hard times and now rented it out. Centering on two siblings – Richard and Angela who have become estranged, not spending more than an afternoon in each other’s company over the last 15 years. In a similar vein as A Spot of Bother, the The Red House is about domestic disasters. Richard has become a wealthy successful doctor, whereas Angela is a school teacher living on the poverty line with her family. As a step towards reconciliation, six weeks after the death of their mother, Richard invites Angela and her family to spend time with his new family. As with any families, but put together in one house the clashes are fierce and instant mainly surrounding resentment between what could have been and what is.
Angela has blanked out the violent abuse from her father and cast an almost rose coloured glasses glow over her mother who was a vicious alcoholic before finally succumbing to dementia. Angela is married to Dominic, beset by financial worries she has become jaded with her loveless marriage. Dominic is a failed musician and is having an affair with a woman from his job, Amy. Her 16 year old daughter, Daisy has turned to the church desperately looking for answers, or is she struggling with other issues? 17 year old Alex is into self-sufficiency, absorbed in athletic pursuits and is managing his teenage lustfulness as briskly as possible; and her youngest son, 8 year old Benji who seems to struggle with so much including the discovery of a message on his father’s phone from a mysterious “Amy”. Watching from afar is the ghost of Karen, the first stillborn daughter, who should have turned 18 during the holiday week and Angela is struggling to cope with her unresolved grief which is all bringing her closer to a breakdown.
Richard, who is involved in a malpractice suit that may ruin his career, is newly married to second wife Louisa and has a step-daughter, the selfish 16 year old Melissa who has become embroiled in a serious case of bullying that sees the recipient attempt to commit suicide. Underneath her mean spirited exterior, she does understand that this persona isn’t her but she is struggling to find her place amongst a broken family. Melissa is a vegetarian, but not for any good cause, she doesn’t care for the suffering of animals, instead she is puzzled why certain animals are eaten and not all, feeling these opinions make her appear distinctive and intelligent to others!
Of course put aside the family issues, not having access to the internet or mobile phones causes even more angst in this day of constant communications. What I did find frustrating was the swapping of narratives, some of the paragraphs I found hard to work out who they belonged too after all there are eight main characters.
How do people reunite after such decades of bitterness? “I have difficulty believing that Richard and I are actually related,” Angela tells her husband. At the end of the seven days we have been through incestuous sex, lesbianism, ghosts and sibling jealousy. Angela initially appears jealous of the relationship that Richard has with Louisa, they possess something that she and Dominic had let slip through their fingers? At the end of the holiday, Richard and Angela aren’t any closer, but at least more understanding of each other’s place in their shared histories. Their damaged childhood has affected them differently and this baggage has been passed onto their relationships with their own families. There isn’t much action, other than Richard going AWOL on a walk, but there is plenty of action within the confined of the holiday home.
The Red House made it onto the Oprah summer reading
The Kingdom of Childhood by Rebecca Coleman
Read by Natalie June 2012
Natalie recommends as a disturbing story of obsession and lust
The Kingdom of Childhood was a semi-finalist in Amazon's 2010 Breakthrough Novel of the year Award, an annual competition that sees 10,000 manuscripts pitted against each other before being wittled down and the winner receiving a Penguin publishing contract. The book was written around the time of Mary Kay Letourneau's trial and convinction for having a sexual relationship with her 13 year old student and forms the driving theme of the story.
The book tells the story of Judy MacFarland, a kindergarten teacher at the exclusive Waldorf School that follows the teachings of Rudolf Steiner. Judy is watching her life unravel; her best friend has recently died, her husband is an angry recluse who appears to have no interest in their marriage, her daughter has left for college and rarely contacts her and her son, Scott is a typical 18 year old with an almost bitter disinterest in his parents. However, when new student Zach appears and befriends her son, Judy is at first appalled by his crude sense of humour when he makes fun of the Monica Lewinsky scandal that is all over the news. Zach, struggling with being the new kid at school as well as the knowledge of his mother's affair, enjoys the response his joke creates. However, when Zach is forced to volunteer for the school bazaar that Judy is running, their combined loneliness and anger brings them together and what starts off as a friendship quickly turns into flirtation and then a sexual relationship. Initially this thrills the both of them; Judy is finally being noticed and appreciated by a man and Zach is simply getting laid whenever he wants. However, the relationship quickly turns destructive, not least of which is due to the obvious age and maturity differences between them. As Judy's longing for Zach turns into obsession, fuelled by Zach's similarities to an older boy Judy liked when she was a ten year child living in Germany, her manipulations just to see Zach reach new proportions. Seemingly immune to the worry of getting noticed or caught, Judy has no problems encouraging Zach to come to her house, her classroom or even lie to his parents so he can spend the night in her bed. Zach, while at first enjoying all the sex he is getting, particularly after being denied a repeat performance by the girl her really likes, soon starts be turned off by Judy's infatuation. This is made especially clear when he is unwell and Judy only views him as a "toy" with no real regard for his feelings or welfare. All of this starts to feed Zach's anger and aggression, which he does take out on Judy, while her obsession with Zach allows her to let him.
As the months progress, the relationship eventually comes to a head when Zach's friends start to notice and comment and Fairen, the girl who initially scorned Zach, once again starts to pay attention to him. As Zach struggles with his own wants and desires for Judy, which continue to confuse him, he finally confides in a healthcare worker about their relationship. Although he doesn't mention any names, this woman quickly works out it's Judy, particularly as she also supplied Judy with her oral contraception prescription. As Zach walks away from their dysfunctional relationship, Judy begs him for one last chance. Denied by Zach and then faced the death of her husband, Judy desperately searches for a way out.
The story is told in an interesting way. Interspersed with the present story are flashbacks to Judy's childhood, spent in Germany as her father worked at a US military base. Isolated and lonely, Judy developed a friendship with 16 year old Rudi, a German farmboy. During this time Judy was forced to deal with not only her mother's mental illness but also her father's infidelity as well as Rudi's secret tryst with another girl. In the present, we get both Judy and Zach's perspective on the relationship, however Judy's is given to us first POV while Zach's is third POV. This was a little jolting and while first POV serves to get the reader further inside the narrator's head, I actually felt that it was Zach who was allowing us that insight. It also wasn't really clear on the tipping point for the start of their relationship. What started off as a kiss one afternoon, which was interpreted very differently by both parties, quickly moved to denial and then sex and there was really no indication as to what changed either of their minds. There are also numerous hints towards some darker secrets from Judy's past, particularly in regards to the woman her father was having an a affair with and her first college boyfriend, so when her husband dies, you are left questioning Judy's role in this. These secrets did feel a little from out of left field, but they do rachet up the tension so you are wondering what Judy is possibly going to do to Zach. The occasional bit of unprotected sex also left me tense at the direction the story could take. By the end however, the relationship is over and while it appears Zach will probably be ok and is now in a healthy relationship with a girl his own age, there are certainly plenty of hints to his darker side. Judy on the other hand, does attempt to get out of it all but when she realises she can't, she does try to atone for her actions - however none of this plays out as you think, and personally I don't think she redeemed herself at all by the end. She simply gave up.
This book was certainly very different to what I thought it would be. It was an interesting story and quite a disturbing look at a dysfunctional obsession. While it was hard to believe Zach, at 16 could think and act the way he did, given the environment he was raised in, perhaps it's not totally unexpected. I was hoping he could somehow find a way out of the mess he found himself in. Judy on the other hand, whilst driven by a lifetime of what she perceives as neglect and isolation, was simply looking for someone to notice her, but her actions were so despicable it was hard to feel sorry for her. Dark and quite disturbing at times, this doesn't really attempt to tell you whether what happened was right or wrong, whether redemption occurred or lives were destroyed. That's pretty much left for the reader to make up their own mind and as a result, it is a thought provoking novel.
The Sealed Letter by Emma Donoghue
Read by Tracy June 2012
Tracy recommends as a well researched look at the embryonic women's movement and is extremely lucky women risked everything for what we take for granted today.
At OurBookClub we loved Emma Donoghue’s award winning Room. The Sealed Letter is very, very different. Apparently Room is known as a breakout novel, where the author changes direction from the more specialist niche they had been involved with to a more mass audience genre, I don’t think Room could be in that category.
The Sealed Letter was initially published in Canada in 2008 and is basically a story about a divorce, nothing unusual these days, alas the book is set in 1864 when divorce was scandalous. At the centre of the book is the celebrated, but aging, Vice-Admiral Henry Codrington and his impulsive wife, Helen. We are first introduced to Helen, who, after a sojourn and posting with Henry to Malta, is back in London and has a chance encounter with old friend, Emily Faithfull (Fido). In the years since the two last met, Fido is a pillar of the women’s movement, becoming a famous feminist and founder of the Langham Place group, as well as a proprietor of the ground breaking Victoria Press which extended employment opportunities to women. Whilst Fido is erstwhile and wants to change the world, Helen is portrayed as the typical naval wife, trapped in a loveless marriage, who has time on her hands and is bored with her husband, surrounding herself instead with admirers and in this case a handsome Colonel Anderson, who is introduced as a friend of the family. After their chance meeting, Helen and Colonel Anderson soon pay a visit to Fido as a ruse to continue their affair. Eavesdropping, Fido hears "the frantic squeak of sofa springs as they’re forced up and down" from behind her drawing room door and soon finds herself reluctantly embroiled in Helen’s affairs.
The ensuing Victorian court case which is led by shifty evidence collectors (the equivalent of today’s private investigators) as each party attempts to smother each other in dirt. Scandal in 1960’s England was a gossip-monger’s heaven and the Codrington divorce case was shocking, containing all manner of juicy accusations such as infidelity, rape and lesbianism. Henry feels he is the wronged party and attempts to paint Helen as sexually predacious which sees the case become a national scandal and a magnet for the prurient minded everywhere. The court case lays bare everything including the most intimate acts. Fido is soon drawn in as a witness but feels herself being used by both parties. Before heading to Malta, Emily had shared a house with Helen and Henry, and Helen used to spend nights with Emily under the guise of nursing her through asthma attacks, it is these nights together where confidences were shared that are used as a bargaining tool by the parties. As usual, the outcome is that Henry comes through the case as a baffled man, kindly and long-suffering and even Helen isn’t completely tarnished, in light of her affair only starting after her request for a separation had been turned down. Fido eventually has her story lightly fictionalised in The Sealed Letter after she finds herself isolated from her friends and her career threatened. Of course in the end once the legal system takes hold, friendships are soon spurned.
Although well written and researched, I was not drawn into the story as I was in Donoghue’s Room. I felt that Donoghue wanted to make a point that she had done research for the novel but the language didn’t quite hit the spot – not sure anybody in the 1860s would talk about walking out on a marriage as it definitely wasn’t the norm and involved huge scandal for the families involved. Apparently Donoghue trawled through records and even Faithfull’s later novels to recreate 19th century London in all its grimness. Donoghue also did a huge amount of research into the embryonic femistic movement of the mid-Victoria era and what an appalling state it was in. After the 1857 Divorce Act: a husband had only to provie his wife was adulterous, but the wife had to prove her husband was incestuous, bigamous, cruel or neglectful. Divorced women risked everything, including property and children.
Gillespie and I by Jane Harris
Read by Tracy May 2012
Tracy recommends as a suspenseful read that makes you look beyond the superficial
Harriet Baxter, a 35 year old spinster (don’t you love that saying!), is independent and has travelled from London to Glasgow where this Victoria novel is set. Harriet is escaping the chores of nursing her invalid aunt and is intent on attending the 1888 International Exhibition to sate her love of art. She assists and elderly Mrs Gillespie who has fallen down in the street causing her to choke on her false teeth. This leads to an introduction with the artistic, Ned Gillespie. Gillespie is famous for destroying his artwork and later committing suicide at the age of 36. Harriet eventually becomes a trusted family friend of the Gillespie family who live close to her lodgings. Although they aren’t poor in the true sense of the word, the Gillespie clan live precariously and Harriet, who herself is comfortably off, finds herself coming to their assistance, commissioning a portrait from Ned’s wife Annie, also an artist; attending art classes run by Ned and assisting with housework. During this time, Ned’s family start to unravel, his eldest daughter, Sibyl is increasingly gripped by violent neurosis and Ned’s brother becomes embroiled in scandal. Underlying the story, I suspect that Harriet is not just a friend but a manipulator, secretly pulling the strings like a puppet master where she must balance her desire to be needed, but her want to be superior. Harriet is basically jealous of the modern woman who can now vote and event follow a career, instead finding herself lonely and relegated to spinsterhood.
Forty years later, an elderly Harriet writes her memoirs to draw attention to Gillespie and his art, wanting to bring him the fame she believed he deserved. Harriet describes Gillespie as her soul mate and a dear friend who found his family a burden as well as an inspiration. The story alternates between the past and the present. During her recounting of her past, you wonder if dementia was playing tricks and how realistic the story was, or whether, as what happens to most of us, we reminisce fondly. However, not all is as it seems, there are some strange events within the family and you start to feel that the purported family friendship wasn’t exactly that. When Ned’s youngest daughter, Rose, is kidnapped and eventually dies we are left wondering whether Harriet (the prime suspect) was indeed guilty, the fact that she had to avert her eyes from the park Rose used to play in, surely is a sign of guilt.
This would be an excellent book for book clubs, not least for the storyline, but also the differences between English and Scottish Laws in Victorian times.
Jane Harris is a witty writer and manages to include some evocative details. Having been to Glasgow, I love to remember the current city and try and imagine how much it has changed since its 19th Century incarnation. Although this is Harris’s second novel, her first The Observations is purported to have a similar feel and I have now got that on my to read pile. It is meant to be inspired by the Victorian Gothic in the tradition of Wilkie Collins, whereas Gillespie and I supposedly calls on Henry James for its inspiration.
To find out more information, Jane Harris has a website.
First Comes Love by Katie Kacvinsky
Read by Natalie June 2012
Natalie recommends as a beautiful and moving story about the healing power of first love
Gray is a loner. Still reeling from the death of his twin sister 8 months ago, he has shut himself off from the world, given up his academic scholarship and is barely managing to keep himself afloat. Trapped in Phoenix under the belief that he is the last string holding his fractured family together, he walks through life as though he is asleep. Enter Dylan, an outgoing optimistic girl who lives every day as though it’s her last. Never one to shy away from a challenge or an opportunity, when she crosses paths with Gray she is determined to bring him out of his shell. As she all but pushes her way into his life, we watch as these two seemingly opposite people gradually find a way to connect with each other. While Dylan undoubtedly pushes Gray’s buttons and forces him to confront the reasons he has given up on life, he also provides an unexpected and different appreciation for the everyday little things for Dylan.
Over the course of a summer these two each bring out the best in the other and in doing so become friends and then gradually and unexpectedly fall in love. And throughout this, Dylan manages to give Gray back his love of life, including his academic scholarship, as well as break down the walls he has built around himself and even his family. While Dylan might at first push Gray, she does it out of love for him and when he finally realises this, rather than be angry at her, he thanks her. As both of them fall hard for the other, their time together starts to run out and Gray is left to wonder how they can possibly stay together given his upcoming year at college and Dylan’s vagabond lifestyle. As Gray begs Dylan to come with him to New Mexico, Dylan knows she can’t be trapped by someone else’s life and dreams. So despite promising to love him and see him again, she leaves to travel and fulfil her own dreams, trusting fate that they will come back together again. As Gray struggles with what has become of their relationship, two months pass with no contact from Dylan. Unable to accept that she can simply forget about him, Gray is unaware that Dylan is suffering just as much as he is. Only she believes Gray will forget about her and so thinks giving him distance is the only way to let him move on and not be hurt. However both of them finally cave and give fate a push by calling each other. Neither phone conversation ends well and both Gray and Dylan are left angry, hurt and simply missing the other. However when Dylan shows up at Gray’s door with an apology and an explanation for her behaviour, the two of them finally admit how much they have missed the other and with promises to try and make this work, they reconnect again.
This book is short and definitely very sweet. Told alternate POV from both Gray and Dylan it gives you an insight into both character’s behaviour and thoughts, although you definitely get a greater sense of this from Gray as he is the one who lets you into his head more. Using minimal side characters and fabulous chapter titles, the story is believable, very beautifully told and a realistic look at first love and all the struggles it faces, particularly when the timing just isn’t right. But it’s also a book about healing and the power of friendship and love to draw you back into your life. There were some really beautiful passages about this in addition to some truly hilarious dialogue. Gray’s thoughts after the first time he and Dylan have sex – priceless – and you can just imagine how true they are for any 19 year old boy – the strut and the constant when am I going to have sex again thoughts! Although I felt the ending was perhaps a little rushed and possibly a little unfinished in terms of their reconnection, it probably does reflect the unknown of any relationship. A great little story and well worth a read.
Animal People by Charlotte Wood
Read by Natalie June 2012
Natalie recommends as a day in the life of a depressing wet blanket.
Animal People follows Stephen, a character from Charlotte’s earlier novel The Children, for one day as he plans to break up with his long term girlfriend Fiona. Depressed, smothered and aimlessly wandering through life, Stephan longs to simply feel free, but with no clue as to how to get there. Beginning with a phone call from his oppressive mother, then a shocking run-in with a junkie, a tense bus trip to his dead end job and finally Fiona’s daughter’s birthday party, Stephen can’t stop the feelings of drowning that consume him. As he wanders through his day, which is filled with countless run-ins with animals, Stephen struggles with his decision and the reasons he has for ending his relationship, which is quite possibly the only good thing in his life. As the end of his day finally approaches, Stephen must first navigate Ella’s birthday party, complete with arrogant ex-husband Richard, Fiona’s controlling and rude parents and bitchy sister in law. When the party unexpectedly turns into a complete disaster and Stephen tries to step in and help, his day continues to unravel until finally he faces Fiona and admits to wanting to end the relationship. Lost and not feeling any freer, Stephen wonders back home and witnesses a terrible accident that finally allows the non-animal person that he is to understand why people like animals. As Stephen realises the true meaning of love and perhaps the mistake he has just made, Fiona reappears and offers the comfort he needs.
Wood is a talented writer who definitely has an eye for detail and the subtle nuances that make up daily life. While I found the character of Stephen to be frustrating and annoying, she definitely captures the struggles of a lost man who has no idea how to dig himself out of the hole he’s found himself in. The book is fairly short and quite easy to read, but to be honest, not particularly enjoyable. It’s confusing for much of the book as to why Stephen has made this decision, as well as why Fiona is with him in the first place. Although this does become a little clearer towards the end, I just didn’t feel engaged with or sympathetic towards Stephen as we followed him throughout his day.
The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides
Read by Tracy in May 2012
Tracy recommends as a surprisingly articulate look at transitioning from university to adulthood
The Marriage Plot is the follow up to the critically acclaimed and Pulitzer Prize winning Middlesex. This is Eugenides third novel after he stormed onto the literary stage 18 years ago with The Virgin Suicides. The novels all have very different characters and styles; however, the writing is just fantastic. The Marriage Plot covers a huge variety of topics from feminism, mental health, religion, academia and class but manages to provide an air of reality. It also highlights how easy it is to make mistakes when you are younger, not realising how far reaching the consequences can be. Eugenides describes all the teenage angst and emotions wonderfully, how easily we get caught up in our own lives and forget about those around us, leading an almost selfish life. The Marriage Plot revolves around three Ivy League Brown University students in the early 1980s – Madeline, Mitchell and Leonard. I have to say that Eugenides description of Brown University is gorgeous, it certainly sounds better than the Universities I have attended - the magnolia-scented front yards of Victorians alongside geomtric gardens of the Georgian mansions and of course the description of the graduation process seems surreal, or maybe we just do things different in Australia.
Madeleine Hanna is an English major who is fastidious about her books, they aren't only arranged by title but also date of publication. Madeline became an English major, for nothing other than the fact she loved to read. During her junior year, Madeline's thesis concerned "the marriage plot" as it existed in the 19th-century novel and the way, with marriage having lost its gravitas in her era of quickie divorces and pre-nups, the novel itself has been diminished. Madeleine is entirely believable as the ambitious, beautiful and mostly moral young woman slightly out of step with the freedoms of her time where she tries to be everything to everyone. At university, Madeline find herself trapped, loving the clear and concise writings of Henry James, Jane Austin and Charles Dickens but having to learn a new English language that is based on postmodernism. She ventures to take a semiotics course where she meets the enigmatic Leonard Bankhead who chews tobacco and is magnetically moody. Semiotics 211 was taught by Michael Zipperstein who had been converted into french theory and the writings of Derrida, Eco and Barthes in the 1970's and had since built an idealised world within the English literature department, he even has the students read his own book, something I hated to do at university as you feel like you can't constructively comment in the negative. Leonard is a dark and brooding science student who suffers from manic depression which he is able to trace back to alcoholic and depressive parents. Leonard’s manic depression is discussed from an early point and as their relationship develops, we see Madeline give up everything for him, possibly without realising just how his illness takes over their lives and changes her personality to someone almost scared to ask questions. The other male lead is Mitchell Grammaticus, who in contrast is nice, steady and studies religion, wanting to explore the truth behind eastern and western religions. Mitchell loves Madeline and must watch as she falls under Leonard’s spell after he misses the opportunities to woo Madeline that are placed in front of him, which are several, I presume he is just being old fashioned, but Madeline needs something a bit more spontaneous.
As Madeline’s romances progress, we see that they start to take on the books she is reading. When she starts to study Derrida, Lacan and French theory and their deconstruction of the notion of love, she finally tells Leonard she loves him. He responds by reading the chapter in Barthes quoting "The figure [je t'aime] refers not to the declaration of love, to the avowal, but to the repeated utterance of the love cry. Once the first avowal has been made 'I love you' has no meaning whatever..." Madeline responds by chucking both the book and Leonard. Unfortunately it didn’t quite go to plan and she spends her time sobbing in bed reading Barthes and Leonard ends up hospitalised after a psychotic episode.
After graduation, Madeline and Leonard reconcile and she checks him out of hospital after a revised Lithium dosage is calculated and they head to Cape Cod where he takes up a prestigious science fellowship in a genetics laboratory. Meanwhile, Mitchell takes off to backpack in Europe and India, with thoughts of Madeline still fresh in his mind. What Eugenides does well is look at what happens when the structure of university is removed and you have to find a career or place in life. It is difficult when you realise that you are not dictated by study timelines. Leonard soon finds his dosage of Lithium is making him dull, fat, miserable and foggy headed, feeling himself dropping behind his new colleagues, so he decides to reduce his dosage and attain his pre-psychotic breakdown personality. Whilst in Cape Cod, Madeline finds herself becoming Leonard’s carer and is attentive, devoted as well as frustrated. After her mother and sister visit, Leonard’s mental state is uncovered and her mother soon starts to advise against Madeline’s involvement in a hope to get Madeline to rethink the relationship. After attending a conference of Victorian literary scholars, Madeline finally finds her spark and she starts apply to graduate schools with a clear goal in mind. In the meantime, Leonard believes the solution to all his problems is for him to propose and after Madeline accepts him they embark on married life. However, on their honeymoon things soo start to disintegrate and Leonard is eventually hospitalised in Monte Carlo with the aid of the American Consulate and Mandelines parents.
Far away and trying not to think of Madeline, Mitchell has no idea how difficult her relationship has become. He and Larry go to Paris, where Larry hooks up with his girlfriend Claire, leaving Mitchell to find his own feet, however, after Larry and Claire quickly breakup in a fashion that becomes clearer later in the book, they both head to Greece, where his friend hooks up again, in a totally different way. After a side jaunt to Ireland to see where Mitchell's mothers family hailed from, I loved the description of Ireland - it rained all the time, fog covered the fields etc - when I was in Ireland for a month in 2011, it rained every day. Eventually, Mitchell departs for India, heading to Calcutta to volunteer for Mother Teresa in her Home for Dying Destitutes. His trip to Calcutta is the first time in his travels he has been somewhere "real", even though he was sightseeing he also had a purpose and of course the fantastic barbershop shaves that my partner couldn't get enough of, but I am probably biased as I have loved my travels to India. During his travels, Mitchell endeavours to find divinity or at least understand it, almost waiting for a lightning bolt that will show him the way forward, in the meantime his charity work just further highlights his own failures. Underneath everything though, Mitchell fundamentally believes Madeline and he will end up together and this provides a driving force for the story ensuring that it keeps moving forward. Although he does spend considerable time musing that meeting the one may become a problem, as once you have attained your ideal, you got bored and wanted another!
The love triangle is interesting as it also aligned Madeline's love of Victorian novels. Although more interesting is that at the end of The Marriage Plot neither Leonard or Mitchell have a direction for their future and although Madeline hasn't anything tangible, she at least knows she wants to be within the literary arena. But then the story ends when American is in a deep recession.
When asked what makes a good writer, Jeffrey Eugenides responsed that the best thing is also the worst thing. It's that, no matter how long you've been at it, you always start from scratch. Henry James said, "We work in the dark—we do what we can—we give what we have. Our doubt is our passion and our passion is our task. The rest is the madness of art." Unless you're the kind of writer who works with a template, where the narrative strategies remain more or less constant and the job consists of filling in the boxes with new material, then what you have to do, with each new book, is discover all these things anew. Your material determines your narrative strategy and your tone of voice rather than the other way around. You change from book to book. You begin always knowing nothing. You remain forever an amateur, a first-timer. Sure, you might cobble together something akin to a methodology after a while, a working method, a sense of pacing yourself through the seasons. But that's about it in terms of the pleasures and wisdom of the veteran. What makes this worst thing also the best thing has to do with the agelessness of aspiration. When you're always starting out, always trying to learn to do what you don't know how to do, you remain close to the place (college dorm room, Prague café) where you first set pen to paper. You remain in touch with that crazy, dreamy kid who spent so much time in the library. You persist in being impractical, idealistic, naive, and brave. Your body ages, but your imagination remains young, and on your deathbed, if you're lucky, you might be prideful enough to say to yourself, "I'm finally getting the hang of this. Read more at
Beautiful Disaster by Jamie McGuire
Read by Natalie May 2012
Natalie recommends as a bit of a disaster, but an interesting one nonetheless
This book was a couple of firsts for me and was an interesting pick up, not least of which is because of the heated reviews posted on Goodreads. I had heard that it would be of interest to fans of the Fifty trilogy because it involves a similar character arrangement between the two leads. Having now read the book I will say it is nothing like the Fifty trilogy, so don’t read it if that’s what you are after. But before I start on that I will say it was my first eBook which I downloaded to my iPad after reading a sample of the book and embarrassingly getting myself hooked. It was also my first self-published book and that was definitely obvious. It is rife with spelling and grammatical errors that made me want to scream at times – stupid things like Your and You’re being mixed up are absolute pet hates of mine and more so when the author’s own website proclaims the importance of having someone you trust check your work – either she didn’t bother or that person was crap at it! Also, the writing was at times disjointed, with random jumps in conversation and tone between sentences without so much as a segue – there were seriously times I had to check to see if I hadn’t skipped a page it was that bad! There was also a bit too much repetition and bogginess that would have benefited from some tighter editing. It appears the author forgot about character and plot development and instead got carried away with the drama and just rehashed the same old things over and over again.
But none of that is what the Goodreads debate has been about. That has centred on the storyline itself and has become so heated even the author has jumped in and in uncontrolled blog posts, tried to defend herself. First up, the book is touted as YA. The author claims it isn’t and it is beyond her control what the sites/readers label it as – that I can understand. Secondly though and perhaps most importantly is the dysfunctional and at times frighteningly scary relationship between the two main leads. It is extremely co-dependent, it is possessive, jealous and laced with violence, though not towards each other but rather anyone who comes between them and it is all a bit too stalkerish, controlling and obsessive. Ok they were friends first, good friends, but a lot of this is skipped over in the book and when they are getting close to being a couple and then afterwards, it is really quite unbelievable some of the stuff that happens.
So the story: Abby is new to college and determined to shed her secret past (mother is a drunk, father was a professional gambler who not only taught her how to play poker and shoot tequila, but also blamed her publically when his luck finally ran out). Hiding from everyone, she adopts a good girl persona which means she is basically the only woman on campus not attracted too or trying to get into the pants of resident bad boy Travis “mad dog” Maddox. Travis is literally a walking hard-on that every woman throws herself at despite his reputation of having only one-night stands. He is covered in tattoos, smokes, drinks, swears, earns his living fighting in an underground fight club and generally walks around with a tough guy attitude. But he is also insanely smart, sweet and kind when he wants to be and for some inexplicable reason, drawn to Abby, whom he “affectionately” nicknames Pigeon (yeah buddy, they are flying rats, so really that’s pretty gross). Despite throwing the full Travis charm her way, Abby refuses to sleep with him, which not only makes Travis want her even more, but also allows them to become friends, much to everyone else’s confusion and amazement as Travis never has female friends. As a couple of pathetic plot twists set the scene for Abby to not only stay at Travis’ apartment (where he lives with his cousin who is conveniently dating Abby’s best friend) but also in his bed, we as the reader watch the two of them dance around each other and fall in love. While Abby is stupidly oblivious to this, despite all the things Travis says and does, she really goes all out on the bitchiness, dating another guy but still coming home to sleep with Travis, consistently ignoring the things Travis says to her and not telling him how she really feels and worst of all on their final night, giving him a goodbye shag (and her virginity) knowing how much he wants her and then leaving in the middle of the night. I mean seriously, what a bitch! It was damn frustrating to read. Of course when they finally do sleep together and Abby then sneaks out, Travis goes ballistic having thought it actually meant something to her, and unleashes the full power of his temper which sees him trashing his apartment and taking a swing at his own cousin. Eventually they sort it out and get together (and Travis gets himself a few new tatts declaring his love). But then Abby becomes the woman who tamed the bad boy, and she must now face not only the wrath of all the women who went before her, but also Travis’ overwhelming possessive and jealous streak which sees him literally attack anyone who looks at Abby. Of course this violent tendency on his part doesn’t actually seem to be a problem to anyone else, and while he never threatens Abby, it is pretty scary when he does explode. In fact there are times when Abby actually encourages it, telling Travis to teach some jock some manners after he makes a derogatory remark about her and Travis then proceeds to beat the crap out of him in a room full of people – is that really how we want our boyfriends to behave?
Just as the happy couple look set to ride off into the sunset however, in walks a huge from out of left field plot device that sees Abby having to hit Vegas with her poker skills so she can earn some money to pay off the mob guy that her father borrowed it from. Yeah it is weird, it makes no sense why she would do this and basically only serves to set the scene for Abby and Travis to break up when he is lured by the bright lights of Sin City and Abby is scared of reliving her childhood experiences all over again. So cue the ridiculous argument, the miscommunication and breakup. Of course a quick Thanksgiving with Travis’ family sees Abby questioning this, especially when she is so welcomed into his family and Travis constantly tells her he is sorry and wants her back. Instead the two of them maintain the charade of being together for the sake of his family which coupled with his declarations leads Abby to decide actually ok, she does want him back. Except, for some inexplicable reason Abby apparently can’t find a minute to tell him this…sweetheart, you spent all morning in bed with him! Of course this just means they go a couple of months apart, during which time Travis tries to move on, giving the illusion he is ok (only because he thinks that’s what she wants) and Abby being totally miserable but for some reason unable to just tell Travis she still loves him and wants him back. They are once again back to dancing around each other, saying one thing, doing something else, flirting, arguing, almost kissing and screwing – seriously, this was frustratingly ridiculous.
The book then moves through several months of Travis keeping up his pretence and Abby wanting him back but being too proud to tell him. During this time both of them try hooking up with other people only for the other one to explode when they catch them and the general "I want you, but can’t make you happy, we're a disaster" type of banter. Frustrating yes, but none more so than when they finally find themselves drunk at a Valentine’s Day party where Travis basically stalks her all night, only to cart her off back to his place, they yell and scream a bit before Abby decides to just give in and get back to together with him. They then have drunken sex, Travis doesn’t sleep for fear of her disappearing again, she wakes up and tells him she can’t live without him and she meant everything she said last night and bingo all their previous problems are forgotten – what? Surely it could have been done better than that. Throw in one last fight for Travis where a fire breaks out, killing many students but allowing Travis and Abby to escape and with little to no remorse for what happened, deciding to head back to Vegas (yes, of all places) to get married after Abby proposes, Travis accepts and presents her with a ring which he bought ages ago! The book ends with the happily married couple promising to love each other forever and a quick trip to the tattoo parlour so Abby can brand herself with her new name. Wow, I was exhausted by this stage!
To say I don’t know where to start with how I feel about this book is an understatement. There are so many problems, the least of which is the grammar and spelling. The hugely dysfunctional relationship between the two main leads is quite disturbing, between their miscommunication, their games with each other and Abby’s unbelievable leading on/pushing away actions with Travis. Throw in the violence and the complete disregard they seem to have for this and the whole thing certainly is a Beautiful Disaster. But it obviously had something because it hooked me, convinced me to download the whole book and now that the author has said she is writing it from Travis’ POV, I will probably check that out too. I guess like all dangerous and destructive addictions, sometimes you just can’t help yourself and you keep going back for more.
Half Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan
Read by Tracy May 2012
Tracy recommends as a fascinating look at the jazz era.
This is the second novel for Canadian author, Esi Edugyan and was shortlisted for the 2011 Man Booker and more recently the 2012 Orange Prize.
The story follows African-American jazz bassist Sidney “Sid” Griffiths and is split into two storylines – 1940’s and 1992. The first narrative is set against WWII with a backdrop of Berlin and Paris. Sid, Chip C Jones (drummer) and Hieronymus “Hiero” Falk (trumpeter) make up the Hot-Time Swingers. Sid, mixed-race American, has left Baltimore (USA) to escape the racial apartheid of the pre-civil rights era, whereas Hiero is a mixed-race German who has now become stateless. Sid and Chip are both American and therefore relatively safe in Nazi Germany, but the bond of jazz in the avant garde music scene on the time sees them bond. Eventually an increasingly racial Germany sees the band flee for Paris where they decide to rerecord “Horst Wessel Lied” the Nazi German anthem.
Delilah Brown is an emissary from Louis Armstrong who approaches The Hot-Time Swingers and offers them the chance to record with the great Satchmo at his Paris studio – how is that for an offer and who could refuse, I found myself whisked away to the time, both beautiful and tainted. Paris isn’t everything they hoped and they find themselves increasingly embroiled in racial hatred with any chances of escape rapidly reducing. Somehow amidst the issues The Hot-Time Swingers are able to finish a recording session (the song gives the book its name) and in the end a single pressing is hidden away to survive the war. During this time, Sid embarks on an affair with Delilah and the growing jealousy that he has for Hiero, who is increasingly becoming a gifted trumpet player, sees him betray Hiero to the Gestapo in Paris. Hiero is sent to a concentration camp at Sachsenhausen, never to be heard of again, however, his music was not lost and he has since gained cult status as a jazz legend over the following decades. Hiero doesn’t have a voice in this book; we only see his story from Sid’s behalf where the jealousy becomes poignant. How can you not be transported to this exciting period of jazz, the characters are just as popular today as they were decades before.
The second narrative is set in 1992. It follows Sid and Chip as they head back to Berlin, after 52 years, for a jazz festival and the premier of a documentary on Hiero. After Chip publicly accuses Sid of colluding with the Nazis in Hieros' arrest, they both journey back to Europe hoping they can come to peace with the past and lay the ghosts of that time and their past to rest.
This is a novel thick in meaning, both present and past, the flaws in relationships both perceived and present are shown in all their glory and also in a darkness that resonates in their history. We are shown how dignity loses its place in a world of hatred and how quickly violence and fear can spread. I haven’t read many books that look at how black people survived in Germany, obviously the focus has always been on the Jews, but what of the other races and how they managed to escape and survive and this I found fascinating, it even showed black against black all depending on how fair your skin colour was. Half-Blood Blues does not weigh you down with a dearth of research, instead providing an evocative glimpse of the times and places. I loved it and fingers crossed for the 2012 Orange Prize.
State of Wonder by Ann Patchett
Read by Tracy May 2012
Ann Patchett won the 2002 Orange prize for Bel Canto and State of Wonder, her sixth novel, has been shortlisted for the 2012 Orange prize.
Ann Patchett’s heroine is Minnesota based, Dr Marina Singh, a 42 year old research scientist who works in Vogel, a pharmaceutical company, researching cholesterol and statin development. Marina happens to be also having an affair with Jim Fox, the CEO. It is Jim who advises Marine, that her research partner Dr Anders Eckman has died in a remote part of Brazil under mysterious circumstances. The letter that announces Anders’ death has been written by Dr Annick Swenson, who some would say is Marina’s nemesis. Annick was Marina’s medical professor who subsequently stopped Marina’ medical career in its trackes. Annick is now an ethnbiologist turned gynaecologist turned immunologist and is researching a new fertility drug worth untold millions.
Annick has spent decades avoiding contact with her employers and has been adamant in refusing to report on progress, not even notifying anybody exactly where her research is conducted. This supposedly under the guise of ensuring her research is not disturbed. Initially the board send Anders to investigate and bring back news of the research, but as we now know he falls ill and dies. So Marina must now travel to Brazil, not just to find out what happened to Anders but also investigate and update the board on Annick’s scientific experimentations and particularly the issues around the extended years a woman could give birth and the consequences this brings.
Finally with the appearance of the sharp-tongued and eccentric Annick, does the book really get into it’s strides and their hostile past soon bubbles to the surface. With all the time gone past, Annick has not mellowed and still refuses to give credit to those working with her, instead she focuses on protecting the mysterious tribe of Lakashi to the detriment to her working relationships. Once in Brazil, Marina spends her time with the mysterious Lakashi tribe, who are able to have children in their 70’s and who Annick is basing her research on. Of course this is like the holy grail, if Vogel can discover the secret to fertility it would make billions and change women’s lives forever. Marina is the heroine, although a strange one and could be a research study in herself, she is inhibited, quiet and repressed. After her first marriage ended, Marina found no time to mourn the end of the relationship and seems to be unable to communicate. Her relationship with Fox bordered on the edge with both neither committing or making any alternate arrangements. What is slightly annoying is Patchett’s descriptions of the Amazon with the usual platitudes, mainly because I have been to the Brazilian and Peruvian Amazon and didn’t find the insects coming down in a storm – certainly less flies than Australia!
The concept of the book did in some ways remind me of Medicine Man starring Sean Connery and Lorraine Bracco where Sean Connery discovers a cure for cancer in the Brazilian rain forest.
Click here to download audio at RatioNational of Ann Patchett's State of Wonder on The Book Show.
The Missing Shade of Blue: A Philosophical Adventure by Jennie Erdal
Read by Tracy May 2012
Tracy recommends as an interesting mix of reality and romance
Jennie Erdal started out as a translator of Russian novels which she studied alongside philosophy at St Andrews in Scotland, but this her first novel to appear under how own name. She has previously ghost written for publisher Naim Attallah where she spent years as an unacknowledged ghostwriter, even penning a bestselling memoir Ghosting. Ghosting paints Attallah as an effervescent and charming Donald Trump who got more ambitious and so after transcribing and editing answers, Attallah soon had Erdal writing his novels. Of course the outcome of Ghosting was an unhappy Attallah and legal maneuverings has taken up her time to date.
The narrator of the Missing Shade of Blue is Edgar Logan, in his mid-forties, and a translator of French and Scottish parentage who has returned from Paris to Edinburgh to work on a French edition of the philosopher, David Hume’s essays. Erdal, herself, is a great fan of David Hume and she first read him at St Andrews and subsequently completing an honors course in Humean ethics, so the opportunity to combine her love for Hume and her love of translation was a rare opportunity not to be missed. Logan's father was a Cambridge philosophy graduate who swapped life to become a bookseller and his hero was Hume. Hume had suffered from a psychotic episode possibly by pondering his question of the Missing Shade of Blue. Hume argued (in his Treatise on Human Nature) that if a man grew up familiar with every shade of blue but one, would he be able to recognise the hue in a chart of blues, or would it register only as a blank? As with Hume, the main characters of this book are also facing their own existential crises.
A lonely Logan soon becomes drawn into the orbit of captivating but disillusioned philosopher, Harry Sanderson (the main focus in the book) and his mysterious, but much younger, wife Carrie. Logan is caught in the middle of their marriage breakdown and must listen to their versions as he increasingly realizes that he is voyeuristically living his life through others. As the story progresses there are many mysteries to keep you turning the page. Although the book covers interesting topics such as the zen of fly fishing and the romance of bookselling, with a dry wit, the storyline becomes too fictional almost standard with the almost usual descriptions of characters - Harry is bitter, rails against academia, whereas Edgar is fascinated by him and constantly monologues despair. I was worried that I had not fully understood the psychological undertones of the book but deciding to just treat it is a novel, found that Erdal gave depth to her characters and although the book could have fallen into a technical look at philosophy, instead it is a love story and the age old argument – can brains bring bliss?
In the June 2012 Good Reading magazine Melissa Wilson (reviewer) gave this a four star rating (highly recommended) describing this as an interesting story of the twists in people's lives and the way that others interpret them.
Salvage the Bones: A Novel by Jesmyn Ward
Read by Tracy in May 2012
Tracy recommends as a tale of family hardship and heartbreak under the cloud of Hurrican Katrina
I am going to be seeing Jesmyn Ward at the upcoming Sydney Writers Festival (May 2012), so thought it would be appropriate to read her National Book Award winning novel Salvage the Bones: A novel. I haven’t had much luck lately reading the latest award winning novels, so downloaded this to my Kindle with much trepidation and hope that it would go against the grain.
Set in Bois Sauvage, a poor community on the Mississippi Gulf Coast we are drawn into the life of the Batiste family through the narration of Eschelle (or Esch to everyone). Joining Esch is her father (Claude), her brothers Randall, Skeetah and Junior. They live in several rural hectares which have gradually become a junkyard called “the Pit”. She is a bookworm and loves literature, spending her summer fantasising about Greek mythology and comparing her life and her neglectful lover, Manny to Medea and Jason. Esch has been having sex with her brothers friends since the age of 12 when she decides that "it was easier to let him keep on touching me than ask him to stop" and now she has set her hearth on Manny, who unfortunately won’t even look at her whilst they are having sex – doesn’t help he is living with his girlfriend. Unfortunately their mother died giving birth to Junior and now Esch is alone and pregnant.
With her father in the grips of alcoholism and her brothers trying to find their own way in life they don’t realise or fully understand the struggle Esch finds herself in. Randall is attempting to escape Bois Sauvage through a basketball scholarship and is constantly practising and hoping that he is seen by a scout and can go to college, whereas Skeetah sees his way of making money is through his prized pit bull dog, China and Junior, well he is desperate for attention and likes to spend time under the house. It is this close knit family dynamic that is fascinating – everyone has found their place within the family and although they squabble and are envious of each other’s actions, there is an underlying love. The family survive on packets of noodles and basic food stuffs, however bad that may seem, they do have a semblance of family life and spend their days playing in the surrounding woods. A lot of the story surrounds Skeetah and China who has been mated with another prize fighting dog and ventures into motherhood very dramatically. Skeetah appears to love this dog more than anything else, and I have no idea how he can align this with his desire to put her in the fight ring and this story of man and dog bonding is what drives the narrative forward. Nothing will stop Skeetah in his relationship with China and Esch is envious of that bond, wishing that Manny would show her even a small amount of attention. However, in the end it is Skeetah who first notices that Esch is pregnant.
As this is going on, Claude is becoming increasingly worried about a hurricane that is heading towards Bois Sauvage and when the hurricane is named “Katrina” and raised to a category 5, the race is on to ensure they have enough food and are secure to see it through. Unfortunately not all the family feels the same way and believe the hurricane will turn away as most of the other storms do. The novel is organised as a countdown to the showdown with Katrina and it does not fall into the trap of placing the blame or making recriminations, which in hindsight it easily could. As people realise the storm is coming and there is no ability for people to leave, the family barricade themselves into the house. Sadly all their work in preparing the home did not prepare them for the sheer fury of Katrina.
The story doesn’t fall into a romanticised version of poverty and the luck that falls to the family, instead it is realistic, Ward doesn’t shy away from dog fighting, the cruelty of pups dying, family tragedy and even hearts being broken. Although the narration is by a fourteen year old, she pours her heart and soul into what she sees and does and is fiercely independent and descriptive in her thoughts and actions. This could stem from Ward’s own impoverished background so she doesn’t feel the need to be fatalistic.
The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller
Read by Tracy in May 2012
Tracy recommends as an Mills & Boon style romance set in ancient Greece
The Song of Achilles won the 2012 Orange Prize.
What a different book – it is not often you get to read a book that entwines a story of Greek mythology and homosexuality whilst having imagery of Brad Pitt and Orlando Bloom in your mind. This is Madeline Miller’s first novel and she attempts to popularize the story of the Greeks invasion of Troy (hence the visions of Brad and Orlando), and not that she is a novice in the subject, she has an undergraduate and graduate degree from Brown in the classics.
The Song of Achilles follows the story of Patroclus, an exiled Prince who becomes the companion of Achilles. I am unsure of the reality of the research and thoughts, but these days it is an interesting look at a relationship between two men. Patroclus had a harsh upbringing, his father was tricked into marrying his mother and Patroclus was never the kingly son he wished for and when Patroclus finally stood up to someone, it resulted in the other parties accidental death. I think his father was very keen to use this as an excuse to exile him. This exile initially led to much hardship until Patroclus and Achilles meet and their relationship flourishes. Achilles is the opposite of Patroclus, he is the golden son, his father loves him, his mother is a goddess and he is the epitomy of his race.
Their relationship grows deeper when they go to stay with Chiron, the centaur who is to teach them what they need to be future leaders. As they settle into life on Mount Othrys they fall under the spell of Chiron and learn much more than just battle, focusing on music, poetry and even medicine. Unfortunately their time in this idyllic setting comes to an end and the story then starts to follow the established myth after the abduction of Helen by Paris and the subsequent proclaimation of war between Greece and Troy. We see Achilles and Patroclus head sail with their army and camp on the beach of Troy and do battle against the Trojans. Eventually Achilles makes his stand against the commander in chief Agamemnon after he took back a spoil of war when Achilles had been awarded the slave girl Briseis. The story takes some very unusual twists and we glimpse moments of humanity when Achilles and Patroclus attempt to claim all the slave girls that were captured in the war and instead of abusing them as the other armies might, they instead provide them with shelter and repatriate them into their own camp. However, the story of Briseis was a bit weak, although she holds a high place, it was sad that in the end Achilles did not pursue her. As the war continues with Achilles standing on the sidelines refusing to become involved unless Agamemnon himself apologises for his actions, the gloss of Achilles being glorified as a hero starts to wear off and he is suddenly faced with a rebellion as his compatriots are used for canon fodder and the Trojan armies swell with the assistance of their neighbouring countries and a little help from Zues.
Achilles mother, Thetis (a sea nymph) has always attempted to protect Achilles but the foretelling of his death see her trying to outsmart the gods which has dire consequences and finally sees Patroclus takes to the battle field and it is his death that sees Achilles re-enter the battle and kill Hector which sees the myth reach its true end. The problem for me was the attempt by Miller to update the classic myths, but the language did not fully back that up and it became more of a romance novel bordering Mills & Boon. “He seemed to swell beneath my touch, to ripen. He smelled like almonds and earth. He pressed against me, crushing my lips to wine. He went still as I took him in my hand, soft as the delicate velvet of petals. . . . Our bodies cupped each other like hands.” The ending with the reintroduction of Achilles son, Pyrrhus, as the new Aristos Achaion and who has none of the modesty and compassion of his father due to his upbringing by Thetis and not his human parents foreshadows the end of Troy.
Painter of Silence by Georgina Harding
Read by Tracy in May 2012
Tracy recommends as an confronting look at communism
Painter of Silence was shortlisted for the 2012 Orange Prize.
Set in Romania from just before World War II until the country is closed to the outside world by communism, we are introduced to Safta who is lucky enough to be born to the owners of the manor house (Poiana) and to Augustin, born out of wedlock to the cook. They are born six months apart and have a bond that lasts through the war, poverty and displacement. Augustin, who is deaf and mute, communicates solely through his drawings as he has never learnt sign language or to lip read. During his youth he was refused a structured education due to the ideals of the time believing he could not understand and was left to draw and never gain an understanding of the concept of sound or language. Even with the insistence of Marina Valeanu (Safta’s mother), it seemed that Augustin was simply put in the too hard basket. Whereas, Safta is rebellious and self-willed and against all odds, she finds that Augustin is intelligent and manages to get him to write and understand a few words.
We follow Augustin as he searches for Safta in the city of Iasi after the war. She is a nurse, having turned her back on her family and remaining in Romania and he is in desperate need of a place to recuperate. You are drawn into the beautifully descriptive passages where you almost believe that if it wasn’t for the vision of a nurse he would not have had the strength to get off the park bench and find a reserve of determination to follow this angel. When Safta first recognizes him in the hospital she does not show her feelings or any acknowledgement of him and her life before the war. The country is under the rule of communism where fear has become deeply instilledand ingrained and anything that draws attention to you is bad news. It starts to become assumed that she feels pity for him and takes him under her wing to find out more information about his family or anything about his past. He has survived the horror of the war and no longer draws and is incommunicative, living in a silent world. Eventually he starts to draw again and once he leaves the hospital to stay with the ward sister Adriana to regain his strength, we are taken back through time by his drawings and how these are translated by Safta who also weaves her own stories in them. Adriana’s story is also amazing, she is very resilient and has adjusted to the presumed death of her son in the war and being rehomed into a small room with minimal belongings and being constantly under watch from those around her. You feel that Augustins arrival brought her back from a very dark place and when she gave him her son’s name it was a heart-warming moment.
This was a very unusual book, considering how much you have to infer from Augustin and how silent his life is. However, the premise of the storyline left me wanting much more detail on how the war affected the families, how did they eventually escape communism, what happened to the other inhabitants of the manor house and we are just drip feed very slowly in the haphazard drawings. Augustin was a difficult character, so impossibly implacable and immovable in his ways, however, you can only imagine how descriptive his drawings are and how detailed his memories are that can let him draw a picture decades later down to the last detail or where the tea-cup was placed. The descriptions of Poiana are beautiful and you can imagine the opulence of the time. I wanted the happy ever after where Safta and Augustin move back to Poiana and bring it back to its early glory.
I don’t know much on the war in Romania, but can only imagine that the country was caught in the cross-fire between Germany and Russia and was unable to gain any assistance from the Allies and after the war was shut-off under the communist blanket which saw a whole group of people marginalized even further.
The Forgotten Waltz by Anne Enright
Read by Tracy in May 2012
Tracy recommends as a look at how self-centred and destructive an affair can become
This is the story of Gina Moynihan and her affair with Sean Vallely. Gina narrates their relationship and the impact it has on those around them from her perspective. Strangely she seems to feel she is the one hard done by in the changes in relationships and that her actions are in no way responsible for sadness, heartbreak and a reality check. Gina starts her narration by describing how she first saw Sean and how even then he was a light in her darkened life. Gina’s marriage to Conor Shiels wasn’t all bad, she describes him initially as a strong, solid and warm man (pg 14), but they are soon weighed down by mortgage debt which is then topped up with new car loans, all during the boom times of the Irish economy. As Gina states, even a tin shack on the beach is worth hundreds of thousands, not that she wants one, but she feels depressed she can’t afford one and this is probably the cause for the economic woes that are still prevalent in Ireland today. Gina’s sister, Fiona and her husband Shay have managed to accumulate several homes and are living the high life that the thriving economy has brought and this socializing soon brings Gina into the orbit of Sean, his wife Aileen and their daughter Evie. Gina’s reminiscences of this period are extremely vivid and highly romanticized and you see how once they are introduced and commence a series of flirtatious meetings their affair was set in stone and the eventual consummation of the affair was almost an anti-climax. I wonder if it wasn’t the pressure of the economy and the need for Conor to work long hours where his focus left Gina, who I must say, does like to be the centre of attention that she started to look elsewhere. Strangely, however, during this time Gina and Conor were trying to have a baby and we are lucky that conception didn’t happen and cause even further grief and recriminations.
Eventually the economic bubble bursts and by the time Gina and Fiona’s mother has died, they are unable to sell the family home (ph 130). However, luckily for Gina she is able to set up home there after leaving Conor and we see Sean move in immediately. Unfortunately the sale of that home and others is desperately needed to pay off some of the debt accumulated, particularly when Gina’s brother-in-law, Shay, finds himself unable to find employment (pg 188). Once the affair becomes public knowledge, Gina is surprised that she is seen as the villain (pg 182) and although Sean has a history of affairs, she is the one on the outer. Gina tries to make inroads and build a relationship with Sean’s daughter, Evie, but to her puzzlement, Evie isn’t as gullible as she thinks and Gina soon realizes that no matter how much she loves Sean or how much he purports to love her, Evie is the real centre of his life (pg 210) and strangely also the only character that seems to have a scene of what is morally right.
At the end, we find that Gina fully justifies her desire for Sean and is unable to accept or take any responsibility for her total infatuation which wrecks two families’ lives instead she blames her actions on alcohol and a fogginess that comes from taking the birth control pill! I can’t understand why she didn’t attempt to save her marriage, if it was excitement she wanted, that is something that is easy to find without tearing lives apart and her hatred of Conor’s larger than life family is a very shallow reason for wanting to divorce someone. She even crows that “ just can’t believe it. That all you have to do is sleep with somebody and get caught and you never have to see your in-laws again. Ever. Pfffft! Gone. It’s the nearest thing to magic I have yet found.” From Sean’s part, you can understand why he started to move away from Aileen, she had become neurotic about Evie’s health problems which as an outsider you accept can just be part of childhood. I have not read Anne Enrights previous works, but although she has an interesting writing style, the characters were lacking dimension and I felt Gina was a shallow and undeserving narrator – giving up everything and everyone for passion. Even at the end of the book I wasn’t sure if her idea of the relationship was reciprocated by Sean.
Anne Enright was the winner of the 2007 Man Booker Prize for The Gathering and The Forgotten Waltz has been shortlisted for 2012 Orange Prize.
What Remains by Denise Leith
Read by Natalie April 2012(OurBookClub book pick of the month for May 2012)
Natalie recommends as a heartbreaking love story set against a backdrop of cruelty and war
I really don’t know where to begin with my review of this book, except to say that it is one of those rare moments where I have put down a book and simultaneously felt two extreme and polar reactions. The first is simply joy and adoration for having read such a wonderfully written book that tells such a beautiful and moving story. The second is regret that I have ever read these words which have somehow managed to rip my heart out and bring tears to my eyes. This is what What Remains has done to me. But of course I don’t regret reading it because it is a truly wonderful book. Beautifully written and quite possibly one of the most heartbreaking love stories I have ever read, this is a book that will move you for so many reasons. It is the slow burn that urges you to keep turning the pages. It is the “what ifs” that leave you frustrated and questioning the lives of two people who you must remember are just a work of fiction. It is the unbearable misunderstandings and countless things left unsaid that make you want to grab the two characters and lock them in a room, yell at them to open their eyes and see all of things that are right in front of them, all of the things they are missing out on because they are too afraid to admit are there. And it is the lasting effects of a story that doesn’t leave you, even long after you have shelved the book.
What Remains is the story of Kate Price, a naïve young journalist who honestly believes that her new career in war correspondence can change the world. On her first assignment in Riyadh she meets the enigmatic and legendary photojournalist, Pete McDermott and from that moment on, her life changes in ways she could never have imagined. As she ventures out into the war zone for the first time, she tries not to make a fool of herself in front of this seasoned reporter, all the while hoping for the scoop that will kick-start her career. Despite Pete’s obvious teasing of her, particularly in relation to her naivety about war and covering it, they nonetheless form a close friendship which sees them working together for many years to come, Kate writing the stories and Pete taking the pictures. Both of them bringing something different to the equation, yet complementing each other at the same time. Despite an undeniable attraction to him, Kate believes that Pete is a player, often with a different woman on his arm every time she sees him and more than anything, she doesn’t want to ruin their professional relationship by getting personally involved with him. Pete never really vocalises his true feelings about their relationship, although it is clear to everyone that he is attracted to and probably in love with Kate.
The book moves through numerous years, conflicts and wars. From the first war in Iraq to Bosnia to South Africa to Rwanda to Chechnya to Lebanon and finally back to Iraq, Kate and Pete continue to cross paths as their careers see them covering the same conflicts and their close friendship sees them continuing to work together. As Kate becomes more hardened to the realities of war, she also has her first real breakdown when she witnesses the full atrocity of what man can do in Rwanda. As a night with Pete is marred by confused visions of their day in the field and Kate’s overwhelming need to distance herself from the horrors of what she has seen, the two of them start a cycle of drifting and coming back together. It also starts the frustrating pattern of too many actions which are misunderstood and too many words that are simply left unsaid, often resulting in them not speaking for a few months. And over the next ten years, we watch as they continue to be pushed together and pulled apart, all the while all of their friends and even the reader can see what’s really going on, even if the two people at the heart of it cannot.
Finally after nearly 14 years since they first met, Kate and Pete both find themselves back in Iraq and what eventually becomes Kate’s undoing, also becomes the reason they finally come together. Covering the second war after the events of 9/11, Kate and Pete are now battle-hardened journalists who are rarely as affected by the death and destruction they see every day. Cynical at the media, the very organisation they work for, the only thing that finally spurs them into action is the fall out of a bomb that impacts their “minder” and friend Amin. As Pete does everything he can to help, Kate takes a slightly different path born out of frustration and annoyance and unknowingly puts herself in danger and effectively ends her career. When the ramifications are known, Kate is pulled from Iraq and Pete, now back in New York can only wonder what made her do it in the first place. Told to lay low for a while, Kate now face to face with the reality of what she has lost, ventures to New York and finally does what she has wanted to do for nearly 15 years. What follows is five blissful days in New York where Pete and Kate finally, finally open up to each other and talk of all the things that they have previously left unsaid to each other, all of the actions that were previously unknown or misinterpreted. Finally they talk of themselves and each other and finally it looks like they might be getting somewhere. However Kate’s healing is not complete, drifting in the unknown of what she is supposed to do with her life now and possibly questioning whether she and Pete could ever really work, she seeks solace at her childhood home in Australia. Pete meanwhile, makes one last trip to Iraq to help Amin. A phone call before he departs sees them willing to give their relationship and the connection they have, a go. Making plans to leave Australia and meet him back in New York when he returns, Kate hangs up the phone finally understanding what she wants from life – Pete, no matter hard it might be.
What follows next? Well, that would be giving too much away and although I could guess at what was to happen long before it ever did, it didn’t make the hit any easier to take when it did finally happen. It was quite simply gut wrenching reading and as the reader you are left lamenting the loss of something that was truly beautiful, something that had been simmering slowly for years and when finally given permission to burn did, so very brightly. I was so frustrated at the two characters, but Kate especially and all of those “what ifs” were back, and I couldn’t help but ask them, over and over again.
Yes this is a love story, but it is also a book about conflict and the terrible and horrific atrocities of war. Not just for those involved, but also for those covering it, the ones who are forced to watch knowing there is nothing they can do about any of it. Denise based many of the conflicts on fact, having previously published a non-fiction book (Bearing Witness) on war correspondents. Her descriptions of these conflicts and the unbelievably horrific things that humans can do to each other are brutal, placing you right in the heart of them and cutting straight to the bone. But more than any of that, this is a story of missed opportunities, of wasted years, of misunderstandings and of too many things left unsaid. This is a love story that pulls you in and breaks your heart and if it does nothing else but inspire you to really live life in the moment, to never waste an opportunity, then lesson learnt.
I loved this book, I adored this book and despite the heart ache I don’t regret reading it. Just make sure you have some tissues handy when you do, because you will need them.
This book was very generously provided to me by Allen and Unwin although this did not influence my review
Mornings in Jenin by Susan Abulhawa
Read by Natalie April 2012
Natalie recommends as a beautifully written look at one family's suffering
Mornings in Jenin is the story of three generations of a Palestinian family, the Abulhejas, who were forcibly removed from their home in the ancient village of Ein Hod in 1948, following the formation of the new state of Israel. Separated from everything they have known, the head of the family struggles to understand how this could happen to them; his two sons father children and try to raise a family amidst the chaos; and his grandchildren grow up never knowing a life outside of the refugee camp. Told almost exclusively from the POV of Amal, the youngest of these grandchildren, we learn the history of her grandparents, including their life as farmers, tending the olive groves that have been in their family for generations. Her father Hassan, an asthmatic man who marries the enigmatic and definant Dalia, fathering three children, one of whom is stolen during their exile. Her uncle, Darweesh who in protecting his beloved horse is shot by an Israeli, leaving him a paraplegic. And her two brothers, the eldest Yousef who she helps in his cladestine affair with Fatima until he is taken and tortured by the Israeli's and Ishmael, the brother she never met, who was snatched from his mothers arms by an Israeli soldier and raised a Jew.
Through Amal's eyes we watch the horror that unfolds for this family. From the constant threats of attack, the curfews, the snatching of men from the refugee camps and the beatings. We witness as Amal experiences love for the first time, forms friendships, loses her beloved father and then her brother, suffers the distance of her traumatised mother who eventually succumbs to madness, is shot and then finally escapes Jenin for an education. Throughout all of this Amal remains stoic in the face of everything she sees and endures, reminding herself of her mother's words; whatever you feel, keep it inside. Offered the chance of a scholarship in America, Amal is initially reluctant, believing she is abandoning her country and her people if she goes. However, reminded of her father's wish that she gain an education, she leaves, moving to America where she sees for the first time what it is like to live without fear and without the threat of death. Spending years in the "lucky country" Amal changes her name to Amy but can never fully embrace all that the country has to offer. So when she receives word that Yousef and Fatima's first child is about to be born in Lebanon, she leaves America, returning to her family and her people once more. Gaining a job teaching at a school in the Palestinian refugee camp near Beruit, Amal is introduced to Majid, a Palestinian doctor who has studied in England before returning. As these two fall in love, the reader watches as Amal finds true happiness and with the impending birth of their first child, you get the sense that something bad is about to happen. As war looms ever closer, Majid insists that Amal return to America to protect their child, promising that he will join her as soon as he can. In a tragic twist, the day before he is to leave, he is killed when their apartment complex is bombed. Yousef, now a member of the PLO also suffers a tragedy when he is forced to leave Lebanon to protect his family, only to learn that his wife, daughter and unborn child have been murdered. Brother and sister, now separated by oceans take two very different paths. Yousef continues his role in the PLO, vowing vengenance for those who destroyed his family. Amal on the other hand withdraws in on herself, afraid to love to again, remembering all that she has lost and embracing her mother's words now more than ever. When her daughter Sara is born, Amal loves her desparately, but that fear continues and just as Dalia did to her, Amal distances herself from her daughter, only showing her true feelings when Sara is asleep. As the years go by, Amal spends it isolated and lonely, her daughter becoming increasingly withdraw from her and her brother Yousef now presumed dead and the subject of a CIA investigation over his role in the bombing of the US embassy in Lebanon. Then one day, David, the brother who was Ishmael, reaches out to her and as these two reconnect and talk of their vastly different lives, Amal begins the slow process of grieving and moving on. This culminates in a trip back to Jenin with her daughter Sara. Reconnecting with her childhood friend Huda, the two spend 9 days trapped in the Jenin refugee camp, reminicing of their childhood while threats of violence loom outside. Sara meanwhile listens in rapt fascination, finally learning the reasons for why her mother is the way she is as well as the truth about her father Majid and uncle Yousef. As mother and daughter mend all of the rifts between them, as the reader you hope that Amal can finally find happiness once again. However, there is one more bullet that has her name on it and as Sara realises the depth of love her mother has for her, Amal sacrifices herself for her daughter. A small twist at the end draws out the story, which eventually culiminates in Sara returning to the US with her Jewish cousin and Palestinian friend, the three of them living together in the "lucky country".
Originally released under the title The Scar of David, this is both relevant due to the scar David bears from the hand of his brother Yousef and the numerous metaphorical meanings this conjurs. Now released under the Mornings in Jenin title, it is a beautifully written and quite heart-breaking story of one family's struggles in a conflict that is still ongoing to this day. I will admit, I didn't know a whole lot about "the other side" of this story and I am sure there is still much more for me to learn, on both sides. The author's portrayal of her people's plight is searing and it is clear she is very passionate about it. However, that being said it is biased, extremely so and there is never any mention of the things that the Palestinians did in response, retaliation or the beginning. The one incident involving the bombing of the US embassay by the PLO is about it, and even that gets glossed over in the end. As a result, the story does come across as a little heavy handed, as though we are being force fed that side of the story. But, it is still an engrossing and at times quite moving read. Whether all of these things could have happened to a single family, that I don't know, I hope not, but I guess it is possible. Either way, what the book does leave you with is an overwhelming sense of hopelessness, at both the situation and a seemingly impossible resolution. It saddens me to think that human beings can do this to each other and what makes the situation even worse is the poking and prodding of outside players who are not actually involved in it in the first place (yes big superpower, I'm talking about you). It wouldn't really matter whose side or what conflict this book was about, the fact that it could even happen in the first place is what really destroys you.
On a minor note, the only other gripe I had about the book is the changing between first and third POV for no apparent reason, as well as the occasional first POV from Yousef. Given what Sara does in the end to remember and honour her mother, I can kind of see why the book was written this way, it just got a little annoying to read it like this. The author Susan is herself the daughter of Palestinian refugees. A human rights activist, political commentator and founder of the Playgrounds for Palestine organisation, you can read more on her website.
The Wall by Ligia Urroz
Read by Tracy April 2012
Tracy recommends as a reminder what people risk to escape for an ideal
Ligia Urroz Arguello hails from Nicaragua but went on to study Economics in Mexico and London. I think this enabled her to draw on her experiences in each of these countries to write a beautiful and sad portrayal of Mexicans and their desire to stop at nothing to access the spoils of success in America by crossing the Wall.
The Mexican villagers are from small communities where everything and everyone is known. They don't have money and just finding enough to eat means that subsistence teeters on a knife-edge, however, everyone seems to know or know of someone that has crossed the desert. It is this knowledge that spurs some on to give their life savings to someone that agrees to take them over the Wall leaving behind everyone and everything. Ligia doesn't take the easy option, she painstakingly describes the thought processes that saw Maria Charbel Solorio Sanchez leave her mother to try and locate her father who had previously crossed the desert and we are drawn into the nightmare that ensues. You just once want something good to happen, for the desire and dream to become a reality. Ligia's writing style is fascinating for me, I love the Spanish language and the fact that she still included Spanish words as well as add some new English words to my vocabulary added another dimension to the book - the dairy cows becoming addlepated in the cold weather was so eloquent you could almost feel the ice.
The book isn't all doom and gloom, there are some beautiful moments as well as funny ones, when Lupita wanted to name her daughter Charbel, but as that is masculine, she stuck the ever ubiquitous Maria on the front. This was much to the local priest's hopes as it seemed a lot of the mothers in the village named their children after telenovela stars, however, I am not sure that Maria is a different name in a Mexican village. Then there is the beautiful love story of Martin and Topacio - how love can start with just a glance and is soon something that takes over everything. The imagery of the herbalist and her remedies was fascinating, you are drawn into the hopes of all those that come to see her and even if her treatments have no medicinal merit, the power of positive thought cannot be underestimated.
Finally, we are drawn into the building and management of the Wall that has divided those from the haves and the so desperately wants. We tend to only see the bad when we are exposed to people scrambling across the desert and scaling the wall, that you forget there is a name, family and life being left behind to try and create something better for future generations. This book is a timely reminder to all those that have been lucky enough to immigrate to a country where they can strive for their dreams to encourage others that too want the same chance. The real criminals are those that arrange the human trafficking that takes place and this isn't just those that cross the border on foot, but those that are packed like sardines into vehicles.
On a side note, this was the very first book I had downloaded to my new Kindle.
Women of Letters by Marieke Hardy and Michaela McGuire
Read by Tracy in March 2012 (OurBookClub book pick of the month for April 2012)
Tracy recommends as a beautiful, funny and poignant collection of letters
In 2010 Marieke Hardy (from ABC TV';s First Tuesday Book Club) and Michaela McGuire organised an afternoon that would be dedicated to the lost art of letter writing as well as an opportunity to showcase and celebrate women. In our digital age where we correspond via Twitter and Facebook, putting pen to paper has become lost and something I know I enjoy, so nostalgic this may be, it is a fantastic way to escape from your computer and read through some of the beautiful thoughts that are documents. Marieke and Michaela asked women to pen letters that were focused on several central themes. This has since snowballed in readings, events and I am sure much fun, sadness and hilarity as the letters are read aloud. The book allows people (mainly women) to reveal as much or as little as they want and some of the stories are very poignant. The proceeds of this endeavour go to a fantastic cause - Edgar's Mission, which is a sanctuary for unwanted and abused farm animals. In all there are approximately 60 authors, with a large cross-section of well-known Australians. Of course there are some abstract letters, but there are many jewels which certainly make up for those. Some of my highlights are:-
Lorelei Vashti (dedicated to the night I'd rather forget) who was the solitary meat eater in a family, I so felt her pain as people try to convince you otherwise and how this food choice can be lonely. Lorelei does anything she can to avoid meat and her mother does everything she can to ensure that Lorelei eats it from lacing her pizza with ham, just hoping that a few pieces make it through Loreilei's fastidious removal of it.
Fiona Scott Norman (dedicated to my nemesis) who was adopted and confused why? She argues that if her adopted parents really wanted a child they wouldn't have sent her off to boarding school. They took the English stiff upper lip to a new level and anything vaguely personal was off-limits for discussion so the family just quietly gravitated on their own trajectories. Fiona made me laugh in her comparisons between being English and Australia: there is a lot about Australia that shits me, England is like living in a straightjacket with superior sitcoms.
Celia Pacquola (dedicated to the host of that party) where things grew out of proportion. Celia laments the disappearance of parties that used to focus on who was able to purchase the goon bag and who could drive everyone to the parties. Parties now are glamorous events where the food is much more than a bag of chips and a flagon of wine.
Clare Moore (dedicated to my first boss). This made me laugh out loud. Clare has an innate fear of wages and being both Australian and a musician feels that it is in her nature to avoid work if at all possible. The most tragic event in her life so far was when Malcolm Fraser ensured that the free ride (called the dole) would be restricted. You know were responsible for advising the government departments of your living arrangements and what you were doing to find work. I particularly laughed when Clare noted that living with your boyfriend entitlted you both to an additional allowance, however, this was paid to the man and not the woman - sadly this was in our recent past, but does highlight how things are changing, albeit it slowly.
Jen Cloher (dedicated to my twelve-year-old self). I loved the concept that you could write a letter to your younger self, even if it was just a letter to say, hey, don't give u[p, things do turn out okay. Jen poignantly wants to give her younger self confidence to pursue the ones you love rather than shrinking away in fear. What beautiful sentiments and something that is relevant at all stages in our lives.
sophie Braham (dedicated to a love letter). Usually when you write a love letter it to is a person, however, Sophie takes it to another level and the love of her life is email and particularly the Google five second undo button, I wish I had that on my email provider account - it would certainly eradicate some of the stupid emails I have sent which have caused me many nights of sleeplessness.
Alice Pung (dedicated to the moment it all fell apart). This had me smiling and nodding in agreement. Alice's parents don't appreciate theatre (wanting matchsticks to keep their eyes open during Shakespear), art (arguing that there was already enough suffering in the world and why would people want to manufacture more crap) or gourmet food, they were immigrants and instead focused on family. My partner too cannot understand the subtelties of art and going to the theatre is always instigated by me. Still, there is no accounting for taste and the world is a better place for everyone being different in tastes and styles.
Lastly, but definately one of the best is Julia Zemiro (dedicated to the best present I ever received) struck a strong cord with me when she sadly lamented about overspending - people go into debt to buy things they can't afford and when it comes to Christmas for people they don't particularly like, it is just greed. Then there is the Boxing Day Sales where people stampede and trample over themselves to buy more things they don't need or return unwanted gifts. A sad indictment on society where it seems to matter about what you have instead of who you are.
This book gives you the chance to understand the person who has penned the letter as they have written something extremely personal. It is rare to see a book that allows such a variety of famous and not to famous people share a piece of their lives. The book isn't just about women, there is a chapter by men dedicated to The woman who changed my life and you can listen to Paul Kelly reading his letter to Katie Cruel.
For more information you can visit the Women of Letters website that also lists dates and information about People of Letters tours and readings. You can keep up to date on the latest events also through the Women for Letters
Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese
Read by Natalie March 2012 (OurBookClub book pick of the month for April 2012)
Natalie recommends as a beautifully written story that is a rich history lesson filled with gorgeous characters
Cutting for Stone is one of those stories that pulls you in, immersing you in its history, its colours and smells, its journey, but most of all, its characters. Set in Ethiopia as the country is about to enter a period of revolution, it is the story of twin boys, born from a secret union between an Indian nun and a British surgeon. The boy’s birth is a surprise to everyone at the Missing Hospital as no one knew their mother was even pregnant, and most can only guess at who the father is - Thomas Stone a much admired but volatile surgeon. However, they are left alone when their mother dies in childbirth and their father abandons them shortly afterwards. Close to death, the boys are finally aided by Hema, an Indian Ob/Gyn who miraculously arrives in time to save the babies, but not their mother. As Hema berates Thomas Stone for his inability to do anything when faced with the Sister’s labor as well as the fact that he almost killed the twins when he attempted to deliver them, Thomas flees leaving the boys literally in Hema’s arms. Inconsolable at being unable to save the boys' mother, a woman he has spent seven years working alongside and the only woman he has ever loved, Thomas never wants to see his children again.
Naming the boys Marion and Shiva after an American Ob/Gyn who made great advances in women’s health and her favourite Indian god, Hema takes the boys and raises them as though they are her own. Aided by Ghosh, a fellow Indian doctor and her long-time admirer at the Missing Hospital in Ethiopia, Hema witnesses a new side to Ghosh when he helps her watch over Shiva when he develops breathing problems. Finally realising that this man is more than just a friend and colleague, Hema gives in and agrees to marry Ghosh, on the proviso that she can renew or not renew their contract every year.
As the boys continue to thrive and grow (and Hema and Ghosh continue to stay married), they are introduced to the wonders of life at the Missing Hospital. Joined by Genet, the daughter of their nanny Rosina, as well as Gebrew, the Missing priest and gate attendant, Matron the head Sister at the hospital and Almaz, their cook, the boys are introduced to both Indian and Ethiopian cultures. This includes politics, culture, food, sexual awakening, social differences and of course medicine. Spending the first decade of their lives joined at the hip, ShivaMarion are treated as a single entity, able to communicate without words and always knowing what the other is thinking. However Genet, their childhood friend soon becomes a wedge between them as they reach their teens and new experiences which result in a betrayal and a gruesome punishment, force the boys in different directions. All of this leaves Marion feeling betrayed by both his brother and the girl he has grown to love and the split in ShivaMarion widens such that the boys start to take different paths in life. As Marion grows under the tutelage of Ghosh, learning the ways of surgery and internal medicine, Shiva follows Hema’s path learning about childbirth and women’s medicine. While Marion follows his path into medical school, Shiva prefers to learn by experience, shunning formal qualifications for skill he develops watching Hema at work. When an action by Genet forces Marion to flee Ethiopia, he flies to America where he begins his internship at an underfunded and overcrowded American hospital and where his path eventually leads him to his father.
As the years pass by, Marion is introduced to western medicine and the way foreign doctors are treated in America. Still stinging from his betrayal by Shiva and the knowledge that Hema, their mother believes that what happened to Genet was Marion’s fault, he remains homesick yet unable to go home. However when Genet walks back into Marion’s life, he finally gets what he wanted, but the repercussions of that one weekend are far reaching and potentially deadly. As Marion struggles to survive, his life is left in the hands of the two men he feels the most betrayed by, his father and the twin brother he hasn’t seen for seven years.
This is a richly told story that had me completely engrossed. Reading the bulk of it on a plane, I was only pulled from it whenever we hit turbulence (incidentally the first passage I read on the plane involved Hema on her own aeroplane that appeared to be plummeting into the ocean…not good!). The scenes are so vividly described that I could almost taste the food and the smell the spices and while there is a fair amount of medical jargon and political discussion, the story is nonetheless absorbing. By the time I was back home, I had only a third of the book to go and this kept me up and reading late into the night. The ending in particular was one of the most moving parts of the book and had me in tears as Marion finally realises the extent to which his brother Shiva will go to save him and in doing so learns the full extent his love. Once again becoming a single entity, ShivaMarion finds himself back home in Ethiopia and finally closer to understanding his life's journey. While this story is undoubtedly the Stone’s journey, that of Marion and Shiva and their father Thomas, for me, the book was all about Hema and Ghosh, two of the most wonderful characters I have ever been introduced too. If ever there was a time you would want any characters to come to life, this would be it, their love for each other and their sudden and extended family was truly gorgeous. A beautifully written and very moving look at family, culture and love, pick it up, but definitely have some tissues handy.
Me and You by Niccolo Ammaniti
Read by Natalie March 2012
Natalie recommends as short but good
Probably more of a novella than novel, Me and You still manages to draw you in and have you feel something for the characters despite the brief glimpse we are given into their lives. The story follows Lorenzo, a 14 year old boy who is a bit of a loner and the week he spends hiding out in the cellar of his apartment building. Having told his parents he is away on a ski trip with school friends that aren't really his true friends, Lorenzo is longing for time alone, away from the kids at school and even his parents. As his week begins, Lorenzo spends it simply eating, sleeping, reading and playing his play station, knowing he won't be bothered by anyone. However, as his mother's phone calls and demands to speak with his "friend's" mother increase, Lorenzo gets an unexpected visitor with the arrival of his frequently absent and virtually estranged half-sister Olivia. Irritated that she has stumbled upon his hiding spot, he initially dismisses her, but as his mother's phone calls increase and Olivia threatens to give his secret away, he allows Olivia to stay for one night with the promise that she keep his secret and leave the following day. However not all is as it seems with Olivia and as Lorenzo discovers his sister is in the throes of drug withdrawal, he becomes sympathetic to her pain, even risking a trip to his hospital-bound grandmother in the hopes of securing Olivia some sleeping tablets. As Olivia battles through her withdrawal, she stays for the rest of the week and begins to open up to Lorenzo, about their father and their childhood. Lorenzo too, grows fond of his sister and finds he is able to talk to her. When the end of the week arrives and Lorenzo is forced back into his real life, the siblings have found a connection through their shared secrets and promise to remain in contact. The book however, then skips forward 10 years, taking us back to the initial prologue and the reader learns that not all promises are kept.
I enjoyed this book and although it was a quick, easy read, it somehow still allowed you to connect with the characters and feel something for them, even though we are only allowed a brief glimpse into their lives. The ending was quite sudden and I'll admit I was quite shocked at both the outcome and its suddeness. I was left feeling quite sad, even though there was a 10 year gap which we knew nothing about. The book is translated from Italian, although this doesn't deter from the story at all. A great read if you are looking for something short but entertaining.
The Secret River by Kate Grenville
Read by Tracy in March 2012
Tracy recommends as an idealised look at the white settler/indigenous people's relationship
The Secret River won Kate Grenville the 2006 Commonwealth Writers Prize.
After reading The Idea of Perfection which focused on a country town and two middle-aged protagonists who eventually find solace in each other’s arms, The Secret River is totally different. The book is initially set in London during the 1790’s where we are introduced to William Thornhill who lives on the edge of poverty, it is not an easy life but William is lucky and manages to secure an waterman apprenticeship with Mr Middleton. William hopes that with luck and hard work he can turn this into a career and eventually gain the hand of Middleton’s daughter, Sal. Sadly when Mr Middleton dies, William must turn to petty crime just to put food on the table. William is soon arrested and after having his death sentence commuted, he is transported to New South Wales for the term of his natural life.
The story then moves to colonial Australia in 1806, where in a twist, William is assigned to his wife to provide convict labour. New South Wales at that time is a wild place having become a holding pen for English criminals. However, William and Sal build a home together and make the best of what life has dealt them. Eventually William works off his sentence and is soon free to explore the rest of Australia as development and settlement start to spread. William wants to settle in the Hawkesbury region and even though Sal wants to return to London, he manages to convince her and their growing brood of children that this is their destiny. There are few white settlers in this area, but they are gradually making inroads and colonising the landscape. The family start to become aware of the mysterious black populace who although menacing do accept treats from Sal. William also attempts to befriend the blacks and between his family and the locals they develop an uneasy relationship. However, things change suddenly and the family is caught up in an act of reprisal against the indigenous population and sees William against his family. There aren’t many books that handle the confrontation between the white settlers and the native population, but Grenville takes us through the subtleties of relationships. You can only imagine the hardships faced by the white settlers as they attempt to farm untamed lands, but you also understand the perplexity of the indigenous population who see their native homes being taken over.
Keep up to date with Kate Grenville through her website.
In Search of the Blue Tiger by Robert Power
Read by Natalie March 2012
Natalie recommends as pretty much nothing like it's blurb suggests and certainly a very unusual read
It's hard for me to review this book because I have very mixed feelings about it. At first I wasn't sure I would like it because it features a lonely and neglected boy who witnesses his alcoholic father repeatedly bash his depressed mother all while his repressed great aunt looks on and does nothing. The young boy, Oscar, has no friends save for the imaginary Blue Monkey and his dog Stigir and all he wants is to grow up and be a tiger, preferably a blue one. Then as the story goes on he meets Mrs April, the town librarian who not only lets him look at the grown-up books but also shows him stories on people becoming animals. As their relationship progressed and Oscar learnt of her affair with the local fishmonger, Mr Fishcutter, father to twins Perch and Carp, I was a little thrown by the quirkiness but really started to get into the story. Then it took a massive ninety degree turn and to be honest I was left wondering exactly what this book was trying to do and then just plain annoyed. When Oscar gets embroiled in Perch and Carp's plans for the school play, he is unwittingly drawn into a plot to kill their father, a sacrifice that must be made so they can all be reunited with Jehovah and their mother (they are currently raised with their father and his new wife, the evil stepmother). Planning a rehersal for their play, Oscar is not only an accomplice to the murder of the twin's father, but he willingly and unqestioningly goes along with it. Yes I know he has his own family issues, the violence, the continued acceptance of this from his mother and aunt, the neglect he suffers from both parents, but this was just a little too far fetched for me. Throw in some heavily religious story development that ended up with Oscar to young to be sentenced and so sent to an island to commune with the Brothers - monks to Jehovah and honestly, I was really at a loss as to what this book was trying to say and do. In the end when 11 year old Oscar sets sail with his dog on a trade ship, finally joining the profession of his father and perhaps one step closer to finding himself a blue tiger (clearly a metaphor for finding your journey in life), I was just completely lost.
The book is mostly told first POV from Oscar and I did really enjoy his narrative. Thrown in there are third POV from his mother, father, Mrs April, Mr Fishcutter and some of local townsfolk. Even Blue Monkey, the imaginary friend gets a go. Interspersed with this are random tiger facts, religious tales and countless dreams that seem to be telling the future and the past and I just felt completely lost. Sorry, this book just did not do it for me.
This book was generously provided to me by Transit Lounge, although this did not influence my review. In Search of the Blue Tiger was also shortlisted for the manuscript section of the Victorian Premier's Literary Awards.
The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern
Read by Natalie March 2012
Natalie recommends as a magically enchanting story that feels like a dream
The Night Circus has been long-listed for the 2012 Orange Prize, although I chose to read it because it had come with some great reviews and the blurb on the back of the book made it sound magical and exciting. Unfortunately it doesn't appear that whoever wrote the blurb really read the book, because while some parts of it are correct, the overall theme of a magic competition where a sorcerer's apprentice and an illusionist's daughter are pitted in a duel against each other, only to fall in love and have their searing romance affect everyone and everything around them - yeah this isn't strictly true.
The story begins when Celia Bowen, a six year old girl is brought to her father, Hector, a well known illusionist who immediately sees his daughter's potential. Having been locked in a battle with the reclusive and mysterious Alexander for an unknown period of time, Hector suggests another round with new competitiors. Alexander agrees and seeks out young Marco from an English orphanage who he trains as his apprentice. The story then moves through nearly two decades as each child is taught by their respective masters how to improve their magic. Using very different techniques to train their protege (Hector repeatedly cuts open his daughter's fingertips so that she learns to heal them, while Alexander ignores Marco and simply forces him to read endless books), the stage is then set for their battle - a circus, specifically The Circus of Dreams. As Marco is given a job assisting the circus proprieter set up his show, Celia receives a note that simply says Your Move. Showing this to her rapidly disappearing father (a magic trick that has gone slightly wrong and as a result leaves Hector virtually transparent), she is sent in to audition for the circus. Successfully landing a role as the circus illusionist, Celia has no idea who her oponent in the challenge which she has been forced into is. Marco, on the other hand knows the minute he sees Celia that she is his opposition and despite being awestruck at her abilities as well as being forced to remain in London as the circus travels the world, the challenge begins.
The story then spans several years/decades as Celia and Marco both introduce new tents to the circus that are designed to outdo each other with their amazements. Neither of them wishes to be in this particular challenge, yet neither can leave, being bound by the other one's master. Increasingly frustrated by what they are asked to do, with the help of the circus architect, they begin to collaborate, creating a tent that each of them can add to over time. When Marco finally reveals himself to Celia and she learns the identity of her oponent, their attraction for each other begins. What starts of as a very slow and hesitant romance, quickly develops into full blown love. The kind that makes the lights flicker and the temperature in the room increase whenever they touch or kiss each other. However, this love and their collaboration also makes their masters furious and demanding that they stop. Desperate for a way out of the challenge, Celia finally learns the true nature of what her father and his rival have been doing. Pitting their students against each other in a magical fight to the death. When it becomes apparent that the circus contortionist is Alexander's former student and she reveals how her battle lasted for 37 years, during which time the rivals fell in love and only ended when one of them committed suicide, Celia realises what she must do. The only problem being that Celia is heavily tied to the circus, her magic being responsible for it's ability to suddenly appear fully formed in a town overnight, to move silently around the world and many of the illusions that the circus attractions create. Marco is also linked to the circus' fate, having cast a binding spell over it when it first opened that not only protects all of its inhabitants from sickness and old age, but affects everyone that passes through it's gates. Seeing no way out of their challenge without collapsing the entire circus and all that it holds, Celia employs a trick her father used and removes herself and Marco from the world, trapping them within the circus itself. Forcing a decision via stalemate, Celia and Marco pass on their responsibilities for the circus to twins Popet and Widget (born the night the circus first opened) and their friend Bailey, a longtime fan of the circus.
There were many things I loved about this novel, but especially the writing. The prose is beautiful and there were many instances where I felt like I was walking through the circus and could vividly picture each of the tents in all of their black, white and silver glory. Moving throughout the actual story are short descriptions of a journey through the circus over the course of the night which leave the reader feeling as though they are actually there. All of this is beautiful and pulls you in, leaving you with a real sense of being in this enchanted dream. However, there were a couple of things that left me a tiny bit frustrated and wanting to wield some magic of my own. Firstly the book spans several decades and at times moves back and forward in time. This was a little hard to keep track of and although Marco had ensured that none of the circus folk age, it had the affect of drawing everything out just that bit too much. It also slowed down the pace of Marco and Celia's romance to the point that they would go years without seeing each other, yet somehow remained completely in love with each other. I would have prefered to see Marco travel with the circus and witness some of the more magical aspects of their connections and how it affected the people and attractions around them. Because when they did come together, it was like a magical Romeo and Juliet - forbidden but intense and their interactions were very romantic and sweet. It would have been nice to see more of this. Some of the side characters were also a little confusing, as no real reasoning was given for some of their behaviour. As an example, it was never clear why Bailey, a young boy from a local farm was elected to take over the running of the circus. Yes Popet saw it in the stars, but Bailey had no special talents and it was never clear why it should be him. Furthermore, although we eventually learn that Hector was Alexander's former student who went rogue with his own ideas of how magic should be taught and performed, it was never really clear why this happened or what the real differences in their techniques were. Alexander himself was a mystery for the entire book who seemed to just randomly appear and disappear in his grey suit whenever the plot needed to move forward.
That aside, I did enjoy this book. I loved the writing and the atmosphere it created, I just think it was very different to what the book blurb said it was about (really, do the people that write those ever actually read the book?) and a few too many questions were left unanswered. Still if you can accept the possibility of magic and maybe view it as an enchanted dream, then it is a great read. If done right, it would also make a visually spectacular movie.
The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky
Read by Tracy in March 2012
Tracy recommends as fascinating look at high school
This is a first book for Stephen Chbosky and he leaves you feeling that no matter what, those that truely care and love you will stand by you. A lot of coming of age books are written from a female perspective, so this book was interesting in providing another view of the teenage boy world. It is narrated by Charlie who is finding it difficult to find his place in world, instead he communicates through letters to an anonymous person, picked from the phone book. In these letters nothing is off limits and he puts his heart and soul into them. Charlie is the youngest in his family, having an older brother who has gone off to College and an older sister in her last year of high school. He wants to fit in, but instead finds he is alone and must navigate love, alcohol, sex, abortion, homosexuality, drugs, suicide, abuse and violence with only the letters to help him make sense of things. After Charlie's friend commits suicide he finds it hard to fit in at school, but his life really starts when he meets Patrick and Sam at a school football game and they take him under their wing and introduce him to their circle of friends. Charlie is always on the periphery (hence Wallflower). As the reader you can see his struggle and how things around him must appear, Chbosky's other characters are also fascinating. Particularly when you put into context the era that it is set in. It isn't all plain sailing though as we gradually come to realise that Charlie was a victim of sexual abuse which comes to the surface when he starts to embark on sexual discovery. The book takes you back to your high school days and the interactions of those around you. I know it wasn't a particularly happy time for myself, but always thought I was alone in trying to fit in, but hating to have to act a certain way, it is only now many years later that I realise people should like you for who you are, not what you do or say. This book is targetted towards the young adult age group, but I loved it, particularly the honesty of what Charlie writes.
Pandemonium by Lauren Oliver
Read by Natalie March 2012
Natalie recommends as a heart-stopping, gripping, fantastic ride, with an absolute killer ending
Pandemonium is the sequel to Lauren Oliver’s best-selling dystopian book Delirium, where love is a disease that is cured in everyone when they turn 18. The middle in a planned trilogy, you could be forgiven for thinking this is just a filler book, something to pad out the series until its inevitable conclusion. How wrong you would be. Yes, Pandemonium is the middle book, but it is definitely not a filler. What it is, is a heart-stopping roller coaster ride that grabs you hard and doesn’t let up until the very end where it dumps you breathless and wanting, desperate for the ride to go on.
Picking up straight after Lena’s escape into the Wilds, Pandemonium alternates its story between Then and Now. The Then chapters tell of her first months in the Wilds where injured, starving and mourning the loss of Alex, Lena is struggling to go on, unsure of whether she even wants to be alive anymore. After she is rescued by Raven and taken to the Homestead, she meets other survivors, including Tack, Hunter, Sarah and Blue, some who bear scars much worse than hers. As she recovers from her injuries, Lena also begins to grow, slowly learning to deal with her grief for Alex while at the same time building up a new found strength and realising that she can still become the person she was going to be with Alex, even if he isn’t here anymore. As she learns the ways of the Wilds, the Sympathisers who help them from inside Society, the Scavengers who hunt them with uncontrolled anarchy and the Resistance who go back into Society in a bid to disrupt it, Lena becomes a new person, throwing off her old self and all that she left behind when she climbed over that fence.
In the Now chapters, it has been 6 months since Lena made it into the Wilds. Still mourning Alex, she is now a much stronger person and an active member of the Resistance in New York. Tasked with following Julian Fineman, the youth leader of the DFA or Deliria Free America, Lena hopes that she can be a part of the group that opens people’s eyes to a world where love is not considered a disease. However, when a protest rally is disrupted by the Scavengers and both Lena and Julian are kidnapped, Lena is forced to protect them both, despite the fact they are on opposite sides. When Julian learns of Lena’s true identity, he is initially shocked and disgusted, but as they join forces and battle for their survival, he slowly comes to the realisation that deliria and the people who are infected by it are not all bad. As they flee the Scavengers who appear to be working with the DFA, come face to face with the outcasts who are forced to hide in the sewers just to survive and finally make it out to a Homestead, Julian starts to understand the flipside of catching deliria. Just when they look as though they might be safe, they are found and Julian is taken back to his father where he refuses the cure and is sentenced to death and Lena finds herself back with the Resistance and finally understanding her role in everything. As she struggles to comprehend just how the Resistance has become like the DFA, she abandons them all, knowing this is not the person she wanted to become and sets out to try and save Julian, in the process learning of her mother’s fate and just how much of a friend Raven, her mother figure in the Wilds, is.
The alternating chapters are powerful and effective because they leave you with tiny cliff hangers that keep you turning the pages in a bid to find out not only what happens next but also the chronology of events. It is easy to follow and it is a fantastic way of watching Lena’s evolution since her escape. That is of course until we reach the final chapter and get The Ending! All throughout the book, as the reader you are watching Lena struggle; struggle with the idea that Alex, the boy she loved, the boy she gave up everything for and the boy she desperately wants back, is dead. Is he? Would Lauren really do that to her readers, her biggest fans? I couldn’t believe it and even as you watch Lena finally start to accept and come to terms with it. Even as she slowly starts to let someone else in and maybe starts to fall in love again. Even then, I just couldn’t believe Alex was gone. Could. Not. Believe. It. But then there is that ending and it no longer matters because then instead we are left with a MASSIVE FRIKKIN CLIFFHANGER….Why Lauren, why do you do this to us? My heart was in my throat and my breathing had stopped as I read that final page and then there is was….nothing, no more words, no more chapters and my only comprehensible thought was; why the hell do I have to wait so long for the next one to come out and I wonder if she is open to bribes about what is coming next? This was of course followed quickly by; how an earth is she going to resolve this one?
This is without a doubt a fantastic book, a fantastic series. Lauren is an immensely talented writer who goes above and beyond creating simple, superficial characters and instead develops people who you feel like you know, that you long to help and who you desperately want to save when things look dangerous. I don’t know how she is going to resolve this ending when Requiem comes out in 2013 but I have to believe she knows the way. There was previously an outcry over the direction Pandemonium might have been taking when it’s blurb hit the net, but rest assured, even though as WS once said, “the path to true love never runs smoothly”, Lauren has assured us “that just like true life, there are always twists, turns and bumps before we hit any truly happy endings!” In the meantime, enjoy the painful wait and Lauren, please let me know what works for you bribery wise!
The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
Read by Tracy in March 2012
Tracy recommends as an futuristic look at women's society
The Handmaid’s Tale is a Vintage Classic book and was originally published in 1986. The book is the story of Offred and the new regime that has taken hold over an America of the future (Gilead). Offred is a Handmaid and is forced to bear children for infertile women of a higher social status (Commander’s wives). Infertility and birth defects are the norm and most things have become radiated. In her new role, Offred has nothing and are ignored - only worth their biological parts. Inbetween Offred’s narrations are her dreams of a previous life when she was free to have a husband, her own child and more importantly freedom, long before the totalitarian theocracy took away women’s rights. It is these affectionate recollections that keep Offred alive, that and her proven fertility. In 1987, the book won the inaugural Arthur C Clarke award, however, Atwood constantly denies it’s science fiction classification, instead arguing that it is futuristic. I find this a more realistic scenario, after all, we have seen how quickly politics and views change and take hold, even decades after it was written. During recent history women have increasingly had to fight for equality in a misogynistic world.
The Sons of Jacob have decreed that any woman who has married to a divorced man is a heretic. There appears to be no retribution for the men – they are after all blameless. As she attempts to escape Gilead she is caught and loses her daughter (given away to an infertile influential couple) and her husband. She is forced into training for her new role where she must now be pure, is unable to read or write and must not associate with anyone. During this process the women are renamed. On her second posting to Commander Fred’s home, Offred is left in her room to contemplate her life, her only daily outings are to buy food where she must be accompanied by another Handmaid (Ofglen). They stand out in their red outfits with winged bonnets – an interesting parallel to a nun’s habit. Offred must also face the daily distain of the Commander’s wife (clothed in blue) who resents Offred’s presence in her house. Offred tries to communicate with the other helpers in the house (named Martha’s and dressed in green). The pinnacle of the Handmaid’s role is to bear a child, if she does, she will never been exiled to the Colonies or killed. As Offred’s role continues, her relationship with the Commander starts to change, he wants to spend time with her, to talk to her, to let her read and to even smuggle her out of the house. Offred is never able to see the Commander in any romantic form and endures the ceremonial sex with him in his wife’s bed with his wife watching. During one of her daily shopping trips with Ofglen, Offren tells her that she does not truly believe and Ofglen eventually shares with her that there is a secret network, named Mayday. Offred understands not to gain hope as everyone is watched and any sign of changes will draw attention to them. That night Offred is given a choice by the Commander’s Wife – she will allow Offred to have sex with the chauffeur, Nick as she believes her husband may infertile, but even mentioning that a man may be infertile is heretical. Offred has fantastised about Nick secretly and now finds herself infatuated with him, ignoring pleas from Ofglen to spy on the Commander and provide information to Mayday. Things eventually take a turn for the worse and Offred is uncovered for her secret liaisons with the Commander and whilst she waits for her punishment is faced with the prospect of being taken by the Eye (the agency that ensures the status quo is maintained in Gilead), instead Nick tells her that the Eyes are really Mayday members who have come to save her and she must trust him. The final part of the book is the historians view of what happened during this time. They are authenticating some documents and are in awe of the changed society. Now in 2195, woman have regained their place in society and find analysing the tapes and books an interesting concept.
Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer
Read by Tracy in February 2012
Tracy recommends as an interesting look at the tragedy of 9/11
There are a lot of books creeping onto the market which look at the impact of 9/11, however, this one does it from a slightly different perspective – 9 year old Oskar Schell, his mother and his grandmother (Anna). Oskar and his father (Thomas) were incredibly close and after his father is killed in the World Trade Centre on 9/11 he is desparate to keep his father’s memory close. Interspersed with this storyline is that of Oksar’s grandfather who left Anna before Thomas was born because he was unable to accept the devastating affects on the WWII bombings on Dresden which saw his family and friends killed plus his girlfriend (Anna’s sister) who was carrying his child. In the aftereffects he loses the ability to speak.
Oskar is highly intelligent, verging on autistic in his tendencies, he corresponds with famous people (Stephen Hawking, Jane Goodall etc), must carry his tambourine everywhere, wears only white and is afraid to connect with people. Normally characters like this can alienate their audience, but Oskar still has the emotional vulnerability of a child who fundamentally can’t comprehend why things have happened. Oskar lives across the road from Anna and they are in constant contact via a walkie talkie, she is his rock, someone who gives him constant attention. His mother has recently started a friendship with Ron, who she met in grief workshop but Oskar is unable to accept their relationship. Eventually Oskar enters Thomas’s closet where on the top shelf he finds a blue vase. Inside the vase is a key in an envelope marked with the “Black”. Oskar believes this is a challenge set by his father, so he embarks on an incredible journey through New York to meet every person with the surname Black to see if they have the lock to fit the key. For a child who does not like interacting with people and who is increasingly afraid of any forms of transport, tall buildings, lifts etc, he is certainly outside his comfort zone as he embarks on the journey. He finds a Mr Black in his own apartment building and they combine to make the journey easier. Oskar is then eventually assisted by Anna’s renter and who bizarrely agrees to help him dig up his father’s empty coffin?
The constant return to his Grandparents story did distract from Oskar’s story and the stories of those that he met on his journey. They too had incredible stories and narrated their own tragedies and difficulties in life and I loved how Oskar captured each person in his notebook. Oskar’s mother was also a character that sat in the background and you wondered why she wasn’t more involved, but in reality she was with him every step of the way, she just wanted him to find the answers he so desperately wanted. Unfortunately no matter what she did, Oskar just desparately wanted his father back, even telling his mother she wished it was her. Underpinning this resentment is the secret that Oskar carries with him which he finally divulges at the end of the book – he listened to his fathers last messages via the answerphone and can’t accept he did not pick up and speak to him on his last attempt to contact Oskar. The style of this book did remind me of Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad with pages interspersed with different media, however, in Incredibly Close I felt it detracted slightly from the storyline and some of the images were confronting, but then it isn't an easy topic.
There is a movie out which is similar, but very different to the book – read the review at the OurBookClub Book to Screen page.
The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach
Read by Tracy in February 2012
Tracy recommends for an old fashioned look at sport
You can't escape this book - it is everywhere, lots of online articles, the book jumps out at your in the local bookstore, so it was impossible not to see what the fuss was about. This is Chad Harbach's debut novel and it certainly has some high praise (Jonathan Franzen who Tracy loves, Oprah and was picked by the New York Times as one of the 10 best books in 2011). This was certainly a long time coming, 10 years in fact, which is maybe why Franzen is one of the champions of this book. Of course with the current success of Moneyball at the cinemas, starring none other than Brad Pitt, there is a lot of interest in Baseball. In a similar story to Lionel Shriver (We Need to Talk about Kevin), Harbach was unable to find a publisher until a young agent took it on and after a bidding war, Harbach was paid over $600k for the rights to the book. Not bad for a debut novel. So is it worth the hype and money...
The story starts at an amateur baseball tournament in Peoria, Illinois where shortstop, Henry Skrimshander, is noticed for his graceful fielding style by Mike Schwartz, who is I suppose a baseball scout. Mike sees that Henry has a profound talent of being able to judge where the ball will go and is able to throw it exactly where it needs to be, so he snaps him up for Westish University. When Schwartz and Skrimshander combine, they are above to bring the baseball team together and achieve a remarkable streak of error-free games. This is where two genre's cross and usually not very successfully, sport and campus. However here we are not treated as teenage idiots, instead Harbach provides some entertaining and engrossing writing that is emotional but not too sickly. This is something a lot of books aren't able to achieve when they are writing about male bonding.
Soon Skrimshander is in the eyes of the major league and as he is about to sign on the dotted line he loses his form. Whilst this is happened there are some other major plot lines being build, from a homosexual love interest between the college president (Guert Affenlight) and another baseball team member (Owen) which crosses all sorts of boundaries from race, age and not least previous sexual orientation, to Affenlight's daughter Pella who escapes an unhappy marriage and retreats to Westish and then falls in love with Schwartz. It is these four main characters (Henry, Mike, Owen and Pella) that the story revolves around and makes you hope that college sports mirror some of the overfunded and culturally narrow perceptions that you hold are misfounded. I have to draw parallels with Franzen's Freedom and its plot details that evoke a past era which manages to avoid resting on cynicism. In America, I would think Baseball is held in the same league as Soccer around the globe and involves male friendships and team spirit that offer an escape and optimism for the future. Luckily the book isn't too Baseball detailed as I know nothing of the sport, except from what I have seen in Moneyball, instead it looks at communities and how lots of different people can achieve their own American dream. I would have thought this would make a great movie, but may be a bit too similar to some recent Baseball movies, but honestly if it didn't come down to the last play of the last game of the season it would lack suspense. My only criticism is that some relationships are too neatly tied off, but sometimes that isn't such a bad thing, but Harbach also does his best to think that college sports teams are extremely intelligent - and this may be a step a bit too far.
In The Art of Fielding Harbach also managed to make it a book for different generations - perfect for book clubs, so hunt down some questions and see how you go.
When God Was a Rabbit by Sarah Winman
Read by Tracy in February 2012
Tracy recommends as a slightly disturbing look at how emotionally connected brothers and sisters can become
Beginning in England during the 1960s and 70s and finishing just after 9/11, we follow Elly (who is also our narrator). We are immediately drawn into her closest family. When she is only small, her mother Kate loses her parents and spirals into a deep depression, her father Alfie I felt was relatively distant - sort of there, but not really, he too has emotional issues and seems to be waiting for the day when his life comes crashing down. Elly's brother Joe comes to her rescue and their intense relationship is sealed. Elly's only childhood friend seems to be the neighbour, Mr Golan, who himself is delusional and Elly soon finds herself the victim of sexual abuse. Her brother cannot accept it happened and gives Elly a rabbit (who is subsequently named God), to comfort her. Luckily for everyone, Mr Golan soon meets an unhappy end. Elly and God talk to themselves and she is soon thrown into a friendship Jenny Penny. Now the character of Jenny Penny is a highlight in the book, Jenny is the daughter of a rather strange mother who, herself is a victim of domestic abuse and has to constant move, so much so that their lives are quickly dismountable and leave no permanent connections. Eventually some good luck falls on the family and Elly’s parents win the football pools which sees them relocate to a magical property in Cornwall which becomes a B&B for the eccentric and a range of unexplained characters move through the family's life. However eventually tragedy does strike and it has a devestating blow on their dynamics and characters. The saddest part of the story was the loneliness that Elly endured, with no other friendships outside of Joe as she became an adult.
Although the book was interesting and a few tears where shed, instead of answering some of the deeper questions, Winman focuses on strange components such as the Nativity play. What happened to the coin that Jenny Penny pulled from her arm with a future date on it? Then there are the unexplained relationships - Charlie and Joe for instance. Underlying the story is the relationship between Elly and Joe and the interactions of the other characters are subservient to this. But even this didn't quite ring true with lots of unanswered questions or missing storylines making the book seem slightly off kilter. My complaints aside, this would make an interesting book club choice as it certainly leaves many thoughts up in the air. There are some reading guides at the back of the book to get you started. Sara Winman won Galaxy National Book Awards 2011 New writer of the year prize.
The Gargoyle by Andrew Davidson
Read by Natalie February 2012 (OurBookClub book pick of the month for March 2012)
Natalie recommends as a beautifully written book, laden with symbolism and hidden stories.
The Gargoyle is one of those books that pulls you in from the minute you start reading it. Beginning with one of the best opening lines I have ever read, it then embarks on our nameless narrator’s journey starting with his vividly descriptive car crash where high on cocaine and drinking bourbon, he plunges off a cliff only to be trapped in his car which quickly explodes and begins to burn. His recounting in graphic detail of the feeling of his hair and flesh as he burns alive, only to be saved when his car finally rolls into a nearby creek, to the horrific treatments he must endure as the doctors battle to keep him alive and of course the very well thought out and elaborate suicide he plans as he lies in the hospital waiting to be released. Yeah, it pretty much doesn’t let you go from the start. And while the narrator is a fairly cynical guy, partly brought about by his birth resulting in his mother’s death, his childhood spent with meth-addicted relatives, his career as a highly paid and sought after porn star and his emotionally detached seduction of women, you can almost think he deserved the fate that awaited him as he plunged off the cliff. This is never more so with the crushing blow he suffers with the unfortunate loss of his most prized appendage on account of the bourbon spilling into his groin during the crash and providing the fuel for what essentially became a human candle (ouch!). However, while in hospital, he is visited by the beautiful and enigmatic Marianne, a woman who claims to have known and loved him in medieval Germany over 700 hundred years ago. As our narrator doubts his new visitor’s stories, particularly when he learns she is a sometime psychiatric patient in the hospital, he is nonetheless grateful for her company particularly because of her flagrant disregard for the rules of the burn’s unit but also her ability speak openly of his condition without the disgust he sees in so many others. As he continues to receive his visitor, he also starts to take part in the physical therapy that is forced upon him, slowly coming to the realisation that he may want to live afterall. During this time, he continues to learn more and more about the so-called past he and Marianne shared, along with the moving love stories of her friends, including a glass blower in ancient Japan, a farmer’s wife in Victorian England, a Viking in Iceland and an Italian metal worker in ancient Italy. Choosing to ignore the fact that Marianne is clearly delusional as she recounts these stories from her “past”, he is nonetheless impressed with her attention to detail and her factual account of the times. When the day of his release approaches and Marianne suggests he come and live with her, now clearly smitten, he readily agrees.
Upon arriving at her stone fortress, the narrator soon discovers more about her, including her work as a sculptor, carving great grotesques from stone once she has slept upon the rock and learnt of the creature who wants to escape. As Marianne recounts more of their past story, she also explains her work, believing she has multiple hearts within her chest that she needs to release upon the advice of her three masters and once this is complete her time on earth will be done. Struggling also with his increasing addiction to the morphine he was provided in hospital, the narrator starts to witness Marianne as she falls into an ever increasing manic period of carving. Fearing for her safety, he tries everything to get her to stop. However, it is only when she reaches the end completing her second last statue that she calms down and then begins the work of pulling him from his drug addiction (the bitchsnake in his spine – fantastic!). Tying up all of her loose ends, including finishing her final statue, a beatiful recreation of our narrator and finishing the story of their previous life together, Marianne finally explains to him his role in all of this, but most importantly his role in her life. As she leaves it all behind, she also leaves him a vast fortune and some small proof that perhaps she was who she said she was after all. Our narrator on the other hand, finally learns what love is and what his future now holds.
I have to admit, this book had a really unusual synopsis. Part history lesson, part religious enlightenment and part supernatural, it somehow managed to weave these elements together without forcing any one of them down your throat or overdoing it entirely. The writing itself is beautiful, even when told by our cynical narrator and it is interesting to watch him change over time, finally realising that when he was beautiful on the outside, he was a monster on the inside and it is only now, when he is ugly to look at, that he finally becomes a better person. Marianne herself was a mysterious and engaging character and I really loved the stories she told from her past, particularly the love story between them, a former nun and a burnt mercenary. Whether her other stories were reincarnations of their relationship, hearts that she had released from her own chest or simply friends in her long life, well that’s your guess. What is certain is that all of the stories play a role. The book is laden with symbolism and stories hidden within the main story. Analogies with Dantes’ Inferno (a book Marianne reads to him in the present and translated for him in the past) are rife, and this is never more obvious than in the opening chapter when he plunges down the cliff and into the fiery abyss of hell. A fantastic and intriguing story that will leave you thinking about it long after you’ve put it down.
Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami
Read by Tracy in February 2012 (OurBookClub book pick of the month for March 2012)
Toru Watanabe (now 37) hears a snippet of Norwegian Wood (a Beatles song) on an airplane which sees him have flashbacks to his youth when he was studying in Tokyo in 1968. He meets Naoko on a train; they had not seen each other since Toru's best friend Kizuki (who was also Naoko's boyfriend) committed suicide two years previously. Kizuki was Toru's only friend and his death left him devastated. Toru soon escapes his small home town and heads to the faceless and busy Tokyo to study at University. This chance meeting with Naoko sees them start to rekindle their friendship in a Kizuki free world. The relationship starts to develop into something deeper which ends with Toru and Naoko having sex on her twentieth birthday after a night of alcohol. The night did not turn out perfectly and Naoko almost immediately heads to a health sanatorium. Back at university, Toru meets the lively and adventurous Midori who is the complete opposite to Naoko. Soon he is caught between the two. He loves Naoko deeply, they have a complicated history and he carries a huge burden as he was the last person to spend time with Kizuki, whereas Naoko is unable to accept that she had never been able to have sex with Kizuki, but could with Toru, who she does not love. The differences between Naoko and Midori are refreshing and instead of focusing on their weaknesses Murakami works with their strengths.
Although Norwegian Wood is set in Japan, which you associated with very stoic and staid emotions, especially after WWII, the book shows young adults facing up to the growing pressures of education that sees other emotional issues buried. Toru and Naoko try different strategies in dealing with Kizuki’s death and their subsequent feelings about love and mortality. Naoko continues to seek professional treatment, whereas Toru tries a more modern approach of working and studying hard, whilst trying to fit in girls and drinking where he can. When they finally reunite at the Ami Hotel, they rarely talk of Kizuki, but the shadow of him is always there, never really allowing them to move forward. They have different relationship ideals - Toru harbours a deep desire for Naoko and waits patiently for her to accept him as himself, where Naoko seems not to fully understand what has happened and lives in a twilight world.
So Toru is given the choice - continue to long for Naoko or live a real life with Midori. This is not a new concept, in fact, probably one of the most written topics in the history of the novel, but Murakami has a light writing style and he does not shy away from the everyday lives of his main characters. He does not gloss over the drinking and promiscuity that University life has opened for Toru and I certainly did not like his new friend Nagasawa. He is shallow and unfortunately seems to do well and excel at most things. It is with sadness that you watch his relationship with Hatsumi devour her. As a narrator, Watanabe describes those people who have entered and impacted his life – from his first dormitory roommate who does early morning calisthenics and is ultimately nicknamed Storm Trooper , the sad continuing relationship between Nagasawa and Hatsumi through to the student protestors who seem to have no plan other than to avoid classes. Even though the world is changing for Toru, he also manages to keep some of the more traditional aspects of his live alive - he studies and also works hard to support himself. As he settles into university life, Toru begins to look at Kizuki's death differently, which is described when he releases the firefly. ‘Still leaning against the handrail, I studied the firefly. Neither I nor it made a move for a very long time. The wind continued sweeping past the two of us while the numberless leaves of the Zelkova tree rustled in the darkness. I waited forever. Long after the firefly had disappeared, the trail of its light remained inside me, its pale, faint glow hovering on and on in the thick darkness behind my eyelids like a lost soul. More than once I tried stretching my hand out in the dark. My fingers touched nothing. The faint glow remained, just beyond my grasp.’ (pages 59-60).
After initial impressions of Toru as a studious young man who lives moderately he does break the rules but underneath all that he is challenged by circumstances that are outside his control. The book isn't all high level emotions, it does provide light entertainment. When Midori tries to encourage Toru to masturbate while thinking of her, he has to confide that he was too embarrassed. This was a beautifully crafted story, with lots of remarkable characters, in some cases you were filled with sadness at expectations placed on people, but on the other hand, some people had a wonderful joy for life. The book does not shy away from mental illness and addresses it realistically, not hiding it away behind closed doors, instead it ignores the ideal of the perfect ending and some of the characters follow their destiny. Murakami beautifully describes the surroundings, from the mountains near Naoko's mountain retreat, Toru's university dormitory and Midori's bookstores. The scene with Midori's dying father in hospital was gorgeous, you could just imagine sitting there and listening in.
I read this book as I have also just receive Haruki Murakami's new book (IQ84) and as I have never read his novels before, thoughts I should start with one of his earlier novels to be able to compare his writing style. Apparently it is used in the school curriculum in Japan which I find interesting as it includes sexuality, drunkenness, promiscuity, mental illness and suicide. Even though it tackles these deep issues, it is suited to the youth market where perfect things do not happen, something the mass media ignores; life can in fact be dark and depressing. The ability to deal with life and death is part of the road to adulthood. There is no magic word that can change everything, instead it Norwegian Wood is a book that shows people simply addressing everyday emotional issues which also includes guilt. In Norwegian Wood, I think guilt is probably the underlying emotion that all the characters share.
Some reviews and online media argue that Norwegian Wood is semi-biographical, although Murakami protests this. I don't think it matters, he has somehow managed to write in a profound and beautiful style that does not have the gimmicks that a lot of authors seem to use to catch our attention.
With or Without You by Brian Farrey
Read by Natalie February 2012
Natalie just says wow, this book is confrontingly beautiful
What can I say, I really loved this book. It is beautifully written, extremely moving and confronting and very, very honest. It’s Brian's debut novel and also formed the basis for his thesis when completing his MFA, receiving the award for "Outstanding Fiction Thesis"...I can certainly see why.
With or Without You is the story of Evan, an 18 year old boy who has spent his life as a loner, an outsider, never really fitting in either at home or at school. Friends only with Davis, they are constantly picked on for being different, for being gay. Although every day is a struggle for them they both know come graduation they are leaving for college in Chicago where they will be free to leave behind the town they've grown up in, the families that don't understand them and the bullies who pick on them. But Evan also has Erik, the boyfriend he's been hiding for nearly a year now. Seeking solace and comfort in the one person who seems to understand him, Evan keeps their relationship a secret from everyone, including his best friend. Unable to believe that he deserves the love that Erik offers or that Erik would ever stick around if he discovered the "true" Evan, he fights hard to keep these two parts of his life separate, hoping to never have to choose between the loyalty he feels for his best friend or the love he has for his boyfriend.
But when Evan and Davis graduate, Davis is lured into a group known as the "Chasers". Promising freedom, understanding and a chance to be accepted, Davis is entranced by the group in particular their mysterious and enigmatic leader, Sable. Evan is wary, confused by what the group is really about and shocked at the tactics Sable uses to recruit new members. But he also knows what Davis is like, his constant longing to be accepted by people forged from his father’s abandonment and mother’s mental illness, he longs to be a part of something. While Evan can understand this longing and has his own family issues to contend with, he also knows he has Erik, a man who has changed him, made him a better person. He likes the Evan he becomes when he is with Erik, and desperately wants to hang on to that.
Just as this path of destruction that Davis has chosen begins, Evan receives another offer from Erik, a chance to move with him to San Diego where they can escape and build a new life together. Torn between what he should do, Evan tries to find a way to make both paths of his life work, all the while knowing that he cannot be in two places at once and will eventually be forced to choose. Trying to rescue Davis from Sable’s clutches, he starts to keep more and more secrets from Erik. In doing so, Erik’s year of patience and understanding finally starts to wear thin. Unsure of Evan’s reluctance to introduce him to his friends and family, unsure of whether Evan believes in their relationship, Erik confronts him, forcing him to reveal more of himself, both through his art work and his real life. Evan however continues on his quest to save an uncaring Davis, somehow still hoping he can have both his best friend and his boyfriend.
All of this implodes when Evan finally sees the Chasers for what they really are. A group of gay followers who willing infect themselves with HIV in the belief that it is a “gift” and means they are in control of their own lives. As the day of Davis’ induction into this group draws near, all of Evan's lies and secrets with Erik reach boiling point and everything he has worked so hard to keep separate collides. As Evan and Erik race to New York to rescue Davis they are forced to look at their relationship and where it is going and Evan is forced finally to look at himself and examine why he has kept so much hidden from everyone around him.
This is a beautifully written book that feels incredibly honest. At times confronting, particularly when the story moves to New York, it is also sweet and so very romantic. While it features numerous gay characters, it is not a coming-out story but rather a dealing with life story. What happens when you reveal to the people around you who you are, but you can’t work out for yourself who that person is supposed to really be? The art that Evan creates throughout the book is hugely symbolic of his life, not just in his mimicry of famous painters as a means to hide who he truly is, but also in the objects he chooses to paint. Forced to examine why he is doing this and the notion that he isn’t being true to himself, Evan gives up his talent believing instead that he is a follower and a fake, the very things he doesn’t want to be. But when he sees the horrible path that Davis has chosen, as well as the lengths Erik goes and has gone to help him, he gradually begins to grow. Finally revealing all of himself to both Erik and his family, Evan starts to let go of his fears and insecurities. The ending, in particular is very beautiful and moving and while some might think a little open-ended in regards to Evan’s decision on whether to move to San Diego, the description of his final piece of art, where he finally paints from within, I believe that provides the answer. An incredible book that looks at what it means to be honest with yourself and those around you.
A Common Loss by Kirsten Tranter
Read by Natalie February 2012
Natalie recommends as a book that had great potential, but didn’t quite meet my expectations
I really wanted to like this book because I thought the premise was really interesting and had a lot of potential. I have previously read and reviewed Kirsten’s first book The Legacy, finishing it with very mixed feelings and it’s safe to say I finished this one feeling the exact same way.
Elliot, Brian, Cameron, Tallis and Dylan have been friends since college. Different in personality, background, politics and everything else, they somehow work as a group, a bond that was made closer after a shared car accident when they were students. Since graduating college they have met once a year in Las Vegas, coming from all over the world in their annual pilgrimage to reconnect with one another. Only this year there will be four of them, Dylan having been tragically killed in a car accident several months prior. While somewhat ambivalent over whether they should continue their tradition without him, particularly in light of Brian and Cameron’s falling out and the obvious distance that seems to be growing between the rest of them, they agree to meet up, if only to honour the memory of their dead friend. However, upon arrival in Vegas, something entirely unexpected awaits them when they each receive a mysterious package. Contained in each of their envelopes is evidence of their deepest, darkest secret, something they have told no one else except Dylan. The former leader, mediator and go-to man of their group, Dylan was the one person each of them relied on, the one person they thought they could trust to help them out when things got really bad, the one person who knew all of their secrets. Only now, Dylan seems to be sending them messages from beyond the grave and someone holds the key to exposing all of their past transgressions. From a crime, a cover-up, a fraud and an affair, the remaining four wonder not only who is behind it all and what it will take to silence them, but also whether they ever really knew their friend after all? As they finally meet the mysterious sender, they learn that Dylan was adopted and his half-brother Colin who is living in Vegas has not only been privy to all of their secrets, but is now using them to extort money and connections in a bid to get out of Vegas. Dylan had been meeting up with Colin for years and following his death, Colin has acquired the evidence that Dylan kept on everyone. Friendships are tested as Elliot, Brian, Cameron and Tallis argue over how to handle Colin’s blackmail and new feelings surface as each of them learns the other’s secrets and discovers that all of them have something to hide.
The storyline was such a great idea and although I do find I have to take a minute to get used to Kirsten’s writing style (not entirely sure why), once the group hit Vegas and received their packages I was intrigued, turning the pages in a bid to find out what was going on. Sadly, I was a little disappointed as the reason behind it all seemed very anti-climactic. Although they do discover that their so-called friend was actually a bit of a manipulative bastard, the actual blackmail itself just felt a little weak. My other big problem was the story being told first POV from Elliot. Not only is he a complete wet blanket who tends to excuse himself from discussions on their friend Dylan and how to deal with Colin, preferring instead to go dancing with Brian’s girlfriend, I also felt it didn’t allow us to connect with the remaining three players who were also being blackmailed. There were clearly some interesting group dynamics going on and it would have been good to read about each of their feelings towards both Dylan and each other, particularly given the hostilities and secrets that were brought up. All in all, I found this to be a good book which unfortunately didn’t quite live up to my expectations.
This book was generously provided to me by Harper Collins, although this did not influence my review
The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver
Read by Tracy in January 2012 (OurBookClub book pick of the month for January 2012)
Tracy recommends as classic tale of family dynamics
The Poisonwood Bible is an epic novel and one that grabbed me from the opening chapter. I picked it up from a bookstore on a rainy day in Alnwick, Northumberland as it seemed the perfect time to get myself into something gritty and I have always wanted to read it, but for some reason it keeps getting shuffled down the list. The Poisonwood Bible was finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 1999 being pipped at the post by The Hours by Michael Cunningham.
In 1959, Nathan Price moves his family from Bethlehem, Georgia to Kilanga, Belgian Congo in order to bring Christianity to villagers. His wife, Orleanna and their daughters Rachel, Adah, Leah and Ruth May are the narrators of the story, documenting their lives, adaptation to the Congo and their fears for the future in different chapters. The Belgian Congo is a difficult region, one faced by ongoing civil wars for independence which has brought starvation and sickness to the residents. Of course at the root of the problem is the ongoing interference in the country’s political system by others wanting access to the plethora of natural resources. Into this situation come the Price family and you are drawn into their daily struggle. Unprepared for immersion into such a diverse and rich culture, they seemingly bring items from America (including Betty Crocker cake mixes) only to find that everything they brought was wrong. They do not survive easily and require the constant help and assistance of the villagers which is made more difficult by the stubbornness of Nathan to accept anyone who is not Christian and his frustrations in being unable to baptise the villagers is borne out on his immediate family through violence, both mental and physical.
This book must polarise its readers – the ignorance of western attitudes towards other society’s that are different to our own is highlighted. Each of the children survives in their own ways. Leah becomes desperate to placate her father, Rachel will not accept any decisions that do not involve returning to America, Adah is almost invisible (she is crippled and mute) but is probably the only one who is able to see the beauty that surrounds her and Ruth May is the one that starts to mix with the locals and understand their language and becomes an ambassador for the family. During the children’s lives, Orleanna bears the brunt of Nathan’s pride and her chapters begin and end the book. You cannot judge her. I can still recite the litany of efforts it took to push a husband and children alive and fed through each day in the Congo. The longest journey always began with sitting up in bed at the rooster’s crow, parting the mosquito curtain, and slipping on shoes – for there were hookworms lying in wait on the floor, itching to burrow into our bare feet. (narrated by Orleanna, page 90). Although the bible teachers us that faith will bring redemption and forgiveness, I felt unable to forgive Nathan. He is in a position to learn so much from his parishioners, but instead he becomes isolated and hated, refusing to understand their beliefs and lifestyle. When he builds a vegetable plot, he is unwilling to learn from the other villagers and they lose everything, he also does not realise that by growing only American seeds he is starting to condemn his family to starvation – they will not germinate in the humidity of the jungle.
As the Congo is finally given its independence, the first freely elected prime minister, Patrice Lumumba, is murdered and the CIA (yet again American sticks it nose into other country’s governments and how many times has this backfired) goes into overdrive to replace him with someone hand chosen and the fledgling country is yet again robbed of its independence and a government of extreme cruelty evolved. As Richard Branson highlights in his recent book (Screw Business as Usual), America is still involving themselves in revolutions - in Egypt the US government armed, financed and essentially bankrolled this authoritarian regime. In addition to the Price family there are other westerners who have made their place within the region. Eeben Axelroot is a heartless man, who makes his money from stealing unrealised assets i.e. diamonds and information and passing them on to the highest bidder. His part in Patrice Lumumba’s murder is never fully explained. Of all the people that Nathan Price should have listened was Brother Fowles who was his predecessor at the mission, but alas Nathan was too stubborn to listen to someone who had fallen in his eyes and married a local woman.
As the children grow and Nathan refuses to leave the Congo and move back to America, they start to look at things differently. Originally their racial preconceptions which were so inbred from their experiences in 1950s Georgia begins to change and they understand they all have a different path to take and over the three decades that the novel is based on, it is interesting to see the different turns and twists Kingsolver’s puts into their lives. Of all their discoveries, it is the realisation how precious existence is and how the Congolese have adapted to these harsh conditions that is fundamental to their ability to process their childhood.
Although The Poisonwood Bible is about Africa, I felt that it was also about America and how opposite it is, unable to change or deal with a constantly changing playing field, the people in contrast have become increasingly greedy wanting the material culture (as shown in Rachel), whereas the African people at the bottom of the food chain, just want food and shelter, something they are constantly lacking due to corruption of governments, usually sponsored by the rich wealthy countries so they can access and exploit the people and natural resources. I am not sure of all the facts in relation to the Congo and the times, but as Kingsolver states in her Author’s Note the characters are inventions but she did weave them through with her memory, travel in other parts of Africa and people’s accounts of the Congo (later to become Zaire).
Barbara Kingsolver has written many novels and her Website provides book information, frequently asked questions, and news.
Hushed by Kelley York
Read by Natalie in January 2012 (OurBookClub book pick of the month for January 2012)
Natalie recommends as compelling and very unexpected
I had read a lot of great reviews about this book, including that it was one of the best crime novels of 2011, and so had very high hopes for it. And what I can say is that it was definitely like nothing I have ever read before and I devoured it very quickly. Hushed is the story of Archer, an 18 year old who has spent his life trying to protect his best friend Vivian. Consumed with guilt over not being able to protect her from a horrific incident when they were younger (she was gang-raped by her older brother's friends while her brother just laughed and forced Archer to watch), he has taken it upon himself to protect her now; from the crappy boyfriends she chooses, from herself, from anything. But Archer has also been secretly taking further action, compiling a hit list and systematically killing each of the men who were involved with what happened to Vivian. Ensuring that their deaths look like an accident or suicide, Archer is convinced this is what he needs to do to set him and especially Vivian, free from what happened. Although Vivian knows nothing of these murders she constantly uses Archer, stringing him along just enough so that he's there for her when she needs him. Archer can't help but let himself be used. He loves Vivian and has been in love with her since they first met. Yet he has never been more than a friend to her, never had her look at him in any other way. He wants more from her, but more than anything, he never wants to be like all the other men who use and abuse her. So he does the only thing he can, he looks after her, he loves her, he protects her and he secretly kills for her.
Then along comes Evan, a man who only wants to be friends with Archer, who wants nothing more from him, except his friendship and attention. Archer doesn't know how to respond to Evan. He's never had someone interested in him just for him, never had someone care for him just because they want too, never had anyone tell him he deserves more. But Evan persists and despite Archer's reluctance and fear he finds himself more and more drawn to Evan, falling for him despite being convinced he isn’t worthy of him. And the more time he spends with Evan and the less time he spends with Vivian, the more Archer starts to realise what a manipulative mess Vivian is and how toxic their friendship has become. Pulling away from her and finding himself unable to finish carrying out the job he promised himself he would complete, Archer desperately wants to stop killing and just be happy with Evan.
But of course Vivian isn't letting go and as soon as she realises all the attention she received from Archer is now being given to Evan, she's furious. Breaking a promise she made to Archer and going back to her abusive ex-boyfriend Mick, Vivian knows this will draw Archer back to her, especially when she surfaces covered in bruises from him. And Archer is livid, but it's not what Vivian thinks, he's livid at her for breaking her promise, for using him again and for trying to ruin what little happiness he has found with Evan. When a slip of the tongue reveals to Vivian a hint at what Archer has been doing for her, she pounces, knowing this knowledge is exactly what she needs to control Archer. Using him once again to try and get revenge on Mick, Archer finds himself torn - unable to kill again yet unable to say no to Vivian. When Evan walks away, Archer tries to talk Vivian out of her plan, but then Vivian loses control and all hell breaks loose and Archer wonders if his past is about to finally catch up with him. Finding solace and forgiveness once again with Evan, who now knows the truth and still seems unafraid of it, Archer desperately wants a way out of it all. As the two of them try to find an escape from the mess Archer has created, Vivian comes at them with everything she's got, trying to bring them down. If she can't have Archer for herself, then no one can, including Evan. As the book races towards its conclusion, I was hoping that Archer, despite everything he had done would somehow find a way out of it all. Did he manage to do that and keep Evan safe....well I don't want to spoil the ending for you, except to say it didn't play out like I expected, there were definitely some interesting twists and turns and the ending, well I didn't know it was possible to feel simultaneously heartbroken, hopeful, happy and amazed. It much more brutual and honest than I expected.
This is definitely a darkly disturbing novel. Strangely enough it is marketed as a YA book, which surprises me a lot. Aside from the characters all being adults, the fact that the opening chapter sees us watching Archer as he holds a gun to Vivian's brother's head, forcing him to commit suicide with pills and vodka, seems a little too extreme for young teens to be reading. Throw in additional themes of mental illness, gang-rape, murder, post-traumatic stress and abuse and this is really only a book for those willing to walk on the dark side. Vivian is perhaps one of the most psychotically abusive characters I have ever had the pleasure of reading. Yes she endured a traumatic event during her childhood, made worse by the fact it was allowed by her brother and witnessed by her best friend, but her subsequent behaviour and treatment of Archer afterwards was pure evil. Archer, acting with the best of intentions obviously wasn't doing the right thing killing off all the people involved in Vivian's rape, but he was damaged too and honestly believed he was doing the right thing. Traumatised by his own childhood as well as witnessing what Vivian went through, Archer is a damaged and broken man who doesn't believe he is worthy of anyone. And it's only when the author starts to reveal all the secrets of Archer and Vivian's past does your opinion of them begin to change. Vivian goes from being the abused and scared little girl to a manipulative and malicious friend, while Archer goes from unremorseful killer to damaged soul who is slowly losing control of his grip on reality. Watching his demise is strangely mesmerising and I found myself unable to put the book down. And Evan, sweet Evan. While at times almost impossibly too good to be true (would you really be that accepting of your new boyfriend's history of murder?!), he gave Archer exactly what he needed, someone who loved and accepted him exactly as he was. The development of their relationship was really beautiful and moving and never once was it about them both being men or gay or anything. They simply and slowly fell in love and gender didn't enter into it. Evan's continued support and love for Archer towards the end of the novel (can't say much without giving it away) was really, really sweet and left me smiling and hopeful of that chance at redemption.
This book was dark, disturbing and very unusual. Yes there were times when it was a little far out there (Evan’s easy acceptance of Archer, his open and embracing friendship, the lengths he went to at the end) and there were a few too many typos for my liking; but there was just something about it and it kept me hooked from the first page right until the very end and thinking about it long after I had put it down. Definitely not for the faint of heart, but if you want a great read, then this is it.
The Fault in our Stars by John Green
Read by Natalie in January 2012
Natalie recommends as a moving look at life and death
First off let me just say that John Green is an amazing writer. Having recently read and loved Looking for Alaska, I was very keen to get my hands on his latest book The Fault in our Stars and it didn't disappoint. John has taken the ugly subject of cancer and made it funny, insightful, moving and memorable.
Hazel was diagnosed with stage IV thyroid cancer at 13, which by 14 had spread to her lungs and was deemed terminal. However a medical miracle has somehow kept her alive and although at 16 she remains tethered to an oxygen cylinder just so she can breathe, for now her terminal diagnosis has been delayed. What she doesn't know is how long she has got and as she spends her days reading and watching TV marathons with her mum, Hazel feels like she is just waiting to die. That is until Augustus Waters appears at her Cancer Support Group meeting and completely changes her life. Outgoing, charismatic and currently in remission, Augustus pulls Hazel from her funk and gives her back her life. Drawn to him and undeniably attracted to him, Hazel starts to live again, although still restrained, held back by the knowledge that he has a future and she does not. After witnessing their friend Isaac get dumped by his girlfriend on the eve of his eye surgery which will leave him blind and reading the messages left to Augustus’ ex-girlfriend after she died, Hazel doesn’t want to let him completely in. Feeling like a grenade just waiting to explode, she is trying to minimise the hurt that her inevitable death will cause and so keeps Augustus at arm’s length.
Augustus however, is determined and when Hazel shares her favourite book with him, An Imperial Affliction which tells the story of Anna, a young girl with cancer who dies mid-way through the story, leaving the reader in the dark as to what happened to everyone else, Augustus starts to work his magic. Tracking down the elusive author who Hazel has so far been unable to reach, Augustus finally makes contact and in doing so, scores them a sit down with the author should they ever find themselves in Amsterdam. While Hazel is ecstatic at finally getting a response from the author, she knows there is no chance of her ever being able to go, her family’s funds having been spent just keeping her alive. But then Augustus steps in again, using his saved “wish” granted to all kids with cancer to take her to Amsterdam. However the author turns out to be a complete arsehole, drowning in alcohol and his own misery and refusing to give Hazel answers to any of her questions, because of course his characters are not real. While this puts a dampener on their trip it does of course pave the way for Augustus and Hazel to finally get together. Realising that Augustus too can make choices and that just being friends with him is not going to limit the damage her death will cause, Hazel finally lets them in and finally allows herself to fall in love.
Of course the path of true love never runs smoothly and particularly so when cancer is involved. While Hazel thought she was sparing Augustus the emotional shrapnel, what she never expected was to find herself in love with the grenade, which is exactly what happens when Augustus’ cancer returns. Having kept from her the fact that his body “lit up like a Christmas tree” on his last PET scan, Augustus worries that he has conned Hazel into falling in love with a healthy guy. But Hazel isn’t angry with him because she knows that the damage was always there, that they were always going to hurt and despite them talking about new treatment options and possibilities, they both know that time is now running out for them.
The last few chapters are heartbreakingly sad as the once effervescent Augustus is slowly pulled from the world. Once admitting to fearing oblivion, to leaving this world without having left his mark, Augustus desperately wants to have meant something. Promising to write her the sequel to her book with the answers she needs, he unfortunately runs out of time. Faced with his funeral and all the false grief from people who never really knew him, Hazel starts to imagine her own death and the impact this will have on her parents. Demanding they have a life when she is gone, she also learns of the existence of some final pages Augustus wrote. Believing them to be his sequel, she goes to great lengths to track them down. Finally locating them Hazel discovers Augustus' final words and both she and the reader learn that he did leave his mark in the world, he left it with her.
This is an incredibly moving and beautiful book. At times it had me laughing out loud and at other times, crying. It is raw and doesn’t shy away from the ugly nature of cancer and the effect this has on its victims. But it’s also a look at first love, at life and what it means to be alive. While some might think real teenagers don’t speak the way Hazel and Augustus do, I think it’s safe to say they aren’t real teenagers. Faced with your impending death and the knowledge that it is coming far too soon and there is nothing you can do about it would probably change all of us.
The Fault in Our Stars has just been optioned by Fox 2000 and Entertainment Weekly is already imagining a cast which could star Shailene Woodley (The Descendents), Hailee Steinfeld (Secret Life) or even Abigail Breslin (Little Miss Sunshine) as Hazel. As Augustus, Logan Lerman (Percy Jackson fame), Freddie Highmore or Joel Courtney have been suggested. The Fault in our Stars won the Goodreads Nerdfighting choice award for best young adult fiction in 2012 as well as being one of the books most enjoyed at BookPage.
The Descendants by Kaui Hart Hemmings
Read by Tracy in January 2012
Tracy recommends as an emotional look at life, family and love
The Descendants is Kaui Hart Hemmings first book and has also been made into a hugely successful film (starring the fantastic George Clooney) that is currently scooping the awards in 2012 and to be honest I wouldn't have picked up the book if it hadn't been for the film.
Matt King (Clooney in the film adaptation) is the descendant of Hawaiian royalty and with his extended family are one of the largest landowners in the area. On the outside he has a happy family life, gorgeous outgoing and gregarious wife (Joanie), two beautiful daughters (Alex and Scottie) and a career as an attorney, however, all is not well in paradise. Alex has issues with drugs and has been sent to a boarding school; Scottie is still at home but starting to get out of control. The tragedy that brings the family together is a horrific boating accident which sees Joanie in a vegetative coma. Her condition worsens and he starts to gather his family and friends to say their goodbyes. His daughter delivers the blow that his wife had been having an affair and as he tracks down Joanie's lover, the family works through their issues and he starts to accept that he had become a shadow in their lives. On the periphery of the story is the desire of the remaining descendants to sell their land for redevelopment and luckily saner heads intervene and all is not lost. This is a sad and poignant look at how families can start to drift apart and forget the reasons they are together in the first place. I was drawn into Matt's thoughts on how he had not seen things slip away, he loved to come home and have a life that was quiet and simple, not realising the other members in his family felt differently. Hemmings also kept the storyline from running into the expected schmaltz by introducing the fiery and wonderful character of Sid and the horrible slimy character of Brian, who I wanted to slap especially as you know deep down he possibly only continued with their affair as she was able to possibly control the sale of the family lands to his own family. In addition the storyline gave us a variety of wonderfully eccentric various family members. For me the story was particularly moving as my mother also passed away after being removed from support and care and it was interesting to read how everybody deals with the issues, grief and saying goodbye. It is a very difficult subject to broach and even to write.
I did laugh out loud when Scottie and Matt are walking down the hospital corridor and she is wearing a t-shirt that says "Mrs Clooney", how perfect was the casting for that part. At the end of the book as the family are coming to grips with Joanie's death there are several comments about the Oscars ceremony which is also apt at this time of year with the Oscars due soon and the nominations that the Descendants has garnered.
Looking for Alaska by John Green
Read by Natalie in January 2012
Natalie recommends for all fans of Holden Caufield and if you don't know who that is, then you should find out!
Miles is tired of his safe life, so inspired by the last words of the dying poet Francois Rabelais he decides to chuck it all in and head to the exclusive boarding school his father once attended, in search of the Great Perhaps. Arriving at Culver Creek, Miles is immediately christened Pudge by his roommate Chip (aka The Colonel) and introduced to all the wonders that can be found at The Creek which may help Miles discover his Great Perhaps. Not least of which is the beautiful, sexy, intelligent, gorgeous and completely screwed up Alaska Young. When Miles meets Alaska, he is instantly obsessed and although she has a boyfriend, Miles starts to ask himself how he can make Alaska love him. After a prank on Miles during his first weekend at the school is taken further than The Colonel and his friends expected, they immediately plan their retaliation and in doing so, Miles learns the fine art of pranking and the golden rule behind it – don’t rat if you get caught, The book is told in two parts, separated by a death that affects them all.
In Before, Miles settles into school life, tries to work out how to make Alaska love him and discovers his first real friendship with The Colonel. He also takes up smoking and drinking, gets his first blowjob and is introduced to the different forms of religion and the questions they ask by his favourite teacher Dr Hyde. He also tries to learn more about the enigmatic Alaska, who is flirty, withdrawn, fun and extremely moody. Despite having a boyfriend, there are times when she acts otherwise towards Miles and while he struggles to work out exactly what he means to her, he also wants to answer her life question How do we get out of this labyrinth?. Alaska on the other hand, remains committed to her boyfriend Jake and instead makes it her mission to find Miles a girlfriend. As Miles and his group of friends (The Colonel, Alaska, Lara and Takumi) organise their retaliatory prank, carried out in three stages and which promises to be the perfect come back, they also discuss the best and worst days of their lives so far, learning more about each other in the process.
In After, nothing is ever the same for them again. As Miles finds himself struggling to work out why Alaska made the promises she did and whether she really felt anything for him at all, The Colonel is determined to find out what really happened to her. Was it an accident or suicide? Takumi and Lara are both cast aside by their friends, partly due to the guilt felt by Miles and The Colonel over their role in Alaska’s final moments and partly because of Miles’ selfish belief that he was the only one who truly loved Alaska. Mourning her death, he is in denial at the idea that any of his other friends or even her boyfriend truly loved or knew her, but as The Colonel pushes with his investigation, Miles slowly starts to realise that he didn’t really know her either. Angry at Alaska for leaving him and angry at himself for his role in it, Miles and the others are desperate to remember Alaska. Planning a final prank, which was previously organised by Alaska and was to be saved for their final year, Miles comes to the realisation that he can forgive Alaska, just as he knows she forgives him. Pulling off the best prank of all time and ending their school year, both Miles and The Colonel learn they weren’t the only ones who let Alaska down and while no one will ever really know what happened to her that night, thanks to their prank she will never truly be forgotten. And finally Miles finds his answer to Alaska’s question.
This is a fantastically written coming of age story that is a must read for anyone who is a fan of the brilliant book The Catcher in the Rye. Narrated to us by Miles, as the reader you are both drawn into their (seriously fun) life at boarding school and Miles’ quest to better understand the mysterious Alaska Young. Posing numerous life questions, more than anything this book examines how one life can impact another’s and how we are all searching for something, for our own Great Perhaps. A really great read, I will definitely be picking up more of John’s books.
The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes
Read by Tracy in January 2012
Tracy recommends as beautiful look at how we remember memories
Okay I have to admit I wasn’t really looking forward to reading this book, there have been so many glowing comments and reviews and of course it did win the 2011 Booker Prize against some very stiff competition. The Sense of an Ending was also shortlisted for the 2011 Costa Novel Award. There haven’t been many books I have read that have flowed, the language interesting but perfectly written to capture the views and feelings of someone’s mind whilst conveying their deepest thoughts. As we age, we also are under pressure to buckle under and fall in with society’s strict rules which can suffocate our memories, make them plain and unimaginative without you cringing. However, in The Sense of an Ending had me gripped and I fell in love with Julian Barnes style of writing, he didn’t become bogged down in details, but has a light touch that is almost dashing. I have not read any of Julian Barnes’ previous works, and The Sense of an Ending is his 14th work.
The Sense of an Ending discusses how memory fades and reworks itself over time and whether decisions we make earlier become missed opportunities as we age. The hero? Of the book is Tony Webster, he has lived his life as dictated by society, amiably married, child, amiably divorced, works voluntarily to help others less fortunate and someone who doesn’t want to become a burden. However, into this ordered life comes a letter – a bequest from the mother of a university girlfriend. This letter brings back the past and he is soon focused on what happened to Veronica and their relationship which was always a large unresolved part of his life.
As Tony tries to piece together the puzzle surrounding the bequest and subsequent diary that has been left, it opens his past and his past friendships, particularly with the brainy idealistic boy called Adrian Finn. Tony and Adrian became friends at school where Adrian slotted into their group in a cool way soon becoming the one they aspired to follow, but didn’t. Of course the tragedy that starts a sequence of events continually spiral into unanswered questions. There were some personal similarities with Tony, I too wasn’t interested in my schooldays, and don’t feel any nostalgia for them (pg 4), I have never kept in touch with anybody and never felt inclined too. However, as Tony’s life progressed he buckled under the pressure of the times where it was the human and filial duty to study, pass exams, use those qualifications to find a job and then put together a way of life unthreateningly fuller than that of our parents, who would approve, while privately comparing it to their own earlier lives, which had been simpler and therefore superior (pg 8). This is a sad indictment of the times, which in some ways have not necessarily changed. For me one of the most beautifully crafted sentences was the parallels of life and literature - the great fear is that life wouldn’t turn out to be like literature which is all about love, sex, morality, friendship, happiness, suffering, betrayal, adultery, good and evil, heroes and villains, guilt and innocence, ambition, power, justice, revolution, war, fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, the individual against society, success and failure, murder, suicide, death, God (pg 15), although life is focused on those parts, for most people they are not all felt in the space of a novel. As Tony continues to reflect his high school friendships, he realised that he had lost touch and as it so often happens you only get together to commemorate something annually but soon life gets in the way and soon we find ourselves with nothing in common and not enough to hold together a friendship (pg 54). For me I loved the way that Julian described Tony’s veracity and his perseverance to get an answer, his description of the letter writing campaign with the insurance company regarding a lime tree, fantastically descriptive (pg 89). Barnes also writes in the current time, his descriptions of London, from the wobbly bridge to the tube stations were realistic and even today the wobbly bridge linking St Pauls to the Tate Modern is still slightly wobbly, but is very connected between the two riverbanks and draws you across the river with magnificent vistas (pg 54) which I could visualise. The ending of the story is sad, but as Tony has convinced himself that there was a child between Adrian and Veronica (pg 139) and the child had become psychologically damaged because of the letter he had sent in his frustration at hearing of Veronica and Adrian becoming a couple he is faced with the remainder of his life being studded with grief and a desire to have changed the past. Of course when the truth is unravelled for him (pg 148) he doesn’t seem too shocked, in fact is probably more at peace with the outcome.
The Sense of an Ending was the Waterstones Book of the Month for March and described by Justine Jordan of The Guardian "With its patterns and repetitions, scrutinising its own workings from every possible angle, the novella becomes a highly wrought meditation on ageing, memory and regret."
Torn by Cat Clarke
Read by Natalie in January 2012
Natalie recommends as compelling and unexpected
I have previously read and loved Cat's first novel Entangled and so was looking forward to her second novel which came with the blurb Four girls, one dead body. A whole lot of guilt. Told by Alice King, this is the story of an all girl's school trip to the Scottish wilderness which goes horribly wrong and comes back minus one student. Alice was not looking forward to the trip, but she certainly wasn't expecting the nightmare that it became. Sharing a cabin with her best friend Cass, they are also forced to room with Polly, the social outcast, Rae the moody emo-girl and Tara, the popular queen of mean. Beautiful, powerful and cruel, Tara loves nothing more than putting people down or using them to get herself ahead. So when a caving mishap means Tara makes fun of Polly, Cass decides it's time someone taught her a lesson. Eagerly aided by Polly and reluctantly helped by Alice and Rae, Cass plans a prank that will definitely take Tara down a peg or two. However when a series of events means the prank goes horribly wrong, the girls are left with one dead body and a secret they must all keep in order to survive. As Alice struggles to cope with daily life, visited by visions of a dead Tara asking her for help, she is also forced to confront the pain of her own mother's death and the blossoming relationship she starts to have with Tara's brother Jack. As Jack struggles to cope with the death of his sister and how it could have happened, Alice fights her attraction to the brother of a girl whose death she was partly responsible for. Plagued by guilt and increasingly haunted by visions of Tara, Alice is torn by what she should do. Tell Jack, tell her father, go to the police or keep the secret. Rae's subsequent suicide, Polly's increased social standing brought on by her calculated grieving for the girl who made her life hell, her detoriating friendship with Cass and her evolving feelings for Jack finally force Alice to take action and admit her role in Tara's death and the secret they kept. There were times when I really felt sorry for Alice. Yes she took part in the prank, but it wasn't her idea and she certainly didn't agree with where it was going. Yes she seemed to feel incredibly guilty and had already been through the pain of her mother's death from cancer. But at the same time, she kept so many secrets from people, secrets she should have told from the start which would have changed everything. Her involvment with Jack, a boy mourning the unexplained death of his sister was very sweet and genuine, despite what he thought when the truth was revealed, but the history of Alice and Tara's friendship and the possibility that Alice created the monster they all destroyed made it a little hard for you to keep feeling sorry for her in the end. Although she eventually owned up to her role in the crime, it took her a long time to get there and the people I ended up feeling sorry for were her father and Jack, both of whom when through hell and walked out scarred more than they should have been.
I will say, this book was nothing like what I thought it would be. Completely different to Entangled, it is nonetheless a compelling look at bullying and peer pressure and the destructive nature of keeping secrets. While it might be a little hard to believe these girls would really act the way they did when their prank went so horribly wrong, the portayal of their guilt and the different ways they each tried to deal with it were very credible. Although the ending does leave you wondering a little and the story itself was about both guilty secrets and falling in love, it was still a very compelling read that I knocked off in a day or two. A talented writer, I will certainly be reading her future books.
The Understudy by David Nicholls
Read by Tracy in January 2012
Tracy recommends as some light reading, but not as enjoyable as previous books
I am a huge fan of David Nicholls and his novels Starter for Ten and One Day which has recently been showing at the movies (starring Anne Hathaway and Jim Sturgess). Both these books have previously been Our Book Club book picks of the month. So it was with much excitement that I saw this book whilst recently browsing in Waterstones, London.
The Understudy follows Stephen C McQueen (yes the middle initial is important) and Josh Harper who are both at different ends of the show business scale. Josh is the world's 12th most sexy man, has money, fame and a beautiful life, whereas Stephen has not been able to create a career without resorting to playing dead people or a giant squirrel for children. He now plays Josh's understudy in a hit London play. Stephen is a long-suffering actor who is always on the brink of his big break which sees him plod through life always wondering what might have been. Stephen and Josh have an unusual friendship which eventually sees Stephen fall in love with Nora, Josh's long suffering wife which brings about some laughs as he tries to juggle both his friendship with Josh and his lust for Nora. The relationships between the two main characters draw paralells with Dexter and Emma in One Day and I just felt that both characters were relatively shallow and in the end the storyline was just too fairytale to be believable. However, it is a light reading book and perfect for those wanting to laze by the pool (I am back in Australia) or for those in the northern hemisphere to cozy up in front of the fire.
Check out David Nicholl's website for The Understudy.