Friday, November 7, 2014

Thoughts on Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood

I enjoyed this novel by Margaret Atwood. It is the third novel I have read by her. Alias Grace is historical fiction, based on the story of Grace Marks who was convicted of murder in the nineteenth century in Canada.

I have read two other novels by Atwood, The Blind Assassin and The Handmaid's Tale. Alias Grace is a different novel compared to these two. It is a detailed character study of a convicted woman; aspects of her childhood and circumstances that lead to her being implicated in two violent murders. What it does have in common with the other novels is a clear focus on female circumstances and point of view.

I liked the pace of Alias Grace, the plotting is well thought out and the tension builds steadily through the narrative, leading to the unveiling of events surrounding the murders. Atwood explores other contemporary issues in her story of Grace, including the different theories on mental health ailments at the time, and early experimentation in hypnosis. As in the other two novels I have read, Atwood's handling of the desperate plight of women who did not have family or wealth to back them up, is arresting.

I found this a very human story. The main characters are multidimensional and believable.  For me the most intriguing character was Dr Jordan, whose perspective on events informs the reader for part of narrative. His weakness was perplexing and really annoyed me after I finally put the book down. I think that is the strength of this novel, all of the characters are beautifully drawn, and, as in life, seemingly dependable people can be frustratingly weak and self deluded at times. There is a lot of complexity to the characters in this book.

There is variety in the structure too, with part of the novel told in the first person from Grace's perspective, part of the novel told in the third person, largely from the point of view of Dr Jordan, and sections of the story told through extracts from media accounts, legal accounts, and personal and professional letters. These were all artfully handled in my view and added real interest.

Ultimately this is Grace's story, and I think it will definitely stay with me for some time. Her voice was very clear, even though much of her life was about waiting and existing with very few options for friendship or communication. Atwood also leaves just enough unexplained, so that I was left wondering, and found myself thinking back on the story for some time. There is a clever playfulness to Margaret Atwood's work that I really like.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Review of Tim Winton's Eyrie

Tim Winton is one of my favourite authors and so it is always with a certain amount of anticipation that I read his latest offerings. Eyrie did not disappoint me. I think there are two types of Tim Winton novels. The first type, like Cloudstreet, has quite a detailed and dramatic plot, Cloudstreet being a multigenerational family drama. The second type has a sketchier plot but is heavy on the characters internal drama, with incredible prose that grips the reader and thrusts them into the main protagonist's mind and world. Eyrie is like this and I loved it.

The novel is about Tom Keely at a particular juncture in his life. He is divorced, jobless and becoming increasingly isolated from life busily going on around him. Eyrie provides a gorgeous metaphor for his situation, he is physically in an eyrie, in a rundown apartment at the top of a city high rise building, and he is emotionally cut off too. We meet him perhaps at his lowest point, where he is savagely hungover from a night of abusing prescription medication and alcohol.

Winton explores a number of other contemporary Australian issues through his character Tom. Tom used to be a successful environmental campaigner and advisor. He is now completely disillusioned with what is happening in his state of Western Australia, which for all intents and purposes is controlled by the mining industry. Winton does a brilliant job of exploring the ugliness of what this so called prosperity has done to some of Australia's cities which in a short number of years have received huge sums from the mining boon. I live on the other side of the country in the state of Queensland where similar issues have confronted some of the cities and towns here in the wake of mining success.

Most of Winton's novels are set in sun soaked Western Australia, Eyrie takes place in the city of Fremantle. Winton describes in searing detail what mining has done to this city in particular and Western Australia generally. Through the eye's of Tom, and the people he encounters, the reader also experiences what mining prosperity has done to the social conscience of the people; Winton is scathing and does not hold back in showing the underclass of broken people who barely exist away from the hipster haunts and shiny developments.

A woman, who used to be a neighbour of Tom's when he was a child, moves into his building with her grandson, and Tom is forced slowly but surely over the course of the novel, to move outside of his own suffering and connect again with the world. As much as the story is about the bigger issues of the cost of prosperity from the mining industry, it is also Tom's personal story. I was very moved by Tom and his struggle to forgive and connect. The supporting characters are multidimensional and vivid also. Tom's mother is especially good.

I loved this book. I like Winton's writing generally. His prose is visceral and in the readers face, or more correctly he puts the reader right in the body and mind of his characters, you can't escape. It's a completely nerve jangling experience. The pace of the novel rockets along. It is the best sort of page turner. I find his style unique. Winton is economical with his words and he knows how to write emotions up close and unleashed.

I think some readers have found this novel too dark, and that's okay, parts of the story are dark. I think it is also probably a testament to Winton's success and following that he seems to be at a point in his career where he can perhaps write the stories he feels really passionate about. Good on him I say. There is nothing wrong with a novel with a social and environmental conscience, especially when it is as engaging as this one.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Review of The Philosopher's Pupil by Iris Murdoch

I picked up my copy of this book from a secondhand bookshop at Byron Bay while on holiday a couple of months ago. I think I chose this book for two reasons: firstly, it was hot at the beach, and the cool water on the this book cover looked inviting. Secondly, I had long heard of Iris Murdoch and the curious me, or perhaps more honestly, the part of me that fancies myself a bit of an intellectual type, wanted to read something by her. The point being, that this may not have been the best choice for a time of relaxation; Ms Murdoch demanded that I engaged the old brain and do some real work. It took me a while to finish.

Iris Murdoch was an Anglo Irish author of the twentieth century. She was also a philosopher, and this novel contains some interesting themes, including: that even with the aid of philosophy, and self knowledge, human interactions can get very messy indeed.

The Philosopher's Pupil begins with a dramatic argument between a husband and wife, driving home after a dinner party. This is not in itself original ground, but the whole novel, and it is a long one, flows from the consequences of this argument. We are introduced to the almost completely unlikeable character of George McCaffrey, the husband, and his waiting-for-martyrdom wife, Stella.  The morning after the dramatic events of the night before, the reader awakes with George in bafflement, and is introduced to the remainder of his uniformly insufferable family who are prominent members of Ennistone, the fictitious English spa town where the story plays out.

This novel began to make sense and work for me when I realised it is very darkly comic. These people are so horrible they are fascinating. They are all self serving, superficial and petty. I also liked the way Murdoch used the actual bathhouse in Ennistone, as this wonderful device to bring all the characters together. Everyone in this quaint town, including the visitors, congregate at the spa to swim and bathe, in all weathers.

It is an enormous cast of characters, including a philosopher returned to Ennistone for a visit.  Murdoch creates mayhem, mixing past hurts, closely kept secrets and self delusion with manipulation and misunderstanding on a grand scale. With persistence I ended up enjoying parts of this novel. The ending was a bit weak for me. With an Epilogue titled "What Happened Afterwards" Murdoch, no doubt with her tongue firmly planted in her cheek, proceeds to update the reader with life outcomes for her main players. This annoyed me. But by then I felt I had really achieved something by just finishing this novel.

The next time I am at the beach I will forget my own delusions of grandeur and choose something a little less demanding, with heroes and exotic locations, or even a glossy magazine...

Have you read any Iris Murdoch novels? Maybe The Sea The Sea which won the Booker? Some time will pass before I pick up another of her novels I think, but she is mighty and unique, and I would like to think I could go there again.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Teaser Tuesday

Teaser Tuesday is hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading. It is a fun way of sharing your current read and involves the following:

  • Grab your current read
  • Open to a random page
  • Share two (2) “teaser” sentences from somewhere on that page
  • BE CAREFUL NOT TO INCLUDE SPOILERS! (make sure that what you share doesn’t give too much away! You don’t want to ruin the book for others!)
  • Share the title & author, too, so that other TT participants can add the book to their TBR Lists if they like your teasers!

My current read is Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood:

"I look at him, then look away. An apple, I say. He must think I am simple; or else it is a trick of some sort; or else he is mad and that is why they locked the door - they've locked me into this room with a madman."  p.40

Alias Grace is a historical fiction novel about convicted "murderess" Grace Marks. I'm enjoying it so far. I have read and reviewed two other books by Margaret Atwood: The Blind Assassin and The Handmaid's Tale.  I would recommend The Blind Assassin to everyone without hesitation, it's simply wonderful.

Happy reading!

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Audio Book Review: Just One Evil Act by Elizabeth George

I have read or listened to all of the Inspector Lynley books, and I am delighted that I found the latest, Just One Evil Act, one of the best. It is still incredibly lengthy, which is why I prefer to listen to the unabridged Audible version, but the story is tense throughout. More than half of the novel takes place in Italy which also added to the interest for me.

As with all audio books, the narration is critical. The divine Davinia Porter narrates this novel and her performance is just wonderful. In my experience, if an audio book is narrated by either Davinia Porter or Juliet Stevenson, you simply can't go wrong.

Elizabeth George achieves a better balance in this novel, in my view, between the various ongoing characters' stories. Barbara Havers throws herself into endless amounts of hot water trying to rescue her neighbour's daughter from being kidnapped. The circumstances of the abduction are particularly complicated, as is the apparent guilt and innocence of all involved.

There is also some lovely story for Lynley as he attempts to work through the final stages of grief from his wife's death, and find love again. Of course he also spends much of his time trying to save Barbara from herself and their superiors at Scotland Yard.

I don't seem to be able to help myself with these Elizabeth George novels, even though I have found some of the more recent installments tedious and difficult to finish. There must be a lot to be said for feeling familiar with the characters, because these characters have kept drawing me back. I like where Lynley is going in his life now, he doesn't seem to be taking himself quite so seriously, nor is he quite so pompous. Barbara may be chastened by the fallout from the events of this novel, but I hope she too will be back for more.

There is no crime series quite like this one, and I feel that George has done well to not only keep the momentum going with these characters, but also to improve her story telling craft. I eagerly await where she takes the series next.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Review of The Small Bachelor by P.G. Wodehouse

In the past, I have attempted reading Wodehouse novels and just been a bit bored by the antics of Jeeves and co. I picked up The Small Bachelor recently because I felt like something light, thinking I would give Wodehouse another go. I am so glad I did. This novel is pure delight. I think maybe my problem with Wodehouse is limited to the Jeeves novels; there are literally dozens of others.

The Small Bachelor is set in New York during prohibition and centers around a rooftop apartment in the cities bohemian quarter and its occupants' forays in love.  With names like George Finch, a quiet little man with a private income attempting life as a painter,  and the resplendent J. Hamilton Beamish, expert on all things and publisher of instructive pamphlets, I knew from the first pages that this was going to be brilliant. And it really is!

Diminutive George is speechless with admiration for young Molly Waddington, who after more or less stalking her for a time, finds himself spontaneously invited to dinner by Molly's father, after he finds George skulking outside their house one evening.  Molly's stepmother, the second Mrs Waddington is furious with this intrusion to her grand dinner with New York's industrialist elite, but Mr Waddington is delighted by the newcomer, and quite a stand-off ensues.

Later, George turns to his most esteemed friend and neighbour, Hamilton Beamish for advice in this courting game. Hamilton Beamish and the Waddingtons are perhaps the most beautifully drawn characters you could hope to read on a page.

This book left me constantly smiling and even laughing as I read. Wodehouse is so clever with his language and the plot moves along swiftly. There are some magical farcical moments and unexpected turns. One of the joys I think with this novel is just how many characters Wodehouse managers to cram into the mayhem. I know I keep using the word, but the book is just thoroughly delightful. Hilarity on the page is very hard to do isn't it? There are so few genuinely funny novels. For me this will be the benchmark. I look forward to reading some of the other stand alone Wodehouse novels, and may even have to revisit Jeeves.

Have you a favourite Wodehouse novel?

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Review: The Husband's Secret by Liane Moriarty

I have only recently discovered Liane Moriarty novels and can see myself working my way through them all. I have listened to the superb audible version of Big Little Lies, which I will review in the future, and borrowed the hardcover version of The Husband's Secret from the library.

The Husband's Secret is the sort of novel I would love to choose for a long haul flight. It is undemanding but engaging and satisfying. Set in suburban middle class Australia, it explores domestic secrets. Incidentally so does Big Little Lies. The secret in The Husband's Seret is a doozey and Cecilia, the wife, like Pandora can't resist opening the box, in this case a letter written by her husband many years before, and finding out what the secret is.

And so the driver of the novel is that once known, knowledge can't be unknown, no matter how much we might wish it to be so. Moriarty has a real knack for constructing her plots with the interweaving lives of her characters, without taxing the readers suspension of disbelief. She also has a gift for dialogue; her characters, especially the female characters, are brought to life through their talk and interior musings.

I like this book because the voices are familiar. This book is about humdrum ordinary people trying to deal with relationships, raising children, the tedium of the everyday, and loss. Moriarty honours the failings and strength of people trying to negotiate all of the stresses and expectations of this modern world.  She prises open the domestic and reveals the secrets and heart ache often lying just below the surface; secrets that largely remain hidden and unknown.