Friday, December 30, 2011

The Distant Hours by Kate Morton

This is the latest offering by Brisbane based novelist Kate Morton.  It is the first of hers I have read and I do regret that I did not like it more.  The reason I regret not liking it more than I did, is because she is a best selling novelist from the city I grew up in, and when I see her interviewed she seems so thoughtful and likeable.  Basically, I think I should have read one of her earlier books, and now, alas, after having waded through the more than 550 pages of The Distant Hours, I can't see myself picking up another any time soon.

From the book jacket:

It starts with a letter, lost for half a century and unexpectedly delivered to Edie's mother on a Sunday afternoon.  The letter leads Edie to Milderhurst Castle, where the eccentric Blythe sisters live and where, she discovers, her mother was billeted during WWII.  The elder Blythe sisters are twins and have spent most of their lives caring for their younger sister, Juniper, who hasn't been the same since her fiance jilted her in 1941.

You know,  Morton does write well, there is plenty of lovely original descriptive prose throughout the novel.  She creates a good sense of place in the woods surrounding the castle.  More so than in the castle itself, where the idea of the whispering walls struck me as a bit silly, or at least overly romantic.  The story also contains some really good elements.  It has interesting ingredients, a modern and WWII setting.  To be honest, I think I have read too many books lately using the sort of narrative device where the reader is jumping from the modern era back to an earlier mystery.  At least I didn't enjoy how it was executed in this novel.  There were too many jumps and I just felt exhausted with it.   In the end it was just too long in my view.  The characters did not engage me to the degree that I needed to sustain my interest for that many pages.  I think the idea might have been that the castle itself is one of the main characters.  It just didn't hang together that well for me, and parts of the plotting were overblown or predictable.

I could see why some readers would really enjoy this novel.  If you like expansive, languid and descriptive prose, with some intriguing historically romantic themes, then you may enjoy this.

Also, don't forget to enter my  New Year Book Giveaway and a very happy New Year to you!

New Year Book Giveaway (International)

Happy New Year!!

Win a new book for the new year.

As another reading year winds down, I wanted to share some of my favourite reads this year with you, kind followers of The Book Nook.  And I would also like to know which of the books you have read this year  most moved, or excited, or amused you.

You have a chance to win one of the following three books.  There will be two winners randomly selected, and if both winners have chosen the same title that is fine.  I have selected three very different titles for you to choose from,  so I hope there is something amongst these that appeals to everyone.

The Books

My absolute favourite book this year was Bereft by Australian novelist Chris Womersley.  So good for so many reasons: the writing, the eerie atmosphere, characters, plot - this one is a standout. 

My second pick is The Scar by British "new weird" writer China Mieville.  The first half of the year saw me reading quite a bit of sci-fi, not my usual purview at all, but I loved this book.  Okay, it is a bit of a chunkster, and normally I complain about the huge book, but the pages fly by in this incredible swashbuckling, almost Dickensian world Mieville creates.  The guy is a bit of a genius if you ask me.

I did read a couple of Victorian classics this year, and the one that impressed me most was Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy.  I would go so far as to say that, of all the so called classics I have read, this one left the greatest impression.

Conditions of the competition:
  • In a comment, please leave: a contact email address, the title of the book you would like to win, AND a link to the post of one of your own favourite reads this year. Or just tell me the title of a book you enjoyed.
  • The two winners will be randomly selected on Sunday 15th January 2012, and contacted by email.  If I don't hear from you after 10 days another winner will be selected.
  • The books will be coming from The Book Depository, so naturally enough, you need to live in a country they deliver to.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford

Occasionally I succumb to those lists that tell us what to read.  The Good Soldier (1915) by English author Ford Madox Ford appears in most of those "Best novels.."  or  "100 best English-language novels of the twentieth century" type lists, and I was curious to see what all the fuss was about, because apart from seeing the novel in those lists, I had not heard of it.

The novel is set at the beginning of the twentieth century, before WWI.  It focuses on the friendship between two upper class couples, John and Florence Dowell from the US and Eward and Leonora Ashburnham who are landed gentry in England.  The couples meet in a German health spa.  The novel is told in the first person by the American, John Dowell, and centres around his explanation of the downfall of his friend Edward, the good soldier of the title.

I have mixed feelings about this book, that I think are partially influenced by my high expectations going in that were not fully realised.  The subject matter of the book reminds me alot of Somerset Maugham novels, which I love, all of the, behind the acceptable social veneer of "happy couples."  Maugham goes in for alot of the transatlantic comparisons of social mores in the first part of twentieth century too.  Maybe reminiscent of F Scott Fitzgerald also.

Structurally the book is very unusual and I would say ground breaking for its time.  The narrator is unreliable (trust me, this is not much of a spoiler, because it is very subtle compared to the unreliable narrators that have been used since), and the story is told in out of sequence flashbacks.  It is all very clever, and I found myself engaged and eager to arrive at the end, as there is a growing tension in the narration; from the outset the reader is made aware that there is something inconsistent in the storytelling.

The novel is packed with clever symbolism. A motif of the heart is used repeatedly to good effect.  The story begins at the German health spa because two of the partners have "heart" difficulties.  There is lots of talk of weak hearts etc, and that is what this story is really all about.  The characters all lack personal insight into their own hearts and for this reader at least, seemed quite heartless.

But you know, clever and "stylistically perfect" as I have heard the novel lauded, does not necessarily equal an enjoyable or "I love it" reading experience does it?  I did not love it.  Mostly because all of the characters are so unlikeable and joyless.  And I am sure that is the point.  I am sure Madox Ford is writing about some sort of self-absorption of the upper classes in England leading up to WWI.  As a study in relationships, or relationships between married couples, I would much rather read Somerset Maugham.  The Dowells and the Ashburnhams are equally awful and his depiction of the women in the story seems unusually harsh. But that is part of the plotting cleverness as it is all tied up in the narration and form of the story.  Even so, the female characters are either painted as domineering and cold, or soulless and wanton.  And again I think this is the point, our narrator is very sympathetic to Edward, the good soldier, and perhaps is speaking to the sadness of his plight.  Well this female reader was left fairly unmoved by the male characters feeling sorry for themselves, and behaving badly none the less.

I would love to know if others have read this and what they think.  It is a classic book, I was just left a bit disappointed. It is however the sort of book I would consider rereading, because there is so much to the structure, I am sure some of the subtleties were missed by me, the first time round.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Teaser Tuesday 13 December

Teaser Tuesday is hosted by MizB over at Should Be Reading.  It is a chance to share a non spoiling sample of your current read.  I am reading a gothic romance mystery, The Distant Hours, by Kate Morton:

"Quite." Percy Blythe straightened and I became aware suddenly that she didn't like Mrs Bird.  'Now if you will both excuse me." She bowed her head towards the open door, through which the outside world  seemed a brighter, noisier, faster place than when I'd left it.  p.88

I am really enjoying this novel so far, about a big creepy house and secrets of long ago.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Audio Book Heaven: My Two Favourite Listens This Year

Readers of this blog may know that I regularly listen to audio books. Let's not debate if such listening qualifies as reading, or any of that sort of nonsense.  There are differences between listening to a story being read and reading it yourself, of course, and I am always clear which I am talking about. Listening to an unabridged audio book is simply another way to absorb a story.  And frankly, the experience can be heavenly, depending on the beauty of the language and the skill of the narrator.  Audio books bring the magic of fiction, or non-fiction if you prefer, to those times when holding a book or e-reader would not be practical.  More stories, more of the time, who can lose?  The two that follow are pure bliss.

Prodigal Summer written and narrated by Barbara Kingsolver  was my introduction to this author.  I know a number of you love her work.  The plot comprises three, gently overlapping, stories set in the Appalachian area of the US.  Kingsolver's language and voice are hypnotic.  I found her storytelling, and gift for entwining nature metaphors in her prose, like nothing I have ever heard (or read) before.  I remember listening to this one mostly as I walked around my neighbourhood or was doing the dishes.  I can still hear her languid and lilting Appalachian drawl when I think about this story.  I remember just floating in the beauty of her prose.  The stories depict the natural flow and ebb of human relations, to each other and the environment; I loved the whole experience.

My second pick for a real audible standout, is Geraldine Brooks Caleb's Crossing.  This one is narrated by Jennifer Ehle who you may remember played Elizabeth Bennett in the 1995 miniseries of Pride and Prejudice.  I read Brooks first novel Year of Wonders earlier this year and loved it, so was keen to experience something else by her.  Brooks is a brilliant storyteller of historically themed fiction.  In Caleb's Crossing she incorporates the history of Martha's Vineyard, where she has made her own home with her family, with the story of Caleb, the first Native American to attend Harvard back in 1665.  Or at least, it is the fictionalised version of what might have been his story.  What is so intriguing with Brooks novels is that she always starts with one piece of historical fact, here the first Native American student at Harvard in 1665, and spins her magical tales from there.

The story is told from the point of view of Bethia, a young girl living on the island with her pioneering family, who secretly befriends the young boy Caleb.  This story was not what I expected or predicted.  It is tragic and soulful and I am in awe of what Brooks has achieved. 

Ehle's narration is equally impressive as she produces the Puritan English and Native American speech effortlessly.  This is the perfect example of where I know I have taken more from listening to the story being read by an expert, than I would have if I had struggled to imagine the unfamiliar language myself.

On average I have listened to one audio book per month for the last four years, and these two are as good as any I have heard.  I would recommend them to everyone.  Especially to those that have not yet been converted to the audio book or may be wondering where to start.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

When the going gets tough, I seem to read crime fiction.

I don't know about you, but the end of year usually sees a bit of an energy decline and emotional overload for me.  I am not sure the precise reason, but my reading did slow down over the last few weeks.  Fortunately that little dip has passed, and my reading enthusiasm has been fully restored.  During the slump I did read a couple of fairly decent crime novels.  To be honest, I think that is what I love about crime fiction: yes it is formulaic and predictable at times, but who cares?  Sometimes there is nothing nicer than to plunge into the world of unlikely murder and body disposal, to make one's own life seem positively bliss. 

Firstly I read Skin and Bone by Australian MD and author Kathryn Fox.  It is a very competent police procedural.  Detective Kate Farrer has returned to the homicide squad after three months off.  I liked the character of Kate because she is a bit controlling and irritating.  I guess I liked that she was in some ways unlikeable. Makes for a change from the irascible male detectives and super stylish female pathologists who generally populate the genre.

As to the plot of Skin and Bone, there is nothing especially remarkable about it; we have Kate and co discovering the remains of a burned female corpse, without an immediate identity, and the presence of a nappy bag suggesting that there is a missing baby.  The hunt begins, and of course leads to some very seedy and unlikely connections between the ensuing cast of suspects. 

I think what I enjoyed most about Fox's writing is the interesting medical procedural aspects.  She writes well about the forensic side of things, no doubt her background as a doctor contributes to this, and there is some heart to the story and characters.  For those that like the medium speed police procedural, Fox is worth checking out.

Now to the high speed, sleep depriving , and my current crime writing favourite, Jo Nesbo.  Yes, I couldn't resist going one more round with Detective Harry Hole (pronounced Hula) this year.  The Devil's Star is the fourth Hole novel I have read since discovering this series earlier this year.  Honestly, these books are so "unputdownable" (and yes, I know that is the most irritating and cringy word know to reviewing, but if ever I was going to use it, it will be here) that they should come with a health warning. 

I have tried to think about what makes these books so compelling.  And I can only conclude it is the character of Harry himself.  I mean, it is like Nesbo has taken what we have come to know and love in our irascible detectives and taken it to warp speed.  Harry is not just a little maudlin, brooding, hard drinking and smoking, sparse living, unlucky in love, but irresistible to woman type.  He is much worse than that.  Harry is a full blown alcoholic, a focus of ridicule in the Oslo police force, whose working life reads a bit like a psychedelic drunken binge, lurching from oblivion to self imposed periods of abstinence, where Harry appears only one crumpled cigarette drag from his whole world crashing down around his ears.  Needless to say, at over 190cm tall, this haunted and time ravaged detective is still irresistible to women, and utterly unlucky in love.

Like all of the Hole novels I have read, the plotting of The Devil's Star is complicated but faultless.  By the time the killer is revealed, the reader has been lead through so many turns and culverts, without stopping to draw breath, that the denouement always feels like a gasping relief.  This novel was different for me too, because Oslo is experiencing a heatwave, which completely changes the atmosphere of what I have come to love about the usual ice-packed Scandinavian crime novels.  The heat works, because Harry's alcoholic haze seems even more depressing, everyone is sweating all of the time, and the author has had to be even more creative and macabre in finding ways to hide his murdered corpses. 

In The Devil's Star, Nesbo has delivered another tightly written, high body count, espresso paced crime thriller.  If you like your crime to feel like a surge of adrenaline that won't release you until the last page, you must try these books.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

The Consolations of Philosophy by Alain de Botton

I read non fiction so rarely, apart from work related reading, that whenever I find myself reading something for interest and enjoyment that is not fiction I have to wonder if I am feeling unwell.  And as for philosophy,  I know many of the names of the biggies from bits of sound bites gleaned here and there, but that is about all.

Enter Alain de Botton, I am sure the man could make a phone directory seem fascinating.  His style is so witty and light, yet completely relevant, that I found myself unable to put this book down.  The lives and wisdom of Socrates, Epicurus, Seneca, Montaigne, Schopenhauer, and poor old Nietzsche are used by de Botton to offer explanation and consolation of the modern ailments of unpopularity, not having enough money, frustration, inadequacy, a broken heart, and difficulties (difficulties of course being about Nietzsche, he had a great many).

De Botton's own philosophical understanding must be epic, because he manages to distill the teachings of each of these five down to forty or so pages, complete with little pictures and hilarious modern day applications of their teachings.  It is quite brilliant.  And best of all for me, I would feel perfectly comfortable after reading this book to pick up some of the original work (translated of course) that Consolations draws on.  De Botton includes a comprehensive notes section in the back that could direct anyone to do this.

This book has been sitting on my shelf for some years.  I suspect, recently reading Thomas Hardy's Jude the Obscure, might have had something to do with me venturing to pick it up.  Jude's thwarted love of learning really moved me.  See, who said a novel can't change your life?  De Botton has apparently written a book on the very subject regarding Proust.  That one may have to wait, I have his, The Art of Travel waiting to be read next.  If you are interested in Alain de Botton's work, he has a very user friendly website.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy

When I finished Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy, one of my first thoughts was that this novel must be approaching the high end of what can be achieved by the art form. This is the second novel I have read by Hardy, the first being Tess of the d'Urbervilles which I read as a teenager, and remember being very moved by the plight of Tess. 

It is of course quite difficult to review these esteemed classics as I am sure there are numerous literary scholars who can, and have, done a better job at dissecting all of the authors intentions and contexts etc.  So I will limit this review to a very sketchy description of the plot and my general impressions, and of course what I liked about it.

Jude the Obscure is Hardy's last novel and was  published in 1896.  My understanding is that there was quite a furore after the publication, because of Hardy's frank treatment of issues around sex, marriage and religious themes in the novel.  The novel also slams the exclusivity of the higher learning institutions of England at the time.

The story begins with Jude as a young boy who is reluctantly taken in by his great aunt, who is a baker in a small town in west England, after both his parents die from illness.  Jude works hard, and becomes a stone mason, but his real passion is for classic learning and he teaches himself as much as he can get his hands on, forever hoping that if he just saves enough money, he will be able to attend one of the illustrious universities of a nearby town.  Jude marries early in the novel to the sensual and pragmatic Arabella, but quickly comes to regret this decision after falling in love with his cousin Susanna, who is quite the opposite to Arabella, being ethereal and intellectual.  Jude and Susanna's disastrous efforts to be together drive the rest of the narrative.

There are numerous themes and layers to the novel.  A few immediately jump out and the other really juicy ones, crept up on me, and aren't fully realised until the final conclusion.  From the outset it is very clear that Hardy is making a statement about the barriers to a man of humble means bettering himself with a higher education, if that is his passion.  One of the moments of most poignancy for me in the novel was a scene towards the end, when the reader learns that throughout his whole blighted life, Jude has carried around with him, his much loved texts, even after his dream of being admitted to university has long faded. 

Then there are the unusually frank themes of marriage and sex, both inside and outside of marriage.  Hardy goes where I am sure no one had gone before in laying bare what marriage meant for the various characters, including from the religious and sexual perspective.  All very extraordinary I am sure for a novel of that era.

And then, there are of course the characters themselves, and the amazingly self-destructive nature of Jude and Susanna's relationship.  I do wonder if other readers of this novel grew to be genuinely irritated by Sue (the ethereal, and intellectual one)?  My take on her is that she is self absorbed to the point of narcissism and that the strongest point in the whole novel is really Jude's unwillingness to tear himself from her, even when the scales are removed from his eyes and he acknowledges to himself, that she is awful and his pursuit of her has caused him nothing but frustration and loneliness.

Arabella, Jude's early wife on the other hand, was a far more likable character, even though Hardy goes to great lengths to paint her as a wanton woman of very dubious morals.  Unlike Jude and his cousin Sue, Arabella demonstrates far more common sense, and even wisdom, when it comes to matters of human relations, than Jude and Sue combined.

The novel is a sweeping and gorgeously realised portrait of a man who is indeed thwarted by the social conventions and limitations of the time, but ultimately, it is his own inner conflicts and self delusion that undoes him.  All of the characters in the novel represent something about him, it is very clever.

Hardy is an expert in exploring the inner workings of his characters, much more so than his use of spoken dialogue.  About half way through the novel I noticed that the characters, especially Jude, were forever walking around, and between, the villages and towns where the story takes place, in every sort of weather.  The walking not only allows for the characters to reflect on what is happening, but of itself, creates this amazing sense of restlessness: the pacing and exertion and not being able to settle and relax.  Jane Austen and her genteel parlours, this is not.

I guess what I am saying is that I became involved with the characters, especially Jude, more than I expected, to the extent that in the last couple of days, when life kept me from finishing the final chapters, I found myself thinking of the novel often and wanted to sneak away to find out what happened.  I don't know about you but, but nineteenth century literature normally does not grip me like that.  So of course, I would recommend this to all; it is one of those books that feels like a priviledge to read, and I also thoroughly enjoyed it.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Vernon God Little by DBC Pierre

Well this book sure is something.  I think I admire parts of it, but I mostly didn't enjoy it.  To be honest I don't think I was supposed to.  It reads like a rant; a satirical, anti western culture rant.  It took me most of the book to even begin to understand why it might have won the the 2003 Booker prize, not to mention a whole swathe of other awards.

As a complete aside, this is the third book I have read in the last month or so, that is at least partly set in Texas, how strange.

Vernon is a 15-year-old who witnesses a shooting massacre at his Texan high school.  Events quickly conspire to implicate Vernon in the shooting.  The premise of the novel, I think, is that society is so awful (especially the media and other aspects of corporate and individual self interest) that a teenager such as Vernon, battling with his grief and trauma from the shooting, not to mention his own "coming of age" issues could be pushed into a position that has nothing to do with justice and everything to do with satisfying the needs of others.

Not surprisingly I think, the novel reminded me of The Catcher in the Rye, and to be honest that novel is not one of my favourites either.  I didn't fully engage with Holden and I certainly didn't warm to Vernon.   Again, I probably wasn't meant to. 

So I don't get bogged down I think from here I am going to keep it simple and say what I felt were the strengths of the novel and what didn't work for me.

The strengths:  The narrative arc of the book is brilliant, all the little bits fit together at the end, and the pace and tension is well maintained.  The humour is dark to the point of excoriation.  Pierre, well and truly makes his point, all is not right with western culture, especially when it comes to our media appetites.  The small town and its characters are also very well drawn, painfully so.  The insecurities and petty back biting feels very real.  I guess most importantly, the writing itself is good, the man can write; great use of dialogue, both internal and spoken.

Where the novel didn't work for me:  I don't think I like satire in my fiction, maybe it is as simple as that.  I want to be moved or entertained by a novel, not yelled at or completely grossed out.  This is an angry and often ridiculing voice, I was put off by it.  I guess my revulsion could be a testament to Pierre's brilliant characterisation because this journey with Vernon feels like going on high speed ride with a foul mouthed, cynical yet vulnerable teenager.  I was glad when it was over.

In short, I will be heading back to the Victorian classics, science fiction and historical fiction. If however, The Catcher in the Rye is one of your all time favourite novels, or you like your contemporary fiction with a darkly comic edge, you might really enjoy this book.  I would love to hear if others have read this, and what they think.

Monday, October 31, 2011

The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty by Sebastian Barry

The first novel I read by Irish author Sebastian Barry was The Secret Scripture which turned out to be one of my top two favourite reads of last year.  Barry is simply a beautiful writer.  Not in that overdone, overly clever way that I sometimes find with contemporary literature, just original, flowing prose, from the first page to the last.

This is an odd title for a book, no?  Well it actually fits perfectly, because Eneas McNulty spends his whole life hiding from his countrymen, as a wanderer. 

Eneas McNulty is born at the turn of the twentieth century in Sligo in western Ireland.  A series of choices in Eneas young life, from going away to fight in the first world war on the side of England (because he is fascinated by France apparently) to taking a job with the Royal Irish Constabulary, finds Eneas an outcast from his much loved home.  He is at odds with his childhood friends who become Irish freedom fighters and declare that if he sets foot in Ireland again, they will kill him. 

I loved the history lesson in this novel and I equally loved that Barry manages to compress a life into 300 pages.  Not a word or page is wasted.  Barry does not take sides in his narrative about the Irish history, but focuses on the effect of the conflicts on individuals on both sides.  The symbol of clothes is used to great effect in the novel, (note the old blue suit depicted on the cover) in a time when much is left unsaid, the changing clothes of the various characters come to symbolise how they see themselves or at least want to see themselves.

The tone of the novel is quiet and lonely.  Indeed I have not read a better evocation of loneliness, as Eneas goes from continent to continent, and makes two surreptitious trips back to Ireland, trying to eke out an existence for himself.  Barry gives us a portrait of a guileless, honest man, caught up in events he did not foresee.  It is also a scary portrait into the passing of time in all of our lives, at least it connected with me in that way.  The jumping of the years and decades is completely seamless, and there is something very confronting I think, when a character ages swiftly and convincinly, before the reader's very eyes, so to speak.

There are similarities between the The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty and The Secret Scripture, indeed the lives of Eneas McNulty, and Roseanne (the main character in The Secret Scripture) intersect in both novels.
They are lonely, marginalised people, but for different reasons.  Reading about the same characters in two different books is quite fascinating as the points of view are explored so differently.

Of the two, The Secret Scripture for me is the stronger of the novels, mostly I think because it is a more dramatic story, and the character of Roseanne is more involving than Eneas, but that speaks to who they are as well.  Roseanne is passionate and a real fighter, who is locked away from the world, whereas Eneas is a  lost soul, adrift in the world.  He is more remote.  But from first to last he stays true to his own goodness, and demonstrates he is not at all stupid, just a moral man, barred from his home.

I admire The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty because it is truly haunting, and the ending, which is very dramatic by the way, is consistent and satisfying.  In both cases the joy of the novels is Barry's writing.  When I read his prose it comes to mind that not just anyone can write well, it is a craft and his craft is honed to heavenly perfection. I am not kidding, read him and see.  I would highly recommend Sebastian Barry to anyone.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Foal's Bread by Gillian Mears Readalong Part Four

The Foal's Bread Readalong is hosted by Danielle at The Book Nerd Club.  We have reached the end of the novel and so today's Readalong focuses on the final chapters, coda, and last thoughts.

Well, what a dramatic and moving finale!  And yes, spoilers follow. The whole narrative comes together in the final chapters.  From first to last, this has been Noah's story.  From giving birth as a child herself, in the lonely turbulent waters of Flaggy Creek, the story ends with Noah plummeting to her death, on her beloved horse, in those same waters.  The coda, which is written from Noah's daughter, Lainey's perspective, reassures the reader that Noah's courage and sacrifice enabled her daughter to lead a full life, outside of the shadow that she was forced to endure.

I think I have made it clear throughout, that I was moved by these characters, especially Noah.  The final chapters made me think of my own mother (now deceased) and while my mother did not face all of the same challenges as Noah, thank goodness, she did grow up in a simple country setting and faced some of the same obstacles, especially reduced opportunities.  Gillian Mears convincingly conveys what life must have been like before and after WWII for men,woman and children in rural Australia.  It could be a sparse and lonely existence, and the possibility that individuals could abuse their power over children, was often not even considered.

The hardest aspect of the novel for me was the "grooming" of Noah and her daughter Lainey, by their respective uncles.  This is very hard to read.  It was all too horrible to consider.  And to be honest I found myself, pushing aside the clues, in the later chapters that Lainey was singled out for abuse by her uncle.  My deliberately pushing aside, what I didn't want to see, in relation to characters I had become close to, I believe, accurately mirrors what can happen where individuals fail to acknowledge what they don't want to see, and like me, just hope for the best.  Good writing, like good art I think, can invite us to examine our reactions to something.  This worked for me here.

The words brave and courageous, are often used glibly, in my view,  to describe what an author chooses to tackle.  In this case, I feel that Gillian Mears was very courageous to unflinchingly incorporate these difficult aspects as part of Noah, and her family's story.  I would like to think that the environment we live in now is different, and there are more "checks and balances" so to speak, and that children have more of a voice, but we know that is not always the case, even today.

So yes, I shed a tear at the end, and I think it was mostly because Noah's story was so moving.  She had so few resources to call upon in terms of power and communication, but she was resolute and fierce when it came to protecting her daughter.

Overall, I think this is a remarkable book, I love the Australian context, the symmetry in the narrative, and the tone and style of the writing. Thank you, very much, to Allen & Unwin for the book, and a big thank you to Danielle for bringing the Readalong to my attention.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Foal's Bread by Gillian Mears Readalong Part Three

The Foal's Bread Readalong is hosted by Danielle at The Book Nerd Club, and this week sees us reading chapters 14 through to the end of chapter 19.  Again part of the fun is discussing aspects of the plot so henceforth there are spoilers.

I found this section of the book the most compelling so far; it sees our female protagonist Noah completely stripped bare.  From the final deterioration and death of her beloved husband Roley, her descent into alcoholism and the ultimate blow upon the bruise comes when her daughter Lainey outshines her own achievements on the high jumping circuit.

The full tragedy of Noah's life is played out in these chapters.  Mears portrays the misery that is alcoholism to perfection.  She is unflinching in the narrative, and at times, I found myself needing to pause in the reading because it is just so sad for Noah.  The self loathing, the self medication and the self sabotage are all convincingly depicted as part of Noah's story.

This is the section where abuse in Noah's past returns to, not only destroy her, but is reaching its malignant tentacles into the next generation, and threatens to shape Lainey, as the young girl struggles to understand and survive her mother's behaviour, remoteness and hostility towards her.  I love how Mears has depicted the relationship between mother and daughter.  It is heart-breaking.  We experience, through simple actions and what goes unsaid, Noah's inability to overcome her own demons and be there for her daughter, and Lainey's utter confusion and need to secure her mother's love.  For Noah this is nothing new, as she struggled in the same way to express her feelings to her husband right up until his death.  The scene where Noah and Lainey are trying to force feed Roley at the end of his life is confronting and moving beyond words.

I still have the final chapters of the book to read, but for me Mears has not put a foot wrong.  I love the writing style that keeps the reader slightly off balance.  In my view the writing style amplifies the emotional impact of the novel.  Again for me (I know the writing style has been a source of discussion in the readalong) the choice of writing style is a stroke of genius, as it has created in this reader at least, a definite sense of cascading or flowing, and at times, bumping along with the story, much like a butter box, set adrift in the fast flowing currents of a mountain creek, on a moonlit night.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

The Old Curiosity Shop by Charles Dickens

Does a Dickens novel need an introduction?  Well I will say that I am pleased with myself for having read this 1841 classic as it is the first proper classic that I have read all year.

The novel begins with little Nell and her grandfather as they lose the Old Curiosity Shop, due to the grandfather's gambling debts and are forced to flee onto the roads of England.  The story follows their progress, and the progress of the "saints and sinners" who either love and have aided little Nell and her grandfather, or have contributed to their downfall.

Many years ago, I read A Tale of Two Cities by Dickens and found myself completely mesmerized by that novel.  I enjoyed The Old Curiosity Shop very much, but am finding it difficult to think of ways to describe it.  There are also aspects to the novel the I found quite irritating. 

One of aspects of the novel that I found fascinating is that it reads like something that was serialized, which of course it was, as it was published in weekly instalments in one of Dickens's serial publications.  I found it quite nostalgic (in a good way) to be reading chapter after chapter and imagining English folk, back in 1840, eagerly anticipating the next part of the story.

I also enjoyed Dickens's description of the places Nell and her grandfather pass through.  He is the absolute master of capturing the poverty and struggle of the working classes of the time.  As they pass through one of the northern industrialised cities, the reader experiences all of the darkness, noise, filth and scurrying humanity of those streets.  A painting could not say as much.  Poverty is explored in many different contexts in the novel.  The archetypal "baddies" that Dickens does to perfection, while not materially poor, are certainly morally bankrupt, and often quite funny I found.  I think what could be exasperating to the modern reading palette is that most of the characters don't have any sort of moral ambiguity; they are either pure, wholesome and without fault, or they are sinister and forever plotting evil deeds.  I say it could be exasperating, because I actually found this quite fun; a bit like a fairy tale for adults. 

There is also something quite fresh and completely recognisable about many of the interactions and dialogue between the characters.  The cast of characters is epic.  I am not sure, but suspect that The Old Curiosity Shop of the title refers to the ensemble collection of people in the novel, as much as the bricks and mortar shop at the beginning.  The characters are all certainly memorable, often because of their extreme nature, unusual, occupation or physical characteristics, but as a complete volume, I am not sure that it all ties together as well as some of his other work.  And perhaps it is unfair to compare it to his other novels, as it was not originally published as a novel.  While I risk stating the bleeding obvious, I think my enjoyment of the novel suffered a bit from differences between our eras.  Some of the scenes that were emotionally loaded seemed a bit overblown to me.

One of the themes that Dickens explores throughout is the neglect and mistreatment  of children in the Victorian era.  I found one of the most evocative and poignant examples of the cheapness of childrens' lives at the time, is a young female servant character who has no name at all.

My major peeve with the novel is the character of Nell's grandfather.  I wanted to shake him, right up until the end in fact.  I guess this could be a tribute to Dickens's wonderful characterisation, but I just found him completely annoying and pathetic.   In fairness, I am sure the grandfather was meant to be broken and pathetic, and I have not read a better account of a gambling addiction, ever.  It amazed me, that Dickens's portrayal of the itch and compulsion associated with gambling, resonates just as strongly in the western society of today.  

Overall, the suspense of the novel builds very nicely, and true to form, Dickens had me cheering for the oppressed and eagerly awaiting the downfall of the conniving oppressors. While not my favourite by this literary giant, it is great story telling, and I am very pleased I took the time to read it.  I would love to know what others think of this novel and Dickens's work generally.  Which are your favourites?

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Foal's Bread by Gillian Mears Readalong Part Two

This is the second instalment for the Foal's Bread Readalong, which is hosted by Danielle at The Book Nerd Club.  We are now halfway through the novel, with this instalment covering chapters 7 through to the end of chapter 13. 

Spoiler Alert: discussion of the content follows

These chapters more or less seem to cover the duration of WWII, and follow the inhabitants of One Tree through those years.  The persistent melancholic mood of the drama is underscored by Roley's legs becoming more and more useless.  The consequences of Roley's disability are far reaching: he is rejected from signing up for the army, he is less able to do even basic work on the property, and perhaps most sadly, he becomes more and more remote from Noah.

A harsher edge appears in Noah, as she becomes isolated in her work at One Tree; milking the cows, looking after the horses and her two children.  Noah finds temporary solace away from One Tree, drinking with her aunts in the town.

The incredibly sad family situation is beautifully balanced by Noah and Roley's emotional investment in their children and the horses.  The long barren Gurlie is finally with foal and gives birth, bringing joy and hope to the family.  The section ends with all of the family back in the saddle, practicing jumps on the property.  After an exhilarating afternoon on the horses, the section ends on a sour note, as a large rupture appears in Noah and Roley's relationship. Roley is left to reflect in despair.

I continue to really enjoy this story.  It is an Australia I recognise.  I will explain.  While my upbringing was about as urban as can be, my mother's family is from the country, and as children, we spent a number of holidays,  with my country cousins, feeding chooks, milking cows and riding horses.  Country people, even to this day, have elements of the Gillian Mears's characters.  They are often not big on talking, and are more likely to come out with an astute and pithy one liner, than endlessly discuss the merits of this or that, as I enjoy doing. 

I can see the house at One Tree in my mind's eye.  So for me Mears accurately and magically recreates an authentic rural family setting.  Those WWII times are not that long ago, and even less time seems to have past in a lot of rural areas.  The corrugated iron, the stock rails, and the endless cycle of animal care;  I love how she has captured all of these elements.   She also captures the common sense and make-do attitude of the people that go with these settings.  For me, the tensions that exist within, and between the characters, ring completely true.

I do feel involved with the characters and really look forward to learn where their lives lead next.  The high-jumping circuit no doubt beckons for Noah and her daughter Lainey, but it will be interesting to see how Roley will endure his secondary role.  I wonder how Lainey and her brother George, who have led quite an isolated life thus far at One Tree during the war, will cope with the show circuit, especially given their mother's pent up emotions seem likely to burst through at any moment, and their father retreats more and more into himself.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

The Redbreast by Jo Nesbo

The Redbreast (2006 English translation) is by Norwegian author Jo Nesbo, and it is a cracker.  This is the third in the Harry Hole series.  I have not read the first two in the series and it did not seem to matter in terms of my enjoyment or understanding.

The novel opens in 2000 with police officer Harry being assigned to security duty when the US president is visiting Oslo.  At first I thought okay, this is pretty typical thriller fare.  Events take a very dramatic turn when Harry accidentally shoots a Secret Service agent, mistaking him for an assassin.  The political fallout has the unexpected consequence of Harry being promoted to Inspector but he is forced to leave his old unit, and given an out-of-way post.  Harry finds himself tracking down an unusual rifle, that he suspects of being imported into the country to kill a high ranking target.  The investigation has Harry trying to piece together a mystery that involves modern day Neo-Nazis, but originated in WWII and the Nazi occupation of Norway.

The action switches between Harry and a group of Norwegian soldiers fighting on the German side in WWII.  We learn of the relationships between these men and a mysterious death that divides them.  One of the highlights of the novel, and a fantastic counterbalance for all of the action, is a romance between one of the Norwegian solders and a nurse he meets while recuperating from a shrapnel wound.  This might sound cheesy but it is completely convincing,  and very poignant.  The echoes of this doomed love story reverberate strongly in the modern day investigation.

There is a lot of interesting information about Norway during WWII, all of which was new to me, and I love fiction with a WWII theme.   The plot is very intricate, in the war years, and in 2000 with Harry, with characters intersecting all over the place.  I think the reason Nesbo is able to make this work, is by playing up the human factor as well.  There is subtlety in the characters responses and interactions, and the action and mystery have a solid emotional foundation, which for me, made the convoluted plot seem worthwhile.  I found myself really involved with these characters.  And I think that is the point where a thriller, or crime novel, is elevated to something else entirely.  Nesbo had me eating out of the palm of his hand.

Readers of this blog may be aware that I am a bit partial to the Scandinavian crime writers.  And for me, at least for now, Nesbo is king.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Foal's Bread by Gillian Mears Readalong Part One

The Foal's Bread Readalong is hosted by Danielle over at The Book Nerd Club.  Gillian Mears is an Australian novelist whose work I was unfamiliar with, but I do love a good tale with an Australian setting so was keen to give Foal's Bread a go. 

Information about the novel by publishers Allen & Unwin:

The long-awaited new novel from the award-winning author of The Grass Sister tells the story of two generations of the Nancarrow family and the high-jumping horse circuit prior to the Second World War. A love story of impossible beauty and sadness, it is also a chronicle of dreams 'turned inside out', and miracles that never last, framed against a world both tender and unspeakably hard.

I am completely swept up in this story and these characters.  When I started reading Foal's Bread I was immediately  reminded of Australian novels that I read when I was a teenager, thanks to my mother's love of Australian fiction, by authors such as Ruth Park and E.V. Timms.  More recently, I have enjoyed this type of Australian setting and characters in novels by Tim Winton, Peter Carey and ChrisWomersley.  Foal's Bread is a brilliant example of this type of book: excellent writing, engaging plotting and characters that I know I will be weeping over before too long.

Spoiler Alert:  Discussion of Preamble to Chapter 6 so be warned.

I was shocked and compelled by the opening of the novel where the reader is introduced to fourteen year old Noah as she gives birth, with only pigs for company, in a cold mountain stream, all on her own.  I am certainly eager to see if the baby survived and reappears later in the novel. Or are we meant to assume that the baby drowned?  Either way it is powerful stuff, and not only gives the reader a clear idea of what young Noah's life has been like, but also a strong impression of her character and spirit.

There is a preamble before the story opens and while it is beautifully written, having a poetic and wistful feel to it, I am not sure that it really added anything for me.  This probably comes down to personal preference, but in my view, the Chapter 1 opening is really strong, and I don't know that the preamble actually achieves that rearview, or looking back perspective, that the author is possibly shooting for.  It made sense that way when I re-read it now, but I have only done that because I am writing about it.  Normally I don't think a reader would bother.

Foal's bread is a love story in the most wonderful, fleeting-joy-and-lots-of- tragedy, sense. And by the end of Chapter 6, the arc is well and truly descending into tough times for Roley and Noah.

I am loving it all.  It is dramatic and moving, without being too sentimental. 

I also find the characters in Roley's extended family delightful and really well drawn.  Can't you just imagine the sister who likes to bake and is especially kind to the children?

I also like the perspective of pre WWII Australia, and what the coming of the war, so close on the end of WWI,  meant for these regional areas.  Min's grief and protectiveness of her family make a lot of sense to me, as annoyingly frustrating as she is.

My final thought is that while there is lots of drama in the narrative, the characters continue to reveal more of themselves and develop in complexity, which is satisfying.  And, this really is the final thought, the relationship between Noah and Roley is wonderful and nuanced and oh so sad. I grew up with Jacaranda trees everywhere you see, and I daresay I will not look at their beautiful purple October carpet again without thinking of Noah and Roley.   I will stop before it becomes painful!  Two thumbs up from me so far.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Review: Holes by Louis Sacher

Holes is the quirky story of Stanley Yelnats, who is a teenager sentenced to dig holes in the Texan desert, at the truly hideous Camp Green Lake, where there is nothing green and certainly no lake, for 18 months for stealing the shoes of a famous baseball player.  Sadly, Stanley did not commit this crime, but the Yelnats have been cursed with bad luck for generations.  This is the story of how Stanley manages to, once and for all, remove that curse.

Nothing is what it seems in Holes, and instead of being a youth detention operation for young offenders, the hole digging is really the warden's quest to find treasure buried more than 100 years ago by an infamous female outlaw, Kissin' Kate Barlow.

The narrative is meticulously constructed with Stanley's struggles interspersed with flashbacks of both his ancestor's story, and the story of Kissin Kate.  The stories weave seamlessly together. 

There are so many themes in the novel, but I guess the idea of fitting in and identity, Stanley has always been teased at school by peers and teachers alike for being overweight, is a big one, and perseverance and friendship also feature.

There is plenty of enjoyable symbolism, and play on words, and I really think I might have to read this little novel again to make sure none of the cleverness escaped me.  I am not sure if this book was originally marketed as YA fiction, but I am sure both that audience, and all readers really, would find something to engage with here; it is completely original and satisfying.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Review: A Cupboard Full of Coats by Yvvette Ewards

Longlisted for this year's Man Booker Prize, A Cupboard Full of Coats is a beautifully written debut novel from British author Yvvette Edwards. From the first page I was hooked by Ewards's clear and emotive prose:

He just knocked, that was all, knocked the front door and waited, like he had just come back with the paper from the corner shop, and the fourteen years since he last stood there, the fourteen years since the night I killed my mother, hadn't really happened at all.
                                                                A Cupboard Full of Coats p. 1

The story is told by Jinx, a young woman, who over the course of a weekend attempts to heal from violent events of her childhood that culminated in the death of her mother, and have long since caused her to be emotionally shut off from the whole world including her own son.

This is a story about domestic violence and the long, inter-generational shadow it casts.  Some of the plot elements left me feeling a bit uncomfortable, I daresay that is not necessarily a bad thing.  The elements of the plot that worked best for me were the more symbolic elements. Like a number of recent novels it seems to me, the consumption of food, features here, and it is done very well.  Food, from the characters' Caribbean roots, is used as a comforting link to the past and a way of showing love.  Clothing on the other hand, in particular, the cupboard full of coats of the title, represents for Jinx, the most tragic aspects of her mother's life.

The real hero of the novel is the writing itself.  Ewards's prose shimmers with life; it is economical yet filled with warmth, which is no small feat given the subject matter of the novel.  And while elements of the story bothered me, so I couldn't say I fully enjoyed it, I will be lining up to read whatever she writes next because the writing itself is such standout joy.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

The Fix by Nick Earls

The Fix is the most recent offering by Australian author Nick Earls.  I have long loved Earls's breezy, conversational writing style and his novels are often set in Brisbane, where I grew up, which is a bonus.  The Fix is impressive and from what I have read of his earlier books, a bit of a departure from his normal, humorous, perils of being a student or relationships fare.

The Fix begins with Josh Lang returning to Brisbane after being in London for a few years where he worked as a "fixer" or a spin expert who specialised in selling the unsellable.  Back home in Brisbane, his employment prospects are not looking too bright. He has a weekly blog for a local news publication where he supplies quirky pieces.  His brother Brett, at their mother's insistence, finds an assignment for Josh with a legal firm that his own business has had dealings with.  The assignment seems straightforward enough; he is to guide one of the firm's solicitors through the publicity associated with him being awarded a bravery medal for protecting the senior partner in a hostage taking siege.  The young solicitor in question turns out to be Ben Harkin, an ex-friend of Josh's.

Josh needs the money and so decides that irrespective of the bad history between them - the good looking and successful Ben had slept with a girl friend of Josh's years before - he will do his professional best to guide him through the medal ceremony and media engagements.  And after all, it would all be over in a couple of weeks.

From the outset, the story of the siege, where Ben emerges as hero after the gunman, a disgruntled, presumed psychotic, client of the firm is shot dead, seems fishy to Josh.  Ben's reluctance to speak about the details don't entirely make sense, nor do the senior partner's instantaneous efforts to see that Ben is awarded a bravery medal.  Ben is as inscrutable to Josh as he had been in the past, when they were friends. 

The Fix is really Ben's story told from the perspective of Josh.  It is clever and engaging, and the tension builds steadily so, even though the reader knows there will be a surprise in store, the ending still delivers.

This is a Nick Earls novel in that it is filled with quirky characters and scenarios, that while offbeat, are endearing and recognisable.  Earls writes dialogue well.  He has a flair for capturing the awkwardness and insecurity of many social interactions.  He creates a wonderful sense of place by writing about unconsciously observed details in a few words. The action takes place in the central business district of Brisbane, and the surrounding suburbs, as well as the tourism extravaganza of Surfers Paradise and The Gold Coast. 

I saw Nick Earls at the recent Brisbane Writers' Festival and was impressed with his presentation and interaction with the audience.  He looked like he enjoyed talking about his book and made it look easy, but confessed when asked about this, that he has improved over the years and consciously decided a few years ago that if he did a little bit of preparation he could look forward to such events. 

Do I think non Aussie readers would enjoy reading The Fix?  I think there are added joys for those that know Brisbane and The Gold Coast, but his style is accessible and witty, he brings his settings and characters to life, and the novel struck a chord with me in exploring the mysterious and unknowable in our relationships with others.  Perception is all as they say, and our perception, as much as we might try for it not to be, is always plagued by our own stuff.  If you liked the movie The Sting, The Fix, has a similar feel, though fortunately, you don't need to read The Fix twice to understand what happened.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Review of Dune by Frank Herbert (audio book)

Breaking down the plot of Frank Herbert's science fiction epic Dune (1965) is probably more than I am capable of doing at this time of night.  I chose this audio book because I have rediscovered a love of science fiction this year and thought I should give this classic title a go.  I think the audio format worked well, as trying to read this dense volume may have defeated me.

Alright, the story takes place on the sand planet Arrakis.  The noble family of  Atreides have just taken up residence and assumed control of the planet and its lucrative spice industry, when the novel opens.   Duke Leto Atreides is assassinated early on, and the novel charts the rise of his son and heir, Paul Atreides as he attempts to avenge his father and reclaim control of the planet.

The plot is complex and has a very serious tone. There are many different interests struggling for ascendancy on the planet.  There is an overarching imperial force, which controls a number of planets, of which Arrakis is only one.  There is also a personal side to the plot, that makes it more than just a war story.  The Lady Jessica, Duke Leto's concubine and Paul's mother, plays a central role in the novel, as do a number of the late Duke's loyal retainers who are forced to scatter when the Duke is killed. 

The language of the novel is beautiful.  Herbert creates a believable arid and inhospitable desert world.  Like with so much good science fiction, it is the small details that make this alternate world seem real.  A great many words are given to describing the special suits that the desert tribes people, the Fremen, have to wear to survive.  The intricacies of the role of water and different rituals also add a richness to the narrative.  There are obviously too many aspects to the plot to go into.  Perhaps my favourite part of Arrakis, and I am sure I am not alone in this, are the giant predatory sand worms that eat every living and non livng thing in their path. It suffices to say that Paul Atreides's rise to power is fraught with challenge and difficulty.

As an aside, I feel it necessary to comment on the audio book production itself.  This audio book is the most elaborately "produced" I have listened to, and I am not sure if all the extra bells and whistles really worked for me.  There are many narrators, I think more than ten, for the different characters in the story.  This is unusual.  Often a single narrator will do the reading for an entire novel, altering their own voice for the various characters.  My real annoyance though, was with the overlay of music at certain times during the narration.   I found it distracting.  Overall these are small issues, but they are curious to me, so I have mentioned them.

This is a novel that I admire tremendously for its enormous scope and detailed execution.  I didn't fully enjoy the general tone of the novel, maybe the background music, underlining the portent and seriousness of events  was part of this problem.  The slipping in and out of religious themes, with associated fervour was a bit over the top at times for me too.

I am very glad I have experienced Dune, and would thoroughly recommended it to anyone who likes their sci-fi in grand and dramatic dallops.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Review: Frantic by Katherine Howell

I decided to read this book for two reasons: firstly, it is a crime fiction novel by an Australian author, and as a reasonably big reader of the genre I thought I ought to "read Australian" so to speak and secondly, the author was going to be speaking at an event that I was due to attend at The Brisbane Writers Festival and I was curious.  I have to take a deep breath to write this review, because unlike many of you, I am not good at reviewing a book that I really disliked.  So here goes!

The author, Katherine Howell worked as a Sydney ambulance officer for more than ten years.  Frantic is the first of her four crime novels that feature police and paramedics.  The premise for the novel is promising; Sophie a young paramedic, is married to Chris, a police officer, both work in busy inner Sydney precincts.  Sophie's world is turned upside down when her husband is shot in the head on the front doorstep of their home and their eight month old son is abducted.

The writing is generally plodding and over-explained.  There are a couple of fast paced action sequences where it flows better.  For instance, a scene near the beginning of the novel where Sophie and her paramedic  partner are fighting to save the life of a baby and mother during a difficult birth, is smooth and engaging.  For the rest, I was constantly aware of the awkward and clunky style of the prose.

I found the plot painfully predictable.  I would imagine most readers would have solved the whodunit early on in the book, and from then on, there is nothing to build or maintain any sort of tension or suspense.  I was also disappointed with not feeling like I was in Sydney when I read the book.  I know the areas where the story takes place and yet, it could have been anywhere.  There were no references that built a sense of place.

With a couple of exceptions, including Truth by Peter Temple, which I couldn't put down, I generally have not enjoyed Australian crime fiction.  Usually when I don't like a book,  I won't finish it or I certainly won't review it.  I am not sure if I am glad I have written about Frantic, it feels a bit self indulgent to be really critical about a book don't you think?  It makes me think about what I am wanting to achieve with my blog.  The writer has at least put her work out there.  Who am I to be negative?  I just didn't enjoy it.

It has been a busy weekend and I am behind in my reviews, but, on a brighter note, I have recently finished two books by Norwegian crime novelist Jo Nesbo that were mind-blowingly good.  I suspect that is part of the reason Frantic fell so flat, the comparison was a catastrophe.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Review: The Small Hand by Susan Hill

This is an interesting little ghost story by Susan Hill.  There are some aspects that work well, but overall it didn't fully take off for me.

The novel opens with Adam Snow, who is an antiquarian book dealer, getting lost on his way to an appointment, and discovering an abandoned and derelict English garden.  Curiosity causes Adam to venture into the garden and look around.  While standing there, wondering what must have been, he becomes aware that a small hand, presumably that of a child, has slipped into his own. 

There is good development of tension in the narrative, as Adam is pursued relentlessly by the owner of the small hand, and it is genuinely creepy and suspenseful.  It just doesn't deliver in terms of where the story goes.  The plotting did, at times, seem a bit random and the ending was predictable and unsatisfactory.  It seemed like a bit of a mishmash of classic ghost story ingredients, with none of the ingredients really developed or followed through.

For me, Hill's biggest mistake was making direct references in the novel to Henry James's The Turn of the Screw, a brilliant, surprising and meticulously constructed ghost story, and Miss Havisham from Great Expectations.  There is indeed an old lady, who is obsessed with times gone by in The Small Hand, but she was hardly the exquisitely drawn character of the Dickens classic.  I took a definite note to self, that if ever I was planning on writing something, the last thing I ought to do is remind the reader of the best examples of what I am trying to achieve.  It seemed so unnecessary to me.

I did however find myself turning the pages quickly, and I think that was partly due to Adam's occupation of rare book dealer.  I daresay that book themed stories always hold a bit of extra allure for me. 

So, while I can't wholeheartedly recommend this one, at less than 200 pages, it is worth a look if ghost stories are especially your thing.  I am curious to know if anyone has read other novels by Susan Hill. My understanding is that they are usually ghost themed, and have generally been well received.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Review: Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks

There is nothing so enjoyable as escaping into some high quality historical fiction don't you think? Year of Wonders by Australian author Geraldine Brooks is absorbing, human, full of drama, and I loved it. 

Geraldine Brooks, who has also worked as a foreign correspondent for publications like The Wall Street Journal,  starts all of her fiction with a kernel of historical fact. Here, the voluntary quarantining of a Derbyshire village, Eyam, in 1666 that is beset by plague.  The novel, through the narrative voice of a young maid at the local rectory, explores the villagers response to this immense crisis. 

The premise; what happens to a village where more people have died of plague than still remain, was always going to be ripe for good story telling potential. But Brooks really lets rip and through her amazing eye for detail and imagination brings the village to life, from the people, to the muddied streets to the sickening manifestation of the bubonic plague itself.  And she weaves the whole story together in 300 pages.  As a complete aside, I have recently read another novel by a former journalist, Snowdrops by AD Miller, a more different story to Year of Wonders I can't imagine, but my point is, that I really liked how Miller crafted his narrative arc too.  In both cases the novels begin at almost the end, and then describes how the heck the narrator got there. 

Anna Frith, the rectory maid and narrator of Years of Wonders is a beautifully balanced character.  From the beginning we learn that her life was devastated in the year before the plague, when her husband was killed in a mining accident.  We also quickly learn that Anna's two young children fall early victims to the plague.  This is Anna's story and how she manages to hang on through the devastation and create some sort of life for herself. 

A central theme to the story is exploring human responses to the unknown.  In 1666, there was no science to explain the plague, so no one understood why this hideous disease had come to the village, how it was spread, or how it chose its victims.  Fear, suspicion and prejudice, combined with grief and trauma make for a devastating mix in the village, as everyone is forced to confront their own death.

Anna also bears witness to the unmasking of many of the villagers.  Brooks fully explores the theme of crisis revealing an individual's true, core character.  And there are plenty of surprises to this end right up until the conclusion of the novel.  Brooks makes her point very well, that there are so many layers to a person, and sometimes it is only when everything is taken away true nature is revealed.

In more recent times Brooks has written the much acclaimed Caleb's Crossing.  Year of Wonders is the first novel I have read by her and I can't wait to read the others.  Her writing is exquisite and sensitive, and she evokes a magical sense of place.  If you like historical fiction then I would encourage you to give Year of Wonders a go.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Review: Nemesis by Philip Roth

Before this, I had not read a thing by the much acclaimed Philip Roth, but have wanted to give his work a go for some time.  So while browsing at a recent book sale, here in Australia, the lovely yellow tones of this hardcover definitely called to me and I added it to the pile.

Nemesis is set in a Newark community in the summer of 1944.  War is raging in Europe and the Pacific, and a polio epidemic has broken out in the US.  The story focuses on Eugene "Bucky" Cantor's response to the polio outbreak.  Bucky is 23, and a dedicated physical education instructor running a summertime recreation program for the local kids.  Unlike all of  his friends he is at home during wartime because of extreme shortsightedness, which prevented him from signing up.

This is Bucky's story, and explores how the horror of the polio outbreak, that apparently randomly strikes down children and young people in their prime, literally devastates his life forever.

I appreciated Roth's writing; the reading is effortless, and he maintains good tension from beginning to end.  I felt like every word had been carefully selected and used to maximum effect.  There are subtle touches too that demonstrate the precision he wields with his words.  For instance, throughout much of the narrative, Bucky is referred to as Mr Cantor, which signifies how he sees himself, as responsible for, and an example to his young charges.

The novel realistically evokes what it must be like when an incurable disease breaks out in a community.  Roth describes what happens when fear and ignorance take hold and uncontrolled emotions erupt from normally rational people. 

There is a clear singular message from the novel, and that is how an individual is ultimately shaped by the meaning they attribute to events in their life.  Bucky was an ordinary, earnest young man of his generation, determined to do the best he could for his community and his loved ones, but his attempts to grapple with uncontrollable events destroyed his future.

My understanding is that the idea of events shaping lives, is a theme that has emerged in Philip Roth's more recent work.  I found it interesting, well written and very serious.  To be honest I am usually looking for a bit more humour or wit in a novel, but there was certainly no place for either here.  I was moved by Bucky's story and I daresay the echo of it will remain with me for some time. 

I would love to know what others think of Philip Roth's work?  What are your favourites by him?

Friday, August 26, 2011

Book Blogger Hop

Book Blogger Hop
Book Blogger Hop is hosted by Jen over at Crazy For Books. The question to get bloggers chatting this week is not about books, but:

Do you have any pets?

My Answer: Yes, a ginger tabby, Meeka.

Happy reading and have a good weekend.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Snowdrops by A.D. Miller

Snowdrops is the debut novel by British journalist A.D. Miller and it has been long listed for this year's Man Booker prize.  It is an absorbing read about modern Moscow, told from the point of view of a British lawyer who made Moscow his home for four years.

I can see why this novel has received acclaim.  It is very well written, with an economical sharp style, and the narrative is exquisitely structured.  The story is told in the first person by Nick, the lawyer, as a written confession, to his, soon to be bride, about his time in Moscow.  He begins the account by describing his reaction to coming across a human corpse that has been revealed with the spring/summer thaw.  The title of the novel "snowdrops" is the Russian slang for such a body that has been hidden by the winter freeze only to be discovered, much later in the year, when the temperature rises.

This is the sort of novel that is deceptively simple, but reveals more and more on later reflection.  I felt that Miller captured well the free fall, and cast adrift feeling that often accompanies living away from your home country for extended periods of time.   Like many, I have been in that situation myself, but certainly did not live anywhere quite so, apparently hedonistic and corrupt, as Moscow.  Miller paints an alarmingly disturbing and depressing portrait of life in modern Russia.  The most frightening element is that Nick who is in his late thirties during his time in Moscow, and initially seems no more apathetic or self centred than the next person, becomes involved in a sequence of tawdry and ultimately murderous events.

The novel is about moral free fall, and it is very cleverly done, so that like Nick, the reader is seduced, step by step, into thinking that each new slip or dodgy element is really not so bad, or, it is at the very least, understandable.  It is not until the conclusion of the novel, once you have put it down, that the full implications of Nick's complicity and self delusion is made horrifically clear. 

I can't wholeheartedly say I enjoyed the novel although I admire it greatly.  There is no, even tiny, glimmer of hope in this story.  It is a tale of moral bankruptcy, with the associated economic and societal elements.  I found it shocking and depressing.  Don't get me wrong either, the novel is not off putting in a violent or gratuitous way, it is more subtle and unusual than that.  I will be sure to read any future novels by Miller, as I appreciate his writing style.  He really knows how to craft a story, leaving all but the necessary out. No doubt his journalism background helps with that.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Review of The City and the City by China Mieville

The City and the City opens like thousands of other crime novels; a young woman's body is found dumped, and we are introduced to the law enforcement who have been assigned to discover what happened and who is responsible for the death.  The head of the investigation is Inspector Tyedor Borlu of the Beszel Extreme Crime Squad.

From that point, the novel gradually opens out into something quite unlike any crime novel I have read, or indeed any crime novel one could imagine.  To start with, Beszel, which is described as being on the outskirts of Eastern Europe, is no ordinary city.  What the reader slowly and teasingly learns is that Beszel shares space with an entire other city, Ul Qoma.  The cities don't so much co exist, it is far more complicated than that, and learning how this extraordinary state of affairs effects general life for the citizens of both cities is one of the real joys of this novel so I will not say more.

The joy of Mieville's writing is the precision and detail of his ideas.  I have also recently read The Scar, by Mieville and found this true for that novel also.  His novels are awe-inspiring in their conception and meticulous follow through.  The writing is first rate, and I think certainly fits that mercurial description of literary; you have to work a little, there is no spoon feeding.  It is probably contentious to put the description literary to science fiction or fantasy but I certainly believe the work of Mieville fits that bill.

This is not a novel that is driven by strong characterisation or aiming for the usual type of emotional engagement from the reader.  It is an intellectual exercise, and one, I found to be breath-taking and fascinating.  I guess too, my enjoyment of this book surprises me as I would have thought I needed a strong connection to character to see me through a novel.  I have learned that is not the case.  I do have an emotional response toMieville's work, and it is simply, a jaw dropping "wow!"

The cityscapes that Mieville creates in The City and the City, will remain with me, and not just because they are so original and brilliantly realised.  It is because he has used this setting to construct a complex and powerful metaphor of modern life.  While there may not be a lot of emotional engagement with any one particular character, the whole sweep of the The City and the City evokes a strong sense of the disparity and contradictions that exist in our modern world, and that struck me at a human level.  It is clever and captivating writing, and I look forward to reading more.

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Dolores Claiborne by Stephen King

I really enjoyed this Stephen King novel, first published in 1992.  A number of you have posted recently, and favourably, about various King novels and I realised I hadn't read any, although, I grew up really enjoying some of the movie and mini-series versions of his fiction.  This morning, I was at my local markets, and found  this lovely, hard covered, second hand copy of  Dolores Claiborne.  I'll admit it, it was partly the cover that got me in; eclipse, strange lighting and an old lady on a rocking chair.  I abandoned (temporarily) the fascinating, although more challenging, China Mieville novel I have been reading, and spent a wonderful afternoon completely immersed in the struggles of Dolores.

Firstly, to read a Stephen King novel in an afternoon it is clearly not one of his door-stoppers.  At less than 250 pages, I found it concise, engaging and thoroughly satisfying.  And for me a great introduction to Stephen King.

The story is told in a continuous chapterless narrative by Dolores as she makes a statement, at the local police station, pertaining to the sudden death of her elderly employer.  Dolores describes events, not only leading up to the death of the old lady for whom she has kept house for thirty years, but dark secrets from her own past, that shaped not only her life, but the lives of her children.  I am not going to say more because much of the enjoyment is in the surprising and wonderful plotting, except to say that the story takes place on a little island off the Maine coast where Dolores has lived all her life.  And I really admired King's ability to create two, sympathetic, strong and completely believable female characters, who pretty much carry this story.  The novel is a wonderful mixture of sensitive human drama and, what I assume to be, some of King's signature spine tingling effects and creepiness.  I loved it.

I will definitely be giving more of Stephen King's  novels a go.  Has anyone read Dolores Claiborne?  And what are others' favourites by King?