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As we approach the end of #anzlitmonth 2014 I decided it was time to revisit an author I discovered during the 2012 event.  I rated Chris Womersley’s Bereft so highly, I nominated it for the Not The Booker Prize.  While I enjoyed his recent release, Cairo, just as much, it’s not as literary.  To borrow a term from Graham Greene, it is “an entertainment”.

Cairo is not in Egypt.  It is a famous apartment block in Fitzroy, Melbourne, which once upon a time  was a bit of a dump, a place inhabited by drug-addicted bohemians and the novel’s protagonist, 17 year old Tom.  He has just left home to live in his dead aunt’s flat.  Young, naive, and itching to experience the delights of city life, Tom is soon befriended by a to-him-glamorous couple who widen his circle of friends (to include criminals and heroine addicts) and gradually suck him into their scheme to steal Picasso’s Weeping Woman from the National Gallery of Victoria.

At which point fiction meets fact because that painting was stolen in 1986, only to be returned intact 17 days later.  The theft remains an unsolved mystery and Womersley has capitalised on that historical gap to flesh out the story.  There is much to be enjoyed here, particularly about art and its intrinsic value.  Tom is a budding author and he’s writing his story with hindsight.  We know, therefore, that he’s not dragged down into the gutter by his new acquaintances; that he is older and wiser at the end of his bildungsroman.  This makes it possible to enjoy the ride without too much anxiety.  Not that the story is lacking moments of menace. There are a couple of dangerous villains and there is a murder.  Also an enjoyable farce when Tom’s family make a sudden reappearance.  And, for a story based on well-known facts, a totally unexpected ending. 

An entertainment, indeed.  Womersley has duly been added to my completist reading list.

3stars.GIF

This post is part of Australia and New Zealand Literature Month hosted by Kim at Reading Matters.

Anzlitmonth.JPG

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I do enjoy a good homage novel but it’s not everyone that can write them and when it comes to Jane Austen, the crop is abundant but not necessarily grade A  …. On a scale of A to E, previous reads include Lynn Shepherd’s Murder in Mansfield Park (A) and P D James’s Death comes to Pemberley (E).  How will the most recent batch stack up?

Jo Baker’s Longbourn (2013) is easily the most original.  Like Shepherd, she has played with the template. She has taken us to the servant’s quarters, telling the story of Pride and Prejudice from the viewpoint of the lady’s maid, Sarah.  Except that Sarah is also washer woman, cleaning woman, yard-sweep and a few other things besides, the consequences of which play havoc with her poor hands.  Life in the servants’ quarters is illuminating, full of household maintenance tips from the past.  As a tea-drinker, I was fascinated by the usefulness of old tea-leaves.

As fans of Pride and Prejudice know, the Bennetts were not rich but their life described from Sarah’s point-of-view is certainly comfortable, enviable, if somewhat empty.  The tea-parties and balls hardly glamorous for the servants, rather occasions for hard graft, additional chores to be fitted into an already full schedule, complete with waiting-up duties which reduced the already paltry hours available for sleep. 

Life at the beck and call of the Bennetts is not easy but not without room for adventure.  Sarah may be kept busy but there’s still time for romance – in fact, she attracts the attention of Bingley’s exotic ex-slave man-servant and a mysterious stranger, who arrives, as if from nowhere, to take up service in the Bennett’s household.  

By creating a novel focused on details which Austen mentioned in the passing, if at all, (the Napoleonic wars, money making in the colonies), Longbourn has a broader view of life in Regency England than Austen’s novel of the chattering classes.  The downside for me, however, was the tendency to excess and I’m asking myself was it necessary for Wickham to be so wicked, or for Mr Bennett to be so imperfect?  Even Jane and Elizabeth become slightly imperious following their marriages.  I will accept all that but the subplot involving the housekeeper’s husband, specifically his death, went too far. I’m willing to change my mind if someone can show where Austen hinted as such things …..

The Borough Press have commissioned the retelling of Austen’s six major novels in contemporary settings. The series launched in October 2013 with Joanna Trollope’s retelling of Sense and Sensibility.  Now how can I say this kindly?  This is the weakest of the three novels under discussion today (though not as bad as Death at Pemberley).  Knowing the remit that Borough Press has given to the authors –  must keep the characters, must keep the narratie arc – I reckon that Trollope had her pen nib capped before she started.   I mean in our welfare state, would a widow with three daughters be so entirely reliant upon the beneficence of her male relations?  For that reason, this story never felt entirely feasible and the modern technology – the headphones, the mobile phones, etc – felt like a veneer.  In its defence though, Trollope makes the most of personality differences between Eleanor and Marianne and the girls behave as contempories would.  So Marianne’s passion for Willoughby is not just emotional, it is physical.  Neither is Eleanor simply an emotional crutch for her family – she becomes a working girl, lending economic support as well.  But the greatest pleasure in this retelling is Margaret who transforms from a background figure in Austen to a typical 21st century, precocious, know-it-all, interfere-in-it-all teenager.  I wouldn’t want her at my kitchen table, but I enjoyed the cheek and insolence in this audio book.

And so to the cream of the crop.  I’ve had a soft spot for Northanger Abbey since it was my O-level text.  I’ve reread it a few time since, though never the Mysteries of Udolpho, the gothic novel which it satirises.  (Later this year for definite …) So I was looking forward to McDermid’s satire on a satire.  She’s gone one better, having chosen to satirise that contemporary phenomenon, the vampire novel.  Not only that, she has moved the novel north from Bath and its season of balls to Edinburgh and its season of plays, concerts and books.  There’s no greater social occasion than the Edinburgh Festival and for bookish Catherine, Charlotte Square and the book festival is full of adventure.  Bella Thorpe is deliciously dreadful and her brother John an insufferable bore.  Speaking recently at Glasgow’s Aye Write McDermid said that she had been given strict instructions not to kill anyone off, but you can tell that her pen must have been feeling murderous when she wrote his scenes!  Love me, love my car could be John Thorpe’s motto, a modern riff on the love me, love my carriage of Austen’s original.

Northanger Abbey is the Tilney’s ancestral home in the Scottish borders and Colonel Tilney a bullying old man.  Ellie is as sweet and charming as ever though Henry is not as foppish as I remember his original.  (Or am I mixing him up with Edward Ferrars?) Actually he is quite an appealing well-read young fellow.  Yes, I can see what Catherine sees in him.  Although, of course, her overactive imagination which goes into overdrive apropos the death of the colonel’s wife almost ruins everything.  But it’s not her vampiric fantasies that cause her abrupt banishment but a malicious rumour – a twist as sudden as it is modern, for indeed, nothing else would estrange the right-wing colonel so effectively.  It’s along the same lines as one of the plot updates in Longbourn but McDermid isn’t salacious with it and so does not offend Austen’s spirit.

I listened to the unabridged audio, narrated by Jane Collingwood and I loved it from the first sentence.  So much so, that I bought myself the book.  Reading that sentence now it would be so easy to immerse myself into Catherine’s adventures once more.

It was a source of constant disappointment to Catherine Morland that her life did not more closely ressemble her books.

In McDermid’s retelling it does and there’s no disappointment to be had at all.

Longbourn (B)35_stars.GIF / Sense and Sensibility (C) 3stars.GIF / Northanger Abbey (A)4_stars.GIF

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Shortlisted for the 2014 Best Translated Book Award

Translated from Italian by Ann Goldstein

You may remember I was ever so worried about Lila’s future, earlier in the year: Lila being the best friend of the narrator in Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan trilogy, the brillian child whose parents refused to educate her and who decides that the only way out of grinding poverty is to marry up, financially speaking. The narrator, Elena, is luckier in that her parents were willing to make the financial sacrifices required for her to remain in education.  I also found myself worrying on her behalf.  Was she, like many before her and since, about to throw away her advantage by getting carried away with her boyfriend?

Thankfully, he has more sense than her.  

Lila’s story is not so straightforward and her marriage is an abusive one.  This is the Naples of the late 50’s and early 60’s and Lila can expect no support from her family.  Still, a few bruises won”t knock her down. She is the brains behind her husband’s commercial enterprises and she soon finds ways to return the abuse.  Like the – shall we say – creatively re-engineered bridal picture of herself, which hangs in the up-market shoe boutique, Lila is iconic.  Though not very likeable, becoming downright unpleasant as time goes on.  Everything about her life is dramatic and definitely not in a good way.  I actually began to wonder why her husband, Stefano, put up with her for so long.

Lila’s dramas leave Elena playing second-fiddle.  I get the impression, though I can’t say why, that Elena is the plain one. She’s certainly bespectacled.  Clever though having to work at it.  The setting designed to show off Lila’s dazzling diamond? And yet, the way I’m thinking at the end of book two, of more value.

I breathed a sign of relief when she won a scholarship to Pisa and was removed from Lila’s trajectory.  At last, she’ll be able to strike out on her own, giving her time to heal from the emotional damage caused by Lila’s callousness.  But Elena is nothing, if not self-deprecating.  

This is more or less what happened to me between the end of 1963 and 1965. How easy it is to tell the story of myself without Lila: time quietens down and the important facts slide along the thread of the years like suitcases on a conveyor belt at an airport; you pick them up, put them on a page and it’s done.

Except it obviously isn’t.  Something is holding Elena back from fully engaging with what should be the time of her life. Somethng that involved her first love, Lila, and a summer holiday with consequences.  

By the end of this installment, however, Elena seems to have come to terms with the past, and has a fiancé of her own (although he is rather distant).  I am rooting for her.  Lila’s marital dramas have left me exhausted and I wonder at her capacity to inspire unswerving loyalty in those she treats badly.   We know she disappears in book 3 (this is the prologue  to book 1) but I don’t really care at this stage why, when or how.  I want to see Elena emerge out of Lila’s shadow and be happy without her.  I doubt that will happen – while this trilogy is providing a captivating social history of mid-20th Neapolitan life – it is primarily the story of a friendship and without Lila, there would be nothing to document.

35_stars.GIF

My overwhelming impression at this stage, though – so much life, passion and drama in the lives of these two women, and they’re only in their early twenties.  Seems like the young ‘uns of today don’t have the copyright on growing up early.

 

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When a book revealing the secrets of crime fiction , written by multiple Australian authors, dropped through the letter box earlier this year, I determined that 2014 would be the year for essay reading.  Having scoured the table of contents and discovered that I’d heard of only one of the 22 authors featured – Michael Robotham – and, even then hadn’t read him, I felt a bit non-plussed.  Where was I to start?

Given that the black humour of the book’s title – If I tell you, I’ll have to kill you – makes my toes curl with pleasure, I decided I’d start with the essay with the most pleasing title.  The crime-fiction-loving rock chick in me adjudged that to be essay #5 – I know it’s only noir (but I like it) written by Lenny Bartulin.  I suspected I was about to meet a kindred spirit ….

Noir is timeless, like jazz, like rock ‘n’ roll.  The thrill of reading, say, The Big Sleep or The Blonde on the Street Corner or Double Indemnity for the first time has never left me.  And apart from the stories themselves, it was the writing that blew me away: all that style, the sharp dialogue, the cynical humour, the flawless craft.

It was writing with intent and purpose, writing that delivered and gave the reader real pleasure.  It had bottom-end.  Weight. It could take you into tight-bends, at speed and you were never going to flip.

Yes, all that and more and Bartulin details many of those other reasons in his essay and shows how Chandler, Cain et al inspired him to continue in their vein: this despite the challenges of creating character-driven but honest and authentic plots, the necessity of giving characters heart, blood and muscle before they can show the author where the story is going, and the panic of being about two-thirds of the way through my first novel when one day, just like that, the earth split open beneath my feet and I found myself plummeting into molten lava.  … I thought my novel was a waste of space, absolutely terrible, and I had no idea how to finish it.

He was given a piece of advice: The solution is in your book.

At which point I was curious to find said debut and sample it with the intention to critique according to the conventions of noir that Bartulin outlines in his essay and to see if the problems he had hinted at were visible in the finished product.

All such rational thought left me when I discovered the US title of Bartulin’s debut novel: Death by the Book. Who? Where? Why? Funnily enough, the 3 questions Bartulin asks himself as he writes.  And no, it has nothing to do with the near brush with death permanent injury I had last night when one of my towering stacks toppled over with such force that it missed me by inches, even though I was a good six feet away ….

… although there must be plenty of towering stacks in Jack Susko’s second-hand bookshop. Now I know I’ve met a kindred spirit – who knew this reading trail was going to lead me straight to a bookshop and offer a salutary lesson on the dangers of obsessive book collecting.

Jack Susko is approached one day and made an offer he can’t refuse. A wealthy collector offers him 50 dollars per copy for as many copies as he can find of the work of a certain obscure poet. Easy money. Deal! Except that events start spiralling out of control when Jack finds himself in the middle of a bitter family feud, seduced by a blacker than noir femme fatale in the middle of a bitter divorce, life and limb endangered and that’s before his less than innocent past raises its ugly head. …

It’s all action, all authentically character-driven and if Bartulin got stuck 2/3rds of the way through, I can’t see the joins.  My only critique relates to the finale which is a little too – shall we say – exuberant? I can’t actually figure out how the good cop knows where to be …..

… but I’m glad he’s there, because he secures the continuation of what has become a trilogy. Expect my discovery of Bartulin to continue.

Death by the Book (US) / A Deadly Business (UK) 35_stars.GIF

This post is part of Australia and New Zealand Reading Month, hosted by Kim at Reading Matters.

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Earlier this year I was lucky enough to hear Graeme Simsion talk about the real life inspiration for his best-selling Rosie Project: a former IT colleague, geek and misfit,  who became a best friend.  Not that we have to see Don Tillman as a portrait of  this friend.  Simsion emphasised that his characters are 1/3 someone he knows, 1/3 himself and 1/3 made up.  Neither are the events in The Rosie Project real in all their details but some real-life events have been given what-if makeovers.

While readers may recognise symptoms of Asperger’s Syndrome in Don, the author was careful not to use the A word in his novel.  Had he done so, he reckons that his readers would have become uninterested in the characters and the comedy.  That would be a real shame  because Simsion’s debut novel is both character-driven and very, very funny.   A joy to read, in fact.

I’m not sure I entirely bought into the premise.  I had niggling doubts about whether Rosie, as large as character as Don but in a different way, would fall for him as she did.  That aside, I enjoyed everything about Don’s quest for a wife and the various ways in which he almost snatched defeat from the jaws of victory.

I am looking forward to the sequel, The Rosie Effect, due in September.

3stars.GIF

I asked the author to sign my copy in preparation for a giveaway, which is happening now that it is #anzlitmonth on Reading Matters.  So, if you’d like to win a copy signed “To Lizzy’s Lucky Reader.  Well done! Graeme Simsion”, all you need to do is answer two questions.

Simsion carries a selection of coloured pens in his pocket, fastidiously arranged, just as Don would do it, in Richard-of-York-Gave-Battle-In-Vain sequence.

Didn’t he say that Don is 1/3 himself? Before he signs, Simsion asks the reader for their preferred colour. So question 1) Which colour did I ask my book to be signed in. (Clue: I have always loved this colour.  I didn’t wait to become old before dressing – frequently from head to toe – in it.) 2) Which colour would you have asked him to use?

Answers in comments olease. Winner will be chosen at random on Monday 12th May.  Competition open worldwide.

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Shortlisted for the 2014 Walter Scott Historical Fiction Prize

Two officers, arch-conservative and well-to-do, loyal to the French army and highly rationale.  Neither  particularly sympathetic. One is the anti-semitic Colonel Georges Picquart, head of the French secret service, who discovers that the other, the Jew, Alfred Dreyfus, already found guilty of spying and sentenced to life imprisonment on Devil’s Island, is innocent.  What is one to do after honest approaches to the top brass have resulted in exile to an African outpost and assignment to what is effectively a suicide mission?  Cast aside the doubts, defend yourself and become a whistleblower!

The seeds of An Officer and A Spy were sown while Harris was working on the script of his previous novel, The Ghost, with Roman Polanski.  Polanski commissioned him to write a script about the Dreyfus affair.  During the course of his research, Harris decided that he would rather write a novel. There is much more to the story than can be brought out in a film script.  Polanski agreed and besides, he’ll get a film adaptation out of it at a later date.

Robert Harris at the Summerhall Historical Fiction Fetival

The outcomes of the Dreyfus affair are well-known, and yet the novel is an absolute page-turner. (479 pages read in the course of a weekend.)  Picquart’s narrative is absolutely compelling, said Harris, at The Summerhall Historical Fiction Festival, and to capitalise on that I wrote the novel in 1st person.  This places the reader inside Picquart’s mind and let’s them discover the actual spy and Dreyfus’s innocence in real-time so to speak.  I can confirm that this was a good decision because, as a reader, you also experience Picquart’s dilemma.  That he is a patriot, there can be no doubt.  Neither does he want to destroy the trust of the French people in the military, defender of French honour following the soul-destroying defeat to the Germans in 1870.  Yet there is higher justice whose call he cannot ignore …

… unlike Major Henri, who determines that honour demands unconditional support of the establishment. Any action that damages the reputation of the French army is traitorous. His mantra – tell me what to do and I’ll do it – or words to that effect.  Married  to the old code until death do them part, he is Picquart’s counterpoint.  The duel that the two fight isn’t just idealogical – at one point it is a physical 19th century duel with swords and seconds, ironically insisted upon by the man who is about to shatter 19th century values.

Harris said that he didn’t realise he had written a story about a whistleblower until he had finished (pre-Snowden) and he didn’t consciously emphasise contemporary resonances while he was writing.  Nevertheless the lessons to be learned from the Dreyfus affair are clear.  Justice must be seen to be done.  Corruption results when an institution polices itself, courts are held behind closed doors and decisions are based on the content of secret dossiers. (Insert your own 21st century example here.)  In addition, he said, the Dreyfus affair is a powerful argument for an unfettered press.  The ugly side – in Dreyfus’s case, the hysteria of the anti-semitic papers – was the price to be paid.  Without that freedom, Zola would never have been able to publish J’accuse and Dreyfus would have been left to rot on Devil’s Island.

4_stars.GIF

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Shortlisted for the 2014 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize

Translated from Japanese by Allison Markin Powell

By all accounts this is the most beloved of Kawakami’s novels and there have been a number of reviews in the blogosphere.  But what was I expecting?

The cover, a reproduction of one of Natsume Hayashi’s levitations, led me to expect something strange and quirky between the pages.  Well, it was certainly unusual but I wouldn’t call it strange or quirky, not even the weather.

Unusual in the sense of it being the story of a blossoming romance between a woman in her late 30’s and her former teacher, a man some 30 years her senior.  It is a romance that grows slowly from a friendship forged over many nights social drinking and one which both parties seek to avoid through reticence, refuge in the politenesses of Japanese conventions and, let’s not forget a lotta, lotta saké.  It’s not clear to the protagonists or to the reader at which point companionship turns to friendship turns to love.  This is something that is realised only when the paths of Tsukiko and Sensei fail to cross for a number of weeks.

A gentle story but, if I’m honest, too slow and repetitive for me … and I was concerned about the quantities of alcohol consumed.  Does anyone see some message in that, other than one of solitary people seeking to quell their loneliness through drink?

I won’t reveal the ending. I will reveal, however, that it was only at that point that the poignancy and charm of the novella truly asserted themselves.

3stars.GIF

 

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I am now juggling 4 shortlists: Bailey’s, BTBA, IFFP and The Walter Scott Historical Fiction Prize.  I only intend reading the latter in full and from the TBR for the others.  This means slow progress and being behind the curve for a while but for some reason, I’m more interested in my TBR than anything else at the moment.

Even so, since the Bailey’s longlist was announced, I have read the astounding total of just two titles.  Still both were good choices.

I didn’t think so during the first few chapters of Deborah Kay Davies’s Reasons She Goes to the Woods, which had more than a few oh-lordy-I-really-hope-I-imagined-that moments.  Thankfully these were short but they were disturbing.  The story of Pearl is told in a sequence of one page episodes as an abstracted contemporary fairy tale.  But this is not Walt Disney.  This is a very Grimm world, one in which Pearl is the wicked witch: the female foil to Lionel Schriver’s Kevin.  There is a dawning awareness that Pearl’s obsession with Daddy is not just that of a daddy’s girl.  Nor that the external cause of her mother’s mental issues is very far away.  What I didn’t understand and thought not quite real was the adulation which the other kids bestowed on Pearl, even in the face of some breathtaking cruelty.  Still that, I suppose is the mark of a true sociopath.  Control and manipulation are second nature, though there comes a time when you can’t kid all of the people all of the time and the comeuppance becomes inevitable …..It’s very satisfying watching someone like that get their just desserts … as in Grimm, so to in Davies.

Jumpha Lahiri’s The Lowland is as different in tone and structure as is possible to imagine: a story of how the political can clash with the personal with repercussions reverberating through the years.  It begins in Calcutta with the brothers, Subhash and Udayan, who become politically active during the 1960’s.  Udayan joins the radical Naxalite movement, while Subhash leaves to study in America.  Udayan’s commitment costs him his life and he leaves a young pregnant widow, whom Subhash subsequently marries to save her from the bleakness that would await her in India.  He brings her daughter up as his own and, after Gauri abandons the family to pursue her own career, he brings her up alone.  Now that may be a spoiler but I don’t think the focus is on the plot.  Lahiri’s interest lies in the relationships: parents-child, brother-brother, husband-wife, emigrant-home country, immigrant-adopted country. As the story moves forward in time, she peels back the layers of history to reveal the truth behind Udayan’s death in the Lowland.  Without doubt it is the pivotal moment in the lives of all the major characters and it is not until the very end of the novel that we discover the detail of what led to it.  The telling is very fluid and accomplished, but for me, it became just another dysfunctional family story once Subhash and Gauri had married.  Neither is there the kick that Davies has injected that makes the story memorable.  

I am obviously missing something.  The Lowland was longlisted for the 2013 Man Booker Prize and has now been shortlisted for the Bailey’s.  But, if this were a rooster-like bout, I’d be putting Davis through to the next round.  I find some weeks after reading both novels, that the whole of Reasons She Goes to The Woods adds up to more than the sum of its episodic parts.

Reasons She Goes to The Woods 4_stars.GIF /  The Lowland 3stars.GIF

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Longlisted for the 2014 Best Translated Book Award

Translated from Spanish by Nick Caistor

Juan Salvatierra is a mute, silent from the age of 9 following a riding accident.  He lives a tranquil life with his wife and two sons in a village on the Argentinian border with Uruquay, spending his spare time painting in the shed.  When he dies and his sons begin to unfurl the canvas rolls, they discover a mural two miles long on which their father has told the story of the past six decades.    Only one year is missing and the by-now-middle-aged boys decide that it must be found.

Salvatierra’s motivation? Possibly because he was mute, he needed to tell himself his own story.  His sons’ motivation?  To make complete what had been interrupted, so that the painting can be displayed in its entirety. As they work their way along the mural, they revisit their childhood, their adolescence.  Nothing is omitted in this interlacing of lives, people, animals, days, nights, catastrophes in which the boys seem more alive in the light shining from the painting in some portraits he had done of us eating green pears when I was ten years old, than in our current lives with their legal documents and contracts.  (They are estate agents in Buenos Aires.)

The memories evoked are not always pleasant.  There are brief flickers of darkness but a spell is cast and the brothers pursue the missing section with a determination worthy of Don Quixote.  Yes, this is a quest, with the occasional dangerous moment though in the main this is a light-hearted adventure …. until the canvas from 1961 is found and with it Juan Salvatierra’s missing year …. and closely-guarded secret. 

More than the boys had bargained for, leading to discussions on whether what happens to someone belongs to his own time;  you shouldn”t bring it up again.  Conversely knowing the truth of a parent’s human foibles and mistakes can release you from their omnipresent grip, presenting you with the opportunity to strike out for yourself.  The narrator’s conclusion?

We occupy the places our parents leave blank ….. I inhabit the words that Salvatierra’s muteness left untouched. …. I feel that this place, the space of the blank page, is mine, independently of what the results might be.

What began as an adventurous quest for a missing painting has resulted in the discovery of the narrator’s own identity.

4_stars.GIF

cf: Why this title should win the BTBA

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I’ve never had two 5-star reads in a row – never mind three!

1) Schottenfreude reviewed earlier this month.

2) The Boat – Nam Le  (2009)

A collection of short stories written by one of the Folio Prize judges, read on the way to and during the festival.   Looking at the awards it has garnered, I don’t think it hyperbolic to suggest that this book has won nearly every literary prize there is in Australia.   And rightly so.  I remember the buzz surrounding it on publication  and I bought the book only for it to wait for 5 years before picking it up again.  Kicking myself now of course.  One of the strongest collections of short stories I’ve ever read.  (And won’t it be interesting to compare it to the inaugural Folio Prize winning short story collection?)

Nam Le was born in Vietnam and raised in Australia.  Speaking at the Folio Festival he said that he wasn’t interested in being the spokesperson for the Vietnamese immigrant, he wanted to explore more realities than that.  So while the collection is bookended with Vietnamese experiences (the first, an autobiographical (?) story of a Vietnamese author at the Utah creative writing centre and the last, the harrowing experience of Vietnamese boat people), other pages are populated by an adolescent hitman in Columbia, an elderly man dying of bowel cancer, high-school kids coming to terms with the mortality of their mother and the perils of dating, evacuees from Hiroshima (before the bomb), and feminist resistance in Iran.  The protagonists are all facing profound challenges and struggling to maintain control of their lives.  The worlds they inhabit are skilfully drawn and the psychologies intense, given the background stresses and dilemmas.

Do I have a favourite story?  Not really although, oddly, my least favourite Tehran Calling is proving to be the most memorable.  Le admitted that this was the story in which place was the most sketchy.  That may be so but the mood, the prevailing atmosphere of terror, brutality and claustrophobia is overwhelmingly oppressive.  My breathing’s constricting just thinking about it.  That being the author’s intention, I cannot but declare it a success.

I can’t find anything Le has published since. Is this a case of a successful debut being an impossible act to follow?  I do hope not.

3) The Snow Child – Eowyn Ivey (2012)

Another debut which has received mega praise in the blogosphere since its release.  I purposely avoided reading it until it became a book group choice.  Our discussion began with each group member summarising the book in an adjective.  Here are the results: enchanting, mystical, ethereal, magical, enigmatic, mysterious, whimsical, unputdownable.  Only 2 dissenting voices: putdownable and confusing.  You can’t please everyone but this pleased me.

There are oodles of positive blog reviews out there, so no need for me to repeat.  What I will say though, is that in contrast to Le (who to be fair didn’t live in Vietname for long), Ivey’s novel reads like a love-letter to Alaska and her familiy’s chosen way of life (growing their own food and hunting caribou, moose and bear for meat).  It was a revelatory read: Alaska not as harsh or as uninhabitable as I previously believed.  (Still in no rush to migrate.) And I was transported – not to the 1920’s but further back in time.  Life in these pages felt much less modern than the jazz age.  Engaging characters and a mystery – plenty to discuss at book group, particularly what happened to Faina.

The group guffawed when I said I thought she’d melted!  Perhaps I bought into the premise too much?

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