Why reading and writing is the road to happiness...

This blog started years ago as a place to muse on the life projects keeping me entertained. It is no surprise then that it has morphed into a blog about my reading as that has been my lifelong project. Here I review lots of different types of books, with an added focus on Australian women writers. Hope you enjoy - feel free to contribute to the conversation!

Tuesday, 15 July 2014

Book Review: 'Two Boys Kissing' by David Levithan

levithan_twoboyskissingI like my YA fiction to celebrate and explore diversity: I also like my YA fiction to be cliché free and well written. American author David Levithan’s ‘Two Boys Kissing’ ticked all those boxes. I had seen a fair bit of discussion on social media at the time of its release last year and when I saw its cover recently, I was reminded that it was on my ‘to read’ list. ‘Two Boys Kissing’ is centred on seven gay male characters, all around seventeen years of age: the title comes from one couple’s attempt to break a Guinness World Record for longest continuous kiss (as the boys noted – the Guinness rules didn’t say it had to be two people of the opposite sex). The record attempt by Harry and Craig is a political display, spurned by their anger at friend Tariq’s beating by a gang of guys while waiting at a bus stop at night. The event of the kiss ties the novel together, and brings the seven characters in contact even though they are not all friends or even in the same town.
What set ‘Two Boys Kissing’ apart for me was the use of the group omniscient narrator: a second person device is used, with a group of narrators much like a Greek chorus, speaking directly to the characters in the novel. The narrators are the gay men who have gone before these teenagers, those who were persecuted, those who died prematurely of HIV Aids, those who took their lives in despair. It is an immensely moving narration and works beautifully. The insight of the narrators is as much the insight of the Generation X author Levithan, and allows him to use his experience as a much older person in his story telling but also allows him to write the voices of his contemporary characters simultaneously.  Most of the narration is extremely poignant: ‘People like to say being gay isn’t like skin colour, isn’t anything physical. They tell us we always have the option of hiding. But if that’s true, why do they always find us?’ and shows the difference between the older generation and the younger, ‘Max is a marvel to us. He will never have to come out, because he was never kept in. Even though he has a mum and a dad, they made sure from the beginning to tell him that it didn’t have to be a mum and a dad. It could be a mum and a mum, a dad and a dad, just a mum, or just a dad’.  Levithan also make some lovely comments on growing up, and gives a balanced view in offering up the parental turmoil in watching children entering adulthood: ‘It is hard to stop seeing your son as a son and to start seeing him as a human being. It is hard to stop seeing your parents as parents and to start seeing them as human beings. It’s a two-sided transition, and very few people manage it gracefully’. I appreciated the fact that Levithan also incorporated negative perspectives into the plot line as a happy cheer squad for the boys’ record attempt would have been unrealistic even today in 2014. Levithan also has a great feel for contemporary life and his references to social media, his use of dialogue and his understanding of hooking up culture felt right.
I really enjoyed reading ‘Two Boys Kissing’: it was sophisticated YA reading, and had a tremendously important message incorporated seamlessly into a well paced and engaging plot. Highly recommended.

Friday, 11 July 2014

Book Review: 'The Jade Widow' by Deborah O'Brien

TJW Cover tinyI've been listening to the great podcast produced by the Australian Writers' Centre 'So You Want To Be A Writer' - http://www.writerscentre.com.au/community/podcasts/. Every week they interview an Australian writer or publishing industry professional, and the conversations are often enlightening and enjoyable. In one recent episode they interviewed fiction writer Deborah O'Brien: to prove that publicity can work for authors, I picked up one of O'Brien's novels, the 2013 'The Jade Widow' since she was such a lovely speaker and sold the plot of her books so well. O'Brien has written three historical novels set in the fictional country town of Millbrooke circa 1850s. The novels are not on a continuum but are of the same ilk (with a few carry over characters), and draw on interesting historical times for women and immigrants, particularly with a rural focus.
From previous posts you will know that I am a fan of the Kerry Greenwood 'Phryne Fisher' crime series which could be described as quaint historical fiction as well, but it was the detective genre that led me to those novels. O'Brien's novel is more of the historical romance genre, and is very gentle, with an interest in looking at suffragette issues, but with none of the racy verve of Phryne Fisher. I would normally think from sight and description of this novel that it wouldn't be my cup of tea, but it was a charming read and kept me interested until the satisfactory conclusion.
The 'Jade Widow' in question is Amy Chen, widowed wife of Chinese immigrant Charles Chen: she has inherited his emporium business, so is not only a pioneering business woman in country town Millbrooke, she is also mother to twleve year old Charles, grappling with being mixed heritage in 1850s Australia. Amy's sister-in-law and best friend is Eliza, a feisty and energetic medical student, soon to be one of the first qualified female doctors in Australia. The novel follows their romantic assignations with two newcomers to the town, and the larger happenings of the Millbrooke community. Amy is a conservative, by-the-book sort of character: "There were times when Amy was drawn to the topsy-turvy world that Eliza espoused, where women were able to vote and Australia was one nation. Then again, it might be like falling down Alice's rabbit hole to a place where noone understood the rules and chaos reigned". Eliza is a lot more fun as a character and her outbursts of anger at the propriety of the other women are lovely:"'If we cannot use the word body without feeling embarrassed, said Eliza, 'how can we ever refer to our sexual organs by their correct names?'"
O'Brien's tone and level of historical detail is appropriate for this novel, and the pace is maintained. The inclusion of historical figures such as Henry Parkes and Tom Roberts added interest, but I thought the most evocative element was the descriptions of an elevator being built in Amy's new hotel. Word of an elevator built in England compels Amy to commission one to be built into her opulent new guesthouse, and the idea of people travelling in the wondrous compartment is novel and reminds the reader of so many firsts for our ancestors: "As the lift began its ascent, Amy felt her stomach rising inside her. Heavens above, what was happening? 'My goodness,' she said aloud. Then the feeling of weightlessness disappeared as suddenly as it had taken hold."
The male characters in the novel are fairly one dimensional and the romance is beyond gentle, but really the action is solely about the women, and I imagine that is entirely intentional by O'Brien. 'The Jade Widow' was a pleasant read: I may very well dip into O'Brien's latest novel 'A Place Of Her Own' to check in on Millbrooke, even though I would normally like a murder to shake up my country town drama.

*This review is part of the Australian Womens Writers Challenge 2014


Book Review: 'Tiddas' by Anita Heiss

SubbannerIt seems apt during NAIDOC week to review Anita Heiss' new novel 'Tiddas'. I hadn't read any of Heiss' books before but I did have on my reading list her well received 2012 memoir 'Am I Black Enough For You'. Heiss writes a range of fiction and non fiction for adults and children. 'Tiddas' is her latest contemporary fiction, marketed largely towards women. I picked up a copy when I saw that Heiss was doing a talk at my local library and while I would not have normally gravitated towards this genre, I enjoyed it. Seeing the very genial and charming Heiss speak added to my appreciation for the novel.
As Heiss joked in her speech, her niche has been described by reviewers as 'chick lit featuring Indigenous chicks'. She is quite open in saying that she was looking for a gap in the market, and felt that the women's fiction she was reading did not reflect her experience as an Aboriginal woman. Her other novels, including 'Manhattan Dreaming' and 'Not Meeting Mr Right', were a great success, and good for Heiss, because I agree wholeheartedly that we need more diversity in main characters' ethnicity. I also enjoyed the fact that the main characters were women over thirty.
The novel centres around five women, three Indigenous and two white Australian, who have been friends since childhood growing up in Mudgee, New South Wales. The women are all close to, or turning forty, and are variously married, divorced, dating, pregnant or trying desperately to be pregnant. The novel moves back and forth through circumstance between their home town of Mudgee and their new homes in Brisbane: in fact, the best thing about this novel is the celebration of that city, which is rarely the feature of Australian fiction. Heiss lived temporarily in Brisbane to write this novel, and she paints the laid back city well for those who know it and those who would like to visit: 'On the way home after her usual nine-hour day, she'd stop at the Nepalese Peace Pagoda and feel the stress drain from her. If she felt strung out for any reason during the day she'd walk the length of the Grand Arbour and lose herself in the hundreds of bougainvilleas. It was too beautiful a place to remain angry or stressed'.
The women - Izzy, Xanthe, Ellen, Veronica and Nadine - hold their own book club to discuss novels, eat out, and catch up with each other. This conceit neatly brings the women together and allows them to discuss some larger issues while progressing the plot. The set up of the club, the references to Indigenous issues, and the exploration of some personal issues of the women - alcoholism, an unexpected pregnany, and infertility - feel a little forced in the first few chapters but once the reader is fully involved in the plot, the style of the novel flows more naturally. I was particularly glad that any stereotypes of single women, and Indigenous people, were avoided in this novel, and Heiss is contributing well to breaking down cliched literary portrayals. The novel is also resolved realistically which Heiss pointed out in her talk, as being personally important in showing real life to her readers.
The first standout character for me was Nadine, the novelist with a drinking problem, "As she grew more sober, Nadine was realising the incredible good fortune she experienced every day, unrelated to the actual fortune she had in the bank" - I can't pinpoint exactly why she felt like a strong character to me, but she had a bit of a hard edge that I found interesting. And the single Ellen, 'renodating' the hot chippies and electricians who came to renovate her house, was an engaging character as well. The title 'Tiddas' comes from the term meaning something close to 'sisters', your best female friends. It's a testament to the novel that when I finshed reading it, I immediately started looking in my diary to see when I could next see my own 'tiddas'. Heiss has negotiated with producers and sold the rights to 'Tiddas' to be made into a mini series: I think it will work very well on film and will fill another gap in that market.

*This review is part of the Australian Womens Writers Challenge 2014


Tuesday, 8 July 2014

Book Review: 'The Ocean At The End Of The Lane' by Neil Gaiman

Ocean at the End of the Lane US Cover.jpg
It says much about Neil Gaiman’s writing that the first night I read 50 pages of his 2013 novel ‘The Ocean at the End Of the Lane’, I had a nightmare about a half man, half lizard repeatedly attacking me. No – there isn’t a lizard man in Gaiman’s novel but it certainly has some creepy characters and a chilling atmosphere. Gaiman is well known for creating other worlds that are unsettling, particularly in that they are inverting the concepts of our own world. Much of his work is seen through the eyes of a child protagonist or narrator, but the novels don’t feel like they are written for children or young adults. In this best-selling novel, the narrator is unnamed: a man who has come back to his childhood home for a funeral, and takes us back with him in time to age seven to remember the strange events that took place. The narrator lived on a rambling estate with his parents and his younger sister, who were completely normal. In this Gaiman novel, unlike his other best-seller Coraline where the parents were monsters, it is the neighbours and his new nanny who are the unusual element. On a farm next to the narrator’s home, three females (the Hempstocks) welcome him into their lives: young Lettie, eleven years old, and two older ladies who appear to be her mother and grandmother. The Hempstocks are soon revealed to possess strange abilities to transverse space and time: the narrator is taken into what seems another dimension by holding Lettie’s hand, and happens to pull back with him the monster of Ursula who becomes his nanny. Writing a synopsis of the novel makes it seem very simple, but it’s Gaiman’s imagination, and ability to create unsettling tension that makes his writing so popular, and evocative. And while the images are nightmarish, the characters have a quaintness that relieves the reader from the heavier material. The Hempstocks with their old style, rustic goodness are beautifully drawn, and the reader is made to feel as safe as the narrator when in their company. Lettie in particular with her adult wisdom is a charming character:
“Oh, monsters are scared," said Lettie. "That's why they're monsters. And as for grown-ups...' She stopped talking, rubbed her freckled nose with a finger. Then, 'I'm going to tell you something important. Grown-ups don't look like grown-ups on the inside either. Outside, they're big and thoughtless and they always know what they're doing. Inside, they look just like they always have. Like they did when they were your age. Truth is, there aren't any grown-ups. Not one, in the whole wide world.””
Likewise to Lettie’s wise adult voice, the narrator’s adult-remembering-childhood perspective is melancholic and insightful: “I do not miss childhood, but I miss the way I took pleasure in small things, even as greater things crumbled.”
To analyse this short novel any further would give too much away, but I would recommend dipping into Gaiman’s imaginary world: beware dreaming of lizard men at your own peril.