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!

Monday, 27 October 2014

Book Review: 'Vertigo' by Amanda Lohrey (No 15: Novella)

VertigoAmanda Lohrey’s 2008 novella ‘Vertigo’ is a beautiful reflection of a marriage in transition. Little over a hundred pages, the third person narrative gives us the perspective of both partners, Luke and Anna, as they negotiate a move from the city to the bush. We are introduced immediately to Luke, who ‘grew up on the edge of the city, in a neat suburban garden with a green lawn and a date palm, and in all that time he never developed the least interest in birds, not even, as a boy to throw stones at. But now, at the age of thirty four, he has taken to bird-watching’. Immediately we know that Luke and Anna have entered that sticky territory of ‘needing a change’, plagued with an increasing alarm at the expense of maintaining their lifestyle in inner city Sydney, and keeping up with the material acquisitions of their peers. Their lives, so different now from when they were students and twenty-something professionals, feel disappointing, not as they expected: ‘When she was in her twenties, Anna had thought of herself as bohemian, a free spirit who was serious about the right things and carefree about the rest, but now she was turning into some other woman, a woman on the edge of becoming anxiously acquisitive. Though scornful of the crass material ambitions of others, she was secretly ashamed of the shabbiness of her apartment, and fed up with cheap holidays’. Here, I think, Lohrey touches upon an increasingly common feeling among the ‘not quite young and the not quite old’, and she sends Luke and Anna on the alluring quest for the sea change. They drift around the coast and are eventually drawn to the remote coastal bush town of Garra Nalla, where they buy a house surrounded by gums, snakes and more birds than Luke can spot and record.
At first it is peaceful and idyllic. And then isolated life sets in. Anna is not so convinced by the change, as she maintains a hold of the outer world by obsessively watching CNN online, and feels a rising panic at the stillness and oppression of the drought gripping coastal NSW. Nature pierces their psyches in different ways: Luke is relaxed by the pace of life, the observance of details within the wildlife; Anna is whittled away by the wind, it irritates her, makes her feel restless and trapped. Lohrey writes of Anna’s impatience with Luke: ‘Luke always did have a way of blotting out distraction, of drawing the world in around him on his own terms, whereas she seems to bleed out into it, as if she is part of one giant membrane that holds land, sea and sky together. Some days she feels like a fly caught in an invisible web’.
Lohrey gradually weaves a third member into this family: ‘the boy’. He appears sometimes, to both Luke and Anna, and blends into the new surroundings dreamily: ‘At night she wills him to come and lie beside her on the wide, king-sized futon; she wants to stroke her palm along the golden sheen of his forehead, to study the way his dark eyelashes curl against his cheek’. Lohrey’s subtle, understated examination of grief and loss moved me, as did the climax of the novella which ties together the nature of transition and the forces of the natural world in our harsh Australian landscape. The overall feeling of hope at the close of the novella is reassuring and generous towards the two protagonists. Lohrey writes simply and elegantly: this is well worth a short read.

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


Wednesday, 22 October 2014

Book Review: 'Game Day' by Miriam Sved (No 14: Fiction)

Game DayI’ve unintentionally picked up a lot of debut novels this year, and they have all been fantastic which augers well for the publishing and bookselling industry. Here is Miriam Sved’s 2014 release ‘Game Day’: it’s especially one for AFL lovers, although as a disinterested but coerced watcher of the game, I enjoyed this novel as well might a true fan. I take it from the novel’s acknowledgment page that Sved had written a number of short pieces based around the game, and what followed is this extended collection of intertwining vignettes on a fictional AFL team and its VFL reserve. We start by meeting rookies Dooley and Mick, childhood friends from rural Victoria, who have been spotted by a talent scout and are about to embark in the big league. However, they have to survive the ‘Best and Fairest’ night first at their local clubhouse and the talent scout surveys the room with the jaundiced eye of one who has seen it all before: ‘They’re over near the main entrance, being greeted like rock stars. Both bought their parents, and Dooley’s got the two kid brothers in the mix … Parents gussied up to the nines, and the boys too, looking awkward as fuck and like they’d give anything to be back in shorts and trainers’.
Each vignette is written from the perspective of someone involved in the game: the PR guy trying to bury a player scandal; the groupie sizing up the fresh blood at the club bar; a little girl attending her first live game; the mother of the star rookie reflecting on his childhood. I really like this form of novel written from multiple perspectives. The style might not be to everyone’s taste, but I think it suited this theme and the regular appearance of central characters tied the collection together well.
The strongest pieces were ‘Public relations’, “Belonging’ and ‘Maggot’. In fact, ‘Maggot’ written from the perspective of an umpire, was an eye opener for me: I had never really given a great deal of thought to how an umpire feels about the die-hard fans, nor how umpires must erase any personal history of once loving a team in order to become ‘objective’. This fresh perspective (fresh for me at any rate) didn’t shy away from an ugly portrayal of the aggressive punters cheering on their team: ‘On game day the tattooed men are there long before the first siren. Martin can hear them: not the specifics of their spit-riddled shouting, but the muted roar from a general direction that lets him know the team’s hardcore cheer squad – his hate squad – are ready’.
Sved knows her football. The descriptions of training and play are well executed, brief in description without becoming tedious detail: ‘The run of play he has been watching has looped back on itself, the ball being fought over just metres from where he is sitting, until one of the rookies, Dooley, breaks from the pack and gallops it into the half-forward. He dodges around two defenders and executes an amazing kick to himself, barely inside the boundary, before booting it to their full-forward’. Sved also cleverly includes male and female perspectives evenly, and alternates between exploring the highs and lows of footy life to maintain interest for a broad range of readers. This is an enjoyable read and should please quite a diverse audience.

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


Monday, 20 October 2014

Book Review: 'Wild Things' by Brigid Delaney (No 13: Fiction)

<p></p>Brigid Delaney’s 2014 debut novel, ‘Wild Things’, is a riveting read. The premise from the blurb - a group of well-to-do university boys haze a foreign student during a weekend away from the college dorm - suggested perhaps a salacious read, but within a few chapters I was fully immersed in this sophisticated, tense, and often foreboding thriller.
Delaney is a journalist for The Age, the Sydney Morning Herald, and The Guardian among others. Her bio also says she has worked as a lawyer. I would think both these professions put her in good standing to write on this topic; presumably Delaney has used material from recent events at St John’s College at Sydney University, and hazing rituals uncovered at Sydney’s Trinity Grammar boarding school which made headlines some years ago and spurned other works of fiction based on its alarming history of bullying. I would also hazard to suggest her knowledge of the type of private school personalities who enter the legal profession may also have influenced this novel, and it is telling that her two central characters, Toby and Ben, are both studying law at the fictional college St Anton’s. They are archetypal ‘big men on campus’: Ben, born to wealth and a boarding school veteran, and Toby, the handsome and smart country boy who ingratiates himself into Ben’s ‘old boys’ group by being sporty and charismatic. The novel opens with Ben and Toby’s clique, largely composed of the rowing and cricket team, travelling to a college property in the bush, where the intention is to drink, take drugs and get up to hijinks commonly regarded as ‘male bonding’. Delaney centres much of the plot around the relationship between Ben and Toby, in part to analyse the intensity of male friendship, but also to catalogue the decline of the friendship in parallel to the decline of the group after the fateful weekend trip:
‘Ben had become like another brother. By second year the new fresher girls had difficulty telling them apart. Toby had darker hair and was two inches shorter, but through playing the same sports, studying for the same degree, having the same friends and sleeping with the same girls they became indistinguishable. Not that Toby minded: when there were two of them, it made him feel stronger.’
Both have had casual relationships with the women in their social circle, and their complex attitudes towards women are really insightfully articulated by Delaney. She writes of Ben’s struggle to accept his desire towards the more ‘serious’ girls in the college: ‘But he felt the same way meeting the young Amnesty International women: maybe the worst are full of passionate intensity, but they are also doe-eyed and lovely, with mouthfuls of marvelous intentions. Five minutes with them and he felt inspired to actually do something with his law degree – to visit prisoners, to fight oppressive regimes, to one day appear at the International Criminal Court in the Hague, verbally eviscerating some fat war criminal’.
The casual way sex is undertaken in the plot, footnoted by both the male and female characters’ confusion regarding their feelings towards the notion of the ‘no strings hook up’, places this novel well and truly in the contemporary sphere. Delaney tackles this subject, as well as the way many women are waking up to the inequity in the hook up culture, candidly. I thought her reading of contempoirary culture, her incorporation of social media into the plot line, and her dialogue of the Gen Y characters was spot on. Her description of a university ball was painfully sharp:
'The boys would sit at the tables in their teams and packs and talk about girls and football and their older brothers. They’d get drunk and get pulled onto the dance floor before they remembered they didn’t know how to dance. So a girl with too-tanned skin dressed like a butterfly would dance around them while they stood swaying and shuffling, unsure where to place their hands'.
Small details lifted Delaney’s characterisations from the ordinary and from my experience growing up in one of Sydney’s more well-heeled suburbs and attending Sydney University, I smiled wryly at her apt analogy from Toby’s perspective of feeling a surge of energy, like when one is about to ski ‘down the black run’: only rich kids ever feel that way. Certainly, that’s how I thought the rich kids lived life as I watched from my public school distance, as far away as I could from the Rugby team thugs at university.
The central event of the plot is grim and to read this novel in entirety is rewarding but also emotionally demanding. Delaney makes her characters ask some big questions about morality, ethics, religion, sexuality and elitism:
‘Toby was aware (how could he not be) of the case of the cruise ship woman. Sex, a drug overdose on a ship, a group of men…Sometime in the night she died and they did nothing – they closed ranks, they vowed not to talk, despite immense moral and legal pressure. Did he want to be like those men?’
And while I would say that this is a very plot driven book, the writing is beautifully atmospheric and at times when Delaney is describing the ethereal landscape of the students lounging around the lovely college grounds, I felt there was a comparison to the dreamy quality of Jeffrey Eugenides ‘The Virgin Suicides’:
'But outside nothing had changed. There were still girls sitting in a circle drinking wine from a thermos, haloed in wintry sunlight, dandelion pollen suspended in mid-air, the peacock strutting on the lawn, suddenly interested in the plants. The gardener was laughing and petting the peacock and the girls were laughing too and the pollen was falling'.
This is a fantastic novel, one which stayed with me for days after finishing, and I really look forward to reading more of Delaney’s work.

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


Tuesday, 7 October 2014

Book Review: 'Tyranny: I Keep You Thin' by Lesley Fairfield (No 12: Graphic Novel)

Canadian illustrator and writer Leslie Fairfield’s 2011 graphic novel ‘Tyranny: I Keep You Thin’ is an exploration of anorexia and one young woman’s journey in escaping its grip. Autobiographical in nature – Fairfield’s bio states that she has had a thirty year battle with anorexia and bulimia – the novel’s simple and straightforward approach in detailing the process of starving, binging and purging adds poignancy to the message. By telling her story graphically, Fairfield is able to personify ‘Tyranny’, the voice of protagonist Anna’s eating disorder, as a harpy like nag, sketchily drawn and leery, and always piping up whenever Anna starts to make headways in life.
We begin startlingly with Anna being strangled by the furious ‘Tyranny’, declaring ‘I told you not to eat. You are too fat!!’ and then focus on Anna’s dazed and haunted face ‘How did I get to this place?’ Fairfield flashes back through Anna’s life with panels depicting the moments and comments that have stuck in her memory, be it positive or negative impacts on the development of her identity. As a young adult she has to escape the worry of her parents, loses her boyfriend – ‘I mean, you just keep fading away, and… I don’t know who you are anymore’ – and ultimately embarks upon a series of experiences where she meets other women struggling with eating disorders. The catalyst for Anna’s turnaround is the loss of a friend to a heart attack induced by anorexia.
The illustrations in Fairfield’s novel make use of long, lean lines, emphasizing protruding elbows and knees, taut clavicles and hunched shoulders. Anna’s face changes many times to reveal the myriad emotions that come from focusing every minute of every day on food and controlling its intake. Mantras fill the background pictures of Anna’s life: ‘I will not eat, I will not eat’.
The graphic novel seems a perfect form in discussing this issue, and those recovering from an eating disorder or those trying to find some way to understand the condition would take away much from ‘Tyranny: I Keep You Thin’. Fairfield neither preaches nor makes commentary on outside influences contributing to the condition, but merely makes it a personal story with a simple narrative arc. This would be a very useful book on a school curriculum.

Monday, 6 October 2014

Book Review: 'The Miniaturist' by Jessie Burton (No 11: Fiction)

English author Jessie Burton’s first novel, ‘The Miniaturist’ is a very fine debut. There has been much buzz about its release this year, and with endorsements by Hannah Kent and S J Watson on the cover, expectation was high. The novel, set in 1686 in Amsterdam, and following the early days of Nella Oortman’s marriage into the wealthy trading family of the Brandts, very much reminded me of Tracy Chevalier’s novels. While not quite as deft as Chevalier’s style, Burton comes close nonetheless, and she has spun an interesting modern tale whilst remaining true to the cultural conventions of the time in which she is writing. Nella is neither a heroic feminist crusader, nor a naive country bumpkin whose eyes are opened by the city: she is rather a thoughtful and calm protagonist, quietly observing the complex relations of the household she has married into, and eventually taking control as events turn for the worse in the novel’s climax. Burton allows contemporary issues to enhance the themes in her novel by portraying Nella’s husband, Johannes Brandt, to be a man of the world: he allows his household certain liberties, his adored black manservant Otto comes and goes as he pleases, his maid Cornelia is straight-talking and frank and his tall and clever unmarried sister Marin advises him in trade. Nella is intrigued by the Brandts and their servants rather than shocked, but not so the people of Amsterdam as described when Otto leads the house through the city to church:
‘Though people continue to goggle, no-one else offers commentary. Nella notices how they look at Marin too. Unusually tall for a woman, with her long neck and head held high, Marin is like a figurehead on the bow of a ship, leaving waves of turning faces in her wake’.
Nella and Johannes’ relationship takes a fairly well trodden narrative path, but Burton doesn’t sensationalise the exploration of their relationship and the narrative arc avoids cliché. What sets this novel apart is the element of mystery that gives the novel its title. Johannes gives his new bride the gift of a cabinet sized dolls house, an identical model of their own home but empty for Nella to fill and entertain herself during his absences. Nella is nonplussed but in a fit of spite towards her frugal and waspish sister in law, Nella orders a ‘miniaturist’ advertised in the local trading papers to make her some furniture for the house. What transpires is a number of packages arriving with exact models of people and objects in the house, of which the miniaturist should have no knowledge. Notes with cryptic messages are wrapped around the fine little pieces and Nella embarks upon a cat and mouse chase trying to pin down this enigmatic and all knowing craftsperson:
‘Someone has peered into Nella’s life and thrown her off centre. If these items aren’t sent in error, then the cradle is a mock to her unvisited marriage bed and what’s beginning to feel as though it’s an eternal virginity. What sort of person would dare such impertinence? The dogs, so particular; the chairs, so exact – the cradle, so suggestive – it’s like the miniaturist has a perfect, private view’.
Burton’s style is straightforward but confident. Her characters are sympathetically drawn, and the dialogue is well executed in that Burton doesn’t embellish or over-formalise the language. The plot may have been spun out a little too long but the mystery of the miniaturist’s identity is interesting enough to compel the reader forward. Burton no doubt will have an audience eagerly waiting for a second showing after this assured start.