September 30, 2011

Past The Shallows - Favel Parrett

There was so much about Past The Shallows that I just couldn't go past. The title for a start, so simple, so beautiful, so tempting. The fact that this is the first novel of a young, female Australian author - a group of writers I like to support whenever I can. The cover, gloriously colourful and yet discreet at the same time. And then there is the author's name - how gorgeous and unique is it?? You will be pleased to know that after all that the content did not let me down.
Past The Shallows is the story of Harry, the youngest of three brothers living with their father on the remote south coast of Tasmania after the death of their mother. Harry is the observer and recorder of the family history - it is through his eyes that we learn of the difficulties in his family, how much his father is struggling, emotionally and financially and how the three brothers are each trying to carve out an existence in an isolated family and environment.
The sea is a constant presence in the story - it is the way Harry's father earns a living and it is also a big source of comfort and pleasure for each of the boys in some way. Parrett is obviously extremely knowledgeable about this landscape and the essence of the water and the way each character interacts with and responds to it comes across clearly in the story.
The characters all came across strongly in the story but Harry was especially powerful, It was interesting to read Parrett talk about the character of Harry in an interview after the book was published;
"I love Harry very much. Sometimes it still makes me cry when I think about him. He is a very special character to me - some kind of gift really"
It is so lovely to hear an author speak this way about a character she has created - and this passion certainly comes through in the character of Harry and the story he creates.
In some ways this is such a simple book - in its structure and prose - but in other ways it is deeply complex - and definitely very moving.

September 29, 2011

State of Wonder - Ann Patchett

State of Wonder is one of the books from my overflowing review pile - read oh so long ago now.
State of Wonder is my first Ann Patchett read - I did start Bel Canto a few years ago and stopped - not so much because I wasn't liking it - more of the wrong book at the wrong time kind of feeling.
I did actually have to put State of Wonder aside for a little while during my reading of it - for personal reasons and not because I was not enjoying the book. The book focuses on a research and discovery trip to the Amazon by a group of scientists and at one stage the main character, Marina is preparing to make the trip herself after the death of her research partner in the jungle from some unknown illness. Marina is taking anti-malaria medication and preparing for a long flight into the unknown - at exactly the same time as I was reading this my partner was preparing to make his own trip for work purposes into some regional areas of Africa - taking the same medication as Marina! I just couldn't face the similarities and decided I would pick the book up again when my partner returned home.
Marina works for a pharmaceutical company that has provided extensive funding and resources to a well known doctor and researcher, Dr Annick Swenson. Dr Swenson is a bit of a renegade in her field - she likes to do things her own way, and in her own time. The pharmaceutical company has decided that Dr Swenson's time is a little on the slow and protracted side for them so that is when they send Anders Eckman - Marina's friend and colleague - to check up on her work. After his sudden and unexpected death Marina is then sent to the isolated Amazon to finish the job Anders was unable to complete. The trip crosses many personal and professional boundaries for Marina who feels in some ways responsible for Anders death and feels an obligation to his widow to discover more about the circumstances in which Anders died as well as feeling obligated to her employer who she is also engaging in a personal affair with. Marina's past with Dr Swenson is also discovered as the novel moves along adding even more to the depth of Marina's story and the context in which the research in the Amazon is taking place.
I was completely taken in by this story and the characters within it. Each of the settings and characters are deeply explored - back stories are convincingly given and even in places where the story could have become a little far fetched and difficult to believe in I kept my interest and my engagement with the characters and their stories - Patchett had me in a "state of wonder"!

September 27, 2011

All That I Am - Anna Funder

I am not really sure how this has happened but I have a pile of books waiting to be reviewed - some that I finished reading months ago - so I have made a vow that I will get through them in the next couple of weeks in order to free the clutter that is currently consuming my mind - so many book thoughts!!

All That I Am is a book I had been eagerly awaiting as soon as I found out the author would be releasing her first novel. I am currently reading my way through Funder's first book, her non fiction work, Stasiland, and I am completely absorbed by her writing. I was so excited to see that her skill flowed over into the fiction genre as All That I Am turned out to be just, if not more, captivating than Stasiland.
All That I Am is a novel based on real people and events - although I have to say that I was not familiar with these people before reading this book. Funder explains a little about the creation of the novel and how she has intertwined real stories and people with other characters and events in the acknowledgements at the end of the book.
I was hooked from the first line of the book;

When Hitler came to power I was in the bath.

I just love it! So brief and simple and yet so powerful and evocative at the same time. The book goes on to tell the story of Hitler's rise to power in post WW1 Germany from the perspective of Ruth Becker, a young revolutionary opposed to Hitler's politics and his vision for her country. Ruth's older cousin, Dora and her husband, Hans are also involved in dangerous political and social activities and they are soon forced to flee Germany for London so as to ensure their safety. Another member of their activist group is the German playwright, Ernst Toller whom makes contact with Ruth through his writings many years later when she is living in Australia.
Funder has obviously done meticulous research for this book - not that the novel comes across as dull or research based - rather as clear, informed and authentic. Each of the characters are fully formed and explored - although secrets and new observations arise as the novel progresses.
The language and the writing style are engaging and intelligent - I fell totally in love with the structure of this book and the story it was portraying. I would definitely recommend this to any reader interested in the period prior to and during WW2 but also readers who love a novel driven by characters and their internal and external conflicts. Am amazing read.

September 26, 2011

Jamrach's Menagerie - Carol Birch

Yet another book shortlisted for the 2011 Man Booker Prize that has completely blown me away - and, again, it was a book I would never have picked up in a million years if I was not working my way through this prize list determined to read them all!
Jamrach's Menagerie had three things against it when it came to drawing me in as a reader, firstly, it's cover. Without getting too technical, I just don't like it! I need a cover to be inviting and enticing and for some reason this cover does neither of those things for me - I would walk straight past it if I saw it on a shelf. Secondly, the title - again, does nothing for me (and even after finishing the book I'm not sure that it is completely right for the book). Last, but not least, the description of the book mentions a ship. I have nothing against ships themselves (although my rampant tendency to sea sickness does mean that I generally steer clear of them) but books set on boats/ships/life on the sea tend to bore me.
So, as you can see, Jamrach's Menagerie was up against some pretty set prejudices from the very beginning with me! But in the end I was completely won over.
The book begins in 1857 in London's East End, 8 year old Jaffy Brown has a chance encounter with a tiger that leads to his employment with Mr Jamarch, a local animal poacher, importer and trader. Jaffy loves his work with Jamarch and his contact with all breeds of animals - he becomes known for his animal handling skills. Jaffy strikes up a tentative friendship with an older boy working with Jamarch, Tim Linver and through Tim his twin sister, Ishbel. When the chance comes up to be a part of a mission sailing off to the Dutch East Indies to catch a "dragon" both Jaffy and Tim volunteer - seeking fame, fortune and adventure.
The front of this book has a quote from A. S. Byatt describing this as "One of the best stories I've ever read" and I think this captures this book perfectly for me. It is an amazing story of adventure, friendship, loss and triumph told with incredible skill. Birch's writing evokes perfectly the scenes she is describing - I could feel myself walking through the streets of 1850's London with Jaffy, I could smell the decay and rot of the alleys and the stench from the animals in their cages. Just as the scenes set on the ship had me feeling queasy at times with "reading seasickness".
I am now feeling so confused with my Man Booker Prize favourite! It seems that each book I read from the shortlist quickly becomes my favourite of the moment!

September 25, 2011

The Week That Was...

This week has gone so fast and has been so full, partly by choice and partly by obligation, that I have had very little time to process it, let alone blog about it.
Work, study, a trip to Sydney for training and then a weekend full of running training has kept my mind and body busy but I have still had time for...

Here's looking towards a slightly slower week coming up...

September 18, 2011

The Sisters Brothers - Patrick De Witt

The Sisters Brothers is another one of my recent reads from the so far (for me at least) excellent Man Booker Prize shortlist for 2011. This is probably the one book from the list I was least excited about - it has been called a "homage to the classic western" - a genre that isn't really one I would turn to by choice but this book may just have changed my mind...
The Sisters Brothers of the title are Charlie and Eli Sisters - two henchmen working for one of the wild wests powerful boss men, The Commodore. The Commodore has sent Charlie and Eli on their latest mission from Oregon City to the gold fields outside Sacramento to kill Hermann Kermit Warm (got to love that name!) for some indiscretion he has committed against The Commodore.
The story is told by Eli - the more gentle and reflective of the brothers - and it reminded me a lot of the Academy Award nominated film, True Grit, which I watched, and loved, last year. Like True Grit The Sisters Brothers is the story of an actual physical journey but is in some ways more about the emotional and psychological journey that the brothers take while on their horses. I loved the journey I was taken on as a reader and this has made The Sisters Brothers my favourite  2011 Booker Prize book so far.

September 13, 2011

Half Blood Blues - Esi Edugyan

Half Blood Blues is one of the books recently named on The Man Booker Prize shortlist for this year. Like many of the books on this list I don't think I would have come across it without that particular publicity and recognition - one of the reasons I do keep an eye on the various writing awards - whether a book wins or not is really inconsequential to me - I just like to keep adding to my pile of wonderful reads!
Half Blood Blues tells the story of a group of American and German jazz musicians caught up in Berlin and Paris just prior to and during World War 2. As black musicians in Europe at this time they have a lot to offer the cultural community but they are inevitably singled out as enemies and risks with the rise of the Nazi regime. Two of the Americans, Sid and Chip are introduced to Hieronymous Falk, a young black trumpet player being hailed as the new Louis Armstrong. Hiero forms part of their band and when tension in Germany escalates the group are forced to flee to Paris with the assistance of Delilah Brown, a talented jazz singer and associate of Armstrong's who offers the group the chance to play and record tracks with their hero.
This book strongly evokes a sense of its place and its characters - the language and dialogue feel particularly genuine and believable and the tension rising within Europe at the time is also found in the escalating tension between and within the characters. I am not a big fan of jazz music but in reading this book I found a new appreciation of the role it might play for musicians and audiences, particularly in times of turmoil. The descriptions of the impacts of the music on the characters was especially powerful:

It made even me sound solar. Hot in a simmering, other-worldly way. And all at once I understood what the kid was to me. That only playing with him was I pulled out of my own sound. Alone, I wasn't nothing. Just a stiff line, just a regular keeper of the beat. But the kid, hell, his horn somehow push all that forward too, he shove me on up into the front sound with him. Like he was holding me in time.

I certainly felt held in the time and place of this story while reading this book - a wonderful addition to the Man Booker shortlist for 2011.

September 10, 2011

Cold Earth - Sarah Moss

Sarah Moss has quickly become one of my favourite authors. After reading her latest book, Night Waking, a few weeks ago I rushed to pick up her first novel Cold Earth and while it is a very different book in many ways, the style and tension that I had loved so much in Night Waking was still there.
Cold Earth is the story of a group of archaeologists who are on a study/research dig at one of the lost Viking settlements in Greenland. The use of place and setting in Moss' writing is integral to her story and she sets up the starkness of the Greenland countryside beautifully. The setting is contrasted with the isolation and internal struggles of each of the characters and the way the book is written - with alternate chapters told from the perspective of each of them - allows us to see into their thoughts while at the same time seeing different viewpoints and reactions to the same events. The tension in the story comes from the news that was received by the group just prior to leaving for Greenland. A lethal virus has been identified in America and is seemingly spreading across the globe. While the group are in Greenland they have limited access to news from the outside world and when this is unexpectedly cut off each character starts to reflect on what might be happening to their own family and friends left behind.
This was an amazing story to be caught up in - Moss builds the tension perfectly while at the same time staying true to each of the characters and their back stories. One of the reasons I love her writing so much is the depth she attributes to each of her characters - I could read a separate book about each of the characters in Cold Earth - they are that well written and established. Looking forward to much more from Moss in the future.

September 09, 2011

Your Voice in my Head - Emma Forrest

Your Voice in my Head was probably a strange choice of reading for a day when I was home sick from my job as a mental health worker but I am trying to read a lot of memoir styles for my university work at the moment so I thought I would give it a try.
I had heard Emma Forrest speak at the Sydney Writers Festival earlier this year and I was really impressed and intrigued hearing her talk about the process she went through in writing this book - and the fall out from it being published.
Your Voice in my Head is Emma's story of her experience with bipolar disorder, depression and suicidality. Emma writes very openly and honestly about her experiences with alternating low moods and mania and the times in which things have become so desperate she has attempted to take her life. Following one serious suicide attempt Emma begins a therapeutic relationship with Dr R - it is a relationship that, as she states, will help to save her life.
This book is often self indulgent in its style and content - but I was expecting that from a memoir about such a deeply personal and affecting experience and in this case I think it only added to the genuineness and authenticity of the book. There are some lighter, and very funny, moments in the book too and this helped to break up some of the deep reflective segments. At the end there is a definite strong sense of hope - Emma continues to battle with her illness but she now has on board significant skills and resources to help her.

September 06, 2011

Derby Day - D.J. Taylor

Not long now until the short list for the 2011 Man Booker Prize is announced so I thought I would get in quick with my thoughts on one of long listed books.
Like most of the books on the list Derby Day was a complete unknown to me - I picked it up with no preconceptions or expectations, apart from the statement across the front of the book telling me quite clearly it was "A Victorian Mystery". I had an inkling I would enjoy the book from the title - the sport of horse racing is something I have grown up with in Australia and even though things were a little different back in the 1860's in England the essence of the sport and all that surrounds it was still recognisable to me in the story.
Derby Day tells the story of several characters leading up to the day of the Derby at Epsom Downs. Mr Happerton has recently acquired one of the favourite horses for the event, Tiberius, as well as a new wife in the form of upper middle class society want to be, Rebecca Gresham. The acquisition of both have interesting back stories which are told with effect in the novel. The racing industry in all its glory and infamy is described and shown beautifully throughout the book - the betting scene and how it can be manipulated is a core part of the mystery embedded within the story. The characters are all vividly written - they jump off the page and into your imagination - I was sad to see them leave when I had finished the book. This book was one of the most interesting, entertaining and engaging stories I have read in the longest time - I enjoyed it totally and am now on the look out for more of Taylor's work.

September 05, 2011

The Sense of an Ending - Julian Barnes

The Sense of an Ending (can I just say how much I love this title!!) is another of my recent reads that has been long listed for the 2011 Man Booker Prize.
The book is told from the perspective of Tony Webster who as a man aged in his 60's is now looking back over his life, friendships and relationships - in particular a friendship he formed in high school with Adrian and his first serious relationship with a girl, Veronica, whom he meets and dates while in college.
This is quite a short novel (150 pages) and it is one of those books that you just want to devour in one sitting.
From the very beginning there is a sense of a mystery and tension building and even though as the reader you are completely in the hands of the narrator and how he chooses to tell his story he is constantly letting you know that he may not be able to be trusted:
If I can't be sure of the actual events any more, I can at least be true to the impressions those facts left. That's the best I can manage.
As the reader I felt I was reminiscing along with Tony - as he is going back through his memories I had a small sense of feeling as though I could have been there too - I think this is the skill of the author in constructing a story that moves and grows through the reading of it. The concept of time and how it is used, how it is remembered and how it moves is a big theme of this novel. Tony reflects on this quite a lot, one of my favourite paragraphs is this:
But time first grounds us and then confounds us. We thought we were being mature when we were only being safe. We imagined we were being responsible but were only being cowardly. What we called realism turned out to be a way of avoiding things rather than facing them. Time... give us enough time and our best-supported decisions will seem wobbly, our certainties whimsical.
The ending of Tony's story is what the book is building to - and I have to say I did not see it coming, I was too caught up in the narrative itself. When I had finished the book I was in shock - I couldn't believe such a small book where seemingly not a lot of action took place could have such an impact on me!

September 03, 2011

The Stranger's Child - Alan Hollinghurst

I have not read any of Hollinghurst’s work before so I came to The Stranger’s Child as a complete novice to his writing.

The Stranger’s Child has been long listed for the 2011 Man Booker Prize and already is quite a favourite to take out the prize with Hollinghurst’s previous best seller The Line of Beauty already taking out that award.
For me this book had the advantage of primarily being set in England in the period just before and just after WW1 – a favourite area of reading history for me. It also had plenty of descriptions of gorgeous English countryside homes and manors, costumes and habits so I was pretty much satisfied with the inclusion of those aspects! The story hinges on strong characterisation. I can honestly say that I didn’t really like or warm to any of the characters in the book – but I loved reading about them all. One of the main characters, although he remains physically distant or removed for most of the book, is Cecil Valance, a vivacious society man of the time with a talent for writing poetry and making people, both male and female, fall hopelessly in love with him. As a young man Cecil is rather full of himself – we don’t really get the chance to see how this trait will develop or change into the future which means that Cecil’s character is forever set by the memories of his friends and family. This is shown throughout the book by introducing several characters who are intent on writing a history or biography of Cecil and telling their own truths in the process.
The book is structured and told around specific times in the history of the characters and this means that the author jumps many years between each section of the narrative. I didn’t feel lost however as I felt each section was detailed enough to allow me to work out what had taken place in the intervening years that are not actually written about.
I really enjoyed reading this book although at the end of it I am left with the feeling that I haven’t really “got it”. The message I have taken away from my reading is one of the different types of truths that can exist simultaneously – there is no one right memory in existence – and how this fact can impact on different people. Also, the power of memory and how it can be constructed or deconstructed according to the needs or wants of the person remembering. For me this book was about the characters, the story itself was incidental and was more a tool for allowing the characters to come to light.