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!

Thursday, 28 August 2014

Book Review: 'Far From The Tree' by Andrew Solomon (No 6: Non Fiction)

Far from the TreeThe first reference I saw to Andrew Solomon’s ‘Far From The Tree’ was an excerpt on the ABC news app ‘The Brief’; Solomon was opening up the 2014 Sydney Writer’s Festival and speaking widely on this 2013 release on children, parents and the search for identity. After reading that small excerpt, I listened to Richard Fidler’s interview with Solomon (can be found here http://www.abc.net.au/local/stories/2014/05/20/4008150.htm) and I was so fascinated that I immediately went to buy a copy at my local Berkelouw store. Turns out I wasn’t the only one desperate to get a copy: apparently all copies were sold out at the Writers’ Festival and the shop assistant told me that a thousand copies were already on order Australia wide. This is worth mentioning as ‘Far From The Tree’ is about difficult topics, is six hundred pages long, and has a fair amount of academic research within the anecdotal material – not exactly a book you would expect to sell out in Australia. Let me explain why this has won awards, was a New York Times bestseller, and captured the attention of the Writers’ Festival folk.
Solomon spent ten years writing and researching this text, face to face interviewing hundreds of families across the ten years, and often becoming very close to parents and children alike. A lecturer in Psychiatry, a journalist and an author, Solomon started with a keen interest in the deaf community after writing a long form New Yorker article, and then moved on to exploring other cultures of challenged individuals to find commonalities in struggle for identity. Solomon’s scope was wide and he immersed himself in many cultures but ten groups became the focus of this text: the deaf, dwarfs, people with Down Syndrome, people on the Autism spectrum, people with schizophrenia, those affected by multiple disability, prodigies, children born from rape, children who commit serious crime, and transgender people. Solomon maintains pace throughout the chapters by using psychological and medical information to give background to a condition, and then interspersing interviews with parents and children to give voice to the reality of living with these conditions. The effect is both educative in providing a great deal of information about complex genetic and medical history, but also deeply affecting by highlighting the poignant daily struggles that accompany being different to the ‘mainstream’.
This is an easy book to read in that Solomon is an engaging writer combining a journalistic style with an academic mind; he is also an empathetic observer and interviewer. It is palpably clear in this warm collection of interviews that he cares for his subjects. At the same time, it is not an easy read for the content: I struggled with two chapters, Disability and Rape, as I found some early sections too difficult to read for the girief presented. The Schizophrenia and Autism chapters are also immensely heart wrenching.  In summary, reflecting on all the chapters: some people are almost given too much pain to bear, and the resilience they show in going on every day is awe inspiring. I was particularly riveted by the answers to the hard hitting questions asked of the interviewees: Solomon would ask parents if they would terminate if they knew then what they knew after caring for their child now, and whether if they could magically ‘cure’ their child or change the context in which they were born, they would. Answers varied, and answers were very honest. That’s what makes this such a compelling and important book: the voices are telling a truth that is often not allowed to be heard.
However, ‘Far From the Tree’ also offers so many moments of hope. I found this quote from Angelica (mother to Erica who has Down Syndrome), among similar quotes from others, profoundly moving: ‘Angelica had been deeply committed from the first to finding meaning in her experience, and she came to see Erica’s disability as an occasion for her own moral growth. When Erica was nine, Angelica developed breast cancer. “Having Erica made me stronger to deal with that” Angelica said. “I became a stronger person because of her.” Trinity Church is only a few blocks from Ground Zero, and Angelica was there on 9/11. She kept her cool in the midst of the chaos, and for that too, she thanks Erica. “God makes these things happen to us sooner rather than later, because maybe our role will be to help others and to grow from this experience” … “I couldn’t stop the planes from coming. I couldn’t stop my illness or her condition. You can’t stop the future”.
And this from Cheryl, mother to Clinton, when asked why her son had made such a successful transition from suffering from complications with dwarfism as a child to enjoying a full social and professional life: ‘"What did I do? I loved him. That’s all… Clinton just always had that light in him, and we were lucky enough to be the first to see it there’”.
And most profound of all, Sue Klebold, mother of Columbine shooter Dylan Klebold: ‘"But over time, I’ve come to feel that, for myself, I am glad I had kids and glad I had the kids I did, because the love for them – even at the price of this pain – has been the single greatest joy of my life. When I say that, I am speaking of my own pain, and not the pain of other people. But I accept my own pain; life is full of suffering, and this is mine. I know it would have been better for the world if Dylan had never been born. But I believe it would not have been better for me”’.
These are important stories to hear; a study like this should be mandatory for those currently in power in Australia who have been ruthless and despairingly short-sighted in cutting funding to the NDIS, mental health assistance, educational funding and medical research.  If only those people would listen and observe like Andrew Solomon, we might be moving to an even more caring Australia.

Wednesday, 20 August 2014

Book Review: 'My Salinger Year' by Joanna Rakoff (No 5: Memoir)

Media of My Salinger YearJoanna Rakoff’s memoir ‘My Salinger Year’ is a treat for literature lovers, and certainly for anyone who has read J D Salinger’s works. Not only is Rakoff an extremely engaging writer, as well as a thoughtful observer - she was also able to write an intriguing memoir by being in the right place, at the right time. Her first career job after graduating college was at a literary agency in New York, one she declines to name out of deference, but easily identifiable from its major client, the enigmatic Salinger. Surprisingly, Rakoff had never read ‘Catcher in The Rye’ despite being a literature major: it had just ‘passed her by’ in adolescence. However, she was well aware of Salinger’s reputation as one of the most famous recluses in the literary world, and the ‘Agency’ where Rakoff was now entrenched as the newbie assistant, had the task of collecting his substantial royalties and warding off any potential contact with fans or media. From the outset, Rakoff paints the Agency as a little piece of glamorous antiquity in the burgeoning digital world of the 1990s. On day one her boss breezes in like Meryl Streep in ‘Devil Wears Prada’: ‘As predicted, my boss arrived at ten, swathed in a whiskey mink, her eyes covered with enormous dark glasses, her head with a silk scarf in an equestrian pattern. “Hello”, I started to say, rising from my chair, as one might for royalty or clergy. But she swooped past me into her office, as if her glasses prevented peripheral vision.’ According to Rakoff, Salinger’s agent is distracted and aloof, constantly drawing on a cigarette, and determined to keep emails and ebooks at bay. In fact, Rakoff has to use an electric typewriter in the office and it is not until the end of her year at the Agency that one of the young agents persuades the boss to acquire one computer ‘to check emails’. Rakoff shows bemusement rather than contempt for the Agency’s ‘ye olde ways’, and I read it as a lovely homage to the way things used to roll in publishing. The exchanges regarding Salinger do not dominate what is essentially a coming of age tale for Rakoff, determining her path at those cross roads often met after college or university: the exchanges nonetheless reveal much about the recluse and are handled with a deftly humorous touch, ‘”Never, ever, ever are you to give out his address or phone number”. “I understand,” I told her, though I wasn’t sure I did, as I didn’t know who Jerry was. This was 1996 and the first Jerry that came to mind was Seinfeld, who presumably wasn’t a client of the Agency, though one never knew, I supposed’.
Rakoff touches upon so many relatable events in one’s twenties, well certainly mine anyway. Her nervous first day is reminiscent of most first days on the job: ‘The letters piled up on my desk and the hours clicked by. At 1:30, my boss put her coat back on and went out, returning with a small brown bag. When, I wondered, would she tell me to go to lunch? And was I meant to do the same? To buy my lunch and bring it back, eat at my desk? The outside world had come to seem like a dream.’
And her relationships have the arc of universality as well. Firstly, there is her changing relationship with her best friend Jenny, who has chosen the suburban path, to live out of expensive New York and forgo her dreams of writing to instead edit school textbooks. Rakoff replies to Jenny’s suggestion that to take the suburban path was easier: “’I know, “ I said reflexively, but I didn’t. I didn’t want to be normal. I wanted to be extraordinary. I wanted to write novels and make films and speak ten languages and travel around the world. I wanted everything. So, I thought, had Jenny’. Her relationship with her aspiring writer boyfriend Don moves the story along, and while we can see where it is all going, gives Rakoff scope to analyse her life in the memoir.
New York is the other character in this memoir and like any good piece, ‘My Salinger Year’ makes you want to experience the moments described in that exciting city: ‘One night in early July, at a rooftop party, I spent hours talking to two young New Yorker editors. They were a few years my senior – and a few Don’s junior – and dressed like characters from a Whit Stillman movie. They were, in other words, exactly as I’d pictured New Yorker editors, if I’d had the wherewithal to even imagine the people behind a magazine that had so profoundly shaped my life’
‘My Salinger Year’ is constructed exactly how I’ve come to like a memoir: a brief snapshot in time, dwelling on a life changing event or time period rather than a whole lifetime. It is a testimony to Rakoff’s writing that I cared at the close of the book what happened to her as she flashed forward to the present date. One hint - she has now read all of Salinger.

Saturday, 16 August 2014

Book Review: 'The Prime Of Miss Jean Brodie' by Muriel Spark (No 4: Classic)

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie  - Muriel SparkI saw this on the library shelf and was reminded of the many times I have heard and read Muriel Spark cited, and this in particular, her well known novel turned award winning film starring Maggie Smith. I knew the phraseo ft repeated in this classic, ‘in the prime of her life’ as it is used in common parlance, but I had never read the book nor seen the film, and in fact have never read Spark. It is such a neatly packaged short novel: a contained and precise concept. It economically outlines the formative years of a ‘set of girls’ and their primary school teacher, 40-something Miss Brodie, told in flashback and flash forward. Its arc is simple but surprising at the close nonetheless, and darkly witty. I appreciated all the nuances of this novel from my experience as a teacher, especially in a girls school, with the mandatory sets of ‘it girls’ who have the teachers’ favour and seem to run the show, leaving lesser mortals envious in their wake. The archetype of Jean Brodie is realistic, even today: the unmarried woman, strangely dependent on the affirmation of school girls, cagily critical of the other ‘by-the-book’ teachers, and as always, linked to the single males on staff. Likewise the girls’ delight in their imagining and speculation of Miss Brodie’s love life is a familiar thrill to many readers, just as seeing a teacher out of context at the shops and caught in their ‘normal life’, always so exotic to students. Spark writes so elegantly, and so knowingly: you feel her winking as you read these passages, and you can hear the wry laughter behind the words. She writes of poor Mary, the whipping girl of the group, so familiar a character to any school girl or teacher: ‘Mary sat lump-like and too stupid to invent something. She was too stupid ever to tell a lie, she didn’t know how to cover up’. Of Miss Brodie, we learn only snippets from the observations from the girls and the reaction of those around her, but her arch dialogue and continuous gasp at cigarettes paints a formidable and complex character: ‘Some days it seemed to Sandy that Miss Brodie’s chest was flat, no bulges at all, but straight as her back. On other days her chest was breast-shaped and large, very noticeable, something for Sandy to sit and peer at through her tiny eyes while Miss Brodie on a day of lessons indoors stood erect, with her brown head held high, staring out the window like Joan of Arc as she spoke’.
The novel is a glorious celebration of female group dynamics, female instinct, and observance of the dedication of a career woman rather than the pitying of an aging spinster: ‘Miss Brodie ushered the girls from the music room and gathering them about her, said, “You girls are my vocation. If I were to receive a proposal of marriage tomorrow from the Lord Lyon King-of-Arms I would decline it. I am dedicated to you in my prime. Form a single line please and walk with your heads up, up like Sybil Thorndike, a woman of noble mien”’.
‘The Prime Of Miss Jean Brodie’ didn’t feel aged to me at all: it had an urgency and a vitality that made it feel very much in the presence. Now, to see the much lauded film.

Friday, 15 August 2014

Book Review: 'Funemployed' by Justin Heazlewood (No 3: Non Fiction)

Justin Heazlewood admits himself in 'Funemployed' that the actors, artists, writers, comedians and musicians he interviewed often declared that discussing their experience of earning a living in the Australia arts industry with him was a 'bit depressing'. Indeed, reading about it is too, but only in the sense that as the reader I wished that every artist involved could win a big fat Powerball payout and never have to worry about paying the mortgage or rent again. Oh, what an amazing arts scene we could have then!
But don't let this put you off reading this great collection of thoughts and interviews, just as Heazlewood was not put off completing this project: it's an important examination of the pros and cons of working in a small national industry, and an absolute eye opener for those outside the sphere or for those hoping to enter it.
Funemployed - Justin HeazlewoodHeazlewood is a musician, comedian and writer, a 'mid career artist': after twelve years working professionally in the arts industry he has had some critical success, been on Triple J, made some royalties, but has never garnered a mainstream audience (he argues tongue in cheek that he is a 'share-household name'). He is the perfect person to write this book, having had a taste of commercial success but also knowing the depths of despair in negotiating Centrelink, losing money on self funded tours, struggling to find his niche, and pitching himself endlessly in the increasingly 'artist platform' driven industry. This is the great quandry upon which 'Funemployed' centres it focus: do you keep pumping away at something you are passionate about, not caring about commercial trends or marketing yourself as the next big thing, or do you just audition for X Factor. And teasing out that quandry, are you any good anyway, or should you just give up if you haven't made it by thirty and teach art or music to primary school kids (because that undoubtedly was what your loving but worried parents said should be your 'Plan B').
Heazlewood has access to the thoughts of well known artists such as Clare Bowditch, Tim Rogers, Benjamin Law, Lou Sanz, John Safran, Goyte, Tony Martin - as well as up and coming artists or less commercially successful artists who offer honest and fascinating insights into the trials and tribulations of taking the creative path. I was pleased to learn some new names and will do some research to find out more about their works - I hope other readers of Heazlewood's book will do the same, as if anything is to be learnt from 'Funemployed', support for our local artists is absolutely vital. He also interviews those that provide the business side of the industry such as publicists, managers and agents - they all offer valuable insights, particularly for those entering the business.
'Funemployed' had several chapters that really interested me: firstly, I found Heazlewood's personal account of what he termed the 'black cat', the envy of other artists getting ahead or seemingly having all the luck, very honest and relatable. Of course, any profession can relate to this somewhat, but unsurprisingly, many artists feel this envy deeply since success is so hard come by in the competitive field: 'In 2010 my bitterness hit new depths. My black cat dwelled on the injustices I was encountering - the parts of the industry that were intentionally shutting me out. There were always peers above me, clearly the 'chosen ones'.' This willingness to articulate what is on much of many minds is refreshing and should be encouraged more in public writing. Another interesting exploration was the Australian way of not big-noting oneself, thus hampering success at home, and certainly in the international market. Heazlewood argues that artists should be able to speak positively of their work and achievements, without fear of the tall poppy syndrome, but of course, as he quotes his fellow artists, it's a cultural more that is very hard to fight: 'Artists lie in fear of crossing the invisible line from'doing well' to 'doing too well'.' And on the dwindling support of arts in Australia, with only a few platforms to find coverage, I was astounded to read that the ABC received a dozen or so pitches A WEEK for comedy shows - but only have the funds to make one show a year (presumably it was Josh Thomas' turn last  year). As was noted by one interviewee in the book, in the small television industry with firmly entrenched 'star performers' you really have to wait for someone to die to get a spot. Bert Newton, you are  on notice...
Heazlewood has decided to make writing a focus for the time being and he has a very engaging style: a straightforward approach, personal without being cloying, and darkly humorous ('Artists are a clusterfuck of insecurities. When we're not trashing our own abilities, we're despairing what other people might think of us').
Two things I'll take away from 'Funemployed': stop feeling embarrassed by the measly royalty check from my novel, as I'm not Robinson Crusoe in that department. And, try to avoid being too consumed by what Heazlewood described as 'middle brow arts'. Once upon a time I went to small art gallery exhibitions and saw local bands playing at pubs, and read books by little known writers, and went early to see the support comic before the big name act. Yep, as we age we tend to veer towards the known quantity, to be conservative in our tastes. Guilty as charged. I'm inspired by Heazlewood to go back to the old ways and be shocked by the new and controversial once again.

Saturday, 9 August 2014

Book Review: 'Only The Animals' by Ceridwen Dovey (No 2: Short Stories)

Book Cover:  Only the AnimalsFirstly, Australian writer Ceridwen Dovey has a fabulous name. Secondly, she came up with a wonderful concept for a short story collection: her 2014 release of ‘Only The Animals’ has 10 pieces narrated from the perspective of animals who have lived and died during historically important events. The narrators include a camel spending a night by campfire with Henry Lawson, French writer Collette’s cat prowling the trenches in World War One, a bear trapped in a pit in Sarajevo Zoo during the war, a dolphin trained by the US Navy to detect and place mines during the Gulf and Iraq wars. Narrating from an animal’s point of view draws on a long tradition but the death of the animals due to their engagement in historical events - such as the wars, or being a ‘guinea pig’ on a space flight as does Tolstoy’s tortoise (‘Through the porthole, on the way to the moon, I saw the earth. It was just as the dogs had described it, a glassy illuminated marble’) or the runaway dog of Himmler, banished and left to fend for himself after showing a stranger more affection than his master – gives this a fresh twist on the concept.
The collection touches upon a great deal of big ideas, and the literary references are many: the dolphin narrates a letter to Sylvia Plath ‘By far my favourite parts of your journals and poems are the insights you share into the quicksand, joyous minutes and hours and days and weeks and years of mothering’ and a wonderful mussel caught at Pearl Harbour (surely one of the few mussel narrators in literature?) takes on the beatnik style of Jack Kerouac ‘Blue mussel larvae, the real drifters, latched onto our hull at some point in our journey. One of them grew into a real beautiful girl with golden threads who Muss had a diggy thing for but she was more interested in me’. Dovey shows thorough research of places, time, people and animal characteristics. Her style is formal, the language elegant, and there is much story telling within the pieces, such as the fables told by the animals of their ancestors. Some images are truly lovely, and poignant:  the elephants noting ‘We held a formal farewell ceremony before they left, making a ring with our bodies close together, breathing in the smell of our kin’;  ‘The black bear did not speak again. On an icy day at the end of October, he died with his paws wrapped around the brown bear’s ribcage, holding it close against his body’; and ‘As the sun begins to shade the sky a pale lemon, the soldier will return, shuffling on his stomach with the blinking tomcat tucked under one arm, both of them so covered in mud they could be two bits of the same mythical beast’.
However, as a whole collection I could put the text down and not feel the need to return quickly: I didn’t connect with the stories in their entirety but rather individual phrases and ideas. Reflecting, I wondered whether the collection was too clever for me, too full of lofty references. I don’t think that was the case. Then I wondered if it was the animal narrators - and I realised that I was not a great fan of animal narrators as a child. My brother loved ‘Wind In The Willows’ and ‘Fantastic Mr Fox’, and others of that ilk – but despite the fact that I was the more avid reader, I preferred the childhood stories with people at the centre of the action, and usually, pure realism. So perhaps while I fully understand the greater meaning of anthropomorphism, it may not be a style in which I can engage. It’s not you Dovey, Dahl, Grahame, Orwell – it’s me.

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


Friday, 8 August 2014

Reading Challenge 2014

In a previous post I wrote about how, in August 2011, I had started writing down the titles of the books I read in order to keep track and to remember. Unfortunately, having a weird competitive nature, I noted that in those first 12 months, August to August, I read 30 books (both non fiction and fiction) so the next year I wanted to beat that total. As I noted in the earlier post, it was like an adult 'Premier's Reading Challenge'. So in 2011, I read 30 books, in 2012 I read 32, and now in August 2013 to last month I read a bumper 53! What changed? I'm not working full time, I stepped up the reading merely because I wanted to read more, and... my niece told me that her Year 9 English teacher bet the class that they couldn't read 52 books in a year and my niece was out to prove her wrong - and I naturally wanted in, so read like crazy in the last few months to get over the line. Maybe a few novellas were included to speed me up a bit, and I may have put down Catton's 'The Luminaries' because it would have sucked up too much time (I'll return to it, I promise). Anyway, I was thrilled to get to the 52 and snuck and extra in before the month was over.
I blog about some of the books, not all, due to time. So here is the list from this reading challenge:
1. 'The Lost Boy' Camilla Lackberg
2. 'Tampa' Alissa Nutting
3. 'Let's Pretend This Never Happened' Jenny Lawson
4. 'Beautiful Ruins' Jess Walters
5. 'Night Games' Anna Krien
6. 'Man Vs Child' Dominic Knight
7. 'Murder and Mendelssohn' Kerry Greenwood
8. 'Murder In Mississippi' John Safran
9. 'All Good Things' Sarah Turnball
10. 'The Signature of All Things' Elizabeth Gilbert
11. 'just_a_girl' Kirsten Krauth
12. 'Lionel Asbo' Martin Amos
13. 'Burial Rites' Hannah Kent
14. 'Sea Hearts' Margo Lanagan
15. 'Moranthology' Caitlin Moran
16. 'Banana Girl' Michele Lee
17. 'The Son' Phillip Meyer
18. 'Letter to George Clooney' Debra Adelaide
19. 'The Narrow Road to the Deep North' Richard Flanagan
20. 'The Spare Room' Helen Garner
21. 'Mateship With Birds' Carrie Tiffany
22. 'The Fence Painting Fortnight of Destiny' Meshel Laurie
23. 'Forgive Me Leonard Peacock' Matthew Quick
24. 'The Dinner' Hermon Koch
25. 'A Fair Maiden' Joyce Carol Oates
26. 'The Casual Vacancy' J K Rowling
27. 'The Perks of Being a Wallflower' Stephen Chbovsky
28. 'Like A House on Fire' Cate Kennedy
29. 'Beams Falling' P.M.Newton
30. 'The Circle' Dave Eggers
31. 'Coraline' Neil Gaiman
32. 'How To Be A Good Wife' Emma Chapman
33. 'A Beautiful Place To Die' Malla Nunn
34. 'The Husband's Secret' Liane Moriarty
35. 'The Mysogyny Factor' Anne Summers
36. 'The Night Guest' Fiona McFarlane
37. 'Blue Nights' Joan Didion
38. 'The Women In Black' Madeleine St John
39. 'We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves' Karen Joy Fowler
40. 'The Mistake' Wendy James
41. 'The Poet's Wife' Mandy Sayer
42. 'Just Business' Ber Carroll
43. 'Tiddas' Anita Heiss
44. 'An Elegant Young Man' Luke Carman
45. 'All The Birds Singing' Evie Wyld
46. 'The Promise' Tony Birch
47. 'This Is How You Love Her' Junot Diaz
48. 'The Ocean At The End Of The Lane' Neil Gaiman
49. 'Things We Didn't See Coming' Steven Amsterdam
50. 'The Jade Widow' Deborah O'Brien
51. 'Two Boys Kissing' David Levithan
52. 'The Tea Chest' Josephine Moon
53. 'The Cuckoo's Calling' J K Rowling

Book Cover: The Night GuestWhen you write down the titles you can also analyse your style and pull: I read WAY more female authors than males, I am swayed by award winners, I have read quite a few reviewed on the ABC Book Club, and I read a lot of short story collections this challenge. Obviously, by reviewing for the Australian Women Writers Challenge I have read a lot of Australian authors as well, but I naturally gravitated to local authors even before the challenge.
So, to pick my favourite ten: (in no order) Night Games; The Signature Of All Things; Burial Rites; Sea Hearts; Moranthology; The Spare Room; Like A House On Fire; The Night Guest; We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves; The Narrow Road to The Deep North. Most impact on my psyche? The Night Guest by Fiona McFarlane (debut novel, Stella Prize shortlist).
But I can say that I enjoyed reading everything on this list and  believe that there were few off notes in any of these books. Some were flashier than others but sometimes less flash is what you need. I'm intentionally trying to expand my dipping into genres (as you can see, no sci fi here - and there may never be...), and particulalry trying to read some lighter stuff as well rather than getting too caught up in prize winners and critical successes.
For the coming twelve months these are the goals: beat the 52, try to blog about most of them, keep trying new genres and writers, a few more non fiction this year, and continue supporting Australian women writers. And now I'll be noting the number of the book and the type of text so the challenge can be public!

Sunday, 3 August 2014

Book Review: 'Girl Defective' by Simmone Howell (No 1: YA)

Girl DefectiveI absolutely loved 'Girl Defective' by Australian writer, Simmone Howell. I picked it up because I had noted it when it was reviewed on release last year, and I liked the play on words in the title. First impressions a chapter in was that the protagonist, Sky, and her father and brother Gully were too quirky, and that the novel would descend into a cliched 'we're outside mainstream society but the cool kids will accept us by the end' YA plot. Pretty quickly I realised that there was something more special here, and I really ended up loving all the characters in Howell's novel.
Sky's mum has left, leaving her alone with her beautifully eccentric younger brother and her 'stuck in the past' father; they own a record shop, doing it tough in the face of the digital world. Sky has fallen in with older St Kilda local Nancy, who appreciates Sky's retro life; Nancy lives life large, much to Sky's admiration and envy: 'After that, the pilot was lit. Nancy's presence gave Mum's stuff meaning. She got it - that everything old was good. We were retro girls. We listened to old records; we read old books. We watched old movies... I did wonder about lots of things but there was one thing I knew: when Nancy wore my mother's clothes, she looked fucking beautiful'.
The plot is constructed around the mysterious death of local teenager Mia, whose brother comes to work in the record store, and becomes an important presence in Sky's summer holidays. At the same time, Gully's obsessive interest in amateur sleuthing adds to the detective theme in the novel, and his dispatches to the family regarding his investigation of a vandal's attack on the store are truly delightful: 'The subject doesn't know his height but I would pick him at six feet. He is caucasian, has dark hair that could use a cut and he wears black-rimmed glasses. A casual dresser, he was born and educated in Adelaide, the city of churches and serial killers.' The novel is a lovely ode to St Kilda: 'I could live without the tourists but there were things I loved - like the palm trees and poppy seed kugelhopf; like the monster goldfish at the botanical gardens and the sad song of the marina boats. The wind played their masts like a bow on strings and the sound was eerie and lovely and more lonesome than anything I could imagine'.
'Girl Defective' is not afraid to touch on darker adult issues, and explores the relationship between a single dad and a teenaged daughter realistically without too much saccharine. I liked how it was clear to Sky that she and her family were 'different' and that she had mixed feelings about wanting to be more maintsream but at the same time relishing that they were left of centre. The coming of age romance was nicely developed, and the end resolved well. My only concern is that with all the references to seventies and eighties music, as Sky and her father delve into the record store's treasures, YA readers might be lost to the soundtrack that is created by the plot. I could 'hear' all the tracks as Sky put them on her turntable; but maybe it would encourage a younger reader to google eighties gold such as 'Hold The Line'?
It is clear that Simmone Howell has a fantastic 'voice' for YA: I missed Sky's voice as soon as I finished the novel. You can't get a better recommendation than that.

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


Saturday, 2 August 2014

Book Review: 'The Cuckoo's Calling' by Robert Galbraith

It's such a shame that J K Rowling's pseudonym 'Robert Galbraith' was outed so early in the piece because I would have been interested to have read more 'blind' reviews of 'The Cuckoo's Calling'. As it happened, the crime debut received a few reasonable reviews before the big news was let out by a publishing insider, and the book became a best-seller. After reading Rowling's 'The Casual Vacancy' last year, and enjoying it immensely, I had her crime novel on my 'to read list': with the second in the series just released I decided I better hop to it to see if the hype was warranted. Without any attachement to the Potter series, which passed me by, I really do enjoy Rowling's writing style. Her characters are eccentric enough to be interesting and charming, but not unbelievable: her protagonist, Cormoran Strike "had the high bulging forehead, broad nose and thick brows of a young Beethoven who had taken to boxing, an impression only heightened by the swelling and blackening eye".
Rowling's use of dialogue is the clincher for me, realistic and appropriate, her portrayal of all levels of society in Britain ringing true: "When ya gotta driver it don't matter, does it? You jus go wherever you want, don't cost you nothing extra, you just get them to take you, don't ya? She was passing so she come in to tell me that she wasn't gonna stop because she 'ad to get 'ome to see fucking Ciara Porter".
I find myself smiling at her descriptions of people and situations, her use of humour understated but always present. Like 'The Causal Vacancy' which skewered middle class village life through a satire of the parish council, 'The Cuckoo's Calling' makes barbs at the world of fashion modelling and the cult of celebrity, with its murder of top model Lula Landry the focus of an old fashioned who dunnit. The most charming aspect of Rowling's crime debut is Strike himself, war veteran turned Columbo style sleuth - he has all the trademarks of a hard drinking, hopeless in love archetype, but Rowling is so warm in making him completely appealing, that the reader engages almost immediately. Much has been said of the old fashioned nature of this novel, even though its references and language are very much contemporary - Strike works in a dingy office with filing cabinets, and has a quaint romantic tension with his delightful temp, amateur sleuth Robin. I really enjoyed the fusion of the genre tropes with the contemporary setting, and must admit that the absence of the now ubiquitous sensationalised gore and sexual violence of the crime genre was a refreshing change.
Of course, Rowling has lived between the two worlds of working class England and the very wealthy upper class, and her knowledge of those two worlds shape her characterisations. She paints the wealthy with a deft touch, especially the calculating designer handbag set, and shows a keen understanding of those who straddle both worlds, particularly in the character of fashion designer Guy (pronounced 'Gee' Cormoran notes drily): "I just cannot believe she committed suicide. My therapist sais that's denial. I'm having therapy twice a week, not that it makes any fucking difference. I'd be snaffling Valium like Lady Bristow if I could still design when I'm on it, but I tried it the week after Cuckoo died and I was like a zombie".
The essence of the crime is wrapped up neatly and the reader is left satisfied that Cormoran and Robin will live to uncover another mystery. I can't say if I would have enjoyed this novel as much if I was reading under the notion that it was a debut author, although my instinct tells me that Cormoran Strike would have stood out on his own merit. We'll never know. J K Rowling's stamp is on it now, and in reality it doesn't matter how well it is written, such is Rowling's enviably powerful brand.

Friday, 1 August 2014

Book Review: 'The Tea Chest' by Josephine Moon

The Tea ChestI picked up a copy of the 2014 release 'The Tea Chest' by Australian writer Josephine Moon in my quest to read more contemporary women's fiction, because of its lovely cover art, and lastly because I am a die-hard tea drinker.  The novel didn't disappoint in its immersion into the world of tea making. This pleasant piece of fiction revolves around four women who are brought together by various circumstance to open a tea shop in the high end shopping district of London. At the opening of the story we find Kate, a hippy tea designer from Queensland, has inherited a half share in the tea company her boss Simone founded: Kate had caught entrepreneur Simone's attention with her tea stall at the local markets and had helped build the franchise in Australia. Now Simone had passed and left Kate with the daunting but exciting task of expanding into the most demanding tea market short of China - England. With the support of her husband back at home, and her newly hired business consultant Leila tagging along to London, Kate finds herself facing the world of big business and worries that she is out of her depth. Along the way, Kate and Leila meet sisters Elizabeth and Victoria, who with their local knowledge of London, help give a derelict shop a few licks of paint to create an absolutely gorgeous sounding tea emporium:
"But the piece de resistance was the part that was closest to Kate's heart. It was a series of window boxes growing plants that served as an interactive tea-making centre. They could be seen through the windows from the footpath and would entice people in off the streets. Here, customers could pick their own ingredients, including mint, lavender, rose petals, dandelion petals and lemongrass, and The Tea Chest staff would make them their own tea design right there in the store, then they could sit in one of the welcoming spots to sip it".
The strength of Moon's novel is the charming descriptions of the 'Tea Chest' business itself - I desperately wanted to visit the shop myself and wished it existed, such was the power of those passages. Moon knows her tea, and clearly has a passion for the subject.
The plot ambled along and there was some gentle humour in  the side stories involving Elizabeth and Victoria's slightly whacky family life. I thought Moon's dialogue realistic and appreciated the insightful relationship painted between Kate and her husband Mark as they negotiated the stressful financial decisions in starting up a risky business. It was refreshing to read a contemporary women's novel concerning itself with the impact of career on women's lives rather than merely their love interests. Unfortunately, the rather naive way the women approached the finances of the business was slightly off kilter but necessary to the plot, and only slightly detracted from the realism of the piece. 'The Tea Chest' was a pleasure to read, and will certainly be a hit with all the book club tea aficionados.

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