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!

Wednesday, 24 September 2014

Book Review: 'In Certain Circles' by Elizabeth Harrower (No 10: Fiction)

In Certain Circles

Every now and again, I’ll read a novel and be overwhelmed in a couple of pages by the assuredness of the writing. This was one such novel. There was a great deal of buzz when Text Publishing released Elizabeth Harrower’s 1966 novel ‘The Watchtower’ and the ABC Book Club reviewed it, piquing my interest. Harrower only released four novels, all critically acclaimed in the 50s and 60s, although in the 70s and 80s she continued to write short fiction. This fifth novel was written in the late sixties but Harrower withdrew it from its intended publication in 1971: Text Publishing have released it now this year. It is extraordinarily crafted. I felt keen to keep returning to it and finish it, despite the fact that there is not a great deal of dramatic action within the plot. The novel revolves around five people, whose lives have been deeply intertwined since their teenaged years. Zoe and her brother Russell are from a wealthy, educated Sydney family: at the beginning of the novel, we see Russell returned from the war and settling back into life with his fiancée Lily, also from a well-to-do family. Zoe is finishing school, smart as a whip, and a cool patrician beauty to match. From the first page we are introduced to orphaned brother and sister, Stephen and Anna, who Russell has collected like stray puppies and taken under his wing. The class divide is set up between the two groups, and the omniscient narrator explores the complexity of understanding between those who ‘have’ in life, and those who ‘have not’.
Harrower articulates the inner life of women so well, and a range of women, not just one type. Zoe’s complicated relationship with Stephen is such a sophisticated portrait of a marriage in which a man controls a seemingly uncontrollable woman:
‘From riding the crest of the wave, from taming tigers, she had turned into this new thing – a suppliant, but a suppliant with a purpose: all to be well with Stephen. She had fallen through him into the universe, into her real self. Yet he was only free spasmodically, as though secret jailers had him secretly imprisoned somewhere, releasing and confining and tormenting according to some erratic timetable of their own’.
The question of work is explored in the novel as well, for both the male and female characters; the character of Lily, while a bit overdone at times, was most poignant when held in relation to her depression at her children leaving home. There was a passage about women living only for their children or marriage and giving up their working lives that I found so breath taking, especially given the time when Harrower was writing:
‘What I do understand is that at any point in a woman’s life she may come across something like a cement pyramid in the middle of the road. Another person. People. She’s capable of sitting there, convinced that it would be impossible to forsake her position, till it becomes a private Thermopylae. This sort of block was probably designed for the survival of our species, but the cost’s high. What makes men superior is that they don’t – on the whole – stop functioning forever because of another person. They lack this built-in handicap, and are they lucky!’
I’m sure Harrower’s generation felt this sentiment as keenly as our own generation, still grappling with maintaining one’s identity, but it is impressive to see it in print in the sixties, and so insightfully articulated.
Despite the beautifully formal dialogue and references to the war, this novel could be placed at any time. The setting really could have been anywhere as well, but there are enough pleasing references to Sydney to give this Australian novel the feeling of home:
‘Zoe had wakened in this square stone house on the north side of Sydney Harbour, and learned soon afterwards from her family and their friends that she was remarkable. There was a big garden. There were people of her own size for company. At the end of the short street of old houses in long-established gardens was a white curved beach with rocks, rock pools, very small waves, shells, pebbles, fine sand. She swam before she walked’.
This is the second Text Publishing re-release that I have read: I reviewed and enjoyed Madeleine St John’s novel ‘The Women in Black’ from the same period in Sydney. I salute Text for valuing what has gone before us, what women have contributed to literature, and keeping alive a love for Australian writing. I’ll be reading more.

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


Sunday, 21 September 2014

Book Review: 'The Feel-Good Hit Of The Year' by Liam Pieper (No 9: Memoir)

FeelGoodHit CoverDespite the at times dark nature of Liam Pieper's memoir of his childhood through twenties in Melbourne, I found 'The Feel-Good Hit Of The Year' a joy to read. It is self deprecating, honest and ultimately a celebration of  youth when so many of us think we are much harder and tougher than the reality of our suburban meekness. It is true though that Pieper's suburban childhood deviated from the norm in that Pieper's parents originally lived in a commune style set up in a dilapidated manor house in Melbourne's south-east, and smoked a lot of pot. This is where we get the great pun of the title, and indeed Pieper and his two brothers, one younger and one older, started at an early age emulating their parents:
'We were about twelve when, on a sleepover, we stole some of Ardian's weed and rolled it into a clumsy joint. Together, Sam and I stuck our eager little faces out of the bedroom window and passed the blunt back and forth, watching as the smoke billowed out into the night and the universe opened up for us. Suddenly we understood all those foreign, esoteric, grown up things that until now we'd only pretended to like: art-house movies, anime, jam bands, endless guitar solos. Getting high was like finding out a pamphlet that explained how to get the most out of our leisure time, and that was all we did for the next couple of years'.
Before long, Pieper was selling at first marijuna at school, and then pills and so forth on a larger scale as 'business' took off. Absurdly, Pieper started selling to his own parents who I suppose correctly, found it more comfortable to buy in their own home, rather than from say, a seedy person in a back alleyway:
'So helping Mum and Dad to score was ideal, as far as I could see, although it made negotiating pocket money awkward. I thought I should get more as I was dealing to them at cost price, but they didn't see it that way. In the end, I took it as an overhead'.
However, the memoir is not all laughs and gentle jibes at hippy parents. Pieper clearly adores his parents but doesn't exactly sugarcoat his descriptions of their often lax parenting, and the trajectory of his beloved older brother Ardian's life to heroin addiction is poignantly stated. Pieper doesn't set out to make any judgements on drug use in his memoir but plenty is said between the lines.
The highlights of 'The Feel-Good Hit Of The Year' are the comic mishaps whenever Pieper was involved with the police and the raid of his house when he was in his twenties was fun to read (even if it was terrible for the author at the time):
'Just before he grabbed me, I caught a flash of the Lacoste logo on his shirt and my heart sank. I'm not sure when or why the undercover officers of the world decided that the mid-tier designer polo was the cloak of urban invisibility, but every time a cop has sprung out of the shadows at me, it's always been there, faithful as a hound, that fucking crocodile'.
Don't be fooled that this memoir is some stoner rambling of redemption; Pieper is an intelligent and insightful writer. During his years selling, he was having short stories published in literary journals: it just happened though, that his life story was the story that would bring him the most recognition. I highly recommend this memoir.

Monday, 15 September 2014

Book Review: 'Wildlife' by Fiona Wood (No 8: YA)

Fiona Wood’s 2013 novel ‘Wildlife’ was recently awarded the Children’s Book Council of Australia ‘Book of the Year’. It is a nicely crafted YA novel, narrated in first person from the perspective of two characters, sixteen year old Sibylla and Lou. Both girls attend Crowthorne Grammar, and both are about to embark on the school’s outdoor education camp for a whole term: an activity intended to give the city kids a taste of roughing it in the wilderness and finding independence away from parents and normal school routine. We begin the novel with the clever and generally shy Sibylla being roped by her godmother into modeling for an advertising campaign. She becomes the talk of the school and the action goes from there as Sibylla is thrown headfirst into the ‘cool group’ and her first romance with Ben, the school’s most popular guy. Sibylla is articulate and grounded from her upbringing by her sensible doctor mother, but of course she has all the usual worries of a sixteen year old: ‘My virginity does not feel like some wondrous thing I will one day bestow on a lucky boy; it’s more in the realm of something I need to get rid of, like braces, before my real life can begin’.
Fiona Wood - WildlifeLou is a more mysterious character, new to the school and regularly seeing the school counselor. Lou has recently lost her boyfriend to a fatal bike accident, and she’s looking for a fresh start, but still unwilling to ‘just forget’ the deep love she had for her ‘Fred’. In the novel, she pens him letters and speaks beautifully and honestly of her still raw grief:
‘But in reality, I’m stuck Fred. Stuck at stage-three grief, or is it four? Hating myself, and angry at you. Maybe there’s also a bit of five, or is it six, in the mix? Depressions. But no sign yet of six, or is it seven? Realisation. Testing New Reality. No. Just missing you’.
Supporting these protagonists is Sibylla’s best friend Holly who typifies the ‘frenemy’ figure; Sibylla’s childhood friend Michael, an unusual and clever boy; and Ben, Mr Nice Guy on the surface but fairly one dimensional as a boyfriend. Wood portrays the manipulative nature of Holly well, and she is a recognisable figure to any female. Michael is a bit more clichéd as the ‘Asperger’s style’ outsider, but he has a nicely drawn arc towards the end of the novel.
Wood explores more confronting issues than general in ‘Wildlife’ and I thought she dealt with sexuality very well from a mature teenager’s perspective. Her treatment of Lou also surpassed the cliché of the outsider, and I felt Lou’s grief was realistic and empathetic.
The language of ‘Wildlife’ is pitched well and is appropriately contemporary. Both Lou and Sibylla are very likeable and both have a wry sense of humour when describing the camp and their peers: ‘Our menstrual cycles are slowly converging. Six starting-to-overlap waves of PMS is a lot to deal with under one roof. God help us all when we’ve got PMS at the same time. We’ll have a genre leap from ‘coming of age’ to ‘schlock horror’. Hide the knives. I can see the crime-scene tape now’.
The best moments of the novel are the scenes where the characters venture out for their solitary overnight experience in the bush. The descriptions of their fear felt in the threatening landscape but also their appreciation of its peaceful beauty are lovely passages: ‘It was quiet but for my puffed breathing and a wheeling spray of rosellas. I got up, legs trembling and started looking around. There was a pond, and it was full of fresh water after all the rain…Black sun spots burnt into the red of my closed eyelids when I blinked. I filled my hat with water and put it back on.’ Other insights in the novel are references to literature, ‘I mean, hats off to Shakespeare, her certainly lays it on the line, talk about life lessons in the odd unhappy ending. It felt so theoretical with Romeo and Juliet, though, didn’t it? And a bit silly. Kind of avoidable. Too coincidental. So much swings on shitty timing. But, silly us, so much does swing on shitty timing. If you’d left a bit earlier. If you’d left a bit later. Stop it. Bite down. Stop biting.’ I thought the allusion to Iago with Holly’s character was a great touch.
My only concern with ‘Wildlife’ was that personally I found it hard at times to differentiate between Lou and Sibylla’s voices, and they were perhaps a bit too similar but that could just be my reading. I can certainly see why this novel won the award: it’s entertaining, relatable and very perceptive.  

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


Sunday, 7 September 2014

Book Review: 'Have You Seen Simone?' by Virginia Peters (No 7: True Crime)

Virginia Peters’ 2014 book ‘Have You Seen Simone?’ would be classified by booksellers as true crime but to say it is strictly in that genre would be incorrect. Unlike the majority of true crime writers, Peters does not have a journalist or police background: she is a mother and a fiction writer who, by her own admission, was led to investigate this 2005 Ballina crime after being haunted by the photo of German backpacker Simone Strobel pinned to the wall in her local café. The missing person poster caught her eye one morning over coffee:
Have You Seen Simone?‘Whoever had made this poster had kept it simple. A parent would have been more pleading, I thought. I wondered whose number it was – a friend’s? A lover’s? I went back to my coffee and paper, scanning the pages for news, only to find my eyes returning to the counter. There was something interesting about this girl, the vulnerability of her stance, the way her arms hung loosely at her sides’.
And so started Peters’ six or so year obsession with finding out how Simone Strobel had come to her death in a Ballina caravan park, possibly by asphyxiation but even that has never been clear from the autopsy examination. Like my previously reviewed ‘Murder In Mississipi’ by John Safran, this crime has never been resolved, emphasized repeatedly by Peters’ in the text, as recent litigation by Simone’s boyfriend Tobias Suckfuell (and suspect in the case) declaring defamation has hampered the release of the book. Much like Safran’s text, Peters’ is dogged in wanting to ‘solve’ the crime, as much as a writer can, and in fact, Peters’ is given much more free reign with witnesses and police files than Safran received from the US in his particular case.
The subtitle of this text, ‘The Story of an Unsolved Murder’ is telling given the use of the word ‘story’: this is very much a narrative of the author’s journey following the case rather than a strict retelling of a court case or police investigation.  We learn little about Simone, even very little from the conversations transcribed from Simone’s family after Peters’ takes the extraordinary move to travel many times to Germany to interview all the key players. Whether she was unable to get a handle on the true Simone, or whether it was not the main focus Peters’ wanted to take, it is not until the end of the book that Peters includes Simone’s last letter to her parents. It is poignant reading given that we are left hanging without any resolution to what happened to this lovely young woman.
Essentially, Peters’ journey is about finding her place as a writer, finding her place as a working woman after being at home for several years with three children, and it is also about being a daughter to her aging mother. The most heart-felt parts of the book are Peters’ interactions with her mother, who was the catalyst for attending the Strobel / Suckfuell inquiry in Lismore: Peters’ mother had always enjoyed attending court hearings in Sydney, taking her daughter when she was a teenager. Her mother acted as a sounding board during this investigation and like two amateur sleuths they nutted out over pots of tea possible motivations, wondered over inconsistent stories. At the inquiry, a court attendant asked after their interest in the case: ‘My interest? The word ssemed to connote some form of ownership or share, not the sort of interest that had nothing to do with anything. ‘I’m a student,’ I said. Then, noticing my mother had sidled up, I added, ‘And, um, this is my mother’. He gave a diplomatic nod, as if ‘mother and daughter’ explained everything.’
After also telling a reporter there that she was writing about the case, Peters felt committed and this book became her PhD creative writing project.
I felt the best writing in ‘Have You Seen Simone’ was Peters writing about the mother of the Strobel , Suckfuell and her own mother, who fell ill during the writing of the book:
‘I looked across and saw our two figures in the bathroom mirror, stooped awkwardly over her enormous tumour, our heads resting in the hollow of each other’s neck, an apex teetering on collapse. Up until then we’d been treating dying as a new and slightly macabre adventure on which we were both embarking. But now we were at the point of no return’.
Peters also reflects on her transition from writing short pieces drawn from her domestic world, to this larger scale human drama, and she shows insight into the interrelationship between fiction and non-fiction:
‘But real life didn’t work like fiction; after weeks working on a story based on my own experiences, I knew that better than anyone. Real life did have a predictability about it, an ordinariness that was totally unsuited to the twists of fiction. Consequently, the story I was writing – about a woman who was lost, in a metaphorical sense – was going nowhere, and it seemed trivial in comparison to this real situation unfolding in Lismore, where a girl was truly lost, and probably through no fault of her own.’
She is also unrelentingly honest about the more questionable aspects of her life during the writing of this book and I found her admission of petty resentments when dealing with an interpreter, naivety when dealing with Channel 7 producers who were also chasing Suckfuell, and her tension with her family as this case takes over her time, refreshing. The families of the Germans quite rightly questioned why Peters was so interested in the case: of Simone’s sister in law, ‘She was suspicious of me – she had every right to be, I realised, because even I was suspicious of me. Why the hell had I come here? I muttered something about the worthiness of my project, but with little conviction’. Certainly, Peters’ objectivity as an ‘investigator’ and writer were compromised during the years but she is frank in that regard:
‘No wonder that, as I sat down to write, I was feeling a little worried about objectivity, and concerned about how I could write my way out of this story. It didn’t help that my PhD supervisor had written me an email suggesting, as Cass Brennan had, that I might be writing my book through a veil of guilt, even though he’d not yet read anything I’d written’.
This is a hard book to pin down because I wouldn’t say it had enough substance in it to please diehard fans of the true crime genre but it was an intriguing book nonetheless and an interesting insight into a writer’s craft. As for Simone Strobel herself: it is clear that the incidents of extreme violence against women are reaching alarming levels in this country and she is yet another senseless tragedy in our recent history.

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