I know a book is weaving its particular spell when I become irritated by one of its characters. It means I have already forgotten that this character is fictional and instead believe I have caught glimpses of her, usually in a mirror.
This is certainly the case with Nora Eldridge, a primary school teacher of a certain age who had nursed her mother until she died and continues to feel duty bound towards her father. I notice that one reviewer of the book commented that she would not like to be Nora’s friend but she is exactly the kind of woman one meets and regards with a mixture of compassion and exasperation. St Jane of Austen also aimed to create a character whom none of her readers would like. However, Emma Woodhouse is too bouncy by half because she is young and over –protected. One of the delights of that novel is that Emma loses a great deal of her irritating complacency over the course of the story when reality breaks through.
Despite her career as a primary teacher, Nora’s life is not populated by fluffy kittens or witty toads but a bitterness and regret about her own loss of courage in fulfilling her dream of being an artist. She retreated from all the risks of trying to survive in New York, earned the “sensible” teaching degree and finds herself in her home town. Nora’s inner voice begins the book declaiming her rage in a particularly salty-tongued manner. I assumed her rage was directed at the realisation of what she has done to her life.
However, the real source of her anger is not revealed until the final pages where the level of her betrayal is so genuinely, heartlessly cruel that this reader, at least, was cursing right along with her. She is betrayed by a beautiful, breath-takingly glamorous family who arrive in town for a year. Reza, the exquisite son of the family, arrives in Nora’s class. She subsequently meets Reza’s parents and is complete thrall to all of them. The friendship between Nora and Sirena, Reza’s mother, seems to offer Nora a second chance because they rent a studio, large enough for them to create their works in comfort and privacy. Sirena is preparing for a major exhibition in Paris while Nora constructs miniature rooms of doomed creative women. My heart sank when one of her subjects was Emily Dickinson!
From this promising relationship and growing hope comes Nora’s greatest suffering as the treasured friendship is revealed to be a matter of convenience and boredom for Sirena, and a brief amusement for her exotic husband. Even the beautiful Reza grows into a spotty, lurching adolescent.
We wonder what the rest of Nora’s life will be as she lives with painfully acquired knowledge. By the end of the book, I too had changed: I had moved from tetchiness at the accuracy of the portrait of a teacher of a certain age to deep admiration at the heat and energy of Nora’s wonderful rage.
Review by Suzanne O’Connor
Despite what I consider to be subtle manipulations worthy of Walsingham, I am yet to be a grandmother. On the Sundays when the Potts Point Mother and Sons and Assorted Camp Followers Association meets, I gently enquire, after I have softened them up with a cassoulet and a red plum crumble (with optional crème fraiche), if anyone has established his fertility this past week.
After reading Welcome to Your New Life by Anna Goldsworthy, I now have a book that will be wonderfully apt as a prize for whichever of my boys enables me to take on the role for which I am so well qualified.
Ms Goldsworthy probably does not realise the wonderful power of her first book, Piano Lessons. When it was first published, I read it with great pleasure, partly because of its connection to Peter Goldsworthy’s Maestro and partly because of its being beautifully written. I gave into an impulse (a habit I recommend) and passed on my copy to a Year 12 student who was very fragile. She was studying music for the HSC and there was much in the memoir that reassured her. The student succeeded wonderfully in her examinations and she, her parents and I remain convinced it was the book that freed her from her disabling anxiety.
This new memoir begins with the astonishment of the author at her pregnancy. However, her partner and her extended family are delighted with the surprise. Soon after, Goldsworthy becomes exposed to the politics of pregnancy and child birth: the compulsory acquisition of equipment and doulas and other bourgeois accoutrements.
And of course the adoption of particular point of view such as the assertion that pain in labour is a social construct. Anna Goldsworthy is astute enough to regard this particular belief with some doubt, although she is far too polite to mention this doubt to the strident “expert” who is some months more advanced in her pregnancy.
Although it is difficult to do well, Goldsworthy writes directly to her baby without slushiness but with a very clear sense of wonder as her child develops. She also has a wicked sense of humour which helps her deal not only with bossy people but see the absurdity of much of what is happening to her and her body.
The labour which does actually involve pain and other social constructs is only part of the completely new life. The responsibility for another human being is quite unimaginable until you have experienced it and she is very honest about that and her balancing of her musical career with her motherhood. She is clearly fortunate in both her partner and her extended family and she is appreciative of all the support she is given.
This memoir would be a great and reassuring gift to any pregnant couple – it is honest, funny, wry, informative and written in shortish chapters appropriate to those in the later months of pregnancy when being involved in urinations seems to be a fulltime occupation.
By Suzanne O’Connor
With a new Mercy Thompson novel, Frost Burned, due out in March I thought it was time to review this addictive series.
Let me preface this review by saying that I read a lot of sc-fi and fantasy but also a lot of non-fiction, literary fiction and memoirs. I do not consider myself a paranormal romance fan (whenever I try the genre I barely make it 50 pages in) but I love, and I mean LOVE, the Mercy Thompson series of novels by Patricia Briggs.
Urban fantasy novels have an immediate feel to them- they may have vampires and werewolves- but they happen in your time and place. Mercy Thompson is a VW mechanic who can also change into a coyote although she is not a werewolf and doesn’t have any superpowers. Of course every book she gets herself embroiled in some kind of mystery involving vampires, werewolves or the magical fae. The mystery aspect keeps you turning the pages long after you should have turned the lights out and gone to bed. Mercy’s mix of attitude and soft heart make her easy to like and to root for. The romance is not too heavy but it is also tempered by Mercy’s desire to retain her independence no matter who she eventually chooses which creates some good tension without the swooning and loss of identity and dignity associated with the Twilight series. As with all good books there are some laugh out loud moments (which usually happen on the bus with a mouth full of coffee).
Like I said, I LOVE these novels and I can’t wait to read the next one.
Review by Kat Lamb.
A young Englishwoman named Liese Campbell has accepted an invitation from a wealthy
grazier, Alexander Colquhoun, to spend a weekend at his property on the plains beneath
Victoria’s Grampians. She carries with her a suitcase full of expensive underwear and a letter
that promises a substantial sum of cash for her time.
The Engagement is narrated in the first person by Liese; it is her viewpoint we are asked
to trust. What she tells us is that until recently she has worked as a London based interior
architect. When the global financial crisis hits she is faced with mounting debts and is
retrenched. We meet her in Melbourne, where she has found work in her uncle’s real estate
business. Her task is to show potential renters expensive inner-city properties.
In a series of flashbacks we are guided through her early encounters with Alexander, who
has been looking for a place to buy in the city. After failing to sell him a number of city
apartments, a mutually satisfying relationship develops between them and the private
viewings instead become the site of paid sexual trysts. In other people’s homes while
the occupants are out, they play out fantasies. It’s a game, a sexual game, both players
understand the rules. Or so Liese thinks.
The novel begins after these encounters have been carrying on for a while. When Liese flags
her impending departure back to London, the infatuated Alexander names a large sum of
money to entice Liese to spend three nights at his country property.
The author Chloe Hooper plays cleverly with the grand tradition of the Gothic novel; the
arrival at Alexander’s family estate summons up images of the decaying mansions in classic
tales such as Jane Eyre. Surrounded by mountains and bushland, the once stately family
home is now going to ruin, unoccupied except for Alexander and his dogs, rooms filled with
another woman’s possessions, the smell of musty, locked doors and an overgrown, once
Once they arrive Liese starts to have feelings of trepidation, which grow stronger. The game
has changed. Liese thought they both understood the rules but it seems as though Alexander
has introduced his own fantasies to the point where Liese doesn’t know what game she’s
playing, or if it’s even a game at all.
Hooper veils the narrative in uneasiness and there is a steady build up of threat in the
mysterious, anonymous letters allegedly sent to Alexander in which Liese’s sexual past is
detailed. Without a way to escape, Liese finds herself trapped, a pawn in Alexander’s fantasy
that he’s now playing. In turn, she has been complicit in her own entrapment.
Chloe Hooper has created in The Engagement a psychological thriller that deals with sex,
power and money. Whilst written to expertly build the tension with beautiful images and
wonderful descriptions of regional Victoria and the farm setting, I found it hard, at times, to
identify with Liese and her reaction to the situation she found herself in.
The Engagement is a story where you question everything – who is writing the letters? Which
of them is sane and which is lying? Even the ending left me wondering.
Beautifully written, The Engagement is worth making time for.
Reviewed by Annie Chapman
During the hot, still days of December, I constructed a pile of books I had begun to read but did not
feel inclined to finish. Perhaps this was a karmic punishment for writing one too many school reports which included comments such as “Rainbow has not been able to engage with the more challenging mandatory texts during Semester 2.” Forgive me my jargon but that ,too, is mandatory.
However, on Christmas Eve, the cosmic curse was lifted when I picked up a copy of Kafka on the Shore which seemed to have promise because of the cover illustration of a cat elegantly twining itself across the front and back but the blurb described the novel as having a “surreal scope”; I sighed in a jaded manner.
I should have saved my sighs because I have inhaled the novel in two days, allowing time for the family Christmas feast and my uncharacteristic desire NOT to finish because I did not want to leave the world of a fifteen year old runaway and a remarkable old man who is a force for unalloyed goodness. Murakami has the two stories running in parallel until they touch each other towards the end of the book. These two characters are strange and loveable, what they think, say and do is wise and always interesting.
The boy calls himself “Kafka” and is as alienated as his adopted name. He lives in great wealth and loneliness – his father is slightly sinister and usually absent; he has only faint memories of his sister and mother. Nakata, the old man, has some sort of disability caused by a mysterious childhood event BUT he can converse with cats and this enables him to retrieve lost pets.
When fish and leeches fall from the sky, your reviewer would usually roll her eyes in a movement perfected during her adolescence in the last century. However, by this stage, I was so enchanted by Murakmi’s writing, I accepted these events as perfectly reasonable. I was equally open to time travelling and sleep walking sexual encounters. If I dare criticise any aspect of the book it is the language in which Kafka describes his carnal experiences. But then, he is a fifteen year old boy.
Another layer of this wonderful book is the references to eastern and western cultures, both popular, historical and literary. None of this is laboured but woven apparently effortlessly into the fabric of the narrative. I am particularly delighted to note that the two most unpleasant and sleazy characters are man who enjoys dressing up as Johnny Walker and an essence who takes the form of Colonel Sanders. Johnny Walker dominates the chapter in which he kills and consumes cat body parts and this is the one chapter I chose not to read.
Of course this is a superb HSC text for Belonging and even Into the World when, for example, Kafka spends a short time in a place after death, a sort of simply but tastefully decorated Limbo. However, it is also a book to read as an experience of sheer pleasure and excitement.
Reviewed by Suzanne O’Connor
Yesterday was a hot and steamy December day which I decreed would be a lying around and gobbling a book time. The perfect unseasonal selection was this memoir. I recently discovered Jack Gantos by reading his very black, very comic novel, Dead End in Norvelt, which has already gone back on to the College’s library shelves. I researched his other books, some of which are either not age or subject appropriate. In an act of financial irresponsibility I actually purchased this book after a challenging search online (Apologies to all beloved independent book sellers but sometimes my addiction defeats my loyalty).
Jack Gantos was a fairly lack lustre student, so when his parents decided to move yet again in search of work to Puerto Rica from Florida, he happily left high school and went with them. After some time working with his father on construction jobs, he returned to Florida to finish his secondary education. He had a disastrous experience sharing with a family, then lived in a shabby motel, worked part-time and graduated. By then, he knew he wanted to be a writer but was unsure how that was to come about because he believed his life to be unworthy as a subject. He returned to his parents and the flourishing drug culture of St-Croix. Obviously, his own excursion into drugs had begun to affect his reasoning because he was very excited about accepting $10,000 to help sail a yacht from St Croix to New York. Unsurprisingly, the boat was packed with drugs.
His recounting of the expedition and the subsequent selling of the drugs is a description of ineptitude and criminal stupidity, and is very funny. However, he has already warned us that the Three Stooges of drug smuggling are caught, so the comedy is affected by our awareness of the result. Gantos is arrested by the FBI and sentenced to two years in a Federal prison in Kentucky.
The comment by his lawyer is that he is lucky that he was not arrested by state police because the prisons are so much worse!
His time in gaol is grim but, again, he is fortunate that he does eventually have his own cell because he volunteers to become an x-ray technician kept busy with taking images of the violent injuries the prisoners inflict on each other. It is while he is in prison that he begins to reflect and mature, and make decisions about the rest of his life.
Gantos is to be admired for his honesty and the work he has done since leaving prison: talking to young people about making decisions and the results and consequences of these decisions. His acerbic sense of humour seems to have helped him endure the unendurable. He is unflinching in telling us how many people suffered because of his choices. He also faces the reality of what impact drug dealing has on families of the dealer and the purchaser.
I would recommend this book for HSC students for Belonging, Into the World and Conflicting Perspectives. I would also make it mandatory for those sixteen year olds who fondly imagine that they are:
- Free to act in whatever ways they want
- Are exempt from days of reckoning
Reviewed by Suzanne O’Connor
Reading this delightful novel was almost a Proustian experience because I did believe I had those memories but if I had actually had them, I would have been an exceptionally precocious foetus. When the War Came is about the home front during World War 2, in the voice of a young girl who moves with her mother from Penshurst to Kings Cross to share her grandmother’s flat while her father is at war.
The author appears on the back cover in a charming photograph, being carried in what the caption describes as a “Javanese market basket”. This was Vashti Farrer’s mother’s solution to the “pram shortage”. I believed I knew all about the home front because I was direct result of World War 2, slept under Army blankets and was frequently injured by the clumsy Army-issue collapsible stretcher which appeared when we had overnight guests. I had listened so closely to all the stories my parents and their friends told each other that I believed I had been there but this book reminds that I was not.
As a long -time resident of Kings Cross, I had the excitement of place recognition: Sally goes to DarlinghurstPrimary School and the street names make the story even more authentic. For this , among other reasons, this book will be an excellent addition to the College library for students of Australian History. Vashti Farrer has woven the personal story of Sally and her family into the factual information about the massive impact of changes on civilian life: her mother is in paid employment for the first time since her marriage, partly to avoid working in a munitions factory and partly to help support er family. Sally’s father is captured after the Fall of Singapore and there is no word from him for three long years.
The language of the characters is pitch perfect. Describing a man as a “cove” brought back a flood of verbal memories. Some of the photographs in the text were familiar but many were not. Many had come from the richness of the archives of the Australian War Memorial which, in my experience, is staffed by endlessly helpful and enthusiastic people.
Although in comparison to many families in Europe and Asia, the Australian home front did not see the extremes of suffering, there was still sadness. The students of St Vincent’s College attend the Kuttabel memorial services annually and are always awe-truck by just how close the war came to some people. I enjoyed the irony of Sally’s puzzlement about lack of information about the Darwin bombing, an excellent example of war-time censorship. The return of Sally’s father from Changi is written with restraint and compassion and even here, Farrer’s careful research is evident. The were no ecstatic dockside reunions because of the physical and mental fragility of the survivors.
I was praising When the War Came to my ninety-three year old mother who was there and was struck by examples of rationing and regulations she had not thought of for decades. It strikes me that book would be informative to upper primary students, assist junior secondary students with their research and stimulate lots of interesting reminisces from that stoic and extraordinary generation who there.
Reviewed by Suzanne O’Connor
Libba Bray’s Going Bovine is written from the viewpoint of 16 year old American teenager Cameron Smith. Cameron is a lazy, aimless teen, a social misfit who suffers from constant comparisons to his popular, cheerleader twin sister. The highlight of Cameron’s day is smoking joints in the school toilets with his other social misfit, geeky friends.
That is until Cameron is given the bad news that he has Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, better known as Mad Cow Disease and he’s going to die. While in hospital Cameron is visited by Dulcie a punk angel wearing combat boots. Dulcie persuades him that if he can find a certain Dr. X, he can be cured. That’s when Cameron heads out on a mission to save himself and the world.
Cameron’s quest, the heart of the story, has many parallels to the great Don Quixote, which Cameron had been studying at school before contracting his fatal illness. On his travels, he takes one of his dope smoking mates, a hypochondriac dwarf video game master named Gonzo. Along the way he picks up a Nordic God in the form of a talking garden gnome and encounters all sorts of odd people who help or hinder his mission.
The central themeof Going Bovine is to live life to the fullest and not let yourself simply exist. Going Bovine is a mix of philosophy and fantasy. Cameron’s trip, (a drug induced hallucination, or is it?) is at times crazy, wild, hilarious and tragic.
By the middle of the book the plot began to drag, it becomes jam packed full of modern cliches about everything. Cameron isn’t a particularly likeable character and at times Bray tries too hard to make her character witty and sarcastic. The heavy handed doses of satire quickly pass from being quirky to simply annoying.
Going Bovine is a hopeful and humorous soul searching journey. A road trip whose destination is both inevitable and somehow unexpected, I was pleased Bray did not shy away from the ending which is sobering.
Classed as a young adult novel Going Bovine deals with mature questions about life, death, everything in between and what matters most.
Review by Annie Chapman
Publishing status: ACTIVE
Author: BRAY LIBBA
Title: Going Bovine
Imprint: Allen & Unwin
Publication date: 01/02/2010
This wonderfully creepy line caused a collective shudder to ripple through my Year Nine class on a muggy Friday afternoon. With parental permission, we had begun a film study of Psycho and Hitchcock’s spell was completely cast over the usually jaded adolescents. They recognised the ominous tone in this apparently positive statement.
In contrast, Will Schwalbe could make this same statement and we would gently smile and probably want to pat him. Schwalbe’s mother announced to her husband and adult children that she had pancreatic cancer and would have about another year to live. The family divides the duties amongst themselves and the author is the one who goes with his mother when she is being treated with chemotherapy. They decide to begin a book club for two in which they will discuss and re-read past favourites as well as explore new books chosen by either one.
A book about books is always a delight to read.
As well as the book suggestions that can be taken from this memoir, there is also the experience of a parent and child with a strong connection. In fact, Schwalbe presents us with a warm and connected family who not only love each other but obviously like each other as well. Part of their shared courage is the way in which they focus on helping their beloved wife and mother spend a special time with her many friends: she had spent decades not only serving on boards but also living and working with refugees in many crisis points around the world.
The portrait that emerges of Mary Anne Scwalbe is detailed: she was a woman who had a pleasant existence behind which she could have chosen to shelter. However, as her son recounts, she greeted every new person she met with an open smile and a matching attitude. In this way, she enriched the lives of others as well as her own. She also chose to visit dangerous places around the world, not as a tourist but as a human being who was willing to work at any task in any refugee camp. She had a deep faith that the author did not share but their mutual respect allowed them to accept their differences.
These are most certainly people one would welcome to a dinner party. There would be lots of humour and warmth and interesting discussion about social justice and dying and challenges to beliefs. Both the author and his sister are gay and it is typical of their family that they and their partners and children are part of the family circle as well as their much more sedate and conventional novel.
Obviously, for HSC students in 2013, this would be an excellent text for Belonging. I think it would also be an excellent Christmas selection for people you know love reading. They can feel smug about the books they have already read, consider the comments about them and also create a list of other books that must be acquired during January, 2013, when we all have time to meander through lots of books.
Review by Suzanne O’Connor
Format: Trade Paperback
Publishing status: ACTIVE
Author: WILL SCHWALBE
Title: End of Your Life Book Club
Imprint: HODDER & STOUGHTON
Publication date: 11/10/2012