Sunday, 14 July 2019

Book Spotlight: Fabulous Lives by Bindy Pritchard

A Book Spotlight is not a review but a feature of a book by a person I know and admire.

In Perth author Bindy Pritchard's debut collection of short stories, the ordinary is turned extraordinary by degrees. Pritchard's characters, all of whom are dealing with situations that test them in some way, are confronted with the magical, the frightening, and the down right impossible, and even occasionally manage to see the miraculous in the mundane.

The first of the sixteen stories, titled 'The Shape of Things', is the story of Leonie, a woman who finds a young, naked man lying on the ground outside her apartment who may or may not be a fallen angel. In 'The Bees of Paris', Louise befriends a woman with a curious hobby after witnessing her falling off the roof of the apartment across the street and is drawn further into her life than perhaps she would like. In 'The Egg', Bryant discovers his own capacity for greed is larger than he would have hoped after his son and a friend discover a curious and possibly valuable object while out playing. And in 'In Memoriam', two very different family members are brought together by loss and find acceptance in each others' company.

It is hard to believe that this is Bindy Pritchard's first book, as the stories within are tightly crafted and convey their messages with great subtlety. The meaning of each piece can be simply what happens on the page, but if one cares to read deeply, there are layers of meaning and symbolism to be unpeeled. This is clearly a collection that has been written by someone who loves to read, and books, writing, and literature all make their way into the worlds of the stories. Her characters are multifaceted, and often manipulative and highly flawed, meaning that the collection showcases a full range of human interaction in an extremely satisfying way.

It is an accomplished collection, and one to either savour and read slowly, or devour in a day as I did. Whichever way you read it, it's one to read again and again.

Fabulous Lives is available from all good bookstores, or direct from the publisher, Margaret River Press. 

Sunday, 7 July 2019

Book Review: The Forgotten Letters of Esther Durrant

The Forgotten Letters of Esther Durrant
Kayte Nunn
Hachette Publishing, June 2019


43605526. sy475 The Forgotten Letters of Esther Durrant is the story of three women-- Esther, whose story begins in 1951 when she is committed to a mental asylum by her husband; Rachel, whose story begins in 2018 when she is sent to the Scilly Islands as part of a research project; and Eve, whose story also begins in 2018 when a woman named Rachel contacts her to tell her that she's found some letters belonging to her grandmother. 

Unfortunately, the novels three timelines mean that little time is spent developing the characters and their stories before the plot switches to another viewpoint. Esther's point of view is the most well-fleshed out of the story, and Nunn does an excellent job of creating the remote island setting for her asylum. But there is a sense that we as readers only get to skim the surface of what could be a rich topic, and one that is close to the author's own family history. Esther is committed to the asylum by her husband John, who has to trick her into accompanying him to the isle of Little Embers in the first place. Gradually, it is revealed that Esther is suffering from depression after the death of her second child (and was probably suffering from post natal depression before that), and that she is harbouring a 'great and terrible secret'. The payoff of this secret, when it is revealed, does not have the impact that it should, and neither does the romance that begins to develop between Esther and one of the people she meets on the island. Had more time been devoted to scenes in this timeline and setting, the story certainly had the potential to be an excellent one, but as it was, it was merely so so.

Things begin to get interesting when serial loner, Rachel, is shipwrecked on Little Embers during a storm and must wait for a supply boat in the company of reclusive artist, Leah. It is on the island that she find the eponymous lost letters, and becomes determined to find out who they were for and why they were never sent. But Rachel, who is notoriously unromantic, goes after this issue like a dog with a bone and it just doesn't make sense.

It's unusual for a book of this genre to have 3 timelines, let alone two that happen in the same year. I think it was the inclusion of Eve's timeline-- which didn't really have a fleshed out plot arc-- which derailed the rest of the story, and took time away from developing the stories in the other two.

On top of this, the language used throughout the historical portion of the novel is overly formal and quite stilted, presumably in an effort to make the book read as historical, but this has the effect of holding the reader at arms length. Add to this the occasional clumsy phrasing and the baffling habit of ending scenes in places that feel unfinished, and the result is a book that doesn't live up to its potential, or to the potential of the author's previous book.

I really wanted to like this book, and perhaps I am the only one who feels this disappointed by the novel, but I had to give The Forgotten Letters of Esther Durrant 2.5 stars.

Thursday, 27 June 2019

Book Review: A Lifetime of Impossible Days by Tabitha Bird

A Lifetime of Impossible Days
Tabitha Bird
Penguin Books (Viking) 2019
My copy provided by the author in exchange for a review. 

Image with no descriptionWhile on the outside, A Lifetime of Impossible Days is a cheerful shade of sky blue, the contents of the book tell a darker story, more akin with last year's stellar debut The Lost Flowers of Alice Hart.

The book begins with Willa Waters, aged 93. Willa keeps a list of things she knows for sure and item number one instructs her to mail two parcels on the 1st of June 2050. The first parcel is addressed to someone in the year 1965, and the second to a recipient in 1992. Those recipients are Willa herself at different points in the timeline and the contents of the parcel will change the course of Willa's life-- all three of her. 

This charming, unusual time-slip novel looks at the power of humans to overcome tragedy through love in a highly original way, and explores the extended metaphor of self-forgiveness by literally giving the protagonist, Willa, the chance to meet and forgive her self at another point in time. If you think this idea has the potential to be a little twee, you clearly haven't read it yet. 

Each of the Willa's is united in the essential things that make her who she is, but along the way, different traits develop or are outgrown. For Super Gumboots Willa, aged 8, it is her imagination and her indomitable spirit that make her unwittingly wise beyond her years. Even at an extremely young age, Willa is a hero to be admired and the best big sister any child could hope for. At 33, Willa has had the stuffing knocked out of her a little bit by life but she's found more steady ground in the guise of her husband Sam. Middle Willa, as she is dubbed by the others, is at a crossroads that could change everything and it is her timeline with the most at stake. But it is Silver Willa, aged 93, with her list of fabulous words, her collection of gumboots and her determination to stay out of the 'Plastic Sheet Home' who really steals the show. 

The darkness at the heart of the conflict at A Lifetime of Impossible Days is not named until late in the novel, but the sense of menace it brings is present from early on. Tabitha Bird does an excellent job of focussing on the power of love and family and friendship to help us through trauma, rather than letting the trauma itself drag the novel into a dark and (unfortunately) well-trodden path. There is a lot going on in this novel, however, and not all of the subplot threads are resolved by the end of the book. 

Told in the three voices of Willa at various points in life, the story moves along at a fast pace, keeping you keen to turn the pages and perhaps to eat jam drops if you're culinary by nature. There is a lot to love in the book, from the relationship between Willa and Grammy-- and their midnight tea parties-- to the Willa's assertion that tea is good for the soul, to a tiny chihuahua pup named 'Frog'. One gets the impression that Tabitha Bird truly has taken the advice of a good writing teacher and truly written the kind of book she would love to read, and her joy shines through. 

This is by no means a light and fluffy book, and it WILL make you cry even if you say you are determined not to let it. 

I gave it four stars out of five. 

Friday, 7 June 2019

Book Review: Machines Like Me by Ian McEwan

Machines Like Me
Ian McEwan
Jonathan Cape Publishing (Penguin Books)
My copy provided by the publisher in exchange for review.

Machines Like MeThe Artificial Intelligence novel is hardly new. Novels which imagine the possibilities of the technology-- its potential for disaster as well as for progress -- have been a constant in the science fiction genre for a number of decades, but in recent times, we have seen an increase in the number of big name literary authors turning their attention to the concept. In 2019 alone, we have Frankissstein by Jeanette Winterson, as well as Ian McEwan's Machines Like Me, a counterfactual look at England in the 1980s, where the central changes in technology seem to hinge on the fact that Alan Turing did not in fact suicide in the 1950s. Both novels make reference to Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, a novel which began science fiction's preoccupation with the line between human and inhuman.

Machines Like Me is the story of Charlie Friend, a highly demotivated thirty something, living in a version of 1980s London where Britain has lost the Falklands War, and unemployment is extremely high, presumably thanks in some small part to the advanced technology which makes humans unnecessary for certain jobs. Charlie has, perhaps unwisely, spent 86 000 pounds of his inheritance on an 'Adam', one of 26 artificial humans which have been rolled out world wide. The 13 Eves were the first of the AIs to sell out, a fact which foreshadows the novel's later themes surrounding women's role in the new world and indeed in the real one outside the novel. Charlie spends his time playing the stock markets (unsuccessfully) and in a bold move to connect with his upstairs neighbour, Miranda, he decides he will share Adam with her and that they will both be involved in 'setting' his personality so that Charlie does not simply create a facsimile of himself in robot form.

Adam is highly technologically advanced, thanks in no small part to the masses of Turing's research which the computer scientist and mathematician has insisted on making available via Open Source publication. He has access to troves of information, and can learn and make decisions, in many instances making it possible for him to pass as a 'real' person when out in the real world. His adherence to the concepts of truth and what is right, versus wrong, however, means that he is unable to process the complexities of human behaviour, such as the various shades of grey within the spectrum of morality. As Adam learns and becomes more a part of the world-- and learns how to disengage his own 'killswitch'-- the concept of a 'happily ever after' becomes more and more abstract for our morally complex human characters. The novel seems to happily engage with Turing's own theories on the boundaries between man and machine, and whether or not machines can 'think.'

At times, the narrative of Machines Like Me is bogged down as McEwan attempts to get his reader up to speed on the new world he has created. The reasoning behind using an alternative 1980s, one assumes is to make it possible for Alan Turing to make a number of small cameos in the text. But I wonder if a character who was a student of Turing's might have served the narrative just as well, as the character did not ring true for me-- in fact it was Charlie's voice which reminded me more of the Alan Turing I have encountered in my own studies.

What was heartily surprising about Machines Like Me was the detour that it takes into examining the role of women in the new world order. Miranda's story, involving an incident from her past which is dredged up by Adam's deep dive into her online records, calls for the reader to understand when she entraps a man in order to get her own form of justice. Adam's initial warning to Charlie-- that she is a pathological liar and will harm him-- at first only fuel's Charlie's jealousy, particularly when Miranda invites Adam into her bed and Charlie overhears them. When she is confronted later, she asks Charlie if he would feel the same way about her using a vibrator, calling into question whether either of them truly see Adam as what he really is -- a machine-- or if his ability to learn and 'generate' his own personality makes him something more.

As we get to know the characters more, body autonomy and the right to protect the physical body become more and more important to Miranda. Though Adam has his own concept of this, in that he does not want Charlie to turn him off via the killswitch, and therefore 'accidentally' breaks his owner's arm (and Asimov's first law of robotics), he cannot translate his own need for self preservation into judging the actions of humans. The other robots in his 'set' also have trouble understanding their 'place' in the world as they become smart enough to understand it, but Adam's relationship with Charlie and Miranda (with whom he says he is in love) seems to save him, and bring him close to achieving 'humanity' in that he feels moved to write poetry and to read novels. His haikus, however, are largely clinical, and it is this final frontier that seems to separate his kind from ours -- that ability to understand the nuances of being human, and to translate it into art.

There is a lot packed in to just over 300 pages, and McEwan gives his readers a lot of food for thought.

I gave Machines Like Me three stars out of five.

Saturday, 1 June 2019

The 'Well-Behaved Women' Reading List

AKA all the wonderful short story collections that have inspired me on this journey.

Little White Slips by Karen Hitchcock
A Lovely and Terrible Thing by Chris Womersley
The Weight of a Human Heart by Ryan O'Neill
Heat and Light by Ellen van Neerven
Zebra and Other Stories by Debra Adelaide
You Know You Want This by Kristen Roupenian
The True Colour of the Sea by Robert Drewe
The Bodysurfers by Robert Drewe
Australia Day by Melanie Cheng
Pulse Points by Jennifer Down
The Love of a Bad Man by Laura Elizabeth Woollett
Bird Country by Claire Aman
Like a House on Fire by Cate Kennedy
Dark Roots by Cate Kennedy
Portable Curiosities by Julie Koh
Only the Animals by Ceridwen Dovey
Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri
The Thing Around your Neck by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
The Promise by Tony Birch
Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout
Rosie Little's Cautionary Tales for Girls by Danielle Wood
Mothers Grimm by Danielle Wood
Feet to the Stars by Susan Midalia
A History of the Beanbag by Susan Midalia
Foreign Soil by Maxine Beneba
The Turning by Tim Winton