Friday, 20 January 2017

Book Review: Extinctions by Josephine Wilson

Josephine Wilson
UWA Publishing, 2016 (I own a copy, courtesy the publisher)

Extinctions by Josephine Wilson was the winner of the inaugural Dorothy Hewett award, which ran for the first time in 2015.  The award was created in response to a significant change to the funding and structure of the WA Premier's Book Awards, which were reduced to a biennial format in 2015.  It is a prize which aims to "support literary talent both in and related to Western Australia, and to celebrate the life and writing of a stalwart Australian radical."  To read more about the award, click here.

The novel follows Professor Frederick Lothian, once an engineer, now a lonely man living in a retirement community, regretting the mistakes he has made and the people he has isolated himself from.  Frederick is a fascinating, and not wholly likable character, one who is far-removed from the world of words and language-- Frederick is a scientist, a man who likes angles and physics and science and numbers.  He is logical, rather than emotional, which has meant he has not always been the most compassionate person. It's proven difficult for him to relate to others, such as his wife and children, or to the students he lectured.  (There is one particularly poignant scene in which Frederick tries to speak to a student in distress about Earthquake resistant building design, when all she wants to do is confess she is troubled by the human toll of the Earthquake he uses as an example.  He simply cannot relate.)  Yet the language of the book is beautiful, and just right, perfectly calibrated to suit this highly intelligent character, and capture the beauty of the Western Australian setting as it moves through recognisable landmarks such as Cottesloe Beach and King's Park.  It is a novel which is at times deeply thoughtful and moving, while at others it is acerbically funny.

Frederick, now living in a retirement community among people whom he views as being much more elderly than he is (thus belying a lack of self-awareness, I believe, for he frequently seems confused and contradicts himself) is forced to confront his past head on, as he faces the task of unpacking the detritus from his old life into a small apartment.  He is still hanging on to his deceased wife's belongings-- such as a half-knitted jumper-- that he cannot bear to give away; and yet when a care home calls to speak to him about his son, he hangs up on them.  It is not until he meets Jan, a chatty neighbour with troubles of her own, that Frederick realises it's time to stop feeling sorry for himself and deal with the lot he has been given.

If at first, the arrival of an off-kilter neighbour to show him the error of his ways seems a little familiar, read on, for the novel makes use of the situation well.  Far from being a two-dimensional tool for the writer to move the plot along, Jan is a character who must go on a journey of her own-- from being a retired teacher and a mother, to having to adopt her own grandson after the death of her son and the child's abandonment by his mother, she struggles alongside Frederick, and in many ways, is helped by him as much as she is a helper.  Jan is kind, and takes the time to get to know people, but she is not a pushover.  She makes no bones about telling Frederick what she really thinks.  But she's not his romantic interest and this is not a meet-cute. Jan is independent and strong-willed, and is far too busy for romantic entanglement-- after all, she has a small child to look after, and has to find a place to do it.  But she knows something that Frederick seems yet to have worked out-- you cannot simply outrun emotions, or reason them away.  And sometimes the best way to cope is with a little help from others.

This short novel packs in many themes, and pays tribute to quiet lives of suburban anguish, showing that you never really know what is going on in the lives of others.  From issues such as adoption, race, drug abuse, disability, fatherhood and masculinity, as well as being a measured treatise on so-called 'old age', Extinctions is a masterpiece.

I gave this book five stars.  I can't wait to read what the Hewett Award winner will be for 2017.

Join Josephine Wilson, UWA Publishing and Westbooks at the State Library of WA on February 2nd for an exclusive book club event and author talk.  Details here.

Thursday, 19 January 2017

Elimy Down South

If you were wondering why it's been a little quiet here lately, it's because I have been on an adventure in the South and South West of WA for the last couple of weeks.  We began our trip in Albany, then moved to picturesque Margaret River after a week.  It's been a fortnight filled with walking, reading, eating, and more reading, with a little wine drinking thrown in for good measure.  I managed to finish reading eight books in two weeks... a number I am a little astounded at myself because it wasn't like we spent every waking moment with books in our hands... but it is a wonder what some rest can do!

For those of you who are bookworms, we checked out a few choice literary establishments while we were down south, and if you're heading that way too you can check out the following:

* Gemini Secondhand Bookshop, York Street, Albany-  An Aladdin's cave of books with a great selection of sci-fi/ fantasy.  Friendly and knowlegable staff.  I even managed to find a book with a sticker from the bookstore I used to work at on the back, one I very likely sold in the first place.

* Paperbark Merchants, York Street, Albany-  This is a newsagent and bookstore, which is more for the new releases than the secondhand treasures you may be hunting for.  It used to be the Angus and Robertson, but I am super glad to see that Albany still has a bookstore at all after that chain closed.

* Margaret River Bookstore, Bussell Highway, Margaret River-  I've been to this charming store before as I've now been to the Margaret River Readers and Writers Festival twice.  Sadly, they didn't have the book I was desperately seeking (To the Sea by Christine Dibley) but they did have lots of other lovely things.

* Margaret River Secondhand Bookshop, Bussell Highway, Margaret River-  This was a bit of an odd one.  The first time I went there, I traded a Liane Moriarty for a much sought-after Anita Brookner, and I was struck by how hard it was to search the high shelves, and how hot and stuffy it was inside.  But when I went back a few days later to get all the other Anita Brookners they had in stock, I couldn't stop finding hard to get books, or out of print classics that I wanted to read.  It's not as idyllic as your usual secondhand shop but I think the stock is worth it!

Me on the Treetop Walk in the Valley of the Giants, Denmark.  Can you tell I hate heights?

Mammoth Cave, Margaret River

Lake Cave, Margaret River

Jewel Cave, Margaret River

Monday, 2 January 2017

Book Review: Ida by Alison Evans

Ida by Alison Evans
Echo Publishing/ Bonnier 2017 (I own a copy courtesy the publisher)

Ida is the first young adult novel to be published by Bonnier imprint, Echo Publishing.  In many ways, Echo are the new kids on the block, but they are punching well above their weight and have award winners in their stable of authors already.  In Ida, we meet Ida Wagner, an ordinary teenager suspended in the void between high school and university, trying to decide what direction she wants to take with her life.  Except she's not all that ordinary at all. Ida possesses the ability to go back in time to any decision and change the outcome, a power she uses liberally.  She avoids car crashes, she saves plates and cups that get dropped.  The only trouble is that she doesn't fully understand the ability she has.  But Damaris does.  Damaris knows that Ida is not going back in time at all, but shifting to another alternate universe where a different decision was made.  She is pulling her other selves out of their homes and they are not happy about it.  Damaris, a mysterious being from another plane of existence is sent to track down Ida-- the original one-- and put a stop to the shifting before the gaps between the realities is worn away to nothing.

This is a smart and fast paced novel.  Its protagonist, Ida Wagner is very relatable, particularly when it comes to her sassy observations about working in a coffee shop, guaranteed to have anyone who has worked as a waiter or a barista nodding their head in sympathy.  Ida's life is populated with people who don't usually appear in mainstream fiction-- people whose relationship with gender is outside of just male and female.  Her partner, Daisy, is genderqueer and therefore identifies as neither male nor female.  Her cousin Frank may be transgender (there is one scene in which there is a subtle clue).  And Damaris, while not strictly part of Ida's world, is genderfluid.  Yet the book does not go out of its way to try and educate the uninformed reader about these people and their identities.  They just are.  There is the occasional, subtle comment worked in about language choices (them, they are personal pronouns for Daisy, which did take the untrained brain a little getting used to) and about the way that people react to others when they cannot label them with a gender.  I thought this aspect of the novel was well tackled, and I feel like a learned something.

The other thing about this novel which I was struck by was the maturity of the plot.  While the ability to shift between parallel universes is something that crops up in speculative fiction from time to time, this novel felt new and intelligent, and it didn't rush to tie up all the loose ends and questions at its conclusion.  Life is messy and complicated, and we make mistakes-- this is the lesson Ida has to learn, that things will happen and sometimes you can't change them.  The novel's conclusion respects this lesson.  Ida's travel through the parallel lives mean that she has a chance to see different permutations of her own life-- one where she doesn't have Daisy, one where her mother has not died, one where her father isn't speaking to her (though I wasn't sure exactly why), and while there are aspects from a number of worlds she would like to pick and choose and have as her 'real' life, she cannot have everything.

An entertaining and clever read about life, love and knowing what you want.

Friday, 30 December 2016

Book Review: Today Will Be Different

Today Will Be Different
Maria Semple
Weidenfeld and Nicolson 2016 (I own a copy, courtesy the publisher)

After the phenomenal success that was Where'd You Go, Bernadette?, Maria Semple found her way onto my list of go-to authors.  Her writing did that rare thing-- it made me laugh without making me feel like I was reading something that was going to rot my teeth.  I can still remember the way that it felt to be sucked into the world of Where'd You Go, Bernadette?, right down to the fact that I played Monopoly with my family the evening after I finished it.

In the interim between these two books, I've read Semple's (then) hard to find debut, This One is Mine, which in my opinion was a better, edgier book than its Baileys' Women's Prize follow up, and watched all of television's Arrested Development, which Semple was involved in writing.

So when I heard that she had a new book out in 2016, you could say that I was excited.

The protagonist of Today Will Be Different is eminently relateable.  Eleanor Flood was once the head animator on a beloved television show called Looper Wash.  These days, she is mother to Timby (named by an autocorrect mishap) and wife to Joe, a surgeon who caters to sports stars and famous people who won't wait in the same waiting rooms as the normal folk.  The book, aside from a number of flashbacks, takes place over the course of a single day, beginning with Eleanor telling herself when she wakes up that today is going to be a better sort of day and she is going to be a better version of herself.  However, the best laid plans and all that, Eleanor's day turns out nothing like she had planned, beginning with the moment Timby's school rings to say that he has yet another stomach ache and needs to be picked up.

The thing about Today Will be Different is that I expected it to be funny but I think it would be more accurate to say that it is wry.  The cynical thoughts we encounter through Eleanor's first person narration are those which are familiar, be it the incarceration of trendy young Mums and ultra- PC private schools ala Liane Moriarty's Big Little Lies or the very familiar indictment of people who wear yoga pants but don't actually go to yoga.  While this book is interesting and makes some great observations, it did not have the laugh out loud moments that I was expecting.

Perhaps that is because there is tragedy in Eleanor's backstory which makes her (unbeknownst to herself even) quite prone to bouts of low mood and ultra high self-criticism.  She seems to me to not be coping well at all, and yet she believes the things that are not going so well for her are due to failings on her part, rather than the fact that her mother died when she was nine, her father was an alcoholic bookie, and her sister married an emotionally manipulative man who separated two women who had previously been very close.

I was intrigued by the story of Eleanor's life before the today of the title, but the book never really lets you get close enough-- those parts of the story are told in third person, including, bizarrely, an anecdote about an altercation with a yoga teacher told by Joe.  I would have liked to have seen more of what happened, and more of a resolution of what came after the day of the novel, as these were the moments when there was a real sense of how low Eleanor had sunk in the time that had passed.

The high points of this novel were Eleanor's interactions with Timby, which were often full of surprising but realistic truisms out of the mouths of babes.

Go into this novel not expecting Bernadette, but expecting something a lot more real.

Friday, 23 December 2016

Book Review: The Woman on the Stairs

The Woman on the Stairs by Bernard Schlink
Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 2016 (I own a copy, courtesy the publisher)

Bernard Schlink is most well-known for his novel The Reader, which admittedly, I have never read.  His newest novel, The Woman on the Stairs is a highly anticipated release, and tells the story of a painting which reappears in a gallery in Sydney after having disappeared decades before from the home of a German businessman.  Our narrator, an unnamed German lawyer, stumbles across the painting while he is in Australia on business, and feels compelled to track down the woman whom he is sure is the unnamed patron who has donated the piece.

He is right.  His searching leads him to Irene, both the subject of the painting and the woman who stole it, many years before, with the narrator's help.  She has placed the painting in the gallery in the hopes of luring both the painting's former owner and the painter himself to her secluded island home, to see them both one more time.

Schlink is a master wordsmith-- that much is apparent to me-- but as I read this novel I was struck by the fact that this simply wasn't enough.  The narrator tells the story in an odd, distanced fashion, which at times was blatantly repetitive, and which allowed me to neither feel as if I knew him nor his subjects.  For a novel which was inherently character driven, this proved to be a problem, as I realised increasingly that I did not care for any of the characters.  I was also frequently confused by the shifting between times, and the large tracks of text which were actually characters relaying stories about pasts of imagined pasts.  Indeed, the majority of the book's third act shows our narrator telling stories to Irene about what their life could have been if they had become a couple all those years ago.  While I believe the rules of writing are there to be broken, show don't tell does serve the purpose of allowing your reader to be in the moment with you as they read along, and that was certainly missing from this book a lot of the time.  I wondered if perhaps this was due to the book having been translated from German, or if perhaps this simply wasn't a book for me.

A small item of nitpicking too was the character's name-- when he discovers her whereabouts, Irene is living under her maiden name, Adler.  Yes, Irene Adler.  Which happens to be the name of a character from the Sherlock Holmes novels.  Sure, it could very possibly also be the name of a lot of people worldwide,but it leaves me to wonder if this was a deliberate reference.  If so, the similarity stopped there and I failed to see the point.

There have been so many books out lately which use the central plot point of a missing work of art resurfacing in an unlikely place-- to name a few I can think of Jessie Burton's The Muse which I enjoyed, and The Last Painting of Sara de Vos which I could not get into.  For such a well-trodden path, I think I expected more from this novel, but I would not be put off reading Schlink again if the subject matter interested me because he has certainly shown that he could write.

Overall, I found the lyricism of the prose beautiful but it wasn't enough to redeem a book which hung a fairly flat story onto the backs of mediocre characters.  Unfortunately this was not for me, and I have to disagree with the many readers out there who have been raving about this one.  I gave it 2 stars out of five.