Monday, 28 January 2013

The Joys of Browsing, part 1

I can vaguely remember a time when buying a book meant reading it straight away.  Trips to Dymocks as a pre-teen usually involved a promise on the part of my mother that each of us kids (there are three of us, myself and a sister and a brother) could choose one book to take home.  Even then, telling me that I could only have one was a little bit like telling me I had to choose which one of my limbs I most wanted to keep because the rest were getting cut off.  A lot of thought went in to my choices and I have vivid memories of spending hours standing under the yellow light in the YA section of our local bookstore, which used to be in the back corner.  There weren't nearly so many supernatural books back then.  I remember being adamant that I wanted Sisterhood of the Travelling Pants one time, even though Mum said she'd heard bad things about it.  What bad things exactly?  I can't remember.  Maybe she thought it was too teenaged, too American, in the sense of characters saying Oh My GAWD every five seconds and heading to the mall.  This is the lesser of two evils these days, when the other choice is a novel about half-zombie heroines who all seem perfectly normal/ slightly on the unpopular side but have secret magical powers/ are the object of lust to a vampire-werewolf-evil wizard/ son or daughter of the book's antagonist, revealed at the end of the story.  But the lack of choice in the YA market is a rant for a different day.

Another memory, another bookstore- this time in Fremantle, in a white and green shop with low shelves and apparently, low sales as it didn't stick around long into my teen years.  I would have been about eleven.  I remember choosing Tomorrow When the War Began, possibly because my friends were reading it, and being very proud of myself when, upon running into my Netball coach at the till, I learned that the Year Nines at her daughter's high school were reading it for class.

I'm sure there were many similar instances.

I think I moved on to "Adult" fiction quite early (Scare quotes there used because the line these days is so blurred- I would readily recommend a lot of popular adult fiction to young adult readers in their mid to late teens) and once I started I literally couldn't stop.  Today there are more than one hundred unread books sitting on the top shelf of my two Billy Bookcases (yes, from Ikea).  There are so many that I am too ashamed to show you a picture.  I have had to make stacks rather than shelving them properly.  It is far too easy to walk into a lovely book store and walk out with four, or five, or six...  There are too many lists published of "Books you Should Read" (I'm looking at you, Dymocks 101) that I garner new favourites from, and compared to all this, there are just too few reading hours in the day.  Thank heavens for coffee.

Sunday, 27 January 2013

Summer Reading List: Whisky Charlie Foxtrot

Whisky Charlie Foxtrot
Annabel Smith
Fremantle Press

Well, I'm going to be recommending this one to anyone who is looking for a book to discuss at their book club this month.  

Charlie Ferns and his twin brother Whisky (William) have been through a lot together.  They've grown up as two sides of the same coin- but in Charlie's eyes Whisky has always been the twin who has been better off.  Older, taller, cooler, Whisky is both the object of Charlie's admiration and his scorn.  And as Whisky spends the better part of the novel in a coma, Charlie's world view is the only one we see.

Readers with siblings will identify with the feelings of inadequacy which accompany having attractive, talented and popular siblings and the effects that such thinking can have on family relationships.  The novel takes the situation and draws it to an extreme- what if the sibling that you've spent your whole life resenting could be taken away from you?- then asks the reader to consider the consequences.  Smith's prose is casual but lyrical, and her use of the phonetic alphabet to structure flashbacks provides an interesting insight into the novel's theme of communication.  At times a need to stick to this structuring seems to have lead the writer down some strange pathways- for example the introduction of a character "Mike" who turns out to be the twins' brother, adopted at birth- but suspend your doubt and allow Smith to reward you with her charming and original plot.  There are no soap opera histrionics here.  

I give this book four out of five.

Sunday, 13 January 2013

Summer Reading List: Bring Up the Bodies

Bring up the Bodies
Hilary Mantel


When I talk about new fiction with customers at the book store where I work, one thing that often comes up is the way that a lot of writers emulate the practice of watching television when they craft their stories.  To be more clear; the emphasis is on things that can be seen; the progression of action is cinematic; the action is large and episodic.  Hilary Mantel's latest novel is brilliant in that it evokes the lavish world of Showcases' The Tudors while at the same time managing to be a complex, character driven literary work.

When we left Thomas Cromwell at the end of Wolf Hall, he had successfully removed all impediments to the marriage of Henry the Eighth and Anne Boleyn- only to see before his eyes his master falling for the plain, chaste figure of Jane Seymour at the eponymous homestead.  Cromwell is a masterful character.  He is made up of the intricacies and minutiae that he deals in; and yet in his private moments of grief he is rendered human.  Mantel leaves us with a portrait of an efficient man who does what he must to get by in the reign of a wilful king but remains at heart a man.  Other portrayals of Cromwell make him seem like something of a medieval robot, cold and unfeeling in his pursuit of the King's wishes.  He is a villain, a shadow-lurker, one who feeds off of the opportunities made by the deaths of other men such as Thomas More and Cardinal Wolsey.  But Mantel's Cromwell is aware of his talent for filling dead men's shoes and he is haunted by the voices of his dead contemporaries- he looks to the Cardinal for guidance though Wolsey cannot answer, and the ghost of More mocks him by refusing to stay silent.  England may have forgotten these men, but Cromwell cannot.

James Frain as Cromwell in The Tudors.

To those well versed in modern portrayals of the Tudor period, the novel is both familiar and refreshing.  Mantel appears to be constructing a kind of jigsaw puzzle in which canonical facts are present- such as the use of a French swordsman for Anne's beheading, and his distracting cry of "Fetch me the sword"- but other familiar scenes are turned inside out.  The so called torture of entertainer Mark Smeaton is portrayed as a kind of psychological game, in which Mark is allowed to believe he will be tortured, and so scares himself into confessing.  The rest, such as the use of the rack or a knotted rope to pop his eyeballs, is shown to be the work of the rumour mill which is working overtime throughout the novel.  In such ways is the nature of the historical record shown- documents from the period, while fascinating, are also fragmentary and biased.  Mantel acknowledges this fact, and the possible implications of her interpretation in her acknowledgements.  She calls her novel an offering.  As a former student of history, I find this approach commendable.

And I find this book delightful.  A must read.

Five out of five decapitated queens.