Wednesday, 27 February 2013

The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion

I read a lot, but it's actually very rare for me to read a book in a day, which is why I'm so impressed with this d├ębut novel from Melbourne author, Graeme Simsion. When it first arrived in my local book store I was somewhat put off by the little Women's Weekly sticker on the front.  Uh oh, I thought to myself, here comes 200 pages of fluff.  I didn't buy it, purposefully.  But I looked at it increasingly covetously... and then, at the Writers Festival....

There is something about this book.  Once I had it, I couldn't put it down.  The Rosie Project is part Marian Keyes story (think: Mystery of Mercy Close), part Big Bang Theory.  Its protagonist, Don Tillman may not have full blown Asperger's Syndrome but he's certainly very high functioning and his emotions are about a kilometre away from him at all times.  But he's lovable, and he's charming, and because the book is written from his point of view, as the reader you get to sit in this  confusing position with Don, seeing at the same time how he sees the world and how it sees him.  At first, Don is annoying.  And then, he's charming.  After that, he's just plain fun and you want him to get what he wants.

Don needs a solution to The Wife Problem (i.e. that he doesn't have one) so he invents The Wife Project to help him find the perfect woman.  This questionnaire is supposed to help him find a teetotal non-vegetarian with a scientific understanding of the world, and this woman is supposed to become his wife.  Don can't understand why this doesn't go off without a hitch- and then he meets Rosie, who is definitely NOT wife material.  So why can't he stop seeing her?  And why does he feel compelled to help her track down her biological father?

This book is light hearted fun with a deeper, more touching message about the difficulties of relating to one another in the modern world.  Don's adventures (I won't spoil them by mentioning them, but he certainly gets up to great hijincks) will have you chuckling to yourself behind the page, and by the final chapter I'm sure you'll be rooting for him to find the love of his life.  Do yourself a favour and read it.

Five out of five.

Tuesday, 26 February 2013

Summer Reading List: The Sense of an Ending

The Sense of an Ending
Julian Barnes

It won't be long before I'll have to stop using "Summer" as a heading for these reviews!  The hot weather certainly hasn't gone away though.  Weekends lately have been perfect for snuggling up in front of a fan (sometimes turned up so high I also need a blanket, which defies logic) with a great book and a glass of something cold.  As you've no doubt already seen, this past weekend was the Perth Writers Festival, which always puts me in a tizzy of reading.  This year was no exception, and in the last three days I have finished reading three (!) books.  The first was Julian Barnes' The Sense of an Ending which won the 2009 Man Booker prize, but was more recently drawn to my attention by my good friend Jaime's Instagram account.  Bless her.  She made it look so good, the next time I saw it, I bought it.  And can I just take a moment to talk about this edition?  It's absolutely exquisite!

But enough about the cover, let's talk about the book.  The Sense of an Ending begins with four English boys, Tony, Alex, Colin and Adrian who all attend a highbrow English boarding school.  Adrian is sort of the outsider as he is quiet, contemplative and seems to be a lot smarter than the others, although his alternative perspective makes the others think that he's a little weird, and that perhaps he needs them more than they need him.  From their constant ploying for his attention however, I think the opposite is really the case.  When one of their classmates commits suicide, rumours run rife about why.  Did this other student get his girlfriend pregnant?  Did he really leave a note that just said "Sorry, Mum?"  Adrian seems to be the only one with any real insight, and the student's suicide, like history, becomes a matter of the 'Truth' being written by those with the power to do so, or the indignation to complain.

Years later, Tony and Adrian have a parting of ways over a girl- while Tony remembers Veronica as being possibly the worst first girlfriend ever, the book posits that memory is fleeting and we are forced to keep this in mind as the book goes on.  Tony remembers giving the two his half-hearted blessing, and is shocked when, Adrian commits suicide himself.  It is only when Veronica's mother dies and leaves Tony a most confusing package that Tony is forced to reassess what really happened, and learns that truth is as slippery as a wet bar of soap.

The book is beautifully written, although at times I think there is a tendency to gloss over important images in the name of expediency.  It is a short book, but it takes a fair while to read, and I think that to fully understand it, I would have to read it many many times.  All in all, I would say that this is a sad and thematically important book, but one which will probably alienate most readers, as it is not the most fast paced or entertaining.  It is, like most Booker prize winners, part of that exclusive club called Big L Literature, and I am not sure I truly got it until the end.  Reading the final few pages, a coldness settled in my sternum and would not go away.  Because of the almost overly dramatic solution to the book's puzzle, I would put this effect down to excellent writing almost exclusively.

I give this book three out of five stars.

Sunday, 24 February 2013

Perth Writers Festival 2013: Book Haul and Round-up

Another Perth Writers Festival has been and gone, and I have to say that this was one of the best yet.  Maybe this is a product of my increasing age (I am almost 22) and independence, or perhaps (as I suspect is the case) the Perth Writers Festival team are well and truly lifting their game.

I always go along expecting one of three things.

1) I expect to learn things
2) I expect to go home wanting to write or read A LOT
3) I expect to buy many, many, MANY books

This year was no exception.  Check it out:

I started my festival going on Thursday night with the official opening address presented by Ahdaf Soueif.  This session was not only informative and moving, it satisfied some of the cravings for academic lectures that I've recently been experiencing.  Ms Soueif's lecture style was largely informal, and it was touching to see the degree of passion behind her presentation of the subject matter.  I think a lot of the audience got more than they bargained for- everyone left more informed.  The topic- the recent Revolution in Egypt- was not a pleasant one, but Soueif showed us how it could be hopeful by presenting to us the artistic possibilities opened up by the proceedings.  I left the session feeling as if art was powerful, that it mattered, and that most of all, so long as we are responding to the situations around us, we are not helpless.  This was a great way to start the weekend (although I still had another day of work for the week).

A definite highlight of the event was the session titled "Identity."  Chaired by LiteraryMinded author Angela Meyer, the session featured local writer Annabel Smith (one of my recent favourites), Emma Chapman, and Madeleine Thien.  Each writer discussed the way that identity is formed, reformed and reassessed in their novels, which only made it clearer that these three are ones to watch.  Naturally, I picked up a copy of Madeleine's and Emma's books on the way out... I already had both of Annabel's!  I also got along to the "Not Just for Kids" session on Young Adult writing, which was interesting in its own way- particularly because it featured two of my favourite Literary YA writers, Julia Lawrinson and Vikki Wakefield.  The final session that I attended was called "Australian Story", and I left it feeling as if my thesis from last year was on the right track.  I felt, to quote The Little Mermaid, like part of their world.

Sadly, I did not get to see Margaret Atwood speak, much as I would have liked to.  While Margaret Atwood's novels (in particular The Blind Assassin) will always have a special place in my heart, I had another once in a lifetime opportunity to attend at the same time as her Saturday night talk- my university graduation!!!

So, my to read list has grown ever longer, and there is a hopeful feeling in my heart.  I think so long as there are people passionate about books in this world- evident in the sheer numbers of people packing into the UWA lecture theatres this week- we as writers, readers, booksellers and human being have hope.

Bravo to the PWF team.

Tuesday, 19 February 2013

The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides

Fourth Estate

Jeffrey Eugenides was always one of those writers I never thought I would read.  I'd seen Middlesex around, and that was about the only book of his that I was aware of.  First of all, it's cover didn't appeal to me AT ALL, and second of all, the title made me think that it was going to be some navel-gazing novel about human sexuality and all that nonsense.  I think what this probably tells you about me is that I was an opinionated adolescent and it doesn't tell you jack about Eugenides except that maybe he needs to fire the person who does his covers.

I bought The Marriage Plot for two reasons. I'd just watched Sanne of Booksandquills fame review The Virgin Suicides and I had pretty much decided that I wanted to read that book.  Then, I had a customer come into the bookshop where I work and request The Marriage Plot  for his book club.  We didn't have it, so as a consequence, I learned that it was available to order.

The Times called TMP 'One Day with George Eliot thrown in', but I think that I would classify it more as One Day with The Gilmore Girls in which one character acts out part of The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and another One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest.  In other words, it's a pretty post modern book.  Eugenides appears to have read everything.  Without intertextual references, there would probably be very little meaning in the book, and that is the whole point.  The books spits in the face of literary criticism for it's own sake and says, why can't we just find meaning in reading where we need to?

It also appears to be a description of my life.  Do you remember when I got freaked out because the movie Post Grad appeared to have plagiarised from my life (unfortunately sans sexy foreign neighbour)?  Well.  This was like that only it was like Eugenides had been inside my head.

The Marriage Plot is well written and delivers its message without becoming preachy.

I'm now in a complicated situation where I can't decide whether I liked Mitchell or Leonard more.  I know that I liked Madeleine Hanna.  I can relate to her.  She's a hopeless romantic who has read one too many books, has average self esteem and spends a lot of time in her own head.  But Mitchell and Leonard, to me were both as unlikeable as each other.  On the one hand, I could see myself being attracted to Leonard as the big, hipster type who is smart without trying, but on the other Mitchell's selflessness when it comes to love is totally endearing.  What do you think?  You'll just have to read the book and tell me!

Tuesday, 12 February 2013

Summer Reading List: Chasing the Sun

Chasing the Sun
Robin Baker
Pantera Press

With the recent infestation of vampires and werewolves in our fiction market, it's no surprise that Robin Baker's second novel Chasing the Sun never once uses the word 'Vampire' to describe its main character and his friends, the back cover excepted.  Vampires such as those featured all over the YA market have become synonymous with a kind of overly sexualized lifestyle of affluence, where gore hardly features; yet by nature, a vampire is a frightening creature of the night who feasts on human flesh.

Robin Baker's vampires are certainly not going to sparkle in the sunlight, that's for sure.

As a former funeral director, Baker is no stranger to death, and this book doesn't hold back.  From its early chapters, descriptions of 'bleedings' are written in great detail- this climaxes in the depiction of a scene in which a member of the Vampire Hunting group Rising Sun is tortured and disfigured which left this reader feeling truly creeped out- and while the obvious parallel between blood lust and sexual lust is drawn, I am pleased to see that the author has not chosen to make the one a metaphor for the other.  The tagline for the book reads "The best way to blend is is to stand out" and this appears to reflect Robin Baker's approach to writing his book as well.  His characters are quirky, and subvert the stereotypes that appear in the many genres which this book crosses.  Part noir detective story, part suburban gothic, part touching redemption story, part tragedy, Chasing the Sun  has something for everyone.

At times, the corny jokes of the plot line will make you want to roll your eyes- characters named Honda Civic and Krystal Meth spring to mind- and the gratuitous cocaine use seem to locate this novel in a place that seems suspended between suburban Australia and the mean streets of LA ala a Hollywood thriller.  Honda (and I swear the first time one of the characters addressed him as thus, I thought it was a mean joke because his surname was Civic) is fond of saying "Dude" and "Like" and he calls every female character "Baby", but as you really get into the rhythms of this book, you realise that his laid back attitude to speech and life are part of his charm.  In fact, it is the effort that Baker has put into the different characters of this book that prompted me to rate it four out of five darts of vampire killing poison.

Monday, 11 February 2013

The Salinger Phenomenon

" It was once said of Catcher In The Rye, "That rare miracle of fiction has again come to pass: a human being has been created out of ink, paper and the imagination." I am no J.D. Salinger, but I have witnessed a rare miracle. Any writer can attest: in the luckiest, happiest state, the words are not coming from you, but through you."  - Ruby Sparks, 2012

There is a little over a week to go until my deadline is here.

When I say "My Deadline", I am quite sure that I have given you the impression that all this time I have secretly been working on a publishing contract that none of you knew about, but it's not true. My deadline is actually the cut off for a competition that I am entering.  I have about 13 000 more words to write until I have enough to submit, but this is child's play because I am just re-doing a novel that I have written and rewritten and rewritten again.  What's different about this time is that I have done research, and I have lived the life of the adult writer, not the student writer.  I have felt the awkward tipping of the scales of life; the balance between writing and working, between writing and actually seeing the people who care about you and who you care about.  I have probably not dealt well with this, but sometimes it feels as if this book is all I care about.  At other times, I care not for it at all.  There is nothing like a deadline (albeit it self imposed) to fill me with self doubt.

Last week I received by email a rejection for the piece that I spent most of last year working on.  I suspect that a) it was too long and b) the editorial suggestions of one of my tutors messed with the authenticity of my narrator's voice, but because we live in a busy world and no editor has time to give feedback, I may never know.  I remarked to my mother when I told her that perhaps instead of being good at writing, I simply enjoy it.  I was upset about this at the time, but it's probably one of writing's more important lessons that this is how it is supposed to be.  After all, many of the greats, including Flannery O'Connor, were quite hard on people who believed that they were good at writing rather than doubting their work at every turn.  Think of Proust, writhing in agony over simply choosing the right word.  I am not Proust.  I am glad not to be Proust.  And I am glad to write, particularly on days like today (or rather nights like tonight) when I am able to experience the Salinger Phenomenon and just experience words and sentences and character's voices passing through me.  It's a little like writing and dreaming all at once.  I woke from this state feeling deeply dehydrated and exhausted and yet I cannot sleep.  I think my fingers have had a little too much coffee because they were desperate to keep writing, and therefore this post.  I hope that I will be lucky enough to experience this phenomenon again soon, perhaps next time with a full water bottle near by.