Tuesday, 25 June 2013

Guest Blog: Welcome to My Bookshelves- Dawn Barker

I have a dream of having beautiful hand-crafted bookshelves built into my office, but for now I make do with the ubiquitous Ikea expedit giant cube. As I have three little children, the books don’t stay in any sort of order for long, but I do try! 

Up high, out of the reach of grubby toddler fingers, are my nice, ‘to keep’ books, including hardcovers. I don’t have a lot of hardcovers, so these tend to be books that I have rushed out to buy by my favourite authors, like Kate Grenville, Tim Winton, and Jeffrey Eugenides,. I also have some that I bought because they look beautiful, such as My Mistress’s Sparrow is Dead, a collection of short stories about love (edited by Eugenides). It has a gorgeous cover, and a beautiful collection of stories from all sorts of writers including Cattalus (84BC), Munro and Checkov. 

I also have some other books that I try to keep away from the children: my signed collection of Shaun Tan graphic novels (I love these and have two prints of images from The Red Tree in my kids’ bedrooms); a hardback set of Harry Potter books that I read over a 3 week period during the night feeds with my first baby; my signed collection of Michael Palin’s travel books; Chris Ware’s Building Stories; and an old version of Wind in the Willows that belonged to my husband when he was a boy.

Other shelves are roughly arranged into topics: non-fiction, biographies/memoir, travel books, and art books. The rest – the overwhelming majority – are general fiction. If I have a few books by a particular writer then I try to keep them together, and scanning my shelves, I can see who some of my favourite authors are by the number of books I own: Margaret Atwood, Peter Carey, John Irvine, JM Coetzee, and Isabel Allende. I do try to keep the Australian fiction titles together,  
 and there is also a shelf full of books to read! This is in addition to the pile on my bedside table. One of the ‘problems’ I have is that I keep buying new books, even when I have literally dozens waiting to be read! I try to read them in the order in which I bought them, but sometimes I cheat and read something that jostles for my attention.  
I have a couple of books out of my shelves at the moment, those that I use for inspiration while writing my second novel.  I think it’s important to read a lot while working on a novel. When I was writing Fractured, I re-read Kate Grenville’s Dark Places, Lionel Shriver’s We Need To Talk About Kevin, and Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar. For my current work in progress, I’ve been looking at Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, and Robert Drewe’s The Drowner. Reading others’ book can inspire me by the beauty of the language, the topic, or the setting.

So that’s a tour of my messy bookshelves. I’ll stop before I start talking about my ‘virtual’ bookshelf on my e-reader!

Monday, 24 June 2013

Book Review: Taking a Chance

Taking a Chance
Deborah Burrows

I've well and truly been living in the 1940s this last week, and what better book to take me there than Taking A Chance, set in my home town of Perth during 1943.  Having previously read A Stranger in my Street and finding it a little underwhelming, though still entertaining, I was expecting something light and fluffy.  Boy, did I get a shake up.  I could not put this book down, from before work yesterday and after, as soon as I got home I was scanning the pages like mad, and today (Friday) I have spent the whole day in bed, finishing it.  Deborah Burrows, I take my hat off to you.

Nell Fitzgerald is a journalist with the scandal sheet known as the Marvel, famous for her fashion and beauty tips, but her luck changes when the court reporter gets sick and she is sent to cover the murder trial of a beautiful artist.  At the case, she meets charming American, Johnny Horvarth and he enlists her help proving the woman's innocence.  Nell is attracted to Johnny but tries hard not to be, because she's practically but not actually engaged to a lawyer named Rob.  Add to the mix an at-risk fourteen year old named Evie that Nell takes in after she and Johnny rescue her from a lecherous American serviceman, and you have a recipe for a really amazing book.

I loved Nell Fitzgerald, I want to be Nell Fitzgerald.  Fashionable without being ditzy, Nell is a spunky romantic who can stand up for herself and really wants to make a difference.  And she believes in love even if she is too sensible to admit it to herself.  Her so called fiance is about as spontaneous as a wet rag from the sounds of things, and it is no wonder that she finds herself drawn to the excitement that is Johnny.  Johnny encourages Nell to do the things that she might usually be to cautious to try and this really opens up opportunities for Nell, who is happier for it. She is a girl who has never really seen her own potential as anything other than a pretty girl without some help.  Her journey is well written and it is easy to relate to.

One thing that really did attract my attention was the use of a lot of un-necessary adverbs.  This is quite a fast paced book, but when it slows for a moment, you will notice a lot of words ending in -ly.  It does make the narrative style seem a little bit simple, but the book is anything but.  It's historical perspective is refreshing and well researched, and at least the writing voice is consistent.

I highly recommend you read this book.

Four stars (giving out a lot of those lately!)

Sunday, 23 June 2013

You Can Quote Me On It: Sunday June 23

I haven't done one of these in while--  I've been writing!  Let me just fill you in a little bit about my writing life lately.  If you like, you can skip reading most of it and just enjoy the quote, which I lovingly adopted from the Random House Facebook page on Friday.

This week, on Tuesday night I finished YET ANOTHER draft of The Compound- you know, that book that I have been harping on and off about forever.  I've been writing it since 2008 when the idea jumped into my head while I was listening to an album by the band Search/Rescue.  That album was also called The Compound, and at the time that I semi-planned the novel, it sort of made sense.  Now, it's relevance has faded to a very vague, overarching metaphor.  If, touch wood, the book ever gets published, I am sure that they will want to change it but for now, that is how I think of it.  Perhaps I always will.  Anyway!  Finishing that book this time, it really felt like I had done it.  Endings are not my strong suit, and I know that I have a tendency to get fed up with my stories and just rush out some sort of ending to them so that I can go on to the next idea.  This particular book has had several endings which are all variations on a theme, but now it finally has one that is exciting, and satisfying and makes sense.  I hope it's also well paced.

Early next week, that little book is going to be put in a big envelope and mailed to the other side of the country for a competition, so wish it Bon Voyage!

It's also been a great couple of weeks for reading!  See my recent reviews for more.

Last week I finished a five week course at UWA Extension called Nailing Your Novel.  It was taught by Natasha Lester and it was fantastic.  It really helped me understand the things that I wasn't getting about the process of novel writing and it was thanks to this course that I realised how I could make the opening to my book more interesting.  If you ever get a chance to do a course with Natasha, I recommend that you do!

Natasha also very kindly wrote a guest blog for me, and if you like perving on other people's bookshelves, I recommend that you click here.

I had visits at work from not one but two of my local literary idols this week- Annabel Smith and Dawn Barker dropped in to say hello!  (If you're reading this, Hi Ladies!)  I'm very lucky to have made such great connections.  If you haven't read Whisky, Charlie, Foxtrot or Fractured, why not click here?

Back to that quote:  I think I liked it mostly because it really draws on the way that when you're writing a novel, your life becomes the novel.  While the idea of bleeding all over a page is rather a gruesome/ scary one, I do like the idea that the novel is a part of you, and takes a part of you.  Sometimes, when I am writing, I get so caught up in it that for a moment I think my characters are real people and I could just log off writing about them and go and see them instead.  I don't write with my blood, but I think writing is in my blood all the same.

Saturday, 22 June 2013

Book Review: If I Should Lose You

If I Should Lose You
Natasha Lester
Fremantle Press

There are multiple ways of thinking about the human body, and If I Should Lose You is a book that finds a poignant way to unite the two most disparate of them; medicine, and art.  Camille, a transplant co-ordinator, is used to helping families through the process of donating the organs of their loved ones but her job becomes shockingly close to home when her oldest daughter Addie, who has had a liver disease since birth, suddenly needs a transplant.  Addie is critically ill but not top priority and faces a long wait for her liver.  Camille suddenly finds herself wishing for accidents, waiting for someone else's child to die.

But Camille is also curating an art show based on the work of her father and her mothers' lover Jack, both of whom were inspired by Alix's body- Dan with sculpture and Jack with painting.  Camille is reading her mother's diary, creating a love story to bind all the artwork together, but she is reluctant to know some of the facts about her mother's life- her grief at the death of Camille's father, her relationship with Jack, and perhaps the nature of her death.  With all of this occurring, and Camille's home life falling to bits, it is hard not to be moved by this tale of tragedy that explores both the physical and emotional fragility of the human body.

At times the book is reminiscent of My Sister's Keeper- asking just how a life threatening illness can affect a family.  Camille's marriage to Paul is on thin ice.  We read from Camille's point of view, and therefore see him the way she does- absent, distant and prioritising someone else.  We are also treated to the spectacular show of Camille's personal battle; her strength, her sorrow, her outbursts and heartbreak, and over all the redemption she finds in forgiveness.

The book contains stunning dialogue, and is really carried by scenes where characters work through their differing points of view.  It is clear that the book has been researched in great detail, and while the author's interest in the subject matter is clear, I am pleased to see that the book did not descend into a hundred page long essay about organ donation.

If I Should Lose You is a book about motherhood, and what that means.  It is believable and moving, and prompts me to ask: do you know how your family feel about organ donation?  Maybe it's time to ask.

Four Stars.

Friday, 21 June 2013

Book Review: The Light Between Oceans

The Light Between Oceans
ML Stedman
Vintage (Random House)

You've probably heard of this book.  It's been long or shortlisted for all the major prizes, won scores of accolades, and I am pretty sure that Oprah was endorsing it at one point.  People from Perth are particularly attached to it.  The writer, ML Stedman (charmingly reclusive), was raised in Western Australia even though she lives in London now.  And the book is set on the southern coast of Western Australia.  That's just enough to satisfy for local intrigue.  A constant best seller, this book has had editions printed in more than thirty countries now, has been described as 'unputtdownable', and is one of the most requested titles in the bookshop where I work.  This week, I decided it was finally time to read it.

1926.  Tom Sherbourne is a lighthouse keeper, a man of meticulous care and thoughtfulness with a past that he is trying to forget.  He meets and marries Isabel when he is posted to Janus, off the coast of Point Paratgeuse.  Their love is heatwarming, and their inability to have a live child, heartbreaking.  So when a baby washes up on the shores of their island home, in a boat with a dead man, is it really a crime that they decide to keep her?  Is Lucy a gift from beyond?  Will they be able to get away with it?

These are the questions that the book asks from the very beginning.  In the opening scenes of the book, before we know a thing about Isabel or Tom, we see the baby's arrival, see the decision.  We don't understand it yet.  The narrative then shifts back to Tom's arrival.  We see him meet Isabel, throwing bread for the seagulls.  They fall in love.  They go to Janus.  I've heard some people say that they thought this part was too long, that there was too much backstory, but personally, I think that it is necessary.  Without getting to know Tom and Isabel, first as individuals and then as a couple, it is more difficult to understand what they do in keeping the child.  Stedman cleverly uses this shift in time, this accumulation of backstory, to create sympathy for her protagonists.

Part of this novel's success could be attributed to the strength and consistency of its characters.  Tom is a constant throughout the book, a touchstone against which the rest of the rather intense book can be measured against.  He is, like the title says, the light between oceans, and as constant as the blinking light between the two bodies of water that surround Janus.  Isabel, on the other hand, is fun loving and sensitive.  She is a wonderful mother.  It seems impossible to think of her as a kidnapper- yet she is.  It is through Isabel's eyes that the reader is shown the world of Janus.  When Izzy maps the island, naming things and making a home in a way Tom has never thought to, the reader goes with her.  We see the lighthouse, the cliffs, and we see the graves of Isabel's stillborn children.  We feel her pain the way Tom feels it... distantly, helplessly.

It is the ending to the novel that I was confused by.  Many people had told me that they would not tell me what the big twist was so that I would be surprised (and I will try not to give too much away to you all here), but suffice to say that I was expecting something super big that never came.  It was the legal side of things with the ending, and not the back story in the beginning, that I found most tedious.  However, I do recognise that this was the most logical and possibly the only way that the ending could have played out.

Overall, I was inpsired by this book and I hated having to put it down.  I believe it deserves all of the awards it can carry.

Four stars

Wednesday, 19 June 2013

Guest Blog: Welcome to my Bookshelves- Natasha Lester

One entire wall from floor to ceiling in my writing room is covered in bookshelves. When I’m writing, all I have to do is scoot my chair across the floor and at my fingertips are incredible books like The Blind Assassin, timeless books like Jane Eyre, helpful books like Roget’s Thesaurus, childhood books like The Wizard of Oz, secrets-from-my-past books like a whole series of Dorothy Dunnett’s historical romances and you-just-never-know-when-you-might-need-it second hand book stall purchases like World Furniture.

I don’t organise my books by colour, author, title - it’s a rather haphazard arrangement and because I take books from the shelf so often for one reason or another, haphazardness suits me fine. I don’t have to be particular about whereabouts on the shelf the book goes back - wherever it fits works best for me.

I do have two shelves though, which are organised and specific. One of these shelves is the My Favourite Books shelf and it has to be a very special book to make it into this hallowed space, alongside the likes of Margaret Atwood, Joan Didion, AS Byatt, Hilary Mantel and Ian McEwan. (You might be able to see in the picture that I’ve snuck my own book onto that shelf because I think you have to love your own books the best, flaws and all, to be able to send so many years writing them).

My other organised shelf is the Research Shelf. This shelf changes from book to book. When I was writing If I Should Lose You, it held memoirs from female heart transplant surgeons, memoirs from an intern about her experience dissecting bodies in an anatomy lab, book about the beliefs and ethics of organ donation procedures in different parts of the world. It currently holds a lot of material about New York because that’s where the book I’m currently writing is set, as well as books about having babies, which you’d think I would know something about, having managed to do it three times myself. Just not in the 1920s though, which is when my new book is set.

Books do migrate off the shelf and onto my desk from time to time. When I’m writing a book, I always have a couple of books on my desk that are like touchstones - something about those books connects me to the world I’m trying to create in my own writing. Currently on my desk as I tap away on my New York novel are Amor Towles’ Rules of Civility and Little Women, by Louisa May Alcott, two very different books which are oddly evocative of the themes and characters I am writing into being.

So that’s a sneak peek into the hundreds of books on my shelves - I’d better stop now before I launch into pictures of my French shelf, my I’m-never-going-to-read-these-books-again shelf and all the other shelves organised in peculiar ways that I hadn’t realised I’d done until I started writing this post!

Sunday, 16 June 2013

Book Review: Burial Rites by Hannah Kent

Burial Rites
Hannah Kent
(Proof Copy provided by Pan Macmillan Australia)

In 1829, a woman named Agnes Magnusdottir was beheaded for her part in the murders of two men, one of whom was her employer.  Prior to her execution, she was sent to the home of a District Officer to be minded.  There, she worked alongside the family of this Officer until such time as her execution was arranged.  These are the facts, what the historical record shows.  Everything in between are lacunae.

As a writer of historical fiction myself, I recognise the impulse to fictionalise moments of history that appear to go unexplained.

By now, you will no doubt have heard the story of Burial Rites' meteoric rise to literary fame.  Hannah Kent, young and gorgeous, is a rising star.  She became fascinated with Agnes's story on a trip to Iceland a number of years ago, made this the subject of her research, and won a competition which saw her working with Geraldine Brooks!  Needless to say, I am both impressed and a little jealous.  But what's more, Hannah truly deserves all of the hype she has been receiving, because the book is, in a word, a masterpiece.

It's original without being gimmicky, poetic without being overdone.  Wuthering Heights-like in its story within a story structure, the book reads like a lament, an epigraph, a loving obituary.  It does not paint the story of an innocent woman sentenced to die, but one of a real woman with desires and heartaches whose journey was no less wicked and magical than the people who condemned hers.

Kent's understanding of the use of narrative tension made this book impossible to put down.  Agnes' recollections would be stopped at just the moment when I felt something big was about to happen.  I would have to read on.  Her use of historical documents helped to build the reality of the story, as well as breaking up large sections of dialogue.  Agnes' scenes with the family served to build empathy, and made me want to believe that she was innocent before the recount had ended.

This book is an accomplishment.  I recommend it to everyone I know and everyone I don't.

Five stars.

Saturday, 15 June 2013

Review: Fairytales for Wilde Girls

Fairytales for Wilde Girls
Allyse Near
Random House

Fairytales for Wilde Girls by Allyse Near has one of the best opening lines that I have read in a long time.  It is a first line that will make the decision process between buying and browsing extremely easy.  For that reason, I am not going to share it here.  You need to experience this magic for yourself.

A cotton candy gothic fairytale set in the modern world, Fairy Tales for Wilde Girls is the story of sixteen year old Isola Wilde, and what happens when she finds a dead girl living in the woods behind her house.  Isola has a lot going on in her life; new love interest, a best friend who won't talk to her anymore because she doesn't have romantic feelings for him, parents who are capital W weird.  Plus, she can see things everyone else believes are mythical.  Protected by six Brother-Princes, Isola must solve the mystery of the dead girl before it's too late.

A word on the structure of this novel; this is an ambitious book form wise.  It is not divided into traditional chapters but instead contains Interludes, play-script-like sequences and illustrations.  What this does is defamiliarise the reader so that they truly feel immersed in the strange ways of the story.  The interludes contain exerpts from an invented Fairytale Maven, linking reality to fiction thematically, and sign posting the emotional journey of the book.

At times I found this book TOO fantastical.  The plot was almost silly.  Yet I can see that there IS a place for a book like this in the market and I know many people who would have loved these parts.  I also couldn't put the book down.  Near's pacing and tension were perfect.  Each time I would say to myself, one more chapter and then I'm done, something would happen and I would be off again.

I only wish there hadn't been illustrations in the book- sure they were beautiful but I prefer to imagine characters for myself.

Four stars

Friday, 14 June 2013

Review: What is Left Over, After by Natasha Lester

This beautiful book is one to be read in a single sitting.  To read it is to totally submerge yourself in a complete world, in the blissful investigation of other people's problems.

Gaelle, a beauty editor, flees her troubles at home and finds herself at Siesta Park, Western Australia.  Here she meets Selena, an inquisitive thirteen year old girl whose friendship will force Gaelle to admit to the truths she hasn't been telling the world, and herself.

It is no wonder that Natasha Lester's What is Left Over, After  won the TAG Hungerford award in 2010.  The novel is simple but deep; it describes a slice of human experience at once foreign and relatable.  The story is hard to define, spanning several genres including Literary, without any of the pretentiousness that this usually is accompanied by- no small accomplishment!

At it's heart, the story is a celebration of storytelling, and the ways that humans use narratives to make sense of what happens to them.  Weaving in elements of the classic fairytale helps to lighten the mood of an otherwise bleak life-story.

I cannot review this book in depth, because I think to do so would be to ruin it for you, but I do recommend it whole heartedly so please do track down a copy.

Friday, 7 June 2013

Book Review: Into the Sea by Jay Laurie

Into the Sea
Jay Laurie
Salty Studios Pty Ltd (Self Published)

It's a pretty exciting time to be a writer.

We have unlimited (seems so, anyway) resources available to us, and it's no longer a huge taboo to self publish a novel.  People do this for a number of reasons, but I think probably the best reason is because, as Cyril Conolly said, it is "Better to write for your self and have no public, than write for the public and have no self."  That's not to say that Jay Laurie has found himself without a public.  In fact, if you look at his website, you'll see that the opposite is true.

But I haven't come to tell you about self publishing, my thoughts on it or otherwise; I've come to review Jay Laurie's book, Into the Sea which fell into my hands almost by accident.  I would like to start by thanking Jay's wife Phoebe for the opportunity to do this.

From the Blurb

"Will is a small kid bleached by the ocean.  He surfs.  Riley's bigger, bites his nails and pretends he does too.  They roam their beachside suburb, nose drip over their first surf magazine and start to dream of far off places.  Suddenly, out of a heatwave, a fire erupts to take more than their bushland.

Years later, an old car pants across the desert.  Living in the dust and cold salt water, amongst a melting pot of passing travellers and violent locals, Riley forgets a girl he thought he knew and Will's drug addiction gives way to a blindness to life beyond the sea which may prove to be even more destructive.

Will leaves everything and heads for tropical islands.  A phone call, a postcard, then nothing.  Eventually Riley sets out to try and track him down and, travelling deep into the islands, starts to learn things he never knew he should."


Books about Western Australia, especially ones dripping with nostalgia, are my cup of tea.  I love Tim Winton, I love Robert Drewe, and once upon a time I kidded myself that I would be able to learn to surf even though sometimes I lose my balance just by walking.  Seriously, I used to ride my old skateboard by sitting on it.

Reading Into the Sea is like fusing your own childhood memories with someone else's and claiming them.  As the blurb says, it is vivid, raw and evocative.  I agree on all three counts.  The novel is vivid because Laurie's attention to detail takes you there, takes you to the dunes, to the desert, and to Indonesia.  It's raw because sometimes things happen that aren't so nice and maybe you don't want to think about.  And it's evocative because you can smell the Streets Cornetto dripping on your sunscreen that first summer you were allowed to swim in the ocean by yourself.

The real strength of this novel lies in the big ideas that it is trying to get across.  Sometimes these come in waves. (Haha, made a funny.  Unintentional, I swear.)  From the way that surfing can be linked to a kind of deathwish recklessness, to the way that human passion and connection is as fluid as the ocean, to the value of friendship, and the beauty of just dropping out of society.  This novel is deep.

My favourite part of the book is the final part, in which Riley goes to Indonesia to find Will after he disappears.  This section of the book almost had a Heart of Darkness quality to it, and the reader was with Riley as he travelled deeper into the jungle, not knowing what, if anything he would find.  This part of the story had a pace and structure that maybe the other parts lacked, and smacked of a classic adventure story. One thing that really bugged me about the Indonesian scenes was the lack of translation for us not multilingual, but Laurie would not be the first author to do this to me.

Maybe I missed it, but I didn't see much evidence of Will's drug addiction, and I didn't feel like Riley was trying to escape an old heartbreak, though I do remember them mentioning it.  At times, I found these characters to be two sides of the same coin, sometimes a bit too similar to handle, especially when dialogue was handled in a Winton-esque fashion, i.e. no speech marks or markers.  There was one scene in which something awful was happening to one character out at sea and I thought it was Riley, but it was Will.  It was difficult to tell which character was supposed to be the protagonist at times.

I absolutely inhaled this novel, read it in a few days on lunch breaks and in the car before work.  The writer in me wanted to restructure it but the reader in me enjoyed sitting back and letting Laurie's prose wash over me and take me on a trip down memory lane.  I'm desperate to go back to Indonesia now.  And maybe to learn to actually stand up on a surfboard.

My Verdict

Don't lump this in with your easy dismissal of self published novels, give it a chance.  You will be surprised.

Wednesday, 5 June 2013

Walk the Walk, Talk the Talk

I keep hearing "fake it 'til you make it" and "don't say you want to be a writer, actually be one", and other similar advice.  It's frustrating.  I think that I'm following it most of the time, and then I realise that I've been going to bed earlier and earlier because I'm exhausted from doing other things, and the thing I've neglected was my nightly hour of writing.

Sure, I've started telling people I'm a writer.  I work in retail, and I'm fairly young looking, so naturally people always ask me a) if I'm studying, and b) what I plan to do with my life.  Because, of course, staying in retail is not a legitimate career goal unless you've given up all hope.  (I do hope you could tell I was being sarcastic there.)  In case you were wondering, the answers to those two questions are a) no, I finished last year, and b) I'm trying to get my first novel written and published.  The difficulty with doing this, however is, as Emma Chapman pointed out at the Perth Writers' Festival in February, people always go on to ask you what you've had published.  And sometimes, like in my case, the answer is not a lot.  Or, it's a long list that you're usually very proud of but mostly consists of small award wins that become even tinier when a stranger looks at you kindly and pretends to know what you're talking about.

What 'choo lookin' at?

"I hope no one can tell I'm checking my Facebook again."
The other question I get asked is "What is your book about?"  I have to remind myself when I answer this that these people don't know me, and they don't know my whole backstory, and they're usually on their way to do something important, like grocery shopping.  So I can't stand there, look all adorable and say, "Oh it's like about these two people who meet between the wars and they live in Fremantle, and they are horrible to each other, and one of them becomes a POW and I haven't really researched that bit much yet," because that will make the person do this:

Wasn't that one of the Twilight films?
The thing is, I know this book like I know my own hands, right down to the flaky cuticles.  What I should be doing is thinking of every person who asks what my book is about as a potential reader or even a potential agent or publisher.  I should be telling them that my book is "A historical anti-romance set in Fremantle before and during the second world war.  Two characters meet each other, enjoy the flushes of first love, but are forced to separate when they realise that each one has unrealistic expectations of the other.  While apart, they go through trials which force them to mature, and when they meet again years later they must assess whether or not real love is possible for them."  And I have to stop thinking that describing it like that is wanky, because I am 22 years old now and I am too grown up to use words like that.  

Perhaps the connection that I need to make here is that in order to think of myself as a captial W Writer, I need to think of my story as a capital B Book.  Take my work and myself seriously.  But not too seriously.

Because where would be the fun in that?

Tuesday, 4 June 2013

Book Review: Telegraph Avenue by Michael Chabon

Telegraph Avenue
Michael Chabon
Fourth Estate

"Moonfaced, mountainous, moderately stoned, Archy Stallings manned the front counter of Brokeland Records, holding a random baby..." (page 3-4)

From the Blurb

"As the summer of 2004 fades out over California, former star quarterback Gibson Goode announces plans to dump his Dogpile music megastore on Oakland's famous Telegraph Avenue.  Nat Jaffe and Archy Stallings can only fear the worst for Brokeland Records, their vulnerable vinyl emporium.  But while trying to save their livelihood they must contend with the sudden arrival of Archy's illegitimate teenage son Titus and the return of his father, Luther, as well as the rupture of their wives' midwifery service."


There is something about Michael Chabon's writing that makes him special, different.  Right away, you can feel the energy in his writing.  He has a keen eye for observation that allows him to draw simple connections between things that had previously seemed superfluous to one another.  As the Guardian put it, he "walks the line between high and low culture."  He straddles it, in fact, and occasionally thrusts a little.

But his characters' sexual promiscuity aside, what Chabon essentially presents us with here is a comedy of manners with all the social complexity of a Shakespearean comedy or an Austenian novel.   His characters, through their own bad behaviour, get themselves into a terrible mess.  They are then forced to find their own way out of it.  Each character is so beautifully formed that they could be real people walking around today.  The intricacies of their personalities must be intimately known to Chabon, because he doesn't once slip up.  Gwen, for example, remains so proud that she cannot even apologise to her best friend.  (She can, however, apologise to the lady next to her at a funeral and let Aviva THINK she was apologising to her.)

The novel is structured into five parts, almost like a Shakespearean play, although it was pointed out to me that perhaps it was supposed to mirror the structure of a record.  I can't comment on this but if someone could comment and let me know, that would be great.  I saw the five parts as being like the five key movements in the story, from the inciting incident, in which everyone manages to find themselves in trouble, through to the finale in which death, and birth, bring everyone together.  In a way, the novel is cyclical; while everything changes, everything stays exactly the same, and Archy ends the novel the way he began it- Holding a baby.

To Sum Up

You should read this novel if you love American pop culture, characters who stick with you, vivid colours, sounds and smells, and language so rich you want to roll around in it a little.

I found it a slow read though, probably because it's intensely character driven.  The entire plot only takes place over a matter of a handful of days.  Be prepared to spend a lot of time inside the warped minds of particular characters.