Saturday, 27 December 2014

Book Review: The Book of Strange New Things

The Book of Strange New Things
Michel Faber
Canongate (I own a copy courtesy the publisher)

When reformed drug addict turned priest, Peter Leigh, embarks on a long journey to the new interplanetary colony known as Oasis to serve as a spiritual advisor for the native population, he expects he will be home in a few months.  He leaves behind his wife Beatrice, and his cat, Joshua, and travels via space ship to the USIC base that will serve as his home.  But USIC, a governmental body shrouded in mystery, is far more alien to Peter than his new congregation, and while the Oasans are willing to receive the word of God, Peter's mission grows harder as he learns of the terrible disintegration of life back on Earth. Most alarmingly, his relationship with Beatrice is not faring as well through the separation as he'd hoped.

Told from the point of view of Peter, with several "Shoots" (a kind of email) from both Peter and Beatrice, this novel represents an interesting challenge-- that of explaining the things we take for granted in our day to day lives to an alien population who have not only no context for them, but also limited language in which to have them explained.  Religion, as a framework, provides context that can be common to both the humans and the Oasans, and thankfully for this atheist, it is used in such a way as to not exclude a reader with little to no understanding of the Bible or any of its stories.  I found the book quite hard to get into at first, but I think that was because December is a notoriously busy month.  By Christmas Day, I was wrapped up in it well and truly.

As the story progresses, Peter becomes further and further removed from his life at home, as evidenced by his inability to feel connected to the tragedies that Beatrice describes-- at first in detail, and then, cynically and in passing, as she senses Peter does not want to hear about them, or does not care.  He begins to become alien himself, losing all sense of the emotions that make him human, and he begins to reminisce about his former life, in which he was a drug addict and a thief.  This, however, leads him to think about meeting Beatrice, falling in love with her, and being saved by finding a religion to guide him.  What is beautiful about this novel is that it extols the virtues of passion rather than of the Christian faith itself, and argues for the wisdom of having some sort of guiding ambition in life.  In the novel, the idea of a loving, supporting relationship is closely bound with a worship of God.  While the Oasans have this love of God-- they name themselves Jesus Lover One, Jesus Lover Five, etc.-- they do not seem to have the same system of pair bonding, gender, child-rearing, or any of the other family relationships that humans do, and their love of God is almost soulless in it's clinical application, although at one point one of the Jesus Lovers gives away to Peter that he/she is sad about the passing on of their mother.  Despite this, they have no emotional hang ups about the body once the life has left it, and use the carcass to attract and feed bugs that become part of their diet, a practise which disgusts Peter because of the sentimentality humans attach to the bodies of the dead, and the care with which they are treated.

While at its heart, the novel does deal with the end of the world, and the quote I have on the back of my copy says "I am with you always, even unto the end of the world", I would not say that this is a dystopian novel, at least not in a pure form.  In parts, the need to leave Earth and find a new home, coupled with heartless government programs reminded me of the film Interstellar (thankfully minus Mathew McConaghey's strange smart hillbilly character), and yet there was something quite subtle going on between the lines.  In my last review, I talked about a novel about anthropologists studying tribes being a method of studying the white culture the anthropologists came from.  I think the same thing is at work here.  By studying an alien population, Peter learns about himself and about the people he works for, and comes to the horrifying realisation that it may be too late to go home and save the things he loves.  Tantalisingly, the book is open-ended, but I am trying out optimism, and I would love to think that Peter makes it home and finds Bea, and they both find a way to make it back to Oasis, to live with the natives.

I gave this book three stars.

Tuesday, 23 December 2014

Book Review: Euphoria by Lily King

Lily King
Picador, 2014 (I own a copy courtesy the publisher)

In the deepest part of the rainforest, a lone anthropologist named Andrew Bankson decides that he can no longer go on living, and wades into the Kiona River with his pockets full of rocks.  Moments before he drowns, he is pulled from the river by a native man, who laughs and tells him he had better be careful and clear the rocks out of his pockets before he goes swimming, lest he should accidentally drown.  Thus Bankson is prevented from killing himself, and not long after, he is informed of the arrival of two more European anthropologists.  Desperately lonely, he goes to meet them, and everything changes.

Partly inspired by the life of Margaret Mead, Euphoria is a book which uses anthropologists as characters in order not to study a foreign culture, but to study our own.  The book takes place in the 1930s, and in the shadow of the second world war, which seems imminent.  Nell is therefore rather unusual for her time, because as a woman scientist she has been extremely successful, whereas her Australian husband Fen has only published one short paper about a tribe he's studied for several years.  The book's point of view fluctuates between Andrew's first person narration, a third person narration that focuses on Nell, and a few short sections supposedly from Nell's diary-- at first, I found this perspective jarring, particularly because the first chapter sets the book up to be about Nell and Fen, and told in third person, but chapter two is Andrew before he meets them, so even if he is the third person narrator in the other sections, he couldn't possibly have known about their life with the Mumbanyo tribe before he met them, or their sex life on the boat coming down the river.  Yet somehow, it works.  Nell is both the subject and the protagonist, so it's important that we see her in a number of ways, and hear from her.  As a woman, she is privy to certain things in the tribe at Lake Tam that the men cannot be; she ascertains that the society worships its women and she longs for proof of this, devoting herself to work while Fen appears to be doing not much at all.  She speaks to Andrew of a Euphoria that sets in around the two month mark of living with any tribe, the point at which a person feels totally at home and accepted into the way of life in the tribe, and before they realise how much they have to learn.  This period of Euphoria could also be described as the 'honeymoon period' of a new relationship, and it is this kind of relationship that develops between Nell and Andrew right under Fen's nose.

Fen is an interesting character, because he fluctuates between being broody and possessive, and sweet to his wife.  He has the same interests as her, ostensibly, but not the same drive, and it becomes apparent almost right away that he wants for his wife not to be the more successful one in their relationship.  He constantly reminds her that he is her superior, whereas Andrew treats her like an equal.  He seems uncouth and culturally insensitive, and his quest for a magical flute which the natives worship and feed seems almost like some sort of flimsy phallic metaphor, although I assume that this item is based on research.  He wants this item as some sort of trophy, and looks for signs of it with a destructive single mindedness.  This material thing is far more important to Fen than the research he is supposed to be doing.  Fen and Bankson have a shared history, as they both studied together in Australia, and their friendship seems to constitute some sort of rivalry that goes back to Bankson being given Fen's mentor's butterfly net like some sort of prize, an event Bankson does not even remember.  As time goes on, the behaviour of these two men becomes increasingly territorial, particularly when it comes to demonstrating who has more right to Nell.

Andrew Bankson as the point of view character is the most well developed of the cast.  We learn early on that he has a tragic past and a fraught relationship with his mother, and I think what this does is soften him for the reader, and make him seem sympathetic.  Therefore, we don't hate him for falling in love with another man's wife, we see the mere fact of her already being married as a cruel trick of fate.  We know very little about Fen but this doesn't seem to matter, as Nell and Andrew seem perfect for one another-- they share the same passion for research and each have a tragic past, and are now isolated and lonely in their present.  This gradual coming together of characters is gentle and beautifully done, and at it's most basic level, the struggles of the three characters within their love triangle is a great study of human behaviours.

I really enjoyed this book, and I gave it five stars.

Find more information at Lily King's website here.

Friday, 19 December 2014

Reading Round-Up: November/December

I've done it again, left another big stack of books for reviewing next to my workspace, and it's getting so that work in said space is actually becoming difficult.  A lot of these books I read while I was in Residence at the Katharine Susannah Prichard Writers Centre, so if you think I read a lot more than usual this time around (considering this post only actually covers about two weeks of reading) then you would be right!

I love this time of year for reading: there's not a lot going on, so long as you've finished your Christmas shopping, and it's too hot to do anything much.  When I get home from work, I like to change into comfy clothes or pyjamas and curl up with a tea and a book.  Last year, my summer read of choice was Eleanor Catton's The Luminaries-- I spent Christmas day reading it in between visitors and meals, and finished it on Boxing Day when I was sent home early from work (due to lack of customers, not due to a hangover, thanks very much.)  This year, I'm not sure what I'll be reading on Christmas Day, but I hope it's just as good.

You can use this round-up as a Christmas Gift Guide, if you wish, or ask for recommendations in the comments.  Always happy to help.

And now:

Isabelle of the Moon and Stars by SA Jones

Beautiful local book, which is always a great place to start.  I have a passion for books written in or about Western Australia.  This novel is about a young woman named Isabelle who is suffering from depression, and the challenges she faces in trying to navigate a world where people don't really understand depression as a mental illness.  She's recovering from a pretty nasty breakdown, and fears the return of The Black Place.  What I related to most was her pain at having been left by her ex-fiance, Karl, who saw her depression as a weakness rather than a sickness, and I absolutely loved Isabelle's determination to find herself, even if it was a winding path.  This is a book that recognises progress as a spiral, rather than a straight line.  It contained stunning prose and I read it quickly, hungry for more.

The Night Falling by Katherine Webb

Katherine Webb is an author I was already aware of but hadn't picked up to read before.  To be honest, my decision this time was wholly influenced by a redesign of her covers.  I'm a sucker for those stock standard historical fiction/ romance covers.  The story follows Claire, an Englishwoman, who goes with her husband and stepson to country Italy to work on a stately home for an Italian man who has made it big in New York and returned home.  As time wears on, it becomes apparent to Claire that she is trapped there, rather than a visitor, and the suggestion is made that her benefactor might be a member of the mafia.  But while she is there, she meets a young Italian man, the nephew of her host, who is searching for the man who raped and murdered his fiancee and the two of them seem to fall in love almost by accident.  The book is set during the early 1920s and it paints an interesting portrait of life at a time when fascism was on the rise, and to be poor was incredibly difficult.  At first, I found this book incredibly tedious-- the first few chapters could have done with a good edit, I think, but having nothing else to do but read, I pushed through and found myself caught up in the story before long.  What was most interesting was her manipulation of characters.  All I can say is, beware, as things are not always what they seem.

The Year it All Ended by Kirsty Murray

From there, I moved into the research portion of my reading for the month.  I started with The Year it All Ended by Kirsty Murray, a novel about four sisters from Adelaide and the way that their lives change as a result of the First World War ending.  They lose both a brother and a cousin to the war, and what's more interesting is that the family is part German, and their cousin actually fought for the other side, and is viewed as a traitor.  Tiney is the youngest daughter, and she is interested in poetry.  She is determined that they should all go to Europe and find her brother's graves, but there are many obstacles.  While this book is aimed at young adults, it's written in quite a sophisticated way, and it encapsulates nicely the many changes that war brought about in society, in terms of things like morals, art, family life and women's lives.  I was really drawn in by the characterisation, and moved by the tender way that the horror of the First World War was commemorated.

Upsurge by JM Harcourt

Banned in Australia after it was first published for some of the lewd behaviour of its characters, and I suspect also its communist sympathies, this book was published in WA in the mid-thirties and was recommended to me by a reader of this blog.  Amanda Curtin kindly leant me her copy.  I was struck by the almost English sensitivity of the tone of voice used, and also the different attitudes of the characters to things like relationships, work and the law.  It was an interesting experience, reading this book and will no doubt be useful to me in the future.

The Strays by Emily Bitto

I wish I could go back in time and put this book in my top ten for the year, because it is superb.  The book is about a young girl who meets a family of sisters at her new school and through friendship with them, spends time in a building artist's colony run by the girls' parents.  Things quickly begin to get out of hand in the commune, and as a result, Lily and Eva are separated for many years, unable to discuss the trauma of what happened in the end.  The writing in this book manages to be quite modern, despite its 1930s setting, and yet it doesn't feel inauthentic.  The emphasis is on characters and events, rather than setting, although it does rely on our familiarity with the rise of modernism during the period to situate some of the artistic discussions had by the adults.  I loved this book, and found it inspiring.

Haxby's Circus by Katharine Susannah Prichard

While I was staying in Katharine's house, I thought it a good idea to read some of her work, so I took Haxby's Circus along especially for that purpose.  I'd read Coonardoo previously and remembered it being a little hard work, but Haxby's Circus, while a slow read, was somewhat more entertaining.  There were certain sentences in the novel that were like half finished ideas, and the narrative structure of the book was very different to what we're used to today, but I did end up really enjoying this book, and I find it has whetted my appetite for more novels about Depression era circuses.

When War Came to Fremantle by Deborah Gare and Madison Lloyd-Jones

I've spoken about this book before, but it's a recent publication of photographs and oral testimony that documents the port city's interaction with the various world wars.  It was a vital help to my work while I was at KSP and I loved looking at the old photographs.

Railway Man by Eric Lomax

I don't know why I put off reading this book for so long!  It's been sitting on my desk since last Christmas.  I guess I thought it would be too harrowing.  And yes, it does talk about a real man who was tortured for his part in making a radio receiver in a POW camp in Japan, but it also talks about reconciliation, as far as that's possible, and personal strength, and mateship and determination, all the things that make me so grateful to the men who never gave up, right to the end, in the camps along the Death Railway.  Eric Lomax's book was made into a film, which I'm told was atrocious, but I will watch it anyway.

The Road to Gundagai by Jackie French

I remember reading a book I got out of a library when I was quite young, about a girl named Barbara (I think) who runs around a corner and finds herself transported back to 1932, and ends up living in a shanty town during the Depression.  The book was called Somewhere Around the Corner, and it's by Jackie French.  I think I'd decided Jackie was decidedly a children's writer, but this novel, the third in the Matilda cycle, is another one that really could be for both young adults or adults.  It's about a young heiress named Blue Laurence, who is terribly scarred after a fire in her house, but runs away to join the circus where she makes friends with an elephant named Sheba.  At the circus, she learns that someone has been trying to kill her to get their hands on her money, and she hides in plain sight, performing as a mermaid, because her legs are stuck together with scarring.  The Road to Gundagai is a really entertaining book, and I immediately rushed out and bought the next book in the series, To Love a Sunburnt Country, which is about the Second World War.

So that's it!  Thinking about it now, this covers about three week's worth of reading, but I'm pretty impressed with the effort.  If you've read any of these, or you have any questions, let me know in the comments below, and I'll return to longer reviews next week!

Sunday, 14 December 2014


My toughest critic was not invited to participate in the Young Writer in Residence program at KSP Writers Centre, and so I left her at home.

I tried to remind myself, daily, that I had been selected to be there.  I had been given permission to not do laundry or vacuum or cook nutritious meals, and was really, in fact, expected to be writing for a large portion of the time.  It wasn't all that hard to remember.  Katharine's Place is a hub of writerly enthusiasm, and through reading the guest book, I could see my place in a long literary chain of names I knew and names I didn't... people like Tracy Farr, Alice Pung, PA O'Reilly and Annabel Smith.

For the first time, I looked at my novel with properly new eyes.  The pressure was gone.  No, it was not perfect, but it was not awful either, and every new word I put down on the page was a mark of progress and improvement.  The work that I did over the ten days I spent in Greenmount was some of the most inspired and productive I have produced in years.  I felt my priorities properly realigning, and a powerful feeling of purpose underlined the choices I made.

In ten days, I managed to write 40 000 words, advancing me significantly along my planned path- since coming home, I have not quite kept up the same momentum, but I have written a little every day, finding time before or after work, and thinking about the world of my story when I am away from it.  Currently, I am trying to decide whether or not I want to keep the ending to part 4, but I am on track to finish the book by new year, and then the adventure of sending it to agents and publishers awaits....

Monday, 8 December 2014

Top Ten Books of 2014

It seems like this time of year has come far too quickly, but already people are counting down their favourite books, albums and films of the year!  I've just finished one of my New Year's Resolutions, which was to read 110 books this year- 10 more than I planned to read last year.  It seemed pretty ambitious when I set the goal, but there are still a few weeks of the year left and I am very proud of having made it over the line...

When I sat down to look at all the books I read over 2014, one thing struck me about five star books.  There are two kinds.  At the time you finish a book, and you rate it five stars, sometimes it feels like the best book you have ever read, but I wonder if it really deserves five stars if all that impact is gone when you think about it months later?

All the books that made my shortlist this year were books which made me want to read more, write better, and left me with a lingering emotion, whether that be joy or anger (at the truth I'd been shown, not at the shoddy writing) or sadness or hope.  Looking at the list, the majority of them are Australian Writers, and more than half are women.  There are some I hope to emulate in my own craft and others who have impressed me by creating a style so far from my own that it had never even crossed my mind to write in that way!

1. The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton

2. My Salinger Year by Joanna Rakoff

3. Only the Animals by Ceridwen Dovey

4. We Were Liars by E. Lockhart

5. Bitter Greens by Kate Forsyth (first published 2012)

6. The Strays by Emily Bitto

7. South of Darkness by John Marsden

8. After Darkness by Christine Piper

9. Longbourn by Jo Baker

10. Lost and Found by Brooke Davis

Honourable mentions have to go to a few other books which almost made the top ten and these are:

The Ark by Annabel Smith
The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells by Andrew Sean Greer 
Nest by Inga Simpson
Cairo by Chris Womersley
Lost Luggage by Jordi Punti

So that's it, another top ten for another year!  If you've read any of these, let me know what you thought of them.

For those of you who might be interested in ways to fit more reading into your life, I am planning a post on that, so please let me know your thoughts in the comments.

Wednesday, 3 December 2014

Young Writer In Residence

Well, here I am at the Katharine Susannah Prichard Writers Centre in the Perth hills.  I am settled into Aldridge cottage, one of three self contained writing units modelled after Katharine's original studio, which still stands.  I have a large desk, a comfy writing chair, and a kettle; therefore I have everything that I need to write.  And writing I have been.

After spending 24 + hours in the unit between yesterday and today, I felt it was time to venture out this afternoon, under the pretext of taking my rubbish out.  I armed myself with a small digital camera, and as the light was beginning to fade around the house, there was something magical about it.  I decided to explore.

My work station, complete with Hello Kitty folder.

What I can see, most of the day.  It's prettier in real life, I swear.  This is just my inept photography...

See?  Told you the view was better!  This is it, later in the day, as I took in the magnificent sunset with the blinds open.  All of this was on the first day.  

The courtyard at the KSP centre, looking onto the front verandah of the house.  It's really lovely out there, and I'm tempted to go back tomorrow with my lunch.... but there are a few cheeky magpies lurking about so maaaaaybe not. 

Greenery everywhere.  Communing with nature.

A beautiful mosaic of Katharine Susannah Prichard hangs out by the Centre's office.  I did not know that KSP was the first Australian author to have international success with her writing.  Finding that out made me really happy.

On Monday, I joined in a writing group led by local writer Meg Caddy.  The group was for writers under 12, and Meg had us all describe a door, but not what the door led to.  Imagine my surprise, two days later, when I went exploring down the side of the house and found almost the very door I had described!!! This must have been the original front door of the house.  It was like stepping back in time.

View from the verandah down to the cottages. 

Same courtyard as before, this time seen from the way back.  There's something about a set of empty chairs set up like that, as if someone's just been sitting there and walked away, leaving only the intimacy of a recent conversation.

There's a horse shoe like this one on the verandah at my Grandparents' beach house.  Horse shoes should always be worn or placed facing up, otherwise all the good luck runs out of them.  I wonder if a lot of houses had these?

Sunset brings out galahs, the only other birds I've seen apart from the noisy magpie family that lives outside my door.  This fellow wasn't spooked by me, and I had to take a photo, seeing as I'd been writing about pink and grey galahs just the other day.  Oh, I also saw a chicken....

KSP's writing desk, inside her cottage, as seen through a locked door.  It's beautiful in there, but also a little spooky.  Not that I believe in ghosts...

The view from the front door of my cottage.  The building peeking out is Katharine's workspace.  

I am hoping that while I'm here, I might make it past 50 000 words on the latest draft.  It seems achievable.  This morning I passed 30 000, and if I write again tonight, I will most likely pass 35 000.  To those of you to whom this sounds like a lot, it's not.  I redraft using a method that Anthony Marra calls "retyping", by which I mean I work with the previous draft and my notes open beside me as hard copies, and type them out again, making changes and letting my refreshed view lead me on new tangents as I go.  This time around I am indebted to a great number of wonderful people who have given me food for thought.  I can feel my writing muscles flexing.  I can feel myself getting better.  I can see and hear progress, and I am feeling strong.  This is a lovely way to feel.