Tuesday, 28 April 2015

Book Review: The Soldier's Wife

The Soldier's Wife
Pamela Hart
Hachette Publishing, 2015 (I own a copy courtesy the publisher)

When Jimmy Hawkins enlists and is shipped off to fight in World War One, his new bride Ruby is forced to find herself a job in order to get by without him.  The daughter of a cloth merchant, Ruby is skilled in the art of running a business and keeping books, but as a woman in the early 20th Century, these are not acceptable talents for a young lady.  Even Ruby herself doubts her own abilities, when she gets a job at Curry and Sons timber merchants as a book-keeper.  The men in the office there are suspicious of her and feel she is taking a man's job, but there aren't any men around looking for work, and as it is, half the company has enlisted, including Mr Curry's son Laurie.  When Ruby and her employer discover that her husband and his son are in the same company over in Turkey, a strange and reluctant family is formed.

This was an interesting book, in that it turned out to be far more complex than I ever expected.  There is a rapidly growing genre in Australian historical fiction that prioritises sweeping love stories that subvert class and age, and I had half-expected this to be one of those.  Yet The Soldier's Wife was a far deeper sort of story, and one with an extremely positive message.  It is a widely accepted fact that the shortages of male workers during the wars pushed women into all sorts of jobs that they had previously been excluded from, but rarely is this dealt with in commercial fiction.  The central love story of The Soldier's Wife is not between Jimmy and Ruby, but between Ruby and herself, as she learns how capable she is, and becomes the sole provider for her little family.

I particularly related to Ruby's story later on in the book, when she began to run Curry and Sons from behind the scenes after a tragedy.  Hart's writing really captured that feeling of being on a trapeze without a safety net that accompanies having to take responsibility for someone else's livelihood,which is a situation I have occasionally found myself in.  Ruby must use her common sense and initiative, but she also must rely on her friends to get by, and this element of the story is heart-warming, and makes Ruby rather likeable, despite the hardnosed approach she has to take at other times of the book.

Hart also addresses the issue of what it was like for men to come home to working women, when Jimmy comes home injured and has to face the reality that Ruby is now the provider and not him.  Jimmy has lasting psychological issues due to trauma, but he is also resentful that his place as the Man has been taken by his woman.  Ruby is saddened by the loss of her gentle and passionate husband, but her love for Jimmy is still strong and she must find a way to keep them both happy as well as comfortable, in terms of having enough money to live on.  While I found myself frustrated by Ruby's tolerance of Jimmy's bad behaviour, I had to remind myself that I was reading about a different era-- in the post world war one days, divorce was NOT easy and also not socially acceptable.  For Ruby, it would have been a big decision to face.  The fact of her husband being injured and traumatised by war also would have been a factor in her decision, and I cannot imagine how hard it would have been to first live without him and fear for him, and then have him home and different.  This is a situation evoked well by the book.

As far as the historical detail goes, the book is gentle in its approach, and while there are no anachronisms, the story took pride of place.  It could be said that this was a historical novel that lacked the typical nostalgia that usually drips all over this genre, and possibly this was a good thing.  For me, as a history nerd, I somewhat expected the details to be a little more in the forefront.

But overall, this was an enjoyable novel, and Hart is obviously a skilled writer.  This book would make a great Mother's Day present, if you're looking for a recommendation.

Four stars.

Sunday, 19 April 2015

Marching through Middlemarch (In April)

So I'm no stranger to classic literature, but last year I started reading Middlemarch by George Eliot and boy has it taken me a long time to finish!  To be more precise, I started reading it on April 29th 2014 and I finished it last Saturday.  I'm not sure what it was about the book that made it take me so long; sure, the language was from a different era, and I do think some of Eliot's best quips may have sadly been lost on me, but I don't think it was a matter of it being too hard.  In fact, the more of the book I read, the more I liked it!

The book is written in eight 'books', reflecting the serialised publication of it in the mid 1800s when it first came out.  The author, George Eliot, aka Mary Anne Evans, would become one of the most well known authors of the time, but during her own lifetime, she published under a male pseudonym.  Middlemarch is a novel about a provincial town in the English countryside where several relationships play out.  There is Dorothea Brooke, a young woman of nineteen who wants to make something of herself, and sees her marriage to a stuffy academic many years older than herself as the path to greatness; Tertius Lydgate a young doctor whose modern methods make him the best doctor but not the most socially accepted, who finds himself engaged in a flirtation with the town beauty, Rosamund Vincy; and Rosamund's brother Fred, a gambler and a spendthrift, who wants to convince his childhood friend, Mary, that he is worthy of her hand in marriage.  Throughout the books, the fortunes of these characters rise and fall.  There is a little something for everyone.

Eliot is a witty and observant writer, whose narration inserts itself in and out of the story to make remarks, such as, when describing Rosamund's education she makes a quip about the school educating its ladies in all important matters, even down to the little things like getting in and out of carriages.  Her characters were lifelike but also comical, and well-drawn, although there were such a lot of them that sometimes it was very hard to keep track of the minor ones.

My favourite part of the book was the love triangle that was set up between Dorothea, her husband Mr Causabon and his nephew, Will Ladislaw, a young man more suited to Dorothea whom she comes to love only after she realises that her marriage is not going to the be the intellectual partnership she longs for.  Mr Causabon does not live long into the novel, and perhaps this is a blessing for Dorothea, except for a codicil in his will which prevents her from marrying Will Ladislaw on the penalty of losing her home and her inheritance from her husband.  For Dorothea, this is also a matter of propriety and honour, for the codicil means that her marrying Ladislaw would make her a traitor to her word, and she spends much of the novel feeling both drawn to and repulsed by Will.  It is only when she thinks he may not adore her as purely as she has always thought he did that she admits to herself that she loved him, and is heartbroken.

This is a novel which I will one day re read, particularly after having read Rebecca Mead's bibliomemoir, The Road to Middlemarch, in which Mead thematically discusses the novel, her own life, and the life of George Eliot according to the stages of life represented by each stage in the novel.  While this is an interesting approach, it is not chronological, which was confusing, but her light, conversational style made the life of a very serious woman interesting, and she managed to illuminated my complicated impressions of the weighty novel that is Middlemarch.  

Friday, 10 April 2015

My Mum Reviews: Bad Seed by Alan Carter

My mother, Megan, is an extremely intelligent woman who often says she would like to write a crime novel.  If anyone could do it, it is her.  As it is, she's a busy academic who still finds time to devour at least two novels a week.  These novels are usually crime novels.  As I don't usually read crime, I thought perhaps it might be nice if every now and then, I got her to review something she rather liked for you all, seeing as my bias away from crime is surely not shared by all my readers.  In the style of Triple J's breakfast program, in which they ask their fathers to review the feature albums, I now bring you My Mum Reviews.

Bad Seed
Alan Carter
Fremantle Press

Cato Kwong is back.

He’s a local cop working out of the new Fremantle police station, driving a Western Australia Police pool Commodore down familiar Leach Highway and carrying out his investigations against a backdrop of familiar local and national events.  It is interesting to read a crime novel set in the city in which you live, especially when you have read many a foreign crime novel before.
Alan Carter has created a believable cast of characters in his fictional police force, and the development of this cast in Bad Seed continues.  Once in a while little things creep in which are very local, including language, and which I will now look out for when I read other crime novels set in unfamiliar cities.  Having read the two previous Cato Kwong novels I looked forward to this novel with interest.  The blurb led me to expect a little more of the action to be set in Shanghai, but we only briefly visited an unfamiliar Shanghai with Cato and his colleagues who were also taking in their new surroundings. 

The development of a number of storylines, and a number of shocks, helped to build the interest as the book progressed, although  a couple of events seemed to occupy less of the narrative than they perhaps should have.  Some of the tricks of writing which worked well included changes of tense, and moving from one character’s perspective to another without losing Cato’s view as the central focus.  I was curious about the ‘what next ‘for a range of characters, and the outcome was plausible if a little rushed, and dissatisfying, in a satisfying kind of way which might be associated with a realistic conclusion. 

If you like crime fiction, and are interested in local authors I recommend a read of Bad Seed.  I found myself reading at all times around the house – a good sign with me.  Now that I have finished I am interested in reading more about Cato’s activities and look forward to the next instalment. – I had already met Cato Kwong but think that the book would stand alone without the need to read Prime Cut and Getting Warmer.   

By Megan (Emily's Mum)

Wednesday, 8 April 2015

Book Review: The Painted Sky

The Painted Sky
Alice Campion
Bantam Books 2015 (I own a copy, courtesy the publisher)

When Nina Larkin's Uncle Russell dies, leaving her his property in the small rural town of Wandalla, she decides to head out to see the place herself before it sells.  Her mother has passed away, and her father, the eclectic artist Jim Larkin, has been missing since the late 1990s.  Nina believes that there may be some clues as to what happened to him out at the property, The Springs, where Russell and Jim grew up.  But as her search begins to unfold, her troubles begin and chief among them is Hilary Flint, who happens to be the only buyer for The Springs.  Hilary is new money, and she takes an instant dislike to Nina.  Her plan is to buy The Springs, and along with her property, and the property belonging to her future son-in-law, Heath Blackett, she will restore the historic Durham estate and become the largest landholder in Wandalla.  Nina is in the way, and in more ways than one.

This novel was not in the least what I expected.  On first inspection, it didn't seem like my kind of book at all; I've never really gone in for that new genre of Rural Romance, and I'm starting to develop an aversion to books with headless women on the cover, but The Painted Sky was a pleasant surprise.  It was written by five women, members of a book club called The Book Sluts (they'll read anything) and was born out of an idea they formulated as a way to raise money for a trip to Russia.  The five women have all held jobs in which good written language skills are a must, and they are extremely widely read, yet the challenge remained-- how to get a co-authored book off the ground.

It's not unheard of, but it is quite rare.  And the more authors a novel has, the harder it must be to ensure a consistent voice is present throughout the book.  But it must be said; if I had not been told there were five authors, I probably wouldn't have guessed.  Because I did know, there were some clues.  For example, some of the descriptive language was very original, but some was quite cliched.  And one of the authors seemed to be particularly interested in describing Nina's rockabilly fashion sense, for the detailed breakdowns of her outfits only came every so often, rather than every time she would have changed her clothes (and good thing too, because if it was every time, that might have been a tad dull...)  For 96 pages, the book is told from Nina's point of view, and I had gotten into the familiar rhythm of her thoughts, but suddenly, other points of view began to creep in: Heath, Deborah, and Hilary, most of all.  I understood this choice as a way to convey information that Nina couldn't possibly see, but it did seem like a stylistic choice that could have been established from earlier on.

That being said, this was a compelling, genre-bending book.  The story has elements of romance, mystery, and family drama all rolled into one.  The twists and turns were logical and well-paced (sorry to say I guessed every one, but I recognise a literary plant after studying books and writing for so long) and the characters were very well drawn.  The sex scenes were a little racier than I would usually go for, but stopped on the right side of smutty.  As for dialogue, some of it could at times be a little unnatural, particularly when it came to Hilary-- yes, she was set up as being a class A bitch, but at times she talked like a Disney villain.  All that being said, there was a certain event in the book that made me cry, and that hasn't happened in a long, long time.

I enjoyed being pleasantly surprised by this book.

Four stars.

Saturday, 4 April 2015

Reading Round-Up: March

March is always my favourite month of the year, because it is my birth month!  In our family, it's also the birth month of a great number of my family members, including two cousins, an uncle, an aunt, and my Grandpa who turned 80 this year and is still the sharpest mind I have the ongoing pleasure of speaking to.

It was a month of highs and lows, of starting University (I am doing a graduate diploma as an external student, in order to become an editor), and of sending query letters to agents.  It was also the month in which one of my dear writing partners, Louise Allan, came within inches of winning the TAG Hungerford award.  I will let Louise tell you about the night in her own words, with a just few from me; Louise is a talented writer and her manuscript shows that she has the ability to elicit remarkable control over characters going through a range of high emotions and trauma.  Her book, Ida's Children, will not stay unpublished for long.

Louise, with WritingWA Chair, Rosemary Sayer.
The winner of this year's TAG Hungerford award was Madelaine Dickie, for her book Troppo, a novel which explores the relationship between Australia and Indonesia.  As Madelaine gave her acceptance speech on the night, I was struck by two things.  First of all, her confidence.  Here was a woman unapologetic for her achievements.  She knew she had worked hard to get where she was.  Second, her gratitude.  She knew she had not been able to work that hard without the support of various programs, and of her partner.  I look forward to reading her book when it is published in 2016. and I hope that I can cultivate these two qualities that she exhibited on the night.  I will start now, with gratitude, and say that I am so thankful to WritingWA, the West Australian, Fremantle Press, and especially to the City of Fremantle and Mayor Brad Pettitt for their support of this award, and their support of writing and the arts in Western Australia.

Brad Pettitt, Mayor of Fremantle, announces the winner of the TAG Hungerford award.

Now, onto some books!

With so much going on this month, it's little wonder that I didn't make it to my monthly goal of ten books.  At the beginning of the month, it looked like I would barely make it to four!  In the end, however, I have read a respectable eight books in March, and here they are.

Black Light by KA Bedford

My first foray into the world of speculative fiction for the year, and boy was it a foray.  You can read my review here.

The Last Illusion by Porochista Khakpour

Khakpour was one of the highlights of my 2015 Perth Writers' Festival experience, and her book about Iranian mythology and the mythologising of 9/11 knocked my socks off.  You can read my review here.  

Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

How can I have been so late to the party?  Every person and their dog raved about this book when it first came out in 2012 and it was shortlisted for all sorts of awards but I just never got around to it.  This story blends literary historical fiction with a speculative element (that of alternate lives) in a way that questions the causality of major events through the twentieth century.  Yet it is not your typical 'let's kill Hitler' novel, but a family saga, and the story of a woman, Ursula, as she makes her way in the world.  Themes of womanhood and her 'submissiveness' are explored, as well as domestic violence, infidelity, motherhood and in short, I inhaled this book.

The Soldier's Wife by Pamela Hart

A forthcoming novel about a young woman who is left behind when her new husband enlists and goes off to fight in World War One.  Ruby must subvert expectations and excel in her new job in order to survive, but doing this may change her irreparably.  I have a review to be published later in the month, closer to the release date, but I think this book will make a great Mother's Day gift.

Laurinda by Alice Pung

What can I say about this book?  First of all, I think it's a real shame that it hasn't made the shortlist for the Stella Prize (but it was longlisted, and that list has some damn fine books on it).  When Lucy is accepted into a prestigious private school, Laurinda Ladies' College, she finds herself completely out of her depth.  This world of big houses, stay at home mothers, plaid uniforms and debate matches against the local boys' school is completely different from Lucy's home in Stanley, where her mother sews clothes in the garage for a living, and Lucy takes care of her baby brother, occasionally ringing the utilities company to impersonate her mum, because her mother doesn't really speak English.  As the outsider, Lucy witnesses the bullying that goes on not just to keep the other students in line, but to control the teachers, and she is particularly horrified by the behaviour of a group called The Cabinet, who are the popular girls at the school.  I loved this book, but it also made me think deeply about high school and some of the things that I have maybe tried a little too hard to forget.  I think it's a really important book, and I have recommended it to all the teacher friends I know.  Amazing, amazing book.

The Lovers of Amherst by William Nicholson (also called Amherst)

A so-so novel about an affair Emily Dickinson's brother had with a socialite, and the modern screenwriter who wants to turn this into a film.  I liked getting a taste of Emily Dickinson's poetry, but the novel gave hardly a glimpse of the woman herself, which was frustrating, and the affair was over before it began, really.  The second narrative, that of Alice and her much older host, Nick, who becomes her lover, was forced and a little cliche. Nicholson's strength was his dialogue, and I am given to understand that he is an award winning screenwriter who has worked on such films as Les Miserables.  This book just didn't grab me.

The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin

There's not much I can really say about this book, except that I feel it has given me a slightly new perspective.  Yes, it is a self help book/ memoir, but it's not a comprehensive guide on how to be happy.  Instead, it's about increasing your ability to enjoy happiness, and focussing on mindfully going about your every day tasks.  It's also about goal setting, which I really enjoy.  Some of it was annoying, especially as the book went on she began to publish more and more examples from comments left on her blog (this felt like she didn't have enough content from her own life) and some was culturally too different to my own life for me to understand, but I think I learned some things.

Conversations I've Never Had by Caitlin Maling

I think the best way to experience Caitlin Maling's poetry is to read it aloud.  I heard her read some of the pieces at the Perth Writers' Festival and they were superb.  These poems are about places I've been, or people I've known, or the person I could have been, growing up in this country, and I really enjoyed it, but I think I am going to have to teach myself to read poetry, because sitting down and reading one poem after the other kind of diluted the impact.

My three favourite March reads

That's it for this month!  Tell me if you've read any of these in the comments.  I look forward to hearing from you.