Monday, 25 April 2016

Book Review: A Kiss From Mr Fitzgerald

A Kiss From Mr Fitzgerald
Natasha Lester
Hachette Australia, 2016

From the blurb:

It’s 1922 in the Manhattan of gin, jazz and prosperity. Women wear makeup and hitched hemlines – and enjoy a new freedom to vote and work. Not so Evelyn Lockhart, forbidden from pursuing her passion: to become one of the first female doctors.

Chasing her dream will mean turning her back on the only life she knows: her competitive sister, Viola; her conservative parents; and the childhood best friend she is expected to marry, Charlie.

And if Evie does fight Columbia University’s medical school for acceptance, how will she support herself? So when there’s a casting call for the infamous late-night Ziegfeld Follies on Broadway, will Evie find the nerve to audition? And if she does, what will it mean for her fledgling relationship with Upper East Side banker Thomas Whitman, a man Evie thinks she could fall in love with, if only she lived a life less scandalous?

My Review

I wish I could give this book 6 stars on Goodreads, or even 10, but as the program is, I shall have to settle for a solid 5/5. When Evie Lockhart sets her mind to becoming an obstetrician, despite the scruples of mid-1920s New York telling her it wasn't possible, she also sets off on a journey which I think will capture the hearts and imaginations of all readers. Evie is a true heroine-- determined, self-reliant, unapologetic but kind-hearted. While love may be in the cards for her, Evie's happily ever after is of her own making, and after closing this book I find myself wishing I had a little of Evie's mettle for myself. 

A Kiss From Mr Fitzgerald is peopled with fascinating characters, and set in the most sumptuous of New York locations. It features laugh out loud prohibition-era turns of phrase, whip-smart dialogue and a well researched glimpse of obstetrics and medicine in the Jazz Age. It will have you laughing, crying, and reaching for your copy of The Great Gatsby. 

Natasha Lester has outdone herself. 

Wednesday, 20 April 2016

Book Review: The Midnight Watch by David Dyer

The Midnight Watch
David Dyer
Hamish Hamilton 2016 (I own a copy courtesy the publisher)

On April the 14th, 1912, at 2.20am, the HMS Titanic sunk in the North Atlantic ocean.  1500 of her passengers and crew perished at sea, including some notable English and Americans of the time.  It is a story which has been immortalised for many by James Cameron's 1997 blockbuster film (sensationalised as it was) but the part of the story which is not widely known was that there was another ship nearby that night which could possibly have steamed to the rescue.  The Midnight Watch by David Dyer is the story of the Titanic and the Californian.  Told from the point of view of John Steadman, a journalist for the Boston American, as well as various members of the crew of the Californian it begins as a quest for the truth and becomes an exercise in empathy.

After the death of his infant son, Steadman becomes adept at writing moving journalistic accounts of tragedy and giving voices to the dead.  The Titanic tragedy is an opportunity to 'follow the bodies', and promises a lot of them.  When the offices of the IMM shipping company turns out to be a loose end, Steadman races to meet the Californian, a ship which was near the scene and had been instructed to look for bodies while the Carpathia transported survivors back to New York.  He sneaks on board, only to discover that no bodies have been recovered.  But this has taken him to an even bigger story.  The crew of the Californian are covering up something about that night, and John Steadman is determined to find out what it is.

Steadman is a quite likeable character, which is a testament to the skill of David Dyer's writing, because some of the things he does are deplorable.  His morals are questionable and he does some very shady things in order to trick people into talking to him.  Many of his actions belong to the old time movie journalists, but as the reader gets to know him better, they also realise that he is a devoted and heartbroken father, and that the reason he is willing to stop at nothing to get his scoop is because he feels he owes the people who have died in these tragedies, who are often poor or unfortunate in other ways.  The other characters who tell their parts of the story, Groves, Stone, etc. were less interesting as their voices were difficult to distinguish from one another -- they each saw or heard something vital to the story, and each held a piece of the puzzle, though no man held the whole lot.  But it was hard to remember whose voice I was reading, until, gradually, Herbert Stone began to distinguish himself.  I would have liked to have seen the Marconi boy become more drawn out, and I think Groves could have been dispensed with entirely, but overall, these felt like very minor things and didn't impact too negatively on my enjoyment of the novel.  I was also extremely interested in Harriet Steadman, John's daughter, who was a suffragette and a great source of strength for John, but she didn't get much time on the page.  It would have been an irrelevant change of plot to have Harriet take the wheel, but in a novel with so many male voices, I was drawn to the female perspective she provided.

Herbert Stone's backstory-- the tales of his rough childhood and his love for the novel Moby Dick-- made him a distinctive character and shed some light onto why he was so willing to listen to his Captain's orders against all reason.  But these stories were all told twice; once by the narrator as Herbert himself 'thought' of them, and again when Steadman met with Stone's wife and tried to uncover the truth.  I would have preferred for Mrs Stone to tell Steadman different stories, as it was a wasted opportunity to develop Stone even further.  The differences in character between him and the Captain of the Californian, Captain Lord, are crucial and the interplay of power in their relationship should have been more drawn out.

If it sounds like I disliked this novel, that's not what I meant to convey at all.  In fact, I loved it.  The ending, while experimental, worked nicely and brought tears to my eyes.  I spent a good half an hour after finishing this book last night looking up facts about the Titanic and the discovery of her wreck.  What was most striking about this book was the narrowing of the focus; what begins as a story of the media circus and the spectacle slowly becomes a sensitive exploration of a tragedy and a tribute to those who died that night.

I give this book four and a half stars.

Tuesday, 12 April 2016

Book Review: Summer Skin by Kirsty Eager

Summer Skin
Kirsty Eager
Allen and Unwin 2016 (I bought a copy)

Widely hailed as showcasing a new way of writing about young women, Summer Skin arrived on the YA scene with a bang earlier this year, attracting jacket quotes from the likes of Clementine Ford, which tells you exactly what kind of badass female characters you might expect to find in the novel.  Summer Skin is the story of Jess Gordon, nicknamed 'Flash', a confident , fun, outgoing and mostly hard-working economics student at a University in Queensland.  Jess lives in a residential college known as Unity, which is a co-ed college with a reputation for having alternative residents.  Another college, Knights, which is mostly inhabited by spoilt, cliquey rich boys, has earned the reputation for being home to the University's contingent of male chauvinist pigs after an incident the year before which involved one of Jess's closest friends.  She's out for payback, and she's enlisted help.  What ensues is dangerous, sexy chaos.

When I say sexy, I mean sexy.  This is no book for young readers, and contains more explicit sexual content than some novels for adults I've read.  (And now that I've mentioned sex, it's hard to make that sound like normal fiction books rather than Fifty Shades of Grey or Maestra!)  But what's different about this book and the way that it uses sex is that the explicit scenes in Summer Skin are not just there to entertain you.  They're there to start a dialogue, first of all about consent, and second of all about women's agency in their own sexuality.  The two main characters in this book, Jess and Mitch, often discuss the fact that Jess has needs and that she shouldn't be made to feel somehow ashamed for looking after her needs in the same ways that boys are allowed to do without comment (largely).  Mitch has his moments of almost being as bad as his Knights counterparts, behaving like some sort of drunken monkey and treating the women around him like objects, but he also seems to understand Jess's point of view, and he has already begun to have his doubts about the ways his mates treat people.

There are more than a few similarities between this book and Pride and Prejudice, and I don't just mean because Mitch is from money and because they meet at a party.

One thing I really enjoyed about this book was the use of music throughout the scenes, which provided a kind of soundtrack to read to.  The songs mentioned, either as titles for chapters or as songs playing on various people's iPods in the resident's rooms were varied, from indie rock to Aussie hip hop, and while I think maybe this might annoy people who don't listen to that kind of music and haven't heard of the songs, to me it had the effect of making me want to move in to Unity and hang out with Jess.  However, as someone who has never been through a residential college system even though one of our Unis in WA has one, it did take me a little time to get used to the setting and convince myself that these students were adults and not kids at rival boarding schools.  That was just me!

If you loved Looking for Alibrandi, you'll get a kick out of this book, but it comes with a warning, 15+