Monday, 27 March 2017

Book Review: Her Mother's Secret

Natasha Lester
Hachette Australia (I own a copy, courtesy the publisher)

Image Source: author website
We are extremely lucky in Western Australia to have a thriving literary community, and you would be hard pressed to find another writer in that community who is as generous with their time as Natasha Lester.  Not only is Natasha a writer, she is also a teacher, a mother, a blogger, and I'm sure she finds a few moments of her spare time in which to fight crime as well.  Natasha's first novel, What is Left Over After was the recipient of the TAG Hungerford award administered by Fremantle Press for an unpublished manuscript.  She then went on to publish her second novel, If I Should Lose You with Fremantle Press too.

But for novel three, Natasha Lester chose a different direction for her fiction.  While both previous novels had been well received by critics and readers alike, and Natasha Lester had amassed a following of local writers through her blogs and courses, it was time for a different sort of book.  Both If I Should Lose You and What is Left Over After were more in the literary fiction vein of things.  2016's A Kiss From Mr Fitzgerald was something else entirely.  And so, Natasha Lester almost got to have her debut novel all over again, under the stewardship of the team at Hachette Australia.  An historical fiction novel about a young woman growing up in 1920s New York and dreaming of becoming an obstetrician in a time when women simply did not do such things, A Kiss From Mr Fitzgerald demonstrated the massive commercial appeal of Natasha Lester's writing, putting her in direct comparison with authors such as Kate Forsyth, Kimberley Freeman and Pamela Hart.

This year, Natasha Lester releases her fourth novel, but her second novel in her new genre.  Her Mother's Secret is the story of Leo, a young woman from a small village in England who spent most of the First World War making cosmetics for nurses stationed at the local hospital, using ingredients from her father's pharmacy.  Like Evie in A Kiss from Mr Fitzgerald, Leo is a strong-willed woman who is determined not to be restricted by the conventions of her time.  When fate leads her to New York, Leo decides to make a name for herself by starting her own line of cosmetics and attempting to get it into all the major department stores.

Of course, there is also a love story, but this is not simply a romance novel.  Leo's story is not just about whether she gets the man.  Her determination to meet her goals and support herself comes above all things, making her a remarkable character to follow, and one which modern women are sure to relate to.  She's supported by a cast of secondary characters right out of the page of an F. Scott Fitzgerald novel (and though Lester's writing style is very different, the influence of the Gatsby author remains clear), such as Faye, a binge drinking society gal who threatens to crush Leo's future in the palm of her well-manicured hand.

At times, I found the pace of the novel a little faster than perhaps I would have liked, with events seeming to be racing towards the finish line-- though admittedly, this is a novel that has to cover more than 20 years in under 350 pages!  It did mean that some scenes seemed lacking in detail and some of the character's actions and reactions were a little sudden.

Readers who enjoyed A Kiss From Mr Fitzgerald will not be disappointed by the follow up, which demonstrates that Natasha Lester knows how to write a fast paced commercial novel without following the usual old formula.  You will be surprised by the twists and turns this novel takes and the decisions made by its protagonist.  Surprised and, most likely, delighted.

Natasha will be the guest speaker at the Bookcaffe Book Club on April 6th at the State Library of WA.  To book tickets, visit Trybooking.

Thursday, 16 March 2017

A few thoughts on Difficult Women by Roxane Gay

Difficult Women
Roxane Gay
Corsair Publishing 2017 (I own a copy, courtesy Hachette Australia)

This is not strictly a review of Roxane Gay's collection of short fiction, it's more of a collection of my thoughts.  Since I decided that I was going to put together my own collection of short stories, I've been increasingly fascinated by the ins and outs of single author collections.  What holds the pieces together?  How well does the author manage to differentiate the different voices in the stories?  How do you have a huge impact in a very short space?

The premise of Difficult Women really intrigued me, right from the blurb which reads:

The women in these stories live lives of privilege and poverty, are in marriages both loving and haunted by past crimes or emotional blackmail.  A woman married to a twin pretends not to realise when her husband and his brother impersonate each other.  A stripper putting herself through college fends off the advances of an over-zealous customer.  A black engineer moves to Upper Michigan for a job and faces the malign curiosity of her colleagues and the difficulty of leaving her past behind.  From a girls' fight club to a wealthy subdivision in Florida where neighbours conform, compete and spy on each other, Gay gives voice to a chorus of unforgettable women in a haunting vision of modern America.

That is one spectacular sounding collection.  And herein lies the problem.

Try as I might to let these stories get under my skin, I just couldn't get into any of them.  In fact, I've abandoned the book after 100 pages, and I think I've read all of the stories hinted at in the blurb there, none of which were as interesting as the blurb made them sound like they would be.  Which is weird, when you think about it, because they are stories about really intense subjects like sexual assault, miscarriage, racism, love-- none of those subjects could be called pedestrian.  But each story had a distance to it.  They never really let the reader in.  Through a combination of structural experiments (such as in 'Florida', where the story was broken up into chunks according to which apartment we were glimpsing inside... some of which were in first person and some in third, which try as I might I could not see a reason for) and this detached, almost fable-style tone, the half dozen stories I read did nothing for me.  Which was a shame, because I was really looking forward to this book.

As a wordsmith, it's clear to see that Roxane Gay has a lot going for her, because there were some real gems of sentences in this book, but it wasn't enough.  So many books, so little time, and this one wasn't keeping my attention, so it was a DNF after 100 pages for me.

Monday, 6 March 2017

Film Review: Jasper Jones

Image source:
One of the most hotly anticipated film releases for this year-- for me, anyway-- was the film adaptation of Jasper Jones by WA author, Craig Silvey.  Some of you may know that I wrote my Honours thesis on the novel, back in 2012, so I approached this film with a degree of trepidation.  Whenever a beloved book is adapted for the big screen, there is always the possibility that it will be a let down.  Reading is such a personal experience, whereby the novel gives you just enough information to allow you to imagine its world all on your own-- what the characters look like, what particular events might mean, and why certain things may have occurred.  When those books are adapted for the movies, sometimes what the director and the cast and the screenwriter choose to portray can be in direct contrast with your own thoughts.  And sometimes, that's just a plain disappointment.  Let me just preface this blog post by saying that I am not a professional film critic, and that I am by no means an expert on Australian cinema.  But Jasper Jones has been my favourite novel for a long time, and while I was incredibly excited to see the film, I was also terrified that maybe watching someone else's version of it on the big screen would be a let down, or change the way I saw the book.  

If it sounds like I am setting up to pan the film, you can relax-- I'm not.  Critics have compared the movie to Stand by Me, and I can certainly see where that comparison comes from.  In both films, we are presented with protagonists who are wrenched from childhood by events beyond their control.  In Jasper Jones, that character is Charlie Bucktin, played by Levi Miller who some may recognise as the boy from Pan and Red Dog.  Miller's portrayal of Charlie Bucktin, a deeply introverted and introspective character, is a real highlight of the piece.  Everything he does just flows, it makes sense.  There is never a line of dialogue out of place.  Considering that this is a film with very limited voiceover (I can think of one scene, very early one when it is used), Miller is faced with the enormous burden of conveying Charlie's character non-verbally.  This is a particular challenge, because readers of the novel come to Charlie's character through his voice-- Charlie is the one telling us the story.  But in the film, he can't do that.  He can't explain to us how he feels about Eliza Wishart, or how he's fascinated by Jasper, or how much the racism in the small town of Corrigan makes him furious and confused.  All that considered, I think Levi Miller's performance really made this film.  

Image source: Allen and Unwin
It's worth noting that you can't take an incredibly nuanced novel like Jasper Jones and just squash it into an hour and forty five minutes, so some of the things from the novel have gone or been condensed.  For example, while Charlie tells Eliza that he wants to be a writer, we don't see him trying to write a novel and we don't see him fantasising about meeting Papa Hemingway at a gala in New York with Eliza on his arm (though there is a picture of Hemingway tacked to the wall above Charlie's desk).  The Vietnam War is mentioned but only briefly, and while there are still scenes where the town turns their anger on Jeffrey Lu and his family, these are much reduced compared to how they appear in the novel.  (I was excited to see WA actress Alexandra Jones make a cameo in this film as the grieving mother who yells at Mrs. Lu at the town meeting.  Those of you who saw the stage show Jasper Jones by Kate Mulvany a few years back will know that Alexandra Jones played Ruth Bucktin (Charlie's mother) in the WA performances and did an absolutely amazing job.)  The scenes relating to the Lu family were a key part of the novel for me, but I understand why they may have hit the cutting room floor when the movie had to be condensed.  Just another reason why books are better than movies, I suppose...

One result of the change of point of view afforded by the novel was we got a much more sympathetic portrait of Charlie's mother, Ruth, played by Toni Collette.  In the novel, Ruth is almost an antagonist.  She seems unreasonable and she's always yelling at Charlie for things and meting out cruel and unusual punishments-- such as when she makes him dig a massive hole for no reason and then fill it in.  But in the film, we're not just seeing Ruth through Charlie's eyes, and at first, that really jarred me.  When Ruth tucked Charlie in, kissed him on the head and made him put his book away, I found myself thinking that I was going to have a really hard time hating her later on.  But looking back now, I think that was the point.  The addition of  a scene in which Charlie stumbles upon his mother dancing in the kitchen goes a long way towards explaining why Ruth is so unhappy-- she feels trapped.  She has secret longings.  She's bored out of her mind, and that's why she does what she does-- she leaves.  The moment in the film where she tells Charlie why absolutely broke my heart.  The actors got that scene so right, and while it's different to the book, it works.  In a Q and A session after the screening, author Craig Silvey, who was one of the screenwriters, explained to us that the reaction came from Levi Miller himself.  When director Rachel Perkins asked him to run it again with less emotion, Miller explained that Charlie had just had the most tumultuous week of his young life and that this was the first time he'd had a chance to express that.  And so the moment stayed.  

No, it's not a perfect film, but was any adaptation of my favourite book ever going to be?  It's a movie that bears watching, and I hope rewatching, full of stunning shots that could only have been taken in the South West of WA.  It's a story that could only have happened here, and a story that has captured the hearts of so many readers.  The book is now being studied in secondary schools.  And sooner or later, someone was always going to make it into a movie.  So I'm glad that it was this team, who clearly love what they do, because they've done a wonderful job.