Book Review: Swans of Fifth Avenue by Melanie Benjamin

About half way through this book I wasn’t sure what I would write when it came to reviewing it. Whether I even wanted to review it. There are so many books which we read and don’t review either because we don’t have time, or we just don’t have anything to say about it. We’ve never posted a review for a book we don’t like, not because we haven’t read boring books, but because why would we bother to share our dislike? What would we say? Reading is such a subjective thing, both Jody and I struggle regularly over books that are bestsellers, flaunted as the next great thing, the best thing you’ll read all year.

Sorry, tangent. The Swans of Fifth Avenue is an enjoyable enough read, but half way through I was thinking this is just another light, society novel where money and marriage is everything. The main character, Babe Paley, has been brought up as a society ‘swan’ and is the perfect wife to her detached, cheating husband. She plans his meals, dresses for dinner, puts on a face. Always, puts on a face. Smiling, smiling, while inside she battles low self-esteem and an inkling that maybe life shouldn’t be quite like this. She leads her friends like the 1950s style icon she is, but with a rare kindness and generosity – seen as a vulnerability by those around her.

Enter Truman Capote. The eccentric, narcissistic, eventual alcoholic who befriends and enthrals Babe Paley and her friends. Especially Babe, who finds Capote a confidant, a “True Heart”, a best friend. Someone who shares her vulnerabilities and seems to understand her. She opens her heart to him and Capote, the story teller, the infamous writer, does what comes naturally. He tells it to the world and Babe and her friends are betrayed.

The thing is – what really made me stop and think – is that there is a nice symmetry to this book. It’s a kind of non-fiction novel, in the same way Capote’s unfinished Answered Prayers was. The characters existed, the events seem largely constructed from well-documented happenings. The great Black and White Ball in the grand ballroom of the Plaza Hall thrown by Capote in 1966 is legendary. Capote and Paley’s friendship is well documented.

Perhaps it’s just that the idea of being and doing everything for your husband and never knowing your true self is entirely objectionable to my feminist sensibilities. Perhaps it just made me think, so much of their lives is just a face. Constructed, created. So how much of it was genuine? Did they die with no regrets or did they wish, just a little bit, they had lived for themselves more. Loved for themselves more?

This book made me think about the value of these women’s lives and how such bright sparks were dulled by the era they grew up in. How much society lost because they weren’t able to grow into their full potential. It made me wonder – has it changed that much? Aren’t we all still fighting for equality and respect? Maybe the brightest message in this book is that we should present a face to the world that is genuine, and embrace who we are, whoever it is that we want to be. So that the world understands more that there is no perfect face. We are unique and flawed and that is okay. In fact, that is awesome.

Any novel that makes you reflect on that is worthy, in my book.

Amanda x

Book Review: All That Is Lost Between Us by Sara Foster

all-that-is-lost-between-us

Hello again! I know it has been a long time between reviews for me (so my colleagues have been reminding me). My problem is I haven’t actually read a book in quite a while; in fact the last book I read was A Promise of Fire by Amanda Bouchet.

While I may not have been reading, that didn’t stop me from buying books only to put them on the book shelf and look at them, much to the amusement of my husband.

So the big question is, what was the book that finally got me reading again? It was the couldn’t-put-down, read-until-my-eyes-couldn’t-stay-open, All That Is Lost Between Us by Sara Foster. Sara is one of Australia’s bestselling psychological suspense authors and in my newly-formed opinion it’s not hard to see why.

All That Is Lost Between Us is a psychological thriller, but at the same time it’s so much more. I think what sets All That Is Lost Between Us apart from other books of this time is the way Sara develops her characters. You get to know each of them and become invested in their stories. At the same time there is a suspenseful undertone to the story, which had me cuddling closer to my pillow as the goosebumps crept up my arms. What I also found amazing was the way Sara completely transported me to the English country side and the wild marsh country. I could almost feel the mist on my arms. While this book might be too light on the suspense part for some readers, it was perfect for me.

Georgia and her family are believable characters with real life worries and normal family dynamics. Georgia, 17, has withdrawn from her family and her cousin Sophia, who is her best friend. Anya, her mother and a counsellor, knows something is wrong but Georgia is always shutting her out and she doesn’t know how to reach her. Georgia’s father is dealing with his own guilt, and when Georgia’s brother Zac discovers what is behind the change in his sister the family reaches crisis point.

In the days since finishing All That Is Lost Between Us, I’ve been scouring the book stores for my next read. However, as Amanda and I have both found, there isn’t too much around at the moment that we’re interested in. My solution to this problem was to start reading Beneath The Shadows another book by Sara Foster and as of last night, or should I say the early hours of the morning, I am totally hooked! In fact I can’t wait till everyone goes to sleep tonight and I get my quiet time so I can finish.

I want to end by saying “Thank you Sara Foster for deciding you wanted to be a writer, I will be forever grateful!”

Jody

P.S

After doing some investigating today I found out Sara has a new book coming out this year, and I can’t wait. The title is The Hidden Hours and it’s out in April in Australia. Lucky I have a couple more of Sara’s books to read before then to keep me happy.

Book Review: Swing Time by Zadie Smith

Okay. So it’s been a while, I know. In fact, you’ve probably just about given up on us. Brushed us off as one of those flash and burn blogs that soon fade into oblivion. There’s no excuse really, except that Jody and I both fell under that dratted weather bow again. Then we were dealing with the usual end-of-year chaos which has meant that we haven’t had time to have our brainstorm book-discussions, and honestly, neither of us have even had much time to read!

But then the summer holidays came (well over here in Oz – yep, we live in the land of the Wizard!) and thank goodness for that! A few blessed days away surrounded by family, sitting by the beach, reading, eating, relaxing, all those things. Reading, most importantly, of course.

I had been saving Zadie Smith’s Swing Time just for a couple of those lazy days. There’s been quite a bit of hype surrounding it, as with any of her novels, and this one struck a particular chord with me, being an ex-dancer and all.

It’s a story of the great trials of female friendship, so there are  parallels with the Elena Ferrante’s novels I so loved last year (can you believe it is last year already?!). The unnamed protagonist and her ever-so-talented friend Tracey live a childhood imbued with dance and music, just as Zadie’s writing continues to be throughout the book. If you took note of the songs, musicals and artists she mentions, I think you’d have a pretty fabulous playlist.

Zadie writes with a frankness other authors struggle to match. Her narrator moves through life from London to West Africa, seemingly on a search for meaning, but really just floating along in fortuitous relative comfort. Meanwhile, her school friend Tracey manages to scrape through as a chorus-girl before failed relationships and the birth of her children leave her struggling to make ends meet. Which was the greater success? The girl who didn’t really try and succeeded only to prove to others she could, or the one who worked every day of her life towards a goal, only to give it up?

This is a story fractured by inequality, book-ended by the too-rich and the too-poor and the push and pull of money given and money taken away. It’s a beautiful, nuanced novel with layers that still come to mind in unexpected moments weeks later.

Amanda x

Book Review: Goodwood by Holly Throsby

This book has been popping up everywhere lately. I’ve seen it on social media, in emails, in bookshop front windows. It’s another of those Australian slow-build crime books written by Australian women that have been showing up recently – I’m thinking particularly of The Dry by Karen Harper and An Isolated Incident by Emily Maguire.

I think it’s great that female writers are really embracing this genre, as they seem to be more focussed on the impact of the crime on the community surrounding it than on solving the incident itself. This is a refreshing take on crime writing and lends itself to more nuanced storylines.

Goodwood is Holly Throsby’s first novel, but she’s no stranger to writing. As a singer/songwriter she’s recorded four solo albums, a collection of original children’s songs, and was part of a group called Seeker, Lover, Keeper with Sarah Blasko and Sally Seltmann. There is a lyrical quality to Holly’s writing, it seems to flow gently on the page like the incoming tide, as the drama gradually reaches its height. It is a gentle book and it takes its time to reach a conclusion.

I was ridiculously excited it was set in the 1990s. That’s just fantastic! I feel like that’s a fairly unusual choice. I was just a youngster back then and it brought back rich memories of troll dolls and Walkmans, tie-dye and home phones, so fresh in my mind it was like I’d been catapulted back there. Goodwood, the little town where the book was set could have been my old home town, so immediately the story felt familiar. I’m sure it would for many of you as well.

The narrative is driven by 17-year-old Jean Brown as she tries to come to terms with the disappearance of two key community members. Rosie White, the cool girl all the younger teens looked up to, and Bart McDonald, a popular middle-aged man who ran the town butcher. They disappear separately within a week and the town is sent into turmoil trying to work out what happened. Are their disappearances connected somehow, or was it just two random incidents in a sleepy little town where nothing ever seemed to happen?

I enjoyed the premise of the story, although I didn’t put too much stock in the end result. It was the cast of quirky minor characters that really brought the story to life for me. There was a lot of complexity in their lives, a lot of small-town-centric drama that just isn’t found in the isolation of a city. It made me think of all my friends who live in the city and how they talk sometimes of the loneliness they feel. Sure, they have friends, but that sense of community found in small towns isn’t always there. You really can get lost among all those people, but in Goodwood, as in many small towns, no one escapes notice.

Oddly enough, the character I struggled to relate to the most was Jean. I found her voice really changed throughout the book. Sometimes she seemed too young for her 17 years, sometimes quite old. I guess that’s a part of the ebb and flow of teenage emotion though.

This is a great read for those who like small-town sagas, quirky characters, and slow-build mysteries where the impact on the community is central to the plot.

Amanda

PS. You’ll be pleased to know I actually witnessed Jody picking up a book yesterday! Fingers crossed she’s on her way out of her slump.

Book Review: The Good People by Hannah Kent

Hannah Kent is a name most Aussie readers would be more than familiar with. In fact, many readers around the world have read the incredible success story that was Hannah’s first novel, Burial Rites, published in 2013. So it was with some trepidation that I picked up her second novel, The Good People. Could she do it again? Could she weave another story with the same delicacy and skill of her previous novel? Surely it was such a pressure, such a weight on her shoulders.

From what I’ve read and heard, the idea for The Good People was sparked while Hannah was researching Burial Rites. She came across a little snippet of a news story about an Irish healing woman who had been charged with a terrible crime and acquitted because she believed the victim to be a changeling. In Irish folklore, a changeling is type of fairy.

The novel is set in 1825, in a small village on the Flesk River. It’s an interesting period in Ireland’s history, as Catholicism is becoming more and more dominant, and the old ways – those pagan rituals and laws – are being questioned by the church.

The story is woven around three main protagonists, Nance Roche, the village healing woman, Nora Leahy, a middle-aged villager, and Mary Clifford, a servant hired to help with Nora’s sickly grandchild. The child came into Nora’s care after her daughter’s death and while once a bonny lad, now, at the age of four he can’t speak or walk and generally shows the symptoms of a child with a severe disability.

So this is the fascinating premise of the book. Hannah Kent somehow makes it completely understandable that someone like Nora, faced with a disabled child, and without knowledge of modern medical practices,  would conclude her once happy and contented grandchild has been stolen by The Good People and replaced by a fairy changeling. She decides that banishing this changeling is the only way to get her true grandchild back. Why not? What else could possibly explain such a transformation? And isn’t there some degree of comfort in knowing it is in fact not your child, and that by conducting various rituals there is the possibility yours will be returned to you?

Hannah’s meticulous research has built a world full of vivid detail, crafting a story that opens a window into the past. You read slowly to savour each well-developed sentence, the immersive dialogue, the rich descriptions. You read to learn about life in that period, the hardships, the rituals, the community. The story doesn’t have the same building tension as Burial Rites, but it doesn’t seem to matter. Hannah is brimming with talent. Her writing style makes me think of Geraldine Brooks so if you’ve read one and not the other, you should definitely explore them further.

I can only think what a bright, brilliant star Hannah Kent is and how lucky we are that she calls Australia home. I can’t wait to see where she takes us next.

Amanda x

On Australian Women Writers. You are amazing.

You may have read that Jody’s going through a bit of a reading slump at the moment. Fortunately, while she is struggling, I’m devouring some of the best books I’ve read this year. Say goodbye to slump days, and hello long train and plane trips to nowhere, I say! Isn’t it just the best feeling when you have a long stretch of time to fill ahead of you and the book you’re reading makes it go by in a flash?

What really impressed me about the books I’ve been inhaling is they’re all Australian… and they’re all written by women. I know we’ve waxed lyrical many times about the quality of literature in this country but it continues to amaze me. This year I’ve really grown into a passionate advocate of Australian writing, with good reason.

So, with that in mind I signed up Jody and I to the Australian Women Writers Challenge, whereby we challenge ourselves to read a certain amount of works written by Australian women. Child’s play I say. Why didn’t we do this months ago, Jody says? We’ve already read SO many without even noticing! Out of all of the beautiful, astonishing, incredible books we’ve blogged about this year, by my (rough) calculations, at least half have been by Australian women. Helen Garner, Peggy Frew, Cath Crowley, Emily Maguire, Anita Heiss, Fiona Wright, Liane Moriarty, Sofie Laguna, Inga Simpson – the list goes on and on and on. And that’s only the tip, there are so many more we’ve read but not had time to review.

Is it Australia’s isolation from the rest of the world that makes for such diversity and quality among our female writers? Is it our education system? Is it the passion we have for our culture? Is it courage? It takes great courage to pick up the proverbial pen and write in a country that has such richness in landscape and story, and yet has an “ingrained, unconscious bias” against female writers.

I do know this: I am so proud of the literature produced by women in this country. I know some argue it could be more diverse. I know some argue it could better reflect the society we live in. But if you ask me, it’s getting there – you just need to know where to look. And apologies to those blokes out there, but I look to women.

I look to women because I feel their empathy. I look to women because I feel their passion. I look to women because they, and their characters, are vibrant and fierce and funny and kind. I look to women because I think we need a louder voice in this country and I know that voice can be found in literature. In the delicate, curious, exploration of our past, in the ardent advocacy of a different, more all-encompassing future. When they write, I listen. What they write, I learn from. So please, from one reader, from many readers – write more, and know that we are listening.

Amanda x

 

My TBR pile and hitting a reading slump

Well, it’s about time I contributed some content to our blog. I’m sure Amanda is starting to think she’s all alone with no one to help. My problem is I haven’t read anything in a few weeks. I’m really struggling to get excited by a new book and it’s starting to bother me – a lot.

I have books on my shelf I’ve been waiting to read. Some of them I even bought as soon as they were released, but now for some reason they’re just not grabbing me. So, to help me get reading again I decided to share with everyone a selection of books on my TBR pile. There are some great new releases and some old favourites just waiting to be read, and I have no idea why I don’t want to right now. Is anyone else suffering reader’s block?

The Girl in the Glass Tower by Elizabeth Fremantle

I loved the cover of this book so much I had to have it. And when I saw it’s set in Tudor England I was ecstatic because that is one of my favourite time periods. It tells the story of Arbella Stuart, niece to Mary Queen of Queen of Scots and presumed successor to Elizabeth I. She’s been in isolation for most of her life but as we all know, those close to the crown are never safe! I always find it interesting when someone whose life is so strictly controlled suddenly goes against the grain. I am hoping that’s what happens anyway!

The Joyce Girl by Annabel Abbs

I have been watching this book pop up again and again on social media and the premise is fascinating. It’s set in the late 1920s in Paris and it’s about James Joyce’s daughter Lucia. From what I understand, this is a fiction based on the few details known about Lucia’s life, who almost disappeared from history. Despite her talent and ambition she leads a tumultuous life, one that sounds entirely gripping.

America’s First Daughter by Stephanie Dray & Laura Kamoie

Obviously I was going through a bit of an historical fiction phase with these ones! This novel is set in America during the 18th Century, in particular the period when Thomas Jefferson is the American Minister to France. The protagonists are his 15 year old daughter, Patsy, and Sally Hemings, a slave girl of the same age. It’s been compared to Gone with the Wind, which is a big call but in my mind that makes it a must read.

Thunderlord by Marion Zimmer Bradley & Deborah J. Ross

The Darkover series by Marion Zimmer Bradley is one of my all time favourite series. Seriously. I’m always trying to get Amanda to pick these up. I own and have read every book in the series and I’ve enjoyed every one. What makes Marion Zimmer Bradley’s books stand out from others is the depth and nuance of the characters and the way she makes the world of Darkover and the people come to life. Thunderlord is a brand-new novel in the Darkover universe, written by collaborator Deborah J. Ross. Read it! Please! Then you can tell me how good it is and I will be inspired to pick it up!

A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth

I’ve read A Suitable Boy twice in the space of 15 years and thought it was about time to read it again. For a while there I was sure it was going to be the one to get me out of my slump. Some people might find this book a challenge at over 1300 pages but I promise you it really doesn’t seem that long when you are reading it. It’s truly an epic family saga at it’s best – a love story – a story of newly independent India and how Lata’s destiny is intertwined with that of her country.

Last Woman Hanged by Caroline Overington

What do you know…another history book! Australian this time. I’m really going around the world here. Caroline Overington is one of my favourite Australian authors and I’ve read every book she’s written. I was also lucky enough to meet her at an author talk we held at the library. The Last Woman Hanged was a book Caroline spoke passionately about writing and one I know I will enjoy. It’s the story of Louisa Collins, who went through four trials in the 1880’s before being found guilty of killing both her husbands with arsenic. I will never tire of Australian history!

Elianne by Judy Nunn

I’ve read The Ghan and Beneath the Southern Cross by Judy Nunn and I enjoyed both. They’re light reads often with a bit of a serious undertone and this one is set on a sugar cane plantation in Queensland.

I have to admit this is only a small selection of the books at the top of my TBR pile. Surely I should be able to find one here to get me back reading again. If anyone has any suggestions to help me pick up a book again, I’m keen to hear them!

Jody