Book Review: Wood Green by Sean Rabin

I found Wood Green by Sean Rabin on the Readings 2016 New Australian Fiction Shortlist. I have enormous respect for Readings as a bookstore chain, and admire their perseverance and success in this digital age. They employ passionate readers and their recommendations reflect that. This year they even won International Bookstore of the Year at the London Book Fair. Congratulations!

The shortlist was my first encounter with Wood Green. It’s published by Giramondo, an Australian publisher whose work focusses on the innovative and adventurous. Books that might not find a place in mainstream publishing. This is way outside my comfort zone. I tend to stick to books I know I will likely like, published by large publishers, destined to be commercially popular. Life is too short, after all.

Still, I’ve been challenging myself lately, exploring more literary, experimental styles. Life is to be lived, after all. Wood Green is definitely an exemplar of this.

To be honest, I don’t really know all the critiquing lingo. Actually, I’m not sure I know any lingo. But for starters, there aren’t any quotation marks in this book. It reads like an internal monologue and that’s cool and very effective in some respects. I’m told that’s very Cormac McCarthy-esque. To me it was curiously quiet, but at times I felt it got out of hand:

You don’t mind do you? They kept asking if they could pay you a visit, said Michael. Mind? With meatballs like these? said Lucian. See, I told you he’d love them, said Paul. I just thought it might be too early in the day, said Penny. Let’s have some music, said Maureen. To mountain climbers everywhere, said Paul. Cheers, said Michael. Cheers, said Maureen.

 And on, and on, and on. The book was unrelenting in its exploration of technique and style and I was surprised to find how much I loved that.

The story is equally unrelenting though and meanders with little narrative structure. It’s hard to figure out whether this is a thing of beauty, or the opposite. Seriously. I know. I’m being very vague but I’m still getting my head around this novel and it’s like an eel, the point just keeps slipping away.

Basically the plot goes something like this; Michael, a wannabe writer with a fear of flying, flies from Sydney to Tasmania and moves into a B&B with a quirky proprietor whose story never really plays out. Michael takes the position of a kind of biographer for the infamous local author Lucien Clarke. They smoke pot and explore music together and all the while Lucien is slowly losing his memory while Michael is putting together the pieces of his past and regaling them back to him. There are a flock of minor characters, not enough to truly round out the story, but enough to keep your interest.

Michael’s fear of flying is never really explored. In fact, most of his backstory isn’t explored. He just kind of pops up like a daisy, fully formed and yet with some minor defects.

And then it gets weirder. Seriously. I have no idea what was going on towards the end. Only, after a beautiful, well-developed setting, an eerily strange but compelling cast of characters, a sense of mystery, a well-developed sense of well – nothingness – just regular, run-of-the-mill life, it suddenly gets all sci-fi on you. I know I use the word nothingness and that is pretty strange, but the loveliness of this novel actually lies in the nothingness. In the lack of plot. In the silence of the landscape depicted through language. In the averageness of the characters. It was beautiful, until the last few chapters when it got weird. Really weird.

I’m honestly still confused by it. Is this brilliance? Is this the new landscape of Australian writing? Or is it just odd. I’m leaning towards odd. But maybe that’s just me.  And maybe that’s just fine, who isn’t a little quirky after all?

Amanda

Book Review: Jasper Jones by Craig Silvey

Jasper Jones by Craig Silvey is one of my best-loved books! I have read it three times (now in the middle of my fourth) and listened to the audio version twice. I have done this not over the space of the last last seven years since it was first published, but in the last two years.

Unlike many people I didn’t rush out to read it when it came out in 2009. It was a bestseller, and has gone on to win and be shortlisted for multiple awards. I ignored all this hype – and many recommendations from colleagues – and didn’t read it until a few years later. I am very much a person who will read a book when I am in the right mood. Now though, Jasper Jones is like an old, beloved friend!

Every time I read the first line “Jasper Jones has come to my window”, I feel a sense of calm come over me. This is what I need to read now, and I know I will enjoy every word. By no means am I implying Jasper Jones is a light read; it isn’t. It deals with some heavy subject matter. But what sets it apart from other books is the voice of the storyteller; 13-year-old Charlie. He is honest, raw and human.

When Jasper Jones comes to Charlie’s window one hot and humid night in 1965, Charlie unwittingly shares Jasper’s horrible discovery. How Charlie copes with this discovery, deals with life in a small rural mining town and the normal confusion of an early teen is a huge part of the story. But there is so much more; I will leave you to find that out for yourself. I seem to discover a new aspect every time I read it! This time it was Charlie’s relationship with his mother I found really compelling. I can’t wait to see what I discover the next time I read it – because I know there will be a next time.

Jody

P.S. The conversation Charlie and his friend Jeffrey have concerning super heroes is hilarious! I laugh harder every time I read it.

Book Review: The Eye of the Sheep by Sofie Laguna

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To show my support for the Australian book industry in the wake of the Australian government’s proposed changes to copyright, I decided that in June I would read only books written by Australian writers. This wasn’t hard, as there are so many great books to choose from. The one that stands out as my favourite is The Eye of The Sheep by Sofie Laguna. I had heard lots of talk about this book as it was the winner of the 2015 Miles Franklin Award, and now having read it I can see it was a worthy winner.

Never have I read a book that had me gulping for air and holding back tears one minute and at the same time smiling to myself!

The Eye of the Sheep is a story of a family in crisis.

Meet Jimmy Flick. He’s not like other kids – he’s both too fast and too slow. He sees too much, and too little. Jimmy’s mother Paula is the only one who can manage him. She teaches him how to count sheep so that he can fall asleep. She holds him tight enough to stop his cells spinning. It is only Paula who can keep Jimmy out of his father’s way. But when Jimmy’s world falls apart, he has to navigate the unfathomable world on his own, and make things right.

Jimmy is an amazing character whose story grabs hold of your heart and splits it into tiny pieces. This is not a book to read if you want something light. It is however the perfect book to read if you want something with a little more depth and heart. While the subject matter is heavy, there is always a little light at the end of the tunnel as they say. That light is Jimmy! Without his thoughts and voice it would have been hard to read a book like this; Jimmy gives the book its heart and soul.

This book may be fiction it felt very real to me and so did all the emotions I felt while reading it. It may not be a book I will read again (I don’t think my heart could take it), but it will definitely rank among my favourite books of all time.

The Eye of the Sheep is truly one of those special books that masterfully creates real flesh and blood characters. Where you feel so lucky to have shared their story. I even have a lump in my throat writing this. An amazing book!

Jody

 

Book Review: The Memory Artist by Katherine Brabon

The Memory Artist is not a book to read in fits and spurts. It’s not a book to read with a deal of background noise. With any background noise to be fair. It is a book to be read when time is of no consequence, when there are no demands for attention from others. When you can sit quietly, in your favourite chair, in your favourite setting, with a big pot of tea, ready to take it all in.

It’s not an easy book. At least, I didn’t find it an easy book, partly because I’m not all that familiar with the historical setting. The main character, Pasha, was born in Moscow during Brezhnev’s repressive rule. His mother and father were dissidents and he grew up around those suffering under Stalinist violence.

Later, in 1999, we follow Pasha as he lives alone in St Petersburg. He struggles with his desires to become a writer and the lack of evidence to suggest he might one day make money doing so. When his mother dies, he returns to Moscow and tries to capture the memories of those who lived through those horrible years that haunt him and those around him.

The book hops from time to time in a way which makes it difficult to follow if you don’t have a precious hour or two to sit and read it in big chunks. It doesn’t follow traditional narrative convention, crisscrossing between story lines and characters. The Russian words, names and surnames slip and slide through your brain until you get a grip on the story – then before you know it it has shifted again. Maybe that was just me though, I was struggling to get that time to just sit and concentrate.

But The Memory Artist is a beautiful statement on how the past leaves an imprint on the pages of the present. ‘Though memories don’t always have words, they usually have a place,” Brabon writes. Like that feeling you get when you walk into an old house, or return to your childhood school. When you look at an old photograph, when you try to understand your family history. Like somehow it’s all connected.

I might have put The Memory Tree down if I hadn’t been entirely caught in the beautiful imagery dotted through the pages. The stark profundity of it:

I thought of my father and all the silent spaces in our apartment where he still lived, despite his death, where every day he still breathed.

Where small currents pulled or sandbanks rose up, the watery sheet looked like a blanket unfolded, a bed unmade.

 The dusty roads seemed no longer useful, just lonely, pale snakes twisting through a ghost town that held only the subtlest evidence of past occupants.

 Perhaps we return to words because a human needs their experience reflected somewhere. We return to art because it reflects our incompleteness; true art is full of gaps, and so we need it again and again, because that is how we live and remember.

Brabon writes so poignantly about death, about memory, about life, that you roll along with her, waiting to see how the threads will be caught up and yet knowing they just won’t be. Couldn’t be really. She writes about the human condition and the suffering inflicted on generations after repression. What lingers on despite a relaxing, an opening of the boundaries of such stringent rule. A kind of generational palimpsest which leaves loneliness and loss in its wake.

Maybe when we are pushed to the limits, art and death are so similar. Maybe art, like people, cannot escape the conditions around it. To consider whether my father’s death was art might have been the ultimate unspeakable question, born of a system that crushed all logic… Perhaps they were all artists of memory.

I’d like to think we all carry with us a little piece of those we have lost. The Memory Artist makes that clear, and that it can impact us so much more than we realise. A kind of quiet, collective grief. Read this, especially if you are familiar with the context, if you love beautiful imagery, if you like books that make you ponder.

Amanda

On the Baileys Prize and women who rock

The Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction Longlist was announced on Tuesday this week, International Women’s Day. You can see the full list here.

Like the Stella Prize, the Baileys Prize celebrates outstanding female fiction writers. However the Stella focuses on Australian writers, whereas the Baileys Prize is an international award. This year, over half the list are debut authors and the judges were “delighted with the quality, the imaginative scope and the ambition of our chosen books…”

I am definitely adding some of these to my TBR pile, but I wanted to write a little about four books on the list that had an enormous impact on me last year.

Kate Atkinson: A God in Ruins

Like so many people, I read Life After Life when it was released in 2013 and thought, like so many people, it was spectacular. When A God in Ruins was released last year I was waiting impatiently for it to hit the shelves at my local bookstore.

It’s a different book to Life After Life, so don’t go into it expecting it to be anything like that book. But you can go into it expecting the same well-researched, well-crafted story and that lovely, descriptive writing style. The book made me think so deeply about that period in history and I while I have read many books about World War II, seeing it from the perspective of a RAF Bomber pilot was a new experience for me.

A God of Ruins is one of the very few books I have ever read the acknowledgements of (I know, slack really, but that’s how much I didn’t want it to end), and I am so glad I did because it added an extra layer of depth to the story. But seriously, how does she manage to write even her acknowledgements so beautifully?

Sara Novic: Girl at War

I was only a small child when civil war broke out across Yugoslavia, so this book was an eye-opener for me. We didn’t study this war at school, in fact, I had hardly heard anything about it at all until I started working with an ex-Yugoslavian who came out to Australia after the war. It seems strange to me now that so little mention of it was made when it was a war that was still being fought when I was in primary school.

Girl at War looks at the influence of the conflict on one girl, Ana, who is ten years old when war breaks out. Through her lens we are given insight into what it was like for children, at a time when air-raid drills and sniper fire were a part of daily life. When Ana suddenly finds herself alone, she must fight or die and of course, she choses to fight.

Novic writes this book simply, without lengthy descriptions or drawn-out dialogue. It’s a page-turner, certainly, and like all books that I love, it taught me something, and gave me insight into a time I knew so little about. I am grateful for that.

Hanya Yanagihara: A Little Life

What can I say about this book? I think Marieke Hardy put it best when it was chosen as one of the ABC Book Club’s top 5 reads for the year. She said that A Little Life was more than just a book for her, it was a profound life experience. It was the same for me. When I was reading this book, I could think of nothing else. It was on the desk next to me at work, just so I could glance at it through the day. After I finished it I was left with a deep feeling of loss, and it was many days before I could pick up another book – which is absolutely unheard of for me.

It is a divisive book. I have friends who just couldn’t read it, some because the subject matter is so intense, others because it is a story about four men and any female characters are largely on the periphery. But for me it was an absolute standout for 2015. Read it, if you dare.

Geraldine Brooks: A Secret Chord

I always love Geraldine Brooks books, and I often recommend them to friends who just want a great, engrossing read. Her journalistic background gives her this amazing ability to fill in the gaps between historical facts and weave a story that is so detailed and so well-imagined, you want it to be real.

The Secret Chord isn’t my favourite Brooks book, but that’s more to do with the subject matter than anything else. I found it harder to be drawn into the story of King David, and harder to follow than her other books. Despite this, her writing is engaging enough to keep you on track, and I enjoyed the unusual narrative (through his biographer) because it allowed for some questioning of King David’s character, rather than just a chronology of his life.

So, I really just wanted to take a moment to appreciate the incredible talent of these four women, and the others on the list whose writing has made an impact on many lives (not just mine), and who deserve every accolade that comes their way. They open a window for us to lives and times we will never experience, and for that we can only be thankful.

Look out for the shortlist announcement on Monday 11 April, I just can’t fathom how they will choose!

Amanda x