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Bold Observations: Barracuda

imageBarracuda by Chris Tsiolkas

This is a long overdue review. Every reviewer who writes about Barracuda laments that there is no way they can do justice to the novel. This is so true and exactly why an almost blank draft has been sitting on my computer for quite some time.

Danny Kelly has one wish: the escape his working class background. Talented at swimming, he wins a scholarship to an elite private boys’ school. Everything Danny does is concentrated on being the fastest and the best, sticking it to the rich privileged boys at his school. When Danny comes fifth at an international meet he he can’t cope with not being the best and begins to destroy everything around him.

First Impressions: As expected, I liked Tsioklas’ writing style. I enjoyed Danny’s introduction to his scholarship school and could tell very early on that there would be so much more in this novel than there was in The Slap, and that was hardly light reading!

Highlights: Class is the main issue in this novel with everyone’s hang ups hinging on their social standing. I heard Tsiolkas in Conversation with Richard Fidler and he makes the strong point that for a country that prides itself on being a classless society, the reality is that everyone is obsessed with class. I found this element of the novel interesting as it is almost a taboo to write so openly about it. Tsioklas writes a lot about the pretentiousness of the upper class and their need to keep their distance from the lower classes. There are so many vignettes about the wealthy that sound both ridiculous but completely believable at the same time – surely the author has heard these stories first or second hand? The remodelled house so that the family can change the street address? The father who personally upgrades his son to first class on a domestic flight to a swim meet? I also enjoyed the now famous rant in the book about how Australians claim to be anti-authority and hate following rules but in reality they are all incredibly law abiding- I can relate as I remember arriving in London and being amazed that people could take their dog on public transport and then sit down and eat a burger and chips! As someone who spends half his year in Australia and the other half in Greece, Tsiolkas has a keen eye for these ironies. Finally, I can feel Danny’s awkwardness when he constantly explains how the rich kids at his school are always at ease as they feel they have the right to belong whereas he always needs to justify his presence. So touching.

If I was an editor: This novel isn’t shy at commenting on contemporary Australia. It’s boldness is admirable. I preferred the flashbacks to Danny’s earlier life and wasn’t as interested in exploring his current situation. Although wonderfully written, I found all of the sections of Danny’s feelings almost too much to keep reading through. I had to stop and start a lot when reading this novel as it is just so dense. I don’t know if the final revelation about what happened to Danny justifies wading through everything before.

Overall: Worth reading but overwhelming at times. I changed the star rating many times throughout.

Barracuda: 3 stars

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Vintage SF Sojourn: Annihilation

AnnihilationAnnihilation by Jeff VanderMeer

Area X has been cut off from the rest of the continent for decades. The natural world has reclaimed what was once a group of fishing communities. The government is sending in expeditions to explore what remains. Members of the previous eleven expeditions have died, disappeared or withdrawn into themselves. The twelfth expedition has just crossed the boundary into Area X…

First Impressions: This novel was different to what I had imagined. It is not at all your standard dystopian fare. I loved that the four explorers were women (unusual for a male writer) and none of them fit into easy female stereotypes. The biologist narrator was highly intelligent and had a strong, commanding voice. I liked her!

Highlights: I was pleasantly surprised by the ‘vintage SF’ feel to the novel. For instance, when the twelfth expedition began exploring the tunnel / tower (perspective!) there was so little action and so much detail it felt like I was reading a 1950s SF novel about moon exploration. How fantastic!  It really felt like I was reading a musty old novel from a forgotten corner of the library. VanderMeer has tight control over his modest setting and it feels believable when the narrator is exploring it. I liked the setting and it reminded me of a newspaper feature I read recently about the unexpected nature reserve that now occupies the Chernobyl zone. I was glad the narrator was a biologist as it provides extra insight into the flora and fauna. Unusual phenomenon weren’t necessarily explained by VanderMeer. This was a little frustrating but it did add to the mystery of the story.

If I was an editor: This is a unique SF venture but at times it became a little too abstract when the narrator was pondering the motivations and souls of her fellow explorers…

Overall: Yes, I will be reading the next in the series, just not straight away.

Annihilation: 5 stars

Thank you to Harper Collins (4th Estate) for a copy of the ARC to review.

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Icy and Atmospheric: Wolf Winter

Wolf WinterWolf Winter by Cecilia Ekback

1717: A Finnish family move to the isolated Blackasen Mountain in Swedish Lapland. Winter sets in and the Lapps call it a Wolf Winter: the kind of winter that will remind people they are mortal and alone. A body is found on the mountain and only the newcomers are interested in knowing who committed this murder. What secrets does the mountain community hold?

First Impressions: I was instantly transported to 1717 Lapland. I felt the isolation and, as the story progressed, the oppressiveness of the snow.

Highlights: I loved the historical context of this novel. I can’t believe I am about to say this but I wanted more information about the wars Sweden was involved in as the trickle down effect they had on the settlement was just not enough! The priest was my favourite character and I wanted to know more about him. I thought he was the best written character which is interesting as the author is female and the other two main characters are also female. There is so much in this novel and the author has struck the right balance between the mysterious and reality. It’s a fascinating community she has created, a snapshot of another era. The role of women was definitely complex. Based on other reviews I was worried that Maija may be a snowbound Miss Marple trying to solve the crime but no, she was merely curious and her involvement in trying to solve the case was believable. On a different note, I really enjoyed reading the extras at the end of this novel. These sorts of author interviews are usually superficial but Ekback was answering some really probing questions!

If I was an editor: The novel is primarily about relationships with murders and disappearances muted in the background and adding to the atmosphere. It was therefore a little surprising at the end to see such a focus on how much the disappearances were disturbing the community. The answer to the crimes and disappearances also felt too modern.

Overall: A perfect remedy for those still suffering from Burial Rights withdrawal.

Wolf Winter: 5 stars

Thank you to BookBridgr for a copy of the novel to review.

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War and Peace Read-a-Long Week 1

 

Here are my belated week one thoughts. I promise I did finish the pages by Sunday!

1) What pre-existing ideas did you have about War & Peace?

I thought War and Peace would be rather profound and full of challenging ideas. I also thought I would be confused with all the characters. Until I signed up for this read-a-long I didn’t realise military strategy plays such a big part in the novel and this did unnerve me a bit I will admit.


2) On that note, is it as bad as you’d expected? :P

Much to my delight I have discovered it is just a story, albeit a long one. There are lots of characters but I don’t find them all as confusing as I feared. Just don’t ask me to list their names for you… If I can’t remember who each character is, the story puts it all into context and I sort of remember.


3) What strategies are you employing?

I am reading it on my Kindle but have also borrowed a paperback version from my library as I find it easier to flick through pages when I need to check something. There’s a simple character list at the back of the paperback but I think I might print a more detailed copy of the characters as Maggie at Macarons and Paperback has done.
Similarly to Charlotte at Lit Addict Brit I plan to begin each week’s reading on a Sunday and then hope I finish in time… I plan to have other books on the go too for variety.

 

4) How are you getting along with your translation?

I figured that if I was going to seriously try and read to the end of the book I needed a good translation so I read a few reviews and bought the Penguin (Anthony Briggs) version on my Kindle rather than carry a tome around. It is very readable but I can’t really compare it to other versions.


5) Most and least favourite characters?

At this point I don’t think any of the characters are necessarily complex; what you see is what you get.
I like Pierre the most. Out of the multitude of characters I met in Part I he is the only one who seems to have some depth and intrigue in his character. Interestingly According to Jen at I Spiral Down Tolstoy supposedly based Pierre on himself! I also like cantankerous father of Prince Andrei for a bit of light relief.
I found Anna Mikhaylovna’s character annoying as she imposed herself on everyone for assistance. I could hear the other characters groan as she approached. Get some self respect! Maria’s son Boris probably needs a slap for being insipid and naive when it comes to his mother’s actions.

 

6) How do you feel about the way women are treated in the book

The female characters are all rather stereotypical and indicate that women in Russian society at this time had to be adorable, demure and merriment personified or risk being a harridan. I know I should be outraged at this but I see it as a snapshot of a moment in time. Most of the male characters are bland stereotypes too.

My final verdict this week? I am enjoying this novel!

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Six Degrees of Separation: January 2015

 

Six Degrees of Separation: Saturday 7th February 2015

This month we are starting with A M Holmes’ This Book Will Save Your Life. I can honestly say I have never heard about this book before! However, I have since discovered it was a Richard and Judy pick…

…in the same season that was The Testament of Gideon Mack by James Robinson. I read this for a book group and loved it.

Another memorable read from this book group was Their Eyes were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston. I am really glad I discovered this book! The characters in this book had such unusual names…

…and if we’re speaking of names, in James Ellroy’s Perfidia I felt there were too many names, particularly in the police squad. Who was that? Is that the same person? Why is that name familiar? Was he the one who- ? Perfidia is set in WW2 when Japanese citizens were put in internment camps.

The Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet  by Jamie Ford includes a lot of interesting detail about these internment camps.

My Beautiful Enemy by Cory Taylor is an Australian novel that is about a Japanese man in an Australian WW2 internment camp. I hope to read it this year.

The Lost Girls by Wendy James is also at the top of my TBR pile for the Australian Women Writers Challenge.

 

Find out more about the Six Degrees of Separation meme here.

#6Degrees Rules

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Sisterly Friction: What’s Yours is Mine

What's Yours is MineWhat’s Yours is Mine by Tess Stimson

A few years ago I was lucky enough to win a Tess Stimson novel (The Adultery Club) in a competition run by one of the free London newspapers (there were three at the time… Oh the heady days!). I loved it and quickly bought What’s Yours is Mine but it has unfortunately been sitting on my bookshelf since for reasons I can’t explain…

A story of sisters who share just a little too much. Grace Hamilton has it all: career, marriage, enviable home, but there’s one thing she can’t have, a baby. Her younger sister Susannah has made a mess of her life. She has fled the UK to life as a tattooist in Miami, leaving behind two sons in foster care. Circumstances push the two sisters together again – can Susannah help Grace in her quest for a child?

First Impressions: Yep, I was right first time around. There’s something about the way Tess Stimson tells a story that really draws you in.

Highlights: I just really liked the story. In this genre you will always get some plot developments, comments or voices (like the mother in the coma) that make you (more specifically me) groan or cringe but Stimson has it all under control. I found this to be a page turner without thinking that I should have gone with something more substantial.

If I was an editor: Stimson has the right formula! I did wonder at Susannah’s character – is she that detached from her kids, from life? Is she that into casual sex? A lot of family issues from the past were revealed but I did think they could have been more monumental. They maybe explained Susannah’s approach to life, but not really.

Overall: An enjoyable read. Now to order my next Stimson novel… Any recommendations?

What’s Yours is Mine: 4 Stars

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An Unacceptable Normal: Night Games

imageNight Games by Anna Krien

I would say that sports journalism is right at the bottom of the list genres I willingly read, with only sports biography beating it for the wooden spoon (sports pun intended). However, I had heard wonderful things about Night Games and thought perhaps it was worth giving a go, particularly as it won the William Hill Sports Book of the Year Award. Who even knew such a prize existed!

The Pies beat the Saints in the AFL Grand Final and the city of Melbourne was still recovering from the celebrations when rumour of a gang rape by a group of footballers began to emerge. It was confirmed that two Collingwood players were being questioned. Anna Krien follows the trial and explores the culture of male sports where footballers cut loose by playing night games, with consent, without consent but more often than not in the grey area where the answers aren’t cut and dried.

First Impressions: Wow. This book draws you in from page one and is a whirlwind right until the end. I read it in one and a bit sittings.

Highlights: Part of me was worried that this book would include a lot of opinions and judgements. However, I was impressed with the professional writing: fact, fact, fact, fact… The research that would have gone into this book! Krien doesn’t just cover the trial but also the footy culture. I read the pages about sledging and was almost laughing at the incredulity of the taunts – Who are these people? How do you even think of comments like that? Do people like this really exist? I don’t follow these sorts of cases on the news so to me the book felt like a dossier of famous names and the cases they have been linked to. Unfortunately, by the end I got the feeling that being implicated in a rape case is becoming a right of passage for some footballers - it will no doubt happen one day lad, just ride it out. Anyway, Krien always comes back to the issue of consent and I thought her exploration of this was both intriguing and balanced.

If I was an editor: I don’t know how you could improve this piece of writing. It is excellent journalism. I would have liked to find out more about the VFL footballer whose court case she followed (poor scapegoat) but I guess that to do so may have compromised her objectivity one way or another.

Overall: Should be read by all young women and (regular) men. If you’re enticed into these sorts of scenarios at least you may have an inkling of what the ‘rules’ are.

Night Games: 5 stars

Thank you to Random House (Vintage) for a copy of the ARC.