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Six Degrees of Separation: March 2015

 

 

 I’m a bit late to the party this month but as I have been on holidays I think it is OK!

Six Degrees of Separation: Saturday 7th March 2015

I first heard about Wild by Cheryl Strayed when she was being interviewed on Conversations with Richard Fidler. I didn’t think I’d enjoy the interview that much but I was fascinated!

The same goes for Boy, Lost by Kristina Olsson who was also in conversation with Richard Fidler. Again I was hooked. Olsson is an Australian author…

One book I have recently read for the Australian Women Writers Challenge is The Strays by Emily Bitto. I loved it! It is about the art world…
(Read my review here)

As is The Blazing World by Siri Hustvedt which looks at gender in the art world…

As does How to be Both by Ali Smith (but it is probably unfair to lump these two together).

Neverhome by Laird Hunt is a novel about gender in the American Civil War.

Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell is a famous and very readable novel about the American Civil War.

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

#6Degrees Rules

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Artistic Whimsy: The Strays

The StraysThe Strays by Emily Bitto

On her first day at a new school, Lily meets Eva, one of the daughters of the infamous avant-garde painter Evan Trentham. He and his wife try to avoid the stifling conservatism of 1930s Australia and seek to turn their house into an artistic colony, inviting lots of ‘strays’ to join them. Lily becomes one of these strays and through her eyes we see the the Trenthams begin to struggle with the same dark ideas that Evan flaunts in his paintings.

First Impressions: I don’t always enjoy novels told from the perspective of children, nor do I always believe in the adult still affected by long ago childhood friendships but Bitto keeps a sensible and balanced voice for her narrator and I enjoyed the story from the start.

Highlights: The story from the 1930s is framed by the present, with events transpiring so that Lily begins to reflect on her friendship with Eva. The tone and hints indicate something went awry (and why wouldn’t it!) and this creates the tension in the story. Bitto has created a story that is compulsive reading – not only is the life of the Trenthams and their fellow artists interesting but I kept wanting to find out what happened. It was sort of predictable but not all of it! As a narrator Lily is quite mature and sensible for her age and this is no doubt a legacy of being an only child and having conservative home life. Later in the novel her nature is referred to by other characters who tell her she is a goody two shoes. Her foray into the art world as an adult also adds depth to her character. Essentially, Bitto has created fully believable and well rounded characters, with Lily being the shining example. I felt like punching Evan when he had dinner with Lily’s family. Finally, after reading the novel I now appreciate the cover art more.

If I was an editor: At first I thought it was a bit of an awkward plot development that Lily’s conservative parents would let her spend so much time with the Trenthams. Sure, her mother admired the sort of people they represented and coming out of the depression she wanted more for her daughter, but still. However, as the novel progressed and Lily’s relationship with her parents developed, the time spend ‘running wild’ at the Trentham’s was believable.

Overall: A lovely and accessible literary novel that perfectly captures a moment in time. Should at least make a few shortlists this year.

The Strays: 5 stars

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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