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Out in the Scruffy Sticks: Floundering

flounderingFloundering by Romy Ash

A powerful, beautifully written novel about two young brothers left alone by their mother in a beachside caravan park in the searing heat of an Australian summer.

First Impressions: Strong characterisation, particularly the mother Loretta and younger son Tom. The series of events in the first few pages were crystal clear and despite just a few hints I feel like I understood the family’s background.

Highlights: I thought the author did a wonderful job of telling the story through an 11 year old boy’s eyes. The characters of Tom and his brother Jordy were perfect. Romy Ash included so many small details that are particular to children of that age. For instance, I laughed when Tom was swinging his arms around and told Jordy that he was minding his own business and walking along; if he happened to hit Jordy it wouldn’t be his fault.

I really liked Loretta’s character too and wish I knew more of her story but as it is all told by an 11 year old I guess you don’t get all that. The author perfectly captures the Australian heat in summer, such as describing the tight feeling skin from sunburn or t-shirt tans. The author also captures remote towns and their inhabitants suffering from neglect and destitution well. The menace facing the boys was subtly done which probably made it more unsettling.

If I was an editor: As I said, I did want to know more about Loretta’s story but the novel was a bit of a boys own adventure reality check and I admired this originality. Actually, it’s not just Loretta’s story I wanted more of, I would have liked to see the whole family explored.

Overall: Scarily realistic and cautiously told.

 

5

A Grabby, Grotty World: The Monkey’s Mask

the monkey maskThe Monkey’s Mask by Dorothy Porter

Fuelled by murder and a femme fatale, this is an erotic mystery novel written in verse. A female private detecitve investigates missing persons and gets a job to look for Mickey, who has been missing for two weeks. She begins by going to Mickey’s university to meet her poetry professor, Diana.

First Impressions: A novel of poems? Nothing to be scared of! You are quickly introduced to the detective and the crime like your standard crime novel.

Highlights: It’s been a while since I’ve read a verse novel (or similar) and The Monkey’s Mask reminded me that I should seek these out more often. I felt a real sense of the main character and the events in her life that led her to becoming a private detective. Much to my surprise I really enjoyed the contemporary world of poets and poetry: cut throat and full of deception and lies. I feared this novel would be rather pretentious but the author paints a rather cynical portrait of the world (exactly who gets published? no surprise!) which I enjoyed and appreciated. I also enjoyed the glossary of Aussie terminology at the end. It is too easy to forget these unique turns of phrase!

If I was an editor: I became confused with the different male characters and kept getting them mixed up while the female characters were all distinct. Perhaps this was intentional as it is a feminist novel? Who knows! Clearly this novel also needs to be kept in wider circulation: I borrowed it from the local library but the copy was pre-self checkout as there was no barcode to scan. I had to go to the desk!

Overall: A unique and literary crime novel that lack pretension. Quick to read to boot.

 

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Don’t Expect Quirky: Strange Weather in Tokyo

strange weatherStrange Weather in Tokyo by Hiromi Kawakami

Tsukiko is in her late 30s and living alone when one night she happens to meet one of her former high school teachers, ‘Sensei’, in a bar. He is at least thirty years her senior, retired and, she presumes, a widower. After this initial encounter, the pair continue to meet occasionally to share food and drink sake. A tale of modern Japan and old-fashioned romance.

This was a pleasant* story but it didn’t really do it for me. Not only did I find it a bit slow, I felt I had read something vaguely similar before, namely Yoko Ogawa’s The Housekeeper and the Professor which was originally published four years earlier than this novel and I felt it to be the superior of the two. The general story of a friendship between an older man and not quite so young anymore woman seems to be particular to Japanese literature so I don’t think Kawakami necessarily borrowed the idea. I just didn’t want to take the journey a second time this year.

This novel also presents a also a perfect case study for not judging a book by its cover. The cover implies a somewhat quirky and offbeat tale yet it is rather conventional with characters older than you would presume (not that I have a problem with their ages!). I personally don’t think the title fits the story, yet the other English title, The Briefcase, doesn’t seem a perfect suggestion either.

I’ve been wanting to read this for a while and am glad I finally got around to it. Despite being well written it has left me a little underwhelmed but I can see why it would be both a good winner for the International Mann Booker Prize and a good** taster for Japanese fiction.

*I was almost going to call it a nice story yet it wasn’t quite that bland.

**Now I am using good a lot.

 

6

Timeless: Tirra Lirra by the River

Tirra Lirra by the RiverTirra Lirra by the River by Jessica Anderson

I first read this novel many years ago for a class in my first year of university. I can’t say I particularly enjoyed it but then having barely left Brisbane at this point in my life, it’s no wonder. So, how would I respond to it this time around?

Nora Porteous, a witty, ambitious woman from Brisbane, returns to her childhood home at age seventy. Her life has taken her from a failed marriage in Sydney to freedom in London; she forged a modest career as a seamstress and lived with two dear friends through the happiest years of her adult life. A book about the sweetness of escape, and the mix of pain and acceptance that comes with returning home.

First Impressions: A ‘coming home’ story that seamlessly moves back and forward in time without me even noticing. Clever, compact writing.

Highlights: The story has three settings – Brisbane, Sydney and London and Anderson is so precise with her observations of each location. Brisbane and Sydney could each perhaps be any city or town in Australia, Brisbane for its narrow view of the world and the feeling that with a sensible marriage mapping out your life and so forth ‘isn’t that enough?‘, and Sydney for its endless cut copy suburbs. The weight of it all on Nora’s shoulders! Suffocating and restrictive, how can she breathe? I can’t comment on Sydney’s artsy scene but certainly it has the reputation of being a bit faster than Brisbane in that regard.
But London. I’m from Brisbane and have lived in London for over eight years now and despite the decades passing Anderson is precise with her description of London. Three things really stood out for me. First, Nora moved house a few times in the early years – just a few streets over – and no longer kept in touch with friends from her old address. So true! What is it about Londoners that makes this so true? Second, although I have met Aussies in every remote part of the UK I have travelled to, there is a strong feeling amongst Aussie expats that if you’re going to move across the world, there’s no way you’re not going to live in London. Somethings never change! Third, that rhetoric everyone who has been in London over 2 years has, that they’re definitely going home, sooner rather than later… Have I been transported backwards or forwards in a time capsule perhaps?

If I was an editor: There’s nothing I would change about the story but I would like more extra features. There’s an essay from Anna Funder at the end but perhaps others could contribute essays? Reading group questions? Historical and geographical essays? I am sure my uni lecturer spoke at length about Nora being named after Nora in Ibsen’s A Doll’s House so maybe an essay on this. Interestingly, Nora is also the name of the main character of Helen Garner’s Monkey Grip, also published around the same time – surely there’s an academic who can write more about this! And the similarities with Rosalie Ham’s The Dressmaker
(If we are thinking about A Doll’s House, then the poverty Anderson’s Nora is kept in during her stay with her mother in law is heart wrenching, may I add).

Overall: A timeless Australian classic that needs a proper re-release. My heart couldn’t avoid shadowing Nora’s emotions.

4

I Can Almost Smell the Air: The Fine Colour of Rust

The Fine Color of RustThe Fine Colour of Rust by P.A O’Reilly

Loretta Boskovic never dreamed she would end up a single mother with two kids in a dusty Australian country town. She never imagined she’d have to campaign to save the local primary school. She certainly had no idea her best friend would turn out to be the crusty old junk man. All in all, she’s starting to wonder if she took a wrong turn somewhere. If only she could drop the kids at the orphanage and start over . . .

First Impressions: Oh, how fabulously Australian is this story! It’s not over the top in any way (which would make me cringe) but so much of the Aussie way of life is embedded in the story from the first sentence.

Highlights: The author vividly captures the Aussie environment – the dry landscape, the constant heat… It’s like I could even smell the air. So many of the finer plot points are quintessentially Australian, such as picking up coloured cardboard on the way home from school to do a project. The Aussie dark humour is threaded throughout too such as the Minister whose portfolio was Education, Elderly Care and Gaming. Although I was giggling my way through a lot of this novel, it’s more than just a comedy. It is a warm and very realistic story about a single mother (who happens to sensibly stock up on underwear in the Kmart sale) and her children, one of whom is starting to become an awkward adolescent. Finally, a surprise revealed very close to the end nicely brought the story to a close. I can’t say more.

If I was an editor: I would beg O’Reilly to put everything else in her life on hold and exclusively write novels! I really don’t have anything negative to say expect that I thought Loretta’s jokes about putting the kids in the orphanage are a bit mean as kids pick up on these things but really, she can be a brash character and surely everyone wants a break from looking after their kids (as lovely as their are)!

Overall: Warning – May make expats a little homesick!

 

6

Subtle: The Natural Way of Things

The Natural Way of ThingsThe Natural Way of Things by Charlotte Wood

This novel isn’t out in the UK until mid-year but I have been so keen to read it I asked my mum to send it to me for Christmas 🙂

Two women awaken from a drugged sleep to find themselves imprisoned in a broken-down property in the middle of a desert. They are there with eight other girls, forced to wear strange uniforms, their heads shaved, guarded by two inept yet vicious armed jailers and a ‘nurse’. The girls all have something in common, but what is it? What crime has brought them here from the city? 

First Impressions: Mysterious… Who are these two girls? Where are they? I like how you see it all from their perspective as they wake up and take it all in for themselves. The remote setting feels very Australian too.

Highlights: This is a wonderful example of contemporary literature. The story did not go the way I expected and I liked it all the more for this as I always respond well to my preconceptions being challenged. Furthermore, it was far from being the misery memoir that the blurb may have you fear and nor is it hard core ‘go the sisterhood’. It is much more subtle and understated than that and after following Charlotte Wood on Twitter I correctly suspected this would be quite an astute novel. I was right! It really deserves a second read (or skim at the least) to fully appreciate each character’s back story as there are no long sections of expository. Blink and you may miss something. Oh, and the yoga obsessed guard who turns out not to be as tolerant as you may assume… what an interesting character. And the benevolent head in charge of the company holding the girls… how odd. I don’t think I fully understand that yet. And hair removal seems to be finely woven (no pun) throughout… did I miss some of these references?

If I was an editor: I don’t know… At times I did wish there was a bit more rollicking plot action but that would change the novel from what it is.

Overall: Should make many shortlists so I am rather chuffed to have already read it!

**Postscript – slightly modified version of my comment below. Apologies for the rambling.

I feel rather foolish for not realising the links Charlotte Wood makes to the Australian detention centres! However, there is so much in this book it really takes time to process everything and I’m sure there’s more I’ve missed.
Anyway, now I have a fresh approach to the novel I need to think about it…
The ‘yoga guard’ who I find so fascinating (book already borrowed by a friend so I don’t know his name)… He begins by being your stereotypical contemporary ‘Byron Bay-er’, encapsulating the relaxed Aussie lifestyle and values but then contradicts this, which obviously parallels the the detention centres in the psyche of Australia… What lurks beneath. Wow. Food shortages, accommodation, medical care… So much to appreciate.

A while after I read Ellen van Neerven’s Heat and Light I did wonder why it is described as an Indigenous book rather than an LGBT book (or even just a book). I suspect I will feel the same about the categorisation of Charlotte Woods’ novel now as the feminist element has immediately taken a back seat…

2

I Couldn’t Imagine: The Year of the Runaways

The Year of the RunawaysThe Year of the Runaways by Sunjeev Sahota

Thirteen young men live in a house in Sheffield, each in flight from India and in desperate search of a new life. Tarlochan, a former rickshaw driver, will say nothing about his past in Bihar; and Avtar has a secret that binds him to protect the choatic Randeep. Randeep, in turn, has a visa-wife in a flat on the other side of town: a clever, devout woman whose cupboards are full of her husband’s clothes, in case the immigration men surprise her with a call.

First Impressions: Ooohhh, I like this book! It opened a door to a world I couldn’t imagine.

Highlights: I found this one of those though provoking reads that you are desperate to read in one sitting if only you had the time and end up thinking about for a long time after. There’s something wrong with the way things are when people prefer living and working (illegally) for pittance in a country like Britain rather than stay with their families in their home country. Yes, the people who manage this employment need to be punished but then the immigrants who are here for what they see as an opportunity are also exposed and punished when they have given up everything to get here. Is that fair to them? Anyway, it is a real window into a world I couldn’t imagine. Avtar makes the point that only people with steady income have the luxury of worrying about whether they belong and fit in. As an expat living in London, fair enough. Point taken.
Anyway, I found Narinder’s (Randeep’s visa-wife) character the most intriguing. What an interesting upbringing in a cosmopolitan city like London. I wanted to hear more! Overall I liked the current time story the best as opposed to the flashbacks to India and the update a few years on but really, it was all great. In the ‘India’ chapters I did find the visa (and illegal) routes in to the UK thought provoking, and as for the parents of a disabled British Sikh woman celebrating because after three years they finally got a marriage proposal, albeit a visa-marriage from India…Oh dear. I can’t think about it…

If I was an editor: As much as I loved Narinder’s character I did wonder if her father really would have allowed her that much freedom. Narinder’s actions troubled her father deeply but for such a strict environment the father did seem overly understanding at times.

Overall: Could be my favourite book of the year…

 

4

The Need is Still There: Monkey Grip

Monkey GripMonkey Grip by Helen Garner

1970s Fitzroy, Melbourne: Nora and Javo are trapped in a desperate relationship. Nora’s addiction is romantic love; Javo’s is hard drugs. The harder they pull away, the tighter the monkey grip.

First Impressions: I was really excited to read this contemporary classic. The beginning of Nora and Javo’s relationship started on the first page and the beat of a different era just rang through.

Highlights: I didn’t know how I’d feel about this novel as stories about drug addicts and open relationships don’t really appeal to me. However, this is a novel about addiction in the widest form. Interestingly, even though the share house community felt the addiction to free love, very few were fully comfortable when they were the ones having to compromise.
It was the silences in the story that I found most interesting as the novel is purely about Nora and Javo. Everything else is incidental. I wanted to know more about Nora’s family and background. More specifically, I wanted to know more about her young daughter Gracie.
Gracie only appears every so often but in some ways I like this. Even if you have a child it shouldn’t define you as you are still your own person. Yet for Nora to be like this it would have been quite controversial to some at the time of writing. I had never considered the possibility of raising a child in a share house with lots of communal babysitting and siblings but maybe it works for Nora and Gracie. How do their other options compare? Gracie sees a lot she shouldn’t but I don’t think her thumbsucking – maybe to some an indicator that she is traumatized and seeking comfort – is anything other than a habit which many children have. Yet why include it? Purely to spark debate?

If I was an editor: Parts of the story were less gripping than others but I don’t know how you could improve it. Still standing strong after almost 40 years.

Overall: I wish I knew Melbourne better to fully appreciate the story!

 

2

Oddballs and Anguish: The Dressmaker

The DressmakerThe Dressmaker by Rosalie Ham

Tilly Dunnage left her hometown of Dungatar in rural Australia under a black cloud of accusation. Years later Tilly, now a couturier for the Paris fashion houses, returns home to make amends with her mentally unstable mother. Mid-century Dungatar is a small town, and small towns have long memories and when the eccentric townsfolk turn on Tilly for a second time, she decides to teach them a lesson and exact long-overdue revenge…

First Impressions: This novel is so small town Australia… How wonderful!

Highlights: I could fully visualise this novel as a film in my mind without even trying… Strictly Ballroom meets Priscilla meets Muriel’s Wedding. I love it how each character has so many quirky secrets; oddballs that could only exist in Australia. Although the story is set mid-century it could be set today which is a bit scary if you want to think about small communities. The very dark humour had me smirking throughout yet this humour is intermittently checked by a moment of overwhelming sadness. Such brilliant writing. More needs to be made of Australian gothic literature. I remember seeing this novel in bookshops when it was published but feel upset I only got around to reading it after it had been made into a film.

If I was an editor: I don’t know if this will appeal to an international market but Aussies should relish it.

Overall: A flamin’ fair dinkum Aussie novel. Strewth!

The Dressmaker: 5 Stars

0

Too Much Going On: A Child’s Book of True Crime

A Child's Book of True CrimeA Child’s Book of True Crime by Chloe Hooper

Kate Byrne is having an affair with the father of her most gifted pupil, Lucien. Unnervingly, her lover’s wife has just published Murder at Black Swan Point, a true crime novel about the brutal slaying of a young adulteress. Suspecting the adult account of Black Swan Point’s murder to be wrong, Kate imagines her own version of the novel, for children, narrated by Australian animals. But has her obsession with the crime aligned her fate with that of the murdered adulteress?

First Impressions: Not sure… I didn’t realise it was set in Tasmania. I don’t know if I’ve ever read a novel set in Tasmania before!

Highlights: I was surprised by all the references to Tasmania’s penal colony past but I liked this as it was an original way of highlighting how we brush over crime. Crimes of the past – either 10 or 150 years ago – are like an archaeological excavation, or a set of matrioshki dolls. Kate’s character was interesting in that I wondered how much of the Murder at Black Swan Point story was created in her mind. She’s very lonely with too much time to think. I would have liked her obsessiveness about her situation to be more pronounced.

If I was an editor: I think there’s too much going on in this novel. There are lots of good ideas in the novel – two I have mentioned in my highlights – but as there are so many of these ideas I don’t think any of them are developed enough to become clever like in Hooper’s second novel The Engagement.

I didn’t particularly enjoy Kate’s children’s novel. I didn’t have a problem that it was narrated by Australian animals but it was certainly not in children’s language and I still don’t fully understand why she is writing it for Lucien. Also, I felt the wise philosophical conversations she has with her students were unrealistic. Kate, being a new teacher, still owns all the textbooks about child psychology and by the end she was trying to assess Lucien but it wasn’t coherent enough across the novel. This is another example of a narrative strand that could have been brilliant but was not given enough space.

Overall: Could be a very interesting meditation on adultery.

A Child’s Book of True Crime: 3 Stars