Nine Days by Toni Jordan
It is 1939. Deep in the working-class Melbourne suburb of Richmond Kip Westaway, failed scholar and stablehand, is about to live through the most important day in his young life as Australia hovers unknowingly on the brink of war. Eight more days follow, giving a snapshot of the Westaway family across the generations.
First Impressions: I adored the way Toni Jordan conjured up life in Australia in the 1930s. It leapt out at me from page one.
Highlights: I was amazed at how masterfully the settings were brought to life, particularly the earlier decades of the 20th century. I honestly felt like I was walking around in one of my grandparents’ old black and white photos. The more modern decades were also well done but eclipsed by the perfect essence of wartime Australia. I usually find some fault with novels that move forward and backwards in time, favouring one era more than another and wondering if the novel would work just as well if the author picked one story. However, the forwards and backwards in time worked magnificently in this novel and I wouldn’t want it any other way. I was affected in one of the post war chapters when old school and neighbourhood friends were catching up and discussing who made it back and who didn’t in a somewhat offhand way, but I guess those conversations started to feel normal after a while.
If I was an editor: My least favourite of the nine chapters were actually the last two. There was nothing wrong with them but I didn’t find them so compelling. However, they were definitely needed in order to make the novel complete and it’s the sort of novel where the hard punches come throughout, not just towards the end. Also, I didn’t necessarily realise that Kip’s first story is the catalyst for the other eight stories but I’d now like to go back and take a closer look at this!
Overall: Magnificent snapshots.
Nine Days: 5 Stars
Journey from Venice by Ruth Cracknell
I don’t think I’ve read a memoir since Louis Nowra’s The Twelfth of Never (highly recommended in my hazy recollection…). I have such fond memories of watching Ruth Cracknell as ‘Mummy Bear’ in Mother and Son as I was growing up and was saddened to learn of her death a few years ago. When I saw this orange Penguin edition on a trip back to Australia I just had to buy it.
Ruth and her husband Eric escape their busy lives and plan the trip of a lifetime in Venice. Not long into their trip Eric becomes ill and is quickly admitted into intensive care. This memoir charts the final months Ruth and Eric have together.
First Impressions: Ruth Cracknell has a unique writing style with interesting sentence construction. However, I was just as seduced with Venice as she was and found this short memoir hard to put down.
Highlights: The first half was lovely. Despite Eric’s illness and quick demise, Cracknell made me fall in love with Venice all over again: the architecture, the art, the food and restaurants, the Venetians themselves… For a rather depressing subject matter it made me want to book a flight! Cracknell also has a wry humour and her account of Eric’s hearing aid which included her using a profanity was great. Cracknell is keenly observant and often poignant – the vista of the cemetery that can be seen from the hospital has stuck with me.
If I was an editor: I would point out that the second half wasn’t quite as gripping although as it recounts Eric’s demise back in Sydney this is hardly surprising. I did feel I was with Cracknell counting down the days but also trying to still time. I became a bit confused with all the people dropping in and out, visiting Eric for what may be the last time, but no doubt this mirrors the chaos Cracknell was going through herself. For the life of me I couldn’t remember who Kirily was and despite flipping back I couldn’t find out.
Overall: I couldn’t put it down. I learnt a lot about Cracknell’s personality; she is no Maggie Bear!
Journey From Venice: 4 stars
All the Birds, Singing by Evie Wyld
I had been wanting to read this novel for a while and inadvertently began it the morning the longlist for The Stella Prize was announced. It seems I have rather intuitive timing!
Jake Whyte lives as a recluse on a sheep farm on a remote British Island. A mysterious animal or force is destroying her flock at night. Told in alternating chapters is the story of her earlier life in Australia where a devastating secret from her past chases her to this isolated destination. She is still marked by the brutal scars that prove the reality of her past experiences.
First Impressions: I though this novel was incredibly well written and I was enjoying how the narrative was chugging along. Different people from Jake’s past were mentioned and while no explanation was given as to who they were I felt confident all would be explained in due course. When a single, alarming sentence provided an insight into her relationship with the mysterious Otto, I was hooked.
Highlights: Jake’s character was superbly created. No specific physical description of Jake is included but the tiny snippets provided along the way made me want to know more. By the end it is clear that her physical appearance added complexity to everything she experienced and you are left wishing more detail was provided yet the novel does work better without any background expository. The flashback chapters that spun in reverse chronological order were highly addictive to read. Just when you thought you were getting close to finding out about Jake’s secret and her scars, the author takes you back even further in time. The final revelation isn’t what I expected either and I liked the fact it wasn’t predictable.
If I was an editor: I would comment that the constant references to birds provided all the events in the novel with cohesiveness but by the end I wasn’t necessarily concerned about the meaning or metaphor behind these references as it was the story itself that hooked me. The events in the present provided good balance with the events of the past but weren’t quite as gripping.
Overall: A short, almost perfect novel. The descriptions of both the setting and characters in both countries are authentic, just as I assume the references to sheep rearing are!
All the Birds, Singing: 4 stars
Thank you to Random House for a copy of the ARC to review.
I Used To Say My Mother Was Shirley Bassey by Stephen K Amos
The Feel Good Factor (DVD)
I can only remember buying two comedians’ autobiographies: Tina Fey’s Bossypants and, many years before that, Jerry Seinfeld’s SeinLanguage. It’s just not a genre I seek out. However, as soon as I saw Stephen K Amos’s I Used To Say My Mother Was Shirley Bassey, for some reason I felt compelled to take a gamble and buy a copy. When I started reading it I crossed my fingers, hoping I would find it amusing as I’d only seen parts of his stand up sets on TV. Luckily I had nothing to worry about as I chuckled my way through the entire book.
Amos spends a lot of the book recounting his early life as a young boy in South London. I enjoyed these descriptions of life ‘south of the river’ as Amos avoided the common clichés and predictable gags. I think that is what makes Amos a good comedian. He picks up on everyday social and cultural nuances and presents them in an original way. A great example of this is the way he retells his first trip to America and compares NYC locals to Londoners. Amos’s assessment of white gloved traffic wardens and sadistic boarding house masters as being the main British colonial legacy in Nigeria, and his early experience flying the now defunct Nigerian Air were both particularly entertaining moments in the book. Growing up in the only Black family in his London neighbourhood (and the only family without at least one parent in Wandsworth prison) Amos was an obvious target for racism and in his autobiography he retells these stories so subtly you don’t necessarily realise he has retold an unpleasant incident until the end of the paragraph and you feel rather shocked. I was delighted to find the ending to the autobiography rather smart and commanding. I couldn’t imagine a better way for Amos to wrap it all up.
After enjoying I Used To Say My Mother Was Shirley Bassey so much, I couldn’t resist buying Amos’s stand up DVD from the Hammersmith Apollo, The Feel Good Factor. It is a few years old now and is being sold at a very good price! Keeping the price in mind, it is not the best quality picture but do you really need that for stand up? Understandably, a few of the good gags from this show were used in his autobiography but I enjoyed listening to the way he told them. Amos regularly tours Australia where he is popular so it is no surprise that he includes a few jokes about Australians. I suspect he anticipated some antipodeans in the audience. He does a great Aussie accent and during his joke about the TV advert for a door company he saw on TV while on tour down under I had tears in my eyes I was laughing so hard. You can’t make that sort of thing up! Add to the show a brief interview with the cheerful Amos in the extras and you have about 75 minutes of great entertainment.
As with most comedians, you will probably either love or hate Amos, but I can say that this book and DVD kept me entertained to the point where I have to stop myself from retelling his jokes to others so I don’t spoil it for them!
I Used To Say My Mother Was Shirley Bassey – 5 Stars
The Feel Good Factor – 4 Stars
The Expats by Chris Pavone
Almost French by Sarah Turnbull
Kate Moore and her family move to the tax haven of Luxembourg after her husband is offered a high paying job in finance. She swaps an exciting career for the life of a housewife; endless coffee mornings, shopping expeditions and school gate gossip begin to dominate her life. However, all is not what it seems. The reader is given glimpses into Kate’s hidden past. Her husband becomes secretive and she begins to doubt the sincerity of the American couple she has befriended. As Kate begins to watch others closely, who is monitoring her moves?
In The Expats Chris Pavone has written a page turning espionage thriller. I enjoyed the fast pace and intrigue but what I appreciated most about this book were the fine details Pavone included about expatriate life. Since reading The Expats I have discovered that Pavone lived in Luxembourg for 18 months and this comes as no surprise. He includes a number of authentic references to life in Luxembourg that would only be recalled by someone who did more than just travel through as a tourist. Anyone who has lived abroad will have tales of unusual food staples, odd taxes and charges, shops not stocking what you would expect, quirks of transport systems… the list goes on.
For instance, small ham rolls. These are offered to Kate in a number of cafes and restaurants, as well as at her gym as a complimentary treat. Kate also becomes frustrated by gyms not opening until after 9am; this is the sort of cultural nuance that locals would not question but would surprise someone from a different country. The ability to drive a few hours and be in a different country for a short break, and supermarkets stocking unrecognisable products are two more of the pros and cons of living as an expat in Europe. Pavone’s insightful comments on the bored teenage children of expat workers and the contrived nature of the community and cultural heritage in the international business hub that is Luxembourg City reflect his deeper understanding of the expat experience.
Some middling reviews of this novel discuss how the mundane daily experiences of Kate make the novel dull and tedious. I disagree. I think the novel successfully conveys the claustrophobic and repetitive life Kate now lives and it adds to the atmosphere of the story. The plot twists and Kate’s investigations into those around her are generally realistic enough but I did have to suspend some disbelief. However, I think I find this with all thrillers I read as it is rarely my genre of choice. These more critical comments are balanced out by the realistic backdrop of Luxembourg which is why I have awarded this novel a solid four star rating.
Published about eight years ago is Almost French, a memoir by Sarah Turnbull. She leaves behind her journalism career in Australia and moves to Paris to be with her French boyfriend. I read it when it was first published and enjoyed it as an easy read. At that point in my life I hadn’t yet travelled to France so I delighted in her navigation of French culture from an antipodean point of view. Not surprisingly, the book was very popular in Australia. I particularly liked the scene where her boyfriend tied a jumper around his waist rather than draping it across his shoulders in order to pass as an Australian when they were strolling in the countryside.
I remember feeling sympathy with Sarah as she felt quite lonely and isolated in her French apartment, despite how chic it sounded. She found it hard to make friends despite trying to connect with other expats. One of my expat colleagues at the time had a different response to the story. She thought it was unrealistic for an adult to move countries and expect to make a large circle of friends quickly, particularly if they don’t work. Perspective is everything and I think she made a valid point. I just wonder what she thinks about Kate’s experiences in The Expats…
The Expats: 4 Stars
Almost French: 4 Stars