19

Exquisitely Charming: The Women in Black

women in blackThe Women in Black by Madeleine St John

At the very end of the Ladies’ Frocks Departments, past Cocktail Frocks, there was something very special, something quite, quite wonderful; but it wasn’t for everybody: that was the point. Because there, at the very end, there was a lovely arch, on which was written in curly letters Model Gowns.

First Impressions: I loved the introduction by Bruce Beresford. And then – after reading the first chapter I wondered if it was possible to read the whole book in one sitting as I was already in love with it.

Highlights: Where do I begin? It is a genuinely Australian novel written in the style of Austen and the Brontes yet it also has a European feel with Slovenian Magda and her ‘these people know nothing!’. An absolutely lovely novel. I bought my copy on my most recent trip to Australia. The staff member at Readings Malvern helped me pick out a stack of Aussie novels to bring back to London with me. We jovially disagreed on whether we enjoyed some recently published novels but she was so enthusiastic about this novel I took her word for it and am so glad I did! I don’t want to give away any of the story so just read it for yourself.

If I was an editor: I can’t suggest any improvements whatsoever. A perfect novel.

Overall: I don’t hold on to books after I read them but suspect I will keep this one as I will want to read it again.

 

1

Daughter of the Southern Cross: My Brilliant Career

my brilliant careerMy Brilliant Career by Miles Franklin

Written with all the high spirits of youth, My Brilliant Career is the unforgettable tale of Sybylla Melvin, a headstrong country girl – passionate, endearing, stubborn, honest – and her fraught journey from rags to riches to rags.

First Impressions: I was surprised at the bold and contemporary nature of Sybylla’s voice! Definitely not what I was expecting for a novel written in the 1890s!

Highlights: I loved Sybylla’s grit and fearlessness. I’m sure her unwillingness to accept the lot of women would have caused outrage in her day. I liken this novel to an Australian mixture of Pride and Prejudice, Emma and Great Expectations. I would have loved this book had I read it in my teens yet it is one of those few novels that would be rewarding for both adults and YA readers.

As an YA reader I probably would have enjoyed the romances (and Sybylla’s fiesty responses) more but now I must say that as an adult I found her stay at Barney’s Gap as a governess to the M’Swat children the most entertaining. Sybylla’s condescending attribution of incorrect spelling to people who she feels are inferior to her reached its pinnacle in these chapters. For instance her use of the word ‘choones’ to describe the songs taught during piano lessons had me giggling. Overall I can say that I loved this novel so much that I almost missed my tube stop. Oh, I will also add that the introductions that Text Classics include (this time by Jennifer Byrne) are wonderful.

If I was an editor: I find it hard to accept that such a unique and spirited heroine such as Sybylla has been (almost) forgotten. I’m not going to come out and say that all school students should read My Brilliant Career (and the thought probably makes many English teachers groan) but it is such a fun story that captures an era in time. Why are these sorts of novels shunned in most schools? Is it still the cultural cringe perhaps? Maybe it can’t compete with the many contemporary issue-based YA novels currently being published but perhaps it could be encouraged as an option for some? It seems a shame that such a wonderful Aussie novel is out of favour.

Overall: A 2016 Sybylla would be a star on social media!

 

 

 

 

2

Current Affairs/Personal Journey/Travelogue Mash Up: The End of Seeing

the end of seeingThe End of Seeing by Christy Collins

Determined to discover the truth about the disappearance of her partner, Nick, Ana sets out to re-trace the route he took as a photojournalist on the other side of the world – a journey that saw him presumed dead, on a ship wrecked off the coast of Italy. But Ana doesn’t believe Nick is dead.  As she tracks his journey, she begins to witness the world that Nick saw through his camera – a world in which disappearance is not unexpected.

First Impressions: I knew very little about this novella before starting and I was surprised at how current the issues in the story were. A story of refugees but refugees that weren’t directly threatening Australia’s borders. I wonder if it was intentional to make it more international?

Highlights: You may be able to guess that I found this story really thought provoking. Although it would have been current when the author was writing and publishing it, the current crisis in the Mediterranean makes it even more relevant. However, it is hard to say exactly what the main story is as it is Ana’s personal journey too, as well as a travelogue through many European countries. All of this fit into a novella! Ana’s story was incredibly sad (I won’t tell you more) which makes it interesting that it was paralleled with the plight of countless forgotten illegal immigrants. It is all too easy to disappear and sometimes that is the easier option. I also enjoyed learning about the world of photography and photojournalism.

If I was an editor: It’s hard to think how this could be improved. Perhaps more from the Australian detention centre would have been interesting but I know it wasn’t necessary to the story. I also thought that by the end when Nick’s story was discovered (or was it?) that it was too exacting for where Ana’s story had taken her, like it belonged to a different genre. Or was this intentional given the numerous juxtapositions in the story?

Overall: The End of Seeing was a winner of the 2015 Seizure Viva La Novella Prize and I now want to indulge myself on a weekend reading the other winners of this prize. Sort of like sitting down with a Peirene Press trilogy.

Thank you to the author for a copy of the title to review.

 

0

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.

 

3

A Wild Ride: Fear is the Rider

fear is the rider  Fear is the Rider by Kenneth Cook

What better way to celebrate Australia Day this week than to read and review an outback thriller!

A young man driving from Sydney to Adelaide for work decides to take a short detour into the desert. He turns his hatchback on to a notoriously dangerous track that bisects uninhabited stone-covered flats. 
He’s not far along the road when a distraught young woman stumbles from the scrub and flags him down. A journalist from Sydney, she has just escaped the clutches of an inexplicable, terrifying creature.
Now this desert-dwelling creature has her jeep. Her axe. And her scent…

First Impressions: Oh, I am hooked! You are straight out there on the Obiri Track and I knew my Sunday afternoon had been hijacked!

Highlights: Oh my, what an adrenalin rush! I never would have imagined detail about gear changes and road surfaces would have me enthralled. The only reason I didn’t read this in one sitting is because I had to take little breaks whenever the tension briefly subsided in order to calm my heart!

If I was an editor: There is absolutely nothing to critique about the pacing! I will only say that I would have liked a bit more depth to the myth of the man/monster that was chasing them, and, as for the other solitary characters stumbled across in the frantic chase, I’d have liked them to be a little more interesting and not so cardboard cut out. However, both of these wishes would alter the story and it is fair dinkum brilliant in its current form.

Overall: Kim at Reading Matters summed it up perfectly: Wolf Creek meets Mad Max. I suspect I will be launching straight into Cook’s other novels.

*Kim felt the ending was somewhat unbelievable. I think I was too traumatised by this point to notice.

Thank you to Text Publishing for a copy of the ARC.
UK Reviewers – this will archive on Netgalley on the 27th. I’ve never given out such a warning before so take my recommendation seriously if you want an adrenalin raising outback chase!

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…

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!