This book is a series of diary entries between 30 July 1989 and 13 June 1990, written by Natasha Holmes, a...more‘I feel out of control and it terrifies me.’
This book is a series of diary entries between 30 July 1989 and 13 June 1990, written by Natasha Holmes, a British woman, who was then aged 19. In her diary, which starts with her summer experiences working as part of a group in Germany, she writes of meeting Alex. Alex is the other British woman in the group, and Alex and Natasha are drawn together by their shared experience of having had intense crushes on former teachers. Over the summer, Alex and Natasha develop a very close friendship: might it have the possibility of a sexual element? After they return home, both Alex and Natasha seek to define their sexuality. Many teenagers and young adults would relate to this need to seek and define identity. Most will not become obsessive, fortunately.
At University, Natasha tries to establish her sexual preferences through experimentation with men while exploring the gay community. She also becomes obsessive over Alex, and as Alex starts to move in the direction of her own life Natasha decides to lose weight to make herself more attractive to Alex.
‘If only I were thinner, if only I had a proper body, then I would feel I even had the right to try and win Alex back.’
And then begins Natasha’s descent into the hell of disordered self- image, of bulimia, of obsession with food and weight. I understand that Natasha’s diary was first written in code: I wonder if this assumed privacy enabled her to write so freely of her actions and thoughts? Now, over 20 years later, her thoughts are freed of their encoding and shared. There is a diary entry for most days during this period, and it is painfully clear how Natasha struggled with who she was, her sense of self and where she belonged. Many of her interactions with others are almost interrogations as she tries to seek the information she wants/needs in order to make sense of her world.
‘So many thoughts: indifference, excitement, celibacy!’
It’s a long time since I’ve been a teenager but I still had to read this book in relatively small chunks, to avoid being overwhelmed by memories of teenage angst and inadequacy. I knew that Natasha had survived her experience of acute eating disorder, but I knew some who haven’t. It’s uncomfortable reading, this diary. It stops abruptly, with no sense of what happens next in Natasha’s life. And that is the book I really want to read: How Natasha survived and found herself.
‘In my room I saw the emptiness of the rest of my whole life. I’d have to start my life all over again—and why bother?’
Note: I was offered, and accepted, a copy of this book from the author for review purposes.
‘I understood that these people did not see me. I was two dead men. I was a burning farm. I was a knife. I was blood.’
In ‘Burial Rites’, Hannah Kent r...more‘I understood that these people did not see me. I was two dead men. I was a burning farm. I was a knife. I was blood.’
In ‘Burial Rites’, Hannah Kent reimagines the life and death of Agnes Magnúsdóttir: the last woman to be executed in Iceland. Agnes Magnúsdóttir was sentenced to death in March 1829 for her part in the murder of two men, and was beheaded by axe on 12 January 1830. She was aged 34. While awaiting execution, Agnes is held at the home of an official, District Office of Kornsá, Jón Jónsson . Jónsson has a wife, Margrét, and two daughters, Steinvӧr (Steina) aged 21 and Sigurlaug (Lauga) aged 20. He does not want a convicted murderer in his home, but is not in a position to refuse.
Slowly, Agnes becomes part of the household. She becomes close to Margrét, who reflects that Agnes is ‘a landless workmaid raised on a porridge of moss and poverty’. Agnes is visited by a junior priest, Assistant Reverend Tóti , the clergyman she has chosen (one of her few remaining rights) to provide her with spiritual guidance as she prepares for death. It’s her conversations with Tóti — many of them overheard by the entire household in the confined space of the farmhouse — and later with Margrét, that we learn about her past, how she came to be involved with the murdered Natan Ketilsson, and the events leading up to the murders.
‘I so often feel that I am barely here, that to feel weight is to be reminded of my own existence.’
This is a bleak and beautiful novel. There is harshness everywhere, in the environment and in the lives of the poor. Agnes’s life has been difficult, but she knows how to read and has a close knowledge of both the bible and the Icelandic sagas. As part of the Jonsson household, Agnes churns butter, salts meat, makes sausages, card wool and knits socks. Swinging a scythe at harvest time, she can almost forget her fate – until reminded by Steina.
The more Agnes is revealed in this novel, the more I wondered about the circumstances of the murder. And puzzled, trying to reconcile Agnes the murderer with the competent albeit disadvantaged woman working on the Jonsson farm. Could the Agnes trusted by Margrét Jonsson, be the same Agnes seen by Björn Blöndal, the District Commissioner who presided over her trial? Margrét trusts her with a scythe, while Blöndal tells Assistant Reverend Tóti that Agnes is: ‘… a woman loose with her emotions and looser with her morals. Like many older servant women she is practised in deception … You must apply the Lord’s word to her as a whip to a hard-mouthed horse. You will not get anywhere otherwise.’
The beauty of the novel is in the language Hannah Kent uses in telling Agnes’s story, in evoking the landscape and describing the lives of the Icelanders. All may be vulnerable in such an unforgiving landscape, but Agnes as depicted by Hannah Kent, is especially disadvantaged: no family, no resources, and vulnerable. And, on the 12th of January 1830, beheaded.
Imagine: a group of brilliant sleeper agents who have spent ten years rising to trusted positions withi...more‘Let justice be done, though the heavens fall.’
Imagine: a group of brilliant sleeper agents who have spent ten years rising to trusted positions within key industry and government organisations. Imagine: a group convinced that extensive collateral damage is justified when engineering a change for the good of the planet. Imagine.
‘I must be cruel to be kind. Thus bad begins and worse remains behind.’
Dr Tori Swyft, accomplished surfer and with an engineering doctorate under her belt by age 20, is our main character. Ex CIA, she’s found another line of work which looks to be quite rewarding. Briefly in the past she belonged to a shadowy group of idealists called 9S (Nine Sisters) convened by Professor Mellor, but that’s behind her. Until, that is, the model developed in her thesis (which has enabled a breakthrough in nuclear plant control systems) is implicated as the cause of a problem. Yes, it’s a big problem but it’s just the first of many. While authorities struggle to deal with the size and magnitude of the problems, it’s difficult for them to recognise the connections. Once they start to see the patterns, it’s a race against time to try to save the world from the combined effects of multi-system failures.
‘She’ll have a good explanation, I’m sure, like it’s part of some shadow security test.’
Okay, I was turning pages at a rapid rate to see what would happen next and to try to work out whether the all of the 9S members could be identified and stopped. And I was suitably convinced of the plausibility of many of the threats: computer systems are not infallible, nor immune from targeted disruption. But, there were a few too many coincidences for me and one or two characters who ripped me out of my fear and made the scenario less plausible. Oh, the irony of a chain-smoking environmentalist lost in dementia as his life’s work is played out. And the less said about a certain Greek character the better.
This was quite literally a rainy day read for me, and it filled in a couple of hours nicely. The scenario is quite scary, and if this novel didn’t quite live up to my expectations, it didn’t really disappoint either. As long as it stays fiction.
‘Shuklaji Street was a fever grid of rooms, boom-boom rooms, family rooms, god rooms, secret rooms that contracted in the daytime and expanded at nigh...more‘Shuklaji Street was a fever grid of rooms, boom-boom rooms, family rooms, god rooms, secret rooms that contracted in the daytime and expanded at night.’
‘Narcopolis’ is set in Bombay, in the 1970s, and revolves around a number of interesting but troubled characters who frequent Rashid’s opium den in Shukalji Street. Interesting because of their individual life experiences, troubled because they are insecure and displaced and usually unclear about where they belong. Meet Dimple, who prepares the pipes. She has memories of life with a Hindu-Christian mother in the north-east of India -before she was made a eunuch. Mr Lee has memories of the China he fled during the Cultural Revolution. Bengali, Jamal, Rumi, Rashid and our narrator Dom Ullis each have stories to share, of life and of their own personal hell as well as ghosts to try to avoid. The past intrudes on the present when the future seems impossible.
‘Forgetfulness was a gift, a talent to be nurtured.’
The novel spans thirty years: heroin supplants opium; dreams turn into nightmares and, for most characters, death follows life. Do the slums of Bombay change? It seems not: people come and go, some live (and die) in the streets. Poverty coexists with wealth, but money cannot buy happiness for the haunted – only a temporary, dangerous escape. When temporary escape escalates into addiction, then the only escape is breaking the addiction. And few of our characters will succeed.
‘Then the woman asked what a typical morning was like. And he had no answer.’
I read about a quarter of this novel before really being caught up by it. Most of the world Jeet Thayil describes so completely and cleverly is foreign to me, but the feelings he describes, the troubled and insecure characters are not. Escapism exists everywhere, in various forms. It’s Jeet Thayil’s descriptions of Bombay and his flawed characters that captured my attention, and the fact that so much of what he writes applies to other lives elsewhere that held it. Jeet Thayil is an acclaimed Indian poet, and this is his debut novel. He writes of Bombay, not of Mumbai: I wonder why.
‘We hope you enjoy your journey to the famous site of bushranger Sid Gibson’s grave at Hangman’s Hut’
It’s Christmas morning on the edge of the Victori...more‘We hope you enjoy your journey to the famous site of bushranger Sid Gibson’s grave at Hangman’s Hut’
It’s Christmas morning on the edge of the Victorian high country. Sarah Barnard’s marriage has collapsed, her trail-riding business has been bankrupted, and her parents have invited her to spend the day with them. Sarah’s determined to get some time to herself, and rides her horse Tansy up into the Mortimer Ranges. Riding up to Hangman’s Hut, a flash flood washes away the bridge Sarah and Tansy crossed. Sarah continues on, hoping that once the weather passes she’ll be able to find her way back down the mountain safely. Sarah finds an abandoned workmen’s camp which provides shelter and some food and settles in for the night. And then she finds a lone, injured and unequipped bushwalker. His name, he says, is Heath. Sarah finds his presence unsettling, and his story and subsequent actions don’t make sense. The weather allows little respite, and when food starts to run low, Sarah searches for help.
‘All that mattered was not dying.’
There are a few twists in this story which add to the suspense. Physical discomfort is one aspect of Sarah and Heath’s ordeal, another is the fact that things go missing: it’s almost as though a third person is present. Heath seems to be hiding something, which makes Sarah wonder if he really is who he says he is. Is Sarah in danger?
I thought I knew where this story was going, and I was completely wrong. Which was good, because the story that unfolded was much more interesting than the one I thought I was going to read. Until, that is, the end. I didn’t care much for the end – but that’s me writing a different story. I read this on a wet, cold autumn afternoon: just perfect. This is the first novel I have read by Honey Brown: I’ll be looking out for others.
‘I think he has Asperger’s Syndrome.’‘And my world collapses in on itself, changes forever, just like that.’
Life for Jo is a juggling act: work as a f...more‘I think he has Asperger’s Syndrome.’‘And my world collapses in on itself, changes forever, just like that.’
Life for Jo is a juggling act: work as a freelance writer, joint custody of her son Leo (aka Boomer) and the demands of parenthood – made more challenging by the fact that Leo seemed to have trouble fitting in at school. Leo’s an intelligent boy, but his social skills are sometimes lacking. He can talk easily and effortlessly about the things that interest him – such as Australian Rules football, Lego Bionicles or Yu-Gi-Oh – but settling into the classroom can be challenging.
A teacher thinks that Leo might be gifted, and suggests testing. Sometime later an assessment was undertaken. Jo was expecting that Leo might be gifted; she wasn’t expecting a diagnosis of Asperger’s Syndrome.
‘I’m not Leo’, he says. ‘It’s Boomer.’
This memoir is about both Leo and Jo. While describing Leo, his actions, reactions and passions, Jo also writes of her own life – she may also have Asperger’s Syndrome. Of the challenges faced as a teenager, as a young adult pursuing a career, as a sole (and then partnered) parent and of living with Asperger’s Syndrome.
‘Even with the people I am most comfortable with in the world, I am no longer certain of who I am, or how to act.’
It is difficult not to sympathise with Jo when she worries over the impact of the Asperger’s label on Leo, and when trying to ensure that Leo’s best interests are represented. At other times, Jo’s reactions are confrontational and sometimes seem over the top. It’s one of the strengths of this memoir that Jo includes both.
At an Auskick session (an adaptation of Australian Rules football for children), Leo has problems with team play. Jo writes: ‘I want to leap over the fence and smack him; I want to fold him in my arms and comfort him; I want to weep with humiliation and defeat.’ I think that many parents (and not just of Asperger’s Syndrome children) can relate to this.
‘I want him to learn how to get along in the world, not just find a pocket in the world where he can get along.’
I found this an interesting and challenging read. A young member of my extended family has been diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome, and I have an interest in trying to understand better how it impacts on her perception of the world. But it isn’t just about Asperger’s Syndrome: it’s about families and parenting, about friendships and partnering, about working through issues and finding out what works (and what doesn’t).
Note: I accepted a copy of this memoir for review purposes.
‘There is meaning here, the voice says, but you must find it yourself.’
T.S. Eliot and his poetry, especially `Little Gidding' (1942) from Four Quartet...more‘There is meaning here, the voice says, but you must find it yourself.’
T.S. Eliot and his poetry, especially `Little Gidding' (1942) from Four Quartets, play a significant part in this novel. The poem is presented as a consequence of what Eliot saw, one night, as a fire-watcher on the Faber and Faber building in London at the end of the Blitz during World War II.
Iris, a fellow fire-watcher, was with Eliot that night, and later receives a copy of `Little Gidding' inscribed `To Iris, who was there'.
Jim, a pilot from Essendon in Victoria, is the pilot of a disabled Wellington - with a dove painted on its side - which flies over Iris and Eliot that night. The plane crashes, with Jim the only survivor. Jim cannot remember all the details of the crash and the period immediately afterwards.
`The dove descending breaks the air/ With flame of incandescent terror'
Sometime after the accident, Jim and Iris meet in a park. Iris asks Jim if he is alright, and leaves him with a rose. They are attracted to each other, and have an affair: war is everywhere around them with no end in sight; every moment is precious and to be experienced. Jim is tormented by the plane crash and what happened to his crew, while Iris is conscious that she has a previous understanding with another man. She tells Jim of this, and when their telephone conversation ends, so does their contact.
`Then there is special time, time that contains incident and meaning in ways that ordinary time doesn't.'
Sometime later Jim attends Eliot's reading of `Little Gidding' at St Stephen's, South Kensington, hoping to see Iris there as it is the church she used to attend and where she met Eliot. Iris is not there, and Jim thinks of leaving. But then he hears Eliot's `poet's voice' - a voice that is detached from the emotions that surely create poetry, he stays, and finds memories in the words. Later, exhausted, Jim finds his way to Little Gidding where he dies in the snow. And later still, Iris writes her own brutally realistic account of Jim's plane crash.
`What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence.'
I picked this novel up a few hours ago, and could not put it down. The characters of Jim and Iris are finely drawn and, having listened to a recording of T.S Eliot read some of his poems I have my own sense of his `poet's voice'. `Little Gidding' is a great poem: what Eliot saw and wrote is a very different telling of what Jim experienced. And that, for me, is one of the messages in the novel: perception and reality, memory and experience each depend on different individual assessments. Relationships have strengths, weaknesses and different dimensions. Reality is relative and memory is flawed.
This is Steven Carroll's ninth and most recent novel. It is the second of his novels in which T.S. Eliot plays a part.
‘I have that itchy skin feeling that someone is watching us.’
Tom and Jordy are brothers. They’ve been living with their grandparents since their mothe...more‘I have that itchy skin feeling that someone is watching us.’
Tom and Jordy are brothers. They’ve been living with their grandparents since their mother Loretta left them on the doorstep one day. One day, as the boys are walking between home and school, Loretta turns up. ‘I’ve come to get you, she says.’ It will be fun, Loretta tells them. Jordy is not so sure, but he joins Tom in the car. Together the three of them set of in Loretta’s run-down car on a long journey to a mystery destination.
Tom is eleven, and the younger of the two brothers. He narrates the story – telling what he sees and describing his experiences. But when Loretta and the boys reach their destination – an isolated, dilapidated caravan near the sea – Loretta disappears again. This location does not live up to Loretta’s memory of it, and disappointment sets in quickly. Their near neighbour, Nev, tells the boys to stay away (for good reason as it turns out) but helps them at the end of the story.
The story unfolds through a series of small events which (somehow) largely bypass disaster. And yet danger is never very far away, at least to adult readers.
‘It feels like a dream anyway.’
‘Floundering’ is Romy Ash’s debut novel, and is included on the shortlist for the Miles Franklin Award 2013 which was announced earlier today. At just over 200 pages, it is a quick but haunting read. I literally could not put it down: I wanted Tom and Jordy to be safe, to be fed appropriately and to be cared for. I wanted Loretta to look beyond fun and find responsibility. I was pleased that Nev helped the boys, but wished he was more likeable. There is no neat ending to this story, and I was left wondering what would happen next – to Loretta, Tom, Jordy and Nev. ‘Floundering’ may relate to fishing (unsuccessfully in this case) for flounder, but it mostly relates to trying to make sense of people and life.
‘But all explorations were funded by something, Lars had told her more than once.’
Ingrid Christensen has waited for twenty years for her husband Lars...more‘But all explorations were funded by something, Lars had told her more than once.’
Ingrid Christensen has waited for twenty years for her husband Lars to meet his promise to take her to Antarctica. Twenty years, during which Ingrid has given birth to six children and Lars has built a whaling empire. In 1931, subject to conditions, Lars agrees to take Ingrid with him when he sails to the Southern Ocean as part of his whaling business. A landing in Antarctica may be possible. One of Lars's conditions is that Ingrid cannot be the only woman aboard the Thorshavn. Mathilde Wegger, withdrawn and grieving for her husband, is invited by Ingrid to join her as her companion. Mathilde, pressured by her parents-in-law, reluctantly agrees. Mathilde does not want to leave her children, but is afraid that she will lose them to her parents-in-law otherwise. Lillemor Rachlew is fascinated by Antarctica. When she learns of the Christensen's planned trip, she very much wants to be part of it. And with her husband Anton's assistance, she joins the expedition.
Three very different women: each with her own motivation for making this trip, in the enclosed space of a ship carrying fuel oil to the factory ships. Ms Blackadder creates both the beauty and the terror of the sea as well as the claustrophobic cabins of a working ship. Alliances are made, broken, and remade between the women as they rely on each other to survive in such a harsh environment. While some members of the crew are helpful, most of the men would prefer that the women were not on board. And which of the women will be the first to set foot on Antarctica?
`This was Antarctica, hard and bloody and full of need, longing and repulsion, fury, competition and jealousy, bargains made and payments extracted, everyone implicated, everyone faced with their own desire and brutality.'
I enjoyed this novel immensely. While the cruel reality of whaling is part of this journey, it underlines rather than undermines the broader story of the search for territory in Antarctica. It is Ms Blackadder's descriptions of the environment that primarily held my attention: the austere beauty and treachery of the ice. While, for me, the women were largely secondary to the surroundings, I was intrigued by their manoeuvrings and manipulations as each sought to try to gain an advantage.
The voyage described in this novel is loosely based, the author writes, on four trips made by Ingrid with Lars on board the Thorshavn. Lillemor and Mathilde accompanied her on different voyages.
‘And adults are part of this pretence – they hold one thing in their hand and call it another.’
It’s 1953, and just outside the small country town of C...more‘And adults are part of this pretence – they hold one thing in their hand and call it another.’
It’s 1953, and just outside the small country town of Cohuna in adjacent farmhouses live Harry and Betty. Harry is a dairy farmer and keen birdwatcher, tending his cows in accordance with the rhythms of milking and breeding. Harry was once married, but his wife left him for another birdwatcher. He wonders what went wrong. Betty, the woman next door, is bringing up two children on her own. Betty works at the aged-care centre in town, worries about her children (Michael and Hazel) and imagines a physical relationship with Harry. Harry is something of a father figure for Michael and Hazel, and when he realises how confused Michael is about ‘things with girls’ he writes to Michael about the things he wished he’d known at the same age. Perhaps, if Harry had known more about sex, been both less ignorant and less eager, his wife wouldn’t have left him. Perhaps. Unfortunately, Harry hasn’t spoken with Betty before writing these letters for Michael.
‘Time, in Harry’s understanding is measured in the body. It has something to do with the lungs and the taking in and expelling of air.’
Much of this novel is about records: Harry’s bird watching diary; Betty’s record of her children’s illnesses; Hazel’s nature diary and Harry’s letters to Michael. Harry, the pragmatic farmer, is poetic. Hazel is observant and matter of fact, while Michael is walking the difficult path of adolescence. Betty would like more from life, but isn’t quite sure how to proceed.
In this novel, the natural world is both character and backdrop. Beauty and routine, the mundane and the tragic are all part of life experienced by Betty and Harry. Michael is trying to make sense of his own place in a world which always looks different when adolescence kicks in and Hazel is both observant and resilient. The natural world applies to humans as well as to animals and birds. Well of course it does, but it isn’t always as clearly integrated as it is here.
‘What is the fixative that causes one memory to congeal and set, while others dissolve?’
I enjoyed this novel. It is quietly different and beautifully written. It was recently announced (on 17 April 2013) as the inaugural winner of the Stella Prize 2013.