Ava and Avery are a bonded couple from Kaya, a land where ancient magic ensures that, once bonded, one cannot live without the other. So when Avery isAva and Avery are a bonded couple from Kaya, a land where ancient magic ensures that, once bonded, one cannot live without the other. So when Avery is killed while on a mission to assassinate the evil queen of Pirenti, the northern country with which they have been at war for as long as anyone can remember, Ava is expected to die as well. But she does not, she lives on, though with only half a soul. Vengeance guides her back to Pirenti where, two years later, disguised as a boy called Avery, she is caught by the second prince, Ambrose, and sentence to life on the prison island. But when their ship is wrecked in a storm, Ambrose and Ava must work together to survive. In the process, despite their vast differences, a friendship develops. That friendship soon grows into love, even with Ambrose believing Avery is a boy - when their secrets come out, can their new-found connection survive? Is it possible to love your enemy, or love at all without betraying the man who took half your soul with him into death?
I have several problems with this book. First off, Avery is marketed as 'adult fantasy' but I cannot in good conscience call it anything other than Young Adult, despite the 'adult themes' and excessively violent, often gruesome scenes that occur. It's in the adolescent tone, the way the characters speak, especially. It's not just that they - well, the main character, Ava/Avery, in particular - sound so immature, it's that words like "whatever" and "gross" belong more to badly written teen fanfiction than published adult fantasy. That might make me sound like a snob, but it's not that - you write a novel set in another world, a fantasy world, which has its own, decidedly foreign, cultures. You cannot then make your characters sound like cliches from Clueless and hope that your fantasy world be taken seriously. The culture that created such colloquialisms as 'whatever' is not part of this world, and the effect is incredibly jarring. My ability to suspend disbelief was too often hampered by such lazy writing.
The writing is also lazy in the world-building. This was perhaps the biggest flaw of the novel. The details of this world just never quite made sense, or weren't adequately explained. Geography, as well, was out of whack. Pirenti is a northern country perhaps geographically akin to Russia or Canada; in the north are the 'ice caps', which appear to be a permanent, year-round hostile environment. Yet, at the same latitude is the prison island, which is described as a jungle. How does that work? While we're on the prison isle, world-building gaffes abound within the secret 'village' of escapee Kayan prisoners - it's not the incredible cliffside dwellings carved out of marble that they've brought from a nearby quarry that I struggled with, believe it or not, but the fact that they have glass in their windows, luxurious apartments (even for unwanted guests) and eat things like cheese. This place is home to Kayans who, they say, escaped the Pirenti prison. No one knows they're there and they can't leave. They have no animals or livestock (so, no milk for cheese), and if they want to remain undetected they would have to be careful of the amount of noise they make (quarrying for rock with no tools?? or do they use their sole Warder's magic - it's never explained what these people are actually capable of) and of smoke, say from a kiln or other super hot oven? Where do they get their clothes from, the materials for everything? All highly unlikely.
Distances and timeframes were also liberally dispensed with when required by the author to maintain her swift pacing. It all reminded me of cheesy action movies, as if they were used as the model for many of the scenes - especially the fight scenes. Plot holes abound here, too, such as when Ava escapes from a dungeon, taking not the guard's sword but his bow and arrows! A dungeon guard, carrying bow and arrows?? In the highly militaristic and violent country of Pirenti, they would know better.
I could keep going, but I think you get the drift. Really, though, this is a character-driven romantic fantasy, so I should be discussing the characters. When she isn't talking like a rather lame contemporary western teenager, Ava is solidly drawn and has some charisma, as does Ambrose. The other two main characters here are Ambrose's older brother, Thorne, and his wife Roselyn. All four alternate in first person narrative voice, and this is handled quite deftly. Roselyn is a nicely distinctive character, and Thorne is clearly a different person from Ambrose. The problem for me lies in the way domestic violence is handled. While it's wrapped up in a broader theme of power and women's rights, and while the denouement ensures that Thorne's violence towards his wife is not rewarded by the author, Roselyn's quiet, steadfast and loving loyalty to Thorne remains a distinct problem. While one fictional character should not a message make, Roselyn's refusal to leave her husband or do anything but love him makes her a difficult character to respect. That said, the characters are the strength of this novel, that and the swift pacing.
Pirenti is a violent country, so the violence does have some context, but it was a bit excessive and rather unrealistic at times. (Also, marble stains something shocking - how do you have a "killing room" lined in marble and keep it spotless?) Not being afraid of spilling blood and tearing minor characters apart does not make for a more mature novel or more sophisticated ideas. Rather, it becomes too much and, then, too ludicrous. My ability to suspend disbelief - necessary in all fiction, television and film, to varying degrees, but especially in fantasy - was tested time and time again, and often failed under the weight of plotholes, inconsistencies, over-the-top violence and I have no idea what was going on with Ambrose at the end. The romance aspect fell completely flat there (plus, it had finally started to drag by then).
A disappointing foray into a newish Australian voice in fantasy fiction, for me. ...more
In a large, elegant yet imposing Victorian house in the seaside town of Brighton, England, several women live in hiding: hiding from the pain of the pIn a large, elegant yet imposing Victorian house in the seaside town of Brighton, England, several women live in hiding: hiding from the pain of the past, from people, from life, from the truth of their lives. Recent arrivals, it is months before they even meet the people living in the other flats. Yet when they do, they rediscover much that they had lost: purpose, laughter, confidence, a sense of belonging.
Georgie has followed her partner, architect Simon, to Brighton to avoid a six-month separation - not that he was super interested in her decision, either way. But having quit her librarian job and rented out their house to a couple of teachers, she's here in Brighton with high hopes and plenty of enthusiasm. With no job and a tense, stressed boyfriend dealing with protesters to the new hotel development, and a sense of impending strife, Georgie embarks on a new career: freelance writer. She wouldn't have been able to predict that this would put her in direct conflict with Simon, especially when she's sent to interview the protesters and comes to take their side.
Across the hall, Charlotte lives alone, hiding from everything and everyone. Having lost her baby, Kate, a week after her birth, Charlotte has made little attempt to do anything but indulge in her grief. Her ex-husband has moved on, but after being accused of trying to snatch another woman's baby, Charlotte transferred to the Brighton office of her legal firm, where everyone is much too friendly and involved than she'd like. When the company decides that its employees will take part in a community outreach program, connecting to the elderly, Charlotte has an idea that will help her stay within her comfort zone: having met the elderly Frenchwoman who lives in the attic flat, she feels sure Margot will sign up for it. She doesn't reckon, though, on Margot's force of nature.
On the ground floor lives Rosa, who left her London job and all her friends behind to escape to Brighton when she discovered the truth about her too-good-to-be-true boyfriend, Max. She's turned instead to her personal love of cooking and, having taken an intensive six-month course, is now working as sous chef at the local hotel. Work, home, work again: her life has taken on a simple, unfulfilling routine that is shaken when her neighbour, Jo, is suddenly taken to hospital with appendicitis and she has to take care of Jo's teenage daughter, Beatrice.
These Brighton months will change these women's lives forever, as old relationships are mended and new ones forged.
The House of New Beginnings is a well-written exploration of the grief and pain experienced by these women, which takes many forms and with diverse causes. Each of the main characters - Georgie, Rosa and Charlotte - are captured with a subtle shift in narrative voice, or tone: from Georgie's youthful yet inexperienced spunkiness to Rosa's mature, capable level-headedness to Charlotte's withdrawn, isolating timidity. Chapters alternate between the different storylines, connecting and overlapping at different points, and while sometimes the sense of time became a bit too vague, the pace is swift and smooth and the story engaging.
Usually, I come away from a book like this with a favourite character, but there are such lovable qualities to all three women - and Margot, the dying Frenchwoman with her 'harem' of handsome young studs across town - that I could not possibly pick one. It is light on the romance front - The House of New Beginnings is about individuals forging new relationships and dealing with painful memories and difficult situations, as a kind of mature coming-of-age story - but there is love in each woman's happily-ever-after. While I didn't find it a particularly thought-provoking novel, nor one that offered any new or fresh perspectives on these themes, the gentle, empathetic way Diamond handles each of her female characters helped make them endearing, believable and sympathetic. It touches very lightly on a social justice issue, relating to women's rights, and on gender roles - not enough to satisfy this reader, but enough to give it an edge. It is, primarily, a story of overcoming loss and developing an inner strength, and in that sense it is a very successful one.
My thanks to the publisher for a copy of this book....more
The last book I read in 2016 was easily one of the best. I had read a short review of this trilogy in the Review section of the Weekend Australian (thThe last book I read in 2016 was easily one of the best. I had read a short review of this trilogy in the Review section of the Weekend Australian (the Review section is much less right-wing than the newspaper itself, perhaps because it's mighty difficult to marry conservative values with the confronting and questioning nature of art and literature) some months earlier, ordered this, the first, book, and then forgot all about it. While looking for something to take with me on a beach holiday after Christmas (we went to Byron Bay), I thought this might do the trick - and I was right. I suffer from terrible travel sickness on domestic flights (something to do with the lower altitude, air pressure and the inner ear??), and even though I had my ear plugs, music and was taking a tonne of Travel Calm, I still felt incredibly nauseous, breaking out in a cold sweat and feeling close to vomiting. Usually, I can't read a thing, nothing can take my mind off how awful I'm feeling and how much concentration it takes not to throw up (I'm not always successful). And yet, Ancillary Justice was up to the challenge - and won. What a fantastic book! It absolutely deserves the praise it received in the review I read, not to mention all three major Science Fiction awards: the Hugo, the Arthur C Clarke and the Nebula (2014).
It will be hard, though, to explain the set-up of this story, because it is beautifully original without being too complicated or esoteric (I'm currently having that problem with another book, Briohny Doyle's The Island Will Sink). The Radch empire is centuries old and extends across a vast reach of galaxy. Their massive starships are artificial intelligences that not only run, manage, control and monitor absolutely everything on board (there is zero privacy), but also serve as soldiers through their thousands of ancillaries. An ancillary was a human but is no more - their brains are empty things. After being kept in storage in the holds until needed, they are connected to the ship and the ship's consciousness is thus split into all these different bodies, alongside and within the ship itself. Think of it like a computer tracking through thousands of cameras, able to think different things at the same time. On the ship, the ancillaries are like servants, and they are divided into different levels to match the many floors of the ship. On colonised planets, they are soldiers, spies and servants.
Breq is an ancillary soldier on a mission, a mission of revenge. As a starship, the Justice of Toren, she was blown up. This one ancillary was given last-minute orders and escaped in a pod. Her quest is one which no sane human would attempt, for Breq is going after the ruler of the empire, Anaander Mianaai, who also uses ancillaries to the point that there is no 'original' Anaander Mianaai anymore. Not only that, but Justice of Toren, before being destroyed, had discovered a truth that no one else realises: there isn't just one Anaander Mianaai anymore, one consciousness embodied in many ancillaries, there are two - and they are at war with each other/itself. This split, Breq has worked out, began when Anaander Mianaai ordered a whole planet destroyed as punishment for an attempted assassination: her conscience split over the decision.
As awful as the demise of a whole planet is, it has also given Breq the form of her quest: while the incredible guns used in the attempt were seized - guns that evade detection - one slipped through. It is in pursuit of this one special gun that Breq now finds herself on an ice-bound planet.
There is so much to love and enjoy here, not least of all Breq's first-person voice. As an artificial intelligence, as the remainder of the Justice of Toren, she is clearly not human, but she is understandable, sympathetic and vastly interesting. She can be quite deadly at times, able to make quick calculations and deductions, and very strong - much stronger than she appears. This is another aspect of the world that is interesting: in the Radch culture, they do not distinguish between men and women, and use the female pronoun for everyone. The actual, biological gender of the people Breq meets is irrelevant to her, not important. But we learn that the ancillary who calls herself Breq is gendered female; others, we never know for sure. The Radch are not particularly evil, intimidating, cruel or vicious. They are, however, superior-minded, and like many worlds, have a very clear idea of what it is to be civilised, and who is to be considered 'civilised'.
Alongside the exciting space-adventure story lie these thought-provoking ideas, and such is Leckie's skill at character and world-building, this complex story is rendered entirely clear without being simplified. It was beautifully layered, the backstory - Breq's story - parcelled out at just the right time, with just the right amount of new information revealed, and by returning to past scenes and events now and again, our understanding is solidified and expanded upon. A wonderful, wonderful story cleverly told - this is going on the Favourites list!
In 2002, after being away for much of his life, Kip returns alone to his family's farm in Mole Creek, Tasmania. His mother is dead, his father - suffeIn 2002, after being away for much of his life, Kip returns alone to his family's farm in Mole Creek, Tasmania. His mother is dead, his father - suffering from dementia - living in a nursing home, and his wife and young son are back in Amsterdam with her own, dying father. Only Squid, the old farm hand, remains on the property, but Kip avoids him. He is here with a purpose: to find his brother Tommy, who disappeared when Kip was nine years old, and atone.
I am automatically drawn to books written in or about places, people and events in Tasmania, my home state. I love this island, it has a tight hold of my heart, and after many years away I was drawn back as surely as fate. It is a rich, diverse landscape, roughened by harsh histories, home to the Gothic of its British colonial heritage as much as it is to an ancient Indigenous legacy - I can well imagine that it is much like Briton itself, with its older history of Celts and Saxons and Druids. It is an island with a tangible sense of time and timelessness: a paradox that makes utter sense when you live here. And because so much of it is unmapped, unknowable and frankly downright eery, it is ripe for imaginative work in the British tradition (I am still waiting for an Indigenous-authored novel but I don't know of one, and being of British ancestry myself, any understanding I feel I have of their stories and relationship with the land is automatically tainted and an unwanted act of appropriation. Such is the fraught discourse we find ourselves enmeshed in here).
The Better Son is Queensland-born Johnson's second novel and her sense of place is vividly realised. The cave in the book, Kubla (after Coleridge's poem Kubla Kahn), is modelled on the nearby Marakoopa cave in the Karst National Park, though there is a cave called Kubla as well. Marakoopa was first discovered by two brothers, James and Harry Byard, who kept it a secret for several years until it was opened for tourism. There is another famous cave nearby, called King Solomon's Cave, which I visited on Boxing Day last year. It doesn't have the ginormous cathedral caves of Marakoopa but it is beautiful, splendid and amazing all the same. Johnson says that her novel is a "fictional fusion of the two ideas: one of the world's most incredible caves and two small boys" who keep its discovery a secret. The small town of Mole Creek in Tasmania's north - not far from where I grew up - is rich farming land, but it sits on porous limestone country where sinkholes can open up quite suddenly and randomly. Underneath, it is an extensive cave network millions of years old. The idea of disappearing into a sinkhole or getting lost in a cave system is an aspect of Tasmanian Gothic, itself part of Australian Gothic - think Picnic at Hanging Rock as a good example.
Kip's story begins in the summer of 1952, and it is one of the strengths of Johnson's writing that he and his family are so believable. Perhaps his father, Harold, verges on cliché, but as an archetype veteran of WWII as well as an angry farmer, he rings true. Kip's mother, Jess, is educated and loving and the only thing standing between Kip and the father who seems to hate him. His older brother Tommy, on the other hand, is beloved by Harold and can do no wrong. Still, the brothers are close, and the adventure of descending (by knotted rope) into a vast lightless cave and then exploring it is the highlight of Kip's summer. It ends in tragedy, though, when twelve-year-old Tommy decides to explore a small tunnel and is never seen again.
If the characters are tautly drawn, the landscape is represented as a slumbering, other-worldly entity, breathtakingly inhuman and utterly uncaring, yet with a presence both awe-inspiring and ominous.
They picked their way through a forest of stone. Stalagmites connected with the stalactites from the ceiling to form giant columns as tall as city buildings; others, the height of men, were like the frozen soldiers of some ancient army. Kip held his candle high above his head, but the darkness devoured the light. [p.36]
The boys name it Kubla, after the Coleridge poem their mother taught them, and the parallels between the poem and Kip's story are made clear throughout the novel. The depiction of the porous, fragile landscape holding its secrets close is used by Johnson as an analogy for the troubled family, an analogy that is both fitting and, at times, spelt out too often. Herein lies the overall weakness of Johnson's novel: it tells more than it shows. There is a distinct "accounting" style to the storytelling as it faithfully follows Kip, after the tragedy and into adulthood, but without the detail and scenes that made his childhood so engaging to read about. Kip is sent to boarding school, then he goes to university, then he studies insects, then he goes to the Netherlands for his Ph.D to work with saving the tulips, then he meets Isle and so on. This recounting of Kip's life is woven amongst a recounting of Jess and Squid, who become lovers until her death. It's a short novel; I actually think it would have been stronger if those later years were handled differently, perhaps with clearer, lengthier scenes and less telling. It felt rushed, those chapters, as if the author were just accounting for those lost years until she could get Kip back to Mole Creek.
The final scene only makes the previous years feel even more rushed: Kip's descent into Kubla and hunt for his brother's body is nicely drawn out and tempered. His psychological descent into childhood - which verges on insanity - feels true as well as tragic. It's an emotional journey through the dark caves with their hidden, breath-taking beauty, a journey that provides Kip, now fifty-nine, a chance to decide whether he will be forever formed by what happened fifty years ago, or if he will break free of his own guilt, the sense of responsibility that has shackled him for so long. Ultimately, it is Squid who saves him from himself and reminds Kip of his own nine-year-old son: the idea that life keeps going and you have a choice as to what kind of person you will be, and that your responsibilities change with time. Now, as a father himself, he has the opportunity to do a much better job of it than Harold did with him.
Squid is easily the best character here, though I did like Kip and Jess as well. My husband read this book at the same time (we have our own copies - we treat our books differently so it's best that way!) and Squid was his favourite character as well. Through Squid we get another perspective - he is a third-person focaliser for some chapters, providing us with greater insights and details after Kip leaves Tasmania. Squid is a 'salt of the earth' character, a quiet, patient, loving man who looks after the farmland just as tenderly as he cares for Jess after her diagnosis. He provides a more politically-charged glimpse into farming practices - spraying versus using plants and insects as natural insecticides (which to him is common sense, while Kip works so hard convincing people of its worth), and the damaging forestry and land-clearing practices still carried out in the state today. So it's easy to like Squid, as our philosophies seem to align.
The Better Son is a wonderful story that, for all it felt rushed in the telling and, at times, a bit obvious, shows the sickening damage that some parenting can have on children, with far-reaching repercussions. The secrets themselves, which poison Kip's soul, are only a side-effect of the family dynamics, yet Johnson is careful not to make Harold an inhuman villain. At its peak, it made me cry, and that cannot happen without an emotional connection to characters and a story that is believable and poignant. ...more
The play Ruben Guthrie, which was made into a feature film (released 2015), is about a young, successful advertising executive (Ruben) whose fiancée,The play Ruben Guthrie, which was made into a feature film (released 2015), is about a young, successful advertising executive (Ruben) whose fiancée, a model called Zoya (whom he started dating when she was just a teenager), challenges him to quit drinking after yet another booze-soaked party leaves him with a broken arm. After Ruben attends his first AA meeting, he celebrates by opening a bottle of champagne; at this point, Zoya walks out, returning to her native country, the Czech Republic, to study documentary filmmaking.
Ruben's journey to give up the drink is beset on all sides by his parents, his best friend, his boss and the general Australian culture, which links drinking to sport and masculinity. His father, also an alcoholic who has left Ruben's mother for the Asian chef from his restaurant, tries to get him to drink again, while his boss, an alcoholic who's been dry for years, tells him point-blank to start drinking again because Ruben just isn't good at his job otherwise. The perceived connection between alcohol and being creative (a la Hunter S Thompson) is reminiscent of the view that smoking weed is a must for artists. Ruben's best friend, a gay man recently returned from a failed job in the States, presents the biggest challenge for Ruben when he turns up with bottles of duty free booze. All around him, the message is the same: drink up, you're a bore without it.
Despite still being engaged to Zoya, Ruben becomes involved with a woman from the AA meetings, Virginia, and the comparisons between Alcoholics Anonymous and a religious cult become apparent. Virginia makes the 'other side' less than appealing, and really, when it comes down to it, everyone is revealed as less than worthy in this play. I can't help but feel it is an apt reflection of Australian society. We sell an image not just to the world but to ourselves, but ultimately, our culture has so many problems - drinking is just one of many.
A timely story about Australian culture's messed-up relationship with booze, and how we actively sabotage people's efforts at change.
In PC Cast's new fantasy series, climate change and polluting industries have devastated what we know of our world. The survivors have fled to new env In PC Cast's new fantasy series, climate change and polluting industries have devastated what we know of our world. The survivors have fled to new environs, living off the land in more harmonious methods. Those who wanted to keep their pets, their dogs, were forced to make their own way, finding sanctuary in the treetops. And those who refused to leave the ruined cities stayed, their bodies decaying and rupturing. These are now known as Skin Stealers, as they capture and skin living creatures - including other humans - in the belief that they will be made stronger from it. The humans they capture are the Tribe of the Trees and their canine Companions, with whom the Tribespeople have a lifelong, almost telepathic bond. If the Tribe are prey for the Skin Stealers, they in turn prey on the Earth Walkers, or 'Scratchers' as the Tribe dismissively calls them. Because they die from a rotting fungal infection when their skin is broken, the Tribe have long been abducting female Scratchers to work on their farm for them. But removing an Earth Walker from her clan means certain death, after long depression. Every month, all Earth Walkers - male and female - need to be 'washed' by their Moon Woman, who calls down the cleansing power of the moon in a secret ritual. Without it, the men turn into made, violent monsters lacking in rational thought, and the women fall into despair, ultimately dying of depression.
Mari is an Earth Walker, but one with a big secret. Her mother, the Moon Woman for the Weaver Clan, fell in love with a Tribesman: Mari is the result of their short relationship nearly two decades ago. Her father is long dead - executed by the Tribe - and Mari must disguise her features, the colour of her hair and even her skin in order to live among the Earth Walkers. Her heritage catches up with her, though, when a pup from the Tribe of the Trees finds her and bonds with her, making her a Companion - and a target for Hunters from the Tribe. One such Tribesman, desperate to find the young dog, is Nik, only child of the Tribe's Sun Priest, their leader, who can channel the sun's fire. It is through Nik's awakening understanding and compassion of the Scratchers' humanity that things between the Tribe and the Earth Walkers looks set to change, but not before the poisonous manipulations of the Skin Stealers finds its way in, taking advantage of a long history of entrenched dogma to destroy a promising new peace.
After a slow start, Moon Chosen becomes quite absorbing and enjoyable. The three distinct peoples have clearly differentiated perspectives and narrative voices: how they see the world and their place in it, and their view of the others. Each is rendered human and knowable through their separate focalisers: Mari, Nik and Dead Eye, who becomes the leader of the Skin Stealers in the nearby ruined city. It is one of the strong elements of the novel, the world-building and the writing, that Cast is able to make each of the main characters quite sympathetic, even if both the Skin Stealers and the Tribe do such horrific things to others. Amongst themselves, they experience tribulations and a painful history, but it shows quite clearly that, in order for one people to take charge of their destiny and create a new, more advantageous world to live in, another people must suffer for it. At the bottom of this world's class stratification are the Earth Walkers, who are rendered less than human by the Tribe and are deeply misunderstood. Their affliction - so far unexplained - only makes them more vulnerable and easily denounced. Their ongoing subjugation has clear parallels in our own world - take your pick, really - as well as representing the more feminised world of Nature and Paganism. Ultimately, the fact that Moon Chosen does not utilise a more traditional, medieval-Europe type setting, as does most epic fantasy written in English, enables it to present a more open-minded, egalitarian world view, free of the misogyny and heterosexuality that bogs down a lot of fantasy.
I've previously read a few of Cast's paranormal series, The House of Night, co-authored with her daughter Kristen, which began interestingly but soon grew to be rather perplexing to me. In those YA novels, the adolescent characters spoke with a strong teen vernacular, making them sound like stereotypical, urban high school students. It was rather over-the-top at times. It is one of the disappointments of Moon Chosen that many of the characters, especially Mari, use the same register and syntax as an American teenager might, today. It makes her sound too contemporary for this post-apocalyptic world, which is jarring.
The magic ("magick" here), the connections between humans, animals and the land itself are all compelling features; while it is similar in some superficial ways to Ambelin Kwaymullina's Tribe trilogy, the latter is by far the more superior story - though of a different sub-genre (and thus with a different audience in mind) to this. Cast's novel is more in the vein of epic fantasy, rich with details and a sense of place and time, slowly and carefully building a complex world of history, tradition, religion, fear and hope. The epilogue leads me to understand that the series will be structured much like a paranormal romance series: each volume the personal story of a different character. While Moon Chosen is predominantly Mari's story, the epilogue makes central a minor character vaguely introduced in the final chapters: Antreas, from a different Tribe, and his Companion, a Lynx called Bast. So, not every Tribe lives in the trees or bonds with dogs. I know I'll want to read his story, as I do love the big cats, and the larger plot involving the Skin Stealers has only just got started. What role Mari and Nik will play in it, I am also curious to see.
Overall, a successful foray into fantasy from Cast, with a slightly older audience in mind than her House of Night series. With an exploration of fear-based prejudice that highlights how easily - and how misguidedly - human nature falls into this pattern, Cast shows the predilections of humans to form societies based on mutual (shared) ideologies, and to exclude or even demonise those who represent differences. I am quite curious to see where she goes with this, in this setting and with this particular, gritty and often unpleasant world.
My thanks to the publisher for a copy of this book....more
Ayad Akhtar, author of the successful novel American Dervish (still on my TBR pile), is a Pakistani-American novelist and playwright whose 2013 play DAyad Akhtar, author of the successful novel American Dervish (still on my TBR pile), is a Pakistani-American novelist and playwright whose 2013 play Disgraced has been a hit on the stage. I haven't seen it, unfortunately, but I suspect that the stage production would have all the intensity, dynamism, energy and tension that the script eludes to but lacks. This is a play that doesn't read all that well, but would be, I'm sure, a strong story in the hands of the right actors and director. That said, it is still a memorable and interesting play to read.
Disgraced is the story of a successful New York couple, Amir and Emily. Amir, a lawyer, is of South Asian origins while his wife, Emily, is a white American. This miscegenation creates instant tension for the audience in the context of place and time, not only because of our cultural understandings around mixed-race couples in post-9-11 America, but because Emily, an artist, is sketching Amir after being inspired by an old painting of a slave. Emily has an interest in middle eastern art and culture, but as much as she understands and sympathises with people like Amir, she doesn't really know because she's never lived it. Her white privilege - as well as her class and apparent wealth - shelter her, and cause her to miss the simmering tension in her husband, his prickly argumentativeness.
Religion is, as you might expect, a key element in Disgraced. Amir was raised Muslim but is now an atheist with little patience for any religion, or religious excuses. Still, he lets his nephew and his wife get him involved in the case of an imam being accused of funding terrorism. As a lawyer, he works for a profitable law firm and feels confident that he will make partner, while Emily is given a big break with a solo exhibition at the Whitney, a gallery curated by Isaac whose wife, Jory, is a lawyer at the same firm as Amir. Jory is African-American while Isaac is white; there is clear sexual tension between Emily and Isaac, two white people in mixed-race marriages.
The play builds up to a dinner scene between the two couples, where things get heated. The climax of the play, though, is both shocking in its swift and hideous violence and also inevitable. It is also the moment when you lose respect for the characters and start to feel like we are instruments of our own doom because we are incapable of escaping or surmounting cultural differences, expectations and prejudices. For all Amir is intelligent, highly educated, self-reflective and, in some small ways, a victim, he is also just as human - just as fallible and flawed - as anyone else. Ultimately, it is a play about people who disappoint, in a culture or society that disappoints even more. Several big issues and themes are raised in four short scenes, and Akhtar does well presenting the characters in all their flawed glory without moralising or making clear what course of action is the 'right' one. It is clear, however, what is wrong, and one of the interesting things about this play is just many different kinds of things can be deemed 'wrong', from adultery to disowning your birth culture, from domestic violence to terrorism.
There are so many ways human beings can stuff up, which Disgraced explores, as well as what we can lose of ourselves and each other in doing so, and what externalities we can be a slave to.
The Circle is a perfectly timed book and will be timely for quite some time, ha ha. The question of our right to privacy has long been debated and isThe Circle is a perfectly timed book and will be timely for quite some time, ha ha. The question of our right to privacy has long been debated and is not altogether a given - even less so since 9-11. The right to privacy has taken on a new dimension since the world wide web took off and social media became 'the thing'. While social media can be empowering and has been used to a means to redress a power imbalance (think of those who film police beating someone up, or the Arab Spring), it can also have the reverse effect. Pair this up with the amazing power of the internet - or rather, specific software programs and companies - to track our usage, our spending, our habits etc. in order to 'better' or more 'efficiently' target us with 'tailored' products, and it can seem like the whole world is watching you. (There is the interesting case, in the United States, of the teenage girl who started receiving advertising for baby products; her father, outraged, complained, but it turns out she was pregnant and didn't even know it - but the companies did. They knew she was pregnant before she did because of the things she was buying, which apparently, women who are pregnant tend to buy. Such is the vast volume of data at their disposal that their algorithms are able to work that kind of thing out.)
When Mae Holland gets a job at The Circle (modelled on Google), she feels giddy and in awe. Sure, it's in a call centre division, answering customer service emails, but in a company like the Circle, people notice when you prove yourself, and Mae is determined to prove herself. At first, though, it seems that her values and ideals are at odds with the Circle's: they want total transparency in people's lives, while she still goes out in a kayak for peace and solitude and, horror of all horrors, doesn't post about it on social media. Mae mends her ways and becomes a staunch supporter of everything the Circle does and says. But in a company that has eyes and ears everywhere, who is the strange, enigmatic man who slips in and about, undetected? The name he told her doesn't show in the system, and Mae soon doubts that he works there at all, but it's not long before she realises that he may be planning something. So when he asks for her help, Mae is faced with a momentous decision.
As someone who is not on her mobile phone constantly, or who uses her social media accounts with any frequency (I visit maybe once a week, and post even less), and as a teacher who is constantly in competition with the distraction of mobile phones (or rather, their internet connectivity) at a period in our civilisation in which the boundaries between work/study and social time seem ever more blurred by users, I found the Circle and its creed disturbing, even frightening, but all too real. The Circle represents the kind of oppression - through the denial of a right to privacy - that the people not only buy into, but enforce. In effect, people police themselves, a kind of brainwashing. It all comes down to the power of language, and the power of public relations (the other name for PR is 'propaganda').
Mae is something of a frustrating heroine because she's not very bright. She's easily impressed, and other people's arguments - in particular, the people who run the Circle - completely blindside her. Mae represents the vast blob of humanity in this: she is the everyman, a simple, ordinary person with modest ambitions and modest intelligence. It doesn't make for easy reading, in the sense that she makes you, the reader, feel more superior - and I'm not someone who is all that keen on feeling that way.
In true literary dystopian fashion, this has an ending that you probably won't like, but it is the right ending for the story. While the understanding of dystopian fiction, as a genre, has been skewed by the slew of Young Adult adventure novels - in which the dystopia serves as setting and premise, but which aren't, really, dystopian stories in and of themselves (more like coming-of-age stories for young teens with a message of hope and freedom through collaboration, resilience, perseverance and rebellion against an oppressive regime) - really, the dystopian genre is concerned with a satiric representation of authority and socio-political commentary. They're not meant to be thrillers or romances or coming of age stories or exciting adventures. They're meant to be dark, troubling thought experiments that emphasise flaws in our political structure, social values and to show us where we might end up should we follow a certain path. Here, Eggers has taken on Google's vast reach, the influence of social media and the troubling infringements on privacy through laws that are passed with little fanfare, all in the name of protecting us and freedom - an irony that is best served through the satirical nature of dystopic work - and his ending is apt. As such, I value this novel for its ideas and the disturbingly realistic depiction of twenty-first century westerners, even though it is at times slow and Mae herself is rather too realistic for comfort. But that's the point, surely: you shouldn't get too comfortable, reading a dystopian novel.
Harry Potter needs no introduction, but this play needs some context. It is set several years after the events of the final Harry Potter book, HarryHarry Potter needs no introduction, but this play needs some context. It is set several years after the events of the final Harry Potter book, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, when Harry and Ginny's children are getting ready to start a new school year at Hogwart's, alongside Ron and Hermione's children. The story revolves around young Albus, now eleven years old and embarking on his first year away from home. Albus is worried, soon with just cause: to the shock of everyone, he is sorted into Slytherin house - and comes to love it.
But Albus is no Tom Riddle or Draco Malfoy - he's a Potter-Weasley and adventure is never far away, nor good intentions. He becomes determined to save Cedric (he of the incredibly tragic ending in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire) by going back in time - more than once, causing disturbing changes in the present.
This is a wonderful coming-of-age story for young Albus, who is marginalised and judged as somewhat lacking by others. His new best friend is Scorpius Malfoy, son of Harry's old nemesis and also a disappointment to his family: Scorpius is a lovely kid, but not appreciated for who his real nature. It is also the story of Harry as a father, a loving father but a father who is floundering, struggling to connect with his youngest son and making some big mistakes. His hero status drops quite a bit, and you see the flawed human that is within us all.
While it is, in many ways, a homage to the novels, The Goblet of Fire in particular, it offers some wonderful new characters and a less polished glimpse into this world of witches and wizards. Harry is tarnished, a middle-aged bureaucrat who - perhaps because he never had a real father himself - is making a hash at connecting to Albus. Other beloved characters from the original series, now older and tired and less patient (that is to say, typical adults who frown upon the kinds of ideas, decisions and antics they themselves engaged in as children), seem more human than ever, which nicely balances the fantastical elements of the world and the story. It also does a sound job of using new crises to build strong relationships between friends, family and old enemies.
I loved this story, this play, but gosh it made me miss the full-length novels! It was just so damn short! A novella, really, in terms of length and how fast you can read it (give yourself a day or two, depending on distractions). Because it's a play it reads super fast, and I have always loved Rowling's writing and how she fleshes out her characters, settings and situations. Jack Thorne has done an admirable job here, and as I loosely string these pitiful sentences together, I am overtaken by an intense urge to re-read it straight away.
I'm a tentative fan of Sophie Kinsella's novels - some I have absolutely loved, others have been slightly annoying, while The Undomestic Goddess leftI'm a tentative fan of Sophie Kinsella's novels - some I have absolutely loved, others have been slightly annoying, while The Undomestic Goddess left me cringing. Finding Audrey is Kinsella's first Young Adult novel, a sort of John Green-type story but with more human warmth, humour and, frankly, realism than Green (I might be the only person who isn't gaga over John Green, who is seriously over-rated, but the comparison is a fair one I think). Audrey Turner is a young teen suffering from severe anxiety after an incident at school the year before, in which three girls bullied her to the point of giving her a breakdown. She is slowly showing signs of recovering, but hides behind dark sunglasses, even inside, and rarely ventures out. Her older brother, Frank, spends all his time on the computer playing Land of Conquerors, and their younger brother, Felix, is a delightful toddler. Their parents are showing signs of stress, especially their mother, who puts most of her energy into combating what she sees as Frank's computer addiction - to the point of throwing his computer out of the upstairs' bedroom window. In Audrey's view, the whole family is nuts.
Her psychologist, Dr Sarah, encourages her to make a film, hoping that being behind the camera will help Audrey interact with others. But it is the arrival of Linus, Frank's teammate for LOC, that makes the most significant change. Audrey's attraction to Linus and Linus's patient bridge-building with her pave the way for real improvement, but it's a tenuous one, easily damaged.
Finding Audrey is both funny and serious, combining real-world issues like bullying with a wry, deprecating tone that helps balance the stresses I feel are coming to dominate the lives of young people. Audrey's case is an extreme one, but the number of teenagers with anxiety and/or depression seem to be rising. People, even young people, have the capacity to be truly awful to each other, but Finding Audrey is really about the positive, hopeful, loving and loyal connections we make with each other, which can help save us from our worst qualities.
Parenthood is no simple or straight road, and long after birth there exists, still, symbiosis between parent and child. Peggy Frew's novel Hope Farm dParenthood is no simple or straight road, and long after birth there exists, still, symbiosis between parent and child. Peggy Frew's novel Hope Farm deftly explores the consequences of youthful decisions, the effect of silence on love, and how a parent can represent home to a child.
Thirteen-year-old Silver Landes is used to moving around between ashram and commune with her young, single mother Ishtar, but that doesn't stop her from yearning to have her mother to herself, and a place of their own - to just stop for long enough to have a real home. The move to Hope Farm in central Gippsland, Victoria is just the most recent dislocation in young Silver's life, another grand idea that Ishtar has bought into, another new man that Ishtar is following. This time it's a man Silver only knows as Miller: thirty-six, bearded and large, he sweeps her mother up in his plans for the hippie 'commune' of Hope Farm, a run-down property rented by an odd mix of ageing hippies who have become increasingly jaded. Ishtar hands over her savings to Miller to buy a car, which he registers in his own name, and then Silver accompanies her mother on the train while Miller uses the car to get new supplies for the farm.
While Ishtar disappears into Miller's possessive, intense and narcissistic embrace, Silver is - as always - left to fend for herself. She befriends fourteen-year-old Ian, a neighbour, though the constant bullying he receives at school creates a darkness in him that Silver begins to glimpse, and is scared by. She is also scared of Miller, with his complete possession of her mother and his pornographic and violent drawing hanging over the bed that clearly show his fatherhood aim. With the arrival of a surprise guest on the farm, this temporary home is further shaken and Silver is drawn along in the adults' wake, heading towards disaster.
Silver's narration of this period in her life comes from decades later, as a middle-aged woman still haunted by events and the emptiness and loneliness left by her mother. Her silent, pent-up rage and impotent hopes are clearly drawn, sharper-edged by time and honestly come by. Ishtar - as we learn from her own poorly-spelt journal writings that intersperse Silver's narration - was only sixteen when she fell pregnant, and completely ignorant of how it happened. Living in an ordinary suburb in Queensland with religious parents in the 70s, her mother's reaction is predictable and acutely heart-breaking: she is furious, and keenly aware of the shame that Ishtar will bring to her family. Ishtar has seen what happened to another girl who was in the same situation, around whom judgements and opinions still collect, and is passively swept up in her mother's plan. She is taken to Brisbane, to a home for girls like her; after the baby is born she will sign it away for adoption and return home, all in secret. But at the home she learns from another girl who has been there before that she has a choice, and Ishtar takes it.
The repercussions of Ishtar's choice are just as hard on her as they are on Silver, in the long term. Her mother refuses to see her again, leaving Ishtar to live without support or guidance in an ashram, with the people who helped her. At such a young age, Ishtar - who took that name to replace her own when she started living there - has to give up the remains of her childhood and work for no personal gain. She loves her baby dearly, but feels increasingly guilty for the noise the baby makes, and for loving her so much. Soon, depression takes hold of her and she grows colder towards her child.
Finally when I went to bed she was still awake she must have been feeling better because she laughed and reached out her arms but all I wanted was sleep. I looked in to her face and no warm feeling came. I lay down with my back to her. She cuddled up to me and touched my hair but I lay like a block of concrete, there was this heavy sadness and some where deep under everything I wanted to break the spell and turn over and face her, it felt like an important thing to do but I just couldnt. I didnt move or make a sound and after a while she left me alone. And after that it was like some thing had broken and I couldnt fix it, I seemed to feel more and more tired like the love had been buried under the tiredness and every night I turned my back on her I lay there but I could never fall asleep because of the sad feeling I just lay listening to her breathing until she fell asleep. [p.146]
The moves begin: she finds a man and moves to his commune, then moves to another ashram to escape, and so on. Her relationship with Silver becomes rote and silent, and while there are things about Ishtar that Silver has always known - like what her real name is - there are bigger things that Ishtar never speaks about, and Silver has no words for her mother's moods, and no one to turn to.
The consequences of shaming girls and women about their bodies, the secretiveness associated with sex and pregnancy and the judgemental attitudes of others all play their part in ruining Silver's relationship with her mother. I'm not sure that we've come all that far since, though at least we don't pack girls off to wait out their pregnancy in hiding, away from the neighbours' eyes. This happened to my own mother, who wasn't in a position to marry when she accidentally got pregnant, and who was sent off to a home run by nuns in Melbourne, and treated like she wasn't even human. Unlike Ishtar, though, my mother's story had a happy ending: she and the father - my father - did marry and start a family, and the baby they had to give up for adoption came back to us and is just as much part of the family, and loved, as the rest of us. The point remains, though, of what we do to each other in the process, and the unnecessary pain and feelings of being unloved it brings. For Silver, love for her mother is the emotion she has long buried. She feels like a burden, and the silence between the two only exacerbates this.
The irony in the name 'Hope Farm' is inescapable, and encompasses not only the dead dreams of the hippies who hoped to live self-sufficiently but who now work in factories in the nearby towns, smoking pot and aimlessly strumming the guitar when at home. It also highlights the hope that fills Ishtar, temporarily, with energy, and the hope that has long been suppressed within Silver but that surges up when the two find themselves living in a decrepit old miner's cottage that, at best, resembles a cubby-house with its shabby, makeshift furniture and lack of amenities (like a toilet). It is there that Silver's dream, her one real desire to live with Ishtar, just the two of them, in a place of their own is finally, but partly, realised. Ishtar falls into her worst depression yet, and the only upside is that she turns away Miller.
Miller is the character who wasn't quite realised for me, or not in the way that he was for Silver. It wasn't until towards the end of the book that I even realised that Silver saw him as a monster - this just didn't quite come across to me. I certainly didn't like him, and his brutishness - captured in the descriptions of his hair and size, the way he 'claims' Ishtar in a physical way - was exceptionally unappealing, but I didn't fear him. I didn't realise that Silver feared him. It could partly be because, as engaging and readable as this is, I had a lot of interruptions and took about two weeks to read it; those interruptions can make it hard to feel the tension and threat. Tension was another aspect that I didn't genuinely feel: Silver directly foreshadows the impending disaster when she tells us that they were all on a "collision course", but the only tension I felt was when Ian showed her the abandoned mine shaft and she was, rightly, spooked, and things were never quite so easy between them again. The tension was in wondering what role the mine shaft would play in the story, and knowing that it would. But that tension didn't grip me, certainly not in the way I want it to, or the way the novel implies I should have been. Still, his effect is made clear:
I glanced at Ishtar's one suitcase and duffel bag sitting in the corner. They looked their usual compact, neat selves, but even they were being encroached on by the huge, looming tide that was Miller's mess - and her bedspread, crumpled down at the foot of the mattress, appeared more worn that I remembered, and smaller. I turned slowly in the small central clearing. So much stuff. As if he conjured it with his hands, brought it bouncing and skittering into his orbit, to then fly along in his wake like iron filings following a magnet. Into my mind came the twin images of Miller lifting Ishtar and putting her into the car, and then lifting and carrying her into the room at the ashram - her yielding body, her transformed face. Then I saw him raising Jindi towards the night sky. The power in those arms, and the speed with which they snatched something up - a body, a whole person - and then just as quickly let it go again. [p.90]
This is, undoubtedly, a sad novel. The sadness is in the sense of nostalgia that is vividly and realistically imagined, and in the disconnect between Silver and her mother, between a young girl desperately wanting to love her mother, and a mother trying to live life as if she weren't one. There is sadness in the dinginess and squalour of Hope Farm, in the painful, lonely and unloved nature of Silver's coming-of-age story. I came close to loving this novel, and in many ways I do love it: it is superbly written, even if the hoped-for tension wasn't quite there for me; it is memorable in its realism; and it is easy to connect to and empathise with, from the rural living 'out bush', which reminded me of where I grew up in central-north Tasmania, to the painful school bus rides and, most especially, the simple, unfulfilled hopes of Silver Landes, whose past - and especially her time at Hope Farm in 1985 - shaped her just as Ishtar's did, and not for the better.
This story will stay with me, as all well-written novels do that work on multiple levels, rich with symbolism and hidden layers just waiting to be unpacked. Above it all, I am left with this strong sense of familiarity, almost as if I had read this novel before, heard this story told another, earlier time - and I think this is not because it's a cliché, or Frew has ripped off some other book, but because it is such a human story, one that can speak to me and the girl that still lives inside me, suppressed maybe, but who - despite having had the loving family and stable home that Silver so yearns for - can still empathise with that hope and desire precisely because it is so vital. And because that sense of isolation and loneliness that Silver feels is so reminiscent of that period of our lives when we straddle childhood and adolescence. Frew writes with an openness that leaves me feeling vulnerable as I read, which directly relates to my ability to empathise with Silver. Mistakes are made on both sides, life is messy, and love is fragile and easily smothered....more
Joan London's The Golden Age came highly recommended by reviewers taking part in the Australian Women Writers Challenge, it's a short, quick read at aJoan London's The Golden Age came highly recommended by reviewers taking part in the Australian Women Writers Challenge, it's a short, quick read at a mere 240 pages, but I think it's a book that needs to be read in just a sitting or two; with my constant interruptions, The Golden Age failed to connect with me. I loved the premise, about children struggling to recover from polio in Perth in the 1950s - a sense of time and place is something I always look for, and found it here. But I think the author's way of chopping up the story into small pieces and shifting the perspective from thirteen-year-old Frank Gold and twelve-year-old Elsa to Frank's parents and a nurse at the Golden Age Children's Polio Convalescent Home was somehow disruptive for me. While the parallels between the children's stories and that of their parents and other adults helped structure the novel and develop some of the ideas here, it made it increasingly hard for me to build up a sense of flow and momentum, and to really care for any of them.
The fate of migrants in Australia, of the drift between children and their parents, of class divides and ethnic divides, of misunderstandings small yet profound, and the suffering felt by all during the polio epidemic makes this a rich and heartfelt historical novel. Poetry plays a role, and the ability of art - be it words or music - to convey emotion and help people connect to others. So it is possibly ironic that London's own art, her own words here, didn't quite manage to connect with me. Sometimes, that third-person omniscient narrator has an alienating effect on me, in which you are both told too much and not enough. I've always been turned off by stories told this way, in which my own engagement is an unnecessary thing, superfluous to the story. London writes mostly in this style, telling me what is deemed important, what characters are thinking and feeling, but she does at times drift into a more poetic style, holding back on the omniscience. This uneven quality didn't help matters, and at the end of it I was left feeling only mildly sad at the outcome of Frank and Elsa's lives.
A sense of nostalgia helped, and the most strongly written part for me was the dip into the past, in Poland during the Nazi occupation, and how Frank lived for a time with his mother's piano teacher, hiding in the ceiling when a client came. I think I might have loved this had it been longer, more drawn-out - not to make it self-indulgent, I do hate that with a passion, but just to make the characters more alive, more human, and less like sketches of people....more
When term break rolled around (today marks the last day - back to work tomorrow!) I thought about how nice it would be to go and see a film, somethingWhen term break rolled around (today marks the last day - back to work tomorrow!) I thought about how nice it would be to go and see a film, something entertaining, a no-brain-required affair, and saw that the adaptation of The Girl on the Train was about to be released. It's always best to read the book first, and since I already had a copy, it was just a matter of finding it (which, on my densely packed shelves, took about half an hour!) and then making the time to read it. The novel, a psychological thriller set in and around London, reminded me somewhat of SJ Watson's Before I Go to Sleep, both in terms of tone, setting and cheesy denouement. And as with Watson's debut novel, after reading this I had zero interest in seeing the film.
The Girl on the Train is an okay read, but I can't give it much more than that. I quite liked having a protagonist who is an alcoholic with a failed marriage, who has lost her job and is, in general (and by most people's terms), a bit of a loser. Hawkins takes the idea of the flawed sleuth to new heights, as with Camille in Sharp Objects, but Rachel does wear your patience down a bit. She's not the only narrator in this novel, though: Megan, the missing-then-found-dead woman narrates, beginning a year earlier up until her death, and Anna, the woman Rachel's husband Tom left her for, also increasingly gets her voice heard. What's interesting about this book and these three women is the idea, captured in the dominant male characters, of women's voices being silence in a patriarchal society - and not just silenced, but redefined. It is the men who decide what the women are, and the women who absorb that and take it on as fact, before turning on each other. That aspect of the book makes it worth reading, but as a psychological thriller there was virtually no tension, absolutely no twist - the truth is so gradually revealed and carefully constructed that you see it a mile before Rachel does - and the 'thrills' are completely absent.
The crime - the disappearance which, later, turns into a murder investigation - begins on a Saturday night, a night when Rachel, drunk, returns to Whitney where she lived with Tom in the house by the train tracks, on a ridiculous errand. Megan and her husband, Scott, lived just a few doors down. Rachel wakes up on Sunday in a sorry state and with absolutely no memory of what happened. It's this absence of memory that drives her to involve herself in the case, making her an amateur sleuth. As an alcoholic, the police consider her to be an unreliable witness and this, coupled with Anna's vehement hatred and fear of her, pushes Rachel into the fringes: with a stable place to live (renting a room at a friend's house), she's only one step up from a homeless person. The memory lapse is the only thing that kept me reading what is, essentially, a rather slow and uneventful book - wondering, for a while, not what she saw, but what she did. I think a previous review I had read led me to think that Rachel was the real villain, some kind of disturbed character - and the idea of a psychological thriller told from the perspective of the stalker intrigued me. Well, that's not it at all. I must have misread that review entirely. The Girl on the Train is simple, rather straightforward and, after about the halfway mark, fairly predictable....more
This adult psychological mind-f**k is both clever and creepy. The Engagement is about a woman, Liese, who moves to the city to work for her uncle's reThis adult psychological mind-f**k is both clever and creepy. The Engagement is about a woman, Liese, who moves to the city to work for her uncle's real estate agency and ends up using listed properties to have an affair with a man. Sounds sordid and ordinary, doesn't it - well add this: he's from the country, an old farming estate, and she may have said or done something to make him think she was a prostitute (second job, perhaps). She thought it was a joke, that he always knew she wasn't actually a prostitute - that they were role-playing. But the money did help, and she went along with it and never broke the charade with ordinary conversation. Now, having almost saved up enough money to go overseas, he - Alexander - has requested her for a whole weekend, at his home in the country, and offered her a lot of money for her trouble.
In his world, though, things are noticeably different from the outset. This man whom she barely knows is strange and even intimidating, and the old family home is unpleasantly gothic and unrenovated, with closed-off wings and relics from the past. Alexander has taken over the farm and seems out-of-touch, to say the least, while his sister appears to be sane to Liese. Alexander's understanding of Liese as a prostitute has gone so deep that he tries to save her, to rescue her from that life: he asks her to marry him, and has her whole future planned for her. Liese feels increasingly trapped in this tacky, rambling house, in the child's bedroom - all pink and white and frills - that he's put her in (and locked her in?). The whole weekend begins to turn into a nightmare, and no matter what Liese now says, her words get twisted.
I have a weird relationship with this novel - I don't know what else to call it other than 'weird'. I love psychological thrillers, and this is one of the creepiest. Liese's sense of entrapment and isolation, that feeling of being gagged because whatever you say isn't really heard, it all adds to a very tense, uncomfortable reading experience that I normally love. But there was something off here, for me. Something about Liese, I think, that made her an unlikeable narrator who created the mess she was in - which I resented thinking, because it smacked of the whole 'blaming the victim' mentality that still pervades so strongly in Australia and other countries across the world. I can't even decide if I like this book or not - which I think is a successful outcome for the author! (Incidentally, I have read Chloe Hooper's expository non-fiction book, The Tall Man: Death and Life on Palm Island - another book I haven't reviewed yet!) She's certainly a good writer, I'll say that much.
In terms of landscape and setting and character development, it's all there, all so real and vivid and, even, a bit too real. From Alexander and that loping farmer's stride to the dry paddocks and beaten dogs, the ageing furniture and cheap extensions, it wasn't such a leap from rural Victoria to the more familiar rural Tasmania, for me. Even the attitudes and values of rural and farming people spoke true to me, not to mention Alexander's own attitudes towards women, which is perhaps at the crux and core of this novel. I think I would need to read it again, yet knowing how it ends might spoil the whole thing, I'm not sure. Hooper is certainly a talented writer, and it's not often that a book is too uncomfortable a read for me - maybe that's also the stage of life that I'm in, and what I bring to my reading of it. The more stressed and anxious you are in your own life, the more you want to read fluffy, fun things. But I hope I've intrigued you enough to make you want to check this out for yourself. ...more