“I found it ironic that I should be blessed with wings and yet feel so constrained, so trapped. It was because of my condition, I believe, that I not
“I found it ironic that I should be blessed with wings and yet feel so constrained, so trapped. It was because of my condition, I believe, that I noticed life's ironies a bit more often than the average person. I collected them: how love arrived when you least expected it, how someone who said he didn't want to hurt you eventually would.”
I took a long time to read The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender because I didn’t want to reach a point where I was finished with this story. I wanted to linger with it and savour each page, drawing out the experience. I wanted to taste every word, dark and luscious, and ingest it slowly, piece by piece.
Leslye Walton’s intricate weave of reality and fantasy, an alloyed world forged from the magical and the mundane, is constructed around three generations of women. The story is related by Ava Lavender, girl born with wings, but it’s a history shared and connected through family. It is a collection of their loves and sorrows, entwined and inseparable, chronicled by Ava and culminating in her embrace of all that she is. It’s a story of love denied, love unrequited, love lost, love yearned for, love freely given, love unconditional. It’s a story of family and home and shadowy places carved in hearts by pain and regret.
Walton’s use of language reminds me a little of Margo Lanagan’s: rich and distinctive, with an undercurrent of darkness that occasionally leaches through. It’s prose to be immersed in, elegant and languid. There is some distance in the voice, as this is the adult Ava recounting her childhood and the lives of her mother and grandmother, but the writing is steeped in vivid and immediate imagery and threads of foreshadowing that pull the narrative forward. The plot itself is spare, and almost meanders until the final third where urgency begins to gather in Ava’s story, but the story doesn’t feel sluggish. Rather, underpinning the gradual unfurling of Emilienne, Viviane and Ava’s interlocking stories is a sense that something lies in wait, that there will be a pivotal moment for these women, one that will mark them indelibly.
The novel explores isolation – both physical and emotional – and how we may become confined within walls of our own making, well intentioned or otherwise. How love sometimes blinds us, at other times opens our eyes. There is violence and pain, longing and desire of many forms in this story – the beautiful and grotesque, the fragile and powerful . Walton writes about the various facets of human love and how it shapes lives and alters hearts; protects us and also makes us vulnerable. It is a bittersweet triumph of being human, of living and loving and loss.
The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender is an exquisite blend of impossibility and certainty; magical realism that is entirely convincing. Part saga, part memoir, part mythology – it is a story written in blood and feathers of what it is to love. ...more
“They will say ‘Agnes’ and see the spider, the witch caught in the webbing of her own fateful weaving. They might see the lamb circled by ravens, bl
“They will say ‘Agnes’ and see the spider, the witch caught in the webbing of her own fateful weaving. They might see the lamb circled by ravens, bleating for a lost mother. But they will not see me. I will not be there.”
On 12 January, 1830, the last instance of capital punishment in Iceland occurred when Friðrik Sigurðsson and Agnes Magnúsdóttir were executed in Vatnsdalshólar in Húnavatnssýsla, for the murder of two men.
While often painted as “monstrous”, a cold-blooded murderer, a figure of Lady Macbeth style ruthlessness - the truth is that there is a dearth of factual information about Agnes Magnusdottir. While the instrument of her execution – a broad axe – has been preserved, little is known about the life of the woman sentenced to death, and publicly beheaded. (A third person was also convicted: Sigridur Gudmundsdottir, whose sentence was later commuted to life imprisonment).
“They said I must die. They said that I stole the breath from men, and now they must steal mine.”
Burial Rites is the product of a ten year quest to uncover what remains of Agnes Magnusdottir’s life. Instigated by an exchange visit to Iceland after high school, Hannah Kent spent the ensuing years absorbed in intense archival research, examination of primary sources and retracing of Agnes’ steps from her birth to her final resting place. Kent called the result a “speculative biography”, a weave of fact and fiction, and her own “dark love letter to Iceland.”
While Burial Rites presents the question of whether history has misrepresented Agnes, the novel does not necessarily demand sympathy for her. It does, however, offer a more empathetic, albeit ambiguous, portrayal of a woman condemned – and an attempt to understand what circumstances might have led to her conviction in a double murder.
The result is an exquisitely beautiful novel. Kent’s prose is rich and clear, rendering the melancholic, claustrophobic atmosphere of the Icelandic winter and Agnes’ impending execution in evocative language. Agnes herself, awaiting death and exiled at the farm of a minor public servant, emerges from the pages vividly.
“Those who are not being dragged to their deaths cannot understand how the heart grows hard and sharp, until it is a nest of rocks with only an empty egg in it. I am barren; nothing will grow from me anymore. I am the dead fish drying in the cold air. I am the dead bird on the shore. I am dry, I am not certain I will bleed when they drag me out to meet the axe. No, I am still warm, my blood still howls in my veins like the wind itself, and it shakes the empty nest and asks where all the birds have gone, where have they gone?”
Kent writes with a kind of graceful maturity, a depth of emotion that befits the subject matter. This a story about a woman facing her imminent death, a woman with one final opportunity to speak her truth, and Kent captures the desperation, isolation and grief of Agnes with stunning clarity. The book is interspersed with Agnes’ inner monologues, and these sections are the most vivid; pouring forth in a steam of raw psychological pain and striking imagery.
Though she spent much of her life employed as a servant and a period of her childhood as an orphaned pauper thrown on the mercy of the parish, there is evidence to suggest that Agnes was also an intelligent and highly literate woman. And this is the version of Agnes that Kent chooses to portray; beneath the hard and icy veneer of a woman reviled and silenced, she is compelling, passionate and astute.
While living and working alongside Jón Jónsson and his family, fragments of Agnes’ story begin to emerge. As she confides in Tóti, the young assistant priest commissioned to reconcile her to her fate and to God, Agnes’ version of events takes shape as the remaining days of her life pass. Through this gradual unwinding, Tóti and the family come to confront the idea that the truth may not be all that it seems. While we already know how Agnes’ story ends, it’s this suggestion of dissonance between public opinion and her personal reality that fuel the novel’s tension. Burial Rites suggests that truth is open to interpretation, and is rarely as straightforward as commonly perceived. Fear, gossip and hatred twist the idea of Agnes into something horrifying and loathsome; an opinion no doubt perpetuated by the pervasive social, religious and sexual politics of the time.
To this end, Kent’s novel faithfully depicts life in 19th century Iceland, and is immersed in historical detail without the narrative being weighed down or bloated. It is clear that care has been taken to accurately represent the conditions of Agnes’ world, to reconstruct the framework of her life with as much integrity as possible. The gaps in historical record, which Kent has fleshed out with fiction, fit seamlessly within the broader context of time and place, resulting in a story that respects its origins.
We cannot know the entirety of Agnes Magnusdottir’s story, but Burial Rites asks us to remember her, if not reconsider how history may have buried her own truth with her body. Knutur Oskarsson, who accommodated Hannah Kent during part of the writing and research of the novel, stated: “I do believe that the execution of Agnes is still an unhealed wound in Iceland, in the history of Iceland.”
Burial Rites is a respectful and moving acknowledgment of that wound; a reminder that Agnes Magnusdottir’s voice once existed, even if it was lost to time. ...more
“This is the story of a wild girl and a ghost girl; a boy who knew nothing and a boy who thought he knew everything. And it’s about life and death and grief and romance. All the good stuff.”
..and Girl Defective does have these things. But for me, it isn't about those elements so much being about a girl finding her place in the world. As with Notes from The Teenage Underground, Simmone Howell does this beautifully: it’s real and organic and subtle. Within the framework of a flagging record store, an unconventional family, a lost girl and a charismatic one – another girl grows and changes. Girl Defective is not just about the things that change her, but the girl that is changed - her metamorphosis between the pages.
"Sometimes I’d see Dad look at my brother and feel the acid tang of jealousy in the back of my mouth. I’d flash on Gully at four saying, ‘I’m a boy and Dad’s a boy but Sky is a GIRL.’ And I’d feel cursed and isolated and defective."
Sky is a girl in transition. She’s not even sure if she fits in with her family of misfits: a father stuck in the past, a little brother who won’t take off his pig snout mask, and a mother who left her behind. She’s somewhere in between friendship and infatuation with the magnetic Nancy. A musician turned developer wants to build over St Kilda’s history and the place Sky calls home. Then there’s the quiet, short-sighted boy, spending nights pasting up pictures of a girl’s face on walls.
There is a palpable sense of place in Girl Defective, (I promise that’s not just my bias as a former St Kildan speaking), and Howell’s rendering of Melbourne’s seaside playground suburb is both affectionate and frank. Alongside the tourists attractions and crowds and the slow slide from bohemianism into gentrification, Howell also portrays the homelessness, sex work and drug abuse that are very much a part of St Kilda. It would be disingenuous to ignore the sharp socio-economic contrasts that characterise the area; that disadvantage and privilege exist side by side in glaring disparity.
It’s a setting that fits Girl Defective, a kind of warped urban fairground populated by artists and hacks, misfits and celebrities. The fanciful and the real are entwined here: underground parties are filled with girls in silver and boys in masks, while street workers hug the edges of Carlisle and Greeves Streets. A run-down record store clings to the glory days of the mix tape and pristine vinyl, while a window on Inkerman Street is filled with the ugly mugs of infamous curb-crawlers.
As with the location, Howell develops her characters with various shades. As one character later states, they are not “bad” people, but they are flawed and layered. Part of this story is about Sky discovering this fundamental truth, peeling back the different versions of themselves people present, and understanding what lies beneath.
At the heart of Girl Defective are these relationships, each of which have some bearing on Sky’s character development. Whether they are familial, romantic or platonic, the connections between the characters are engaging and nuanced. Howell addresses matters of loneliness and lust, alienation and alcoholism, manipulation and empathy. Yet this isn’t a heavy book. There’s a certain levity to story that balances its substantial content, and an artfulness to the writing that is intelligent and gorgeous to read.
"Kid, that was what she called me. Or little sister, or girlfriend, or dollbaby, or monkeyface. Sometimes she even used my name – Skylark, Sky – all in that drawl that felt like fingernails on my back lightly scratching itches I didn’t even know I had."
And then of course, there’s the music. (The lovely Mandee has put together a playlist for the book.) As befits a book with an iconic record store at its centre, music is woven through Girl Defective like an extension of the characters and setting, a soundtrack not only accompanies the plot, but feels integral to it.
"Late in the night, in the yoga light, I listened to Leonard Cohen but I didn’t have to coax the sadness out. His voice was a long tunnel with the tiniest pinprick of light at the end."
A unique coming-of-age story with a touch of mystery, a lot of character and full of heart, Girl Defective is indeed “all the good stuff.”
Reading that Rone's work played a part in inspiring Girl Defective felt almost serendipitous, given my own burgeoning obsession with his art. His posters and murals are highly recognisable, now appearing not only in Melbourne but around the world.
I'm not sure exactly what it is, but I think there is something a little haunting about Rone's 'girls' and their expressions. I don't know what their origin stories are, but I can't help but wonder if there are any lost girls among them...
Sometimes books just speak to you, and this one basically climbed into my ear and shouted.
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“The last thing I see before falling asleep is t
Sometimes books just speak to you, and this one basically climbed into my ear and shouted.
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“The last thing I see before falling asleep is the Kali painting on Skunk’s wall. Her blue-gold body is draped in equal parts flowers and severed heads – as if beauty and horror were interchangeable and what matters most is trusting in the dance.”
When it comes to what we talk about when we talk about mental illness, Wild Awake is a full-throated, primal shout in a sea of polite murmuring. It is a painful and joyous cry, unapologetically discordant, demanding to be heard. It begins with a phone call and ends with a view; in between it is a burst of cacophonous music that sounds like nothing else, and somehow exactly as it should.
When I sat down to write this review, I debated whether or not to lead with mental illness; because Kiri wouldn’t. Kiri doesn’t see the world or herself in terms of illness and wellness. The parameters of her world are not rigidly defined, they are yielding and permeable, allowing the real and the unreal to flow freely and spill over into each other.
This is less a novel about being mentally ill than it is about simply being, and understanding how to be.
So I could open with the writing: the words I want to crawl into, curl around, taste, savour. I could talk about how reading this novel is sometimes like limping over shards of glass in its incisiveness, sometimes like sinking into a lucid dream. As Kiri’s mental state unfurls against a backdrop of midnight bike rides, music, death and love, Smith articulates how it is both terrifying and seductive, and how it is possible to find something beautiful buried at the heart of so much pain.
Or I could talk about the characters: sharply drawn and as real as if they breathed within the pages, emerging from Smith’s prose fully formed and vital, beating with energy. About Kiri’s voice, the layers of humour and sadness and the insistent, urgent rhythm of her hypermanic spiral.
Or the vividness of Kiri’s world, a setting that’s as much a part of her as it is a physical place, streets and buildings made familiar with the passing of each page. The world that is carved out between Kiri, Skunk, Doug and Sukey and the spaces their memories and emotions inhabit.
But if you are looking for a straightforward, redemptive (and arguably reductive) narrative about mental illness that includes “affix Label A here” and “insert Medical Intervention here” and “cue Closure here” you might be disappointed in Wild Awake. This is simply not that book.
Wild Awake is not overly concerned with naming and defining things, rather it’s about experiences, how beauty and horror manifest in different lives, and how people respond and internalise them. Yet nor is it a flippant novel, glossing over the pain and fear that often accompany mental illness. And neither is it a prescriptive novel, assigning one viewpoint or choice in a blanket message. Instead, it is about uniqueness of experience, how no one will see the world exactly the same as another person, no one will hear exactly the same music as they go about their lives, everyone chooses a slightly different path.
“People like to think everything can be explained by chemistry.”
There is a telling line in the novel – during a conversation about whether Toilet Duck or Windex is more trustworthy – that references the tendency to attribute various human experiences to chemistry. This mentality informs much of our current dialogue around mental illness and medication, and our apparent need to reduce these to tangible terms we can easily understand. We call it a “chemical imbalance”, we say “you wouldn’t criticise someone with [insert physical illness] for taking medication..” in an effort to justify and explain. This is not inherently wrong, but it is a limited, narrow view through which to approach the subject of mental illness. It’s part of the story, but not the whole; just one position on an entire spectrum of interpretation.
It’s difficult to talk about life-affirming novels without spouting clichés, but there is something validating about Wild Awake without it voiding the very real grief and darkness it contains within.
“It’s just a thing,” it seems to say. “It’s just a thing and you will be okay, whoever you are, whatever it is you feel.” And there is something very brave, and beautiful, about that....more
“The heart's in it then, spinning dreams, and torment is on the way. The heart makes dreams seem like ideas.”
Being familiar with the film4.5 stars
“The heart's in it then, spinning dreams, and torment is on the way. The heart makes dreams seem like ideas.”
Being familiar with the film adaptation of Winter’s Bone, I had a hunch that I was going to like Daniel Woodrell’s novel, particularly if it turned out that the characters I’d found so compelling on screen were a faithful rendering of their written counterparts. Had I known that I would love Daniel Woodrell’s writing so much, I think I might have sought it out sooner.
This is a book I can see myself returning to often, finding something different to examine and admire every time, some new angle from which to appraise it. It’s a book I could open at random and still find a passage or a page striking in its power, even without the context of the larger story surrounding it. Woodrell’s writing is evocative, and he creates a rich sense of place in his prose that permeates the narrative. There’s a chill and a certain harshness ingrained between the words, yet also savage beauty and an acknowledgement, if not a respect, for the strong loyalty and values of a community embattled by poverty and substance abuse.
Ree Dolly simultaneously goes head to head with, and also embodies, this rigid (and at times, brutal) moral code. Bearing the brunt of the responsibility for her family’s welfare, Ree is a resolute, strong character, yet also one with depth of emotion and a capacity for compassion. She is the heart of this story, a young woman driven to do what must be done to protect her own. Yet she is more than a stoic figurehead – we see glimpses of her desperation and tenderness, and of her vulnerabilities in several senses of the word. She’s a fierce and sympathetic character, without a doubt one of my favourite literary heroines.
Despite the grace of the writing, Woodrell doesn’t romanticise the realities of Ree’s life. The cycle of poverty and violence, the isolation and physical hardships of the winter, as well as the effects of crystal meth production all have a bearing on the story and are presented in stark clarity. This is community in which abuse, misogyny, abandonment form part of the fabric of life – deeply entrenched and perpetuated through generations. Even those who abide by the unwritten laws are not immune from the cruelty of the system – particularly Ree who, as a woman, is often the object of suspicion, blame, even physical harm. Yet Ree navigates this complex and fraught network of clanship and honor and uses it to her advantage, though not without cost to herself.
In it’s own way, this is a survival story. Not only of survival in a system of violence, or survival of a family under threat of poverty, but also of survival against the elements and the eponymous winter that is an almost tangible presence throughout novel. Woodrell threads the weather through the novel, both its harshness and its haunting beauty, and it serves to accentuate not only the gothic atmosphere, but the urgency of the plot.
Though bleak and somewhat morally ambiguous, this is a story of Ree’s struggle through the season, and of the gift it ultimately grants her.
I didn’t expect to love this book, but I do. For all that it’s unsettling and vicious, it’s also beautiful. ...more
”On the night of my eleventh birthday, Vivienne told me that I was cursed. It was her gift, she said. When she was gone the Brown women’s curse would”On the night of my eleventh birthday, Vivienne told me that I was cursed. It was her gift, she said. When she was gone the Brown women’s curse would pass to me and, if I ever knew which way death would come, I could run hard in the other direction.”
Seventeen-year-old Friday Brown is a runner. Her whole life has revolved around escape: moving from town to town with her Mother, never staying too long in one place, abandoning the past and trying to outpace a cursed future. After befriending a strange boy called Silence, Friday falls in with a group of street kids lead by charismatic matriarchal figure, Arden. When they end up in an outback ghost town, Friday must challenge everything she believes to be true about family, and fate.
Friday Brown was easily my most anticipated release of 2012. It will also likely be my favourite. I had high expectations, and Vikki Wakefield exceeded them. As much as I loved All I Ever Wanted, in Friday Brown Wakefield’s style has developed and deepened, resulting in a novel that is thematically resonant and complex.
Something Wakefield does beautifully, with both All I Ever Wanted and Friday Brown, is write perceptively about the concept of identity and its fluid state in young adulthood. Mim (of All I Ever Wanted) and Friday are both teenage girls who question and redefine themselves – Mim through the challenging of her rigid system of rules, Friday through the stripping away of everything she believes has given her life context. Without her mother, without the stories she has grown up with – who is she? When the only family she has ever known is taken away, does she know herself at all?
This idea of discovery, of identity as evolving rather than static, overarches the narrative. Friday, who eschews forming relationships due to the accompanying responsibility, is also a vulnerable character who has an inherent need to belong. Initially reluctant to forge meaningful connections with others, she is drawn to the sense of envelopment in Arden’s patchwork family. However, as the full extent of Arden’s manipulative nature is gradually exposed, Friday begins to reclaim herself and determine her own path.
There is a recurring motif of duality and comparison threaded through the Friday Brown; the novel itself is broken into two sections, ‘The City’ and ‘The Dust’, to form the whole of Friday’s journey. This tendency to contrast is repeated in various forms: the mother-figures of Vivienne and Arden, the fug of stale, recycled air in a car and the first breath taken in the outback. Vengeance and mercy, harshness and love. The truth versus a truth. And ultimately, good and evil. The entire story builds to a moment of definition for Friday, a power struggle not just between characters but also within herself, a moment of choice with irrevocable consequences.
Yet this is far from a simple novel. It’s complex and layered, unflinchingly honest in its portrayal of grief, homelessness and the abuse of power. The characters are flawed and contradictory, not always sympathetic. They are, however, compelling. It’s the relationships that fuel the tension of the novel - the shifting allegiances, fragile bonds of trust, sense of family and the undercurrent of manipulation. Wakefield crafts the relationships carefully, and it’s the authenticity of the connections, and the emotional investment in them that her writing inspires, that drives the novel to its powerful finale.
There’s an almost gothic element to Friday Brown, particularly in the second half of the story that unfolds in the ghost town of Murungal Creek. There’s a pervasive unease to the scenes that take place here, shadowed by Friday’s curse and the mounting tensions among the group, pared back both physically and emotionally. It’s also here that Wakefield’s imagery and use of the elements as symbolism come to the fore, in a tense, heart-wrenching conclusion.
Honestly, I’ve been intending to review this book for a long time, but each time I opened the document I end up just staring at a blinking cursor. I was overwhelmed by the desire to say everything, and not knowing how to express anything. I love this book that much. I still think about it. About Arden. About Silence. About Friday. About home and family and questioning everything you ever believed about yourself.
It’s beautiful and devastating, and I highly recommend it.
I adored Sepetys’ debut, Between Shades of Gray, and had been eagerly awaiting her follow up novel. I was not disappointed. Reader, I loved this book.
I adored Sepetys’ debut, Between Shades of Gray, and had been eagerly awaiting her follow up novel. I was not disappointed. Sepetys’ commitment to impeccably researching her subject matter shows, and she brings 1950s New Orleans to life on the pages of Out of the Easy.
I really enjoyed Sepetys’ take on class and social stigma in Josie’s story. As the daughter of a prostitute, and in the employ of shrewd Madam Willie, as a cleaner, Josie is keenly aware of the limitations society would put upon her. Savvy and streetwise, Josie dreams of getting out of New Orleans and attending Smith college, while at the same time being conscious of her allegiance to her Mother. When a mysterious death occurs, Josie finds herself drawn more deeply into the underbelly of the Quarter, and her plans for escape and a future of her own making at risk.
Sepetys excels at crafting nuanced, believable characters, and this was the highlight of the novel for me. These are flawed, realistic people and they bring the story to life, make you care about what happens to them. Josie herself is relatable: a resourceful, strong teenager who also experiences self-doubt and fear. The plot necessitates Josie questioning her conscience and her choices, and the conflict feels real.
Some readers may have preferred to see a story that deals with prostitution handled through the perspective of the women involved directly. By framing the narrative through Josie’s perspective, it could be argued that it is inherently biased, and the agency of those characters is denied. I respect that opinion, although I don’t share it. What felt important to me here was that the story be true to Josie’s experience and voice; the lens through which she views the world. I think Sepetys succeeds in this. Josie’s narration and opinions are influenced by her past, and I think it’s conveyed without disrespect to the other characters. In fact, I believe the opposite is true.
So much about this book worked for me: the clear, vivid setting, the strong characterisation, the complex relationships and questions of family and loyalty. And I can’t wait to see what Ruta Sepetys writes next. ...more
Perhaps it’s stating the obvious but I think there’s a direct correlation between a reader’s engagement with Holier Than Thou and the reader’4.5 stars
Perhaps it’s stating the obvious but I think there’s a direct correlation between a reader’s engagement with Holier Than Thou and the reader’s own experiences of life in their early 20s.
Maybe I felt an affinity for this book because I was 22 when my mother first – gently, cautiously – suggested to me that I consider looking for another job because my current one was making me bitter, angry and generally distrustful of people. (It was.) Maybe I felt it because, while I am a bridge-burner to the point of pyromania, I am also a deeply nostalgic person, hoarding scraps of my past and the memory of long uncontacted friends, pulling them out in secret to inspect and mourn over privately. Maybe I felt it because I saw in Holly something of the rigid defences I had built up around myself, and the tendency to bristle under any perceived threat to the exacting system of belief by which I measured and judged myself. Maybe it was the way I found myself inured in apathy and a general malaise that was no longer counteracted by a sense of worth and accomplishment (or admittedly a sort of bitter self-righteousness) in what I was doing with my life.
Or perhaps it’s just because this novel makes me think of sticky pub carpet underfoot and sunburn and hot sand and long, idealistic conversations in which I naively gave away parts of myself to people I would eventually lose, intentionally or otherwise. It makes me think of a sense of abandon and recklessness I lost long ago, of an ability to throw myself - into situations, into ambitions, into rooms, behind ideals, at people. It makes me remember how all that gung-ho toughness I thought I had developed was actually barely even holding me together. That everything I kept compartmentalised inside was eventually going to reach critical mass and manifest in some messy and irrevocable fashion. That while I thought I had been keeping my chin up and soldiering on, I was actually absorbing all the emotional dross I had tried to ignore and eventually I would have to wring myself out and see what was left.
What I’m trying to say, is that while I don’t indentify with every aspect of Holly herself, I identify with this book’s portrayal of grief and longing and disillusionment so much it hurts. My personal and critical readings of this book are too closely intertwined for me to separate them and speak about one without referencing the other. And of course, that’s not how every reader will respond to it. Perhaps they’ll see something self-indulgent, or at least self-inflicted, in the gradual unravelling of Holly’s life. But the concept of a person holding themselves hostage to their personal system of beliefs is one that I can identify with, and part of the reason this book resonates with me.
Laura Buzo’s writing feels familiar and comfortable. While both Good Oil and Holier Than Thou are novels that spark something deeply nostalgic in me, there’s immediacy to her writing that prevent her stories and characters from stagnating with the passing of time. Rather, the way she writes brings back past events into sharp focus, all the awkwardness and yearning of adolescence and the blustering navigation of the 20s with startling clarity.
Holier Than Thou loops backward and forward through Holly’s life, interweaving the past with the present to contextualise the eventual breakdown of her system of internal order. In a way, her past informs her present, and the regret and grief she harbours, constantly presses down, will eventually work its way out to infiltrate and alter the life she has carefully built for herself.
Similarly, Holly’s relationships, both past, present and those that exist through both, in some way influence the path her life takes. And here is where Buzo really excels for me, in the authenticity of these characters and the richness of their interactions – not only in their banter and familiarity – but in the way they evolve. Buzo depicts the natural and forced changes in friendships, and the loss thereof, with a sort of biting poignancy. She captures the fact that not all relationships survive change intact, and that the ideals we hold about those we love will inevitably be challenged. In Holier Than Thou, Buzo articulately conveys the bereft sensation that accompanies this knowledge, and the longing and confusion of unresolved history.
The deconstruction of Holly’s stoicism and her “holier-than-thou” mentality is a thorny area to navigate, yet I think Buzo wrote this with empathy and insight. Sometimes, I feel that when someone doesn’t give the desired or expected response to a given situation, its possible to deny them of their right to their feelings. While Holly’s manner of dealing with loss and change may seem less relatable to some, or her tendency to batten down the emotional hatches may not endear her to others, is she less entitled to express her grief?
Further, the novel addresses the issue that change is not always as simple and clear cut as it may seem from the outside. That extricating oneself from a pattern of thought and years of suppressed emotion can be a painful and complicated process.
Which brings me to this idea:
While I agree with the theory and sentiment behind it, I don’t believe that this one size fits all solution works as smoothly for everyone. For some people it might be a matter of flipping a switch in their head. For others, it’s a horrible process of ripping out their internal fixtures and settings, sandbagging the gaping holes left behind.
For me, that’s what this novel is about. Acknowledging that Holly’s journey can’t be reduced to a series of aesthetically pleasing circles and arrows. That there’s mess and jagged edges and no easy solutions – but there is something beautiful and powerful in recognising that fact.
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Until I get around to writing an actual review, I thought I'd knock together a Holier Than Thou playlist, comprised of songs/artists mentioned in the book and some other stuff that I just thought fit. It's a bit out of order and I might have missed someone in there..
(*) denotes an artist or song referenced in the book.
Among my Goodreads friends, Code Name Verity seems to fall very clearly into two categories: "Not for me" and "True love 5ever!". There are actually vAmong my Goodreads friends, Code Name Verity seems to fall very clearly into two categories: "Not for me" and "True love 5ever!". There are actually very few people I know who sit in between these.
When I first attempted Code Name Verity, I thought I was Camp A. Upon second attempt, turns out I'm Camp B. Which actually isn't all that surprising considering my love of war history, unreliable narrators etc.
“..against your will it would make you think of just how much of your day comprised simply missing things. Just how much eluded you. Just how many ki “..against your will it would make you think of just how much of your day comprised simply missing things. Just how much eluded you. Just how many kicks you were behind the play. Unravelled, you would entertain these thoughts. You would be sitting with a guide dog and a slipped guard. And ambivalence. Eleanor Rigby, the girl who kept Distance above all, would feel excluded.”
Rhubarb is the book I never knew I wanted to read – all the makings of a favourite, here all along in a title I’d repeatedly overlooked. It’s a touching and sharply perceptive novel that interlaces two portraits of isolation, different in cause but alike in effect. Eleanor Rigby is blind, Ewan Dempsey is agoraphobic. Both are sequestered by their pasts, hobbled by the present, occupying tightly closed private worlds that collide in the lead up to Christmas of 1999.
Rather than a story about loneliness, in the sense of a disconnect between social interaction and the desire for it, I think that here Silvey recognises that there’s a certain kind of solace in solitude, and that isolation can be, for some, a form of refuge. And it’s this cultivated aloneness that makes the eventual connection so poignant, so much more powerful, because the walls are breached in spite of their familiarity and comfort. This is not a story about “fixing” people or miraculously conquering deeply ingrained emotional pain, but the soft click of two people fitting together by virtue of understanding and mutual empathy, recognising something in other that speaks just to them. It explores the personal cost at which this sense of connection is bought – how much it takes to lay bare things long hidden away.
Silvey constructs the story in vignette-like sections of Eleanor and Ewan’s lives, past and present, and the characters that reside on the periphery of their worlds. It’s a novel of finely detailed, interlocking parts and a wry observations of community. As in Jasper Jones, Silvey displays a skill for insightfully expressing the idiosyncrasies of Australian culture, and for crafting a rich setting. The dense heat of December is palpable, as is Eleanor’s physical discomfort as she navigates the streets of Fremantle in the company of her noble guide dog Warren. The quiet of Ewan’s cottage, broken only by a pair of randy possums and his beloved cello Lillian, is stifling. There is very much a sense of place in the novel, a distilled and concentrated atmosphere that gives the story intensity and draws the reader in. It’s an evocative, sensory book – beautifully textured with sound and touch and scent.
There’s an artistry to the way Silvey uses language. He writes with almost a disregard for conventional writing rules, favouring words that run together and quirks of capitalisation, slipping between second and third person narration in a manner that feels fluid and comfortable. There’s no denying that there’s a floridness to the description and word choice, but it doesn’t feel cloying. Rather, the imagery lends this novel an almost whimsical edge, a softness to the occasionally dark and brutal elements of the story. It’s easy to see how the exuberance of Rhubarb developed into the slightly more measured prose of Jasper Jones. Both showcase Silvey’s unique style, but there’s something about the freeness and the flow of words in Rhubarb that I love. It’s a kind of literary abandon that pays off, feels organic and charming rather than contrived and awkward.
Rhubarb balances humour and sadness with particular finesse, managing to tread a line between due respect for the characters and not taking itself too seriously. There are parts I found genuinely laugh-out-loud hilarious, partially due to the slightly dry, tongue in cheek delivery. On the other hand there are quietly devastating elements of this story, moments of grief and longing striking for their warts-and-all honesty. It’s an unconventional book, but a moving one, a story to be savoured.
Finally, a thank you to the lovely Eleanor Rigby (yes, Eleanor Rigby) whose gentle prods towards this book are greatly appreciated. Without her recommendation, what would turn out to be one of my favourite books of the year might have gone undiscovered.
* * * * * Recommended to me by the lovely Eleanor Rigby, not to be mistaken for the Eleanor Rigby in this book, who also has an Eleanor Rigby namesake. I feel very meta right now. ...more
This book has zombies in it. But it’s not about zombies, as such.
It’s abo[Edited, because ZOMBIE NAILS. See below]
This is not a zombie book.
This book has zombies in it. But it’s not about zombies, as such.
It’s about so much more than that.
Call them a catalyst, a threat, an inciting event – the zombies are an ominous presence that set off a chain reaction of events and lurk unnervingly around the corners of the book. But this is not even so much a book about survival, although that’s certainly one of the themes threading through the story.
For me, deep at its heart, this was a book about will. The will to live versus the will to die. And how sometimes, for some people, this is not an unconscious, involuntary response to each day as it arrives, but a choice and a fight every moment.
This Is Not A Test is an incredibly intense and psychologically gruelling novel to read. It had me in a stranglehold from the first page, from Sloane’s opening words, which almost echo with the emptiness carved out by her sister's absence. While her pain bleeds through the pages in places, there’s also something detached, cold, about her narration. Because her mind has been made up. She’s resolved. Until the morning the world shatters.
In depicting her vision of the zombie apocalypse, Summers uses restraint to masterful effect. The horror of the undead is rendered more powerful by the suggestion of their presence, like the sound of them hammering against doors in their hunger, as opposed to always placing them in the limelight. Similarly, by barricading six teenagers into a school, it’s the constant fear of a breach that stretches the nerves to breaking point, rather than an endless gore-fest. Which is not to say that This Is Not A Test doesn’t contain disturbing images of violence or pay homage to the genre of zombie horror – it does – but the effectiveness is amplified by the enormous amount of tension that has been wound up in the plot.
The scenario of six people thrown together, under siege by the rabid infected and forced to make snap judgements with life or death ramifications, makes for a mental battleground. The dynamic balances on a knife-edge, allegiances and motivations threatened by accusations, guilt and desperation born out of the desire to live (or die). At work beneath the more obvious conflicts are the character’s own internal battles, and the larger questions of what it means to take or save a life, and at what cost do they preserve their own. Who is the real enemy - the undead, or the darker side of human nature?
This Is Not A Test almost defies categorisation. It’s a hybrid of sorts, and the brutal emotional honesty is not sacrificed in order to continue ratcheting up the tension. It sounds strange, but the juxtaposition of the contemporary elements with the horror premise work exceptionally well. The parallels between the internal and external fight to survive are powerful, and there is a depth and relevance to this story in it’s insightful portrayal of pain, loss, grief, and ultimately, choice.
In Sloane, Summers has created a character and a story that hit me right in the chest. I felt an almost relentless ache for her, for what had compelled her to make her decision. And yet never does the writing feel gratuitous or melodramatic. It feels painfully realistic, all the more powerful for the things that are left unspoken, the profound silences between the scenes.
I was exhausted when I finished This Is Not A Test. I felt mentally, emotionally, physically (because I stayed up so late to read it) wrung out – and the haunting final scene of the book lingered with me days afterwards.
I’m a little bit in awe of this book.
And I’m going to start sleeping with a cricket bat under my bed.
But sister, it's the opposite of hallelujah It's the opposite of being you You don't know 'cause it just passes right through you You don't know what I
But sister, it's the opposite of hallelujah It's the opposite of being you You don't know 'cause it just passes right through you You don't know what I'm going through
So goes the title track of Jens Leckman’s 2005 EP, The Opposite of Hallelujah. It’s also one of two epigraphs that appear in Anna Jarzab’s sophomore novel, which shares the name. The song is deceptively upbeat, almost perky, yet the lyrics beautifully fit Jarzab’s contemplative and sincere novel about faith, grief and familial relationships.
Unfortunately, my copy of The Opposite of Hallelujah had been left to languish on a stack of books I routinely pass over, mostly because my interest in reading it had waned due to my fairly lukewarm reaction to All Unquiet Things. Then Kelly’s thoughtful review over at Stacked prompted me to pick it up, which feels serendipitous in hindsight because (and I realise this is a big call to make in January) this may well be one of my favourite books of the year.
This is a story about a teenage girl who’s sister returns home from a convent after eight years. Caro barely remembers her older sister living at the family home (there’s an eleven year age difference) and reacts with unsurprising apathy towards Hannah’s return. Virtually strangers now, Hannah’s vocation has been a source of confusion to Caro, and it’s compounded by Hannah’s unwillingness to explain why she has left the convent. When it becomes evident that Hannah is not coping and Caro begins to uncover a long buried secret, relationships are tested and Caro is compelled to address her own doubts about faith and religious belief.
Granted, a book that deals substantially with questions of God, the universe and redemption is not everyone’s cup of tea, yet never did I feel that Jarzab’s novel was heavy-handed or didactic. The themes are complex yet well-explored, handled accessibly through Caro’s sharp and authentic voice. As a counter-balance to Hannah, who was a deeply religious child with an apparently natural inclination to piety, Caro is agnostic and favours a scientific approach to questions and reasoning. She has complicated feelings towards Hannah’s belief in her vocation, which results in her poor handling direct questions about her sister, to the point of effectively denying her existence.
The Opposite of Hallelujah is a well written book; Jarzab’s confident and eloquent prose lends the novel a literary feel, while the realistic rendering of Caro’s voice serves as an effective medium for the profound subject matter. Caro’s characterisation is authentic and relatable: she’s sixteen, argues with her parents, behaves selfishly at times. While she’s a sympathetic character with a lot to deal with, Jarzab allows Caro to be flawed and make mistakes, to act insensitively. Jarzab’s dedication to portraying Caro as a realistic teen, and choosing to tell this story through the lens of Caro’s limited life-experience, makes for a strong arc in her character development. Caro’s progression throughout the novel is entirely believable, as she moves from a place of disinterest in her sister to an desire to understand and try to alleviate her pain.
That relationship between Hannah and Caro is the crux of the novel: it’s a complicated and tense dynamic, frustrated by prolonged absence and wide disparity in viewpoints. Compounded by the fact that Hannah won’t talk about her sudden homecoming, and their parent’s well-meaning attempts to allow Hannah to adjust on her own terms without talking about anything, this relationship (or initial lack thereof) is the catalyst for Caro beginning to question her own belief system, and her subsequent emotional growth. On the other hand, Hannah’s descent into illness (physically, mentally and arguably spiritually) is depicted with painful honesty. While the reader experiences Hannah’s anguish secondhand through Caro, this makes it no less compelling, and Jarzab manages to convey her internal suffering both insightfully and powerfully – regardless of whether the reader can relate to her emotions.
Interestingly, while it appears on the surface of things that this novel is about the conflict between science and spirituality, it’s actually more about their coexistence, and the way we internalise and deal with grief through various means. Jarzab subtly explores this idea through her use of art and science in the story, referencing the works of graphic artist M C Escher and noted cleric-scientists (Nicolaus Copernicus, Gregor Mendel etc). Framing much of this information in the context of conversations between Caro and Father Bob, a priest she is acquainted with, Jarzab allows Caro to express and explore her doubts and issues with the concepts of guilt, forgiveness and faith. Art is also used as a point of connection between Hannah and Caro, a tentatively extended invitation to rebuild their relationship.
Similarly, Jarzab uses Caro’s interest and academic performance in science to investigate the idea of creation as a therapeutic act. Compelled to participate in a science fair, Caro – for complicated reasons – takes on an advanced project, one that pushes her beyond her realm of knowledge. This portrayal of Caro as a logical, driven young woman with a desire to succeed at what she sets out to do speaks to her characterisation throughout the story as a whole. While she is occasionally perceived as acting out, the petulant little sister, Caro is also a person with a great deal of determination, using what coping mechanisms she has to work through her difficult situation.
The Opposite of Hallelujah’s supporting characters are strong and fully-realised, fleshing out the novel and Caro’s internal journey. Jarzab presents a refreshingly frank parent/child dynamic that develops as Caro herself matures and grows emotionally. Her relationship with her parents is pivotal in the story, and it’s especially pleasing to read two characters that have clearly distinct personalities, flaws and voices. It’s this attention to detail and careful construction of the secondary cast that give the novel a feeling of authenticity; they exist as part of the novel, rather than mere plot devices. There’s also a very nuanced portrayal of female friendship in the triumvirate of Caro, Reb and Erin. I particularly enjoyed the fact that while the girls were very different with a delicate balance of trust, and despite the natural tensions that emerged from time to time, it was a healthy and supportive network. And yes, there’s romance too. Jarzab handles this subplot well, it’s sweet and realistic and the complications are entirely believable as opposed to manufactured angst for the sake of drama. There’s a very cute moment with some Rube Goldberg machines (yes, really) which builds on the continued physics/science motif used throughout the novel.
This is a solid contemporary novel with considerable depth of subject matter, without being overwhelmingly heavy in its execution. Definitely recommended if you’re looking for a well-written and balanced exploration of grief and faith from a slightly unusual angle.
I still never told you about unstoppable sorrow You still think I'm someone to look up to I still don't know anything about you Is it in you too?
”I’m always trying to figure out what’s really going on. Always having to fill in the gaps, but never getting all the details. It’s like trying to do
”I’m always trying to figure out what’s really going on. Always having to fill in the gaps, but never getting all the details. It’s like trying to do a jigsaw when I don’t even know what the picture is, and I’m missing one of the vital middle pieces.”
On my morning commute to work, the first thing I usually do is put my earphones in. I choose to block out the tram rumble and the overly loud mobile phone conversations and the high school gossip with music. I don’t think I fully realised until reading this book how much I took this simple act for granted.
In the opening scene of Whisper, sixteen year old Demi gets on a tram to go to her new school. She thinks about her iPod, and how she used to scroll through it for the perfect song for a particular moment. And she thinks about how she gave it away, because eighteen months ago, she became profoundly deaf.
Whisper is full of small, quiet, powerful moments like this – where Chrissie Keighery plunges us into Demi’s silent world, confronting us with the daily realities of being deaf, showing us life through Demi’s eyes. There were times when mentally sharing in Demi’s experiences made me feel like I couldn’t breathe, panic clawing up my chest, closing my throat. (view spoiler)[There is a particular scene where Demi attends a party and her friends turn off the lights, forgetting that she needs to be able see to lip read, that made me cry. (hide spoiler)] Imagining the loss of one of the senses I use every minute to put the world around me in context was an emotional experience. Because I realised how much I hadn’t thought about it before. How much I didn’t know about the deaf community. How much I couldn’t even begin the fathom what it would feel like to be in Demi’s situation, having the way I absorb world alter, and needing to learn to understand it all over again.
At the risk of getting all sentimental in this review (view spoiler)[haha, what’s new? (hide spoiler)], I can’t overstate how beautiful and touching I found this book. It’s a simple story but it’s rich with insight. The writing is pared back but emotional. Demi has a distinctly teenage voice - she’s intelligent, but confused, angry and lost. Keighery writes Demi’s struggle to navigate and reconcile the hearing and deaf worlds with incredible empathy and respect.
The messaging in Whisper around audism is not precisely subtle, and Keighery presents the issues faced by the deaf community, particularly locally, in a very up front manner. However, I didn’t feel like this was the distasteful insertion of an author’s agenda that I’ve occasionally come across in novels. To me, this is about awareness, clear and simple. About portraying Demi’s situation accurately, and communicating the different experiences of deaf teens and their families, including discrimination.
Beneath the important subject matter, however, this is also a story about friendship and family. About courage and fear, and the anxieties that simply go along with being a teenager. It’s not gritty, or shocking – but its honest, and funny, and moving.
The motto of the Victorian College for the Deaf (Demi’s school – Hi, Melbourne!) is taken from a Goethe quote: "the highest cannot be spoken, it must be enacted." I can’t help but think that this is also a perfect sentiment to accompany this story, about taking action, having a voice, and finding hope. ["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>...more
The second and third books in Zusak’s Underdog series were basically a left jab right hook straight in the feels.
Fighting Ruben Wolfe and When Dogs CThe second and third books in Zusak’s Underdog series were basically a left jab right hook straight in the feels.
Fighting Ruben Wolfe and When Dogs Cry (aka Getting The Girl) are stronger books than The Underdog. Both novels are still primarily character driven, but they read more cohesively and the writing feels more developed, closer to the style associated with Zusak’s later work. While I enjoyed The Underdog, it’s in the next two books that I feel Zusak really hits his stride, settling into the rhythm of his rugged yet lyrical prose.
But it’s what he writes about that really gets to me – not just Cameron’s aching hunger – but the entire Wolfe family and the way they fit together as one tough, endearing unit. It might seem unlikely for such small stories, where some characters only have scant dialogue, but I felt like I knew these people. They have such presence in these pages – their faults and emotions and bonds laid bare, warts and all – raw and vital and alive in the story. Zusak conveys so much about the relationships in this family without having to spell it out. The brotherhood between Ruben and Cameron, which takes centre stage in Fighting Ruben Wolfe, is painfully real and complex. Even when they’re at their worst (yes, I’m looking at you especially Ruben), I couldn’t help but love these characters.
All three novels are fairly blunt about what life is like in working class, urban Australia – don’t expect an abundance of political correctness here. But it’s authentic. Zusak portrays a cross-section of society with incisiveness, laying open the reality of the Wolfe’s world without romanticising or embellishing it. It’s evident that this is familiar ground for Zusak in the astute, yet matter of fact, way he writes about it.
I’m not going to lie – I cried while reading the last book. Again, it’s subtle, but so much goes on under the surface of the words. Particularly in the relationship between the brothers, and Cameron’s fight for his place, and who he is. There are so many small, quiet moments in this story, heavy with significance, yet never overplayed. With a short scene or a terse exchange between characters, Zusak manages to articulate the emotion that underpin the novels, and inject this story with so much heart and honesty.
These aren’t perfect books. They probably won’t be everyone’s cup of tea.
But I bloody love them.
* * * * * I'm not crying, it's just raining on my face. ...more