Friday, 30 April 2010

The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas


DATE READ: April 2010

NOTES: This is a really difficult book to review! I found the opening premise brilliant. A group of friends and relatives gather for a barbecue in suburban Melbourne. All is fairly relaxed until a brat of a child disrupts everything with his appalling behaviour. One guest, who fears his own child is being physically threatened, extracts the awful Hugo from the dispute and slaps him. From this one event a whole stream of actions and recriminations unfold. Some are very certain of what should happen, others more ambivalent. But as the story progresses positions harden and loyalties between friends and family members become strained.

The Slap is told from the point of view of different characters. Everyone is well drawn and the writing is powerful and compelling. I found myself racing to the end because I wanted to know the final outcome. Tsiolkas focuses on the many rifts within modern Australian society. There is a beautifully written scene when the old Greek Manolis bumps into a young man and his girlfriend in the doorway of a café. He had assumed they would give way for him – but they didn’t and a collision takes place. Manolis is confused and embittered about the general lack of respect – money has become more important than manners.

My problem with the book is that I felt so alienated from most of the characters. He paints a very depressing picture of suburban life. Alcoholism, drug-taking and adultery all seem to be the norm. I found the overt racism and racist language very disturbing – do people really speak like this? Sexual obscenities occur on almost every page and nearly all the explicit sexual activity is verging on the violent. I would be interested to know how middle-class Australians relate to this book.

Some superb energetic writing and excellent plotting – but not a comfortable read!

Saturday, 24 April 2010

Remarkable Creatures by Tracy Chevalier


DATE READ: April 2010

NOTES: Mary Anning lived in Lyme Regis in the early 19th century. She had a good eye for finding fossils on the beach which she sold to visitors. When she located an ichthyosaur and a plesiosaur she attracted the attention of serious collectors and scientists.

From this simple story Tracy Chevalier has created an enthralling novel. Poor working-class Mary strikes up a friendship with impoverished middle-class Elizabeth Philpot. They are both obsessed with finding fossils – a hobby for Elizabeth but a financial necessity for Mary. Their unlikely friendship has its ups and downs because of class differences and petty jealousies. What Chevalier does brilliantly is create for the modern day reader an understanding of the restrictions placed on women at that time. Although Mary had a natural gift for finding fossils this was not acknowledged by the men who bought them from her and subsequently displayed them in museums or wrote research papers about them.

Also woven into the story is the growing understanding that the fossils they are finding could be of creatures that are now extinct. This idea was almost blasphemous as the Book of Genesis was considered to be the literal truth by most people.

The Remarkable Creatures of the title could be the pre-historic beasts unearthed by the fossil hunters. But I am sure that it is Mary Anning and Elizabeth Philpot who are the truly remarkable creatures – struggling against prejudice, envy and greed in a man’s world.

A lovely read.

Wednesday, 21 April 2010

A Fraction of the Whole by Steve Toltz


DATE READ: April 2010

NOTES: A Fraction of the Whole is a cleverly constructed novel that records the heartbreaking (but funny) story of the life of Jasper Dean. Jasper’s father Martin wrote copiously of his own life and his notebooks are included. Martin (and to a lesser extent Jasper) lives very much in the shadow of his dead brother Terry. Terry is a notorious criminal who becomes an Australian folk hero even though he is clearly a despicable character. Every time Martin seems on the verge of doing something the spectre of Terry seems to arise…..

Right from the very first page the book is brimful of quirky ideas and droll observations. Although more than 700 pages long the narrative seldom lags and the reader is swept along in a tide of ideas, coincidences and outlandish incidents. On nearly every page there is a witty, wise or just plain silly saying. For instance Martin (in Paris) observes: “No wonder key existentialists were French. It’s natural to be horrified at existence when you have to pay 4 dollars for coffee.” Later Jasper is scorned by the love of his life – “To this day the memory of that look still visits me like a Jehovah’s Witness, uninvited and tireless.”

Apart from Anouk, the hippy housekeeper, I didn’t really like the main characters – but was intrigued enough to keep on reading. A Fraction of the Whole is an amazing debut novel written with great energy and exuberance. Very impressive.

Sunday, 11 April 2010

The Girl Who Kicked The Hornets' Nest by Stieg Larsson


DATE READ: April 2010

NOTES: The final part in the great Millennium Trilogy. Lisbeth Sander is in hospital with bullets embedded in strategic parts of her body and is under arrest for murder and attempted murder. Malign forces continue to plot against her (because of what she knows) and this time they feel increasingly confident that she will be declared insane and returned to a secure psychiatric unit.

But campaigning journalist Mikael Blomkvist is on her side and is determined to help Lisbeth and reveal the illegal and murderous machinations of rogue agents within the Swedish state security police. Once again there is the heady mix of journalism, computer hacking, violence and sex. There are also several sub-stories such as Erika Berger’s move to edit a daily newspaper and her subsequent problems with a stalker. And Blomkvist finds a new love in a tough security operative Monika Figuerola.

The final part of the book details a riveting courtroom scene – a film script already written. Found myself cheering on Lisbeth’s defence lawyer Giannini.

The Girl Who Kicked The Hornets’ Nest is probably overcomplicated and has too many characters. The Swedish names are not easy for the English speaking reader – so easy to get confused between Erlander, Edklinth, Eriksson, Ekström, Endrin and Estholm! But it is such a cracking read that all imperfections are forgiven.

A stunning finale.

Saturday, 3 April 2010

If It Bleeds by Duncan Campbell


DATE READ: March 2010

NOTES: Laurie Lane is a crime reporter for a national newspaper. An ageing gangster, Charlie Hook, gets in touch with him and says he wants Laurie to help him write his life story. But before Laurie is able to make a decision Hook is found murdered.

Laurie’s post with him newspaper is precarious and the editor is threatening to move him to the motoring department…. But if he can come up with a scoop about Hook’s murder then his job might be secure. As the plot unfolds more and more complications arise. The dialogue is hilarious and much of the banter between the characters rings true. The pub quiz team (made up of Laurie and some ex-criminals) is particularly entertaining.

A great fun read – but Campbell isn’t afraid to take the reader to some dark places.

The Long Song by Andrea Levy


DATE READ: March 2010 (audiobook)

NOTES: Andrea Levy’s latest book is a joy! An old Jamaican woman, July, recounts her life at the behest of her son. She tells of her childhood on the Amity plantation, of slave uprisings and how slavery ended. We learn about how she was conceived, how she became separated from her mother and about her life as a house slave. We are not spared the cruelties of the slave-owners and their disregard for the people in their possession. There are some truly horrific episodes described in a direct and matter-of-fact way. But what makes the narrative so impressive is how the character of July shines through. She often addresses the reader directly and tells us that she thinks we now know enough about what happened. She also complains constantly about her son (who she obviously adores) – she says that he forgets to bring her new writing supplies and sometimes criticises what she has produced. In this way the reader learns that July sometimes embroiders her story and tells it as she would have liked it to happen.

It goes without saying that the whole slavery industry in the West Indies was cruel in the extreme and the ill effects of it remain to this day. But this is no “misery memoir”. The slaves themselves learn to be overtly submissive but all the time they are scoring small victories….. bottles of rum are stolen, buttons from the mistress’s blouse are pocketed and instructions to use the best Irish linen tablecloth are ignored (and a stained bed-sheet is used instead!) Levy doesn’t shirk from some of the unpleasant truths. Lighter skinned slaves (usually occurring following a rape) feel superior to their dark skinned fellows. (“Me no n*****, me a mulatto!”)

The audiobook was lovely to listen to. Adrian Lester (as her son) reads the first and last chapter and the rest is narrated by Andrea Levy. Quite unusual for an author to read their own book but she is magnificent – and made me wonder if she had done any acting.

A humane and uplifting book - highly recommended.