Posts Tagged ‘allen and unwin’

November 30, 2010

Just a little peep from me: a review of Kirsty Murray’s India Dark on Radio National’s The Book Show.

Also, something a bit novel. If you’d like to read a book with me, and hear me discuss it with some special guests (very special guests!), get cracking on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Beautiful and Damned. I’ll be reading it for the Kill Your Darlings Culture Club podcast. Believe me, you want to read this book. It was Fitzgerald’s sophomore book, and it actually features a scene in which one of the characters refers to his first, extremely successful, novel, This Side of Paradise. It’s just like staring into a tortured soul. Seriously. The podcast airs on Tuesday December 14. Get thee ready!

January 18, 2010

I’m as little physically intrepid as it is humanly possible for a person to be. I do not like rollercoasters. I do not like to change hairdressers very often. God forbid that I go on some kind of orienteering foray of an afternoon. And I detest horror movies. A girl like that needs to get her kicks from somewhere, and I am lucky to be able to satisfy my minimal urges for life’s tasty variety through…can you guess? Books? Oh, you’re so smart. Let me buy you a drink.

You may scoff, but if you don’t think that words can help you can swim in adventure straits, then you haven’t read Crime and Punishment. Or Memoirs of a Bugatti Hunter. Or Liar by Justine Larbalestier. Reading this book is like walking a tightrope. I’m not saying it’s some kind of literal safari or anything. But Liar is certainly a masterful exercise in maintaining reader tension: it’s tight, then lulled, then tight again, all the way to its extraordinary end. And even then, I wasn’t quite sure whether I was off the ride yet.

My father is a liar and so am I.
But I’m going to stop. I have to stop. I will tell you my story and I will tell it straight.
No lies, no omissions.
That’s my promise.
This time I truly mean it.

‘Telling the Truth’: such is our introduction to Micah Wilkins. She’s a liar, and we’re duly warned. So we stick with her through all the stories she tells, and there are a lot. Micah starts off with the time she perpetuated the fiction that she was a boy at school. Then, she tells you about her half-black, half-white family, which includes a strange branch of reclusive folk on a two-hundred acre farm. There’s her brother, Jordan. And there’s Zach, her boyfriend. Two pages in, though, and Zach is missing. Three pages, and Zach is dead.

The death of a young boy is a tragedy anywhere, but in a high school, it’s a trigger. Even at a progressive high school like the one Micah attends, the news is a spritzer pill in a glass of water. Zach’s ‘real’ girlfriend, Sarah, is surprised that he had anything to do with Micah, as is everyone else. Micah is a ‘freak’, a loner. The tacit avoidance Micah usually countenances in her school days becomes full-blown hostility as people begin to suspect she had something to do with Zach’s death. But some of the people around her realise that there’s more to her than strangeness and untruths, and as all this unravels, so too do Micah’s stories. ‘I haven’t been entirely honest,’ she says. Perhaps the liar is becoming a truth teller? If so, then who is Micah really?

In Micah, Larbalestier has created a character whose reliability is inversely proportionate to her appeal. Excruciating though Micah’s physical and psychological instability is for her, she is also a deeply fascinating and vital character. The danger with a book focused on the dichotomy of truth and lies is the potential prioritisation of a moral axis of some kind, but we’re never in any danger of that in Liar. Sensitive exploration of the adolescent spikes of identity is what we get instead. Identity is a popular topic in young adult fiction, and it’s well explored here, with fantasy, metaphor and reality holding hands. Micah is a rustling, sparking ball of falsehood and confusion in the midst of youth’s mysterious hot heat, which Liar evokes superbly. Larbalestier shows how the distinction between reality and fantasy becomes moot in that context, because thinking and feeling is just that difficult, alien and animal. It’s this insight and compassion that makes Liar a riveting, supremely put together book about the addictive utility of saying things that are not true.

December 9, 2009

I reviewed Alex Miller’s Lovesong for The Big Issue. It’s a lovely book exploring the ownership of one’s story and the proposition that when someone tells you a story it becomes a gift. Ken, an ostensibly retired writer, has returned to Melbourne after a sojourn in Venice. Before long, though, he’s captivated by the exotic smell of pastries wafting out from where the drycleaner’s used to be, the beautiful dark-eyed woman who runs it and her husband, an Australian man with beautiful hands, ‘the hands of a capable man’. He discovers their names – Sabiha and John Patterner – and clamour arises within his writer’s heart for the ‘ancient buried sorrow’ he sees in Sabiha’s eyes; the ‘simple love story between them, this Aussie bloke and his exotic bride’.

There is a lot of pain in this book, but Lovesong is also unexpectedly playful. Ken’s circumstances mirror Miller’s own: Ken’s ostensible last book was called The Farewell – a barely disguised Landscape of Farewell; and the accomplished writer cherishes his memories of the Tunisian city El Djem. John Patterner is not free of Miller’s arch self-mirroring, either. Patterner’s Melbourne University education, favoured North African restaurant in Paris and country town provenance are all lifted, bare-facedly, from Miller’s own history. ‘Everything is autobiographical and everything is a portrait,’ says Ken (pace Lucian Freud) to a nosy interviewer.

Miller is a fantastic writer who is equally capable of the lyrical and the laconic. An example of the latter:

The coffee was steaming. His mother had named Tip for the white tip on her tail. John had not given names to his animals. His father’s old horse had been a big lumbering brown gelding named Beau. A great farter. A monumental farter. When his father spurred Beau up the bank of the creek the horse let out a series of mighty farts. Real stinkers. It would take your head off if you were tailing him too closely.

The other thing is that Miller has a real knack for names. I don’t know how many times I read a modern realist novel or short story and roll my eyes at the names. Wrong names can pull you right out of a narrative – if they’re too sterile, too pretty or too odd, they don’t work. Of course, it’s hard to pick monikers that could come out of a phone book without just flipping open the White Pages. But it’s not often you come across an author with the knack for picking proper nouns that lend a heartbeat to what is really just ink on a page. Sabiha and the two Hourias; John Patterner; Andrea and Tumas Galasso; Ken and Clare. Just kind of strange enough, kind of pedestrian enough, just they-live-right-round-the-corner enough.

, etc.

The Whisper of Leaves tells the story of Kira, an adventurous, gold-eyed healer whose skills exceed any her people have seen before. One of the Tremen people descended from the peaceful Kasheron, Kira lives in Allogrenia, a beautiful, heavily wooded land divided into portions each associated with one of the Tremen’s eight clans. Kira’s people love the land’s bounty, and carefully keep the ways into it secret. But the Shargh, who are as violent as the Tremen are peaceful, find a way in. Arkendrin, brother of the deceased Shargh chief, seeks Kira, because he believes that she is the subject of an old prophecy that foretells the destruction of his people.

Allogrenia is extensively realised by Nikakis, and her affection for the Victorian landscape where she grew up and continues to work is obviously a big influence on how she created the world in her Kira books. The Tremen people are intimately familiar with the uses of all the plants and herbs that can be found in their lands, and the forest’s animals are often invoked to add colour to Nikakis’s descriptions.

The Whisper of Leaves is the first in a trilogy. Once I’ve read the first volume in a trilogy, I’m usually pretty eager to pick up the rest of the narrative thread in the remaining books. In this case, though, I doubt I will get straight to it. I did like the world and the characters, but the pacing of this book was a little off for me. It moved more slowly than I would have liked, and as a corollary, I rarely sustained the heady suspense that is the usual payoff for reading dramatic fantasy novels. It’s a bit longer than it needs to be, too, though that’s a usual quibble for me with fantasy books. But it’s a nice gentle read, which I appreciated when I was heavily hungover yesterday.

There’s a beautiful illustration depicting Allogrenia on the book’s website, and you can have a peek at sample chapters from each of the Kira books there, too.

Some writers compromise their readers: whether it’s by underestimating their intelligence and capacity for empathy, or misjudging their motives for engaging with literature, some writers simply do not deserve the trust readers place in them. Christos Tsiolkas is not one of those writers, and his book The Slap shows how rewarding it can be when a writer is generous to his characters, his vision and his audience.

The Slap begins on the morning of a get-together planned by Aisha and Hector, a married couple. Hector is an alpha male, a public servant with a morning physical routine and a love for women which is unembarrassingly reciprocated by that part of the population. A loving husband, who without prejudice refers to his wife’s exceptional qualities in times of stress, Hector is nevertheless uncompromisingly lascivious; he is conducting an affair with his wife’s high-school age assistant, Connie, and masturbates in the ensuite while thinking about a co-shopper from the supermarket.

At the gathering, a run-of-the-mill suburban barbecue, friends and family of the couple engage in familiar banter, needle each other, monitor their tempers, manage the quotidian unease of relationships. Disruptions are two-a-penny, and to each their own weapons and targets; Hector’s mother still laments Aisha’s Indian background, while Hector’s friend Gary disparages the soapie writing that Aisha’s friend Anouk does for a living. But Hugo, the three-year-old child of indulgent, still-breastfeeding Rosie, finally disrupts the hard-won peace with screams, threatening Hector’s nephew with a cricket bat — no, it is Hector’s cousin Harry, dealing the titular slap to Hugo, who is responsible for the final rupture.

Tsiolkas propels from the springboard of this event with energy and lucid attention. He gives eight of his characters the narrative reins, which allows him to range about the halls of the middle-class Australian psyche. By no means an arch-stylist, Tsiolkas’ work seems to derive motivation more from humanist (turbo-humanist?) preoccupations. Whether it’s the perspective of Anouk, the 43-year-old writer resisting the putative eventuality of nuclear family life; Manolis, Hector’s elderly father; or Richie, Connie’s gay best friend, the multi-narrator approach is a clever and compassionate device that allows Tsiolkas to treat each character as both subject and object. It creates a constant watching/being-watched dynamic enabling thoughtful inquiry into the mechanics of a milieu that thrusts us into orbit with one another, equipped with what little armour we’ve got.

The Slap is Australian literature at its best, a mirror in front of which we can all dance and cry. It reminds us of how every day we are annihilated and enlivened by society’s acute challenges. We have long needed a novel featuring a Melbourne whose discomfited multiculturalism and neoteric identity we can wryly and blissfully recognise, which adds into the mix the difficult circumstances faced by the rest of a hyper-developed world: the proliferation of technology, laws unequal to new crimes, new sexual moralities, the diminishing of communities. Yes, I had some reservations about this book, some of which were not insubstantial. But I was pretty happy to overlook them. The Slap is fierce, intelligent, necessary and a damn good read — what more do you need to know?

I heard about Kate Constable through Cheryl Klein’s fantastic blog. I love YA fantasy with young female protagonists, so I grabbed The Singer of All Songs and The Waterless Sea (not pictured) from the City Library (I should get paid for all the advertising I have been doing for them lately! Great library.) But, alas, they didn’t have the final book at any of the Melbourne Library branches (??) so I put in a request so I and others of my fantasy-devouring, cutting-down-on-book-buying (for good economic reasons) ilk can find out what happens at the end.

Like all my favourite fantasy books, there is a special esoteric magic at the heart of the Tremaris series. It’s the power of magical song, which goes for the most part (I think appropriately) unexplained. Calwyn is a priestess-to-be in Antaris, where the priestesses of ice-call live. When they sing, they can call up ice and snow. Meanwhile, there are lands outside the ice wall of Antaris that the girls are encouraged to fear. However, she finds a man one day, inside the walls of Antaris, where a man has never stepped. Constable brings the use of magic to life very nicely–the girls need to master their vocals to perform magic, and this information brings a relatable sense of hard work to the fantastical abilities of the chanters. The vocabulary of ‘chantment’ is also lovely, immediate and understated, a great example of a successful fantasy neologism.

I enjoyed both these books a lot, although I think the end of the first book lacked punch. Also, an incidental effect of the third person narrative which jumped around from character to character was that I couldn’t get into the characters at some points. I think that device has been tightened and used to greater dramatic effect in Constable’s subsequent Tremaris offering The Taste of Lightning (also a very good read, review later). Constable certainly weaves a sophisticated power-and-collaboration tale, and she has a fine touch for romantic tension. Beautiful characters and lots of action, if that’s your thing. It’s certainly mine.

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