Saturday, December 22, 2012

Me and Mr Booker by Cory Taylor (2010)

Me and Mr Booker is the debut novel from Australian writer Cory Taylor. It is the coming-of-age tale of 16-year-old Martha, whose parents have recently divorced and who feels like she is waiting for her life to begin:

It told them about my mother and father.
‘They broke up,’ I said. ‘So now I am emotionally scarred for life. At least that’s my excuse.’
‘For what?’ said Mrs Booker.
‘I don’t know,’ I said. “It hasn’t happened yet.”

The novel opens with Martha meeting Mr and Mrs Booker at an open house party that her mother throws. She begins an intense friendship with the pair, who ‘adopt’ her (they are having trouble conceiving any children of their own), and an affair with Mr Booker. The beginning of the novel is its strength as Taylor captures perfectly the ennui of being 16; feeling trapped and if you are waiting for your life to begin as well as the heady emotions that come from first-time adolescent love. The start of Me and Mr Booker is really fantastic and very engaging.

Unfortunately, after the strong start, the novel just peters out. About midway through the book, the characters who were engaging and provided a strong incentive to turn the pages just get a bit blah, as if Taylor has lost interest in them. It was like her impetus to finish the novel had vanished but she still had a contract with a publishing company that she was obliged to finish, so she pushed on but just didn’t care that much. Elements of the book, like the tension evident in the relationship between Martha’s and her brother Eddie as well as her brother and her father Victor, were hinted at and then never developed or explored. I feel like this book had so much potential but just didn’t reach the heights that it could have, which is disappointing given Taylor’s obvious writing talent.

The most disappointing part of this book was the really poor research. I think it’s supposed to be set in the early ‘70s, so we have references to Five Easy Pieces (1970), the Rolling Stones’ Ruby Tuesday (1967) and the Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band (1967). However, Martha’s relative marries a gay Asian man so she can have a baby and both the homosexuality and miscegenation, two issues that would have been a Very Big Deal in the early ‘70s, were just mentioned matter of factly. It’s a big enough deal at the start of the book when Martha’s parents separate that her best friend isn’t allowed to play with her anymore but then the divorce scandal is not worth a mention for the remainder of the book? And I strongly question the likelihood of a regional university having a specialist film studies university teacher, although in all fairness maybe it was easier for a new discipline like film studies to become established in a regional university than in a major metropolitan university that was more fixed in its ways. The constant questioning the veracity of the period setting had a jarring effect and disrupted my reading experience.

Reading back over what I have written this sounds like a negative review, but really there’s a lot to like about this book. I will definitely be looking out for Cory Taylor’s next novel.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Autumn Laing by Alex Miller

Alex Miller is one of Australia’s most famous and awarded literary writers yet, for some reason, I’d never read any of his work. When, after reading yet another glowing review of his most recent novel Autumn Laing I saw that very same book on display at the library, I figured the universe was telling me it was time to fill this literary hole of knowledge so I picked up the book and took it home with me.

The eponymous Autumn Laing is loosely based on Sunday Reed who, with her husband John, ran a kind of artists community at what is now the Heide Art Gallery. Sunday Reed had an affair with Sidney Nolan, the famous Australian painter (and apparently is rumoured to have painted parts of his work). In Autumn Laing, Autumn is at the end of her life, reflecting on her two great loves, the talented artist Pat Donlan (Sidney Nolan) and the somewhat bland Arthur Laing.

I am deeply torn on my opinion of this book. If I were do a pros and cons list, each column would have the exact same amount of items in it. The language was lovely and the book was very well written. BUT it did seem to take a long time to get anywhere. Some of the paragraphs were over two pages long and occasionally I found myself skimming rather than reading every word. The female characters in this book are written exceptionally well, in fact better than the male characters, which surprised me given that the book is written by a man. In particular, the essence of 80-plus-year-old Autumn Laing is captured spectacularly (although, honestly, I could have done with a little less talk about farting). BUT the character of Autumn Laing reminded me a lot of my own grandmother, with (unfortunately) her tendency to tell really really long and rambling stories with little temporal or internal consistency. The descriptions of Australia and Melbourne were very vivid BUT omigod the foreshadowing was ridiculously excessive. From about the second page we are told repeatedly that something happened in the Australian outback but the ‘something happened’ doesn’t actually happen until 30 pages before the end and, by that stage, I just really wanted it to happen so I wouldn’t have to read the dire foreshadowing anymore! One positive for the book that doesn’t have a negative balancing item is the exploration of the restrictions placed on the women in this book due to their gender. If Sunday Reed had been born in a different time, she would have lived a very different life.

I did enjoy this book. It definitely inspired me to read more about Sunday Reed and the Heide artist colony – I do feel I have a special connection with the gallery since I lost a baby shoe there. It was also a real pleasure to read a literary novel that didn’t contain a scene about a privileged white man masturbating! But I am reluctant to recommend it as it is a very long book which, in itself, is not a bad thing, but it’s a long book that feels like a long book, if that makes any sort of sense! Reading this book took effort and required work and, if you like your books effortless and enrapturing, Autumn Laing is not for you. Also, this book has a lot of characters who commit suicide in it, which may be a trigger for some. 

A solid literary effort - I give it three stars.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn (2012)

It was with great trepidation that I started reading Gone Girl. I have had a bad run recently with really not enjoying books that everyone else loves (All That I Am, I’m looking at you) or just hating the recent books from my previously favourite authors (Sweet Tooth, why did you have to suck so much?). It seemed like everyone whose literary opinion I respect was raving about Gone Girl and, if I’d hated it, I would seriously have considered giving up contemporary fiction in its entirety and just read classic literature for the rest of my life.
Fear not, booksellers, because after finishing Gone Girl in one long sitting, I am back in the contemporary literature fold. The book opens on Amy and Nick Dunne’s fifth anniversary. She is making in crepes for breakfast and the hatred and unhappiness in their marriage is clear from the outset. We know they loved each other once but now that love has been replaced by something else. It’s bad, but what exactly is it? By the end of the day Amy has vanished and Nick is involved in a missing person’s case that quickly develops into a possible homicide.
The book alternates chapters from Nick and Amy’s point of views and one of the things it does really well is use this alternation to play with the reader’s sympathy and identification. This book has been accused of being both misogynist and misandrist but in my view is neither. The discomfort that leads to these accusations comes from the allegiances the text draws with each character and then rapidly undermines. Is Nick a horrible man and husband who neglects and doesn’t appreciate his brilliant, beautiful bride or a victim? Is Amy horrible unappreciated and taken advantage of or a manipulative genius? Admittedly as the book gets closer to the end it does veer on the border of unrealism and excess but by the time I reached that point I was enjoying the ride so much that I didn’t care.
Much has been written about the twists and turns of Gone Girl. I don’t think any of it is particularly twisty or unpredictable but it is very enjoyable and lots of fun to read. Thanks to this book, my faith in contemporary fiction is restored and I can read new books again without apprehension. I give this book four stars.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

The Chaperone by Laura Moriarty (2011)

The eponymous chaperone in this book is Cora, a 1920s Witchita housewife who agrees to chaperone the beautiful but rebellious and wild Louise Brookes in New York for a summer. While in New York, Cora embarks on a journey of self-discovery with unexpected results. Also, and this is repeated a lot of times in the text so it must be very important, women wore corsets and they were very uncomfortable. Repeated many times, a very clear indication that an author doesn’t think very highly of her audience.

I’m a bit late to the game on this one – The Chaperone was a Christmas 2011 stocking filler, and it’s easy to see why. On holiday is the perfect time to read this light-as-a-feather book, preferably borrowed from the library because it’s definitely not worthy of a second read. The problem with this novel is that it doesn’t really know what it wants to be – is it a woman at the end of her life recounting an eventful summer? Is it the story of an ordinary woman’s life and loves and the New York trip is an introduction to the tale? Because of the lack of clear motivation, the structure of this book is fatally flawed. For me it felt like the book should have finished once Cora returned to Witchita but it went on and on and on in an increasingly unlikely series of events, ending in one of the most improbable conclusions I’ve ever read in a novel. As I mentioned earlier, I also felt that Moriarty has a fairly poor opinion of the intellect of her readers – over the course of the summer Cora is reading The Age of Innocence. Moriarty doesn’t want anyone to miss the references to the book so makes explicit multiple times why it’s relevant that Cora is reading that text, turning a literary reference that should enhance the reading experience into a series of really irritating moments that jarred the reader from the story.

The verdict: Three stars. This book is not particularly good but it’s not awful either. It’s very middle of the road, just like its main protagonist.
Noteworthy: Wichita is a really great name for a town. More books should be set there to give me a chance to say “Wichita” more often.
Similar but better: Margaret Atwood’s Booker Prize-winning The Blind Assassin.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

The House of Memories by Monica McInerney

I have had mixed opinions of Monica McInerney's previous books. I liked The Alphabet Sisters, loved Those Faraday Girls, thought At Home with the Templetons was interesting but uneven and hated Lola's Secret (dear publishing gods, please spare us from any more books that center on wise, all-knowing elderly women who know how to use technology and are able to use their wisdom and all-knowingness to communicate with young people. These women are unsufferable and make me want to throw things - ie the book I'm reading that features these irritating protagonists - at the wall. Thank you.), so I wasn't sure what to expect from this book. Either way, McInerney has a nice, easy writing style, so I figured even if her new book wasn't great it would be a relaxing way to spend a few hours away from the high stress levels of my everyday life ("CAPS LOCK IS HOW I FEEL ALL THE TIME, RICK!"). Boy, was I wrong.

The House of Memories opens with a chapter detailing the childhood of Ella Fox/Baum/O'Hanlon and the special relationship she has with her uncle, Lucas. After we wade through the standard broken-home childhood tale (parents divorce, remarry, step-brother, new baby, jealously, et cetera cetera et cetera) we get to the crux of the story - Ella's baby has died. The book then separates into chapters told from the point of view of different characters, with some (very annoying) email chapters and others alternating between the first and third chapter.

I have no problem with having multiple narrators, even if (as is clearly signposted in this book ALL THE TIME for the benefit of those who have memory problems, I imagine) these narrators are unreliable. I have no problem with epistolary writing - The Guernsey Literary Potato Peel Pie Society is one of my favourite books. What I do have a problem with is books that are so predictable that, after reading the third chapter, it is possible to plot what happens in every chapter until the end. There is pleasure in reading genre fiction - it's nice to know that the right couple will get together in the end in a romance novel, for example - so I understand that books can be about the journey rather than the destination. But if both the journey and the destination suck...step away from the book.

I am a bit bummed about contemporary fiction at the moment. Ian McEwan's Sweet Tooth was a massive disappoint. I started Zadie Smith's new book NW but abandoned it because of the stream-of-consciousness writing style. This book completely sucked. Am I picking bad books, or has the standard of published works dropped recently? I'm about to start Gone Girl, which has received great reviews. If that sucks as well, I might stop reading anything published after the turn of the century and stick to books that have passed the test of time!

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

No Bed of Roses by Joan Fontaine

Joan de Bouviour de Havilland, aka Joan Fontaine, is an Academy Award-winning actress from Hollywood's Golden Era. Today she's most remembered for her role as "I" de Winter in Alfred Hitchcock's Gothic masterpiece Rebecca (1940), opposite a very dashing Laurence Olivier, and for her ongoing feud with her sister, the also Oscar-winning Olivia de Havilland, who is best remembered for her performance as Melanie in Gone With the Wind. Joan Fontaine has always been one of my favourite Classic Hollywood stars - she's a delightful actress to watch.

As the title suggests, Joan Fontaine's story was never going to be a happy one. Part misery memoir, the early part of the book details her abusive and restrictive childhood. Born in Japan, her father abandoned her mother for the family's Japanese maid, forcing Joan, Olivia and their mother to start a new life in America. Her mother remarried a stern, controlling man, (Danny Fontaine) and Joan and Olivia's childhood was strict, rigid and unhappy. Both of the girls had left the household by the time they were 16. The book then tells Joan story as she moves back to Japan to live with her father for a year and then, after he propositions her (ewww!) her return to America, describing her many films, loves, husbands and events from then until the publication of the book in 1978.  

This book is a wonderful read. Reading it felt like a Saturday afternoon on the couch watching a black-and-white movie with fabulous dresses, sparkling dialogue ahold d Hollywood glamour.  Fontaine has a lovely confessional yet entertaining tone and her writing has great wit and perception. No Bed of Roses gives a clear picture of what it's like to be a very beautiful woman, with constant marriage proposals and propositions (from Howard Hughes and JFK's dad, to name a few!), men asking for your room key so they could come into your hotel room to clean your shoes while you were out (!!!) and being taken on extravagant holidays and dinners and shopping trips. The book is also interesting in that it it details how little control actors had in the studio system, where they were contracted to studios for seven-year periods and had really limited ability to choose what movies they starred in, how much they were paid, how often they worked or even which studio they worked at. (Incidentally, Joan's sister Olivia took Warner Brothers to court to end this restrictive practice and was instrumental in changing the labour laws, with a law named after her - the de Havilland law - which still has influence today.)

From a feminist perspective, this because is fascinating because it deals with a successful and intelligent woman's process of negotiation for independence in a world where the options available to women, both culturally and legally, were very limited. Fontaine earned more than her husbands (she had four) for most of her life. She was also a single parent and had to deal with the requirement to travel for her work but be a mother at the same time. She was also a determined woman who wasn't afraid or ashamed of her sexuality, determination and drive.

Despite its many pleasures, No Bed of Roses does have a few WTF moments - her decision to take a child home with her from a trip to Peru like a human souvenir and the effective abandonment of her two children when they reached their teens are bizarre in both their recounting and justification. There are far fewer mentions of her sister than I expected although we are left in absolutely no doubt that Joan believes all fault for their estrangement comes from Olivia. But despite those flaws, this in an engaging story of a headstrong, independent, beautiful woman with a ridiculously weak immune system. The saddest thing about the story is that Joan Fontaine really believes that no-one every really loved her enough, not even her own family. 

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Naomi's Wish by Rachael Herron

Naomi Fontaine is a buttoned-up emotionally repressed and shy doctor who leaves her small town practice to go to a medical conference. While there she hooks up with a hot doctor for a night of incredible sex. On returning to work, she finds out that her absentee partner has hired a new doctor for her practice and it is ... (surprise surprise) her one-night stand! Et cetera et cetera et cetera.

I read a lot of romance fiction in my teens and twenties. I was studying hard and working in customer service - both occupations that can leave a person completely brain-dead by the end of the day. So, I read romance novels because they were easy to read, didn't contain any surprises and the good ones had a bit of humour in them as well. Then I started analysing romances from a feminist perspective and between the permitted rape stories ("He pushed her up against a wall and pressed his mouth to hers. Her protests died on her lips as she melted into his arms") and the stalking-by-any-other-name stories (hero fights against heroine's resistance until she releases he is really the one for her) and I had to stop reading them.  I do still occasionally dip my foot into the romance novel pool but my relaxation fiction of choice is now murder mysteries - equally predictable but less likely to induce feminist book-throwing rage. However, when I heard there were knitting-themed romance novels out, I couldn't resist (God knows I love a knitting-themed novel) and I've since read all of Rachael Herron's work.

This is clearly the best book out of the three published so far in this series. It doesn't stray too far from the accepted parameters of the romance novel and it contains talk of KNITTING, my favourite thing ever. It is certainly not perfect - there is a lot of heavily implausible plot crammed into the last 20 pages and the odd fact that whenever Naomi consults a knitting book the phrase she reads always relates exactly to her life (really? every single time?). But, other than that, thumbs up, Ms Herron. This book gets the job done and I really enjoyed the ride.

$120 Food Challenge by Sandra Reynolds and a Legless Chocolate Cake

Recently I was intrigued to see a cookbook based on the $120 food challenge blog at my local library. I’m always looking for ways to eat better more cheaply and I love the idea of an Australian-based budget cookbook that uses ingredients which are easy for Australian cooks to get following Australian seasons, so I placed it on hold. It arrived last week and I am very impressed.

My first impression of the book was that the recipes look great! There are even vegetarian recipes that I think my carnivorous boyfriend would love, which is saying a lot. Sandra Reynolds takes cheap ingredients and uses herbs, spices and processes to make basic food tasty and inexpensive. The downside to this is that to do this needs time and planning – this is not a cookbook for someone who wants to get home, look in the pantry and grab ingredients for dinner to be on the table in 20 minutes. That said, I’m a planner with lots of time, so not a problem for me at all. My first recipe was the 'Legless' Chocolate Cake.

The cast of characters:

Sandra says it’s a huge cake, so I halved the recipe (full not halved recipe given below). Given how easy it was to halve, I wouldn’t be surprised if at some stage in the recipe’s evolution it has been doubled to take to a party and just stayed that way.  It's an easy cake to mix, which is a definite bonus in my book. 

I served it with strawberries and cream...

..and it was absolutely delicious! Plus all of the ingredients for the cake itself are pantry and fridge staples. I can see this cake coming into frequent rotation every time I entertain. I think this cookbook is a winner.

A Legless Chocolate Cake

2 cups caster sugar
2 eggs, lightly beaten
2 teaspoons vanilla essence or 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2/3 cup vegetable or canola oil
2 2/3 cups plain flour
2/3 cup cocoa powder
2 teaspoons bicarbonate of soda
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
2 cups hot coffee
icing sugar or extra cocoa powder, for dusting

1. Preheat oven to 180 degrees celsius. Grease and flour a cake tin.
2. Beat sugar, egg, vanilla and oil and beat with a hand-held electric mixer for four minutes or until smooth and creamy.
3. Sift the flour, cocoa powder, bicarbonate of soda, baking powder, salt and cinnamon into a separate bowl. Add to egg mixture in alternate batches with the coffee, beginning and ending with the dry ingredients.
4. Pour batter in tin and cook for 40-50 minutes or until cake is done.
5. Cool in the tin for a few minutes and then turn out onto a cake rack to cool completely.
6. EAT!

PS: I also tried the steak and wedges and they were completely delicious. I would definitely recommend this cookbook

Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan

I was really looking forward to reading this book. I hated Solar with the passion of a thousand burning suns (see what I did there?) but all the reviews I read said how good this book was, how different it was to Solar and how similar it was (in style not content) to Atonement – exactly what I needed to her to get me excited about reading McEwan again. The opening paragraph gave me goosebumps:

My name is Serena Frome (rhymes with plume) and almost forty years ago I was sent on a secret mission for the British security service. I didn’t return safely.

Exciting, right? Presaging much thrilling action, right? Wrong. Serena’s secret mission is to fund a novelist. Yup, that’s it. She gives a novelist enough money to quit his day job and write. Pretty exciting stuff! There’s a lot of information about politics in England in the ‘70s and a whole bunch of stuff about the emerging literary scene of that time that completely went over my head and was, frankly, boring. We were also asked to believe some very unlikely things such as Haley's Austen Prize experience, (although Haley's short stories were the highlight of the whole book). Sweet Tooth was a real slog to get through, which is a huge disappointment from the author of masterpieces such as Saturday and Atonement.  I recently re-read Amsterdam, which won the Booker prize in 1988, and in direct comparison to that novel this book lacked spark, verve, life and passion. It was very well written, but that’s just not enough. Two out of five stars.