Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Into My Arms by Kylie Ladd (2013)

There has been a bit of buzz around Kylie Ladd's new book Into My Arms, so I was excited to pick it up from the library yesterday. I love a book where you can really sink your teeth into the ideas and characters featured and I thought this book club darling was going to be the next dinner-party must-read. Into My Arms opens strongly, when the impetuous headstrong Skye, who is dating Hamish, meets teacher Ben Cunningham at a school. Skye falls in love with Ben and leaves Hamish. However, problems arise when Skye introduces Ben to her mother Nora and her gay brother Arran, who has just broken up with Mark, who cheated on him, and Nora realises that Ben and Skye are actually brother and sister - Ben was conceived using fertilised eggs left over after Nora and her husband Charlie, who just died of dementia, used IVF to have Arran and Skye. Ben didn't know he wasn't his parents' genetic child and becomes estranged from his mother Mary, although he stays in touch with his sister Kirra.

Sound complicated? That summary sums up just about every single problem with this very average book. After its strong beginning, the story just goes nowhere. The characters lack any depth at all, do not develop over the course of the novel and there are so many different characters with a stake in this story it's overwhelming, especially since their narrative voices are exactly the same.

On top of the laundry list of characters, this book is not afraid to acknowledge multiple ideas. As well as the incest storyline, there is a dementia storyline, a gay storyline, a cheating storyline, a squatting/freegan storyline, an asylum seeker storyline, a widow storyline and, just so nothing gets left out, a religious storyline as well. On top of that there are the broader overarching themes of family, motherhood, home and belonging. Simply put, that's too many storylines! Ladd would have been much better served to strip back the unnecessary stuff and focus on the important characters and stories so we care about the people she is writing about. Instead, she makes something a big deal - like Charlie having dementia - that has absolutely nothing to do with the rest of the story. This is Basic Writing 101 - if it doesn't add to the story, take it out. What's even worse is that Ladd's metaphors are so laboured it's almost painful to read - for example, after finding out that Skye is his sister, Ben has explosive diarrhoea and the only thing he had to wipe his arse on is the letter from the genetics company telling him the results of the sibling test. You have seriously got to be kidding.

There are interesting ideas in this book. The consequences of IVF and sperm/egg donation are real - there are concerns about genetic siblings hooking up because they don't realise they are related. The integration of asylum seekers into Australian society and the processing of refugee visas is a big problem. It is horrible to lose a family member to dementia and it must be awful to discover that your partner is cheating on you. However, you get absolutely nothing from reading this book that you wouldn't get from reading a really detailed plot summary, so read a couple of reviews of Into My Arms that contain spoilers so you know enough about it to get by at dinner parties and spend your time reading another better book instead.

Monday, July 8, 2013

The Book of Secrets by Elizabeth Joy Arnold (2013)

I must have been in a bookish frame of mind when I was browsing Netgalley last time, because the next book on my reading list is also about books and set in a book store – The Book of Secrets, by Elizabeth Joy Arnold. The story opens with Chloe in her rare and used bookshop, a converted Victorian mansion that seems to suit perfectly the type of books they sell – the very old and delicate first editions that need to be stored in temperature-controlled boxes and only handled while wearing gloves as well as pulpy paperback thrillers. It soon becomes clear that this charming bookspace has some very dark undertows – Chloe arrives home one day to find a note from her husband, who has left without warning and without explaining when he will be back. We soon find out that Chloe and Nate’s relationship is damaged and complicated and she has been sleeping with a friend of her and Nate’s, Daniel. While trying to find out where money in the company account has gone, Chloe discovers a secret notebook that contains a series of letters written in a code that she and Nate developed when she was a child. You see, on her eight birthday (which her mother forgot) Chloe wagged school and went exploring. She stumbled on to what seemed to her a magical land – the household of the Sinclairs (Grace, Nate and Cecilia), a homeschooled religious family who lived down the street from her. The Sinclairs introduced the young unhappy Chloe to the magical world of Narnia and she and they became involved in an intense forbidden friendship based around a love of books and each other. The novel follows these two strands: one in the present day where Chloe tries to find her husband and address the problems with the shop and her relationships and one in the past, where Chloe deciphering Nate’s coded book brings back memories of past pleasures and explains the horrors of the abuse the Sinclair children dealt with at the hands of their parents.

This is a dead baby novel. I apologise for the bluntness of that statement but the dead-baby trope is one of my least favourite of all the tropes. It is so inherently sad (dead baby!) that lazy authors use it instead of decent writing and storytelling to generate feeling (like this book, which I hated hated hated). The murder of a baby is so horrifying that reading about it can make a reader feel literally sick (Sonya Hartnett and your baby-murdering ways, I’m looking at you) and a baby who dies from neglect represents the worst parts of society (Sonya Hartnett, again. I would not let this author babysit my children). Like with the Holocaust, if you’re going to write a dead baby novel, it needs to offer something new other than just horror or a lazy way to evoke emotion. Fortunately, Arnold manages this, with the sadness and grief associated with a lost child working as an everpresent hum in the background of the book: not the point of the novel but adding another level of meaning, sadness and grief.

What I think this novel is really about is fatherhood and the ongoing consequences of absent or abusive fathers. It asks us to evaluate what being a good or bad father really means. The book also draws our attention to how fragile and unreliable memory is and how what can seem true can, in fact, just be a different way of remembering. I found the role of reading in this book really beautiful – books speak to the characters in the novel, providing an escape from their everyday existence and explaining life and love. Books, in The Book of Secrets, are friends - not inanimate objects covered with printed words but real, living, breathing forces of life. How the author wrote about books and reading was one the things I enjoyed about this novel.

However, the book is not perfect. Arnold uses foreshadowing to introduce the present day story to the past story (like ‘And little did I know or understand what Grace had experienced when her relationship ended’. End chapter. Start new chapter. ‘Grace was in love….’). That’s fine and it means the book flows well but at times I felt the storyline set in the past dragged a little bit because, well, you already told me what happened. I also felt that the closer that I got to the end of the book (and I got to the end of the book very quickly because this is a very engrossing read!) the story got more and more unrealistic – my suspension of disbelief was stretched close to breaking a few times. The other odd thing that jarred a little bit for me was the name of the main character, Chloe. I date her at around about 45 years old, which means she would have been born in the ‘70s and I don’t know any Chloes that age. It felt like the name was too young for her. I don’t know, since I had the same quibble with the last book I reviewed, maybe I’m just being a bit fussy or it's a regional difference.

I would definitely recommend this book, especially for a plane ride or a holiday – it’s that kind of story. The Book of Secrets reminded me a lot of Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn or Before I Go To Sleep by SJ Watson, so if you liked those, definitely look this one up. I give it 3 stars.

This book was supplied to me by the publisher via Netgalley but these thoughts and views are my own.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

The Bookstore by Deborah Meyler (2013)

The Bookstore is the debut novel from Deborah Meyler. In it, 23-year-old Esme Garland, an Englishwoman who is doing her PhD in Art History at Columbia University, finds herself unexpectedly pregnant. When she tries to talk to her boyfriend, the handsome old-money Mitchell van Leuvin, he breaks up with her before she has a chance to tell him about the pregnancy. Alone and largely friendless, she take a job in the quirky used bookstore The Owl.

This is a really smart novel. It is written in the first person, and despite Esme’s very old-fashioned name (she has been called after her great-grandmother), her voice is modern, young and interesting. She tells her story through a framework of modern artists and literary references which are very evocative of colours, feelings and time. Meyler’s writing style reminded me a little bit of Lily Brett without the tragedy – an articulate and knowledgable woman wandering around the streets of a much-loved New York, with lightning quick thoughts and ideas darting everywhere inside a fertile intelligence and imagination but with very little showing on the outside. As a postgraduate student writing a thesis myself, I loved how Esme talked about her PhD – the way that studying was an omnipresent task and the library a constant destination but also how other non-research parts of life become drawn into the PhD process – visiting galleries, attending lectures on topics not your own. The mindset of writing a thesis and being a graduate student is perfectly captured in this book.

That said, I did feel the novel lost its way in its final section. Because the premise of the book is so slight, not a lot really happens – and certainly nothing unexpected. The charm of the book is Esme’s voice and the loving characterisations of New York and the people she spends time with. I just didn’t buy that someone who had such intelligence and perception would be involved for such a long time with a rotter like Mitchell. She’s just too smart to miss the clues to his character that are provided along the way!

Those quibbles aside, this is a charming novel that I would not hesitate to recommend. I will definitely keep an eye out for future work from this very promising novelist. 3.5 stars.