Tuesday, April 28, 2015

The Other Daughter by Lauren Willig (2015)

Rachel is an English governess looking after the children of the wealthy in France. She is situated in an uncomfortable position in the household: betwixt and between, she is neither upstairs nor downstairs. One day she receives a telegram informing her her mother is very sick and urging her to return to England. When her employer refuses to give her time off she quits and leaves immediately, only to arrive home to find out her mother has died of influenza and already been buried. Rachel is heartbroken; her father died when she was a small child and her mother was the only family she had. Even worse, her mother's landlord is evicting her, leaving Rachel unemployed, homeless and with only four days to pack up the house and leave with the few mementos of her parents she has: her mother's piano and her father's chess set.

Exhausted from her travels and devastated by the news, Rachel curls up on her mother's bed, taking comfort from a ritual from her childhood where she would climb into bed with her mother for reassurance. While in bed, something crinkled beneath her fingers. It was a page torn from an expensive magazine, the type her mother never read. On the page, her father's face stared up at her, much older than she remembered, next to a young woman. The caption underneath the photo read "Lady Olivia Standish, escorted by her father, the Earl of Ardmore". Rachel's father was alive, and not who she thought he was.

Rachel dashes to Oxford, to see her only remaining relative, a distant cousin David. She confronts him with the article and he confesses that he and her mother have known the truth all along. Distraught, she flees David's office. David sends one of his former students, Simon Montford, to follow her. Simon, like Rachel's father, is part of the aristocracy, and he knows Rachel's father and his other family well. Between them, they hatch a plan: Rachel will pose as a distant cousin to Simon. Through his connections, she will gain entry into London society and, somehow and somewhere, meet her father again.

The Other Daughter is set in the 1920s in England. It was a time of great change for the country: the Bright Young Things were breaking down conventions and scandalising conservatives while England has a whole was dealing with the aftermath of the Great War and the devastating effect it had on all social classes. I loved the '20s moments, like the two Evelyns canoodling in the corner of a nightclub and the too laugh-provoking language. The tales of fun and champagne were interpersed with moments of genuine pathos and, underlying it all, the search for Rachel's history and truth about her past. I enjoyed this book from start to finish and would readily recommend it for anyone who wants a good historical romantic read. Four stars.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Slush Pile by Ian Shadwell (2015)

15 years ago, Michael Ardenne won the Booker Prize. The years following the Booker Prize were a blur of literary festivals, women and booze. Now, married and living in the countryside near Sydney, he is a drunk, in debt and unable to write a word. Given an ultimatum by his long-suffering wife Tanya to work or get a job, Ardenne starts to read a slush pile - the unpublished novels sent to his publisher. He finds one with some promise and then starts to rewrite it as his own. The book is a huge hit, catapulting Ardenne to the heights of literary stardom once again. But soon, the original writer of the novel makes themselves known...

This is a really strange book. It starts off as a biting satire of the literary novel and the typical literary "hero" (white, male, trying to find himself and obsessed with touching his own penis) before veering into domestic melodrama, crime thriller and Lolita fantasies. It was incredibly readable but the tonal shifts were really disruptive of my reading experience. It's a first novel and Shadwell has a lot of writing skill, so there is some good stuff here but I am hesitant to recommend it. It's just an odd book.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Scandals of Classic Hollywood by Anne Helen Peterson (2014)

In my other life, I am a film scholar in the making. I am (slowly!) writing a postgraduate thesis on stardom and classical Hollywood. I was familiar with Anne Helen Petersen from her column Scandals of Classic Hollywood on the Hairpin and her blog Celebrity Gossip Academic Style (which now appears to be defunct), so when I saw this book on Netgalley I could not request it fast enough. Gossip! Scandal! Stardom! Hollywood! All of my favourite things. I was super chuffed to receive an ARC and started it straight away. And, then... Well, let's just say there's a reason it's taken me six months to write this review.

Scandals of Classic Hollywood is about the scandals that occurred during Hollywood's classical era (about 1910-1960). Petersen argues that scandals occur when actions of a star violate the status quo. Using an understanding of the star as an embodiment a particular way of life that resonates with the public, scandals occur when this embodiment is in some way disrupted - for example, when "Saint Ingrid" Bergman had an affair with a married director and got pregnant out of wedlock, the scandal was not so much her actions but how her actions violated her star image. All good so far. I agree with that completely and there are some good things about this book. The scandals that Petersen discusses are well selected and very interesting. All of them are entertaining to read about and were very scandalous at the time. She also brings light to some really important events in film history that shaped the film industry and how movies were made but are very little known about outside film studies, like the Fatty Arbuckle scandal. This is a good thing.

But (there's always a but!) this book has some really big negatives as well. Basically, Petersen is a really sloppy writer. Focusing on the Arbuckle scandal, Petersen describes his off-screen life as "a page straight out of a Dickens novel" before using examples that demonstrate that she has in fact never read a Dickens novel and doesn't understand what she is referring to. She says "Arbuckle was the star-director-producer powerhouse long before the age of Clooney and Affleck, which is part of the reason the studios were so threatened by him." What studios? How were they threatened, since you've just told us that studio Paramount gave him an awesome deal and "championed him as a master director, with an artistic touch." What about Charlie Chaplin, Arbuckle's contemporary who was also a star-director-producer powerhouse long before the age of Clooney and Affleck? Also, "age of Clooney and Affleck"? What does that even mean? What about Clint Eastwood, Warren Beatty, all of the other ones before Clooney and Affleck? Petersen is implying that Arbuckle was the kind of star that wouldn't be seen again for eighty years but, although this makes the story sound better and more scandalous, it's just not correct. Statements like that abound throughout the whole book and are very frustrating for a knowledgeable reader who knows that the truth is being manipulated for to make the story sound better (which, in all fairness, it does).

The thing is, Anne Helen Petersen has a PhD in film studies. One of her supervisors was the famous film scholar Janet Staiger. This kind of academic sloppiness is either plain laziness or domenstrates a complete lack of respect for her readers. Petersen has said that her book was not "legit" in academia because she got paid to write it. I suspect it was more that it demonstrates really poor scholarship. It's absolutely entertaining and a ripping read but so was Kenneth Anger's Hollywood Babylon. It would be perfect to read by the beach on a holiday but read with a grain of salt. Two and a half stars.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Inside the O'Briens by Lisa Genova (2015)

Joe O'Brien is a cop. He lives in Boston in a house with his wife Rosie, his four children and his eldest son's wife. Lately, Joe hasn't been feeling well. His balance is off and his memory is not what it used to be. He has started to twitch in ways that make him feel uncomfortable and the whole family is made uncomfortable by the uncontrollable rage that bursts out of him at unexpected times. After avoiding the issue for too long, he goes to see his doctor, who refers him to a neurologist. The neurologist runs some tests and delivers Joe some awful, awful news - he has Huntingdon's disease, a terminal neurological condition that "is characterized by a progressive loss of voluntary motor control and an increase in involuntary movements."

While that news is genuinely terrible, the neurologist follows it up with even worse information. Because Huntingdon's is an inherited condition, there is a 50% chance that each of Joe and Rosie's children will also have the disease. The book follows the O'Briens as they grapple with this news. Joe needs to get used to the idea that he has to stop work and will gradually lose control of his own body. Additionally, he realises that his mother, who was sent to an institution for a condition that noone every named, also died of Huntingdon's and no-one told him. Each of the children have to decide whether they want to take the test and find out whether or not they have the disease. Each of them has something at stake: JJ's wife is pregnant with their first child; Meghan is a ballet dancer; Katie is a yoga teacher and Patrick is still finding his place in the world.

This book is meticulously researched and it is one of Lisa Genova's greatest writing skills to be able to personalise debilitating neurological conditions. I learnt a lot about Huntingdon's while reading this book. However, unlike the previous Genova novel I read and really enjoyed, Still Alice, I always felt like the O'Brians were kept at a clinical distance from me. I don't know if it's the novel's Boston setting or that I thought the children should stop dilly-dallying and just make a decision (I'd take the test right away - knowledge is power) but I felt as if I was watching a story play out rather than being emotionally involved. It's a good book, just not as good as Still Alice. Three stars.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Lovesong by Alex Miller (2009)

Ken is a writer, who has retired and is a bit lost as to what to do to fill his time. Returning from a trip to Venice, he discovers that the inconsiderate adult daughter with whom he lives has not bought him milk to buy tea. Feeling despair, he walks out into the streets of Carlton to the local supermarket. These streets have changed so much over his lifetime he can hardly even recognise the suburb or his place in it. Just when I was starting to think "Oh no, not another story about a white male angsting over his place in the world," Ken is distracted by a new bakery that has opened in his street. (note to Franzen et al. - they key to avoiding the boring discussions of white men who have lost their way is clearly pastry). Smelling of sugar and sweetness, the shop is inviting and warm. The woman behind the counter is arrestingly beautiful but Ken is certain he can see sadness in her eyes. He is intrigued and once again feels a part of the suburb in which he lives.

The woman behind the shop counter is married to a man, John. Ken sees John all over the place - in the library, in the pool, playing with his daughter, always reading. One day Ken asks John to join him for a cup of coffee and, over the pool-flavoured beverage, John starts to tell the story of how the couple arrived in Melbourne and the sadness in his beautiful wife's eyes.

I have made no secret of the fact that I find stories about middle-aged white men dealing with the problems of life and their place in it incredibly boring but John's story is not about himself. He takes us back to the Paris of 30 years ago; not the City of Love depicted so often in movies by its outskirts,  the working class suburbs that drive the city. Houria and Dom run Cafe Dom, a small cafe that feeds the workers of the local abattoir their lunch. When Dom dies of a heart attack, Houria writes to her brother in El Djem. Her brother, understanding her deep and profound grief, send her his favourite daughter, Sabiha. Sabiha and Houria work together beautifully and Cafe Dom becomes a huge success. One wet and cold day, an Australian man seeks refuge from the weather in the Cafe. He and Sabiha fall in love.

I have just summarised the first 60-ish pages of the book. Despite the small amount of WMA (white male angst), it's a lovely story well told. The characters of Houria and Sabiha are well drawn and the foundation of their relationship is solid and feels true. However, after John meets Sabiha and they get married, the rest of the book is quite frankly stupid. The increasingly unlikable characters act in ridiculous and silly ways and, really, bored the crap out of me. Alex Miller is a beautiful writer and there are moments where the language in the novel is sublime but it wouldn't hurt him to actually chat to a woman or two, if only to realise it is possible that women can actually have more than one desire or skill just like men can. Two stars.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Clade by James Bradley (2015)

Clade opens during the solstice. Adam Leith, a scientist, is on an exploration to the Antarctic, trying to understand what happened to the earth during past periods of warming in order to help address present day global warming. He receives a call from his wife, Ellie, telling him that after two years of trying they are finally going to have a baby. According to Wikipedia, a clade is "a life-form group consisting of an ancestor and all its descendants." Clade the novel follows the tale of Adam's family over the next four generations as climate change triggers events that have catastrophic impacts for the human race.

I am finding it hard to describe the novel without giving too much away. Narratively, Clade  works like a spinning wheel turning through time that stops every now and again to show a brief moment in the life of one of its characters: Adam and Ellie's daughter Summer as a toddler then as a child then as a teenager; her son; his family. Due to this fragmentation, it's not the kind of book where one forms a close relationship with a character and follows their story to its end. Rather, we are offered moments in the lives of a number of characters who are part of the same clade and I found the effect of that on me was to care for a family rather than an individual, much like I did in Jennifer Egan's A Visit from the Goon Squad. It is beautiful written and exquisitely sad. It shows a future of sadness, hardship and death yet in which life continues; not life as we know it, but a remarkable and incredible persistence of being.

I really enjoyed this book. Five stars.