Archive | book reviews RSS feed for this section

Vivid and sensual – The Pagoda Tree by Claire Scobie

1 Nov

the pagoda treeThe Pagoda Tree is the first novel by journalist Claire Scobie, whose previous book was a travel memoir, Last Seen in Lhasa. Here, Scobie turns her gaze from Tibet to India.

The novel is set in 1765 and is the story of Maya, who is destined from birth to become an Indian temple dancer or devadasi. Scobie’s inspiration to write the book came from a visit to a temple in Southern India. Here she saw the names of 400 dancing girls engraved upon the 11th century walls. From this starting point grew Maya’s story.

Highly trained in dancing, music and love-making, the temple dancers were married to the God Shiva and often became courtesans of powerful men. Devadasis had a level of control over their lives not given to other Indian women and were the only women taught to read and write at the time.

Mentored by Palani, a powerful devadasi, Maya becomes a dancer of rare beauty and skill. But while she is destined to be given to the prince, the turbulent times cast her adrift. Set during the British colonial era, the book shows the effect of the occupation on Indian traditions.

Maya’s dancing captivates the Europeans as well as the Indians. In Madras she forms a risky liaison with a young British trader. This clash of cultures drives the story. Her lover, Thomas, is torn between his desire for Maya and his ‘true life’ waiting for him back in England. His choice is complicated by the birth of their daughter, a girl with no status in either culture.

This carefully researched novel provides an insight into Indian culture. The title of the story refers not only to a temple but also to a common expression among the British of the time. ‘Shaking the pagoda tree’ was a term for making quick, easy money. The cruelty of some of the British colonial practices forms a backdrop to Maya’s story.

Scobie says that researching the story was hard due to the lack of historical records about the dancing girls. In writing The Pagoda Tree she sought to bring their untold story to life. This is a vividly told and sensual novel which will be especially enjoyed by those with an interest in India.

For those in the Byron area, Claire Scobie is conducting a workshop on travel writing in Byron Bay on the 7th of December. See www.nrwc.org.au

My blog seems to have become strangely popular in Mauritius and Trinidad and Tobago of late. So if you’re reading this from there – a big hello to you! I’m glad to be getting to some exotic locations, if only in spirit. 

Advertisements

Schoolyard politics – my review of ‘The Hive’ by Gill Hornby

3 Oct

The Hive is the debut novel by Gill Hornby who, incidentally, is the sister of best selling British novelist Nick Hornby. It comes much-hyped as the subject of a fierce bidding war between publishers. The novel’s name is a reference to a bee hive and the story is driven by the doings of the mothers of St Ambrose Primary School who are ruled by their aptly named queen, Bea.

The action is divided up into school terms and centers around the fundraising activities for a new school library. Bitchiness, infighting and power plays abound, heightened by the arrival of a potential new contender for queen bee. The daily gatherings at the school gate are an opportunity to discover who’s in and who’s out of Bea’s favour. Didn’t get a text inviting you to morning Pilates? Well, sorry dear, you’re out. If it sounds like Mean Girls for adults, that’s because it is. Hornby based the book on the same advice manual, Queen Bees and Wannabes, which inspired that movie.

the hiveWhile The Hive was amusing, there were so many characters that none of them really developed much depth. Rachel has been unceremoniously dumped as Bea’s best friend. Heather is working hard to access the inner circle. Bubba is on a career break from a big job in the city, and on it goes. While Rachel was the main point of view character, I didn’t find her especially likable or interesting, so that detracted somewhat from the book’s appeal.

Nonetheless, a car boot sale, a disastrous ball, a quiz night and a series of fundraising lunches offer entertaining vignettes of the women in action. I especially enjoyed the minutes of the fundraising committee meetings. They were enough to scare anyone off joining a P and C. Darker notes are struck when suicide and cancer enter the story but due to lack of engagement with the characters they fall a little flat. A spunky new school principal sets the cat among the pigeons and provides a romantic interest.

Overall, The Hive seems somehow less than the sum of its parts. It was a lightweight and enjoyable social comedy that had a lot of potential, but for me didn’t quite hit the mark. Still, those with an interest in schoolyard politics will certainly find something to enjoy.

Dark Fairy-tales – ‘The Wild Girl’ by Kate Forsyth

19 Jul

WildGirl_COVERKate Forsyth has written over twenty books for children, young adults and adults. Her latest novel, ‘The Wild Girl’ is the story of Dortchen Wild, who was the childhood sweetheart and, later, wife of Wilhelm Grimm, one of the Grimm brothers of fairytale fame. Dortchen has been credited as the source of many of the stories in the Grimm brothers’ fairytale book. Forsyth says that she was enchanted to learn that Wilhelm married one of his key storytellers, a girl who grew up next door, and that is when she decided to write Dortchen’s story.

Forsyth has blended the known facts of Dortchen’s life with fiction to produce a compelling tale. Set in Germany during the Napoleonic Wars, The Wild Girl is both a love story and an insight into a tumultuous time in history. Dortchen’s brother Rudolf is sent into Russia as part of Napoleon’s army and few return as winter catches them on their retreat.

While Dortchen is in love with Wilhelm from the moment she meets him as a girl, a happy ending is a long time coming. Dortchen’s tyrant of a father forbids her marriage to a poor scholar with no prospects. The legacy of his treatment of Dortchen lingers after his death, keeping the lovers apart.

Historical fiction is not my usual fare, and I did find the scene setting a little dense first up, but I was soon engrossed. The story is both well researched and skilfully told. Not only a story about fairytales, The Wild Girl is an epic tale of love, loss and families. Scattered with accounts of dark tales like, The Maiden with no Hands, it is no wonder that it gave the author nightmares.

It was interesting to learn how the Grimm’s fairytales evolved from a scholarly recounting to something lighter and more suitable for children. The dark and frightening original stories are echoed in Dortchen’s own life, but Wilhelm’s retelling of the story Many Bits of Fur offers her a gift — a chance to break free of her past.

Forsyth is currently undertaking a doctorate on fairytale retellings. The afterword where she talks about how she came to tell Dortchen’s story after reading a psychological study on the therapeutic uses of fairy tales to help victims of abuse is fascinating.  This complex story offers satisfaction on many levels.

 

This is my 7th review for the Australian Women Writers Challenge

Not long now until the Byron Bay Writers Festival. The pre-festival workshop program is looking very exciting. I will be running a workshop on the 29 July and will be part of a panel for ‘Nuts and Bolts’ on Thursday 1st August. On Friday 2nd August I will be on a panel called ‘One is the Loneliest Number’ with Susanna Freymark and Graeme Simsion  and will be attempting to remember everything I ever knew about Australian Women’s Literature at the Stella Trivia Night. On Saturday, I’m hosting Pitch Perfect and am on a panel with Anita Heiss, Martin (Ed) Chatterton and Colin Falconer. Phew. 

On Sunday, I rest. Hope to see you there!

 

 

 

Finding joy in simplicity – My review of Mr Wigg

1 Jul

mr wiggMr Wigg is an enchanting new novel by Queensland author, Inga Simpson. Set in 1971, the story takes place on Mr Wigg’s farm in South-West NSW. Here he grows a range of stone fruit, listens to the cricket on the radio, bakes with his grandchildren, reminisces about his life and works hard on a secret project.

‘Mr Wigg had squandered his life’ reads the first line of the book. And for some it might seem so. He has led a quiet life on the farm with his wife, Mrs Wigg, who died a few years ago. He has no great achievements to show for himself, just his orchard and his family. His son thinks it’s time he moved into town.

But Mr Wigg has a special relationship with all the fruit trees in his orchard and each has its own personality and quirky ways. The younger trees, the peaches and nectarines, tend towards silliness, while the older trees are wiser but sometimes impatient. Rhubarb, meanwhile, is characterised by a lack of manners. ‘Rhubarb’s speech was crude, and muted by soil.’

Things even get a bit saucy in spring, when the pears and apples get taunted by the trees which don’t need cross-pollination. ‘His books didn’t have much to say on the sexuality of fruit trees. Mr Wigg figured it was best to keep quiet until the storm of pollen had settled.’ Who knew that life on an orchard could be so intriguing?

Simpson tells us the story of an ordinary man in an extraordinary way, casting a light on the little events that make up a life. Whether it is meeting Mrs Wigg at a dance, making strawberry tarts with the children or telling mythical and magical tales about fruit, each moment is beautifully rendered. The outside world intrudes from time to time; his neighbour’s son is drafted for the Vietnam War and the Springbok’s tour is cancelled after protests.

Mr Wigg is poignant, a little sad, but having the still quality of a meditation. It says on the cover that this is, ‘A novel that celebrates the small, precious things in life.’ And so it does. Quietly contemplative, Mr Wigg is about simplicity; taking joy in the moment and each day as it comes. Turn off the computer and read slowly with a peach to hand.

***********************************************

Inga Simpson will be appearing at the Byron Bay Writers Festival 2-4 August.

This is my sixth review for the Australian Women Writers’ Challenge. On a related note, I have been co-opted onto the panel of the Stella Trivia Night at the Byron Bay Writers Festival where I will be quizzed about my knowledge of Australian Women’s Literature. Scary stuff but should be a fun evening with lots of audience participation.

And for anyone interested in unleashing their inner chick-lit goddess, I’ll be running a half-day workshop on Monday 29 July as part of the Festival. Learn how to find humour in everyday situations, make your dialogue sparkle and give your character’s sex lives a little more sizzle. Come on, you know you want to…

Here’s hoping the rain abates before the marquees go up!

Hard to put down – ‘The Husband’s Secret’ by Liane Moriarty

31 May

the husband's secretThe Husband’s Secret is the fifth novel by bestselling Australian author, Liane Moriarty, but it is the first I have read of hers. The premise is a cracker – what would you do if you discovered a letter from your husband with this written on the front, ‘For my wife, Cecilia Fitzpatrick. To be opened only in the event of my death’? Why, open it at once, of course!

Cecilia, the main protagonist of this story, is the perfect wife – a P and C President and Tupperware party queen who also keeps her sexual techniques up to date. Clearly she is a better person than me, because she does struggle with herself over what to do about the letter, which she discovers while her husband, John-Paul is overseas. But when she asks him about it and senses he is lying, well…

The novel opens with a short excerpt of the story of Pandora, who famously opened a box that would have been better left shut. With this metaphor in mind, clearly Cecilia would have done better to forget about the envelope but of course she can’t. And once the secret is out, the ripples spread.

I read this novel in two sittings and only just restrained myself from staying up all night to finish it. Moriarty interweaves Cecilia’s story with that of the other characters to great effect, so that you just have to turn the page to find out what happens next.

The other major players are Tess, who has come back to Sydney, her home town, because her husband has fallen in love with her best friend and Rachel, an elderly woman who is still mourning the death of her teenage daughter many years before. Rachel’s dead daughter, Janie, also appears as a point-of-view character from time to time.

All of these strands are deftly handled, taking on the terrain of grief, infatuation, love and mid-life crisis in a simply-told but honest and affecting style. Each of the characters grows and learns throughout the novel, coming to grips with their particular problem.

Be warned that the pace of the novel accelerates towards the end, so clear your diary; you won’t be going anywhere until you finish it. ‘The Husband’s Secret’ is a ripping yarn and I’ll certainly be going back for more of Liane Moriarty.

This is my fifth review for the Australian Women Writers Challenge. 

Cheeky and enlightening – my review of ‘Mullumbimby’ by Melissa Lucashenko

14 May

mullumbimbyMullumbimy is Melissa Lucashenko’s fifth novel and is, as the name suggests, set in northern New South Wales.  The protagonist, Jo Breen, is an Aboriginal woman who uses her divorce settlement and the money she earns mowing grass at the Mullumbimby cemetery to buy a block of farmland. She sees this as her own way of reclaiming Bundjalung country and the process of returning her land to health is deeply satisfying.

Jo’s life is already complicated by her artistic and moody teenage daughter and becomes more so with the arrival in town of an outsider, Twoboy. Twoboy and his brother are down from Brisbane to initiate a land claim which stirs up a hornet’s nest of conflicting interests in the area. Jo is reluctant to get embroiled in what promises to be a messy fight. Twoboy, however, is dreadlocked, devastatingly handsome, heterosexual and apparently single. This is practically a miracle as far as Jo is concerned.

Jo also has to come to terms with her new neighbours, including the farmer Rob Starr, who wears expensive boots and erects fences where none seem needed and Granny Narrung, an Aboriginal Elder who Jo initially dismisses for her old-fashioned and uptight Christian ways.

The book is full of cheeky humour and witticisms, such as when Jo first sights Twoboy coming out of a bookshop and immediately wants to rush in and find out what he bought, ‘… hoping – please, oh please – that it wasn’t Armistead Maupin.’

I enjoyed the way Lucashenko used Bundjalung words throughout the novel. This added richness to the story and a glossary at the back provides a handy reference. Jo is troubled by how little she knows about the spirituality of Bundjalung culture and is wary of the looming peak of Wollumbin. ‘She knew Wollumbin was strong men’s business, and to be avoided at all costs.’ The difficulty of maintaining Bundjalung culture and links to land is an ongoing theme throughout the book. The fraught issue of native title is also handled with honesty and insight.

This book can be enjoyed simply as a well-told yarn, but particularly for those of us who live in this area, it is so much more. Mullumbimby offers a window into the living Bundjalung culture and the meaning of the Country which I found both moving and enlightening. It is also a page turner – highly recommended.

This is my fourth review for the Australian Women Writers Challenge.

Literati on the Gold Coast is on this Friday and Saturday! I will be talking about ‘Character Care and Maintenance’ on Friday with Jessie Cole and Paula Weston and on Saturday I join a lovely cast of romance writers – Helene Young, Anna Campbell and Keri Arthur on ‘A Course of True Love’. If you’re in the area, I’d love to see you.

It’s a cracker – Steeplechase by Krissy Kneen

25 Apr

 

steeplechaseSteeplechase is Brisbane author, Krissy Kneen’s first novel, and her first non-erotic work. Her previous books are a memoir, Affection and Triptych, a collection of erotic stories.

Bec Reich is a forty-year-old lecturer in art, whose own art career has stalled. Bec is getting over surgery when her sister Emily, a famous artist who she hasn’t spoken to for twenty-three years, calls and invites her to the launch of her new show in Beijing. Emily is also famous for being schizophrenic and Bec, too, hints at mental illness in her past. Emily’s call awakens Bec’s memories of their strange childhood and the games, fantasies and delusions which they shared.

 

Cut off from social contact, the sisters are brought up by their grandmother, a woman who locks all the doors and windows every night and forbids them to venture off the family property. The family live in small-town Queensland where the townsfolk assume they are part of a strange religious group.

 

As the story alternates between the past and the present, the reader slowly learns more about the sisters. Bec adores her older sister and would do anything to be included in her games. Emily is horse-mad and initiates a game of steeplechase where she forces Bec to play the part of the horse. ‘I am a bad horse, a lazy horse, a slow horse, and I take the whipping silently because it is true. I am a bad horse. I am not any kind of horse at all,’ says Bec. I enjoyed the contrast between the voices of the teenage Bec and the older Bec. A sub-plot relating to Bec’s relationship with a much-younger student is also well-drawn.

 

This story was so skilfully told so that I never knew quite which parts were reality and which parts delusion. Reading it was like putting together a puzzle. Kneen’s writing is both simple and evocative, creating a sense of lurking threat behind everyday actions. A scene where Bec listens to a phone’s ring tone, imagining she can hear someone breathing is particularly chilling. And what about Raphael, the lover the sisters shared, did he really exist?  As Bec joins Emily in Beijing, the story races towards a startling and satisfying conclusion.

Steeplechase is both beautifully written and a page-turner that provides insight into madness and art. I couldn’t put it down.

This is my third review for the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2013

For those in the Byron Bay area, Krissy Kneen will be in conversation at the Northern Rivers Writers’ Centre on the 10th of May and running a workshop on erotic writing on the 11th of May. Details here

It’s a bit of a heart breaker – The Fault in our Stars by John Green

14 Apr

fault in our starsThe Fault in Our Stars continues the phenomenon of successful young adult novels which have been embraced by a broader audience. The novel has shot to the top of the New York Times bestsellers list and was received with glowing reviews. John Green is also the author of three other bestselling young adult novels.

The Fault in Our Stars is a love story about two teenagers with cancer. With a setup like that, you will probably guess that your chances of a happy ending are not good. Sixteen-year-old Hazel and her boyfriend Augustus bond over a book called An Imperial Affliction, which is about a teenage girl with cancer. Unhappy about the way the book ends in mid-story, they set off to Amsterdam to confront its author and ask him to disclose the ending. While the author is less than obliging, the pair find that Amsterdam is a wonderful city in which to fall in love.

The novel is beautifully written and, on the whole, unsentimental. Hazel and Augustus joke about their ‘cancer perks’, such as being served champagne on the plane even though they are underage. It subtly mocks the stereotypical view of the brave and stoic cancer sufferer. When their friend Isaac’s girlfriend dumps him just before he has an operation that will leave him blind, they head over to her place and throw eggs at her car. The teenagers have a fine line in witty dialogue, which may not be realistic, but does make for good reading, ‘”Ma’am,” Augustus said, nodding towards her, “your daughter’s car has just been deservedly egged by a blind man.”’

Hazel is a sensitive soul whose main wish is to minimise the suffering she causes to others. She is a vegetarian and initially resists involvement with Augustus because she is terminally ill. She doesn’t want to be a ‘grenade’, wrecking his life.

Be warned, John Green is not afraid to break your heart. I cried bucket-loads by the end of this book and did end up feeling a little emotionally manipulated as a result, but that is a petty quibble.  The Fault in our Stars is a thoughtful, original and engaging love story. My teenage son also enjoyed it and you can’t ask for more than that. A movie is on the way so keep the tissues handy for that one.

 

I’ll be at Literati on the Gold Coast on the 17 – 18 May which promises to be an action-packed couple of days, and at Carindale Library in Brisbane on the 19 May.  Never a dull moment, hope to see you there!

 

Romantic comedy with a twist – my review of ‘The Rosie Project’ by Graeme Simsion

14 Mar

‘The Rosie Project’ is Graeme Simsion’s first novel and it has taken off with a bang, already selling into thirty countries. Simsion has previously written two non-fiction books as well as short stories, plays and screenplays. ‘The Rosie Project’, which won the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award in 2012, was originally a screenplay, written as part of Simsion’s studies at RMIT.

Don Tillman is a professor of genetics. He has some unusual habits – his life is timed to the last minute, he eats exactly the same meals at the same time every week, he is a master of Aikido but has trouble with social situations. While the author never says as much, the reader deduces that Don may have Asperger’s syndrome. Don himself doesn’t recognise this, however. When he gives a lecture on Asperger’s, a friend asks him if the symptoms remind him of anyone he knows and they do – one of the other professors.

When Don decides that he needs a wife, he approaches this task as he does the rest of his life, with efficiency. A questthe-rosie-projectionnaire is what he needs, he decides, ‘to filter out the time wasters, the disorganised, the ice-cream discriminators, the visual-harassment complainers…’ Don’s questionnaire for ‘The Wife Project’ is both extensive and discriminating. But then along comes Rosie – a smoker, a barmaid, a vegetarian. She is totally unsuitable, but yet Don can’t seem to stop himself from spending time with her.

Don is a wonderful character, who maintains his consistently original persona throughout. There are many delightful one-liners and a couple of laugh out loud moments due to the gap between Don’s view of the world and that of others. When a woman who is clearly interested in him asks him out for a chat he quizzes her on how he should prepare, ‘What specific topics are you interested in?’ When Rosie says, ‘You want to share a taxi?’ Don reflects that it seemed a sensible use of fossil fuel. And when asked if he has ever had sex, Don confirms that he has, on his doctor’s orders, but then ponders that it might become more complicated when there are two people involved.

Simsion acknowledges the inspiration he has gained from classic romantic comedy movies. ‘Cary Grant would have made a perfect Don,’ he says. This book is funny, witty and intelligent – I finished it with a smile on my face.

 

Boomerang Books are currently giving away copies of ‘The Rosie Project’ and ‘Sex, Lies and Bonsai’, enter here

If you happen to be in the vicinity of the Snowy Mountains over Easter, and it is a lovely time in the mountains, do come along and see me talking about romantic comedy and landscapes at the Snowy Mountains Writers Festival. 

And, don’t forget that if your book group would like to do ‘Liar Bird’, I have a special offer for book groups

 

 

 

Book review – ‘Losing February – a story of love, sex and longing’ by Susanna Freymark

17 Feb

Losing February is the debut novel by Susanna Freymark. As advertised on the back cover blurb, this is a story of love without sex and sex without love.  Bernie, a journalist, lives in the small fictional town of Repentance Creek, not too far from Byron Bay. Recently separated from a husband who didn’t love her in the way she needed, Bernie tries to find her way again in the world. When she makes contact with an old university friend a lingering passion reignites. A flurry of emails, texts and frustratingly sexless encounters draw Bernie into an obsessive love; ‘…there is a moment… starting in the month of February when I felt so deeply loved, I thought the world was mine and anything was possible.’

But this is no fairytale romance – Jack is married and guilty as hell about their involvement. Although Bernie and Jack search for a way to stay together, the end is inevitable. When Jack calls it quits Bernie’s love implodes in a binge of risky sexual behaviour. In an effort to pull herself out of depression, Bernie makes mistake after mistake with a series of unsuitable, predatory and uncaring men she meets over the internet. Most of these men seem almost as sad as Bernie herself. The plentiful, varied and explicit sex in this book is only sometimes erotic. More often it lends itself to the depressing conclusion that there is a whole lot of bad sex going on out there. The close first person voice of the story makes this an almost voyeuristic experience for the reader.

I was gripped from the first sentence of this book as Freymark skilfully captures the emotional rollercoaster of an adulterous affair. The highs, the lows, the guilt and shame – it’s all there. While the story is grim in parts, this is tempered by some beautiful writing on the transformative nature of love; ‘It spins you around and changes every cell in your body. … you’re never the same once you’ve been in love.’

Losing February could be read as a morality tale – no good can come from adultery – but it is more about the inevitability of love when it strikes. I found it a raw and honest portrayal of the grief that comes from loving the wrong person.

This is my second review for the Australian Women Writers’ Challenge 2013losing february.