Tag Archives: book review

It’s getting hot out there – review of ‘Madlands’ by Anna Rose

20 Sep

Madlands is a behind the scenes look at the ABC documentary – I Can Change Your Mind on Climate Change. To produce the program, climate change campaigner Anna Rose and climate sceptic and Liberal Party powerbroker, Nick Minchin lived in each other’s pockets for four weeks. They travelled from a parched farm in New South Wales to a climate station in Hawaii to the Barrier Reef. The premise of the program was that each of the protagonists would get the chance to try to change each other’s minds by introducing them to experts in their field. This is Anna’s account of that journey.

Anna Rose has been an environmental campaigner since the age of fourteen. She has always been driven, she says, by a sense that she can make a difference.

While I already had an interest in climate change, I found this book an eye-opening window into the world of the climate sceptic. If over 97% of scientists are convinced and countries like Tuvalu and Bangladesh are feeling the effects of rising sea levels, how is it that many people are so apathetic?

While most European countries are embracing renewable energy, Australia, the third most energy hungry economy in the world, lags behind in its dependence on coal. With the possibility of transitioning to renewable energy within ten years, Anna believes it is time for those who say we can’t to get out of the way of those who can.

Well written, engaging, and filled with the author’s passion and urgency, I found Madlands a page turner. Driven by a sense that time is running out, Anna Rose spent her honeymoon in Byron Bay writing this book. As she says, ‘The best time to act was yesterday, but the second best is today.’

On a personal note, I am currently attempting to write a romantic comedy about climate change as part of my Masters in Creative Writing at the University of Queensland. Possibly a strange idea, but someone had to do it.

This is my 12th review for the Australian Women Writers Challenge. 

Men and Babies – ‘Sweet Old World’ by Deborah Robertson

14 Aug

David, a freelance journalist and writer, lives on Inishmore, a harsh island off the coast of Ireland.  A place where people come ‘for the wild beauty and the five thousand years of history, the Celtic legends and the burial sites of saints. They’re coming for the drink and the sex and the craic.’ David has come to live there in order to help his divorced sister, Orla, run a guesthouse.

David is forty-three years old. With many unfulfilling relationships behind him, he is now yearning for something more. Not satisfied with being a much-loved uncle to his three nephews, he wants a child of his own. ‘He is full of hope. And this is what he doesn’t talk about: he wants to be a father, now, not later. He doesn’t want to waste one more minute of his life.’ David is conscious of aging – he has a back injury incurred on the same night he realised his desire to have a child – but thinks there is still time.  He imagines a phantom child running through the house.

When Ettie, a seventeen year old Australian girl, has a serious accident after leaving David’s house, her mother, Tania, comes into his life. As a tentative love unfolds between them, David dares to imagine a long-desired future – a baby in his bed. But Tania starts to question his motives and, even to the reader, they are not totally clear. Small events begin to erode her trust.

The author has said that she started this novel as a story about three sisters grappling with infertility, but became bored with it, realising that the male view on this subject was one that interested her more. The desire of single, heterosexual men to have children is not one that is much explored in our culture.

Sweet Old World is Deborah Robertson’s second novel. Her first, Careless, was short listed for the Miles Franklin in 1998 and she has also published a book of short stories, Proudflesh.

                I read this book in one flu-bound day in bed and shed a few tears at the end. Like all good fiction, Sweet Old World drew me deep into another reality. Beautifully written, complex and subtle it explores a little known emotional realm. A lovely, lyrical, heartfelt story about loss, longing and hope.

This is my 11th review for the Australian Women Writers Challenge.

I will be at the ARRA mega book signing event on the Gold Coast this Friday (17th). Do say hello if you’re there!

Masculinity, sexuality and tenderness – ‘Darkness on the Edge of Town’ by Jessie Cole

19 Jul

A crashed car on a country road, a fragile young woman and man who collects broken things… These are the elements which introduce Jessie Cole’s debut novel, Darkness on the Edge of Town.

Vincent is something of a drifter, a handyman on the cusp of forty, unpolished, but tender. From the moment he stops to help the young woman he finds sitting beside her crashed car, his life takes a new direction. Rachel, brittle and grieving, returns to Vincent’s house and a strange and intense relationship develops between them.

Vincent’s daughter Gemma is sixteen, and entering the unknown land of male and female relationships. She wonders how she can spend all night talking to a boy and then, ‘at school he acted like he’d never seen me before…’ Gemma has watched Vincent move from woman to woman in the town, always choosing ones with, ‘a half-crazy edge’.  ‘I used to wonder what it was about my dad that attracts these women… But lately I’m thinking maybe I should be worried about what it is that he needs from them.’ Gemma watches with apprehension as the dynamic between Vincent and Rachel changes.

The story is told from the alternate voices of father and daughter. Both voices are strong, distinct and totally authentic. There are some beautiful moments between Gemma and her father such as when Vincent tries to tell her how he feels about Rachel. ‘…I can never explain it, and the more I’d try the weirder it’d sound.’ All three characters struggle to communicate their feelings – the gaps between what they say and what they feel ring loudly.

Set in an isolated valley in the Northern Rivers, the novel explores themes of masculinity and sexuality, communication and miscommunication. In the style of writers like Tim Winton, it is a tense and gripping portrayal of the current that lies beneath relationships in the smallest of towns.

The theme of male violence also pervades the book. Vincent, though compassionate and principled, is quick to anger. I read the book with a knot of apprehension which grew as the story progressed. But what touched me most was its quality of transience. As Vincent reflects, lying next to Rachel, ‘I lay there, still and quiet, knowing that nothing lasts forever, but sort of hoping that it could.’

This is a novel you’ll read quickly and then wish you’d read slowly because you don’t want it to end.

 

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

 

Join Jessie and I in conversation at Lennox Head Library 10.30am on the 24th of July or Lismore Library 5.30pm on the 26th July. Free events. All welcome.

Or, otherwise at the Byron Writers Festival 3-5th August.

Hope to see you there!

 

Laughing about Climate Change – ‘Solar’ by Ian McEwan

25 May

A new Ian McEwan novel is always an event, although I must confess that this one is not very new – it was published in 2010. The world (well, me anyway) has been waiting for a long time for the great climate change novel and if anyone can do it, McEwan can.

Ian McEwan is known for his grasp of science and novels that interweave rational argument and emotion. Enduring Love features a science writer, Saturday a neurosurgeon and now, with Solar, we meet Michael Beard, a Nobel prize-winning physicist. So how does McEwan tackle this most complex and rather boring subject? Dystopian futures and eco-thrillers have been the main weapons of choice for climate change novelists, but McEwan does something different – he makes us laugh.

Michael Beard is a fat, randy has-been who has done nothing significant since his prize winning Beard-Einstein Conflation many years ago. Offered a place on an artist’s trip to the Arctic to examine the effects of climate change, Beard jumps on a jet to Norway (carbon off-set of course). Soon he is getting his delicate parts caught in a zip while urinating at minus forty degrees and fleeing a hungry polar bear on his skidoo.

Getting on board the solar bandwagon, Beard reassures his business partner; ‘Here’s the good news.  The UN estimates that already a third of a million people a year are dying from climate change. Bangladesh is going down because the oceans are warming and expanding and rising. There’s drought in the Amazonian rainforest. Methane is pouring out of the Siberian permafrost… Now the eastern Antarctic is going.’

Yes, this is black comedy at its best. The boot room on the frozen-in boat where the artists are staying becomes a metaphor for the planet as it descends day by day into further chaos. ‘How were they to save the earth,’ Beard wonders, ‘when it was so much larger than the boot room?’ There is also a laugh out loud moment when Beard helps himself to a stranger’s chips. This in turn becomes a metaphor for our need to re-examine known facts in light of new evidence.

While Solar might not be the hallelujah moment in fiction that climate change activists would hope for, it has does carry an important message – a flawed scientist does not mean that the science is wrong.

You can also just read it for laughs.

For people in the Ballina area, I’ll be talking about my writing at Ballina Library at 10am on the 4th of June. Do pop along if you can!

Book Review: Fall Girl by Toni Jordan

7 Apr

What’s not to love about a good romantic comedy? You know that the girl’s going to get the guy and there’ll be some laughs along the way. Toni Jordan has positioned herself as the thinking woman’s rom com author of choice. Her first novel, Addition, was a best seller and Fall Girl is a worthy follow up.

The plot centres on Della Gilmore, part of a family of con-artists, as she attempts to pull off the biggest con of her life. Her ‘mark’ is Daniel Metcalf, a millionaire with a penchant for the Tasmanian Tiger. Enter Doctor Ella Canfield, evolutionary biologist. Boy, has she got a proposition for him.

Della is a loveable character who carries the story. Her supporting cast of con artists are also fun as they pretend to be PhD students in biology. I found Daniel Metcalf a little undefined but I was enjoying Della and her gang so much I didn’t really care.

Della’s masquerade as a field hardened researcher is hilarious. Take this dialogue, when faced with a river in need of crossing. ‘This is a minor problem. When I was at Harvard researching I walked all day to a skunk research site, then I had to wade a raging river carrying my tent over my head. Alone. In the dark. If I remember right, it was raining. That was fairly hard.’

The plot unfolds with twists and turns as Della suspects that Daniel, too, is not who he seems to be. Her growing interest in Daniel is nicely drawn. ‘I watch the way his shoulders tense and flex through his shirt… It is somewhat compelling, the sight of him, merely because this part of the trail is boring and there is nothing else to look at but trees trees trees.’ The reader’s expectations are playfully subverted; ‘I catch a glimpse of Daniel’s face and am not surprised to see desire etched there. He’s also looking at the water.’

Jordan’s writing is fresh and original. It is also very, very sexy. In fact her sex scenes are some of the best I’ve read.  I was tempted to quote from one, but this being a family blog… In short, if you want a light, humorous read that won’t insult your intelligence, Fall Girl is for you.

‘Fall Girl’ is the fourth of my book reviews for the Australia Women Writers Challenge

I will be on a panel at the Gloucester Writers Festival on the 6th of May with another Lisa, Lisa Heidke. The topic we’re discussing is… ‘Chick lit is not Dumb lit’. Indeed! Love to see you there if you’re in the vicinity. 

Book Review: The Freudian Slip by Marion Von Adlerstein

22 Mar

Marion Von Adlerstein is the author of two other books on shopping and etiquette. The Freudian Slip is her first novel. It draws upon her own experience in a territory familiar to viewers of Mad Men – an advertising agency in the early sixties.

Set in Sydney, the novel revolves around three women. Desi is a television producer, Bea a copywriter and Stella, an ambitious ‘want to be’ from the wrong side of the tracks. Stella’s efforts to establish herself as part of the creative team at the agency generate most of the plot momentum.

While Stella has boundless energy and willpower, originality is not her strong point. Elevated from typist to copywriter, she soon learns that the package rules over the product – a message she apples to updating her look. Her outdated fifties beehive hairdo and princess-line dress make way for the a-la-mode look of the sixties. ‘Which persona to adopt? … an impersonation of Jeanne Moreau would be unsuitable. Jean Shrimpton? She no longer found that role model exciting. Then she remembered Audrey Hepburn…’

As with Mad Men, the role of women in the agency made me a little uncomfortable, but no doubt it was true to the time. Women are regularly described in terms of their vital statistics. Men are predatory and blatantly sexist. The agency’s male executives enjoy long boozy lunches while the women hold the fort. The social mores of the time regarding sex make interesting reading. A divorced woman is ‘spoilt goods’ and an affair with a married man is headline grabbing social death.

I enjoyed the period details of clothing and food which Von Adlerstein obviously remembers well. ‘Onion dip, devilled eggs and stuffed tomatoes were ready before the first guests were due. Swedish meatballs and cocktail frankfurts were standing by to be re-heated. A dozen bottles of sparkling Barossa Pearl sat among ice in a large tub…’ The brainstorming around the ad campaigns was also fun. The Freudian Slip of the title is a daring label for a new line of underwear.

The novel had a fast pace and enough intrigue to keep me turning the pages. The characters’ career and relationship dilemmas provide plenty of action. Von Adlerstein’s copywriting background shows up in the easy to read prose. This is a lively and entertaining book for those in the mood for a light-hearted romp.

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

Book Review: ‘A Common Loss’ by Kirsten Tranter A Common Loss By: Kirsten Tranter

2 Mar

A Common Loss is Australian author, Kirsten Tranter’s second novel. Her first, The Legacy, was an assured, fresh retelling of Henry James’s Portrait of a Lady.

A Common Loss tells the story of five friends who meet at university and keep in touch over the next ten years. Following the death of one of their number, Dylan, the friends re-group for their annual visit to Las Vegas.

The story starts with the narrator, Elliot, remembering a car accident the five had together. The driver, Cameron, swerves to avoid a deer and they crash. Cameron has been drinking, so Dylan claims to be the driver. As the years go by, whenever Elliot remembers the crash, it is Dylan who he sees at the wheel. This trick of the memory becomes a motif for the story.

Elliot, a professor of literature, sees himself as a bit of an outsider in the group. With Dylan, who Elliot idealised, removed, tensions rise and relationships buckle under strain. Elliot discovers that not all of his friends viewed Dylan the same way he did. Dylan’s death sets events in train where each friend is forced to reveal long-hidden secrets.

The first part of the book seems a little slow, as Elliott comes to terms with Dylan’s death. Passages of introspection set the scene; ‘I felt strangely paralysed in that way that you feel in dreams sometimes, wanting to move and yet unable to take a step. Was this another symptom of grief, I wondered, catalogued and tagged somewhere?’

However, once the friends gather in Vegas it gets on quite a roll.  I enjoyed the observations on Vegas – how it all seemed like a stage set, changing rapidly from glitter and glitz to ‘desperation and emptiness’. ‘Backstage should be hidden with a curtain or a door from the audience, surely; it shouldn’t be so – well, just so easy to see all the crap and falling-apart stuff out the back,’ Elliot observes.

Essentially a psychological suspense novel, the narrative drive comes from waiting to see how the friendships will react to pressure. Tranter’s writing is clever and insightful. She digs deep into the undercurrents of friendship, guilt and shame. An enjoyable and thought-provoking read.

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

Book Review: All That I Am by Anna Funder

5 Feb

All That I Am is Anna Funder’s first novel. Her previous non-fiction book, Stasiland, about communist East Germany, was highly acclaimed. All That I Am is set in the 1930s, prior to the start of the Second World War. Real people and events are used as a springboard to an involving work of fiction.

Told through the eyes of Ruth, now an old woman living in Sydney, and Toller, a left-wing playwright, the story revolves around Dora Fabian, an anti-Nazi activist. ‘We were the two for whom she was the sun,’ says Ruth.

Toller dictates his tales about Dora to a secretary in a hotel room inNew York. Meanwhile, Ruth’s mind wanders to the past while sedated in hospital after an accident. This complex setup and the time shifts between Toller’s voice, which is in the 1930s and Ruth’s, in the present, took a bit of getting used to.

The three have fledGermanyduring the first wave of Nazi terror, when thousands of opponents of Hitler were jailed or killed. Living as refugees inLondon, they try to expose the threat of the Nazis to a country bent on appeasement. A climate of fear and suspicion is created as the reach of the Gestapo extends further.

The complex romantic relationship between Dora and Toller, who is married to a teenage bride, adds tension to the story. Ruth is married to the handsome Hans, who finds refugee life aimless and difficult to endure.

This story is about courage, love and betrayal. Each of the characters has to choose where they stand in the face of suffering. As Ruth says; “It is not that people lack an imagination. It is that they stop themselves using it. Because once you have imagined such suffering, how can you still do nothing?”

Writing a fictional tale based on fact can be a difficult task to pull off. Constrained by real events, the author must imagine the internal landscape of the participants. Funder, who is clearly passionate about her subject, has largely succeeded in this.

While I did find the book difficult to get into, by the end I was fascinated and moved by this story of a part of history which was unfamiliar to me. All That I Am will reward those who can hang in there long enough to get over the initial confusion.

Lisa is on a mission to review at least six Australian Women Writers in 2012. To find out more see http://www.australianwomenwriters.com/