Storyland – Catherine McKinnon

October 28, 2019 at 16:47 | Posted in books | Leave a comment
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Storyland is the second novel by Catherine McKinnon, and is an ambitious novel created out of a palindromic interlinking of different short stories – all linked by place, but moving from 1796 to a distant dystopian future and back again. The stories are all very rooted in the place – the area around Lake Illawarra, a few hours south of Sydney. This sense of place is well grounded; it is a very Australian story, and takes inspiration I think from the Aboriginal concept of songlines – stories that relate places and traverse the land.

The first story is a reimagined account of Matthew Flinders exploratory voyage south from Sydney in a small boat, and his encounters with the local Aboriginal nation of that region. As the stories move forward through time, that connection with both the land and Aboriginal experiences of modern Australia continue.

Some of the stories work better than others, but they are all evocative and thought provoking. I would say however that not all of them land very satisfactorily, and I somehow wish the linkage between them had been somehow both more subtle and also more overt.

This is a god book that is worth reading – its interesting structure and rich evocations of Australia make it very worthwhile. Yet somehow for me it falls sort of being a really great book – it just seems to struggle a bit under the weight of it’s ambition.

Small Great Things – Jodi Picoult

August 15, 2017 at 10:24 | Posted in books | Leave a comment
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I picked up this book at the airport, as a fairly easy read on the plane. Jodi Picoult is of course a very well known and prolific author, although I’d not read any of her books before.

As I expected, this is a well-written, easy to read book that rattles along. The theme it tackles, however, is far from lightweight; it is an examination of racism and racial tensions in contemporary USA. Against the backdrop of racially-charged police shootings, the rise of Trump and issues around immigration and American values, this is both a necessary and brave book.

Necessary, because these issues need airing constantly, and brave, because Jodi Picoult is a privileged, affluent white person – and writing about race is a challenge to do authentically and fairly when you have no lived experience to draw on.

The story revolves around Ruth; a black neo-natal nurse who is on duty when an medical incident occurs to the newborn child of a white supremacist couple. The baby dies, and Ruth is suspended by the hospital, and charged with negligence and murder. She is defended by a public advocate, and over the course of the novel the motivations, lives and prejudices of all the characters are examined. The book ends with a climactic courtroom scene which, whilst gripping, as a rather over-the-top twist right at the end that to me felt very forced.

It’s a novel that certainly illuminates the racial divide in today’s America. Picoult did a lot of research prior to writing this book; she details much of this in an essay that appends the novel. Aware of the sensitivity of the subject, she tries to do the right thing, and also apologises for any missteps she may have made. Racism is an issue that affects all America (and perhaps the whole world), and Picoult makes the point that this is a book to get whites reading about and understanding at least some of the issues – even if her voice is not the most authentic or original. It is notable that the black characters in the novel come across as the least nuanced and most two-dimensional.

I was interested when finishing the book to read the reactions of black reviewers to the novel. For the most part they are generous and understanding – this is not a ‘black novel’, but as a book that adds to the debate and might break through to some readers who would otherwise not consider the issues raised it has been for the most part praised.

I enjoyed this book a lot; it is a rattling good yarn as well as being very thought-provoking.

Two Brothers – Ben Elton

November 10, 2016 at 12:19 | Posted in books | Leave a comment
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Mben-elton-two-brothersotormouth stand-up comic, social activist and novelist; Ben Elton is a man with many strings to his bow. Usually his novels are satirical reflections on the state of society – fun, fast-paced and a bit preachy. Much like his stand-up routines.

However, in this novel (billed as ‘his most personal to date’), he assumes the mantle of a more serious novelist, tracing the story of two brothers brought up in pre-WW2 Berlin in a Jewish family. The twist, though, is that one of them is not Jewish at all, but adopted at birth to replace a twin that was stillborn.

There then follows a rather unlikely story, involving the two brothers both falling in love with Dagmar, a Jewish heiress whilst maintaining a friendship with Silke, daughter of their maid. It twists and turns, with each brother taking the place of the other, into an ultimate scenario where one brother enlists with the Waffen SS and the other in the British army. Be clear, though, the brother in the SS hates Nazis, and is only joining it to save Dagmar. Who does Dagmar really love? Why does one of the brothers marry Silke? The plot has been described as ‘Archer-esque’, and indeed it does have echoes of a Jeffrey Archer novel.

It’s easy to read. But. It’s long and clunky, with far to many side-expositions, sub-plots, back-stories and lengthy discourses. Yes, we get that the Nazis are bad. Really really bad. Yes, we get pre-war Berlin was a crazy city. Yes, we understand the horrors of WW2. Whilst reading this book, I kept wishing great chunks of it could be excised or pared back. Elton can’t avoid preaching, and it gets in the way. Less could have been more, I think.

Elton can write with pace, and the story rattles along well enough. The historical backdrop is well researched, and vivid. But it’s not quite the novel I think he wanted it to be.


The Secret River – Kate Grenville

October 13, 2015 at 21:06 | Posted in books | Leave a comment
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The Secret River starts in 1780s Lsecret riverondon. William Thornhill, a small boy, born in the squalid slums of London, get a chance to create a life for himself as a waterman, ferrying people across the Thames. Then, when things go wrong for him, he, his wife and their son are sentenced to be transported to Australia.

Arriving in Sydney in the early days of the colony, Thornhill sets out to rebuild his life, eventually claiming land and settling on the banks of the Hawesbury river.

Of course, the settlers come into contact with, and conflict with, the Aboriginal people of the area. There is horrific violence and brutality, but also attempts at reconciliation and peace. The moral choices are often ambiguous, and the novel paints a vivid portrait of early colonialism.

It’s a gripping read, often uncomfortable, and certainly gives an insightful perspective into the struggles between the white settlers and the Aborigines – and ultimately how the ‘blacks’ were brutally subjugated.

I’ve read a fair bit of Australian history since moving here some years ago, but this novel really puts that history into human terms. There is a risk in reading it as history though, in that Thornhill is very unusual in terms of his liberal, tolerant outlook. This paints a rather romanticised picture of white settlement (although Grenville does not shy away from the uglier side of colonial attitudes in other characters). But that said, I still recommend this book to all seeking both a great novel, and also an insight into how Australia was colonised by Europeans.

The Children Act – Ian McEwan

August 15, 2015 at 16:19 | Posted in books | Leave a comment
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It’s always a pleasure to open a nmcewan children actew book by Ian McEwan. Familiar as an old pair of jeans, yet always fresh and new. From the moment you sink into the luminous prose to the point when you emerge, blinking, from the fine textured world McEwan conjures, you are swept along by the sheer technical mastery of the medium. McEwan is truly a great author, a master of his craft.

And yet, and yet, something niggled with me slightly about this novel. Not that it wasn’t executed with the customary brilliance. Not that the plot wasn’t intriguing and though-provoking, and the characters fully rounded and believable. No, somehow, there was this niggle in my mind that it was somewhat formulaic. A really good novel, yes, but ‘just another Ian McEwan’, rather than some new statement. It sounds almost sacrilegious to say it, but I was strangely reminded of  Dick Francis’ novels – basically all the same story, but made (somewhat) interesting by the illuminating background research into whatever the protagonist happened to be – a photographer, a wine merchant, a computer teacher etc etc.

In ‘The Children Act’, the main character is a family court judge, and the book revolves around both her troubled marriage and her caseload, most particularly Adam, an intense teenager who wishes to refuse lift-saving treatment for religious reasons.

And, à la Francis, we also get quite significant discourses on the processes and ethics of the family court system in England, coupled with expositions on the religious mores of Jehovah’s Witnesses.

This is a much, much better novel than an airport thriller. But somehow, for me, the assemblage of raw materials failed to gel into a great book.

Eyrie – Tim Winton

January 4, 2015 at 09:15 | Posted in books | Leave a comment
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eyrieTim Winton is one of Australia’s Living Treasures. He is widely acclaimed as one of the world’s great literary writers, gifted with an ability to create fiction that is as readable and accessible as it is award-laden. So the story goes.

However, I’m going to have to admit something now – this is the first Winton book that I actually finished. I have started two others (including his most popular book, ‘Cloudstreet‘), but somehow never finished them; although I have no doubt that this says more about my philistinism than Winton’s ability. What has happened in the past is that I have started them, and certainly enjoyed the evocative writing and characters (although I find the style a little heavy going sometimes). But then I put the book down for a few days, and when I pick it up again it just all goes incomprehensible. For some reason I can’t remember anything I have previously read; it all makes no sense and after half and hour or so of hopelessly flicking back and forth trying to get back into it, I give up.

I picked up his latest, Eyrie, in the hope I would be third time lucky. I also vowed not to put it down for too long, in case the mysterious Winton amnesia might strike again. As it happened, I had little difficulty sustaining my momentum to the end of the novel – it’s oddly gripping, and had me turning the pages.

It is the story of Tom Keely; a former high-flying environmental campaigner now unemployed, divorced and down on his luck, scraping along and living in the seedy Mirador apartments. He drinks, battles hangovers, takes too many pills and tries to be invisible. However, when a long-forgotten childhood acquaintance, Jemma Buck, moves into the apartment just down the hallway together with her strangely intense young grandson, he gets drawn into their world, battling to help them, help himself and keep his fractured life from disintegrating completely.

Eyrie is a slightly strange and unsettling novel; we see the world through Tom’s eyes as he battles to make sense of the world around him, his hold on reality sometimes seeming to stretch thin. There are also flashes of black humour and beautifully observed characterisation. The ending is satisfactorily ambiguous, with many loose ends left floating.

It’s not a novel everyone is going to enjoy, and it’s a book that needs a degree of concentration and focus to read. However, I did enjoy it – and I also felt a slight frisson of satisfaction when I finally reached the end of a Tim Winton novel…

The Light Between Oceans – M.L. Stedman

December 31, 2014 at 19:36 | Posted in books | Leave a comment
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lightoceiansNot since I read Khaled Hosseini’s ‘The Kite Runner’ do I remember being so enthralled and emotionally engaged with a novel as with M.L. Stedman’s ‘The Light Between Oceans’. The former book I read in a single sitting on a long train ride in Thailand, and likewise I read ‘The Light Between Oceans’ from start to finish on a plane journey from New Zealand. Indeed, I didn’t quite finish it, even when reading it in the taxi on the way back to the house, so rather than going in to greet my family after my trip away, I sat on the grass verge outside to read the last few pages first.

When I then did go in, I think my two little girls were bit taken aback with the emotional welcome I gave them, fueled as it was by this extraordinary tale, set in post WW1 Australia. It concerns war veteran turned lighthouse keeper Tom Sherbourne, who lives with his wife, Isabel, on an isolated rock miles from the mainland. They struggle to have children, and when a boat washes ashore containing a dead man and a tiny crying baby Isabel thinks her prayers have been answered. However, the ramifications of the decision Tom and Isabel make that night reverberate through the following years as events become more and more entangled and desperate as the child’s true provenance emerges.

I highly recommend this book – you should read it.

A Map of Nowhere – Martin Bannister

June 1, 2014 at 09:32 | Posted in books | Leave a comment
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nowhere‘A Map of Nowhere’ is Martin Bannister’s debut novel, and concerns the unfolding web of relationships between the protagonist, artist David Price; Pete, the mentally ill man he acts as support worker for; David’s rather unsympathetic girlfriend and her terminally ill sister.

The relationship between David and Pete is the main focus, and by far the most interesting part of the story – indeed the other characters and episodes sometimes feel a bit like filler, contributing little to the intriguing unfolding of the primary characters. The book pivots on a fact revealed about half-way through, which although subtly signposted beforehand did provide a very satisfactory literary moment; enough to make me put the book down for a second or two to absorb the implications before continuing.

The writing is well paced and the dialogue flows very naturally, although in places the novel did feel a bit thin and lifeless. The ending also felt a bit forced; I think it would be a more powerful conclusion if the last five pages or so were omitted. That said, I did enjoy the book and would recommend it – it is an interesting study of relationships, mental health issues, families and how our futures are shaped by our pasts.

The Night Circus – Erin Morgenstern

February 9, 2014 at 19:24 | Posted in books | Leave a comment
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nightcircusThis book was given to Mrs Chillikebab a few year ago, and she has not yet got around to reading it. So one evening when I fancied reading a book, I pulled it down from the shelf, knowing nothing about it at all.

As it turned out, it’s a fantasy novel that revolves around a magical Victorian circus created by the two main protagonists, Marco and Celia. They compete to create, manage and hold together this complex construction as part of a strange contest to which the rules are never made clear. The contest was set up by two shadowy figures who drift in and out of the novel. There are also a host of other characters who play parts in the drama, and one of the good things about the book is how all these disparate threads slowly come together towards the finale.

The writing is richly descriptive, and very evocative. There are some lovely passages describing the environments of the circus, as well as other locations that are beautifully realised. This is really the main strength of the book – you can loose yourself in the rich scenery, and it stays with you after you have put it down.

Where the book is let down in is its characterisation. The main characters particularly seem very two dimensional, and there are some truly cringe-worthy moments when they declare their undying love for each other that make you wince. How can someone who can create such rich backdrops write such trite dialogue better suited to a teen romance novel?

That said, it was an entertaining enough read that I rattled through in a couple of evenings. It’s not great literature, and there are all sorts of holes you could poke in it (not least the way the characters in no way seem to behave or reflect the era the book is set in – their manner, style, behaviour and language are all completely contemporary. And the ending is, to be honest, somewhat predictable.) Overall though its strengths outweigh its faults, perfect if you are looking for a light read to take on holiday that’s  a step or two up from airport fodder.

The One Hundred Year Old Man Who Climbed Out Of The Window And Disappeared – Jonas Jonasson

March 13, 2013 at 18:58 | Posted in books | Leave a comment
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jonassonOne of the things about having a Kindle is that you read some different books. Amazon really sucker you in with those ‘daily deal’ things.  The other thing I have discovered (after my little rant a few weeks ago)  is that Kindle e-books do have a cover – it’s just that when you select the book from the menu, it jumps to the first page. However, if you go back through the pages from that point, you do indeed get to the cover. I searched in vain for a way to make this the default behaviour, but to no avail.

I bought this book because it was twenty cents or something on the ‘daily deal’, and was advertised as a ‘sensation’. It also promised to be a light read, and after some of the heavier books I’ve read of late, I thought it would be a welcome diversion.

It is the story of Allan Karlsson – a centenarian explosives expert who escapes from his residential home, fleeing from his hundredth birthday party. There then follows an unlikely tale with a range of colourful characters, an international drug cartel, several inadvertent murders, an inept police investigation and an elephant. During these episodes we also learn about Allan’s previous life – he somewhat haplessly manages to be instrumental in shaping  the whole of twentieth century history, dining with world leaders from Stalin to Truman and both starting and quelling various wars and revolutions along the way. The whole thing is utterly preposterous, but somehow Jonasson keeps the momentum up page after page – it flies along at a cracking pace, and has more unlikely twists than a roller coaster. It requires very little in terms of intellectual energy, but it is entertaining and had me laughing out loud in places.

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