Category Archives: General Fiction

Big Little Lies

This book is generating a bit of attention lately because of the TV adaptation that was released earlier this year starring Nicole Kidman, Reese Witherspoon and Alexander Skarsgård. Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to watch the series (but I’ll keep my thoughts on Foxtel to myself), so I thought I’d give the book a go and see what the hype is about.

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“Big Little Lies” by Liane Moriarty is a novel set in a small coastal community in Australia. The story follows single mother Jane who has just moved to Pirriwee Peninsular and has enrolled her little boy Ziggy into kindergarten. Although she forms a friendship with fiery Madeline and beautiful Celeste, two other mums with kids in Ziggy’s class, an incident on orientation day sets her offside with another parent. Meanwhile, Madeline grapples with a teenage daughter who is spending more time with her ex-husband and his new wife, and Celeste struggles to make sense of the brittle veneer of her seemingly perfect life.

I was surprised by this book. I think I have a lot of automatic prejudice against chick-lit or books that seem a bit mumsy. This book in particular has a strong focus on the interpersonal relationships between the kindergarten mums (and dad) at Pirawee Public and I was expecting it to be a bit…well…suburban. What I found was a book of significant depth with a wry and sometimes irreverent tone that tackled some heavy issues such as domestic violence and sexual assault. Moriarty has a real talent when it comes to her characters, and in particular I enjoyed the humerous interjections at the beginning and ending of chapters of various characters giving their amusing (and often contradictory) opinions about events as they unfolded.

I think probably the only think that frustrated me about this book was that the characters, while interesting and engaging, weren’t particularly diverse. Without mentioning any spoilers, there was a particular reveal about a character late in the book that I thought wasn’t very well done and which marred the story somewhat.

Nevertheless, this is a fun read that balances flippant jokes against serious insights. I was pleasantly surprised and I think it will do a lot to break down the stigma of domestic violence.

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Filed under Australian Books, Book Reviews, General Fiction

The Natural Way of Things

This book was already on my radar before it won the Stella Prize. It really got on my radar when I saw the author speak at the National Library in March. I was so stoked to hear what she had to say and get my book signed.

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“The Natural Way of Things” by Charlotte Wood is a book that I’m a bit reluctant to give too much background to. Two women wake up to find themselves drugged and in an unknown place. As the drugs wear off, they begin to understand the severity of their situation. Humiliated, degraded and isolated by an unlikely pair of guards, they realise that they are one of a group of ten women. As time goes on, what it is that links the women together begins to come clear and the power the guards wield over them begins to grow more tenuous.

First things first, this is the best book I’ve read so far this year. It is utterly compelling, unbelievably disturbing and uncomfortable in how close it hits to home. Wood is an extremely tactile writer and captures the full range of human experiences both physical and emotional. Although the location is fictional, the detail is so vivid and so…Australian that imagining it is effortless. Again, I don’t really want to give too much away about this book because I really believe it is an experience that you should simply let wash over you. Nevertheless, I do want to say some things about the characters. It was pretty appalling to me how familiar the characters of Teddy and Boncer were when I was reading about them. How people who consider themselves to be so unique end up being the worst kind of followers.

Reading this book, it’s impossible not to imagine yourself in the shoes of these women and wonder how you yourself would react in such a situation. I think the only criticism I could possibly have about this book is that Wood really demands a lot from her readers. She is deliberately vague about a lot of the details of the story, the “before” and “after” of the narrative. Although I think it’s largely a good thing (I think a lot of modern books suffer from bad cases of “tell” instead of “show), there are points where the lack of information can border on the frustrating.

Anyway, this is a phenomenal, visceral book that is confronting as it is engrossing. I read it a few weeks ago but I still find myself flashing back to it and thinking about it. I would highly recommend this book, and it winning the Stella Prize was no accident.

 

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Filed under Australian Books, Book Reviews, General Fiction

A Thousand Splendid Suns

I’ve been saving this book. I absolutely adored the author’s first novel, the incredible book “The Kite Runner”, and I was really looking forward to reading his equally as acclaimed second novel.

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“A Thousand Splendid Suns” by Khaled Hosseini is a novel that spans several decades and the lives of two women in Afghanistan. The illegitimate daughter of a wealthy man with three wives and many other children, Mariam grows up in a secluded hut with her mother. Although she relishes her father’s weekly visits, she longs for more than her mother’s pessimism and when she is 15, she risks everything and ventures alone into town to confront him. Years later, Laila, another 15 year old, is living in another city but it might as well be another world. Raised in a loving family, although somewhat in the shadow of her absent older brothers, Laila is taught that she can be whoever she wants. However after disaster strikes again and again, Laila finds herself in a desperate situation – one very similar to that of Mariam.

I wanted to like this book. I wanted to like it so much. I was absolutely blown away when I read “The Kite Runner”, by its creativity as well as its expression, but this book just didn’t do it for me. Part of it was the writing. For some reason, in this book I really felt that Hosseini did a lot of telling, but didn’t do much showing. A lot of the plot felt as heavy-handed as Mariam’s husband. You could see the blows coming a mile away. Story-wise, this book actually reminded me a lot of “The Colour Purple” by Alice Walker. The abusive husband, the lies, the family sent away, the unlikely but enduring female friendship. I felt like Walker’s novel was written much more from the heart. You really feel for Celie in a way that I just couldn’t feel for either Mariam or Leila. Mariam the martyr and Leila the angel. One thing that really bothered me (and which bothers me about a lot of fiction) was Hosseini’s treatment of virginity. He just seemed overly fixated on the seemingly inevitable pain and blood involved in a woman’s first time having intercourse – regardless of the context. Hosseini just didn’t really seem to do a convincing job getting inside the heads of his two female main characters.

There were two things that I did like about this book. The first was that it gave me a bit more understanding about the relentlessness of the conflict in Afghanistan. I did admire Hosseini’s goal of trying to share insights with the reader into the impact of war on ordinary life. The second thing was that where Hosseini’s female characters were a bit two-dimensional, the main antagonist, Mariam’s husband Rasheed, was a brilliant example of the mercurial, complex and often inescapable nature of domestic violence.

I was expecting a brilliant book and I got an OK book. Readable without being groundbreaking, descriptive without being immersive, this book simply doesn’t hold a candle to “The Kite Runner”.

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The Good Little Ceylonese Girl

I received this book as a gift from a friend of mine who picked it up for me on a trip home to Sri Lanka. He knew that I was trying to read more diversely, and I do believe this is possibly my first book by a Sri Lankan author.

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“The Good Little Ceylonese Girl” by Ashok Ferrey is a collection of short stories about Sri Lanka and the Sri Lankan diaspora and named after one of the stories contained within. The stories range in location from Italy to England, from India to Somalia and are interconnected by the common threads of Sri Lankan heritage and otherness in a country not your own.

Ferrey is a perceptive and humorous writer who is fond of puns and the double entendre. His diverse life experience shines through in this multifaceted book and he expertly captures the voices of Sri Lankans from all kinds of socio-economic backgrounds. I particularly enjoyed the story that explores a same-sex inter-cultural relationship and the story set in Somalia. Ferrey explicitly discusses the impact of the Boxing Day Tsunami on the national consciousness with two stories. However, although the vast majority of his characters are living overseas, I found it interesting that Ferry doesn’t ever directly reference the Sri Lankan civil war (although I think as an Australian, a lot of his references went over my head, so perhaps he did in a more subtle way).

Although Ferrey is a strong writer, I did feel that his endings were a bit off-beat. The short story really excels on an ending of either extreme poignancy or an incredible twist, and I felt as though despite the fluid prose, a lot of the endings fell a bit flat. Despite Ferrey’s convincing voice in his many female characters, the vast majority of his stories seemed to hinge on women being underhanded in some way, be it by lying, stealing, poisoning or misleading. I found this a bit frustrating and sameish, and I thought his endings could have been a lot punchier than they were.

Nevertheless, a quick, intelligent and insightful read.

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Filed under Book Reviews, General Fiction, Short Stories

Wish for Amnesia

I received a copy of this book courtesy of the publisher. Described as a literary novel, and with quite a strange cover showing what looks like human skin, I was keen to see what it was about.

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“Wish for Amnesia” by Barbara Rosenthal is a surreal novel about a man called Jack Rubin, his lover and world famous blind African artist Beatrice, his marijuana-addicted wife Caroline, and his genius daughter Jewel. Distancing himself from his Holocaust-survivor parents and plagued by voices which constantly criticise him, Jack finds himself becoming a popular icon for social progress. As he becomes more and more engrossed in his secretive work intertwining computer programming and DNA, he becomes less aware of the goings on in his family. Caroline’s increasing dependence on marijuana, cosmopolitan yearnings and perfectionism directed towards her daughter leads to disaster and Jewel seeks solace in her godmother Beatrice’s arms. When Beatrice experiences a miracle, her actions and inactions afterwards represent ultimate betrayal and the Rubin family is torn apart.

This is such a richly dense novel that I am finding it hard to encapsulate all that goes on in just a few short paragraphs. Rosenthal’s book is literary with an unresolved undercurrent of magic realism and science fiction. It explores themes of intergenerational trauma, intellectualism, mental health issues, addiction, race, disability, sex and love. “Wish for Amnesia” is an insight into the art world and the nouveau riche and explores themes of motherhood, emotional neglect and the mentor/mentee relationship. I found a lot of parallel themes in this novel to that of “The Strays“, especially where the self-importance and apparent genius of the father (and, by proxy, the equally talented but underappreciated mother) overshadows the needs of the child(ren), creating space for their exploitation. I also found parallels to “Maus” and another book I read recently called “The Butcher’s Daughter“, especially to do with the children of Holocaust survivors and their (often futile) attempts to reject their Jewish heritage.

This book is quite dark and each of the main characters are deeply flawed narrators. For the past couple of days I have found myself contemplating the amount of uncertainty was left at the end. Was Jack’s secret project and the information he believed he had found real? Was Jewel’s recollection of the events after the car crash accurate or just adolescent fancy? Was Beatrice really magic and was she really trying to sabotage Jack and his family? There were a lot of unresolved questions at the end of the book as well, especially about the extent to which the key events at the ending were related.

There were enough themes and issues contained within this book to make a few novels, and there were times where the amount Rosethal was giving the reader to deal with felt a bit overwhelming. Nevertheless, this is a very clever, powerful and complex book that demands full attention and careful consideration. This is not a book about good and bad, but a book about the contest between priorities of the mind, the priorities of the body and the priorities of the soul.

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Filed under Advanced Reading Copies, Book Reviews, General Fiction

Fearless

I received an advance reading copy of this book courtesy of Allen and Unwin, and I have to say at first I was a little bit skeptical. As someone who has lived and studied there for 6 years cumulatively, and who has spent an extra 8 years formally studying Bahasa Indonesia, I always have my hackles up a bit when it comes to fiction set in Indonesia. I was expecting something along the lines of “Eat, Pray, Love” – a cringey story of a white woman’s self-discovery at the expense of smiling locals. I was also expecting it to be the product of yet another writer’s retreat in Bali with only a cursory engagement with local culture and almost no awareness of the rest of the archipelago whatsoever. However, when I was having coffee with a friend recently and we visited a bookshop afterwards, leafing through the pages she pointed out that it looked like it was peppered with correctly colloquial Indonesian phrases. Perhaps I had judged this book too quickly. I decided to give it a go.

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“Fearless” by Fiona Higgins is a story about six westerners who find themselves grouped together on a retreat of the same name: a week-long program to help them battle and overcome their greatest fears. Two Australian women Janelle and Cara, Englishman Henry, Frenchman Remy, Italian man Lorenzo and American woman Annie all converge together under the tutelage of Pak Tony and between them connections start to grow and walls start to crumble. Until, that is, the unthinkable happens.

This book is an easy and captivating read. Higgins has an astute eye for social detail and the each of the six characters comes alive with their own stories and fears. You can tell that Higgins has spent time living in Indonesia – this story has authenticity and complexity far beyond what you could get from a two-week holiday. I particularly enjoyed some of the cultural clashes between the westerners and the locals, especially when the westerners have their own values challenged or overhear locals criticising their wealth and privilege. Higgins is a self-aware enough writer to really shine a light on the hypocrisy of cultural supremacy. Although I shy away from westerners who go to popular tourist destinations to “find themselves”, I felt like Higgins’ characters and their journeys were nevertheless interesting and complex enough to carry this story. The six main characters are tested in more ways than one, especially Lorenzo and especially when the ultimate disaster strikes. Higgins also provides a solid introduction to the cultural and religious tensions that exist in Indonesia as well as its cultural and linguistic diversity.

However, I have to say, the one thing that irked me was the depiction of Balinese women. There were almost no Balinese women who spoke in this book, and when they did speak, they were almost never named characters. The majority of the interactions between the characters and Balinese women involve observing their exploitation, humiliation or servitude. More than one character notes how dainty, slim and attractive Balinese women are and I found that to be in stark contrast to Janelle’s plot line about championing self-worth away from body image. While there was a wide range of named male Indonesian characters of various age and background, I really felt like Indonesian women did not get a fair shake of the stick.

Nevertheless, this was a compelling story jam-packed with social issues and suspense and if you’re going to read a story about westerners finding themselves in Bali, make it this one.

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Five go on a Strategy Away Day

I got this little book as a Christmas present this year, and I chuckled to myself at the title. Clearly a spoof on Enid Blyton’s “The Famous Five” series, it was a tip of the hat to the fact that since I started my grown up job, I now get to go along to corporate training sessions.

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“Five go on a Strategy Away Day” by Bruno Vincent is one of the new “Enid Blyton for Grownups” satire series that rewrites “The Famous Five” books with the characters now adults dealing with modern issues. George, Dick, Anne, Julian and Timmy the dog have been summoned by the multinational corporation they work for to attend a day of team-building activities to a hotel in the countryside. There their team is put to the test while they compete with other teams, including a particular team made up of seven, to win a prestigious award. However things don’t go as planned, and there seems to be something sinister going on.

This book looks a lot like the “Ladybird Books for Grownups” series that came out a while ago, so I was expecting it to be more of a book full of classic style illustrations with hilarious captions. Instead, it actually was just like an Enid Blyton book. I think there is a lot of nostalgia value to this book, and I think that anyone who works in any kind of big organisation can probably relate to the kind of team dynamics that are explored in this book. Vincent captures the tone and spirit of Blyton’s stories, with a twist of modern sophistication. However, although it’s quite clever, it didn’t quite elicit from me the scandalised giggles that the “Ladybird Books for Grownups” series did.

This would make a good office waiting room coffee table book or a fun Kris Kringle present for a colleague.

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