Thursday, August 28, 2014

Reading in 2014 - Dirt Music

Dirt Music by Tim Winton

Dirt Music'Set in the dramatic landscape of Western Australia, "Dirt Music" is a love story about people stifled by grief and regret; a novel about the odds of breaking with the past and about the lure of music. Dirt music, Fox tells Georgie, is "anything you can play on a verandah or porch, without electricity." Even in the wild, Luther cannot escape it. There is, he discovers, no silence in nature.

Ambitious, perfectly calibrated, "Dirt Music" resonates with suspense and supercharged emotion -- and it confirms Tim Winton's status as the preeminent Australian novelist of his generation.'
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Tim Winton's writing is quite amazing. He can write a scene and have you there, smelling the salt-water, feeling the gritty sand in your clothes and the relentless heat of the sun, yet he does it with a masterful use of fairly sparse language. With Winton I never feel bogged down in pages of description of trees or light or landscapes (unlike Bryce Courtney as one example).

For me though, the plot and characters in this one were a bit underwhelming. I often wondered where the story was heading and was left scratching my head at the end with no resolution. It was a fairly convoluted tale with lots of side stories that were never explored or developed. The back stories of the main characters were heavily hinted at but never explained, and to be able to empathise or simply understand the relationships and actions of the characters you needed those back stories.

I was left unsatisfied with far too many 'Why?'s to be able to say this was a great book.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Reading in 2014 - The Language of flowers

The Language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbaugh

The Language of Flowers
'The Victorian language of flowers was used to convey romantic expressions: honeysuckle for devotion, asters for patience, and red roses for love.
But for Victoria Jones, it’s been more useful in communicating mistrust and solitude. After a childhood spent in the foster-care system, she is unable to get close to anybody, and her only connection to the world is through flowers and their meanings. Now eighteen and emancipated from the system with nowhere to go, Victoria realizes she has a gift for helping others through the flowers she chooses for them.
An unexpected encounter with a mysterious stranger has her questioning what’s been missing in her life and when she’s forced to confront a painful secret from her past, she must decide whether it’s worth risking everything for a second chance at happiness.'

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This was another one of the books pulled off the shelf for me by our librarian when I begged for assistance with picking some decent books.
I enjoyed it.
I think the style seemed to change mid-book, from a drama (coming-of-age, rising-from-adversity, girl-conquers-terrible-childhood) to a more standard girl-meets-boy-and-eventually-get-it-together-after-overcoming-obstacles/misunderstandings/sheer-pigheadedness-with-a-not-so-subtle-twist romance.
But that's okay. It is chick-lit. It reads like a movie script - but the sort where they change the end when they actually make the movie. It won't change your life but it will give you a few pleasant hours of escapism. We all need that sometimes.

Monday, August 4, 2014

Reading in 2014 - Coal Creek

Coal Creek by Alex Miller

Coal Creek
'The new novel from Australia's highly acclaimed literary treasure is an extraordinarily powerful exploration of tragedy, betrayal, the true nature of friendship and the beauty of lasting love.

'Me and Ben had been mates since we was boys and if it come to it I knew I would have to be on his side.'

Miller's exquisite depictions of the country of the Queensland highlands form the background of this simply told but deeply significant novel of friendship, love, loyalty and the tragic consequences of misunderstanding and mistrust. Coal Creek is a wonderfully satisfying novel with a gratifying resolution. It carries all the wisdom and emotional depth we have come to expect from Miller's richly evocative novels.'

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


This was picked out for me by the local librarian when I was whinging about not being able to pick anything that appealed to me. It was handed over with the warning that some people find the language and style a little hard to get into - but this was far from the case for me.

This reads as a memoir with a unique style and rhythm - the rhythm of the man and the rhythm of the land. It is sparse and measured and has the ring of truth to it. The only disappointing thing about this book is coming back to yourself at the end of it and remembering that it is a work of fiction not an actual autobiography.

It isn't a light read but it isn't very demanding either. Beautifully written and carefully crafted by an author that I will seek out again.

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Reading in 2014 - Doctor Sleep

Doctor Sleep by Stephen King

Doctor Sleep (The Shining, #2)'An epic war between good and evil, a gory, glorious story that will thrill the millions of hyper-devoted readers of The Shining and wildly satisfy anyone new to the territory of this icon in the King canon.

King says he wanted to know what happened to Danny Torrance, the boy at the heart of The Shining, after his terrible experience in the Overlook Hotel. The instantly riveting Doctor Sleep picks up the story of the now middle-aged Dan, working at a hospice in rural New Hampshire, and the very special 12-year old girl he must save from a tribe of murderous paranormals.'

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I bought this while on holidays and then kept getting cranky with the family for expecting me to put it down and spend time with them (the things we do for the ones we love...!).

I must be the only person in the world that has read this but not read The Shining (or watched the movie) but that really didn't matter. In fact, the trips down memory lane may possibly get annoying if you had read it fairly recently.

I enjoyed it. It is classic Stephen King. Entertaining, a bit gruesome, a bit creepy, enough going on to keep me turning the pages but also simple enough to dip in and out of holiday-reading-style without losing track of the plot or the characters.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Reading in 2014 - Ella Minnow Pea

Ella Minnow Pea by Mark Dunn

Ella Minnow Pea
'Nevin Nollop left the islanders of Nollop with the treasured legacy of his pangram the quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog. But as the letters begin to crumble on the monumental inscription, the island's council forbids the use of the lost letters and silence threatens Ella and her family.'

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a clever little book. While it is a short and easy read it does require a bit of effort on the part of the  reader.

It is written as a series of letters between the various characters as their isolated community crumbles. The characters are forbidden from using certain letters of the alphabet and as each letter is removed in turn from the language, it also disappears from the pages of the book. I found myself scanning the pages looking for forbidden text on many occasions - I am in awe of the author for putting this tale together and sticking to the self-imposed rules.

While it seems to be a fairly outlandish and far-fetched tale, I found it to be an interesting depiction of how a thriving, democratic society can loose their freedom seemingly overnight. The rapid demise of Nollop actually occurs after a long period in which social apathy, neglect, greed and corruption have eroded social infrastructure, the rights of the individual and the strength of the community and a position of absolute, uncontested power has been achieved by the elected Council. Throw in an unhealthy dose of Nollopian fundamentalism and the stage has been set for simple event to tip the society into totalitarian tyranny.

There are plenty of places in the world today where people face torture, exile or execution for transgressions that seem just as trivial to us as the accidental use of a forbidden letter of the alphabet. These are the people that are seeking refuge on our shores and across the globe. Unfortunately the only place where a 32-letter phrase will bring peace is Nollop - in the pages of this book.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Reading in 2014 - The Light Between Oceans

The Light Between Oceans by M.L. Stedman

The Light Between Oceans
'This is a story of right and wrong, and how sometimes they look the same ...

1926. Tom Sherbourne is a young lighthouse keeper on a remote island off Western Australia. The only inhabitants of Janus Rock, he and his wife Isabel live a quiet life, cocooned from the rest of the world.

One April morning a boat washes ashore carrying a dead man and a crying infant - and the path of the couple's lives hits an unthinkable crossroads.

Only years later do they discover the devastating consequences of the decision they made that day - as the baby's real story unfolds ...'

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Disappointed. I was so looking forward to reading this. This promised to be the style of book I really enjoy. But.

The author spends much of the first part of the book explaining Tom, presumably as background for the events we know are coming. He is a man emotionally damaged by war, bewildered by the break-up of his parents relationship and deeply wounded by the absence of his mother, raised by a father who didn’t talk and was unable or unwilling to show affection, yet a man who is still apparently ‘good’ and ‘moral’ and able to put other people first. He seeks the isolation of the Lights to give him the time and space to deal with his mental anguish and finds solace in a regimented life, governed by strict regulations and unchanging routine. It is clear from the description of his first day alone on Janus Island that he is a man struggling with severe mental disturbance. Despite all this build up I feel that the true implications of his emotional and mental problems are never examined. Throughout the book I feel that he is being characterised as a man with integrity and dignity, a likable, agreeable soul who puts the whims of his wife first and compromises himself to keep her happy and to eventually protect her from the nasty policemen. Seriously? Why put so much work into defining Tom to then back off and let him be the ‘nice’ guy?

In contrast there is very little of substance to explain Isabel and her part in the events of the story. We met her briefly. A young, pretty, vivacious girl who has led a sheltered life in a very small community. She is playful and talkative, enjoys company and is bored by her quiet, isolated existence. She has never been anywhere or seen anything of the world. She longs for adventure and romance. In her ‘Swiss cheese’ town the population of eligible young men has been decimated due to the war and Isabel throws herself headlong into a relationship with the first interesting stranger who crosses her path. There is mention of the loss of her brothers in the war and the way her parents reacted – withdrawing into themselves, leaving Isabel even more isolated and longing for affection and to be able to ‘get her parents to smile again’ - but the impact of this on Isabel’s psyche is never explored. Her parents allow their only remaining child to marry this stranger and let her disappear to her island. She and her new husband find joy with each other until she has a miscarriage. Tom makes her happy again by getting the piano fixed and then we suddenly fast forward five years to find a couple still apparently in love, dealing with the loss of a third child when suddenly a living baby appears on their island and they end up keeping her and passing her off as their own. And from there on everything proceeds in a rather civilised manner, the only conflict being between Tom and his conscience as he acquiesces to his wife’s wishes. And this is where it lost me.

Those five unexplained, unmentioned years are the meat in the sandwich, the whole bones of the story. We have a vibrant young girl with stars in her eyes who will wake up one day and find herself on a rock in the middle of the ocean, alone except for a man who doesn’t talk. To be married to a man who doesn’t talk is hard enough for a women with neighbours on every side, with friends and family only a phone-call away, with a job that takes her out of her environment and children that fill the silence. To be alone with only three-monthly visits from two men on a supply ship to break the isolation and provide information, conversation, diversion – the toll on the spirit of a young woman would be immense. Once the glow of early love, lust and infatuation had worn off it wouldn’t take long before the rationed words and immeasurable silences would begin to breed resentment, loathing, anger. Surely the internal voices would begin to clamour to fill the silence?

The horrific first miscarriage is discussed from Tom’s point of view but never from Isabel’s. Screaming in the dark for a husband who is too full of his own woes to notice. We know that the aftermath is bad – why else the visit of the piano repairer? The three-monthly boat may bring letters and gifts from distant parents, but although a piano man could make the voyage those same parents never once visit their only child, and the loving husband never thinks to call on them, to alert them to the distress and depression of his beautiful young wife. Or is he too much of a coward to risk her temper by calling for the help she so clearly needs? We have only one paragraph to know that she has a temper. Is it from grief alone or is it a much bigger part of her that will actually shape the outcome of the story?

And then we have another miscarriage and then a still-birth.

At this point, at the beginning of Part II, I believe Isabel would be dancing along the edge of insanity. Surely a girl who writes quirky letters to a barely-met lighthouse keeper would also be the sort of girl who would keep a journal, would find solace in conversations with herself, the conversations she can never have with her husband? Where are they, these conversations? Where is the record of her life in these dark days? How does she feel about the man to whom she gave her youth? Does she punish him by withdrawing physical affection? Does she fly into rages, vocalising her anger and discontent? Does she sink into silence, changing her habits to spend as little time in his company as possible?
Surely at this point in the story Tom should be consumed with fear for the safety of his wife, worried that the naming of ‘Izzy’s Cliff’ may have been an omen for what he fears may become her self-inflicted fate? He should be racked with guilt for taking his bright star away from her home and family, for being unable to give her the healthy child she so desperately wants, for his inability to find the words that would soothe her pain and bring her comfort. He should be a man worn out, beginning to let things slip in his duties as he tries to care for Isabel and manage the tasks she neglects in her depression – cooking, cleaning, gardening – living in fear that one day he will be unable to keep the light burning.

And now, with this understanding of Tom and Isabel, we may be able to comprehend why they make the choices they make over the next four or so years. We may be able to see why Tom is so easily manipulated into maintaining the lie. We see their lives return to the something akin to that promised by the early days of their marriage and observe them begin to find happiness and contentment as a family, yet we recognise the lie that poisons their paradise. We believe Isabel’s fear of being discovered, of losing not just her child but her whole identity and reason for living. We believe Tom’s fear of pushing Isabel back to the brink and his relief at having her bright, sunny self returned to him. We recognise Tom’s confession not as a selfless act of love and protection but as atonement for the guilt that has racked his soul for nearly a decade. We can identify the agony of the parents who should have been their for their daughter, who maybe could have prevented the disaster by being more present in her life, who struggle to deal with the aftermath as they nurse their daughter while her husband languishes in gaol.

But we don’t. Because none of that is there. Instead we have a story that skirts around the edges and never gets it’s hands dirty with the ins and outs of the relationship between the two main characters. And then we get an ending that ties it all up in a neat bow of forgiveness and promise for the future. And people turning up too late for reconciliation more than once in the same story. And a man that still gets to be the good guy.


Saturday, April 5, 2014

Reading in 2014 - Breath

Breath by Tim Winton

20629592'On the wild, lonely coast of Western Australia, two thrillseeking and barely adolescent boys fall into the enigmatic thrall of veteran big-wave surfer Sando. Together they form an odd but elite trio. The grown man initiates the boys into a kind of Spartan ethos, a regimen of risk and challenge, where they test themselves in storm swells on remote and shark-infested reefs, pushing each other to the edges of endurance, courage, and sanity. But where is all this heading? Why is their mentor’s past such forbidden territory? And what can explain his American wife’s peculiar behavior? Venturing beyond all limits—in relationships, in physical challenge, and in sexual behavior—there is a point where oblivion is the only outcome. Full of Winton’s lyrical genius for conveying physical sensation, Breath is a rich and atmospheric coming-of-age tale from one of world literature’s finest storytellers'.

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

'Breath' reads like a memoir and it sucked me in so much I read till 3am just to get to the end. Once I clicked into the writing style (no quotation marks) I found myself really enjoying it, particularly the way Tim Winton can set a scene without wasting words. I had such clear images in my head as I read. It felt like home, even though I grew up in country NSW and the story is set in coastal WA. Those endless weeks of summer holidays, the freedom of setting off on your bike, the way the rest of the world was just on the periphery of your vision and you were the centre of the universe during those early teenage years. Tim Winton captures it perfectly.

There is a dark side here with risky behaviour and exploitation - but that is the whole premise of the story. It isn't really a book about surfing, rather it is about surviving into adulthood despite yourself, despite all those stupid things you did and despite the misplaced trust and admiration of people who should have known (and acted) better. It is about how becoming an adult really has little to do with age and lots to do with recognising your limits.

This is the first Tim Winton book I've read and I can confidently say I'll be visiting the 'WIN' shelf in the library again next time I'm there.