Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Some news from me...

After many years of writing, I secured a publishing deal with Text Publishing in Melbourne, Australia, in 2011 for the Rephaim, a four-book YA paranormal/thriller series.

The first book, Shadows, is out now in Australia and New Zealand and will be published in the UK (with Indigo/Orion) and the US/Canada (with Tundra Books) in 2013.

Haze (Rephaim #2) is due in mid 2013.

So now, between my writing commitments and my day job, I’m finding it tricky to keep regular posts going on my two book review blogs (this one and Other Worlds).

I’m still reading as much as ever (I can’t help it – I love it!), so, if anyone’s interested in what books I’m enjoying, the best place to find my (mostly shorter) reviews is over at Goodreads.

I’ve also set up a new blog, where I’ll periodically post on things I discover/experience along the way, on this new journey of mine.

You can check it out here: www.paula-weston.com.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Caleb's Crossing - Geraldine Brooks

There’s a lot to like about Geraldine Brooks’ new novel Caleb’s Crossing.

Like The People of the Book, it explores the issues associated with culture clash– on this occasion between the Native Americans and the Puritan settlers on the island now known as Martha’s Vineyard.

It’s a fictionalised account of the life of Caleb Cheeshahteaumauk, the first Native American to graduate from Harvard College, told through the eyes of Bethia, the daughter of the island’s Calvinist Minister.

Bethia first meets Caleb as a 12-year-old, when they become friends in secret – influencing each other in ways that inadvertently shape their futures. It’s only when Caleb comes into her home to study alongside Bethia’s priggish brother Makepeace that their lives become more entwined and complex.

Bethia’s father is committed to converting the Caleb’s Wampanoeg tribe to his strict faith, and while he has some success, he continually faces the wrath of the Wampanoeg’s own spiritual leaders.

Meanwhile, Bethia’s own encounters with the island’s original inhabitants leave her longing for a spirituality as visceral and raw as theirs, so far removed from her own austere experience of religion.

The theme of westerners learning to connect to nature through contact with less “civilised” peoples is not original, but Bethia’s awakening is still effective.

I found the early ideological conflict between the two cultures particularly interesting, with the nature of the story prompting the age-old questions about free will versus predetermination.

While the characterisation of Caleb is fictional, Brooks has still been able to use her meticulous research skills to paint a picture of what life was like for those early Puritan settlers – particularly women.

She also keeps Bethia’s narrative voice true to the time, with archaic speech patterns and terms that add authenticity to the story.

I’d probably say I appreciated this story more than I enjoyed it. Because while I have no doubt the tragedies and suffering Bethia and Caleb experience in the novel reflect the harsh realities of the times (physical, spiritual and emotional), I found it all a little too bleak in parts.

Still, readers who love well-researched, fact-based, historical fiction won’t be disappointed.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

The Handmaid's Tale - Margaret Atwood

The Handmaid’s Tale is unsettling, disturbing and riveting – and even though it’s 25 years old, it remains a powerful morality tale that’s as relevant now as when it was written.

It’s set in an alternative future where fertility rates are down due to the effects radiation, and a Puritanical new society known as the Republic of Gilead has found a repellent way to deal with the situation.

In Gilead, if you are a woman, you are either a Wife or a Martha (domestic help), or banished to the colonies (destined to die from radiation) – or, if you’re unmarried and proven to be fertile, you become a Handmaid.

It’s a role that strips a woman of everything that makes her who she is – her name, her history, her personality and her appearance, hiding her face and body from the world via an oppressive dress code.

The Handmaid’s Tale is told through the eyes of Offred, a young woman who knows that if she rebels from this role of “breeder”, she will die brutally and be hung on the Wall. She’s part of the first generation of Handmaids, who remember life before the war and the oppressive Gilead society.

As a narrative character, Offred is complex and mesmerising. Her observations and daydreams show how conflicted and confused she is – torn between the institutionalised life of fear she’s come to know, and the memories of a past life, before the war, when she took her freedom for granted.

She is haunted in turn by paranoia, yearning and grief, all the while knowing she has no power, and her life – such as it is – could be crushed in an instant if she makes a wrong step.

And yet, she still feels desire, still longs to be recognised as an individual, to be touched and loved again. Which is why, when two of the men in her life start to covertly treat her differently, she’s willing to risk her life just to feel “real” again.

Atwood explores the extreme outcome of what might happen if a form of religious fundamentalism (deeply rooted in Old Testament teaching) had opportunity to create its own society, unfettered.

Part of the experience of the story is learning, morsel by morsel, how Offred became a Handmaid. As in any great story, the answers are not simple, and Offred is pragmatic about the hand life has dealt her.

She doesn’t share her story in chronological order, which helps build the tension, and it’s not until page 183 that we really begin to understand how the Republic of Gilead came to be – and get a hint of why.

The true horror of Gilead is effectively understated, even in its most brutal and disturbing moments. In fact, when I finally understood the reality of Offred’s role – and how she performs it – it was the civility of the institutional abuse that was most abhorrent.

There are also no winners in the Gilead society. Men may have the power, but the very nature of their community means there is no place for peace and security – only duty and fear. And it’s worse for those who understand what it is they have given up in creating their brave new world.

When this novel appeared 25 years ago, the fight for the rights of women was still fresh in the collective memory of the Western world, which no doubt gave it added impact. Particularly as the Gilead society created by Atwood is founded on many of the key principles espoused by those who opposed feminism: anti-abortion, anti-assisted fertility, anti-homosexuality, and the fervent belief that women belong only in the home.

I imagine it captured the fears of the feminists of the day about where anti-feminism could lead. It also seems to capture the fears of US society in general about the nuclear threat, and it’s impact on civilisation.

Today, it is no less a warning about religious fundamentalism of any kind, particularly doctrines that strip women of their identity.

The novel finishes with a clever postscript about the Republic of Gilead, presented as a conference session several centuries later, which puts the rest of the novel into a fresh context. (Interestingly, just as we do today when looking back at past eras in history, these academics are able to excuse the behaviour because of the “necessities” of the time.)

The Handmaid’s Tale is certainly disturbing at times, but it’s also an incredibly powerful novel that reminds women of our value. There’s enough grist in this novel to keep book clubs and literary students discussing, debating and analysing it for weeks.

Oh, and while the journey is often distressing, the novel ends on a note of hope.

Friday, April 15, 2011

The Passage - Justin Cronin

Note to self: not a good idea to read an apocalyptic novel while watching horrifying real-life footage of earthquakes, tsunamis and potential nuclear disaster.

Anxiety over the future of humanity aside, The Passage by Justin Cronin is an engaging and compelling read. It’s kind of Stephen King’s The Stand meets Cormac McCarthy’s The Road – a horror/literary hybrid, delivering the best of both labels.

At 784 pages, it’s definitely an epic, starting slowly and then steadily escalating the tension through the story’s two main time periods (before and after the destruction of civilisation).

The story is set in an alternate (though not entirely unrealistic) not-too-distant future. In early chapters, we get snippets of what the world has become: war is still raging (and America is up to it’s neck in it), the continental US is in lock down, with checkpoints throughout the country, and another hurricane has completely destroyed New Orleans.

The US Army, desperate to find an edge in a seemingly endless war, is playing around with a virus found deep in a South American jungle that promises to create the perfect soldier (when will they learn?).

It’s no surprise that it all goes bad (the virus turns its victims into virtually indestructible blood suckers, and we’re not talking the sexy vampire variety here – think more I Am Legend).

What is a surprise is how Cronin lets this story unfold, with multiple points of view – all of value and all providing rich layers to a meticulously constructed story, and fully fleshed characters.

The first part of The Passage brings together some of the test subjects, mostly death row inmates. But then the mad scientists inexplicably decide to bring in a 10-year-old girl, Amy.

The first line of the novel, gives away that Amy is going to be with us through the journey: "Before she became The Girl From Nowhere – The One Who Walked In, The First and Last and Only, who lived a thousand years – she was just a little girl in Iowa, named Amy."

We know early on that Amy is special, and that she’s reacted differently to the virus to the other test subjects, but it takes another chunk of the book before we start find out what it all means.

Fast-forward a century after the test subjects escape and destroy civilisation as we know it, and the setting is the Colony, an outpost of humans who have learned to live in a world overrun with “virals”.

This group thinks it’s the only society left in the US – possibly the world. Harnessing what electricity they can from existing infrastructure, they manage to keep the lights on every night, the only thing keeping them safe from the soulless killers that infest the landscape outside.

With the Colony, Cronin creates a realistic society, complete with its own customs and its own version of human history of the “Time Before”. They don’t fully understand how the virals came to be, and don’t even really care. All that matters is keeping the lights on.

Initially, the jump forward in time left me missing Amy –such a prominent character earlier on – and her relationship to key characters.

But Cronin provides new characters to care about – whose paths will soon cross with Amy (and some other familiar characters) – setting them on a journey that will not only change their lives, but possibly the world.

Cronin makes very effective use of non-linear story-telling, using different narrators and different narration styles (including journal entries being read a millennia later).

He also knows how to build tension. As a myriad of plot threads start to come together in the last third of the book, the action heats up and the tension really kicks in.

There are a few diversions and frustrating plot turns, but they all play a role in building this world and, assumedly, set the scene for future books.

Because, after nearly 800 pages – and a story arc that seemed to be coming to a natural conclusion – The Passage ends without resolving some key plot points.

After staring at the last page, swearing and feeling robbed, I did a quick Google search and was relieved to discover this is only the first of a planned trilogy. A handy thing to know up front, because – in the context of it being a first instalment – The Passage provides enough closure to warrant tackling this book before the next novel is available.

The Passage is a well-written, character-driven novel that works as a post-apocalyptic horror story (there are some pretty gruesome moments, so don’t think Cronin has gone soft on the horror element) and as a study of humanity.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Room - Emma Donoghue

Great stories tend to involve either nail biting tension, beautiful language or a plot so profound it moves the reader to tears.

Rarely do you find a novel that delivers all three, but Emma Donoghue’s Room manages to do so – and with surprising originality.

The story is told through the eyes of five-year-old Jack, who lives with Ma in a place with a locked door and a skylight, which he knows only as Room. For Jack, Room (and everything in it) is his entire universe. He has no understanding there is a reality outside of what he has experienced – or of a world outside Room.

Room is similar to John Boyne’s The Boy In The Striped Pajamas in that readers understand far more about what’s going on than the narrative character.

We know very early on that Ma has been held prisoner by a man we know only as Old Nick, and Jack is the product of her imprisonment. And she has protected her son by reinventing their existence so it seems perfectly safe and normal to Jack.

But when circumstances force Ma to reveal the truth, she can’t help but turn that world upside down if they are to have any chance of a different future.

It’s not giving too much away to say that Ma and Jack must come up with a plan to escape. And the planning and execution of their plot make for the most intense and stressful 100 pages of a novel I’ve ever read.

Seriously. I was reading this section of the book during my lunch break on a particularly stressful day at work and went back to the office more wound up than before I left! It’s unbearably tense, mostly because of Jack’s innocence and courage, and what’s at stake for both he and Ma.

It’s the deep love between Jack and Ma that drives this story (much the same way Cormac McCarthy’s The Road is driven by the relationship between the Man and the Boy).

The idea of a woman and child being kept prisoner in a suburban fortress is not original – an alarming number of these sorts of unspeakable stories seem to feature in the news each year. Yet Donoghue has found an original perspective from which to tell it: that of a five-year-old.

Through Jack’s eyes, Room is not a place of horror. It’s his world and he’s comfortable in it. He is a true innocent. So when Ma must finally risk telling him about the real world, she has to do so using the language and world view Jack is familiar with.

Jack is a sweet and intelligent boy. He’s also completely – and unknowingly – institutionalised. So when change comes he faces his own existential crises. As does Ma, who learns freedom is never simple.

Although Room is somewhat of a tense journey, it is a surprisingly gentle story with a truly beautiful message. It asks questions about truth and reality, and the nature of sacrificial love, and does so without sentimentality.

My tears at the end of this book were not because it broke my heart, but because it moved me as only great stories can. Room is a profound novel, and I know it’s another of those stories that’s going to stay with me for a very long time.

(As an aside: Ma and Jack live in a truly sustainable way inside Room. They only receive deliveries from Old Nick once a week, so must re-use and recycle virtually every single item that comes into Room. It’s quite fascinating to see how much can be done with so little when there's no other choice…)

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Ransom - David Malouf

You don’t have to have read Homer’s Iliad to appreciate David Malouf’s short novel Ransom.

While it provides a companion piece to Homer’s epic tale, it works just as well as a stand- alone novel, thanks to Malouf’s well drawn characters and poetic prose.

Ransom provides a back story to an event that features only briefly in Homer’s poem: that of Priam, King of Troy, asking for the body of his slain son from the Greek warrior Achilles.

In Malouf’s imaginings, Priam is inspired by the gods to do something unprecedented: he decides to strip himself of all royal trappings and military protection, and go to Achilles – man to man, father to father – and ask for the return of Hector’s body.

Against all the pleas of his family and advisers, Priam sets out with a great treasure (the ransom for his son’s corpse), accompanied only by a carter and his two mules.

Through the journey to Achilles’ camp and his meeting with his son’s killer, Priam begins to see his world anew. Even the great Achilles, still grieving the death of his friend Patroclus, is affected by Priam’s actions. And both realise they have much in common as leaders, soldiers, men and fathers.

Although Ransom is rich with mythology and meticulously researched (but unobtrusive) historical detail, it is grounded firmly in the strengths and weaknesses of the human spirit.

Both Priam and Achilles are driven by guilt and grief. Achilles expresses his with violence and rage while Priam finds the strength to humble himself before his enemy. In doing so, Priam discovers the joys found in the world by lowly men like his attendant – simple pleasures he can never experience as King.

Ransom is a gentle story, but Malouf slowly and expertly builds tension, to the point this literary gem is also a page turner.

This is a book where every line and passage can be savoured – not just for the beauty of the language, but the context in which it is written.

At only 219 pages, Ransom is well worth a read for anyone who appreciates great story telling and the poetry of language. (And I love the cover!)

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Beatrice and Virgil - Yann Martel

You know when you read a novel by Yann Martel you’re going to experience the story in a variety of ways.

There’s the story on the page, the story off the page, and your own intellectual and emotional responses to the experience.

As it was with Life of Pi, so it is with Beatrice and Virgil, a complex, fascinating and at times disturbing novel. Like its Booker-winning predecessor, Martel’s latest novel explores the nature and power of narrative.

Beatrice and Virgil is the story of a famous, award-winning writer, whose attempts to write an allegory about the Holocaust – accompanied by a non-fiction essay on the same topic – are rejected by his publisher. Angry and frustrated, he turns his back on writing, until a mysterious package leads him to a taxidermist.

The taxidermist is struggling to finish a play he’s been writing, featuring a donkey and a howler monkey called Beatrice and Virgil (named after characters in Dante’s Divine Comedy).

Henry is initially fascinated more by the gruff old man and his collection of meticulously mounted animals than he his with the play. But he’s slowly drawn into the strange piece of drama, especially when he suspects the play has the same intention as his failed novel.

Martel has said in recent interviews that he spent years writing Beatrice and Virgil, starting out wanting to write a play, a novel, and a flip book (with the “flip” side being a non-fiction essay). As it turns out, he’s managed to combine all three.

While not a flip book, there are elements of essay in the story, as Henry grapples with his own failings to combine fiction and non-fiction in a single tome, and muses on the dearth of fiction on the Holocaust (quietly establishing the basis for Martel’s own novel).

There are also numerous scenes from the taxidermist's play (provided out of chronological order) that become increasingly disturbing. The play itself initially feels like Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, until the reality of Beatrice and Virgil’s situation is fully revealed.

Henry’s reaction to their suffering is compounded by the fact he sees the “real” Beatrice and Virgil among the mounted animals in the taxidermist’s workshop.

There are layers of ideas here. Martel explores the concept of “real” and “true”, the nature of life and death, and offers a parallel between the taxidermist and a novelist: both require respect for the subjects, both make choices that impact perception, and both must have an eye to detail to remain faithful to “truth”.

Martel challenges readers in ways we don’t always recognise until later. In Life of Pi, the scene with the flesh-eating island challenged our ability to suspend disbelief. Here he challenges our perception of the Holocaust – on an emotional level.

Through a series of surprising and shocking scenes (in the taxidermist’s play and Henry’s own life), it feels like Martel is asking: Do you understand? Do you really understand?

Like Life of Pi, Beatrice and Virgil is a story that stayed with me long after I finished it. Not just because of the unique combination of narrative techniques, or the intriguing plot, or even the suspense that slowly builds … but because of how I felt when I read those final chapters.

Life of Pi explained