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

Friday, May 7, 2010

Come and hear Nick Earls at Fitzy's Tavern

As part of Australian Library Week, Logan Libraries is hosting best-selling and much-loved prolific Australian author, Nick Earls, at Fitzy's Tavern, Loganholme on 21 May (6.30pm).

Nick's a great speaker, so whether you've read his books or not, he's always entertaining (check out my review of last year's The True Story of Butterfish).

The author of the popular Zigzag Street, Bachelor Kisses and Perfect Skin writes humourous popular fiction about everyday life. The majority of Earls' novels are set in Brisbane. At this Behind the Books event, Nick will tell his best stories of the things that have happened along the way with writing, touring etc.

This is a coup for Logan Libraries, so if you're within driving distance - come along! The ticket price of $17.50 includes nibbles. And of course, Fitzy's has some lovely wines for sale at the bar. :)

Tickets available through the Logan Entertainment Centre on 3412 5626 or online.

(Just helping out my good buddy and fellow book-lover Janet Poole, who's organised this event.)

Thursday, April 15, 2010

The Road - Cormac McCarthy

How to describe The Road? It’s as brilliant as it is harrowing; as tender as it is brutal…

The overwhelming sentiment of McCarthy’s award-winning masterpiece is best summed up in one of the book’s many insightful lines: “The frailty of everything revealed at last.”

But, despite its bleak premise, The Road is ultimately a story of hope.

It’s the story of a father and son (known only as “the man” and “the boy”) trekking across a post-apocalyptic America in a desperate struggle for survival.

Every waking moment in their scavenger existence is consumed by the need to find food, clean water and dry shelter.

Whatever event is responsible for the destruction of civilization – evidently man-made – was so devastating the ash is still falling years later, contaminating water, blocking out direct sunlight and creating a perpetual winter.

Early on, we know there are threats from unseen strangers in this bleak landscape, and when the reality of that threat is revealed, it is shockingly clear just how barbaric the world has become.

Disaster has brought out the worst of human nature among survivors. But it has also brought out the best.

In the midst of this horrific, nihilistic existence, the father and son share an unshakable bond. The man’s love for the boy is so tender, it’s palpable. As is his desperation to protect him. And the boy returns that love unconditionally, despite his almost constant state of fear.

As the full extent of their plight becomes obvious, you can’t help but question why - in the face of such a seemingly senseless struggle – do they keep fighting to survive? Why care for each other? Why keep living?

If the question is how to be human in an inhumane world, McCarthy answers it through this relationship. The pair share a tenderness that’s illogical and impractical in their brutal world, and yet neither questions it. It is what helps them “carry the fire”.

Even as they scavenge, the man and boy retain a sense of dignity and morality. Or at least, the boy clings to his father’s moral code tightly enough that it reminds the man how he should be.

Like All the Pretty Horses, The Road looks at the duality of human existence.

McCarthy’s vision of a post-apocalyptic world – where cities lie in ruins, medical care is non existent, starvation is a very real threat and the rules of civilization have collapsed – is frighteningly believable. Like, just how dark the night would be with the sky hidden behind ever-present clouds, and the fear of the most simple of illnesses.

Most frightening is the fact this vision of the future is perhaps not so far-fetched…

McCarthy’s sparse prose sets the perfect tone for this story and, as always, he offers up evocative imagery:

“By day the banished sun circles the earth like a grieving mother with a lamp.”

I finished The Road a week ago and I still can’t get it out of my head. Not because of its bleak brutality – although some of that imagery will linger for a while too – but because of its beauty.

The Road is heartbreaking and heart-pounding. The tension is at times unbearable. And yet, ultimately this is a powerful story about love and humanity that moved me to tears. I couldn’t put it down, and I can’t recommend it enough.

(So yes, Ink-stained Toe-poker, I get why you love this book so much. I wish I’d read it years ago.)

One last thought: the film version of The Road is due out on DVD in coming weeks, and I can’t wait to see Viggo Mortensen in the lead role. I suspect he will be perfectly dignified and heartbreaking as the man.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Peter Temple's Truth - expletive inspiring...

There’s a very good reason critics have been falling over themselves to praise Peter Temple’s new novel, Truth: it’s sublime.

It’s not often I read the last page of a book, close the cover and use an expletive to express how good it was. (The colourful language was partially a flow on of the abundance of profanity in the book, and mostly the fact it really was the best way to describe how impressed I was).

Temple is a master at fusing literary and genre writing. Truth is a gritty page-turning crime novel. It’s also a surprisingly moving study of the frailty of machismo. The Australian Review’s Peter Craven said last year that The Broken Shore “is a crime novel the way Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses is a western”.

Truth has been described as sequel of sorts to Temple’s award-winning 2005 novel, The Broken Shore. But while it features some of the same characters (and even gives a nod to his earlier fictional creation, Jack Irish), it can be read as a stand alone story.

The central character is Stephen Villani, a peripheral character in The Broken Shore, who is now the head of Homicide for the much maligned Victorian Police. Over a few scorching summer days, Villani must face personal and professional crises as he simultaneously deals with a series of brutal murders, corruption in his own ranks, and the disintegration of his family, all while bushfires bear down on Melbourne.

It all starts with the murder of a young woman in the city’s newest luxury high-rise, followed by horrific torture killings of three hard-core drug-dealing criminals. As Villani and his fractured team investigate, he finds himself heading into murky political waters.

Villani’s world is populated by politicians on the knife edge, charismatic entrepreneurs, well-connected journalists and seedy underbelly criminals.

For those unfamiliar with Temple’s sparse prose, it can take time to settle into his rhythm and storytelling style.

As a reader, you just have to dive in and hang on, even if you have no idea who’s in a particular scene or even why. He’s a realist in the true sense. In reality, we don’t have internal monologue to provide exposition, and so it is with his characters. But patience is rewarded – often spectacularly.

Although there are crimes to be solved – and Temple gets to them – he’s primarily concerned with Villani’s personal challenges. Truth is about fathers and sons, and damaged relationships. It’s about hard men and the frailty inherent in them. It’s about authority and power, and the way men measure each other and demand respect.

When it comes to dialogue, Temple is a master. So much is conveyed with so few words. Villani, in particular gets some wonderfully wry lines.

When he asks his offsider, Bickerts about wellness spas, the detective replies:
“Respect your body. Think positive thoughts. Live in the moment.”
Villani: “What if the moment is absolutely shit?”

Or when the forensics guy gives his report about a crime scene: “Man near entrance is shot in the head at close range from behind. The other two, multiple stab wounds, genitals severed, other injuries. Also head and pubic hair ignited, shot, muzzle in mouth. Three bullets recovered, 45 calibre.”
Villani: “So you can’t rule out an accident?”

There are definitely a lot of characters – too many, to be honest – but every one and every piece of information provided is important. Nothing here is superfluous to the story. All the dots connect in the end. And brilliantly so.

Melbourne’s politicians, media and police hardly come up shining (and recent headlines make the bleak picture painted in Truth all the more disturbing), and yet Temple offers redemption for drug-crippled city in the form of honest, if not heavily flawed, men and women.

Truth had me marveling at its cleverness and honesty, and left me with a great sense of satisfaction at how it all came together. (As mentioned earlier, it also left me foul mouthed for a day or two – Villani and his mates certainly don’t talk sweetly to each other…).

I loved the Jack Irish series (particularly Temple's debut Bad Debts), and enjoyed The Broken Shore, but Truth is now without question my favourite novel, from one of my favourite authors.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Three novels explore music, fame and intimacy

It’s never fair to compare novels, but it’s hard not to when three books come out around the same time and each – on face value at least – cover similar territory.

In this case, it’s formerly famous musicians dealing with the legacy of fame, each working towards some sort of emotional redemption and relationship maturity.

I’m talking about The True Story of Butterfish by Nick Earls, Juliet Naked by Nick Hornby and 88 lines about 44 women by Steven Lang.

All three central characters were part of the creative force of their respective bands, and all three have sought out some form of seclusion and anonymity to “recover” from their experiences with fame.

In The True Story of Butterfish, Curtis is a keyboard player returning to Brisbane to escape the glare of publicity following the split of his mega-selling band Butterfish. In a quiet suburban street, Curtis tries to concentrate on his new role as a producer, slowly reconnecting with the real world around him.

But things get a little messy when he gets to know his neighbours: an attractive single mum recovering from a bitter divorce, her gothic teenage son, and her 16-year-old daughter, who thinks the only way to connect with Curtis is through sex.

Curtis’ attempts at a “normal life” are further complicated when Butterfish’s hard rocking lead singer turns up on his doorstep unannounced.

With any Earls story, Brisbane itself becomes a character, but this can actually be distracting as a reader when it’s your own home town.

Earls is a very likable writer – he’s always a favourite at festivals and after seeing him at last year’s Brisbane Writers Festival I know why – and of the three muso-focused novels, this is certainly the gentlest and safest.

On the surface, Julie Naked is another of Nick Hornby’s trademark lad lit offerings about a man whose relationships take a backseat to a more pressing obsession.

The man is Duncan and his obsession is Tucker Crowe, an American singer-songwriter from the 80s. Tucker has lived as a recluse for 20 years, but thanks to the power of the internet, his fans have been able to keep his music alive. They call themselves Crowologists, and Duncan is their king.

His long-term girlfriend Annie has ignored the cracks in their relationship for too long, so when a stripped-back version of Tucker’s best known album is released, Duncan’s slavering reaction to it finally pushes her over the edge.

She writes a scathing review on Duncan’s blog, much to his horror. But on the other side of the Atlantic, Tucker himself reads the review, respects it, and makes contact with her…

Ultimately this is Annie’s story, although we do get chapters alternating between her perspective and that of the two men.

Through Juliet Naked, Hornby explores the nature of creativity and fan obsession, but it’s also about loneliness and the struggle for intimacy. It features Hornby’s trademark wit and insights. And – like High Fidelity – made me want to trawl through my music collection and reacquaint myself with my favourite albums (in a non-obsessive way, of course…).

The capacity for emotional intimacy and honesty is the driving force of Steven Lang’s excellent 88 lines about 44 women.

Like Earls’ Curtis, the central character is a keyboard player-songwriter who has returned to a place of his youth solace and escape – in this case the bleak Scottish Highlands.

Lawrence Martin was once part of one of the biggest bands in the world, but it all fell apart after the death of his model-actress wife in calm waters not far from Sydney.

This intelligent and well crafted novel is less concerned about the music and Lawrence’s drug-fuelled career than it is with issues of male sexuality and how men find – and lose – intimacy with lovers, family and friends.

88 lines about 44 women (named after a song by The Nails) asks the questions: “Are all men emotionally disconnected? Does true intimacy bring redemption or is it the other way round?”

Despite the title, the novel is really about two women: the beautiful but damaged wife who compounded his emotional frailty, and his intelligent and well-grounded new neighbour, who may his hope for the future.

When a call from his former best friend and songwriting partner reveals a past Lawrence’s has omitted to share with the locals, he finally attempts to deconstruct his past experiences and how they’ve influenced his ability to be intimate.

As a narrative character, Lawrence is articulate, insightful, painfully honest and frequently vulnerable. Even in his self awareness, his blindspots are obvious, and as a reader, you hope he works them out.

For me, 88 lines about 44 women was the pick of the above novels, purely for its rare insight into the male psyche and the skill with which Lang uses words.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Literary tattoos

Do you love a book or character enough to immortalise them on your skin in ink?

Writer Marieke Hardy (who also appears on ABC's First Tuesday Book Club) raised the topic of literary tattoos today in the Sydney Morning Herald, with her comment piece Mark my words.

While Marieke is clearly a fan of literary tattoos in the true sense (tatts inspired by popular fiction just don't cut it for her), she makes some interesting points about the whole literary tatt trend.

Of course, the topic is not new in blogland. Bibliobibuli had the discussion back in 2008, and you only after to do a Google Images search for "literary tattoo" and you'll find an amazing range of book lovers' tattoos, like this one below, from Contrariwise is also a great site for literary tattoos.

I like the idea. I just need to decide what I want and why. Given it's a piece of art that's going to stay on my skin for the rest of my life, I want to choose wisely.

Writer Lee McGowan (aka the inkstained toe-poker) had some thoughts on tattoos this week, so maybe Marieke's article will give him some food for thought in his own decision.

So, of course, it raises the question of whether you would get a literary tatt and if so, what you would get? Or do you already have one, and if so, what is it?

Monday, January 4, 2010

I promise I will write a new post for this blog soon ... but I've had a flurry of activity over at otherworlds as I've read a lot of urban fantasy in the last two weeks (yes, had some holidays and finally found time to relax!).

If you're interested, you can check reviews for:
Hush, Hush by Becca Fitzpatrick

Fallen by Lauren Kate

The Reformed Vampire Support Group by Catherine Jinks