Advance Copy

Book Review of Transcription

KA transcriptionKate Atkinson is a great writer – and Transcription is a compelling read, even if it doesn’t have the same pull and originality as Life After Life.

Set in World War II, Juliet Armstrong is a young woman recruited into a fairly dull government job – and then recruited into a fairly dull position in MI6, transcribing conversations between British spies and Nazi sympathisers.  Then suddenly she finds herself drawn into that Spies world, acting out her own role and undertaking her own investigations.

After her particular investigation is closed, Juliet notes with some sadness that this part of her life is over… but it appears the spy world is never truly finished with us.  Even 10 years later she is still drawn in… if not by people, then by her own mind.

The shifting time frames make this a particularly interesting read, focussing the reader clearly upon the impact of past on present.  Nothing earth-shattering here, but a good read nonetheless.  I have A God in Ruins on my bedside table as well (this is a review copy), and have shifted it higher up the to-read pile.

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Book Review of The Bridge by Enza Gandolfo

the-bridge_fca.jpgEnza Gandolfo’s The Bridge was a difficult one to read for a few reasons. Firstly, it’s subject matter is heavy going. There are few moments of clarity and joy – and for good reason. They would be totally inappropriate in this story. Secondly, the local setting makes it feel strangely familiar, sitting disconcertingly between historical and modern literature.

This is the story of two tragedies that occur on the West Gate Bridge, one of Melbourne’s most controversial constructions. The tragic collapse of the West Gate Bridge during its construction in the 1970s killed 35 workers, many of whom were migrants. As a 22-year-old, Italian immigrant Antonello’s life is utterly changed that day, and over the next 40 years he is unable to block the voices of his dead co-workers that haunt him. He became a man closed off to close relationships. It was a tragedy avoidable if the engineers and bosses of the construction team had a greater focus on safety. Some say the bridge is still unsafe, and that another tragedy is inevitable.

There is much unexplored about this narrative as we jump ahead 40 years to the time when Antonello’s granddaughter Ashleigh is killed in a car accident on the same bridge.

Much of this novel actually focusses on Jo, who was driving the car that night. She was over the limit, and angry that her close friendship with Ashleigh seemed to be changing in ways that she could not control. Her lack of judgement and emotional shakiness have terrifying consequences. Jo and two other girls emerge physically unscathed, but Jo has to try to live with the knowledge that she killed her best friend, and in doing so, she has altered many lives irrevocably.

Ashleigh’s family – one she spent as much time with as her own– will never accept and forgive her for what happened. Her own mother struggles to finher daughter’s actions and the choices she made that contributed to it. And beyond all the paralysing grief and shame, Jo faces the very real possibility of a jail sentence.

Jo’s grief knows no boundaries. She isolates herself, considers suicide and runs away for a time, trying to escape the perceived stares and blame of her local community. It’s gut-wrenching subject matter and while it doesn’t make for pleasant reading, it is dealt with reasonably adeptly by Gandolfo. She doesn’t shy away from the real and unpleasant emotions of her characters. I can’t say I enjoyed this, but I can say I believed it.

The connection of the bridge isn’t as strong as the title might suggest, but it does connect the two events and the two sets of characters together neatly. In the end, it is Antonello who plays the crucial role in assisting those involved to let go of their grief by finally examining and trying to let go of his own. He uses his flaws to encourage others to forgive and channel their emotions positively. There can be no happy endings in a story like this – but there is a sense that many of the characters begin to find a way through the darkness.

Book Review of A Stolen Season

stolen seasonIt’s clear that Rodney Hall is a powerful writer. There are beautiful and incredibly imaginative elements to A Stolen Season, the story of three sets of characters who consider their lives ruined. Each are looking for new meaning and purpose outside of that which they can no longer cope.

There is just one issue for me with this – these three unconnected narratives vary in their scope and indeed, their power.

The first narrative is inarguably the highlight of the novel and I found myself racing through the other two (Marianne and John Phillip) to get back to the wonderful story.

The aptly named Adam went off to Iraq and came back in pieces. Almost his every movement is dependent upon a futuristic mechanical body, hinting of devastating injuries and deformities. He is learning to live life again – not just how to move around and do basic things for himself, but how to create a new version of himself. Added to this challenge is his dependence upon his wife – a women he left and never expected to be reunited with. Theirs was a dying marriage – and now they feel stuck with each other. We know this because we are also invited into her mindspace – her inability to follow through on her real and panicked desire to leave, and to find connection with her lovers. We leave them just as we feel they may be beginning to understand each other.

Adam – while arguable the most damaged in the text, is the most determined to find meaning. He devotes himself to exposing the lies about the war, using his mangled body as evidence. Although we are invited to see this narrative as somewhat futuristic, there are many pointed messages about current world conflicts as well. A moving and worthwhile story, told with delicacy and tact.

The second largest narrative is more bizarre. Marianna has been ruined by men – mainly a man who married her under false pretences. We find her travelling on his money, but realise she is slowly making her way to an ancient temple where she ponders if she has a role in the fulfilling of ancient prophecies.

John Phillip’s life has been destroyed by money. This has made him indulgent – and also filled with distaste for his world. It’s a world he wishes to escape – this would be his own ‘stolen season’ of the title. He is bequeathed some subversive drawings by Turner that provide him with the perfect vehicle to show the people in his world exactly what he thinks of them. It’s a short narrative, entertaining but lacking the emotional pull of the first.

If you can come to terms with the three different stories, and aren’t – as I was – too focussed on one, you might find this a nice, balanced exploration of different ways we can feel trapped by our circumstances.

Book Review of The Melody

Unknown-3This novel by Jim Crace was a little confusing to me.

The blurb was a little misleading – dramatising elements of the narrative that were arguably not central to what I felt was the emotional core.

The main character is an ageing singer, widowed and grieving, clinging to his home town  and his ageing property that holds to many wonderful memories of his wife.  But his grief is blinding him to the issues of the community that surrounds him – the push to modernise and create luxury waterfront apartments exactly where Busi lives, a plan spearheaded by his nephew and heir.  A shocking attack in the middle of the night – where Busi believes he finds a young boy in his pantry – leads him to consider the plight of those living in the poorer end of town.

Busi’s attack – although not believed by any around him as perpetrated by a child – allows a platform for factions in the community to pursue their own aims.  An attention-seeking and ruthless journalist suggests that the attack occurred by remnants of mythical neanderthal humans hovering on the edge of town, whereas the developers use it to scare the populace into accepting drastic measures to ensure their safety.

Neither storyline, Busi’s grief nor the power struggle in the town, are entirely done justice here.  I’d like to have seen one or the other reach a more dramatic conclusion.

Book Review of Salman Rushdie’s The Golden House

golden houseIn a detour from his recent forages into fantasy and magical realism, Salman Rushdie presents us a with a clever realistic fiction in tune with modern politics.

The Golden House is the story of Nero Golden and his sons – a mysterious family who immigrate to New York escaping a shadowy past. Their great wealth, and the unusual characteristics of each of his three sons; Petya, Apu and D make them irresistibly interesting to their neighbour Rene, who aspires to make a film about their lives. Indeed he does, but in doing so he becomes far too embroiled in their dramas and the past that is about to catch up with them.

Behind all of this rather excellent storytelling is some very funny foreshadowing of Trump’s eventual – and surprising – presidential win. Much of this is entertaining enough on its own. Rene and a girlfriend create a series of short films portraying Trump as the Joker… and become increasingly alarmed is this joke seems to turn into a reality.

Its certainly not one of his better novels – but engaging and reasonably clever. Nothing unexpected here – nothing in his usual vein. This will likely disappoint some fans, but might buy him some new ones – especially with the current political commentary.

Excited Book Review of The Choke

the-chokeSofie Laguna’s The Eye of the Sheep won the 2015 Miles Franklin – and is one of my favourite reads of recent years.  So when I was offered a review copy of her latest, The Choke, I could not say yes fast enough.

The Choke is destined to win awards too.

Laguna excels at writing complex child narrators, and placing them in dangerous worlds.  But thats where the similarities between these two books end.

Justine is a girl abandoned by both father and mother and living with her ailing grandfather in a remote place known as the choke – where the bush meets the river.  She’s not neglected, but certainly lives a simple lifestyle in a man’s world.  It’s a violent world too – and Laguna makes this apparent even in describing children’s play in the opening chapter.

School is no refuge either – at least, not until she befriends a young disabled not who is also an outsider.  But not even this can save her from the violence in her world.  Before she is 14 she has witnessed and experienced abuse.  And your heart will break.  I doubt anyone could read this story and not be moved by what Justine experiences – and perhaps more powerfully, how she turns something just awful into something potentially beautiful.  There were tears in my eyes as I closed the final pages.  This is not to be missed.

Book Review of Julie Bucktin’s Debut – Marlena

Two friends juMarlena_new.inddst don’t know that disaster is waiting for them around the corner.

While we all try on new identities in our youth as a way of trying to manage the enormous possibilities of who
we are and what we will become – sometimes we make damaging choices that never leave us.

When studious Cat finds herself in Silver Lake, a tiny town in rural Michigan, she could not be further away from her New York private school.  Just as the loss of the life she imaged begins to hit her… a new best friend stands ready and waiting.  Marlena.
Marlena is daring and exciting – but also troubled.  She introduces Cat to a fast-paced life of drinking, soft drugs, boys and skipping school.  And while we see Cat’s downward spiral, even more alarming is the reader’s realisation that what is happening to Marlena is even more profound.

Marlena was a book that was difficult to put down. It’s a novel about friendship and youth and that feeling of indestructibility that sadly we must learn just isn’t real.  This is an impressive debut novel that read flawlessly.