lizabelle: (Book and sea)
My second book for the Australian Women Writers challenge was Margo Lanagan's Sea Hearts, published internationally as The Brides of Rollrock Island. I'm afraid this isn't going to be so much a review as an "I adored this book and please everyone read it" post, but I will link to a couple of other reviews to compensate.

I knew I was in for a treat from the opening pages of this book, when I found myself highlighting passages because I loved the evocative writing so much. Like this: "The sea was grey with white dabs of temper all over it; the sky hung full of ragged strips of cloud." I do enjoy a book that really makes me relish the language as I read.

But it takes more than inventive writing to make me fall in love. Lanagan quickly sets an elegiac mood with the opening chapter, which takes us into an island world in which a group of boys roams the shore looking for "sea hearts" to appease their mothers, watched bitterly by the old witch, Misskaella.

We soon learn that Misskaella, an abused, disregarded girl with a strange affinity for the local seal population, has found a terrible way of gaining agency in the community.

But the story isn't just about one deprived woman's need for agency; it is also about what happens when the men in a community reject real, human relationships in favour of other, more passive ones in which their partners have no agency. It's about the implications for that community, for the rejected women and the men themselves, for the children born of the various unions, and for "the mams" brought from the sea and prevented from returning.

It's a beautiful, thought-provoking, heartbreaking book, and I would love as many people as possible to read it. I just wish I could articulate why more clearly.

A couple more reviews that do the book better justice than I can: from Sean the Bookonaut and Krissy Kneen.

Edition I read: Kindle ebook. Margo Lanagan blogs at Among Amid While.
lizabelle: (Default)
I wrote this non-spoilery review a while ago for Meet at the Gate, website of the excellent Canongate Books. I'm reposting it (finally) in case anyone still needs persuading to read this book, which is one of my all-time favourites.

The Book Thief is set in Molching, a small town in Nazi Germany that is far enough from Munich to avoid political significance, but close enough to Dachau that Jewish prisoners are occasionally marched through there. It's a town full of ordinary people who are struggling to survive a war - like the mayor's wife, who might almost seem to have given up on life...except for one small act of rebellion. Like Rosa Hubermann, who insults everyone impartially but loves warmly. Like Rudy Steiner, a boy trapped in a world he can make little sense of. Like Hans Hubermann, impoverished house-painter and accordionist, caught out by an old promise and his own sense of honour. And at their heart is Liesel: fierce, passionate, a lover of words and stealer of books.

When we first meet Liesel, she is nine and reeling from the loss of her family. Delivered to the fostering authorities, Liesel is thrown into a new life which, while poverty-stricken and plagued by Hitler's apparently arbitrary edicts, is a step up from her old one. At a funeral she steals a book, which turns out to be a handbook for gravediggers. It is the beginning of a journey in which Liesel, and eventually many other characters, find power through the written word while the world collapses around them.

Given the setting, it is perhaps appropriate that the narrator of The Book Thief is Death. Zusak isn't the first writer to make use of Death as a character, but he puts this narrative twist to excellent use here. To Death, humans are objects of curiosity, to be viewed (but not always kept) at a distance. Because Death is in turn relating Liesel's tale, it's hard to know from whom the descriptions originate, but they are always memorable: Rudy has hair the colour of lemons; Hans has eyes made of silver and kindness; Rosa is wardrobe-shaped. Words have power: they literally tap people on the shoulder, or even slap them across the face.

This is a story about death and about Death. But it is also a love letter to the human spirit: to the individual heroism that makes us human in the face of mindless mob brutality.
lizabelle: (Book and sea)
Sydney's coolest bookshop has opened another outlet in the Inner West, and this weekend the city's literati turned out to celebrate. Booker winner Thomas Keneally was among the authors appearing at Gleebooks in Dulwich Hill on Saturday. He was joined by Miles Franklin-shortlisted (and local) Charlotte Wood, Commonwealth Writers' Prize-shortlisted Michelle de Kretser and young adult author Georgia Blain, before the day was wrapped up with a serving of poetry.

Gleebooks

Party time on Marrickville Road

More under the cut: Garth Nix, Irfan Yusuf and PM Newton... )
lizabelle: (Gollum bah)
I'm about five-eights of the way through AS Byatt's The Children's Book, which I am finding nuanced and extremely engrossing. However, I just need to get the following out of my system.

Spoilers below the cut )

Oof. Points to anyone who can guess the bit I've just read. :P
lizabelle: (So many books)
The Gathering - Anne Enwright

I was underwhelmed by the blurb for this book, even when it won the Booker. "Family gathers together and the cracks start showing" - I seem to have read this kind of book so often. Nevertheless, Enwright very much achieves what she seems to have set out to do here, in a way that's moving and very readable. I thought it was brilliant, but the subject matter is too sad to make it enjoyable. Four stars.

Child 44 - Tom Rob Smith

This was longlisted for the Booker last year, and I do wonder how much damage that did it. Any association with the Booker Prize inevitably raises expectations, and mine were thoroughly squashed after a few chapters of this. Which isn't to say that it's a terrible book - it was very readable, the setting (the end of the Stalinist era in the Soviet Union) was fascinating and the writer has a lovely turn of phrase. But the execution felt sloppy (sometimes literally in regard to punctuation), the characters a little too one-dimensional, and in the end, I just couldn't get enthusiastic about the story. Two stars.

The Women in Black - Madeleine St John

Fun! This is simply a perfectly poised novel - very light reading, and in some ways I suspect an exercise in wish-fulfilment, but (as a reviewer on the back cover mentions) like the perfect little black dress. Set in 1960s Sydney, it unfolds the lives of several "women in black" (working in a David Jones-like department store, who change into their regulation black dresses on arrival at work each morning) as they intersect during one busy Christmas. Four stars, and I'll be reading more Madeleine St John.

Blackout - Connie Willis

I have been trying very hard not to buy new books recently (you can see a pic of the overflow from our creaking bookshelves here), but when I noticed a new novel by Connie Willis, in her time-travel Oxford universe, how was I supposed to resist? Besides, it's set during the Blitz, and I have a bit of a thing for war stories. So I dug out my Dymocks voucher, which I'd been hoarding for emergencies, and two days (and five hundred pages) later, I'm now desperately awaiting the sequel.

Read more... )

Finally, have a link to The Morning News Tournament of Books, because it makes me gleeful.
lizabelle: (Default)
Ah, my poor little neglected blog, how badly I've treated you! Apologies for the extended absence.

I have several very brief book reviews:

When We Were Bad - Charlotte Mendelson. The son of a feted female rabbi running off with the wife of another rabbi moments before his wedding marks the first in a series of cracks that open up in an apparently perfect family. This is close to being a perfect book. Seriously, if you have access to this one, read it. It's brilliant. Five stars

One Foot Wrong - Sofie Laguna. Hester's reclusive religious parents have their own ideas about how their daughter should be brought up. A fascinating, fresh take on a horrifying subject. Four stars.

Stuffed and Starved - Raj Patel. Clever and very well-written, as well as being packed full of information about the problem with the way today's food society operates and ideas as to what we can do about it. Patel's a great writer, and this book made me an instant fan. Five stars.

Burnt Shadows - Kamila Shamsie. An very apposite one in the current climate, this book examines cultural conflicts and their links and roots from Nagasaki to 911, wrapping around this a narrative that is moving and hopeful in the face of despair. Four and a half stars.

The Wilderness - Samantha Harvey. A beautifully written, convincing imagining of a man's descent (or flight?) into alzheimers. Four stars.

With that out of the way, I want to concentrate on two excellent young adult books I've read recently, which go together very nicely because they're both based on alternate histories. Jenny Davidson's The Explosionist is set in 1930s Edinburgh, but history diverges from our own in 1815 when Napoleon defeats Wellington's army at the Battle of Waterloo. Leviathan, by Scott Westerfeld, is set in a world in which Darwin's discoveries led him to DNA, and thence to the creation of new species that are used by humans very much in the way that we use machines in our world.

Both books offer fascinating insights into the twists and turns of what-ifs. More under the cut. )

This got me thinking: are there any other alternate histories that people can recommend? One I loved as a teenager is Joan Aiken's The Wolves of Willoughby Chase and sequels, but there must be loads more that I've missed out on.
lizabelle: (Book stack)
With Marilynne Robinson winning the Orange Prize to the gushing of the judges, perhaps this is a good time for me to admit that I HATED Gilead. Hate hate hated it.

A bit of background: Gilead, Robinson's previous novel, won the Pulitzer Prize and received pretty much universal praise and adulation from critics. It's about a clergyman who believes he is dying as he looks back on his life. I was predisposed to like it.

Sadly, I was bored stiff after about thirty pages. Thankfully it was a short book. I wouldn't have struggled through it, except that about halfway through, I gave up on any idea of reading it properly and speed-read for the only aspect of the story that interested me. I have no idea whether it was well-written or well characterised, or anything else for which it has received so much praise, because I was too busy going, "Why? Why, why, why would anyone think this is interesting?" (I repeated this mostly to myself, but occasionally to my long-suffering boyfriend.)

Anyway. Interestingly, her new book Home picks up the only plot strand in which I was interested in Gilead. And since it won the Orange Prize so overwhelmingly, I suppose I'll have to pick it up to see (much like I did with Gilead) what all the fuss is about.

No doubt I'll be either ranting or raving about Home here soon, so watch this space.
lizabelle: (Old coat new book)
I had a gorgeous weekend away from my life last weekend; it involved lots of walking (in the pouring rain), watching tennis, exploring gift shops and lots and lots of reading. Here are the results:

Jazz - Toni Morrison: ****

I was never going to love this as much as Beloved, but it bears many Morrison hallmarks: prose that often reads more like poetry, multiple points of view, and a narrative that starts with a situation and then explores its history. I also found the setting (1920s Harlem) fascinating - who doesn't enjoy reading about a place they know nothing about, particularly if it's in Morrison's evocative prose?


The Whole Day Through - Patrick Gale: ***

I love the way Patrick Gale writes, but I felt rather ranty at the end of this book. Two characters who have allowed life to defeat them somewhat are reunited unexpectedly when they both move to Winchester to care for relatives. As usual with Gale, The Whole Day Through is not a linear story; instead, layers are exposed and re-examined one by one, and I found this process absorbing.

Gay characters are a common feature of Gale's novels; in this case the gay man was my favourite character, Ben's brother Bobby, who has Mosaic Down's Syndrome. It was great to see him portrayed as such a well-rounded character who is not defined by his medical condition, despite it being a big part of him.

Because this is Gale, nothing about the characters' relationships is straightforward, including the ending. I can't discuss that without spoilers, so please proceed at your own risk - don't click this cut tag if you don't want to know the ending. )

Ahem. Anyway. Beautiful writing; frustrating characters.

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