Category Archives: General Fiction

My Cousin Rachel

This book and I didn’t get off to a great start. It’s just recently been made into a film, and I loved “Rebecca” so much I thought I simply had to get a copy. First of all, I have a beautiful set of Daphne du Maurier novels – but it doesn’t include this one. So I tried to pick up a copy from some secondhand bookstores, but I couldn’t find one anywhere. Finally, on my lunch break, I found a copy in Dymocks in Canberra City that didn’t have photos from the new film adaptation over it. However, when I got back to the office I realised that the cover had damage to the bottom! My colleague very kindly went back to swap it for me, but they didn’t have any more copies in store. Bummer! So I guess I’m stuck with this one, but I did get a couple of goodies including an ARC and a notebook to make up for it.

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“My Cousin Rachel” by Daphne du Maurier is a historical novel set in Cornwell, UK during the Victorian era. The story is narrated by Philip Ashley, a young man orphaned as a toddler who was raised by his cousin Ambrose. Philip grows up to be just like his cousin, and loves their bachelor lifestyle on Ambrose’s idyllic country estate. However when Ambrose’s health begins to suffer in the English winters, he leaves Philip for months every year to visit warmer climates. It is on his third such trip that he meets Philip’s distant cousin Rachel. Philip is increasingly disturbed by the letters from Ambrose about his swift marriage to Rachel and his rapidly declining health. He decides to visit Italy himself to check on Ambrose and find out about this mysterious cousin Rachel.

This is a compelling novel that is best read in the winter. Du Maurier is queen of setting an ominous tone, morally ambiguous characters and creating women dwarfed only by their reputations. Philip is a complex character who is both oblivious and obstinate, and he makes for an interesting narrator. I don’t want to give too much away, but while I didn’t enjoy this as much as I did “Rebecca”, this is still an engaging read. Du Maurier maintains tension throughout the entire book, but I felt like the ending was just a bit too predictable.

Not quite “Rebecca”, but not bad. I’m very interested to see what they made of the movie.

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Filed under Book Reviews, General Fiction, Historical Fiction, Mystery/Thriller

Wake Me Up

I received a copy of this eBook courtesy of the publicist.

Wake Me Up

“Wake Me Up” is a literary family drama by Justin Bog. Set in Montana, USA in 2004 the story is narrated by Chris, a teenage boy in a coma. As Chris’ body fights to recover from a brutal attack by four young men from his class, his consciousness drifts into the past to observe the events that led up to the hate crime.

I was really impressed by this book. Bog is a beautiful writer with a strong sense of empathy that shines through his characters. The premise is horrific, nuanced and all too realistic. Bog captures the complexity of a family falling to pieces and the damage self-interest can inflict on our closest relationships. Chris is a wry yet relatable narrator – an average kid who shows us both the senselessness of violence as well as the vulnerability of having, or even being suspected of having, an LGBTIQ identity.

This is quite a long book, but it’s an absorbing book, and is definitely about the journey rather than the destination. I wasn’t quite sure about the cover choice, but when I read the story of the painting in the acknowledgements, I actually think it’s perfect.

An engrossing and very relevant story about families, crime and identity.

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Filed under Book Reviews, eBooks, General Fiction, Uncategorized

Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe

I remember first hearing about this story a long time ago watching the Simpsons. I then came across the film, and I remember watching it and thinking, huh. This seems like perhaps it’s a lesbian romance. Turns out I was on the money, so I decided to actually go and read the book. I’m not quite sure where I got my copy of this book from. Somehow it just manifested itself on my bookshelf. There’s no pricetag on it so maybe it was a donation? Either way, it turned out that my bestie and I were reading the same book at the same time, so we thought we’d make it an extravaganza and watch the film together as well.

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“Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe” is a novel by Fannie Flagg that spans from the 1920s to the 1980s in Alabama, USA. Jumping back and forth through time, and told through little vignettes and articles, the novel is a sweeping story of a small town and the people in it through the Depression and World War II. In the 1980s is Evelyn, a woman who is losing her identity, her sense of purpose and even potentially her marriage now her children have moved out of home. When she meets the reminiscing Mrs Threadgoode at the same retirement home as her mother-in-law, Evelyn is revitalised by her stories. In particular is the story of incorrigible tomboy Idgie, how she came to meet the beautiful and kind Ruth and the life they built together at a little cafe.

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Flagg is a natural storyteller and this is the perfect book to pick up and read a couple of the short chapters at a time, then come back to again later. It’s a great balance of diverse and interesting characters against charming little stories. Reading this book, you can’t ignore that it was published in 1987. In some ways it absolutely broke ground, especially with respect to disability, women’s rights, homelessness and legitimising LGBTIQ relationships. I loved the character of Stump and how his community and his family rallied around him to help him thrive after his accident. I loved how accepting everyone was of Idgie’s gender identity and of her relationship with Ruth. I loved how much humanity Flagg injects into this novel, especially using the character of Smokey to explore homelessness, alcoholism and a transient lifestyle. In other ways this book has aged a bit, especially regarding the racial commentary. At time it’s hard to separate Mrs Threadgoode’s well-meaning yet archaic comments about African American people, and Flagg’s own views.

I can’t talk about this book without mentioning my favourite part. If you follow this blog, you know how I feel about books with recipes in the back. This book has SO many recipes in the back. Food is such an important part of the story, both in the present and in the past, and really give the book a sense of place. Having the opportunity to cook some of those recipes, including the titular fried green tomatoes which my bestie nailed, really added to the whole experience.

A fun, lighthearted story with some more serious aspects at time, I enjoyed the book a lot and enjoyed cooking the recipes even more.

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Filed under Book Reviews, Cookbooks, General Fiction, Historical Fiction

The Museum of Modern Love

I received an advanced reading copy of this book courtesy of Harry Hartog Woden and in fact won (and declined) another copy in a contest. This book is the 2017 Stella Prize winner, so already it had very high expectations to be met.

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Taken at the National Gallery of Australia. There is a fantastic exhibition on currently featuring Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists called Defying Empire which, if you are in Canberra, you must go see.

“The Museum of Modern Love” by Heather Rose is a novel based on a real piece of performance art that was held at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. “The Artist is Present” was both a retrospective and performance piece performed by Marina Abramović. As Abramović sits for 75 days, and people line up every day to sit across from the famous artist and look in her eyes, others gather around to watch the performance. Jane Miller, a teacher and new widow who has taken a holiday to escape her grief. Arky Levin, a successful composer whose wife has left him and made him promise not to follow. Healayas Breen, a journalist and friend of Levin’s. Brittika van der Sar, a PhD student from the Netherlands. Then there is Abramović herself and the mysterious narrator who appears to be watching over her. The performance continues, every day, and the audience becomes a community linked together by this once in a lifetime experience.

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This book just didn’t do it for me. Maybe it was reading another book about the highly glamourised art world after reading not one but two recently, including the 2015 Stella Prize winner, but I think that wasn’t quite it. A very large proportion of this book is dedicated to chronicling the life of Marina Abramović, and at times this book felt almost more like a biography than a novel. I understand the author actually herself attended “The Artist is Present”, and I think I would have enjoyed her own experiences more. To me, for the most part, it seemed like it was piggy-backing on someone else’s creation. In this vein, I was frustrated by the almost incessant pop-culture references throughout this book. In a similar way to “The Elegance of the Hedgehog“, (which this book even references at some stage as an example of a great book, so there you go), there was a consistent undertone of cultural snobbery that irked me.

I also found some of the commentary in this book a bit grating. For a lot of the book, whenever somebody sat down in front of Abramović, Rose described a man with an angelic face, or a woman with strong jaw, unless they were anything other than white, in which case it was a “black woman” or an “Asian man” with little to no other description. I just feel like in 2017, if you’re going to point out a person’s ethnicity, you need to point out EVERYONE’s ethnicity. White is not default. Other comments that left me frowning included things like:

  • “What sort of Japanese child read Tennyson? Levin wondered”;
  • “There are visitors from Brooklyn, Bombay, Berlin and Baghdad. Well, perhaps not Baghdad, because that is a war zone of broken buildings, dust, heat and not a bird to be seen”;
  • “It will all be about money and the Chinese. Who wants that?”; and
  • “But Harlem had been making itself over for millions of years. Before white and black, there were Indians, and before Indians there had been mastadons and bison”.

Then there was the character of Levin. I resented every second of air time Levin was given, and I resented how we were supposed to empathise with basically the world’s worst husband. Jane, Healayas, Brittika and even Levin’s daughter were all far more interesting characters and I think should have been emphasised more in this story. Instead we’re forced to watch as Levin sacrifices his family for his own career and then give him a gold star when staring into a woman’s eyes gives him the courage to do the bare minimum required for an active participant in a marriage.

Ultimately, I think there are two kinds of readers: the readers who will enjoy books like “The Museum of Modern Love” and “The Elegance of the Hedgehog”, and those of us who won’t. Maybe this will be the book for you, but it wasn’t for me.

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Filed under Advanced Reading Copies, Australian Books, Book Reviews, General Fiction

The Bluest Eye

Content Warning: this review contains discussion of fictional child sexual abuse. 

As I continue to try to real more diversely, I decided that it was finally time I gave Toni Morrison a go. Winner of both the Pulitzer Prize and the Nobel Prize for Literature (among many, many others), I picked one of the two books I have of hers waiting on my shelf and gave it a read.

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“The Bluest Eye” by Toni Morrison is a short novel set in a community in Ohio, USA in the early 1940s. African American sisters Claudia and Freida, 9 and 10 years old respectively, have begun to become aware of the social implications of skin colour, and conduct small rebellions against white-skinned dolls and lighter-skinned schoolmates. When another girl from the community named Pecola fosters with their family, the sisters are confronted with a new level of poverty and disadvantage. It is revealed right in the beginning of the story that Pecola has been impregnated by her own father. With a number of main characters, “The Bluest Eye” unpacks the circumstances that led to Pecola’s ultimate betrayal and abuse.

It’s no surprise that Morrison has won so many awards, she is an extremely talented writer with a particular gift for characterisation. First person narrator Claudia is an extremely likeable character and a great lens through which to begin the story. Morrison’s exploration into the psyche of Pecola’s parents is also well-done, and she manages to elicit a very uncomfortable empathy for Pecola’s father Cholly. Pecola herself maybe didn’t quite get a fair shake of the stick, and we only get a short and confusing glimpse into her perspective. The main difficulty I had with this book is that despite the excellent writing, some unique stylisation and the way it deals with important themes was the plot. The book is a bit more like a long, fictional memoir or essay without much of a narrative arc. I think this is compounded by the fact that the event the book is building up to is the graphic rape of a child by her father. Additionally, Morrison focuses a lot on bodily functions giving this book a very visceral feel. Maybe that’s the point: this book is more social commentary than it is parable. It is easy to imagine this story as a real series of events.

A well-written but troubling book, I’m very interested to read Morrison’s other novel “Beloved” to see how it compares.

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Filed under Book Reviews, General Fiction

Do Not Say We Have Nothing

Shortlisted for the 2016 Man Booker Prize, I confess I hadn’t heard of this book until the author came to visit Canberra and speak at the National Library of Australia. Although softly-spoken, Madeleine Thien is clearly a passionate and deeply knowledgeable person. She very kindly signed a copy of her book for me and I was very much looking forward to reading it.

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“Do Not Say We Have Nothing” by Madeleine Thien is a family saga set in Mao’s China. Crossing a generation and a continent, the story is about a young Chinese-Canadian girl Marie and a mysterious girl called Ai-Ming who comes to live with Marie and her mother after the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests. As Marie learns more about Ai-Ming’s family, she grows to understand how they are connected and the lasting impact of the Chinese communist regime on the generations that survived.

This is one of those books where I’m really reluctant to say too much because I really don’t want to detract from the whole experience. Although it begins slowly, this book gradually unfurls into an extraordinarily beautiful novel. In fact, if you find you’re struggling with it in the beginning, I would strongly recommend that you put on the Goldberg Variations referenced so frequently to better ground yourself in the story. I also found the music better connected me to the characters, especially the beloved trio Zhuli, Sparrow and Kai.

I’ve read a number of books set around different aspects of Mao’s rule and the Cultural Revolution, and some excellent ones are Wolf Totem and The Four Books. This is the first one I have read that I have come away feeling like I now have a deep, nuanced and holistic understanding of the history and trauma of those tumultuous decades in China. This is also the first time I’ve seen an author pit two generations against one another in quite this way, capturing both how devastating and inspiring the power of the people can be when harnessed.

I think I might just about leave it there, except to say that this is a profound and beautifully written book that warms up to a crescendo ending that will leave you changed forever.

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Filed under Book Reviews, General Fiction, Historical Fiction, Signed Books

Big Little Lies

This book is generating a bit of attention lately because of the TV adaptation that was released earlier this year starring Nicole Kidman, Reese Witherspoon and Alexander Skarsgård. Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to watch the series (but I’ll keep my thoughts on Foxtel to myself), so I thought I’d give the book a go and see what the hype is about.

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“Big Little Lies” by Liane Moriarty is a novel set in a small coastal community in Australia. The story follows single mother Jane who has just moved to Pirriwee Peninsular and has enrolled her little boy Ziggy into kindergarten. Although she forms a friendship with fiery Madeline and beautiful Celeste, two other mums with kids in Ziggy’s class, an incident on orientation day sets her offside with another parent. Meanwhile, Madeline grapples with a teenage daughter who is spending more time with her ex-husband and his new wife, and Celeste struggles to make sense of the brittle veneer of her seemingly perfect life.

I was surprised by this book. I think I have a lot of automatic prejudice against chick-lit or books that seem a bit mumsy. This book in particular has a strong focus on the interpersonal relationships between the kindergarten mums (and dad) at Pirawee Public and I was expecting it to be a bit…well…suburban. What I found was a book of significant depth with a wry and sometimes irreverent tone that tackled some heavy issues such as domestic violence and sexual assault. Moriarty has a real talent when it comes to her characters, and in particular I enjoyed the humerous interjections at the beginning and ending of chapters of various characters giving their amusing (and often contradictory) opinions about events as they unfolded.

I think probably the only think that frustrated me about this book was that the characters, while interesting and engaging, weren’t particularly diverse. Without mentioning any spoilers, there was a particular reveal about a character late in the book that I thought wasn’t very well done and which marred the story somewhat.

Nevertheless, this is a fun read that balances flippant jokes against serious insights. I was pleasantly surprised and I think it will do a lot to break down the stigma of domestic violence.

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Filed under Australian Books, Book Reviews, General Fiction