Category Archives: General Fiction

Timeskipper (Saltatempo)

Magic realism in a post-war Italy

As is becoming tradition, I received a copy of this book in last year’s RedditGifts book exchange (in March 2017, to be precise), and I am only just now getting around to reviewing it. I’ve already received my book from the 2018 exchange, but it’s highly unlikely that I’ll get around to reviewing that until next year either. One thing I always put in my exchange preferences is that if my Santa is from another country, I really like to receive books from that country. While this doesn’t always work out to be particularly interesting because a huge proportion of people on Reddit are from the USA, in this case I was really excited to get a translated novel by a renowned Italian author.

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“Timeskipper” by Stefano Benni and translated by Antony Shugaar is a magic realism novel about an eponymous young boy from the mountains in Italy who is on his way to school when he bumps into a god in the woods. Given the gift of a duoclock, Timeskipper now has the ability to see into the future. For his small village in post-war Italy, the future looks pretty bleak as the politics and progress threatens the idyllic rural lifestyle he, his family and his friends live in. The future is also filled with plenty of adolescent anxiety and this novel is a bildungsroman as much as it is political satire.

This was a rich and clever novel that captured the psyche of a teenage boy excellently. Timeskipper is a charismatic protagonist who tells the most outrageous stories that neither the reader nor the other characters can ever fully determine how much is true and how much is hyperbole. I think some of my favourite parts of the book are Timeskipper’s interactions with his long-term love and on-again-off-again girlfriend Selene and how irreverent they are with one another, and how they navigate the changing times. I also really enjoyed the absurdism of the student protests and I felt like Benni was at his best sending up the intricacies and self-importance of student politics.

However, there were some things that made this book a bit difficult. You can’t really talk about a translated book without some words on the translator. This is a very complex book, and Shugaar made a valiant effort to convey all the nuance of Benni’s very rich writing style into English. However, there were a lot of things in the book that did not seem to make sense and I couldn’t tell if it was a translating choice or if it was a mistake.

For example, throughout the book chickens are referred to as chickins. Typographical error? Specific choice? Benni’s joke that didn’t translated to English? I have no idea. Doing some additional reading, I think that there is a lot of symbolism and are a lot of references in this book to Italian historical events but to someone not familiar with Italy’s history these literary devices weren’t readily apparent. Shugaar is cognisant of this, but it is not until you get to the translator’s note at the end of the book that some of these issues are raised. I think that what would have been more helpful would have been to include footnotes throughout the book like other translations I’ve read to help convey meaning where a direct translation isn’t always available.

Anyway, while this was at times a difficult book to read, Benni’s playfulness and pointed observations nevertheless did make it through translation. It shows a different facet to post-war Italian history, and I’m tempted to read other work by Benni to see how it is handled by other translators.

Timeskipper

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A Perfect Square

I received a copy of this book courtesy of the author.

A Perfect Square - a dark mystery, literary fiction style. Where art and creativity meets the occult and conspiracy theories. When synaesthesia becomes clairvoyant. A must read for all lovers of rich and complex fiction

“A Perfect Square” by Isobel Blackthorn is an Australian novel about two mothers and two daughters. Eccentric artist Harriet has her carefully controlled bohemian-bourgeois lifestyle in the Dandenong Ranges in Victoria upturned when her pianist daughter Ginny moves back home after a breakup. Tension crackles between them as Ginny tries to pry the truth about her father from her mother and they collaborate on a joint exhibition. In the UK, another artist called Judith struggles with her own daughter Madeline, and as the novel progresses the connections between the two families become more and more clear.

This is a dark and fraught story about the complexity of female relationships, and particularly mother-daughter relationships. I found Harriet a particularly fascinating character who straddles privilege and a more modest artistic lifestyle, who balances innate talent against anxiety about originality, and who wants to see her daughter flourish yet feels envy about her daughter’s success. I felt like there was some real honesty in the way that Blackthorn described an artist’s life. Harriet’s self-doubt and reliance on selling her artworks rather than just painting whatever felt very real to me. Blackthorn also explored some interesting ideas about fatherhood, being a single parent, and how much love and affection is the right amount to give to children.

The focus of the novel was definitely on Harriet and Ginny’s relationship, but the second half of the book had much more of a thriller theme. There were two families, but the majority of the story was so much about Harriet and Ginny that Judith and Madeline were effectively only support characters. I think that I would have liked to have seen either equal airtime for Judith and Madeline to better strengthen the overall sense of suspense, or to have removed them altogether and let Harriet and Ginny carry the story by themselves. I also felt a little like Ginny’s two best friends were support characters as well. It seemed like they had no lives of their own outside Ginny’s sphere of perception and I didn’t feel like Ginny had individual relationships with either of them.

A tense story with some difficult yet universal themes, this book gives an interesting perspective into the lifestyle of artists and expectations around motherhood.

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The Shepherd’s Hut

I received an ARC of this book courtesy of Harry Hartog.

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“The Shepherd’s Hut” by Tim Winton is about a teenage boy called Jaxie on the run from the dregs of a brutal start to life in a small Western Australian town. Escaping on foot, he ends up in a salt lake wasteland with dwindling supplies. When he has almost run out of food, water and ammunition, Jaxie comes across a shepherd’s hut, occupied by a stranded and mysterious elderly Irishman called Fintan. The two are very wary of each other, but come to an uneasy truce to not ask any questions about the other’s past. Fintan’s generosity with his basic larder of food, and his uncertainty about when, or even if, replacement supplies will arrive, means that they cannot permanently hide away from their world.

Although this was quite an easy book to read, it is a difficult book to review. The book is written in a kind of stream of consciousness narrative from the perspective of Jaxie, and this is without a doubt the highlight of the novel. Jaxie is a brilliant character full of untold complexity who is both the product of his upbringing as well as a fresh and unique voice. Winton portrays a young man with a sharp mind, one already full of knowledge and understanding if not education and experience. Jaxie’s raw, untempered thoughts are arresting, and hurtle the reader through the book. Although his words may paint him as a tough and harsh kid, it quickly becomes clear that Jaxie is very sentimental and craves to be seen as worthwhile.

This is definitely a book to make you think, and I have been thinking about it quite a bit since I read it, but I’m still not quite sure what to make of it. It’s a very compelling story, but some parts of it I felt were rushed or jammed on. In fact, I think I was in maybe the last eighth of the book, and I couldn’t believe it was about to end and couldn’t possibly see how everything would be resolve (or at least finalised).

I think the tenuous and cagey friendship between Jaxie and Fintan, the centrepiece of the book, was a prime example of this. Winton spends the majority of the book setting up the characters and putting them into a kind of routine, and then just when you felt like the friendship was about to become interesting, the book rushes into a ending that to me felt so coincidental and unlikely that it was jarring. I appreciate the technique of leaving a book open-ended, but I think how you get to that open end is important, and I’m not sure the final climax was really the best choice.

Tim Winton has been writing and speaking extensively about toxic masculinity, and I think for the most part that this book absolutely explores some of the nuances of expressing masculinity and what it means to be a man. However, again, the jarring ending meant that the message felt really muddled and I wasn’t quite sure what the point was anymore.

The language Winton used also obscured the purpose of the book and left me with a lot of questions about class and audience. Jaxie is styled with a very idiosyncratic, colloquial yet thoughtful way of speaking which is very engrossing. However, it also really made me wonder who exactly the audience of this book is intended to be. Is it meant to be for more privileged, metropolitan Australians to give them a taste of wild country life, or is it meant to make it more accessible to blue collar Australians and resonate with them through shared language? Is it meant to be both? I’m just not sure.

Anyway, I can’t really write too much more about this book without giving things away, but essentially this book was a smack around the head and my ears are still ringing. If you’re looking for something to make you think, make you feel and make your jaw drop, this is it. If you’re looking for a comfortable read, you’re not going to find it here.

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

South of Main Street

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

South of Main Street by [Gately, Robert]

“South of Main Street” by Robert Gately is a novel about a man called Henry Wolff who is a little bit strange. Prone to treating the outside of his house like an obstacle course and making inappropriate jokes at inappropriate times, he often exasperates his two daughters. When his wealthy wife dies, the question of how Henry is going to be cared for and a court hearing about financial guardianship drives a wedge between the two sisters. However, Henry’s not too bothered by all that. In a town where Main Street divides the well-to-do from the struggling, Henry starts to spend more time with those who are often overlooked.

The simplicity of this story belies the complexity of themes that are explored. Gately addresses the pressures that domestic violence, mental health, trauma, addiction, homelessness, poverty and death place on families and sensitively explores the strange legal beast that is guardianship. By using Henry as the lens through which we perceive his motley group of friends, Gately is able to leverage the idea of simple kindness to build empathy for people who are often marginalised. I think that while perhaps this book doesn’t delve too deeply into the psychology and socioeconomic reasons behind disadvantage, it nevertheless is persuasive through its depiction of decency through human interactions. I also thought that the fraught relationship between Robin and Sharon, the two sisters, was one of the strongest and most engaging parts of the book.

This book is very much about the day-to-day, and some parts of the book are a little slower in pace than others. I think quite a few of the conversations between Henry, Dixie (who is addicted to drugs) and Danny (who struggles with his father’s alcoholism and feelings of abandonment by his mother) are some of the more difficult parts to get through. However, I think that because of these little run-of-the-mill encounters, the book is quite relateable to people who have family stresses but need to get on with their daily lives nonetheless.

An interesting story with a strong message, I think this book does a thorough job of bringing to light some important social issues.

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The Stolen Bicycle

This was the set book for the March Asia Bookroom book club. It has a beautifully understated cover design that hints at the contents but gives away very little. However something that is very telling is that it has been longlisted for the Man International Booker Prize.

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“The Stolen Bicycle” by Wu Ming-Yi and translated by Darryl Sterk is a literary novel set in and around Taiwan and explored over several decades. The narrator, an established author and bicycle enthusiast called Cheng, tells the story of his family. However, to tell the story of his family, a family whose history is made up of a succession of stolen bicycles, there are some things he has to track down. While he searches for answers about his father’s disappearance and unaccounted-for bicycle, he meets many interesting people along the way with their own usual stories.

A lot of people have recommended Murakami to me over the years as a master of storytelling and magic realism. This is better. Wu has an uncanny eye for finding the humanity in everything. This book draws out the heart of Taiwan and its history, but also goes to the soul of the human condition. This is a book about trust, kindness, loss, obsession, generosity and, above all, bicycles.

There are few criticisms to make about this book. However, I think some people may find it a little slow-paced and meandering at times. There are lots of stories interwoven throughout this book and it sometimes can be hard to find a common theme. However, ultimately, the reader’s attention is drawn back to the narrator’s favourite topic: the bicycle.

An excellently-written book and a brilliant insight into the diverse history and people of Taiwan. This book will linger with you for a long time and teach more than you ever thought possible about bicycles.

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The Rabbit Back Literature Society

I can’t remember where I got this book from. Maybe the Canberra Lifeline Book Fair? Wherever it came from, I know exactly why I chose it. It has a gorgeous cover design with blue metallic lettering and any book title with the word “rabbit” in it is always going to hook me instantly.

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“The Rabbit Back Literature Society” by Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinen and translated from the Finnish by Lola M. Rogers is a magic realism novel about a woman called Ella who has returned to her hometown Rabbit Back to live with her parents. Reeling from a bad breakup and not fully equipped to deal with her father’s deteriorating health, Ella tries to focus on marking high school papers on literature. However, when she is given a copy of “Crime and Punishment” with a different ending after accusing a student of cheating, the book leads her to the Rabbit Back library. From there, she finds herself more and more drawn into the secretive and wildly successful lives of members of ‘the Society’, and the mysterious Laura White behind it.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book. Jääskeläinen has a piercing and intimate style of writing that is utterly engrossing. The characters, power plays, intrigue and history of Rabbit Back were endlessly fascinating and the story keeps you guessing the entire way through. Ella starts out seeming like a bit of a lightweight, but Jääskeläinen brings a lot of depth to her character and I enjoyed watching her unfurl in different and unexpected ways. I also really liked the other characters and their complicated relationships with each other. There is a lot going on in this book and it’s the perfect blend of quaint and dark.

I think the only issue I had with the novel was that there were maybe one too many loose ends left untied. I am definitely an advocate for leaving things to the imagination and not spelling out every single detail in books, but I think that there were a few things that could have been rounded out a little more. Some of the members of the Society got a lot less airtime than others, and I would have liked to have seen more interactions amongst them and between them and Ella. I also would have liked a bit more on Ella’s parents. Ella seemed to have very few memories of her childhood and I was expecting that gap to get filled in to a degree as she continued researching. However, it never did and I think more backstory on Ella probably would have facilitated even more character development later.

As it stands, this was a very enjoyable book that will appeal especially to lovers of books and secrets.

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Letting Go

I received a copy of this book courtesy of the author.

Image result for letting go maria thompson corley

“Letting Go” by Maria Thompson Corley is a sprawling long-distance romance novel. Cecile is a young Canadian woman who wins a place in Juliard in New York City in the USA to study classical piano. Langston is a young Canadian man who is studying to be a teacher in his home town while washing dishes in a restaurant. When Cecile and Langston meet by chance when Cecile is on a rare trip home, their connection is instantaneous. They find that they have a lot in common: their family difficulties, their academic interests, their cultural heritage, their ambition. When Cecile returns to New York they are able to bridge the distance with letters, but are letters enough to bridge everything else?

This was an incredibly refreshing book. I’ve read a few books since I started this blog that deal with race in America, but I don’t think I’ve ever read a book like this. Maybe the closest was “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings“. This is, at its heart, a book about black excellence. This is not a historical novel of slavery or even a more novel of migration. The characters in this book aren’t poor, uneducated, downtrodden or disadvantaged. Cecile and Langston are smart, articulate and proud of their West Indian heritage. They have road trips and goals and family support and holidays and are both very relateable characters.

This is not to say that Corley shies away from discussing race: not at all. However, Corley explores race in a much more subtle, everyday and modern way, through Cecile breaking stereotypes by being a black pianist, conversations at university between black students debating politics and philosophies and in intimate relationships where interracial couples negotiate respect. Cecile is the key narrator in this book, and I think that worked really well to get across some incredibly honest insights into what it can be like for a woman struggling to find a social group, balancing sexual desire against religious beliefs and finding herself trapped in a toxic relationship. Corley has a sophisticated and flexible writing style and easily moves between diary entries, letters and prose to tell this story.

I think the only thing I had a bit of trouble with was that this book is a bit of a slow burn. It is a romance that slowly builds and unfurls over many years. However, I think that this is actually a really important book to read because this book fosters such a deep sense of empathy. Not just for Cecile and Langston because of their race, but because of their experiences, their relationships, their families, the effects that drugs and abandonment and religion and love have had on their lives.

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