Category Archives: General Fiction

The Eye of the Sheep

Literary fiction about an ordinary yet dysfunctional family told from the perspective of a differently-abled boy. 

Content warning: disability, chronic illness, domestic violence

Last year I saw Sofie Laguna speak about her new book “The Choke”, and it was one of the most fast-paced and scintillating author talks I’ve ever been to. Although I was really interested in buying a copy of her newer book, I really wanted to get my hands on a copy of her previous novel that won the Miles Franklin Award in 2015. In the end, that was the one I bought and got signed.

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“The Eye of the Sheep” by Sofie Laguna is a literary novel told from the perspective of a neurodiverse young boy. Jimmy’s family are like other families. He has a mum, a dad and a brother. His dad works in a refinery, his mum stays home and looks after the family. However, Jimmy isn’t like other children. His mind is too quick in some ways and too slow in others, and he sees the world in a very unique way. As his family’s limited emotional and financial resources are stretched to the limit, the tension threatens to tear Jimmy’s life apart.

This is a spectacular novel that you need to throw yourself into headlong and let it cover you completely. Laguna takes the banal and makes it mesmirising. Writing a story through the eyes of Jimmy was ambitious, but Laguna does so convincingly and evocatively. I really liked how Jimmy ages through the story and finds that the world beyond his mother’s cloying arms is neither as understanding nor as undemanding.

Laguna also uses Jimmy’s observations to tackle some very difficult themes. I think one of the most challenging parts of this book is Paula, Jimmy’s mother, and the increasing toll her weight, her asthma and domestic violence takes on her. Jimmy’s naive understanding of what is happening in his family is contrasted against his brother’s increasingly verbal and violent protests against his father’s violence. Where Jimmy thinks about the things his mother could do to mitigate his father’s anger, I found myself wondering at why this family that does so much better apart tries so hard to stay together. Laguna explores the theme of fighting to breathe over and over again, throwing each family member’s sense of being trapped in stark relief.

I could go into more detail about this book but I think this is the kind of story you just have to wade into and experience for yourself. It was definitely no mistake this book won the Miles Franklin, and I am very eager to read more of Laguna’s work.

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The Eye of the Sheep

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A Different Kind of Lovely

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

 

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“A Different Kind of Lovely” by Petra March is a romance novel about a wealthy but troubled young playboy who stumbles across a ballet dancer when trying to confront his painful past. The magnetism between Neal and Mina is immediate, but when Mina’s ballet career is threatened, their budding relationship may not be strong enough to withstand the pressure.

This is an idyllic novel about a summer romance and when you can tell in a relationship that you can rely on someone. March is a whimsical and sensual writer who focuses on all the senses while exploring human motivation. Mina and Neal are attractive characters whose initial physical attraction is rounded out later by their personal histories and achievements.

However, this is a romance novel and while I appreciate that the focus of the story was Mina and Neal’s relationship, I think I would have liked a bit more depth to the plot. The story alternates between Mina’s perspective and Neal’s perspective on the relationship and their own personal issues, however I think that the story needed a touch more conflict to contrast the dreamy love story against.

An easy summer read about a summer romance.

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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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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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