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Picnic at Hanging Rock

I bought a copy of this book ages ago in the Penguin Australian Classics edition which of course have gorgeous tinted edges and are in beautiful hardcover. This one is particularly whimsical. I’ve always meant to read this book because it is such a well-known Australian story, but I never managed to get around to it until I was invited to an event at the National Library of Australia celebrating 50 years since its publication. Finally, I decided to give this book a go.

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“Picnic at Hanging Rock” by Joan Lindsay is a novel that’s part historical, part mystery and part Gothic. The story is about a fictional boarding school for girls called Appleyard College in the Mount Macedon region of central Victoria. On Valentines Day in the year 1900, a group of girls go on a picnic to the famous Hanging Rock formation. After a lazy afternoon, four of the girls decide to go for a walk just before it is time to go home. However, when only one of the girls returns in hysterics and it is then discovered that one of the teachers is also missing, a search for the four missing women begins. The incident and the ensuing mystery has a ripple effect on the school, the town and ultimately the reader.

This story is definitely one that has ingrained itself in the Australian psyche and without a doubt has become a cultural phenomenon over the last 50 years. Lindsay has a real gift for capturing the unique beauty of the Australian bush and for maintaining and uncomfortable but irresistible sense of tension throughout the book. It has been 50 years and people are still talking about what happened to those girls. There is a “secret” final chapter that was axed from the book and I truly, truly advise that you avoid it. It adds absolutely nothing to the story.

In my write up of the National Library event, I talk a bit about arguably the biggest flaw in this book which is the complete absence of any kind of Aboriginal recognition. This book was written in the 1960s, 5 years after Aboriginal people were given the right to vote and in the same year as the 1967 Referendum. However, similarly to “The Nargun and the Stars“, it alludes to an ancient historical connectedness with the land without directly acknowledging the Taungurung, Wurundjeri and Dja Dja Wurrrung people who lived in the region for tens of thousands of years before being dispossessed of their land.  Perhaps at odds with the subject-matter of a story so concerned with femininity, Hanging Rock was in fact originally a sacred site for male initiation.

Ultimately though, this is a fascinating book that covers a wide range of themes including female sexuality, schooling, class, time and the harsh Australian landscape. It is an engrossing read that 50 years on shines a light on the Missing White Woman Syndrome and plays on the public’s sordid fascination with unsolved crimes.

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Filed under Australian Books, Book Reviews, Historical Fiction, Mystery/Thriller, Penguin Australian Classics, Pretty Books, Tinted Edges

A Smile in One Eye, a Tear in the Other

I received a copy of this book from the author.

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“A Smile in One Eye, a Tear in the Other” by Ralph Webster is a biography/autobiography about his father Jerry Webster, originally named Gerhard Wobser. The book is divided into two parts: Jerry’s recollections about the rise of Nazis during his childhood in what was then East Prussia, and his son Ralph’s observations about Jerry at the end of his life. Jerry was born in what is now Poland in 1922 to a reasonably well-to-do family. He had three much older sisters and was the treasured son of aging parents who at times felt isolated from his siblings due to the age difference. As anti-Jewish sentiment grows in the region, the Wobsers, who are all baptised Lutherans, find themselves targeted for a heritage mostly forgotten.

This book was written after Webster’s travels through Europe, witnessing first-hand the “refugee crisis“. Although I have been reading quite a few stories about the children of Holocaust survivors this year, one story that I did not know much about was the story of those who tried to leave early. Although in the early days of Nazi Germany, many Jews were permitted and even encouraged to leave, lots of countries (including Australia) were reluctant to take them. With dwindling resources due to increasingly discriminatory laws, the Wobser family had to make do and send Jerry unaccompanied to England and eventually flee to China. There are a lot of parallels that can be drawn between the reluctance of countries to take on refugees that took place then and is taking place now.

This story is written clearly with great detail, and I think captures the how slowly rights can be eroded perfectly. I liked the balance of past and present, and I think that Ralph’s own insights about his father worked well to provide a good sense of ending to a long life that had begun just before World War II. The only thing that is a bit difficult with this book is some of the earlier chapters about Jerry’s upbringing are a little repetitive, and he explains his family’s situation and structure several times over. While this helps to reiterate their situation in the beginning, it did slow the progress of the story at times.

A well-researched and well-considered book, this story is very relevant to our society today and shows that lessons can and should always be learnt from the past.

 

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My Brilliant Friend

I first really heard about this book when there was a media storm about the author’s real identity being revealed. The series had received a lot of acclaim, either in spite of or because of the author’s use of a pseudonym, and I was eager to see what all the fuss was about.

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“My Brilliant Friend” by Elena Ferrante is a historical novel set in a poor, post-war neighbourhood in Naples, Italy in the 1950s. Playing and going to school in this grim era, blonde Elena meets the naughty and sullen Lila who dazzles the teachers with her intelligence. After a cautious beginning to their friendship, Elena finds in Lila the inspiration and competition to succeed at school. However, as the two girls become teenagers, their lives begin to take increasingly different paths.

I think this is one of those books where my expectations just didn’t match up to my experience. It’s translated from Italian, and the translation seemed perfectly fluid. Ferrante manages to convey a tense, sepia tone to the novel that evolves as the economic situation in Naples improves. Ferrente’s real strength however is shining a light on the gender inequality of the time. Elena has to be consistently excellent at school to be allowed to share the same opportunities as boys the same age who are simply mediocre. I also thought that Ferrente handled Elena’s developing sexuality as a young woman very convincingly.

The uneasy but intense relationship between Elena and Lila is presented as the highlight of the book. The author spends a lot of time making many pointed observations about Lila and her life from the perspective of Elena, who is constantly comparing herself to her friend. However, I felt like a large proportion of the novel is laying groundwork for something that ultimately doesn’t even happen in this book. Although the focus of the novel appears to be Lila and how her upbringing shapes her life, I actually found the protagonist and narrator Elena far more interesting.

“My Brilliant Friend” is one of a series of four novels, and while I enjoyed this one, I’m not sure I’m compelled to read any more of the books. Ultimately, this book is fine, good even, but I just didn’t find it brilliant.

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Filed under Book Reviews, General Fiction, Historical Fiction

Clovers

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

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“Clovers” by Samira is a science fiction parody about Androxen, mercreatures who live in the Earth’s ocean and procreate with human women. However, despite living in relative secrecy from their human counterparts, increasing interaction brings the Earth’s dire situation to their awareness. The Androxen decide to seek help and send a message out into space to be intercepted by aliens.

This is a creative book interspersed with lots of colourful illustrations that you need a colour eReader to fully appreciate. It is a creative and light-hearted story that casts humanity into relief against two other sentient races. The book is structured like a anthropological text told by the fictional Samira.

At times however, this book can seem a little overwritten. The author relies very heavily on alliteration and the story is sometimes obscured by the wordplay.

A fun spin on the science-fiction genre that is as much about the words as it is the story.

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Filed under Book Reviews, eBooks, Science Fiction, Uncategorized

Lost the Plot – Episode 18

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“La Belle Sauvage” by Philip Pullman
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Blankets

I think I picked this book up at Canty’s bookshop a while ago. They’ve been getting some really great graphic novels in recently, and I was really in the mood for an excellent one. I remember selecting this one in particular because it’s so highly acclaimed and I’d heard of it before.

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“Blankets” by Craig Thompson is a mostly-autobiographical graphic novel about Thompson’s experiences growing up as an Evangelical Christian in Wisconsin. Although Craig’s parents are very strict, he has a close relationship with his brother and they share vivid imaginary adventures together. However, as Craig grows older, they grow apart and a teenaged Craig begins to feel increasingly isolated, bullied and harassed in his small town. Then, one winter at Bible camp, Craig meets a young woman called Raina – finally, someone he connects with.

This is a stunning graphic novel, no question. Even though all the illustrations are black and white, Thompson’s illustrations are incredibly rich and expressive. The winters feel cold and Craig’s loneliness is palpable. The relationship between Craig and his brother Phil is one of the highlights of the book. The way Thompson maps their closeness when they share a bed, their increasing distance as teens and then their refound closeness was beautifully done. The imagery of blankets was done brilliantly as was Thomspon’s blend of reality and fantasy. Thompson’s exploration of religious themes and identity were also incredibly insightful and I think would resonate strongly with people who have grown up in a conservative Christian household. There is a lot packed in, and it’s quite long for a graphic novel, with all the themes very carefully constructed.

However, perhaps because the focus of the story is mostly on Craig’s faith, or perhaps because it’s a semi-autobiography, I felt like the story arch itself was overall a bit fuzzy and kind of trailed out towards the end. This book is definitely more journey than destination, but I did feel like there wasn’t much resolution at the end. I think the reason for this really goes to the heart of the story which was Craig’s friendship (and later relationship) with Raina.

Raina was really the classic manic pixie dream girl archetype who seemed to exist solely to be Craig’s “muse”. Although he was young, I really felt like Raina got the rough end of the stick. Juggling a lot of primary care for two disabled siblings, trying to graduate high school and balancing a long-distance relationship, I felt like Craig’s ultimate betrayal of Raina and the personal boundaries she asked for was never properly addressed. Instead of being a real person with real feelings, Raina ends up being  treated as an “experience” for Craig. A person about whom he is angry and then later nostalgic, but not quite enough of a real person to justify an apology. Thompson has explained that the character of Raina is actually an amalgamation of a high school love and his current partner. I think that Craig’s inability to appreciate that Raina has a life and priorities outside of him is visible as the reader, but I’m not sure it’s visible to Craig the character. In the end I felt like he was still thinking of what Raina could do for him, and not what he could have done for her.

Regardless, this is an excellent graphic novel and one that I think might resonate with a lot of people. If you haven’t read many graphic novels, I think this would be a great place to start.

 

 

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Filed under Book Reviews, Graphic Novels

H is for Hawk

I bought a copy of this book a few years ago as a gift for my partner while I was on holidays in England. The cover is really striking, and being about falconry I thought my partner would really enjoy it. After he read it, I asked him what he thought. He agreed it was partly about falconry, but it seemed to also have a lot to do with the author’s own mental state. He thought maybe I might get a bit more out of it, but it sat on my bookshelf for absolute ages before I got a chance to get around to it.

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“H is for Hawk” by Helen Macdonald is a non-fiction book about falconry. In her grief after her father’s sudden death, Macdonald rekindles an old hobby and buys herself a young goshawk. Part memoir, part biography, Macdonald juxtaposes her own experiences training a goshawk against those of English author T H White, whose own attempts over 60 years earlier were ultimately disastrous.

Macdonald is a wonderful nature writer who excels in finding beauty in the minutiae of the English countryside. Her depiction of the raw vigour of a bird of prey on the hunt throws Macdonald’s sorrow in stark relief. Macdonald marries the intensely personal with crisp academia and the result is an incredibly rich book.

One thing I found particularly interesting was the history of falconry. Macdonald explains that for centuries, the study of training birds of prey has relied completely on building trust and positive reinforcement. It’s amazing to me that this kind of thinking has only crossed over to the training of other animals such as dogs and horses in the past few decades. People still talk about “breaking” horses. This year I enrolled my dog into (desperately needed) obedience classes, and my local dog club is trialing new techniques with a very heavy focus on positive reinforcement. I really enjoyed drawing parallels between Macdonald’s work with her hawk and my work with my dog. The other thing I found really interesting is Macdonald’s quiet subversion as a female austringer in what was typically very much a man’s sport.

I could go on, but this is a fascinating, challenging and deeply personal read and I walked away from this book much more knowledgeable about goshawks, English literature and mental health.

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