Wednesday, 19 October 2016

His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet

His Bloody Project has been shortlisted for this year's Booker Prize. It was a surprise inclusion to my mind. Historical crime fiction?

But, as it turned out, I loved it.

It's a psychological thriller as opposed to a detective story. The crime - victims and perpetrator - are presented straight up. The unfolding story reveals the how and why of the crime. It's a page-turner - easy to read and thoroughly entertaining.

However it's not a reread.

For me a book is reread if it touches a deep emotional chord that needs more exploring and prodding or if it contains layers of meaning that will take several reads to unpack.

His Bloody Project doesn't fit either of these reread categories for me.

Burnet has set this book up as true story. A part of his own family history that he unearthed during some genealogical research.

He plays around with this idea right from the start with the title page - His Bloody Project: Documents Relating to the Case of Roderick Macrea: A NOVEL, edited and introduced by Graeme Macrae Burnet.

The tension between what's real and what's not continues throughout the reading of Macrae's journal, the medical reports (citing real doctors) and the trial proceedings. Metafiction at it's best!

I normally only read cosy crime, so I thought this story might be outside my comfort zone. But His Bloody Project is really a delicious piece of creative writing decidedly sitting inside the historical fiction genre. Burnet delves into the mind of someone charged with a heinous crime. It's a psychological study about sanity, reason and motivation, set in the Scottish Highlands.

I'm glad this book was shortlisted for the Booker Prize otherwise I would never have read it. The bloody fingerprints on the cover would have been enough to put me off for good!

Maybe the Booker shouldn't have to be about shortlisting the well-known, much loved authors who consistently write interesting books that we will all read regardless. Maybe book prizes, like the Booker can be about bringing to light some unknown, newer writers who deserve a much wider audience.

I've just realised this is the issue that has been bugging me around Bob Dylan winning the the Nobel Prize for Literature.

The Nobel Prize is designed to go to
an author from any country who has, in the words of the will of Alfred Nobel, 'produced in the field of literature the most outstanding work in an ideal direction'. (wikipedia)
I have no problems with another American winning the prize, or a poet/songsmith instead of an author. I can even accept that another privileged white guy wins again - that's the world we live in after all!

But one of the reasons I've enjoyed reading the Nobels over the years (very spasmodically I confess) is the insight into other cultures, the chance to discover new authors that I would never have come across otherwise and for lesser known, but important and culturally significant writers to become more widely known and appreciated.

That kind of diversity is a very good thing any way you look at it.

Bob Dylan is already well known, well regarded and well awarded for his cultural and creative efforts. He will not be forgotten by history.

It feels like this was the easy choice, a nostalgic choice and I will always be left wondering who missed out.

Sunday, 16 October 2016

Brona's Salon

 Brona's Salon is a new meme which aims to gather a group of like-minded bookish people 'under the roof of an inspiring host, held partly to amuse one another and partly to refine the taste and increase the knowledge of the participants through conversation.'

I will provide a few prompts to inspire our conversation.
However please feel free to discuss your current read or join in the conversation in any way that you see fit.
Amusement, refinement and knowledge will surely follow!

What are you currently reading?

I'm currently reading His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet. 

How did you find out about this book?

The Shadow (wo)man Booker group read and reviewed this book.
It was one that was generally enjoyed, with some reservations about it being worthy enough for a literary award. 

Why are you reading it now? 

I'm trying to read half the Booker shortlist before the big announcement next week. 

First impressions? 

Entertaining historical fiction with a metafiction touch - is this a memoir or not? 
What is real? What is fiction?
Is there such a thing as fictional true crime?

Metafiction seems to be a literary device that lots of writers are playing with right now.

I'm thinking of Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien with her book within the book, Elena Ferrante's ambiguous 'is it memoir is it real' Neapolitan tetraology, Michelle de Kretser's Springtime: A Ghost Story with its discussion mid-story about the nature of ghost stories, Kent Haruf's use of the same fictional town in all his stories and the referencing of his previous books in Our Souls At Night and Alain de Botton's use of footnotes to address issues brought up in his narrative in The Course of Love.

And that's just some of the books I've read this year that can be classified as metafiction!

Wikipedia describes metafiction as -

A story about a writer who creates a story.
A story that features itself as a narrative or as a physical object.
A story containing another work of fiction within itself.
Narrative footnotes which continue the story while commenting on it.
A story that reframes or suggests a radically different reading of another story.
A story addressing the specific conventions of story, such as title, character conventions, paragraphing or plots.
A novel where the narrator intentionally exposes him or herself as the author of the story.
A story in which the authors refers to elements of the story as both fact and fiction.
A book in which the book itself seeks interaction with the reader.
 A story in which the readers of the story itself force the author to change the story.
A story in which the characters are aware that they are in a story.
A story in which the characters make reference to the author or his previous work.

Have you read any metafiction books recently?

Which character do you relate to so far?

I'm not sure if relate is the right word, but I certainly feel empathy for Roddy's sister Jetta.
She has no rights, no protection but all the care and responsibility of looking after her family.

Are you happy to continue?

So far.
I can see Burnet building a case whereby the bullying, mean, officious Mackenzie Broad family got what they deserved (by being murdered), but it seems too neat and too obvious.
Is Roddy a reliable narrator?
The Macrae stoicism and acceptance of fate as being their lot in life feels a trifle overdone.
I'm enjoying the details of Scottish croft life - as bleak and as hard as it was.

Despite the topic, this is a fun psychological thriller read, but I can feel a bit of a drag creeping in.
I hope Burnet doesn't get bogged down or lose his way.

Where do you think the story will go? 

We know that Roddy killed the Mackenzie Broad's from the start. 
He didn't hide or deny what happened.
But is he covering for someone - his father? his sister?

I can see that his advocate is leaning towards an insanity plea - is this a ploy? Or a real concern about Roddy's mental state.
His journal currently presents a logical, thoughtful, intelligent man.

Friday, 14 October 2016

Springtime: A Ghost Story by Michelle de Kretser

This slim, stylish short story has got under my skin.

I wasn't really expecting it to - before, during or immediately after reading it. But somehow, two days later, Springtime has subtly tiptoed into my imagination and opened up a whole host of possibilities.

The power of de Krestser's story is in her descriptions and in the very looseness of form that she plays with.

The images are vivid and the form is ripe for individual interpretation.

At a dinner party, halfway through the book, our protagonist, Frances, and the host, Joseph, discuss the nature of ghost stories with the other guests.

The ghost story discussion goes like this,
'Do you know this idea that electricity put an end to ghost stories? People stopped seeing ghosts when rooms were properly lit.'
George Meshaw said he didn't think it was the change of lighting. 'The way stories were written changed around that time. Ghost stories work up to a shock, but the modern form of the short story is different. When a loose, open kind of story came in, writing about ghosts went out.'
We know what to expect.

De Kretser tells us on the front cover that this is going to be a ghost story. Therefore when Frances sees a shadowy figure in a pink dress, that no-one else can see, whilst Frances is out walking along the Cooks River in Marrickville, with her rather nervous dog, we're not surprised.

The surprise comes from the lush, steamy, wet weather of a Sydney summer through the eyes of a Melbournite. The disquiet comes from Frances' relationship with her new partner - an older, recently divorced man. The anxiety creeps in as we learn about her childhood dreams and meet the knowing young son of her partner. Who is haunting who?

And what form does the haunting take?

Is Frances haunted by unmet ambitions and desires? Troubled by cold hard reality? Preyed upon by other peoples histories and memories? Consumed by strange smells, colours and textures? Swamped by the consequences of her unwise choices?

What is very clear is that Frances is not comfortable in her skin or in her new life. She doesn't belong.

Springtime is only a short story, but de Kretser has actually packed a lot in, when you take the time to unpack it.

My lovely gift hardback edition has several coloured plates from artist Torkil Gudnason. His elegant floral designs also grace the covers.

This book is my one and only feeble attempt to join in R.eaders I.mbibing P.eril this year.

Peril of the Short Story allows me to fit in one quick, easy scary book and still feel like I've participated in something fun! You have until the 31st October, if you'd like to join in too.

Thursday, 13 October 2016

The Invention of Nature by Andrea Wulf

The Invention of Nature: The Adventures of Alexander Von Humboldt The Lost Hero of Science has been on my radar ever since it first came out in 2015.

But it was our forthcoming trip to Cuba that brought it front and centre. There is a national park near Baracoa, in eastern Cuba that is named after Humboldt that we hope to visit. I wanted to know what on earth Humboldt was doing in Cuba.

It turned out that Humboldt was an extraordinary scientific adventurer who had a profound and lasting effect on the way we view the world, nature and the place of humans to this day.

In her prologue, Wulf mentioned that
the irony is that Humboldt's views have become so self-evident that we have largely forgotten the man behind them.

Her book set out to reveal the forgotten man, follow the web of his influence as well as remind us of all that he achieved during his lifetime.

The chapters that detailed his influence on men like Simon Bolivar, Charles Darwin, Henry David Thoreau, Ernst Haeckle, George Perkins Marsh and John Muir felt like an intrusion at first.
I didn't feel that we needed these bio's within a bio, but as each one wore on, I found myself caught up in what these men also achieved and how far-reaching Humboldt's influence actually was.

Below are some of the basic facts about Humboldt's life, with a few of his observations and theories that I gleaned from this very accessible, easy to read and enjoyable homage.
  • Born in the same year as Napoleon
  • Older brother, Wilhelm
  • Father died when he was nine.
  • 'formal, cold and emotionally distant' mother (pg 13)
  • privileged but unhappy childhood.

  • invented isotherms.
  • 'He came up with the idea of vegetation and climate zones that snake across the globe'. (pg5)
  • more place names are named after him than anyone else.
  • in 1869, huge world wide public celebrations occurred in honour of his centenary birthday.
  • First job was as a mining inspector. He became interested in the working conditions of the miners and invented a breathing mask and a lamp that would work in the 'deepest oxygen-poor shafts'. (pg 21)
  • 'Comparison became Humboldt's primary means of understanding nature.' (pg 32)
  • Good friends with Goethe - 'That something of Humboldt was in Goethe's Faust - or something of Faust in Humboldt - was obvious to many.' (pg 37)

  • June 1799 sailed to South America on board Pizarro, a Spanish frigate, with Aime Bonpland, a French scientist as his companion.
  • Slave market at Cumana made 'Humboldt a life-long abolitionist'. (pg 53)
  • Nov 1799 experienced first earthquake.
  • (pg 54) 'memories and emotional responses...would always form a part of man's experience and understanding of nature.'
  • 7th Feb 1800 set off to explore the Orinoco.
  • Travelled via Lake Valencia where locals told him that the lake was rapidly disappearing 'he concluded that the clearing of the surrounding forests, as well as the diversion of water for irrigation, had caused the falling water level.' (pg 57) 
  • 'The action of humankind across the globe, he warned, could affect future generations.' (pg 58)
  • 'Humboldt did not regard the indigenous people as barbaric....In fact, he talked about the 'barbarism of civilised man' when he saw how the local people were treated by colonists and missionaries.' (pg 71)

  • Dec 1800 arrived in Havana, Cuba.
  • March 1801 sailed to Cartagena. Planned to 'cross, climb and investigate the Andes' as they trekked towards Lima.
  • Climbed Chimborazo, then thought to be the highest mountain in the world.
  • 'He saw the earth as one great living organism where everything was connected, conceiving a bold new vision of nature that still influences the way that we understand the natural world.' (pg2)
  • Produced his first sketch of the Naturgemalde - a visual representation of the different zones of plants in relation to climate, location, altitude.
  • discovered the magnetic equator.

  • Spent 1803 in Mexico.
  • March 1804 sailed to the US via Cuba.
  • 'Monoculture and cash crops did not create a happy society'.  'All problems in the colonies, he was certain, were the result of the 'imprudent activities of the Europeans.' (pg 150)

  • August 1804 arrived back in Paris.
  • April 1805 Rome.
  • November 1805 Berlin.
  • Wrote the Essays on the Geography of Plants - first ecology book - discussed global patterns, continental shift.
  • Published Views of Nature - 'poetic vignettes' about the web of life (pg 132)
  • Nov 1807 returned to Paris.
  • Published his four volume Political Essays on the Kingdom of New Spain between 1808-1811.

  • 1829 travelled to Russia and the Siberian steppes, 'following the border that separated Russia from China' (pg 210).
  • Created the 'Magnetic Crusade' to measure magnetic variations across the globe. In three years his magnetic stations collected nearly two million observations.

  • In 1834 he started work on Cosmos: A Sketch of the Physical Description of the Universe (published in 1845).
  • 'As science moved away from nature into laboratories and universities, separating itself off into distinct disciplines, Humboldt created a work that brought together all that professional science was trying to keep apart.' (pg 235)
  • Second volume published in 1847. 
  • Third in 1850.
  • 'Humboldt had become the most famous scientist of his age, not just in Europe but across the world.' (pg 273)

  • Fourth volume of Cosmos published in 1856.
  • Fifth in 1859.
  • Two days after he sent the manuscript to the publishers, he collapsed. He died two weeks later at age 89.

  • Humboldt's ideas 'seeped into the poems of Walt Whitman and the novels of Jules Verne.' (pg 282) 
  • Also Aldous Huxley, Ezra Pound, Gabriel Garcia Marquez and the paintings of Frederic Edwin Church.

Humboldt was friends with, sponsored or mentored almost every well-known scientist that was alive during his lifetime. He was courted by presidents, royal families and artists. He wrote thousands of letter every year and read thousands more.

Wulf's biography has been thoughtfully arranged, with a few gorgeous coloured plates, extensive notes (at the back of the book where they don't clutter up the narrative) and an inspiring bibliography.

One of Humboldt's strengths was his ability to make science and the wonder of nature accessible to everyone. Wulf has replicated this strength in her award winning biography.

Along with 'Humboldt's disciples, and their disciples in turn, (Wulf has) carried his legacy forward.' (pg 336)

Winner of the 2015 Costa Biography award and Winner of the 2016 Royal Society Science Book Prize.

Tuesday, 11 October 2016

Top Ten Tuesday

The Broke and the Bookish host a weekly meme called Top Ten Tuesday.

This week is all about recommendations. 

So many of my books appear on my TBR pile thanks to a recommendation from family, friends, reps, or customers. Book reviews, podcasts, writers festival events, interviews on the TV and radio also play a part. 

The hard part is remembering where each recommendation came from!
I'll do my best.

Top Ten Books I've Read (or Acquired) Because Of Another Blogger (Or Bookish Person)

My good friend @girlbooker has been responsible for several of my favourite recommended reads over the years. I thoroughly enjoyed them all, especially The Children's Book, which will be reread one day.

1. When God Was a Rabbit by Sarah Winman
2. The Children's Book by A S Byatt
3. The Secret History by Donna Tartt  (review here for all three)

4.Germinal by Emile Zola thanks to Fanda @Classiclit.
A thank you and shout-out is not really enough recognition to Fanda for getting me started on the whole Zola thing.
Between Fanda and O @Behold the Stars's enthusiasm for all things Zola I now have years worth of incredible reading experiences ahead of me.

5. The Husband's Secret by Liane Moriarty thanks to Melissa @Avid Readers Musings
Melissa's rave review made me pick up Big Little Lies one rainy weekend. I was hooked.

6. Nothing Holds Back the Night by Delphine de Vigan thanks to Nancy @Ipsofactdotme. This is one is still sitting on the TBR pile tempting me each time I finish a book.

7. Thomas @My Porch gave me Excellent Women by Barbara Pym during Pym Reading Week a couple of years ago.

8. It by Stephen King thanks to a young Mr Books. Nearly 30 years later and we still both love Stephen King (although I'm a bit pickier about which ones I will read).

9. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte thanks to my mum.

10. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen thanks to Mr Geerlings, my Yr 12 English teacher - I am forever in your debt.

Monday, 10 October 2016

Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien

For four days I've been trying to write a review that would do this rich, engrossing, mosaic of a book due justice.

It wasn't so much writer's block as writer's muddle.

There was soooo much to say! I couldn't even decide which lens or which perspective to choose?

Because I was enjoying Do Not Say We Have Nothing so much, I began researching stuff before I had finished reading.

I looked up the classical pieces of music conducted by Glenn Gould* that Thien mentioned throughout the book (Bach's Goldberg Variations and Sonata for Piano & Violin no 4) and listened to them as I read the book.

I researched the politicians and artists who were real people. He Luting (1903 - 1999) was a real composer and he really did say 'shame on you for lying' when hauled before a televised interrogation during the Cultural Revolution.

I researched the L'Internationale** to find out the various interpretations of the phrase that Thien used in her title.

I simply couldn't get enough of this book - I wanted to know more, delve deeper. I wanted to totally immerse myself in the reading experience.

On the surface, this is a story about a Chinese composer called Sparrow and the things that happened to him and around him during his lifetime. A lifetime that encompassed the extraordinary events from the Chinese Revolution to Tiananmen Square.

However, Thien weaves in many threads and motifs, until we have a story within a story, across three generations and two continents. She plays with recurring themes, copies of copies and the cyclical nature of history.

Music is a big part of the story and I found her descriptions of the creative process and the interpretation of music mesmerising.

Equally mesmerising, but in a horrifying way, was the astounding use of double-speak by politicians and revolutionaries during the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution in China.

Thien showed some of the effects of 'self-criticism', 'struggle sessions' and 'denunciations' on the creative mind as they learnt to silence their talents and learnt to live without their language.

One of the major themes developed throughout the story was the life of homosexuals in China*** during the Mao years. Sparrow and Jiang Kai obviously had an intense loving relationship that could not be realised openly. One had to become a hard-line revolutionary, destroying art and lives, while trying to protect his friend from within, who eventually fled the country. While the other stayed, gave up his career as a composer, married and worked in a radio factory of the governments choosing.

Later on, Sparrow's daughter, Ai Ming, also developed very strong feelings for her female neighbour during the heightened times surrounding Tiananmen Square.

Thien intertwined mathematics, etymology, translation, calligraphy, memory, disappearance, loss, free-will, and the nature of time seamlessly. There were moments of humour and moments of pathos.

I have read some reviews that felt Do Not Say We Have Nothing was too wordy. Not for me. I loved every single moment and thoroughly enjoyed the multi-layered, enchanting nature of Thien's loquaciousness.
However this book will not be for everyone.
Hopefully this review will help you decide whether it's for you or not.

Do Not Say We Have Nothing is a keeper for me. I plan to reread this one day and I will be devastated if this book doesn't win one of the book awards that it is currently shortlisted for (Booker and Giller Prizes as well as the Canadian Governor General's Literary Award).

Below are some of the results of my research (thank you wikipedia):

  • The Chinese Soviet Republic (1931-1937) adopted a 19th century French socialist worker's song called L'Internationale** as their anthem. There was a line in the original (Nous ne sommes rien, soyons tout) that according to Wikipedia could be translated as 'we are nothing, let us be all'.
  • Qu Qiubai translated a version of this song from Russian into Chinese in 1923 which changed this line to mean 'Do not say that we have nothing.'
  • To my mind, the Chinese version has a sense of martyrdom inherent in its phrasing. They are being watched and judged by others who say they have nothing. Whereas the English translation seems to resound with solidarity and a proactive intent.
  • The anthem later became a rallying cry for the students during the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989.
  • Glenn Gould* (25 September 1932 – 4 October 1982) was a Canadian pianist. He became famous for his interpretations of Bach's music. His methods of recording, splicing, mixing and editing his performances in the studio caused controversy at the time. Critics questioned the authenticity of his work and made claims of imitation. More delicious multiplicity on Thien's behalf.
  • Historically China, was tolerant of sexual experimentation and same-sex couples. However in 1949***, homosexuality was declared to be a sign of Western bourgeois decadence and vice by the Communist Party. 
  • Treatment of homosexuals during the Cultural Revolution was harsh, many were humiliated in public and some were executed. They were forced into heterosexual marriages and all LGBTQ art and culture was destroyed. However, all sexual activity and discussion was considered lustful and decadent during this time. Personal choice was not important. Affairs, sexual freedom and even sex education in schools were all considered enemies of class. Neutral gender clothing was promoted and monogamy expected.
  • Some of the books read by the characters during the story - David Copperfield by Charles Dickens and Notes From the Underground by Fyodor Dostoevsky. Friedrich Schiller's On the Aesthetic Education of Man, Kang Youwei's Book of the Great Community and Border Town by Shen Congwen.
  • Thien was born in Vancouver. Her mother was born in Hongkong and her father was born in an ethnic Chinese area of Malaysia. They met whilst studying in Australia. The immigrated to Canada in 1974 just before Thien was born.

Saturday, 8 October 2016

Amsterdam by Ian McEwan

I picked up Amsterdam unexpectedly just as I finished Do Not Say We Have Nothing thanks to spotting a readalong with JoAnn @Lakeside Musing, Care's Books & Pies and Althira @Reading on a Rainy Day.

I adored DNSWHN to pieces and strongly wish, hope and desire that it wins this years Booker Prize (my review is here). But judging by previous Booker winners and shortlists, there is absolutely no guarantee that my favourite will also impress the judges.

Not having read any of the other shortlisted books for 1998, I cannot say whether Amsterdam was deserving of it's win or not but to my mind, choosing satire and black humour is always going to be a tough call. (I didn't enjoy The Finkler Question either which was categorised as comic or farcical - one person's funny is another's 'meh'.

Amsterdam and DNSWHN have many points of connect. But the strengths in DNSWHN show up the faults in Amsterdam; whereas the strengths (there are a few) in Amsterdam only add to the significance and the pleasure I received in reading DNSWHN.

I believed that Amsterdam was an unread book on my TBR shelf. At the beginning I was convinced that I was on new territory, but when I reached pg 66 I suddenly came across an underlined phrase. I had been here before!

The phrase was
unknowingly bending and colouring the past through the prism of his unhappiness.
Exactly the kind of phrase I would underline, and which I would have done so again with this read!

Why was this book so unmemorable to me?

The date of purchase gave me my first clue. 2005.

(I write my name, date and place of purchase in all of my books.)

2005 was the year when Mr Books and I rekindled our old love. It was a year of high emotional ferment and change for me. I struggled to read or settle to anything constructive that year. Amsterdam didn't stand a chance.

In fact the only section of the book that struck a familiar chord during this reread was Clive's walk in the Lakes District. The rest was like reading a completely new-to-me story. (Interestingly, McEwan himself likes to hike through the Lakes District & it was during a walk along the very same route that Clive took in the book, that he had the inspiration for this story - The Paris Review: The Art of Fiction 173).

McEwan can write wonderfully precise, thrilling, moving sentences. The hiking scene in the Lakes District is one of those times.

Amsterdam feels like it could be a Shakespearean tragedy - a dead woman, four men, a pact, the absurd comic relief of middle-aged men behaving badly as the big issues of fate, morality and civility play out. All it needs is Venice!

(Ha! I just got that Amsterdam is another European city with canals! Maybe there is more going on here than I first thought?)

No-one comes out unscathed. All the characters reveal their dark sides - their private tussles with civic duty, personal responsibility and getting the job done. The wife who lies to protect her family, the police who collude to catch/frame a criminal, the husband who lures his wife's lovers to their doom. Even the lovely Molly, who we only ever see through her lovers eyes, was in reality, an adulteress who had affairs with married men.

But the ending is disappointing. Too neat, too contrived, too implausible.
The black humour did provide a wry smile or two but there were no trademark McEwan twists or shocks to carry us through or to drive his point home.

I was left with a slightly unpleasant taste in my mouth and the conviction that McEwan despises everyone.

In the Paris Review interview linked above, McEwan mentioned that Amsterdam was one of those 'turning points' in his writing career and that
I could not have written Atonement without first writing Amsterdam.
For all it's curiosities and flaws, I will now always be grateful to Amsterdam for this fact alone.

Thank you to JoAnn, Althira & Care for having me along on their #damalong. It was #dam good fun!

My post on McEwan's previous books (that I have read) is here.

Thursday, 6 October 2016

The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett

Before Thomas Thwaites dreamed up the idea of being a GoatMan and before Peter Wohlleben communed with the trees in Germany, Frances Hodgson Burnett gave us the original back to nature, talk with the animals, boy child, Dickon.

Dickon is a kindred spirit to all the creatures that live on the moors. He mothers orphaned lambs and squirrels, talks to the robins and is followed around by a fox cub. He grows the best herbs and vegetables to feed his large family and he has the sunniest, most positive disposition of any human I've ever known!

He is too good to be true.

Mary and Colin are not.

Two more self-indulged, self-involved, selfish children you will not find anywhere.

The Magic of the garden and Dickon's influence changes all that though.

And there you have The Secret Garden in a nutshell.

My lovely Penguin Threads edition was designed by Jillian Tamaki. It's hand-stitched, then sculpt-embossed - front and back - to create a gorgeous tactile, aesthetically pleasing cover. I confess, the cover, ultimately, had more lasting appeal than the story.

The Secret Garden is one of those books I was sure that I had read as a child, but as the years went by I felt less and less certain about this. I knew what the book was about in general, but it didn't feel familiar or known.

Now that I have really and truly read it, I'm pretty sure that this was my first time.

The Indian section at the start and the finding of the garden were vaguely familiar, but I suspect I gave up on the book as a kid at this point. As an adult I loved the descriptions of the moors and the garden coming to life after winter, but as a kid I would have got bogged down by the exuberant and somewhat excessive garden love.

The preachy part of Burnett's voice, I could push into the background as an adult, but as a child, her obvious attempts to tell me how to be a good child got up my nose!

My thoughts and feelings about this book are more ambiguous now.

As an adult I could appreciate Burnett's use of perspective and how this led to her character's developing self-awareness and personal growth.

I thoroughly enjoyed the early sections that read like a homesick homage to English weather and seasons. I loved how she explored the healing nature of nature. I loved learning about 'wuthering' and the Yorkshire moors (a lovely nod to the Bronte's, I thought). The smells and textures and sounds of the moors were described beautifully - she made me want to go a wandering across the heather on the misty morn.

I was pleased to see an unlovely, unlikable, spoilt child as protagonist.

I felt uncomfortable with the racist attitudes towards the Indians, but could accept them as being of their times, reflecting the attitudes and assumptions of Victorian England. I felt a little weird about the miraculous cure of Colin, but of course, the only real malady he suffered from was hypochondria.

Mrs Sowerby, Dickon's mother, was a lovely, warm, generous character, but she also felt too good to be true most of the time. A mother of 12, living on the edge of the Yorkshire moors in grinding poverty being so cheerful and helpful and wholesome? Really?

I very definitely felt that the heavy handed 'magical' parable that the ending morphed into was evangelical and prissy. The only 'magic' involved in this story though, is the magic of mother nature doing her thing in the garden and some children discovering that keeping busy and active is better for you than sitting around bemoaning your aches and pains and only thinking about yourself. I'm not sure how this book has ended up with a magical realism tag in wikipedia.

I have since found out that Burnett embraced the tenets of Christian Science which believes that illness is an illusion that can only be cured by prayers. She also dabbled in the occult after the death of her son, Lionel. We can read The Secret Garden as being a tribute to Lionel and as a way for her to work through her depression and grief.

This explains the strong element of 'healing' via nature and 'beautiful thought', as Burnett called it, throughout the book.

I'm the first to acknowledge that being in nature and thinking positive thoughts are beneficial to one's health and well-being. A lovely story could have been crafted with this idea in mind. Colin's smug Magic lectures at the end could have happily been left out.

How did you find The Secret Garden when you reread as an adult?

Tuesday, 4 October 2016

Six Degrees of Separation

How do I get from a book about September 11 to a comfort read?

That's the wonder of Six Degrees of Separation.

The starting book this month is Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer

Extremely Loud is one of those books that I have never got around to reading, even though we did watch the movie with the boys. We found it to be extremely moving and incredibly thought-provoking (see what I did there?)

Another book that was made into a movie that we watched with the boys and found extremely beautiful and incredibly disturbing, but that I have never got around to reading is The Life of Pi by Yann Martel.

Unlike Extremely Loud though, I have tried to read The Life of Pi a few times, but I have never been able to get past the first few pages. It simply hasn't drawn me in enough to want to continue.

Another big selling, well-known Australian book that I have never been able to get beyond the first couple of pages is The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas.

The Slap is set in a suburban backyard, with a BBQ, several families with young children AND an incident. The moral and social dilemma's that unfold sound interesting, but I baulk at it every time.

When I first read the blurb for Liane Moriarty's latest book, Truly Madly Guilty, I thought 'uh-oh! It's another Slap.'

Although Truly Madly Guilty is also about a suburban backyard, with a BBQ, several families with young children AND an incident, the two writing styles, ways and means are so very different, that it's impossible to compare.

However there are two books, written decades apart, that you can compare and be genuinely astounded by their similar stories, characters, ways and means.

One is Colleen McCullough's The Ladies of Missalonghi and the other one, that many people believe that McCullough plagerised or at least forgot that she had read as a child & reused the storyline, was L. M. Montgomery's The Blue Castle.

Both stories feature a young woman living in stricken circumstances, with a bizarre health issue, a strange new man to town, an odd proposal, deceit and an unlikely romance. I have found myself curiously drawn to both versions over the years and consider both to be a rainy Sunday comfort read.

Another one of my favourite rainy Sunday comfort reads might be considered a curious choice by some. It's a near-future, end of the world, back to nature, coming of age story called Into the Forest by Jean Hegland.

There is something so utterly compelling and mesmerising about this story about two sisters left to fend for themselves that I usually read it in one binge-reading session late into the night!

Six Degrees of Separation is a monthly meme hosted by Kate @Books Are My Favourite and Best.
Next month the starting book will be Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro. Are you game?

Friday, 30 September 2016

Classic Club Spin 14

Here we go with the Classic Club Spin #14.

I've managed to be there for every single one.

My previous spins have been mostly successful and/or enjoyable. I've also enjoyed reading along with other Classic Clubbers during most of the spins:

#1 The Magnificent Ambersons with Cat @Tell Me A Story.

#2 Tess of the D'Urbervilles with JoAnn @Lakeside Musings & Several Four Many.

#3 My Cousin Rachel.

#4 The Brothers Karamazov  I gave up on this chunkster about halfway through, then I lost the book when we moved last year...serendipity, I say!

#5 The Odyssey with Plethora of Books. This one was a bit of a cheat as I had started it for another readalong, but struggled to finish. I added it to my list to motivate me to finish it. When no. 20 spun up it seemed like the gods had decreed it so!

#6 No Name by Wilkie Collins with Melbourne on My Mind.

#7 Silent Spring by Rachel Carson with Booker Talk - my first classic non-fiction spin.

#8 Vile Bodies by Evelyn Waugh has been my one and only dud Spin read so far.

#9 The Great World by David Malouf my first Australian classic spin.

#10 A Far Cry From Kensington by Muriel Spark.

#11 So Big by Edna Ferber with Christy where we experienced the joys of rediscovering a forgotten award winning classic.

#12 Dubliners by James Joyce was too depressing and hopeless for my current state of mind.

#13  The Catherine Wheel by Catherine Harrower - my second Aussie classic for a #ccspin.

#14 The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett

So here we go with spin 14....

1. The Secret Garden  by Frances Hodgson Burnett

6. Our Man in Havana by Graham Greene
shared author with Nancy @Ipsofactodotme

2. Villette by Charlotte Bronte
reading with JoAnn @Lakeside Musing

5. The Diary of a Provincial Lady by D. M. Delafield

18. The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath
reading with Sandra @A Corner of Cornwall

3. The Song of the Lark by Willa Cather
shared author with JoAnn @Lakeside Musing

14. Swords and Crowns and Rings by Ruth Park

12. Diary of a Nobody by George and Weddon Grossmith

9. Pere Goriot by Honore de Balzac

10. Picture of Dorian Gray by Osacr Wilde

7. Stoner by John Williams
reading with Care @Care's Books and Pie

8. Jamaica Inn by Rebecca du Maurier
reading with Anne @Headful of Books

13. A Glass of Blessings by Barbara Pym
shared author with JoAnn @Lakeside Musing

11. Far from the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy
reading with Margaret @Books Please

15. War of the Worlds by H G Wells

19. Night and Day by Virginia Woolf
shared author with Care @Care's Books and Pie and Anne@Headful of Books

17. The Silver Sword by Ian Serralier

4. Man and Wife by Wilkie Collins
shared author with JoAnn @Lakeside Musing

16. A Game of Hide and Seek by Elizabeth Taylor
reading with JoAnn @Lakeside Musing

20. Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame 

I may jiggle and tweak the numbers around a little between now and Monday if it means I can readalong with a fellow clubber once again.

Happy Spinning!


In a wonderful moment of spin synchronicity and simplicity, the book I have to read by the 1st December is book no. 1 on my list, The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett.

This weekend was a long weekend in NSW.

I'm almost finished the Booker shortlisted book, Do Not Say We Have Nothing. 
I'm loving it, but I knew I wouldn't be able to do it justice this weekend and I wanted to finish it properly with all due care and attention.

The book I grabbed off my TBR shelf as I was packing my bag was The Secret Garden.
It had a beautiful cover and seemed suitably light and easy for a busy weekend.

It was the perfect choice, especially as we were in rural NSW where the signs of Spring were bursting out everywhere - lilacs in bloom, daisies popping up by the side of the road, canola crops turning yellow as you watched them and plovers dive bombing us as we walked through the paddocks.

I'm now half way through it and will definitely be done by December 1st!

What did you spin up?

Thursday, 29 September 2016

The Greengage Summer by Rumer Godden

I love it when I discover a new-to-me author.

Margaret Rumer Godden (1907 - 1998) was an English author who wrote over 60 books of fiction and non-fiction.

She had a fascinating childhood.

Her father was a shipping company executive in Narayananj, India (now in Bangladesh). She and her three sisters spent their childhood divided between time in Colonial India and boarding school back in England. Godden trained as a dance teacher and returned to India to run a dance school with one of her sister's for twenty years.

She wrote her first novel during this time, in 1939, The Black Narcissus.

The Greengage Summer was written in 1958.

My 2013 Pan Macmillan edition has a preface from Godden herself explaining that this story is 'partly true'.

When she was 15 (in 1922), her mother, in a fit of despair declared 'we are going to the Battlefields of France.'

What followed was an exquisite coming of age tale about discovery, deceit and international thieves! Godden evoked the long, hot, lazy summer of rural France to perfection. All those awkward young adult urges and desires are remembered in painful detail. She also used foreshadowing and hindsight to great effect via her narrator, Cecil.

I enjoyed reading the story not knowing which bits were real and which bits were made up. The story was deliciously melodramatic at times and I would think, 'that can't possibly be true.' Reading the preface at the end was a wonderful realisation that sometimes life is indeed stranger than fiction.

I loved this so much, that I have now ordered a couple of Godden's Indian based stories - The Peacock Spring and Coromandel Sea Change.

My early thoughts on The Greengage Summer are here.

Highly recommended as an easy, engaging read when you're in the mood for a simple but pleasurable break from your heavier reads.

Tuesday, 27 September 2016

Top Ten Tuesday - My Spring TBR List

This week, Top Ten Tuesday is asking us for our Fall Spring TBR list.

Making a list of 10 books from my rather extensive TBR pile is actually pretty easy.
I have books piled up everywhere, at work and at home.

So, to make this challenge a little more interesting for me, this week's TTT will be books on my TBR pile with a Spring theme or reference.


 The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett

The gorgeous Penguin Threads cover on my edition of The Secret Garden.
Garden. Spring. Get it?
How on earth I got through my classics fuelled childhood without reading this, I do not know.


Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Rigg

- proem -

Sleep is not, death is not;
Who seem to die live.
House you were born in,
Friends of your Spring-time,
Old man and young maid,
Day's toil and its guerdon,
They are all vanishing,
Fleeing to fables,
Cannot be moored.

- Ralph Waldo Emerson -

The previous book cover on this book has always intrigued me, but the more colourful movie tie-in cover works for me too. I'm curious to see what Tim Burton has done with this movie, so I had better read the book sooner rather than later.


Suspended Sentences by Patrick Modiano

- chapter one -

I met Francis Jansen when I was nineteen, in the spring of 1964, and today I want to relate the little I know about him.

I've been wanting to read one of the 2014 Nobel prize winning author's adult books for well, two years now! 


Springtime by Michelle de Kretser

This is a nice slim ghost story by an Australian author. Perhaps I could make it work for R.I.P too?


The Shepherd's Life: A Tale of the Lakes District by James Rebanks

- contents -


This will probably make me want to travel again soon.
I've visited small sections of the Lakes District twice now & hope to return one day....


The Museum of Innocence: A Novel by Orhan Pamuk

- back cover blurb - 

It is a perfect spring day in Istanbul. 

Another Nobel prize winning author that I've been meaning to read for ages.
Spring in Istanbul sounds like a lovely thing to contemplate.


The Black Tulip by Alexandre Dumas

A bit of a stretch for this one, but it is true and correct that tulips flower in the springtime!


Cold Spring Harbor by Richard Yates


A Dance to the Music of Time: Volume One - Spring by Anthony Powell


The Boy Behind the Curtain by Tim Winton

Winton's powerful new memoir will be published by Hamish Hamilton in Australia this spring.
And I have an ARC!
Lucky me.

Saturday, 24 September 2016

Brona's Salon

I miss my old book club. A lot.

I miss discussing books with a group of like-minded, or at least fellow-minded bookish folk.

Each month we used to discuss our shared book, but we always left time at the end to chat about the other books we were reading too.

I do now get to discuss books at work (actually we discuss books at work all the time!) but it's usually on the fly. Quick comparisons or updates to let each other know what we like or don't like or who this particular book might work for (customer wise).

But it's not as satisfying as a bookclub style good old book natter (with a glass of fine wine in hand). These bookish  chats could go anywhere.
They could end up as book-movie comparisons, history discussions, author news (okay gossip!), character assassinations, what made a book a classic, or not.

This kind of bookclub chat may or may not work on a blog, but I thought it was worth a shot to recapture the old bookclub love.

I'll include a linky below. If you'd like to join in with what you're reading right now, then I'd love to chat about it with Brona's Salon.
What are your currently reading?
On and off, all that hot French August, we made ourselves ill from eating the greengages.... 

The faded elegance of Les Oeillets, with its bullet-scarred staircase and serene garden bounded by high walls; Eliot, the charming Englishman who became the children's guardian while their mother lay ill in hospital; sophisticated Mademoiselle Zizi, hotel patronne, and Eliot's devoted lover; 16 year old Joss, the oldest Grey girl, suddenly, achingly beautiful. And the Marne river flowing silent and slow beyond them all.... 

They would merge together in a gold-green summer of discovery, until the fruit rotted on the trees and cold seeped into their bones.... 

The Greengage Summer is Rumer Godden's tense, evocative portrait of love and deceit in the Champagne country of the Marne-which became a memorable film starring Kenneth More and Susannah York. 
How did you find out about this book?
A few months ago at work I was researching the best coming of age books for YA readers.
This was high up on the list. 
I had never heard of it before & the blurb made me curious.
Why are you reading it now? 
I'm in the middle of the Booker shortlisted book, Do Not Say We Have Nothing
I'm loving it, but we've just had a hugely busy week with Mr Book's 50th birthday. 
I've been too tired every night to concentrate on DNSWHN properly & I really want to do it properly. I needed something lighter and less challenging to get me through this Festival of 50 week.
The Greengage Summer has been the perfect choice so far.
First impressions? 
Delicious descriptions of the landscapes and the main characters.
I feel like I'm in the middle of summer in France!

I was a little confused at the start about the gender of all the children.

The amount of French phrases and dialogue is making it hard for this non-French speaker to know what's going on. Godden mostly gives clues in the responses, but I hate not knowing what's being said - exactly.
Which character do you relate to so far?
Our narrator, Cecil(ia).

She's not quite child; not quite adult at 13 years of age.
She struggles to find her sense of belonging.
She has lots of big ideas about how one should be when one travels.
She is a lovely mix of insecurity, strong opinions and insightful comments.
Are you happy to continue?
Where do you think the story will go? 
I hope no-one is taken against their will (sexually speaking).
I suspect, though, that it will mostly be a messy flirtation with complicated consequences.
I'm halfway through and I can't wait to find out what Eliot's secret is.

I believe there was a movie made too.

Have you read or watched The Greengage Summer?
What are your memories of it?
Should I try to find the movie?

Apparently The Greengage Summer was loosely based on a real summer holiday that Godden had with her family as a teenager.

According to Wikipedia, a salon is
a gathering of people under the roof of an inspiring host, held partly to amuse one another and partly to refine the taste and increase the knowledge of the participants through conversation.
I'm willing to be your 'inspiring' host, if you're willing to be amusing and refined!

Sunday, 18 September 2016

Our Souls At Night by Kent Haruf

Published posthumously in 2015, Our Souls At Night is a beautiful, gentle love story between two elderly neighbours, who bravely decide to seek comfort in the arms of each other every night rather than being sleepless and alone.

I first came across this book thanks to the rave reviews on our ABC's Bookclub program last month. Everyone loved it - a lot - and the next day at work we were swamped by requests for the book.

After waiting for the publishers to reprint the book, we finally got our stock and Our Souls At Night has been sitting on our bestsellers shelf ever since!

It's a slim book, with a simple story, that I read in about four hours. Not a lot happens, but the humanity and tenderness that oozes from every word makes for an enriching, unforgettable experience.

The only discordant note comes from the son who struggles to accept this new arrangement. His meanness of spirit is in such stark contrast to his mother's loving kindness that it almost felt a little contrived.

Jane Fonda and Robert Redford are starring in a Netflix production based on this book, which is fitting, as there were times when the emotions evoked in this story were reminiscent of those I experienced when watching On Golden Pond all those years ago.

Holt, Colorado is a fictional town that Haruf used for all his stories.

He was awarded the Wallace Stegner Award in 2012 for "faithfully and evocatively depicting the spirit of the American West."

Our Souls At Night continues this tradition as it is also firmly rooted in place. Although, Holt is fictional, his descriptions of the local area are very real and very evocative.

Max Liu @Picador wrote this lovely post, with photographs of the area, a couple of years ago when he met Haruf (pronounced to rhyme with sheriff) at home in Salida, Colorado.

I also enjoyed the fun Haruf had in chapter 34 when his characters were talking about going to the theatre.
Did you see they're going to do that last book about Holt County? The one with the old man dying and the preacher.
They did those other two so I guess they might as well do this one too, Louis said.
Did you see those earlier ones?
I saw them. But I cant imagine two old ranchers taking in a pregnant girl.
It might happen, she said. People can do the unexpected....

He could write a book about us. How would you like that?
I don't want to be in any book, Louis said.
But we're no more improbable than the story of the two old cattle ranchers.

The books referenced are Benediction (2013) which really was turned into a play performed at the Denver Centre Theatre in 2015, Plainsong (1999) and Eventide (2004).

Highly recommended for anyone with a heart!