Saturday, September 29, 2007

The story is Thirteen Moons by Charles Frazier.

Will Cooper’s story begins as old man.

At the turn of the 20th century, the book’s protagonist Will lives in the same house he has occupied for nearly nine decades in the southern Appalachian Mountains. Nearly a century in age, Will is an eccentric, somewhat crotchety, high and mighty old man with an acute awareness of his failings yet no sense of remorse.

“I knew her grandfather back in the slavery days. Knew him and owned him, if I’m to tell the truth. I still wonder why he didn’t cut my throat… I’d have had it coming.”

Upon starting to read this book I immediately wondered how I could enjoy a story written through such unapologetic eyes. Yet as I turned each page it became apparent it was neither Frazier’s characterization nor his plot that was pulling me through. Rather, it was his thoughtfully written prose and well researched account of Cherokee life in the 19th century.

What I liked most about Thirteen Moons is the perspective it offers on indigenous people and colonialism in North Carolina in the 19th century. Frazier’s story includes the expected tragic elements of disease, alcoholism and eventual forced removal. However, these heartbreaks are contextualised by vivid descriptions of how Cherokee people were acting with and against the inevitable changes to their environment. For example, over the course of his life the “red-headed freckled Indian” Featherstone, a penniless runaway, transforms himself into a wealthy slave-owning plantation lord. Meanwhile the one-hundred and twenty year old Granny Squirrel lives in a shack in the forest, following the ‘old ways’ she practices an Indian magic so powerful that even Will is an ardent believer in her potions and prophecies. The contrast between these characters represents a broad spectrum of experiences that allows Frazier to avoid the stereotype of the “noble savage” while also conveying how brutal, senseless and complete the eventual break-up of The Nation really was.

What I liked least about Thirteen Moons was the “mysterious and beautiful” character of Claire; the love of Will’s life. She was a little bit too mysterious for me, to the point of seeming simple and selfish. As Will is driven to win and loose everything for the sake of love, I would have liked to have some inkling as to what made Claire so compelling. Frankly, she just seemed dull.

Frazier’s writing style, as we experienced in his first book Cold Mountain, is grand, long-winded and not afraid to be sentimental, which will probably turn a lot of readers off. I, however, loved its sincerity. I loved the ambition of an author who creates a character so large that within the course of 400 pages Will is bound into servitude, adopted by a native American tribe, builds an empire of trading posts, bears witness to the ‘Trail of Tears’, practices as a frontier lawyer, buys enough land to create his own ‘nation’, becomes a senator in Washington, a colonel in the American revolution, and of course falls madly in love with the one woman he can not have.

But don’t worry, these are not plot spoilers. As a story told in hindsight there are few surprises. Rather, Thirteen Moons reads like a series of short moral tales that are humorous, melancholic and endearing. Any sense of action or dramatics seems to get buried beneath Frazier’s verbosity. So while the blurb may sound like a rollicking adventure, Thirteen Moons is actually more like a stroll through history that places more emphasis on place rather than pace.

In conclusion: read it, but don’t read it all at once. My advice is to do what I did and lose the book halfway through and forget about it. Then, three weeks later find the book under your bed and pick up where you left off. It doesn’t go anywhere fast, but it does offer a poetic and personal glimpse into a distant and harsh period of American history.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

The Dressmaker by Rosalie Ham

The Dressmaker by Rosalie Ham.
Griffin Press, 2000.
An Australian gothic novel of love, hate and haute couture.
Set against the backdrop of Australian country town,
Dungatar, The Dressmaker centres around the story of Myrtle (‘Tilly’) Dunnage, who has returned to her childhood home to care for her mad mother.

Tilly is introduced as svelte and stylish, a competent traveller having worked in the fashion industry throughout Europe. It is eluded that she speaks several European languages, as well as being extremely good looking. Yet Ham, whose story is almost entirely character based, never once allows Tilly to become too perfect nor too much of a cliché. Tilly’s bitter past - which remains largely a secret until the completion of the novel, as well the illusions to her witch-like qualities, during which the book almost borders on super natural – blemishes the image of a perfect protagonist.

When Tilly does return to Dungatar, Ham introduces the readers to an array of incredible characters. The local policeman is a cross dresser. Evan Pettyman, the local councillor, is abusing his wife. Faith O’Brien, loving wife of Hamish, is having an affair with Reginald Blood, the butcher. Tilly’s own mother borders on insane. The local pub is full of an array of colourful characters, many whose stories stay with you longer than the plot of the book – which is virtually non-existence during the first half of the story.

Yet it is precisely Ham’s focus on these brilliant characters that saves the plot. Often she uses incredibly confronting images to create the image of a country town that is almost poisonous in its existence. Sexual abuse, character deaths and the characters own bizarre personal lives create the world of a Dungatar in such a way that led the Sydney Morning Herald to title it a ‘feral SeaChange’.

The Dressmaker centres on Tilly’s affect on the town, both in creating glamorous outfits for the women of Dungatar and in her personal affect on many of the characters, most especially Teddy McSwinney – a love interest that follows a tired road. The plot begins after the introduction of the major characters, yet stems into many sub-plots, each centring on each of the town folk.

Ham’s eye for the comedic as well as the copious caricatures of small town characters gives the book its gothic quality. Her attention to detail is pronounced and her craft of words creates the lasting image of a country town and it's colourful residents - one that will stay with you far longer than the ending.

Friday, September 21, 2007

On sharing

I've tried to love second-hand books. I really have. But it's a relationship fraught with crumbs.

It's not that I have no experience of pre-loved books. In the days before op-shopping was trendy, my mum was the mistress of the bargain. Of course, they were also the days when one could still pick up cashmere jumpers for 50 cents and desginer boots for a dollar. Novels were usually 10 cents each, so she'd come home with 10 at a time.

But only if they were clean.

I've inherited this fastidiousness when it comes to books. I just can't help it. Every time I think, "I really should get over this silly prejudice of mine," and start to browse in the book stall in the Central Market, I find a book that I want. Out of Africa, for instance, or A Passage to India. "Hmm, the cover looks OK," I think, eyeing off the $2 price tag. Bargain!

But invariably I open it and find preserved between its pages
(a) a slice of bacon;
(b) a large, fleshy, very flat moth; or
(c) crumbs.

I have no problem with using heavy books to press flowers. After all, it was the only thing I used the family Bible for when I was a kid. But I can only presume that the previous owners of these volumes had no bookmarks, no fly swats, a shortage of plates or all of the above. Hey presto, I drop the book back on the pile and wipe my hands on my jeans. Ford knows what else is on them!

Yes, I probably am a little OCD. I know. It's just that I like to read in bed and my bed is my temple. I don't even like to take library books into it.

And yes, I'm one of those people who goes into small fits of apoplexy over those dirty bastards who take communal newspapers into the toilet. After all, at some point, they have to put it on a potentially pee-besmirched floor. And if they aren't putting them down, then that's even worse.

About five years ago, before I was a half-hearted hack, I had a boss whom I hated even more than celery. Let's call him Boofhead, because he was. One of my daily jobs was the office media monitoring, clipping relevant stories from the newspapers to put into a folder for future reference. I'd done this peacefully for some years with my old boss, but when Boof arrived, the papers suddenly became... distasteful.

He would wander out of his office about 10 every morning, fetch up the paper and head for the men's. Twenty-five minutes later, the door would bang, he would reappear and he'd DROP THE PAPER IN MY IN-TRAY. After a few days of this, I fronted him up and said that if he was going to take the paper into the dunny, he could clip it himself because I would not be touching it. Being a lazy little swine, he had no intention of doing his own clippings, so he refrained ~hallelujah, angels blowing trumpets, etc.~

I'm also a little fussy about who I lend my books to. A uni friend borrowed my copy of Cloud Street some years ago. It was the edition with the nice cover, showing a terrace house. A few weeks later, she said, "Oh, you know your copy of Cloud Street." Er, yes? My current favourite book, you mean? "Yes, that's the one! Well, I dropped it in the bath." You dropped it in the what?! "Yes, it slipped. Anyway, I dried it with the hairdrier and it's almost as good as new. Well, the pages are a bit wavey. But you don't want me to buy you a new copy, do you?" DO I, FUCK! "Oh well, I wanted a copy myself anyway."

So, if you ask to borrow one of my books, you can expect me to ask whether you are a Chewer of Books. Do you dog-ear? Do you break their poor dear backs by leaving them open for days at a time? Do you leave them on the lawn or take them to the tropics? Do you shred dust jackets on hard covered books? Do you allow kittens to sharpen their claws on them? Do you borrow a book and keep it for the better part of a year? Are you, in short, no respecter of the printed word? Because if you aren't, you may get one of my books, but you'll never get a second.

Oh, bugger off. No, I wasn't an only child and I have no problem with sharing unless the sharee is the equivalent of a demolition ball crossed with the Myth Buster boys and a flame-thrower. Books are sacred, damn you!

Unless they're Bryce Courteney, Jackie Collins or VC Andrews. If they're pulp fiction, you can use 'em for barbecue kindling for all I care.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Book for September 07: Mister Pip

Mister Pip, Lloyd Jones, Text Publishing, $29.99

I chose Mister Pip with few expectations simply to get the group started. actonb suggested we might begin with a Booker-nominated book and at the time, it was on the long-list, along with wretched Ian McEwan’s On Chessil Beach. Since then it has both been short-listed and bumped McEwan from his position as favorite to take out the word’s most coveted literary award. I’m still annoyed with McEwan over the obnoxious first half of Atonement and he hasn’t paid enough yet. So, as Simpsons bully Nelson Muntz would say, hah-hah.

Mister Pip is a book of great beauty, but also one of fear, horror and trauma. New Zealander Lloyd Jones has created a convincing voice for Matilda, his young Papua New Guinean narrator. Through the pages of Dickens's Great Expectations, she learns to escape from the privations of life in blockade-stricken Bougainville into an unknown world.

The story begins in 1992, several years after PNG rebels led by Francis Ona sabotaged the Panguna Copper Mine, shutting it down. When a blockade is thrown up around the island by government troops, no-one in Matilda’s village is particularly worried – until the generator fuel runs out and the hospital is raided of its medicines by the soldiers. By the time the last boat for Rabaul leaves, everyone has begun to realise what the war means.

The only white who stays behind when that last boat sails is Tom Watts, also known as Pop Eye for the bulging eyes that “made you think of someone who couldn’t get out of the house quickly enough”. To begin with, Pop Eye is a figure of fun. He pulls his mad local wife Grace about on a bamboo trolley while wearing a bright red clown’s nose. The children have watched in fascination, but none of them has ever heard him speak until he takes over as their teacher.

He struggles with arithmetic, can’t identify the weird fish that washes up on the beach and can’t tell the children why Aristotle, Einstein and Darwin are famous, but he knows Charles Dickens back to front. He introduces the children to the English writer, reading Great Expectations aloud at the rate of a chapter a day.

Mr Watts is a skilful creation. He is a Robinson Crusoe-like character, appearing on the island from the unknown outside world. Instead of a meek Man Friday, Mr Watts has a village full of people who simultaneously look up to because he is white and thinking him slightly simple because he has few practical skills. He has his flaws and his shortcomings, but he is a hugely compelling character.

When he reads to the class, he becomes a part of the story he tells. The line between writer, reader and character blurs as he variously claims to be Charles Dickens and Pip. Mr Watts is in his element when he takes the role of a male Scheherezade, renting his life for a week from a rabble of rebel soldiers by stringing out the story of his life night after night.

But on the seventh day, when the tale is all but told, the rebels disappear and are replaced by government soldiers who shoot Mr Watts, chop him up and throw his body to the pigs in a shocking act of retribution.

Mister Pip is about the power of books and reading, but it also focuses on contradictions: how life can be simultaneously simple and complex, beautiful and horrifying and how one person can be both brave and weak.

Matilda’s mother is a prime example of this. She is an angry woman who hates Mr Watts for his lack of faith and takes every chance to score points against him. Her anger is partially to blame for the suffering inflicted by the soldiers on the villagers. Nevertheless, she chooses to stand up for Mr Watts in the end, when it is already too late, declaring herself to be God’s witness to his murder and signing her own death warrant.

Jones’s writing is both lyrical and simple. In Matilda’s naïve voice, he has created something akin to Mark Haddon’s autistic narrator in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime. Jones has skimmed close to Matilda being just a stereotypical ‘simple islander’. After all, would it be realistic to give a 15-year-old white Australian girl a similar voice? He weathers the storm, though, creating a realistic narrator with a full range of thoughts and feelings.

Jones’s turn of phrase can be breathtaking. Sentences such as, “A fish leapt in my heart”, set him apart from the crowd and would make him a worthy Booker winner.

That, and the fact that he’s not Ian McEwan.

Right, I’ve done my bit. It’s your turn now. Let the tournament begin.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Hating Humbert Humbert

Among the other fine texts of import that I have been ploughing my way through of late, I recently read Nabokov's Lolita, for the first - and likely last - time.

For those that don't know it, it's the story of Humbert Humbert. Humbert likes young girls. A little too much. So much so that he moves in with and then marries a woman he dislikes just so he can get close to her twelve-year-old daughter, and then plots various ways in which to get the mother out of the way so he can drug the daughter and have his way with her. Conveniently for him, the mother is killed in an accident and he runs off on a cross-American road trip with the daughter - Dolores, or Lolita.

The way he tells it, while he admits wanting to make the moves, she seduces him, and is a willing and active participant - albeit later seemingly rather weary - in their very non-father-daughter relationship.

It's a very uncomfortable read - apparently it's a comedy, but I didn't particularly find Humbert funny so much as creepy and disturbing. I also couldn't tell whether I was supposed to feel sorry for him, because I couldn't do that. He struck me as a cruel and selfish man who seemed to have no interest in the way his desires were affecting those around him.

I guess the main thing this book got me thinking was this: Is it possible to like a book if you feel so strongly negative about its protagonist?

It's not something I've come across too often. Having a look over my bookshelf there's not a lot there where the protagonist is a horrible person. Sometimes they do horrible things, and as a reader I disagree with their choices, but I can't think of any examples where they are just bad people.

My most recent point of reference, if I have to find one, is The Corrections, which I loved. Franzen's characters were all deeply flawed and, in some ways, very unlikeable people, and yet their story really drew me in and I missed them when it ended.

I think the difference is that I could sympathise with those characters. I didn't like them, but through the story I could sort of see how they'd ended up where they had in life.

The other factor, I think, is that for the most part they knew they were flawed. Humbert only ever seems apologetic about his actions in order to be thought of well by the reader, not because he actually thinks he has done anything wrong, and at times he seems to be trying to present himself as the victim in the mess he has created. And I just couldn't get behind that.

In the end, it's a bit of a moot point because I didn't love Lolita for more reasons than just Humbert's awfulness. The story annoyed me and the writing style kept me from getting nicely lost in the plot. I just didn't care and I think that not caring led to a not particularly careful read, so at the end, when I was supposed to be able to 'guess' certain twists, I had no idea. And I didn't even care that I had no idea.

I do wonder though, if I could have forgiven more of the books shortcomings if Humbert hadn't been so determined to make me hate him.

Cross-posted here.

Sunday, September 9, 2007


TITLE: The Triumph of the Sun
AUTHOR: Wilbur Smith
GENRE:Historical Fiction/Adventure


An Epic tale of romance, adventure and unimaginable horrors in the deserts of the Sudan and Egypt…

Prologue: I have to say, first up, that I am an avid Wilbur Smith reader. I have his entire collection in Hardback and have read them all many times. The exception is his last novel, which I will not go into, but just let me say it was tragic in every aspect. I have noted in your comments, that many of you dislike ‘packaged’ writing but I find sanctuary in these types of novels as they lead me through history, peoples and landscapes that I would not normally read about through the more normal channels of history texts. His research is impeccable and like Alfredo Massimo Manfredi’sAlexander series, I find that I better understand history and its peoples. I am not naive enough to believe that they do not embellish history to suite their stories but in the main they are true to History as recorded and after all is not history just the biased written word of the victor? Smith has led me through the Arab and Western Slave trade, White Settlement, the Zulu wars, the gold and diamond rushes, the Boer Wars, WWI and WWII, the apartheid era, Egypt, Namibia, South Africa, Rhodesia/Zimbabwe and all the while he let me see Africa’s history from a personnel level. It is, raw, majestic and brutal. He has painted the pictures for my mind and I have opened it up for him. If you cannot imagine and feel his environment then Wilbur is not for you. Now on with my attempt to paint a picture of Mr Smiths “Triumph in the Sun”…

Theme: Set in the Sudan during the siege of Khartoum. The Mahdi ‘The Expected One’ has declared a Holy War and aims to cleanse the land of the unbelievers through his fanatical Dervish armies.

This book ties the two great British ‘Smith’ families of the Courtneys (Sound of Thunder, When the Lion Feeds etc) and Ballantynes (A Falcon Flies, Men of Men etc) together for the first time in their African timeline.

It centres around two main male characters; Captain Penrod Ballantyne of the King’s 10th Hussars and the enigmatic Ryder Courtney, the Captain of a river trader. They are based in the besieged City of Khartoum under attack from the Mahdi, himself residing in the twin city of Omdurman a canon shot away, across the quickly receding Nile River. The river is the only barrier protecting those trapped inside Khartoum’s walls. A third male lead is introduced and offers an insight into the mind and culture of the supporters of the Mahdi…Osman Atalan is an Emir the Beja tribe and introduces us to an underlying core set of values and true morality, from his perspective. It is a truly wondrous and at times brutal ride.

The women, and there is always a love interest, centre around the daughters of the widowed British Consul, Sir David Benbrook. His eldest daughter Rebecca captures the heart of all the male leads while her twin, younger sisters eventually usurp her as the love interest of the British leads.

Sir Charles ‘Chinese’ Gordan is one of the non fictional characters whom link our fictional characters into history. He is/was an infamous English General sequestered into the Egyptian Army as the commander-in-chief, the Sirdar. He was ostensibly sent to Khartoum to evacuate the western population and the Egyptian garrison but defied inducements to evacuate, leading to his demise. Lord Kitchener, plays a hand eventually, and finally subdues the Sudan by 1898 before terrorising the Boers and then later the Germans on the Western Front of France.

The novel is based on history and we follow actual events through the eyes and actions of our fictional and non fictional characters. We find ourselves in the midst of actual battles fighting alongside everyone from the British camel corp to the Ansar of the Mahdi. Smith’s characters are always larger than life, strong, brave and handsome and through either actions or birth are destined for greatness.

Whilst his hallmark passages of epic battles, dusty and dangerous elephant hunts and fiery romance abound in this adventure, in droves, there is also the historical tale that has been researched very well….although, disappointingly, the last thirty years, or so, seem to be crammed into the final few pages to get to end the Sudanese saga.

One of my big criticisms of this and his later books is that, Smith steps aside from his tried and true and some would say ‘packaged’ stories…”Boy meets girl, Boy great Warrior/Adventurer/Entrepreneur, Epic adventure with African backdrop of wild animals and wild natives, Boy wins girl”…and possibly debases his female characters and the read by trying to intersperse rather graphic – for Wilbur – Sex scenes into his book. These tacky scenes do nothing for the story or the characters nor do they do anything for Smith or the reader. His attempts at describing lovemaking are akin to fingernails being dragged down a blackboard…they made me cringe.

So there we have it…adventure, romance, brutality, war, love and religion...all we need now is a Starbuck’s and we would have it all. As I said in my prologue, I am a great Smith fan and I forgive his weaknesses and his repetitive narrative* because I see beyond his writing and lose my self in the historical canvass he paints of the wondrous times and events of history.

Thanks for reading :)

* Smith quotes, almost verbatim, certain events that happen time and again through his sagas like whenever a lion attacks; we can smell its cadaverous breath and visualise its yellow eyes or when an Elephant sucks the air and blows the scent onto its olfactory gland by use of its trunk. He explains it very well and we can really see the moment but when you read almost the same passage in every novel it gets a bit rich. It is almost like he is too lazy to write it another way so he just cuts and pastes these little snippets.

Friday, September 7, 2007

Reading notes

Not to lower the tone of things, but my mother-in-law has just been to stay and left a great stash of trash. So if any of you need to know the latest status on Brad/Jen/Angelina/Brad's mum; Diana's heartbroken children; the night that Britney and KFed were both spotted out on the town (where were the kids); or the increasing influence of Posh over Kat, do let me know.

I have also just finished reading Last Drinks by Andrew McGahan. I know, you read it years ago, but if you didn't, I do recommend that you make time to read it now. Set in Queensland, post those days, it's kind of crime, but kind of not. It's interesting, to read a story narrated by a protaganist you're never quite sure you completely dislike.

Thursday, September 6, 2007

The Pharmacist's Mate by Amy Fusselman

I have read The Pharmacist’s Mate by Amy Fusselman from cover-to-cover three nights running. I’m still not entirely sure I’ve got to the bottom of it.

The Pharmacist’s Mate is a memoir of Fusselman’s experiences trying to get pregnant after the death of her father. It has a loose narrative structure, but is more “point-in-time” than linear. It ranges from matter-of-fact observations about the colour of semen which has been “washed” for insemination (pink), to musings about the way in which deaf people might interpret guitar-playing as a visual activity.

Fusselman is what other writers might consider achingly honest. She records her thoughts without fear or favour – an observation that she thinks “My Dad is Dead” would be a good name for a boy child is delivered in the same voice as her description of her mother’s visions of “something” in the room with them.

Fusselman’s writing is blog-like and conversational. She records her thoughts in a series of staccato paragraphs which are interspersed with entries from her father’s diaries as a Pharmacist-Purser’s Mate on a merchant marine vessel during World War II.

She doesn’t like the word “husband” (“it sounds like we had a party and ate cake and said words”). She is intrigued by the type of porn her husband watches at the IVF clinic (“Valentino’s Asian Invasion”). She writes in a detached way about her inability to become pregnant.

There is something about the tone of this novel which gives it a kind of sleeper effect. In some ways, the tone of writing is similar to Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho: shattering events are given the same treatment as everyday occurrences.

If I were the kind of smash-grab spin writer who might prepare a blurb on this book for Oprah, I’d observe that it “has something for everyone” – which it does in some ways. But it’s an unsettling read despite its tone, and although it goes into some detail about Fusselman’s almost accidental attendance at an AC/DC concert, AC/DC fans would find it a thin read if this was their focus.

It’s possible I may be able to tie this book down after a few more reads, but I wouldn’t bet my life on it. In the meantime I’ll be recommending it to friends, and I suspect lending it to several people.

Anyone else who is interested can get it at a bargain-basement price from McSweeney’s Internet Tendency

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Orpheus Lost

Orpheus Lost, Janette Turner Hospital, Harper Collins, $29.95

Set in a near future when suicide bombers strike at will in American cities and people are snatched from the street for interrogation by mercenaries, Orpheus Lost is a tale of love in a time of terror.

Mishka is an Australian violinst who lives in his music, while Leela is an intimidatingly intelligent young woman from the Deep South who is researching the mathetmatics of music. This unlikely pair meets and falls in love in the underworld of the Boston subway when she is drawn to his soulful violin.

With his Jewish background and dreamy vagueness when faced with the real world, Mishka is the least likely terrorist imaginable. When masked men kidnap Leela and question her about her lover’s apparent double life and jihadi connections, she thinks the world has finally gone mad. To make things even more surreal, her hooded interrogator turns out to be her childhood friend, the bizarrely named and deeply troubled Cobb Slaughter.

Follwing a suicide bombing that destroys a bus, Mishka suddenly bolts, making himself look blindingly guilty. He leaves for Beirut with a fake passport in another name and vanishes from a street corner, but Leela still refuses to believe he could be involved in the bombings.

Turner Hospital has taken the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice and turned it on its head. Instead of a resolute Orpheus venturing into the underworld to bring back his lost love, it is Eurydice who is the stronger character and who launches the rescue mission.

This is the second of Turner Hospital’s terror books, following on from Due Preparations for the Plague, a chilling retelling of Boccaccio’s Decameron that substitutes hostages from a hijacked plane waiting to choke on poison gas for the revelers waiting for the bloom of the Black Death.

Turner Hospital's writing is evocative and in places beautifully wrought. She brings to life the wet tropics of Far North Queensland, a small and down-at-heel town in South Carolina and a subterranean gulag with equal skill. The supporting cast of characters is pleasingly complex: there is Leela's father, the mad and dying preacher who takes numbers far too seriously; Cobb's father, an alcoholic veteran who was demonised as a war criminal on his return from Vietnam; and Mishka's mother, who perpetrates the myth that an uncle dead for decades is actually playing his violin just upstairs.

The only real sense of a character with something lacking comes with Mishka. Though devoted to his music and to Leela, compared to other, stronger characters, he comes across as somewhat limp and weak. Sometimes he appears to be little more than a symbolic victim waiting meekly to be sacrificed

Orpheus Lost returns to the writer’s favourite themes of disappearance, loss, redemption and the rubbery and difficult nature of truth. The lines between reality, illusion and delusion, between right and wrong are blurred. Despite Mishka's shortcomings, this is a satisfying, intelligent read that never loses faith in humankind, despite the difficult and trying times against which it is set.

My Sister's Keeper

Title: My Sister's Keeper
Author: Jodi Picoult
Publisher: Atria Books, 2004

Written more in the style of a movie than a book, My Sister's Keeper outlines the story of a family torn apart and drawn back together by their decisions in supporting a child with an acute form of leukemia.

The story is told from multiple points of view, but it is mostly about Anna, the youngest of three children who was conceived in order to be a bone marrow donor for her sister Kate, who suffers said leukemia.
Anna, 13, decides she wants medical emancipation from her parents - and informs them of this by filing a law suit. It isn't clear, until the final pages of the book, just why Anna files the law-suit originally, as we, the reader, are only given opinions of those surrounding Anna, she herslef never divulges the reasoning behind her decision.

This book touches on many issues, but central to the plot - should society allow parents to decide whether or not one child should become a donor for another, sick, sibling?
I believe that the characters presented, within Anna's family are all believable. Jesse (brother) and Anna clearly show the effects of being neglected, in an emotional sense, by their parents, especially the mother, who are entirely focused on having three healthy children, ie. dedicating most of their time to Kate (although i think Brian, the father, is not so much guilty of this as the mother. He appears more in-touch with the states of all his children and the mother's clear 'writing-off' of Jesse is depressing in the fact that it is so common amongst youth of my generation who are misunderstood and get caught up in drugs and other bad practices).

To me, the characters presented outside the family, Julia and Campbell, diminish the quality of the rest of the book as they are much harder to believe. Their sub-plot does add some much needed distraction from the times within the book when Sara, the mother - and easily the most unlikeable character - is talking from her viewpoint.

All in all, this book is a fabulous read that touches on some of the hottest topics relevant in today's society from IVF and genetic engineering to just how much can a parent control their child?

Sunday, September 2, 2007


The Facts: Callisto (Torsten Kroll, 2007 Picador by Pan Macmillan Australia) rrp $32.95 Available everywhere


Torsten Krol, if he exists and isn't (as suspected) a pseudoym for some well-known author who is worried that writing something like this could be potentially damaging to his or her marketability in the US, lives in Queensland. This is his second book and if you can find out any more than that about him, you're a better Sunday morning researcher than I am.

Callisto is one of those books that currently seems to be near the front door of most bookshops, like they’re either trying to create a bestseller or just get rid of it. I picked it up because, well, bright colours and glossy covers appeal to that simple side of my brain.

When I started reading it, I wasn’t sure what to make of it. Now that I’m done - I’m still wondering.

This is the story of Odell Deefus: a young, white, poor American male, on his way to join the army. He hasn’t got a high school diploma, but he’s pretty sure that won’t matter, because the army is desperate, what with the war killing off all their personnel and a general reluctance among would-be recruits to be next. On his way to his local recruiting centre, his car breaks down and he meets Dean Lowry, who puts him up for the night until he can get his truck fixed.

It’s an ill-fated meeting, with Dean ending up dead and Odell getting caught up in multiple terror plots, a little drug smuggling, murder and late-night TV Christianity.

On the surface, Callisto is just your typical wrong-place-wrong-time story, sitting somewhere in the genre intersection between small-town fish-out-of-water, crime and political thriller. Read a little deeper, however, and its loftier ambitions become apparent.

Callisto reminds me in some ways of Winston Groom’s Forrest Gump, in that it’s a story told through the eyes of a rather dim-witted soul who keeps getting caught up in quite remarkable events – thankfully, there’s not so much of the tweeness and no t-shirtable sayings. Krol has obviously given Odell’s ‘voice’ a lot of thought, and the result is convincing, without getting annoying. Odell isn’t particularly likeable, and I spent a lot of the book marveling at his stupidity, but ultimately you do feel for him and want him to get away – if only because he didn’t do anything (much).

This is actually quite a political book, and Krol finds ways to work in commentary on a gamut of issues – from homophobia and the church-state divide to the guilty-until-proven-innocent treatment of suspected terrorists, with many in between. It’s not always successful, but for the most part it is thought-provoking and the ‘message’ is pretty clear: something is rotten in the Untied States of America.

Callisto seems a little unsure of itself at times, like it can’t decide whether it wants to be pulp fiction or serious literature. Some of the ideas are a little clunky and the way all the loose ends tie up at the end is a little bit forced – as though Krol wrote himself into a corner and didn’t really know how to get himself out.

Ultimately, though, this is a fairly easy, if not always light, read. It’s a black comedy that just keeps getting blacker and that bad taste in your mouth through the last hundred or so pages – well, that’s kind of the point.

Saturday, September 1, 2007

Book for October 07

My instinctive reaction on finding myself first cab off the rank in the reviews, to follow the extremely polished performance of redcap was...well, you can imagine!

I pondered long and hard. Stayed awake at nights. Trawled bookshops like a woman possessed - which I was. Then realised the solution was staring me in the face.

A fabulous book by a local author which I had recently had recommended to me. I had bought it, been unable to put it down till I finished it, then, carried away with enthusiasm, had lent it to the next person to arrive at my house.

As is the way, that was the last I heard of my prized possession until now. I have recovered it and am re-reading it. I really hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

I am in Hobart, and the author, John Honey, is also a local. I have spoken to John and warned him about what I was about to do, so he knows exactly what the score is.

The description on the back of the book reads, "Kevin 'Boris' Goodenough, Vietnam vet and reclusive artist, loves food, wine, women.....and paint. When an old post-traumatic dream recurs he launches on a major series of paintings about war. Suddenly his world changes, then threatens to fall apart...."

It's an easy read. One I identified very much with, being the progeny of an artist.

It is currently in the planning stage of being made into a movie, with the first draft of the screen play having been finalised in March this year. It is now in script development. The producer, Rosemary Blight, has been working on her recent production, Clubland, with Brenda Blethyn. It is looking like a 2009 film, at this stage.

John Honey has worked inTV/current affairs and film & TV writing/directing. He made the Tasmanian movie "Manganini" and worked in the US in the 90's making TV documentaries. He was also an original writer on the team of McLeods Daughters.

The book is only available from the author. He published it himself, so the details of how to obtain your copy are:

Cost of book is $29.95
No postage or handling will be charged within Australia
You can email or call direct or fax your details
email directly:
or call John on 03 6267 2331
or fax your address and credit card details to 03 62671036

John is an incredibly straightforward person with no delusions of grandeur at all. If you want to call him for a copy of the book, just pick up the phone!
Be warned though, he has a stall at the infamous (Hobart) Salamanca Market, peddling his book, so that's where he is to be found every Saturday.