Sunday, June 30, 2013

The Secret River

I just finished reading The Secret River by Kate Grenville, which is one of the 10 Aussie books to read before you die. Whilst writing this book, I just learnt that it is a part of a trilogy - it is a great stand-alone story, but it's good enough that I want more! So I will be reading the others as soon as I can.

Winner of the Commonwealth Prize for Literature, the Christina Stead Prize for fiction (NSW Premier's  Prize), the Community Relations Commission Prize, the Bookseller's Choice Award, the Fellowship of Australian Writers Prize and the Publishing Industry Book of the Year Award. It was also shortlisted for the Miles Franklin Award and the Man Booker Prize. So, it was well received!
   It's about the settling of the Hawkesbury river, near Sydney. William Thornhill is transported in 1806 from a life of poverty in London, to the struggle he faces on the frontier of a new settlement, but the prosperous lifestyle that results from his hard work.
   Unlike other similar stories along the same theme, the dark side of this story is the way the settlers deal with the local Darug Aboriginal people. Kate Grenville doesn't shy away from the racism and the attitudes of the time. It is confronting, and deals with the peer pressure within a small community of settlers. The main character is not a smart man, and he cannot express himself well, let alone explain or acknowledge his own feelings to himself. He grapples with knowing that the Aboriginal people are human beings like himself, yet keeps drawing distinctions to justify his actions and the actions of others - although he is repulsed by those actions at the same time.
   Unlike some of the others that made the list of 10 Aussie Books You Must Read, this one really is!

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

On the Jellicoe Road

This is a young adult novel by Australian author Melina Marchetta, which won the West Australia Young Readers Book Award in 2008, and the Michael L. Printz Award in the USA in 2009. It is a great story, and it reminds you how much emotion teenagers feel during those years, and how formative the teens can be.

It's set around a boarding school on the Jellicoe Road in regional New South Wales. The school mainly seems to be for gifted troubled children, and Melina Marchetta taps into the teenage angst very well. But the characters are still endearing, and you really want them to find stability and happiness.
   Heartrending at times, I admire how these teenagers act and their approach to life, despite everything that they have been through. It gave me a lot of hope that people, with the support of good friends, can make it through anything.
   I have read a couple of books recently with endings that seemed premature. This doesn't do that - and it is so satisfying. There were a few places where I thought "Oh, no. It's going to end here", but it continued on and tied up every loose end very neatly, and left me with such a glowing feeling at the end. A perfect young adult book.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

The Engagement

A novel Australian Chloe Hooper, The Engagement is a psychological thriller that leaves you wondering. I chose to read it after seeing it on The First Tuesday Book Club.

I was annoyed by Liese, the main character, so much that I am not sure if I can past that and actually appreciate the story. I suppose by achieving that level of emotional response, Chloe Hooper may have achieved her result.
   Liese gets herself into the most ridiculous situation - she pretends that she's a prostitute and then agrees to have a weekend alone with her only client. She doesn't tell anyone where she's going. Needless to say, the weekend doesn't turn out to be what she expected.
   The book is fairly explicit. The main character is not described in terms of her facial features, but in terms of her body shape and curves - as a sexual figure.
   Rather than being shocked by the ending, it annoyed me as much as Liese herself annoyed me! It was left so open-ended that your imagination could take it whichever way you wanted, and imagining the future for both characters is an endless question.
   Having said that, it was fairly engaging - the pace was ok - but I was screaming at Liese the whole way through - her thought processes were just ridiculous. So, her character development was well done, in that respect.
   From the above, it's clear that I didn't enjoy my experience with The Engagement, but it has intrigued me abut this author ...

Sunday, June 2, 2013

The Odd Angry Shot

The winner of the National Book Council Award in 1975, The Odd Angry Shot was written by William Nagle, an SAS soldier in the Vietnam War, and the book went on to become an iconic movie.

Of course, I have seen the movie - the iconic scene that I always remember is the fight between the scorpion and the spider. I also remember the boredom that was invoked - how much downtime they had (which isn't restful, but everyone is agitated and uncomfortable), and the constant waiting for the next patrol or useless mission and possibly death.
   The book was more powerful for me. It is such a short story, and is says more by what it doesn't say. The spaces between the words scream (the scream of a frustrated young man).
   The language is also very simple - it is perhaps how a young man thinks, and is written in the words that a young soldier would use.
   The camaraderie amongst the young men is very strong, but only 2 of the 4 come home. The surviving characters do not seem to deal with the death of their mates, nor do they seem to get any proper debriefing or psychological care. They are just let loose - they don't seem to be showing any signs of stress, so they must be fine. Or maybe is was just how they dealt with it back then - meaning they didn't.
   The language and the characters as also very Australian, and there seemed to be no coordination between the American and Australian forces in the novel - maybe that's how it felt or there - that there was no systematic approach; that it was all very haphazard. Like the way the book is written - short pieces of memory and scenes important to the narrator.
   This is something I should have read in high school, but it wasn't on the syllabus.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

The Harp In the South

This is a masterful little book by Ruth Park - The Harp In the South - which made the list of the 10 Aussie Books to Read Before You Die.

Based in the 1940s in Sydney, the story focuses on and Irish family, Hugh and Margaret Darcy, trying to raise their family amid the brothels, grog shops and run-down boarding houses of Surry Hills, where money is scarce and life is not easy.
   It was endearing that the narrator called Margaret 'Mumma', and Hugh was just 'Hughie' - it gave respect to the mother figure, and initially made me think that Hugh wasn't the girls' father, but then created a distance in the relationship between them.
   As well as the extreme poverty that they deal with, they have their grief of having had their middle son stolen off the street and never knowing what became of him.
   The story shines a flashlight on a period of time in their lives - they don't particularly achieve much, but seem to settle and accept the love they have for each other, and find a kind of happiness.
   The characters in this novel are all so real that you fall in love with them and feel their pain, and your heart wrenches for them.
   I think this novel also challenged a lot of concepts that people had on Sydney, at the time. I think it spurred authorities to clean up Surry Hills and make it the expensive, desirable (and trendy) suburb that it is today.