I discovered Kate Morton a little over a year ago, when I read and reviewed her new book The Secret Keeper for Lip Magazine. I instantly fell in love with the author, and was determined to read her back list. For Christmas last year, I got given The Shifting Fog, and have been yet to read it. So it seems only fitting that I begin my 100 Homegrown Reads Challenge with the book.
I haven’t read much of the book yet, but already I’m captivated. A film maker is making a film about a mysterious suicide which occurred in an old English mansion in 1924. In 1999, 98 year-old Grace Bradley is the only person still living who can shed any light on what occurred that night at Riverton Manor. The film maker contacts Grace to ask if she would review the sets to make sure the details are correct, and Grace’s memory sends her back to 1924.
Morton begins the novel with a scene written as though it is part of the film maker’s movie script, and I must admit, it is quite off-putting to open the first page and be confronted by a movie script. I wanted to be immediately drawn into the story, and Morton’s beautiful prose, and starting with the script removed my interest immediately. But once I found the courage to actually start the novel, I didn’t want to put it down. I am especially eager to find out how the mystery of the suicide is resolved, given the brilliant twist Morton injected into the end of The Secret Keeper.
Morton is another Australian writer who chooses to write stories set in other countries, but her inclusion on the list of favourite home grown reads shows that it is not the locality of a novel which necessarily makes a novel Australian, but the nationality of the author who writes the story. And when the writer is as good as Kate Morton is, why would we claim her books are anything but Australian? Looking forward to all the twists and turns I’ll undoubtedly discover in The Shifting Fog!
Deborah O’Brien’s The Jade Widow caught my attention for two reasons: one, it is set in Australian society in the 1880s, and two, O’Brien’s two protagonists are women. I have read very little, fiction or otherwise, set in Australia in that time period, particularly with a narrative revolving around the role of women at the time.
The Jade Widow is the sequel to Mr Chen’s Emporium, and continues the story of Eliza Miller, who is attempting to forge a career as one of Australia’s first female doctors, and Amy Chen, who is still mourning the death of her husband twelve years after the event, and has big plans for establishing a grand hotel in Millbrooke in country New South Wales.
Although I hadn’t read the prequel, I found it easy to slip into the world of The Jade Widow. O’Brien’s characters are full of life, and her writing sucks the reader into the time period and holds them there as her two strong female protagonists each try to carve a place for themselves in a man’s world. Several prominent figures from Australia’s history make appearances in the book, and O’Brien’s writing wonderfully captures what life was like in ‘the colony’ before federation.
Even so, at times the dialogue in the book feels clumsy, as though O’Brien is trying to offload as much information about the era as possible through her characters’ interactions, and that pulled me out of the story and made me feel like I was reading a history textbook. Despite this, the overall charm of the book is enough to overcome these moments.
The biggest disappointment for me with this book was the ending. It felt very abrupt, and many of the issues discussed in the novel, such as whether a woman can have a career and a family, were left unfinished and undealt with. I can accept that these issues were very new ideas for the era, and that even now women do not have all the answers and are still trying to balance family and career, yet I wished for there to be more resolution in both Eliza and Amy’s narratives, offering more closure to this particular chapter of their lives.
Still, it was refreshing to read a novel about Australian women and their place in Australian society in the 1880s, and O’Brien does a wonderful job of portraying the expectations of women and the obstacles they faced at the time. This novel made me thankful for those women who lived in the years before me, who pioneered the women’s movement and feminism, and made it ordinary, not extraordinary, for women to have careers in whichever field they choose.
Published by Random House, 2013
After all the attention Romy Ash’s debut Floundering has received this year, and all the praise I’d heard about the novel, it sounded like a book I would enjoy, and one which I had to read. Somehow, despite everything I’d read and heard about the novel before I started reading it, when I delved into the pages I found myself lost in something completely different to what I had expected, and I wonder if this surprise was part of the reason I loved this novel so much.
Brothers Tom and Jordy get left on their grandparents’ doorstep by their mother, Loretta. Then out of the blue, she returns, and takes the boys back. Told through the eyes of nine-year old Tom, I found this novel heart-breaking. Ash’s prose is both stark and mellow, as she pulls the reader into Tom’s world, where even the most unusual situations don’t seem out of the ordinary to the young boy. I fought back tears for much of the novel, and alternated between anger and sadness for Loretta, who clearly tries her best but doesn’t have much idea. I admired the boys and their resilience, as the book serves as a reminder that while kids are resilient people, who knows what long-lasting effects certain events may have on the rest of their lives?
Books I love I can usually read again and again, but I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to read Floundering again. The writing is raw, the emotion real and I convinced myself that what I was reading was real. Ash brought the vast Australian landscape to life, where it’s not difficult to feel like you’re the last person on earth, together with characters who could be those people who live just down the road, or those kids you knew from school. Floundering is a novel which isn’t easy to forget, and, despite evoking so much emotion, is very enjoyable to read. But maybe only once.
Floundering, Romy Ash. Text Publishing, 2012
Hannah Kent was a legacy at our university. She took the same creative writing degree as I undertook a few years after her, and our lecturers were always talking about her, and how she moved to Melbourne and started her very own lit journal, Kill Your Darlings. Now, the uni has even more reason to be proud of their PhD candidate, as Kent’s debut novel Burial Rites won the Australian Unpublished Manuscript Award in 2011 and subsequently a bidding war began over the publication rights to her manuscript. The hype leading up to the release of the book, particularly in South Australia, was enormous. And it hardly seems fair that a debut should have such high expectations before the public has even read a page.
I couldn’t wait to read this story about the last woman, Agnus Magnusdottoir, to be executed in Iceland. Burial Rites is Kent’s fictional account of the circumstances surrounding her protagonist’s execution, and the last months of the woman’s life before the execution. I enjoyed reading the book, but for me it wasn’t more than simply interesting. That is not to criticise the writing itself; which is sharp, considered and paints a beautiful picture of the Icelandic countryside. But for me, knowing from the outset the fate of Agnus Magnusdottoir robbed the novel of the intrigue and suspense which otherwise would have made the book one which I couldn’t put down.
Before I read the book, I read an article Kent wrote for Kill Your Darlings, about the process of researching, writing and getting Burial Rites published. It is one of the most honest, passionate and frank articles I have ever read about writing and getting published, and captures the stress, self-doubt and persistence which is required to not only actually complete a novel, but to find a publisher and re-edit a manuscript for publication.
While Burial Rites is not one of my favourite books, it is a book which definitely deserves the hype surrounding it, and is well worth reading. After all, to not know that Agnus Magnusdottoir was a real person or her fate before reading is an injustice to her legacy. Kent skilfully explores another side of the story, suggesting that nothing is ever as black and white as it seems.
Published Picador, 2013
Due to my travels until the end of September, the next book club book won’t be posted until October, and my posts will be more infrequent than usual while I’m away. I am, however, reading, and will have lots to post about when I return if I don’t manage in the meantime!
Gary Crew is an author I first discovered through his picture books, most notably The Watertower. The Children’s Writer is the first novel I’ve read by Crew. The characters in his novel are really hard to like, with all their human imperfections, but despite that, or maybe in spite of that, I really enjoyed this book in the end.
Charlie Bloome is a uni student and an aspiring writer who all of a sudden finds himself in danger of losing his girlfriend Lootie to Sebastian Chanteleer, a children’s writer with a strong distaste for children. The charm of this book is the fact that these three main characters leave a lot to be desired. The flaws in these characters make them jump off the page, as though they are real people, and not fictional creations. Their imperfections made me take a good hard look at myself whilst I was reading. All the more so because I am a writer myself, and Sebastian Chanteleer embodies the fears and insecurities of a writer, albeit in him, those fears and insecurities manifest in smugness and snobbishness.
I personally feel that Crew is at his best with picture books, and while this novel was interesting, the plot didn’t pull me in and hold me there until the end. There were times I put it aside in frustration halfway through a chapter; although after a day or so I felt the need to pick the book up again. So while it was a novel I could put down, it wasn’t a novel I could put down and never pick up again. Once I started reading, I needed to know what happened in the end. And, for me, endings make or break a book. There have been many books I’ve loved until the ending, where those final pages have culled the book from my list of favourites. Similarly, books which had only mildly kept my interest have completely changed my opinion in those last few words, propelling the book onto my list of favourites.
While I wouldn’t call The Children’s Writer one of my favourite books, the ending features an unexpected twist, and overall it is a compelling read, exploring what it means to be a writer and what it means to be a reader.
Published HarperCollins, 2009
There are books I re-read which I loved as a child, and I love to re-read them because of the nostalgia attached. I get to relive my memories of the book. I also sometimes read books by authors I loved as a child, books which I didn’t read as a child, seeking to rekindle my love for that author in a new book. But more often than not, I find the book not nearly as exciting as I would have found it as a child. It takes a special author who is able to capture the imagination of children and adults alike, and Morris Gleitzman is an author who achieves this feat seamlessly.
Boy Overboard is the story of eleven-year old Jamal and his nine-year old sister, Bibi. They both love soccer and want to be famous soccer players to make their country, Afghanistan, proud. But they are forced to flee when the government discovers the secret school their mother has been running. Together with their parents, Jamal and Bibi escape the country and end up on a boat to Australia.
Gleitzman has the most amazing knack for seeing the world through the eyes of a child, and showing the reader the world through his young protagonists’ eyes. A child reading this book will perceive and trust and accept Jamal’s opinions about the world; an adult reading the book will recognise the gaps and misunderstandings in this boy’s perceptions. On the one hand, an adult reading Jamal’s story will be touched and heartbroken at his extravagant plan that becoming a soccer superstar will make everything okay again, and on the other will find solace in the fact that, for the moment at least, he is sheltered from some of the realities of his situation. That this young child is able to see past hopelessness and hold onto some sort of hope.
Boy Overboard is a moving story about the sacrifice and hardships asylum seekers who attempt to make it to Australia by boat go through, told through the eyes of a child. But at its core, the book is about so much more than that. This is a story of two kids with big dreams and big hearts who, apart from living in and having to escape from a war torn country, are no different to kids anywhere else in the world.
Morris Gleitzman was one of my favourite authors as a child, but I love his writing more and more the older I get.
Puffin Books, Penguin Australia, 2001
June’s book club book is Burial Rites by Hannah Kent. Really looking forward to this one! Happy reading!
Whenever I see or hear the word Grug, a warmth of nostalgia floods through me. I learnt to read on Grug. And once I could read, I kept re-reading the Grug books, because the stories always made me smile. Each time I picked up one of the books to read, I’d read through it once, get to the end, and then flip straight back to the first page to read the story over again.
Grug is a strange little creature. Ted Prior’s beloved character was born when the top of a Burrawang tree fell to the ground. Prior created Grug in 1979, and the books continued to be published until the early 1990s. In 2009 Simon & Schuster reprinted the series, and more Grug stories have been created since then.
I can’t pinpoint exactly why I like Grug so much. Perhaps it is because he looks so different from any other character in any book I’ve read. Or maybe it is because Grug is usually perfectly happy on his own, doing the things he loves. It might even be the fact that no matter what problem Grug faces, he always comes up with a solution and manages to sort things out. Or maybe it is simply because although each story is so short, they are so satisfying to read and the illustrations so full of life.
Whatever the reason, late last year a box set of Grug including a plush Grug toy was released and I’ve been itching to buy it ever since I saw it. I want to place Grug up on my bookshelf along with my Grug books, so that every time I glance at my bookshelf I’m reminded of my first experiences reading, my recollections of these wonderful little stories, and why I still can’t stop devouring books, one after another after another.
Grug, 1979- 1992, Hodder & Stoughton Australia
2009- present, Simon & Schuster