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!
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!
I wish I’d read this book when I was a teenager, although at the same time I’m glad I haven’t encountered this book until now. I’m not sure I would have gotten as much out of the book when I was a teenager as I did reading it now. Walk in My Shoes is told through the eyes of 14-year old Gulnessa, who escapes Afghanistan with her family and arrives illegally in Australia on a boat. They are subsequently put in a detention centre for processing, which they can’t understand- why is this country locking them up when the criminals are the ones terrorising their country, not the ones who try to escape? Why do the Australians think they would risk their lives to get here unless they had no other choice?
This is a book which so desperately needed to be written, and, while it was published back in 2004, I feel it is especially relevant now. News reports and politicians refuse to put a face to asylum seekers and “boat people” and to detention centres, making it difficult to understand and think about what these people go through on their journey to be accepted into Australia. Walk in My Shoes puts faces to this collective group, and it is heart-wrenching. I was so close to crying on so many occasions while reading this book, for all of the challenges these asylum seekers endure: the painful decision to flee their country for the sake of their lives, the difficult journey out of their country, the hope keeping them afloat on the treacherous boat ride to Australia and how their hope keeps getting dashed the longer they are kept in the detention centre, locked-up in overcrowded conditions behind barbed wire.
Evans’ writing is so vivid and so detailed, that it is hard to remember that this particular family is fictional, although their experiences are based on the experiences of actual asylum seekers. The majority of Australians have no idea how much we have to be thankful for; that we live in a country where we don’t wake up every morning fearing for our lives. Walk in My Shoes is a book which everyone should read. It will, at the very least, remind you that asylum seekers are real people, simply looking for a safe place to live, something which should be, but isn’t, a basic right for everyone.
Walk in My Shoes, published by Penguin, 2004
This month, we’ll be reading ‘Boy Overboard’ by Morris Gleitzman.
Is it wrong to be part of a book club (or, in my case, to run one) and not finish the book you’ve been set/ have set yourself? Unfortunately, I can now add The Glass Canoe to the list of books I’ve started but haven’t finished. Yet. Or is it better to have started to have read a book, than never to have started at all?
The thing is, I was really enjoying The Glass Canoe. Ireland’s writing is vivid and raw, and each short chapter builds on the previous to expand the world to the reader, despite the fact that these chapters are often separate anecdotes (at least for as far as I read. I’m only fifty pages in). I didn’t want to stop reading The Glass Canoe, but I did what all avid readers do and bought some new books in the middle of March. And I started reading two of them, first alongside Ireland’s novel, and then one of the books surged ahead of the other two and that became the book which I had to read.
For me, March wasn’t the month to be reading The Glass Canoe. But I know this is a book I’ll finish, because even now as I’m writing this post, I’m wishing I didn’t succumb to the other books and neglect Ireland’s novel. I want to know where the story goes, and what happens, and immerse myself back in that world.
So, if you’re part of a book club, yes, the whole point of a book club is to read books and discuss them. But I would suggest that if you’re not fussy about plot spoilers and you’re not engaged in the book, leave it. It’s not worth your time. And you can still discuss why you couldn’t finish it (bookish reasons, I mean. I don’t think the “I was too busy” excuse washes over as well as the “I was too busy reading other books” excuse). And even then, it’s a thin line. I’ve walked it this month, but I’ll do my best not to walk that line again. And I will, of course, give an update when I finally work my way through The Glass Canoe.
This month, we’ll be reading Walk in my Shoes by Alwyn Evans, published by Penguin Books, 2004
I don’t actually know why I couldn’t finish this book. I remember browsing through a bookstore a few years ago, when the title of the novel caught my attention: Jamaica, written in clear white text down the spine. I fished the book from its spot on the shelf and read the blurb. It sounded interesting. It sounded good, so I bought the book. I started reading it, too. I managed maybe a sixth of the book, and, after carefully marking my place with the bookmark the bookstore had given me, Jamaica proceeded to sit on my bookshelf, unopened, and unread.
I was definitely intrigued by the book, and the writing was captivating, so it can’t have been out of boredom, or frustration at the writer’s craft. It may have simply been a matter of something more immediately interesting coming along, such as the YA books I was in the habit of devouring at that point. I’ve never been one to have a single book on the go at a time, and usually they all get read eventually, but somehow, Knox’s Jamaica slipped under my radar.
I’ve also always been one to buy books, and lots of them, with the attitude that I will eventually get around to reading them. And there is method in my madness: there are days when I’m wandering around the house, looking for something new to read. Now, all I have to do is go to my bookshelf and pick out the books I haven’t quite managed to get to yet.
But I owe Jamaica, and Malcolm Knox, an apology: I’m sorry your book got lost in the stack with no good reason. I didn’t mean for your words to sit there and rot. And I didn’t even allow Jamaica a second chance. I know I wrote once that second chances for books you don’t like are a waste of time, but I don’t think Jamaica is a book I didn’t like. It is simply one I couldn’t finish, and maybe it is about time to turn it into a book that I could finish. I’ll post a review if I make it that far.
Jamaica, Allen & Unwin, 2007
I couldn’t help but think it was rather good timing choosing Peter Carey’s novel for January’s book, considering the furore surrounding Lance Armstrong’s confession, another life which also, unfortunately, turned out to be something of a fake. But this isn’t a post about Lance Armstrong.
It is a post about Carey’s novel, and, while the book is a work of fiction, Carey draws parallels from a similar incident which happened in Australia in the 1940s. His novel is narrated by Miss Sarah Wode-Douglass, editor of a struggling poetry journal The Modern Review, who recounts the course of her life since accompanying an old acquaintance to Kuala Lumpur in the 1970s. There, while trying to get her beloved journal into the hands of Kuala Lumpur’s literary-minded, she meets one Christopher Chubb, who insists on telling her his history. Sarah is tantalised by a poem Christopher has fleetingly shown her and, in order to read more of the material, which she believes is her chance to discover and publish a poetic genius, she endures his story, and hears about his life as a fake.
Chubb begins his life as a fake in Australia in the 1940s. After his own poetry is routinely rejected from literary journals, Chubb invents a poet, Bob McCorkle, and sends work to the journals under this new identity. The work is accepted, and Chubb can’t predict how this innocent hoax will change the course of his life.
This novel really fascinated me, although I found it hard to read at first. The narrative trips over itself, as Sarah is telling the reader her experiences of being told this story. So it is confusing, at the beginning at least, of who is narrating to who; Sarah to the reader or Chubb to Sarah. But the further I read, the less confusing it became, and I became engrossed in the twisted world of the novel, as Chubb’s fictitious poet springs to life and sets out to torment his creator.
The one part of this novel I couldn’t quite fathom was the controversy of the actual hoax itself. Several writers write under pen names, and Chubb simply took this a little further and created a whole identity for his poet, including a birth certificate. This, to me, isn’t so different from a writer writing under a different name, apart from the fact that when a pen name is used, it is only the reader, and not also the editor, who is being deceived.
My Life as a Fake questions how far the divide is between our imaginings and our realities, and how easily the two can become blurred. It challenges how far a person is willing to go to get what they want in the world, and how much they are willing to sacrifice. In this book, Carey has created a world which is so vivid and captivating, set predominately in Kuala Lumpur, that I constantly had to remind myself that the book I was reading was a work of fiction, despite being inspired by real events. Now I can say I’ve read a Peter Carey, and a wonderful one at that.
What did you think? Do you agree, or disagree? Tell me what you thought! I look forward to your comments.
Published Random House, 2003
And this month, we’ll be reading Maureen McCarthy’s Rose by any other Name, so happy reading, and look out for that post on March 1st!
Published Allen & Unwin, 2006