Category Archives: Fiction

Crow Lake – Mary Lawson

Crow Lake – Mary Lawson

I have been wanting to read this book for a long time – ever since I read that she was a relative of L.M Montgomery, but it was quite hard to get hold off eventually I found a copy at the Book Depository.

Here is the blurb …

Crow Lake is that rare find, a first novel so quietly assured, so emotionally pitch perfect, you know from the opening page that this is the real thing—a literary experience in which to lose yourself, by an author of immense talent.
Here is a gorgeous, slow-burning story set in the rural “badlands” of northern Ontario, where heartbreak and hardship are mirrored in the landscape. For the farming Pye family, life is a Greek tragedy where the sins of the fathers are visited on the sons, and terrible events occur—offstage.
Center stage are the Morrisons, whose tragedy looks more immediate if less brutal, but is, in reality, insidious and divisive. Orphaned young, Kate Morrison was her older brother Matt’s protegee, her fascination for pond life fed by his passionate interest in the natural world. Now a zoologist, she can identify organisms under a microscope but seems blind to the state of her own emotional life. And she thinks she’s outgrown her siblings—Luke, Matt, and Bo—who were once her entire world.
In this universal drama of family love and misunderstandings, of resentments harbored and driven underground, Lawson ratchets up the tension with heartbreaking humor and consummate control, continually overturning one’s expectations right to the very end. Tragic, funny, unforgettable, Crow Lake is a quiet tour de force that will catapult Mary Lawson to the forefront of fiction writers today.

For all of you Montgomery fans this does have a bit of a Montgomery feel and there is a family called Pye! In this novel we know something happened between Matt and Kate, which severed their close connection. And I have to say when the thing was revealed I was disappointed. However, I loved everything else about this novel – the characters are particularly well-written, I just thought the climax was anti-climatic. I was swept away to this small northern Ontario town – the sense of place was brilliant particularly the Morrisons’ house.

This is a story about families and family conflict and the different methods different members employ to negotiate conflicts.  It is also about choices – and how much freedom people have to make decisions about their lives.

More reviews …

https://www.januarymagazine.com/fiction/crowlake.html

http://www.nytimes.com/2002/03/24/books/the-girl-she-left-behind.html

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Hag Seed – Margaret Atwood

Hag Seed – Margaret Atwood

I don’t think I have read an Atwood novel that I haven’t liked. So I was keen to read this – I did ask at my local Dymocks and they hadn’t heard of it, which is very upsetting. Anyway this is a re-telling of Shakespeare’s The Tempest (part of the Hogarth Shakespeare project). I know nothing about The Tempest, so I read the wikipedia summary (although having read that I think The Collector by John Fowles might have some Tempest allusions – there is a Miranda, a man who wants to be called Ferdinand, but gets called Caliban – I do wonder now what my English Lit teacher was thinking not to mention Shakespeare?)

Here’s the blurb …

The Tempest is set on a remote island full of strange noises and creatures. Here, Prospero, the deposed Duke of Milan, plots to restore the fortunes of his daughter Miranda by using magic and illusion — starting with a storm that will bring Antonio, his treacherous brother, to him. All Prospero, the great sorcerer, needs to do is watch as the action he has set in train unfolds.

In Margaret Atwood’s ‘novel take’ on Shakespeare’s original, theatre director Felix has been unceremoniously ousted from his role as Artistic Director of the Makeshiweg Theatre. When he lands a job teaching theatre in a prison, the possibility of revenge presents itself — and his cast find themselves taking part in an interactive and illusion-ridden version of The Tempest that will change their lives forever.

I found this to be quite the page turner – and I am quite sure I wouldn’t have found the original to be so enthralling.

It is such a clever, fun, modern interpretation (and the prisoners offer insightful commentary about the original).

As with all Atwood novels, it is beautifully written – her choice of words is extraordinary (it must be the poet in her). I wish she would write for the Austen project, which apart from Northanger Abbey has been quite disappointing.

More reviews …

https://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/oct/16/hag-seed-review-margaret-atwood-tempest-hogarth-shakespeare

http://www.theaustralian.com.au/arts/review/shakespeare-goes-under-margaret-atwoods-microscope-in-hagseed/news-story/d21be2b437ca5c86a5f2365b1d08747d

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Every Good Deed and Other Stories by Dorothy Whipple

Every Good Deed and Other Stories – Dorothy Whipple

I love Persephone books – I don’t think I have had a disappointing book yet.  For some reason I hadn’t bought one for a while, so I had slipped off the Persephone Biannually list, but when I heard there was a new Dorothy Whipple I had to get it. And then clearly I had to buy another two to get the discount postage – Miss Buncle Married and Fidelity.

Here is the blurb (or what it has on the inside cover – it is an excerpt from one of the stories)…

She sighed heavily and looked unseeingly out of the window, crushed with the boredom of being where she was, of being a widow, of not being invited anywhere for this fortnight. ‘It’s cutlet for cutlet,’ she thought bitterly. ‘I can’t entertain, so no one entertains me now. To think that I should have come to a place like this. After the life,’ she thought, ‘I’ve lived.’

She closed her eyes against the dining room, but opened them again on being addressed by Maud.

‘D’you want the mayonnaise?’ asked Maud truculently, bringing it.

‘Out of a bottle?’ said Mrs Moore. ‘No’.

Maud went out of the dining room, but spoke in a loud voice in the passage outside.

‘It’s a quarter-past two and my afternoon off,’ she said. ‘I’m not going to stand this, so you know, Mrs Pink. I’ve no need to.’

These are beautifully written stories about ordinary (and the occasionally  malicious) people. These stories were published between 1935 and 1961 and are of their time and about a certain class (middle) of English society. Don’t assume it is all tea drinking and scone eating – people are people wherever you find them. They are selfish, self-centred, vicious, kind, generous and self-sacrificing.

These novels are for people who are more interested in character than plot.

Here is the Persephone page for Every Good Deed

Here is a review from the Book Snob about one of the stories – Every Good Deed

And another review …

Every Good Deed and Other Stories – Dorothy Whipple – a new Persephone!

 

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Our Souls at Night – Kent Haruf

Our Souls at Night – Kent Haruf

I love Kent Haruf’s novels – slow burning stories about the human spirit. So I was keen to read this his last novel.

Here is the blurb …

Addie Moore’s husband died years ago, so did Louis Waters’ wife, and, as neighbours in Holt, Colorado they have naturally long been aware of each other. With their children now far away both live alone in houses empty of family. The nights are terribly lonely, especially with no one to talk to. Then one evening Addie pays Louis an unexpected visit.
Their brave adventures – their pleasures and their difficulties – form the beating heart of Our Souls at Night. Kent Haruf’s final novel is a moving story about love and growing old with grace.

This is a beautiful story about the loneliness of old-age, but also about reaching out to connect with someone – the courage required and the rewards involved (a new lease on life). It is also about the expectations placed on us by our communities and our families.

The writing is (as always) beautiful – certainly not showy, but eloquent in its simplicity.

More reviews …

https://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/may/27/our-souls-at-night-kent-haruf-review

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The Atomic Weight of Love – Elizabeth J Church

The Atomic Weight of Love – Elizabeth J Church

I bought this book with a gift voucher for my birthday – it was all about the cover.

Here is the blurb …

In her sweeping debut novel, Elizabeth J. Church takes us from the World War II years in Chicago to the vast sun-parched canyons of New Mexico in the 1970s as we follow the journey of a driven, spirited young woman, Meridian Wallace, whose scientific ambitions are subverted by the expectations of her era.
In 1941, at seventeen years old, Meridian begins her ornithology studies at the University of Chicago. She is soon drawn to Alden Whetstone, a brilliant, complicated physics professor who opens her eyes to the fundamentals and poetry of his field, the beauty of motion, space and time, the delicate balance of force and energy that allows a bird to fly.
Entranced and in love, Meridian defers her own career path and follows Alden west to Los Alamos, where he is engaged in a secret government project (later known to be the atomic bomb). In married life, though, she feels lost and left behind. She channels her academic ambitions into studying a particular family of crows, whose free life and companionship are the very things that seem beyond her reach. There in her canyons, years later at the dawn of the 1970s, with counterculture youth filling the streets and protests against the war rupturing college campuses across the country, Meridian meets Clay, a young geologist and veteran of the Vietnam War, and together they seek ways to mend what the world has broken.
Exquisitely capturing the claustrophobic eras of 1940s and 1950s America, The Atomic Weight of Love also examines the changing roles of women during the decades that followed. And in Meridian Wallace we find an unforgettable heroine whose metamorphosis shows how the women’s movement opened up the world for a whole generation.

I found the science part of this novel interesting – experiments with radioactive material involving bare hands and a screwdriver! The sections on the crows and how they work as communities, mate for life and are clever was fascinating.

The relationship between Alden and Meridian was well-portrayed. It started so successfully but they were of different times and had different expectations of marriage. Although, in much the way it usually happens, the things that drew them together eventually drove them apart. The relationship with Clay was weaker and a bit cliched and for me the final third of the novel was not as strong as the first two-thirds. It started with such promise and I think it is a sign of better things to come from Ms Church.

It was an interesting read and I look forward to reading her next novel.

Another review …

http://www.irishtimes.com/culture/books/the-atomic-weight-of-love-review-fledgling-feminism-1.2812164

 

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Crossing to Safety – Wallace Stegner

Crossing to Safety - Wallace Stegner

Crossing to Safety – Wallace Stegner

This was such a fabulous book and I am yet to hear a dissenting voice on how good it is.

Here is the blurb …

When two young couples meet for the first time during the Great Depression, they quickly find they have much in common: Charity Lang and Sally Morgan are both pregnant, while their husbands Sid and Larry both have jobs in the English department at the University of Wisconsin. Immediately a lifelong friendship is born, which becomes increasingly complex as they share decades of love, loyalty, vulnerability and conflict. Written from the perspective of the aging Larry Morgan, Crossing to Safety is a beautiful and deeply moving exploration of the struggle of four people to come to terms with the trials and tragedies of everyday life.

It is beautifully written – understated and simple, but brilliant.  It is unusual to read a novel about marriage that isn’t about just starting out or ending in disaster. However, this novel is about more than that – it is about living the good life (in the moral sense), how to contribute to the world, about writing and reading (perhaps that is why all readers like it?), women’s role in the world (Poor Charity has to live vicariously through her husband) and finally it is about what makes a good death and who gets to decide that – the dying or those left behind.

I can’t recommend this book highly enough.

More reviews …

http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/books/reviews/my-book-of-a-lifetime-crossing-to-safety-by-wallace-stegner-1051770.html

http://www.nytimes.com/1987/09/20/books/the-grace-of-old-lovers.html

Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner

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Tess of the D’Urbervilles – Thomas Hardy

Tess of the D'Urbervilles - Thomas Hardy

Tess of the D’Urbervilles – Thomas Hardy

This is the last of my Hardy novels for my Victorian Literature group – you can definitely see Hardy’s increasing maturity as a writer when you read them in chronological order. Having said that, however, I still think The Woodlanders my favourite. I am sure this novel has more literary merit, but Tess’s life is so grim.

Here is the plot summary from Shmoop

Tess Durbeyfield is a (totally and completely doomed) country girl living in the late 19th Century in an English village that seems secluded, even though it’s only a four-hour journey from London. Her father learns in the first chapter that he is the last lineal descendent of the D’Urbervilles—one of the oldest, most aristocratic, families in all of England. He foolishly assumes that his aristocratic heritage will suffice to pull his family out of poverty, and so he sends Tess off to “claim kin” (i.e., to borrow money on the strength of their distant family ties) from a wealthy branch of the D’Urbervilles.

Tess is a very pretty girl, and very “womanly” (i.e., sexy) for her age, and the son of the wealthy D’Urbervilles, Alec, tries to seduce her. He finds her too proud and modest to fall into his snares, and so he tricks her into accepting a ride from him back to the family house at night, and cuts through the woods. After getting lost (possibly on purpose), Alec leaves Tess to fall asleep under a tree while he tries to find the path. He comes back, and, finding her asleep, takes advantage of their solitude to rape her under the trees.

The next phase of the book (“Maiden No More”) opens with Tess back at her parents’ house in the village of Marlott. She’s had a baby as a result of her connection with Alec, and has secluded herself from her former friends out of a combination of shame and pride. She works a few odd jobs to make money, and things are going okay until her baby suddenly gets sick… and dies. Tess is more worried about the baby’s soul than anything else, so she buries it in the churchyard on the sly.

Time passes, and most of her friends and neighbors have forgotten about Tess’s troubles. But she hasn’t, so she decides to go to a neighboring county to work at a dairy farm where nobody knows her. One of the other workers at the dairy, Angel Clare, is the son of a gentleman. Angel is learning about farming so that he can move to the colonies in America and become a wealthy farmer there. He and Tess gradually fall in love.

Tess wants to tell Angel about her past, but she can’t bring herself reveal it to him. Finally, the night before they’re supposed to get married, she slips a note under his door confessing everything. When he doesn’t say anything about it the next morning, she assumes all is forgiven—but really, he never saw the note. On their wedding night, he confesses to her that he’d had a brief fling with a strange woman in London long before he’d met Tess. So Tess feels like she can tell him about Alec, since that wasn’t her fault.

But Angel doesn’t see it that way. He’s shocked and horrified that she’s not a virgin, and runs off to South America to try and forget about her. Tess is heart-broken and wanders from job to job, trying to leave her problems behind her. But her problems keep finding her. Alec runs into her on the road, and even though he’s become a Christian, he becomes obsessed with her again. Eventually he persuades her to live with him, even though she’s legally married to Angel. But she’s given up hope that Angel will ever come back to her.

But he does come back to her, and when she sees Angel, she stabs Alec in their hotel room. Angel realizes that he’s partly responsible for the murder, and runs away with her. They flee together across the countryside, and are finally caught by the authorities at Stonehenge, an ancient monument of huge stones in the English countryside that was built by the druids or even earlier. “Justice” catches up with Tess, and she is hanged.

I listened to this one (it was read by Anna Bentinck), which, as Hardy is a poet first, means I have a much greater appreciation for how his work sounds.

I think Hardy has pyschological insight – like this (Tess has returned home after being ruined (seduced/raped) by Alec D’Urberville

Their chatter, their laughter, their good-humoured innuendoes, above all, their flashes and flickerings of envy, revived Tess’s spirits also; and, as the evening wore on, she caught the infection of their excitement, and grew almost gay. The marble hardness left her face, she moved with something of her old bounding step, and flushed in all her young beauty.At moments, in spite of thought, she would reply to their inquiries with a manner of superiority, as if recognizing that her experiences in the field of courtship had, indeed, been slightly enviable. But so far was she from being, in the words of Robert South, “in love with her own ruin,” that the illusion was transient as lightning; cold reason came back to mock her spasmodic weakness; the ghastliness of her momentary pride would convict her, and recall her to reserved listlessness again.

It must be quite unusual for a 19th century novel to have a working class heroine as its main protagonist. I am intrigued as to what contemporary readers thought.

Hardy is highlighting the complete lack of control or agency that Tess (or any woman) has over her life. Also the incredible hypocrisy and double-standards of the time – Angel cannot forgive Tess for not being innocent despite confessing a prior entanglement. There is a lot of tramping about the country side (Tess walks 15 miles to the vicarage at Eminister and back again in one day), descriptions of lush dairy country and harsh upland country. Country customs and conversations plus the usual Hardy pre-occupation with villages losing their tradespeople as life leases end.

 

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Doctor Zhivago – Boris Pasternak

Doctor Zhivago - Boris Pasternak

Doctor Zhivago – Boris Pasternak

This is my latest historical fiction group read. As I have been keen to read it for a while, I was quite looking forward to it. In my ‘normal’ book club we are not allowed to read anything Russian or with red in the title! Anyway, I have to be honest and say it was quite the slog.

Here’s the blurb …

This epic tale about the effects of the Russian Revolution and its aftermath on a bourgeois family was not published in the Soviet Union until 1987. One of the results of its publication in the West was Pasternak’s complete rejection by Soviet authorities; when he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1958 he was compelled to decline it. The book quickly became an international best-seller.
Dr. Yury Zhivago, Pasternak’s alter ego, is a poet, philosopher, and physician whose life is disrupted by the war and by his love for Lara, the wife of a revolutionary. His artistic nature makes him vulnerable to the brutality and harshness of the Bolsheviks. The poems he writes constitute some of the most beautiful writing in the novel.

My first issue, which is my problem and nothing to do with the quality of the novel, is the patronymic names. It took me a while to get the hang of that and for a long time I would think there was two characters when there was really only one.  This book is long – covering many years (revolutions) and characters. I did learn a lot about the Russian Revolution though – I had no idea it went on for so long. Or that the reds fought amongst themselves.

There were long rambling philosophical discussions that just got on my nerves – Zhivago was definitely a thinker rather than a man of action. And all of the waffling on about wanting to write – just do it.

And I have no idea why it is considered to be the greatest love story of all time. Zhivago just seemed to go with the flow of events – Tonya, then Lara and finally Marina. Clearly Lara was his first choice, but that didn’t stop him living (and having children) with Marina.

Having said that, it does bear witness to a turbulent and terrible time of Russian history. It was brutal and chaotic and life was cheap.

I am glad I read it, but I won’t be re-reading it any time soon. There is the chance my issues are all to do with translation. I read the version translated by Max Hayward and Manya Harari, although this article implies it’s the better version (but maybe Pasternack is only ever good in Russian?).

More reviews …

https://newrepublic.com/article/115305/boris-pasternaks-doctor-zhivago-reviewed

Doctor Zhivago, Part One

Doctor Zhivago, Part Two

https://bookssnob.wordpress.com/2010/11/20/lost-in-over-translation-doctor-zhivago-deconstructed/

 

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The Last Painting of Sara de Vos – Dominic Smith

The Last Painting of Sara de Vos - Dominic Smith

The Last Painting of Sara de Vos – Dominic Smith

This novel was recommended (very highly) by several people, so when I saw it in Target for $16 I thought why not? I am so glad I did it is one of my favourite books this year!

Here is the blurb …

This is what we long for: the profound pleasure of being swept into vivid new worlds, worlds peopled by characters so intriguing and real that we can’t shake them, even long after the reading’s done. In this extraordinary novel, The Last Painting of Sara de Vos, US-based Australian writer Dominic Smith brilliantly bridges the historical and the contemporary, tracking a collision course between a rare landscape by a female Dutch painter of the Golden Age, an inheritor of the work in 1950s Manhattan, and a celebrated Australian art historian who painted a forgery of it in her youth.

In 1631, Sara de Vos is admitted as a master painter to the Guild of St. Luke in Holland, the first woman to be so honoured. Three hundred years later, only one work attributed to de Vos is known to remain-a haunting winter scene, At the Edge of a Wood, which hangs over the Manhattan bed of a wealthy descendant of the original owner. An Australian grad student, Ellie Shipley, struggling to stay afloat in New York, agrees to paint a forgery of the landscape, a decision that will haunt her. Because now, half a century later, she’s curating an exhibit of female Dutch painters, and both versions threaten to arrive.

As the three threads intersect with increasing and exquisite suspense, The Last Painting of Sara de Vos mesmerises while it grapples with the demands of the artistic life, showing how the deceits of the past can forge the present.

I was swept away (just like the blurb said) I loved all of the different time periods – 17th century Holland, 1950s New York, and Sydney in 2000, all of the descriptions of art, painting and restoration. It was a very visual story and I would love to see it as a movie. It wasn’t just a pretty story though, it was about choices and consequences and responsibility. How lives impact on one another in both good and bad ways.

More reviews …

http://www.theaustralian.com.au/arts/review/dominic-smiths-last-painting-of-sara-vos-paints-a-tender-portrait/news-story/ef2c6713d04af15760e8cefb3ae3f01b

http://www.smh.com.au/entertainment/books/the-last-painting-of-sara-de-vos-review-dominic-smiths-brilliant-art-novel-20160526-gp4sq3.html

http://www.abc.net.au/tv/firsttuesday/s4453040.htm

 

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A Patchwork Planet – Anne Tyler

A Patchwork Planet - Anne Tyler

A Patchwork Planet – Anne Tyler

I do like Anne Tyler novels, so when someone donated this one to the second hand book stall at my daughter’s school fete I had to have it. One of the perks of volunteering is that we see the books first. It was clearly a well-loved novel and might even have had a bath at some stage!

Here’s the blurb …

Barnaby Gaitlin is a loser – just short of thirty he’s the black sheep of a philanthropic Baltimore family. Once upon a time he had a home, a loving wife, a little family of his own; now he has an ex-wife, a 9-year-old daughter with attitude, a Corvette Sting Ray that’s a collectors item but unreliable, and he works as hired muscle for Rent-a-Back, doing heavy chores for old folks. He has an almost pathological curiosity about other people’s lives, which has got him into serious trouble in the past, and a hopeless charm which attracts the kind of angelic woman who wants to save him from himself. Tyler’s observation is more acute and more delicious than ever; her humour slyer and more irresistible; her characters so vividly realised that you feel you’ve known this quirky collection for ever. With perfect pitch and poise, humor and humanity, Anne Tyler chronicals, better than any writer today, the sublime and the ridiculous of everyday living, the foibles and frailties of the ordinary human heart.

At first I wondered what type of book I was reading, as Barnaby stalked a women he met at the train station, but my sympathy for Barnaby grew as the story progressed. He appeared to be a hopeless case – troubled youth, unskilled job  and divorced with a bad relationship with his daughter, but as the story unfolds you realise there is more to Barnaby than appears at first sight.

All of the Gaitlin men meet an ‘angel’ who changes the direction of their lives. Barnaby thinks the woman on the train, Sophia, might just be his angel. She does change the direction of his life, but not in the way you would expect. She finds him charming on the train and is intrigued (and attracted) by his job. So much so she encourages her ageing aunt to employ him several hours a week. Meanwhile we meet Barnaby’s mother a ‘poor girl who has married well’ who can’t let go of Barnaby’s mis-spent youth. Frequently reminding him of the money they had to spend to pay-off the neighbours after his thefts. Barnaby and Sophia embark on a relationship and Barnaby decides to pay his mother back the money and so free himself from her forever. The other interesting character is Martine Barnaby’s co-worker and friend (they have a lovely bantering relationship). Sophia’s aunt accuses Barnaby of stealing her money (everyone knows she keeps it in the flour tin). It turns out she moved it and then forgot, but Sophia replaces the money in the tin (therefore proving herself to doubt Barnaby). Sophia is originally attracted to Barnaby because of his job, but then she wants him to change – get a better job (perhaps at her bank) and keep the money his mother refuses to take to buy the occasional luxury.

This brings me to theme or idea that I have been thinking about since finishing this novel – life style choices and how hard it is to go against the conventional view of success. By all accounts Barnaby’s life is a failure – failed marriage, dead-end job and living in someone’s basement, but his job is valuable (and brings joy and companionship to the people he helps) and he doesn’t have extravagant needs or wants. He is content.

“The way I see it, everyone has a choice: living rich and working hard to pay for it, or living a plain uncomplicated life and taking it easy”

As with all Anne Tyler novels the writing is beautiful.

If I had to eat one more stewy-tasting, mixed and mingled, gray-colored one-dish meal, I’d croak!

More reviews …

http://www.nytimes.com/books/98/04/19/reviews/980419.19shieldt.html

https://www.theguardian.com/books/2012/apr/13/why-men-love-anne-tyler-novels

 

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