Monday, March 25, 2013

Writing Nazi Germany - Anna Funder and Markus Zusak

I have in recent months read two books centred on Nazi Germany: All that I am – Anna Funder and The Book Thief – Markus Zusak.

I came to both books quite late and, in fact, as I began the Anna Funder, I was worried that I’d be disappointed. Fortunately, there was nothing to worry about. I was hooked from the first scene of Hans and Ruth in their apartment, luxuriating in the bath and drinking mojitos while the crowd below their apartment building lauds the rise of Hitler.

Briefly, the book centres on Dora and her playwright lover/mentor, Ernst Toller, Dora’s cousin, Ruth and Ruth's husband, Hans. As a group, they emerge the other side of World War 1 committed pacifists and fiercely against the blind patriotism that leads to war. As Hitler comes to power, they see him for what he is and, in their actions, become enemies of the state. They all find themselves exiled from Germany.

The story is told through the eyes of Ruth who is coming to the end of her life in present day Sydney, and Toller who is re-working his autobiography in a hotel in the United States in 1939. It is clear that both sets of eyes see Dora is the heroine of their group. Toller in particular is rewriting his autobiography to put Dora back into her rightful place in his and Germany’s history.

The writing is powerful and moving as Funder takes us through the themes of patriotism and idealism, ego and community. Exiled in London, the lives of Dora, Ruth and Hans become a struggle. Their activities are limited by agreements between Germany and Britain and they are dogged by spies and informants. Dora is determined to continue her work. She is resourceful and free-spirited, and never doubts the cause. Out of Germany and away from his own language and a fan base, Hans struggles to maintain a sense of self.

While the reader can see the betrayal coming, it is not lessened by this. It is still devastating and breath-taking. This book and its author deserves all its accolades.

After All that I am, The Book Thief, for me, suffers in comparison. The story itself is fine and quite enjoyable but there are choices that author has made that baffle me. In essence, the story is about the power of words. We follow the life of foster child Leisel during the uprise of Hitler and Nazism, and the outbreak of World War Two. Her foster father teaches her to read and it is books and her love of reading that helps to her to survive.

The book is narrated by Death and has a number of quirky touches that gives it an irritating tweeness. My biggest issue was with Death narrating. I kept wondering why the author didn’t have enough faith in his story to just tell it straight and not resort to such tricksy elements. Death was just too heavy handed. It is Death that gives Leisel the nickname of The Book Thief and then keeps reminding the reader of this throughout the book. Ok, ok, I get it. Why not tell the story without this nicknaming business and let the readers work it out for themselves? Trust us, we’ll read all about Leisel stealing books and saving herself through reading and make all the necessary connections ourselves.

I know it is a beloved book and I can see why. There is plenty about it that I liked as well but I just think it could have been a whole lot more powerful without the quirkiness.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Biblio Allsorts

I've been going through a reading jag lately - the benefits of train travel. Here's a three quick reviews.

The Daylight Gate - Jeanette Winterson

I'm a huge fan of Jeanette Winterson so when I saw The Daylight Gate at the local library, I leaped on it. The book is about the witch hunts under James II and particularly focuses the Pendle witches of Lancashire.

While I enjoyed the book, it didn't fire my imagination the way The Passion and Lighthousekeeping did. Don't get me wrong, Winterson is an astonishing writer but this one didn't quite grab me. I've been thinking about why and I think it's because she has taken an each-way bet in the way she handles the witches. Ultimately the witch hunts were about revenge against the Gun Powder Plotters, distrust of Catholics and power over women. You can clearly see through Winterson's writing that many men used the witch hunts to exercise violence over women and that there were poor and disempowered women who used superstition and fear of witches to give themselves a modicum of influence and power.

Despite demonstrating the reality of the witch hunts, Winterson then muddies the water by suggesting that these women were indeed witches and had sold their souls to the devil. The idea of witchcraft and alchemy results in some exquisite writing but lessens the impact of what was done to innocent women in the name of revenge, misogyny and anti-Catholicism.

Not my favourite Winterson but still worth reading for the beauty of her writing.

The Black Box - Michael Connolly

I've been a fan of Michael Connolly since the first time Harry Bosch made his appearance. I've also enjoyed his side projects and still reckon The Poet is a cracker of a crime book. My admiration of Connolly comes from his tight plotting. Read enough of him and you realise nothing is wasted, nothing extraneous. A seemingly innocent snippet you read in Chapter 2 connects events later on in the book.

As with The Daylight Gate, this book isn't one of Connolly's best. There is a workman like air about it. Still, Connolly being Connolly it's an enjoyable read.

In this book, Bosch is with the Cold Case Unit and is given an opportunity to solve a crime he was involved in during the LA Rodney King riots. In the midst of the mayhem, a young photo jounalist from Denmark was found dead from a shotgun wound to the head. Why was she in LA and what could have led to her murder? Twenty years later Bosch will find out.

The Dead Hour - Denise Mina

The Dead Hour is the second in the fabulous Paddy Meehan series which is set in Glasgow in the 1980s during economically tough times. Paddy, by the this book, is twenty years old and is a junior journalist. She is on the night shift with the ever reliable Billy.

One night she covers a 'domestic disturbance' at a house in a well-to-do neighbourhood. A well-dressed man stands at the door of the house with a young bloodied woman behind him. He assures the police that everything is alright and they seem happy to believe him and leave things be. When Paddy talks to the man, he thrusts a 50 pound note in her hand as a bribe to keep the story out of the paper. This money means a lot to Paddy who is the only person in her household of five who is working. She takes the money and leaves the woman. The day the woman is found tortured and murdered.

The following night the ex-fiance of the murdered woman throws himself off a bridge. The police who attended the domestic identify the ex-fiance as the man who'd been at the house. Paddy knows this isn't true. Why are the police lying? What is the story behind the murdered woman? Paddy is on the case, despite knowing that revealing that she took a bribe could end her burgeoning career.

Paddy Meehan is a fantastic character. A typical twenty year old, she is reckless and fallible. She's mouthy, smart and brave. I love her.

Great book!

Friday, January 25, 2013

Who says Young Adult books aren't for old adults too??

Friday Brown by Vikki Wakefield (Text Publishing, 2012)

Vikki Wakefield’s second YA book centres on Friday Brown, a seventeen year old girl who has spent her whole life moving around rural and remote Australia with her mother, Vivienne. What she knows of life, her life and her mother’s life comes from Vivienne and her stories. Friday doesn’t know why her mother ran away from home as a teenager. Even when Vivienne returns to her father’s house after she is diagnosed with cancer, there is a wall of silence between Vivienne and her father. After her mother’s death, Friday feels uncomfortable in her grandfather’s world and runs away, intent on finding her father and carving her own life.

She lands in the city and is befriended by Silence, a young runaway who cannot speak. Silence in turn introduces her to a group of runaways led by the charismatic and manipulative Arden.

In the city, Friday is on the back foot, unprepared for a life that can be precarious and dangerous. As much as she is in awe of Arden and, in her grief, needs a replacement for Vivienne, Friday knows that there is something not right about the way Arden controls and manipulates the other runaways.

It is when Arden takes them to a ghost town out in the country that Friday comes into her own and shifts the power balance away from Arden. Trouble follows and its outcome is devastating.

Friday Brown is a beautifully written story. The contrasts between rural Australia and the city are distinct and vivid. We see Friday unsure of herself in the grey of a large noisy city but it is in the country that she stands tall while the silence and vastness scares her companions.

There is a mythic quality to the story. Silence is the metaphorical and literal symbol of the invisibility of homeless children. He is not heard and, as we see in the scene where Friday and he meet, he is not seen. Amongst the runaways are other outsiders – a gay young man, an Aboriginal girl, a young sex worker. In the middle is Arden, tough, streetwise and all-knowing.

I enjoyed Friday Brown although for me the story comes into its own when the runaways move to the ghost town. This is where Vikki Wakefield’s writing excels and she is able to conjure the mystery and danger of the rural Australia. The excitement of this part is what makes the book ‘unput-downable’. I’ll definitely be hunting down Wakefield’s book, All I ever wanted.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

'Fishing for Tigers' - Emily Macguire

After reading and reviewing two crime novels from international writers, I now come to my first non-crime book for the year. The book is ‘Fishing for Tigers’ by Australian writer Emily Macguire.

The story is about Mischa, an Australian woman in her mid-thirties who has been living in Hanoi for six years after fleeing a violent marriage. Mischa sees herself as a good person. Her Sunday catch ups with one of her ex pat friends consists of the friend confessing and de-briefing on her week’s events, while Mischa rarely contributes, believing she has nothing to feel guilty about.

Even though Mischa feels invisible as an older Western woman in a city where both local and expat men prefer young Vietnamese women, she relishes not having to explain herself to anyone.

Into this comfortable existence comes Cal, the eighteen year old Vietnamese-Australian son of Mischa’s Australian boss, Matthew. This is Cal’s first trip to the country that his grandparents fled with his mother and her sisters during the Vietnamese War. Cal’s experiences of Hanoi and of the ex pats, and his subsequent covert relationship with Mischa shakes Mischa’s view of herself. His need to provoke a true emotional response from her pushes her to re-examine her life and emotional disconnectedness.

I was keen to read this as I lived in Hanoi with my partner and small child in the mid-2000s. I think this experience and my many futile attempts to capture Hanoi in words had me on edge in the initial stages of the book. I felt the descriptions of Hanoi and of Misha’s life skimmed the surface and didn’t seem to come from a person who supposedly had lived there for six years. To me it sounded like someone who’d been there for a few months. I know much of this dissatisfaction came from my own writing failures and knowing how hard it is to scratch the surface of Vietnamese life. Much of it is unknowable and you end up with your own inadequate Western interpretation. Once I got past this initial stage and the relationship between Cal and Mischa took off, I relaxed and got into it.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book and Emily Macguire’s writing is a joy to read. Her portrayal of Cal is particularly piercing. He is self-righteous and prickly, a typical eighteen year old, and his observations of the ex pat community are excoriating and, from my experiences, spot on. He struggles to reconcile his mother’s dislike of Vietnam and his grandfather’s silence with the city he is visiting – the city his father abandoned his family to live in.

‘Fishing with Tigers’ is a thoughtful and thoroughly enjoyable read.

Friday, January 4, 2013

All hail the Scots

My second read for the year has been an older book - Denise Mina's 'Field of Blood' which is the first in her Paddy Meehan series.

I'm a big fan of the crime writers of Northern England and Scotland - bleak, dark and funny. And I'm a fan of Denise Mina who hails from Glasgow and brings this city to life beautifully in her writing.

'Field of Blood', which was published in 2004, is set in 1981 and tells the story of Paddy Meehan, a young Irish Catholic girl who has scored herself a job as copyboy at the local newspaper. She is engaged to Sean Ogilvy and the expectation is that she'll marry Sean, give up work and raise a family. Paddy however has other ideas and sees herself as a future journalist. All she needs is a break.

The break comes when a young boy goes missing. Echoing the infamous James Bolger case, the young boy is found dead, his body brutalised. Two ten year old boys are arrested. One of the boys turns out to be Sean's cousin. Paddy is in a quandary - does she use this link to make her big break and risk angering her family or does she keep quiet?

I thoroughly enjoyed this book and will hunt down the rest of the books in the series. Paddy is a fantastic character. She's a forthright and smart young woman negotiating her way through the male dominated world of journalism; the suffocating expectations of her family and community; and her own dreams. She makes mistakes and one of those mistakes has catastrophic consequences for a work colleague.

Another fabulous feature of this book is the evocation of journalism in the early eighties. The newspaper Paddy works for is filled with broken down drunks and cynics who are desperately trying to hold back the tide of change, and hungry up-and-comers. We learn the stories of a few of them and some of them like Dr Pete break our hearts.

Mina writes with a true love of her city and the people who live there.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Rebus returns

Well, after that grand proclamation this time last year, I managed to blog a total of...wait for it...nil times. I read mountains of books last year but never managed to put my thoughts on paper...screen...whatever.

So I start afresh.

I have just finished Ian Rankin's new Rebus book, 'Standing in another man's grave'. I wasn't too unhappy when Rankin decided to retire Rebus. His last few books with Rebus were fairly lacklustre affairs. It seemed clear to me that Rankin had tired of his creation.

Rankin then introduced us to Malcolm Fox the copper in ethical standards/internal affairs. Fox is okay but not a patch on Rebus. He lacks personality, particularly when compared to Rebus. I began to miss Rebus. And Rankin must have too.

'Standing in another man's grave' is vintage Rebus. Having retired in 'Exit Music', Rebus is now working as a civilian in the local cold case unit when the mother of a young girl who has been missing for many years comes to the unit and points out links between her daughter's disappearance and a number of other similar cases. Rebus bites on the dangled bait and manages to inveigle his way onto the investigation of the latest girl to disappear. The case is being investigated by Rebus' old partner, Siobhan Clarke.

Siobhan is now gaining respect within police management and is seen as a potential leader. The reappearance of Rebus is not welcomed at first. Their relationship is tense and awkward. Siobhan knows that her association with her old mentor is not well regarded and that he has the potential to harm her career. And yet she respects and appreciates his talents. She is in a tight spot and she knows it.

Also causing Rebus grief is his old nemesis, Big Ger Cafferty. After Rebus saved his life at the end of 'Exit Music', Cafferty has taken to turning up to Rebus' place and taking him out for a drink. The scenes between these two are fabulously taut and prickly. Rebus can't quite believe Cafferty just wants to be friends and Cafferty resents Rebus' suspicions.

Another player in this book is Malcolm Fox. Rebus is toying with the idea of applying to rejoin the police and Fox is dead set against old style mavericks like Rebus being in the force. I'm not quite sure why Rankin bothered with this sub plot as it really goes nowhere. I can only imagine that it is to set up future books featuring Rebus and Fox.

I thoroughly enjoyed the return of Rebus although I have to say I was not entirely happy with the ending. It seemed rushed and left too many questions unanswered. With the reader left unsure as to whether Rebus decides to re-join the police, I can see that Rankin has well and truly revived his hard drinking, cigarette smoking and unorthodox creation.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Today I start

It’s January 10 2012 so it’s time to start this blog.

I’ve started this blog for several reasons. This first is for a repository for all my thoughts on the books I have been reading – not all my friends want to be bored by my ramblings. The second is to improve the quality of my reviews. I’ve been writing reviews for Sisters in Crime and Crime Factory and I’m slowly getting better at it. As they say, practice makes perfect. Lastly I’ve joined up for the Australian Women Writers 2012 Reading and Reviewing Challenge which aims to counteract the gender bias in reviewing and social media newsfeeds; and actively promote the reading and reviewing of a wide range of contemporary Australian women's writing throughout 2012, the National Year of Reading (to paraphrase their blog).

Firstly I’ll own up to being a co-convenor with Sisters in Crime Australia, and I’m an avid crime reading buff. As such, crime will be a dominant theme in this blog. I love a host of male crime writers so there will be reviews and ramblings on crime writing of both genders with a heavy slant towards writers of the female persuasion.

I also read general fiction so crime won’t be the only type of books discussed. I love contemporary Australian literature and Young Adult novels and, due the influence of a few writerly friends, I’ve been dragged into an area I generally steer clear of – fantasy.

I’m currently reading Sophie Cunningham’s Melbourne and will be soon be starting Sulari Gentill’s Miles Off Course.

Stay tuned.