My first experience of Marnie was when it was read aloud to my class, at the end of Grade 5, in Mt Hagen, in Papua New Guinea -- worlds away from the desolate Norfolk marshes where the story is set. But the gentle, wistful tale of lonely Anna and her mysterious friend Marnie gripped my imagination. At the end of the reading, the teacher asked, 'Do you think Marnie was really there?' I was indignant; of course Marnie was real, in the story. But our teacher pressed on, insisting, 'That couldn't really happen, could it? It must have been Anna's imagination.' (I wonder now why she read it to us at all, if she was so determined to deny the magic of the book!) But I was hotly resistant to any interpretation that reduced Anna and Marnie's magical connection to dry psychology. I remember the strength of my outrage, and the feeling that I was standing up for the book, somehow, that I needed to defend it. It might have been the first time that my personal interpretation of a book was ever challenged by adult authority. But I didn't give in.
Reading it again, it's just as magical as I remembered, written with such subtle skill that both interpretations are indeed possible. But I still prefer my original take on it (if there's a timey-wimey option available, I'll take it every time!) And I see now what a strong influence Marnie was on Cicada Summer; I even named one of my own characters Anna, without realising.
In many ways, When Marnie Was There is my perfect book.
The first time I read it, the discomfort of the sharp edges underfoot was overwhelming. The Book Thief is written in a very distinctive, deliberate style. Almost every adjective choice is unexpected: wooden tears, glittering anger, the sun was blond, her cardboard face, the bumpiness of love. You can never forget that you're reading a text; it's impossible to lose yourself in the story, because the jarring (often apt and beautiful, sometimes awkward) language constantly jerks you back. And that's without even mentioning that the book is narrated by the character of Death...
On second reading, I was able to adjust better to the language choices, and admire them, and find my way to the actual story. I could lift my eyes to the landscape I was passing through, and appreciate its shape and sorrow. I'm glad I've read it twice.
The Book Thief has been incredibly successful, and ardently loved, and made into a movie (which I haven't seen). It would be a very hard act to follow.
What I would have liked was more detail about the actual worlds her interview subjects invented, but Root-Bernstein was more interested in the implications of their play for their adult lives; which is fair enough.
(I'm going to start calling these posts 'book responses' rather than 'reviews', because I think reviews demand a more considered, critical and thoughtful analysis than I have time to prepare -- these posts are just a gut-feel reaction, really.)
I find it extremely peculiar that when New Guinea Moon was published, almost a year ago, it received barely a single review, and yet now reviews seem to be popping up from the most unexpected places.
This one is from the Subversive Reader:
This was an absolutely beautiful read which did a wonderful job of bringing the beauty and contradictions of 1970s New Guinea to the reader. I realised, as I read it, that I’d never read a book set in New Guinea before, which seemed like a pretty big oversight.
One of the things Julie discovers in the book is the casual racism of the ex-pat community, especially the diminutive terms used for the local men and women who work for them, regardless of their age (Julie seems particularly conscious of it, which is explained away by having a mother who talks about it at home, but I’m still not sure how realistic it is for a teenager in the 1970s). However, the author doesn’t shy away from showing the reader moments when Julie is also casually racist – the book does a good job of showing the complexities involved and pointing out that there’s always ways to do better.
I think it’s terribly important that we have books which tell stories of Australia’s past – the honest truth beyond what is often taught in history classes. This is a book which points out that we had a colonial past beyond our own borders and that it wasn’t really that long ago – less than 10 years before I was born. It’s not always a nice story to think about, but it is an important one. Books like this help us think more about it and should be celebrated more than they are.
My only complaint about the book is that it felt a little rushed towards the end, almost like another storyline had been pushed in where it didn’t really need to belong. It just felt slightly unbalanced, like it appeared too late in the book.
New Guinea Moon is a really lovely book which does a wonderful job of setting up Julie’s world and the things she sees. I thoroughly recommend it.
And this one comes from the Darien Times in Connecticut, of all places. It's most mysterious, I don't know how their reviewer even came across it!
But thank you!
Wow! The White Darkness, by Geraldine McCaughrean, wasn't what I was expecting at all. I came across a reference to it recently when I was looking for books about people who invent imaginary worlds and imaginary companions (the first stirrings of a possible future project), and I remembered reading a review in The Age when it was first published (2005, which seems awfully long ago) and thinking, that sounds interesting… And then I found it in the local library. Yay!
All I could recall when I started reading is that the main character, Sym, is in love with Titus Oates (Scott's doomed Antarctic expedition, 'I'm going out of the tent and I may be some time,' you know, him), whose presence she carries around inside her head. But more than an exploration of the comforts and pitfalls of imagined companionship, The White Darkness became an unexpectedly gripping and quite bizarre thriller, set in the wastes of the Antarctic, which is described in gorgeous, vivid and unsettling prose.
Totally, surprisingly, fabulous.
It's weird, I love the way that Tim Winton writes about country, and being in the bush, and by the sea -- but I feel so remote from his characters. I couldn't connect to Georgie or Lu or Jim until almost the very end of the book. Maybe they're just not my kind of people, I don't know; if I met them in real life I'd be scared of them. Maybe this is why I don't read much adult fiction? Maybe I felt resistant just because it had won so many awards? Also, I am not a music lover, so that wasn't a way in for me either.
But the descriptions are wonderful.
Note: I've just found this article which asks, why did Georgie sell the boat her father gave her, instead of setting off herself in search of the missing Lu? Hm. Good question!
I knew that it was going to be a strange and intriguing mixture, but I wasn't prepared for the sheer range of pieces -- styles and forms and different kinds of collaborative process -- that made the book even more fascinating than I expected. There are paired short stories, graphic stories, fairy tales and science fiction. Reading the notes at the back where the authors and artists discuss their collaborative journeys was just as absorbing as the stories themselves! Some pairs (like Priya Kuriyan and me) developed a single piece together; others tossed ideas back and forth across cyberspace and bounced away to create separate but linked stories; others critiqued each other's work. The result is a rich brew of individual, bite-sized morsels, swirling in a single spicy pot (forgive the mixed metaphor!) It was wonderful to be able to read it properly at last. Publication day is the end of January, so it will be hitting the shops soon!
Just to whet your appetite, here is another image from Swallow the Moon, the story that Priya and I created together. Isn't it gorgeous? Priya is so talented!
World's End Was Home, by Nan Chauncey
This is an old-fashioned adventure from the 50's, set partly in Tasmania and partly in Melbourne, complete with an orphan, a long-lost (rich) relative, a baby wombat and a sinister pursuit. There were a couple of explicitly cringey moments, as when Dallie is required to write in an exam 'all you know about the Australian blackfellow.' And when the family settle in their pristine, isolated Tasmanian bush paradise, the ghosts of the original dispossessed inhabitants seem to stir silently between the lines of the story.
But overall, this was a light, enjoyable yarn, beautifully illustrated by Shirley Hughes.
Years ago, I read a discussion of John Boyne's The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas on the blog of my American editor, Cheryl Klein, in which she stated that she hated this book 'with the white-hot loathing of a thousand suns.' It's possible that this prejudiced me; Cheryl is a woman's whose opinion I greatly respect. But seriously, now I've read it for myself, I can confidently state that it really is that bad.
This is not a book written for children; it's written for very stupid people. Bruno is supposed to be nine (ten, by the end), but his level of understanding is about that of a four year old. He's the son of a Nazi commandant who has never heard the word Jew, or Fatherland, or Fuhrer. He calls Hitler 'the Fury', which is 'cute' in a really inappropriate way, and ignores the fact that German and English are completely different languages. In fact the whole book is written in this coy, cutesy way, presumably to highlight Bruno's innocence and naivety; but it's just irritating, and trivialises the dreadful facts of the death camps by pretending that the events of the story could ever have occurred, even in a 'fable.' Also (spoiler alert) I find it really disturbing that the shock ending is (presumably) intended to upset us more than the actual horrific reality.
I could go on, but I'll save it for book group, which is the reason I read it. Should be an interesting discussion...
Even after nearly forty years, I still found this a difficult read; I started it before Christmas and only just managed to finish it yesterday. It might be the almost excruciating detail of the flight itself that put me off, especially in light of recent aviation disasters. It was just too vivid for my imagination, too realistic. I very much enjoyed Southall's Hill's End last year, and this is similar in theme -- stranded kids forced to draw on their inner resources, and co-operate, to survive -- but this version came perilously close to be being too harrowing for me. It was all so grim, lacking the flashes of humour that lightened Hill's End. It was well done, despite the traces of sexism and racism of the time -- it was published in 1966 --but I soldiered through this one rather than enjoying it. Even the ending is pretty grim; the kids aren't rescued, but they manage to light a fire, and might be about to find fresh water in their remote location. It's not much to feel cheerful about!
This was actually the hardest category to define. I read a number of books that could have fallen into either classification: The Ocean at the End of the Lane, Sea Hearts, The Cartographer, To Kill A Mockingbird? But it's come out in a pretty even split. The proportion of adult books was slightly higher this year.
Female author: 65
Male author: 31
My pro-female bias is showing again! This split is about the same as last year. And I must admit, going over my list, I realised that the books I didn't enjoy were usually by male authors. Sorry, guys! But I hasten to add that I did read some really excellent books by men this year -- the two titles mentioned in the intro, for example.
Yikes! Last year the split was about 75% fic/ 25% non-fic. I've read hardly any non-fiction this year, with, again, the notable exception of Far From the Tree, which was massive. Maybe I was looking for escapism in a fairly tough year? I must give a shout-out to Helen Garner's This House of Grief, which was also wonderful.
Borrowed from friends: 9
Re-read/already owned: 7
I bought a higher proportion of new books this year, partly thanks to a book voucher I received last Christmas, but also due to a scary new on-line book habit (thanks, Readings.com.au and biblio.com...) Again, most of my reading matter was sourced from second-hand books shops and library book sales. Interestingly, I bought fewer e-books this year. I made a lot of visits to the library, but looking at the number of books I actually read, I realise that I spent most of those visits borrowing for my children. Sometimes I feel guilty about the number of second-hand books I buy, but even if I bought two a week it probably wouldn't equal my husband's coffee habit, so I won't feel too bad! My re-reads this year were To Kill A Mockingbird and my Antonia Forest collection. The joys of the latter were enhanced enormously by an on-going on-line read-through via Live Journal (I might talk more about this in a later post).
Australian author: 31
This spread is slightly more diverse than last year, but not much. I forgot my resolution to read more non-Anglo authors and my bias toward British authors is still apparent. This reflects a lot of comfort reading this year -- eg multiple Agatha Christie and Antonia Forest titles which I return to repeatedly for reliable pleasures. I did, however, start to address my ignorance of Australian children's writers like Nan Chauncey, Ivan Southall and Hesba Brinsmead.
New releases (since 2000): 46
1950 - 2000: 36
New category! I'm actually quite relieved to see that my reading preferences are not entirely antique! A clear majority of the books I read were recent releases, and most of those were brand new. Doing my bit to support the publishing industry… In future I might break this down more precisely, as there's a big difference between a book published in 1999 and one published in 1950.
This year I'm going to try to be a bit more diligent in reviewing the books I read on this blog, and try to overcome my aversion to reviewing books by authors I might meet (or already know). They might not be long reviews, but I will try to stretch those critical muscles slightly.
Happy New Year, everyone, and I hope you got lots of books for Christmas! (I scored four.)