DAYS OF AWE by Lauren Fox

Days of AweApologies, dear readers, for the lapse in posting regular book reviews. I’m sporting a wrist injury that makes typing unwieldy and I’m supposed to be resting it, but I couldn’t stand it any longer. I have a couple of books that I finished reading some time ago, and I just needed to post at least one review before starting a new book.

The exploration of death through the lens of friendship as opposed to an intimate family member is a concept that really appealed, and I feel isn’t a perspective that is oft portrayed. The premise and plot of Days of Awe are sound – the death of her best friend leaves Isabel feeling adrift, lost and unable to reconcile the gawping emptiness in her life, and she seeks desperately find an answer as to why her friend was taken from her. Was it really just an accident? Or was there something more sinister behind Josie’s death?

Throughout the book there is a constant play on the theme of accident versus sinister actions, which drives the narrative forward and provides a good deal of tension. It succeeds in keeping the reader guessing, wanting to discover the answer, but when the answer is finally revealed, I found it to be anticlimactic. Rather than sizzle, I felt somewhat deflated and let down.

Days of Awe has a strong and powerful back blurb that unfortunately the story itself doesn’t quite live up to. Lauren Fox is a good writer, and there are some really great moments of creative writing and colourful expressions such as a ‘the herd of wild minivans’ and ‘Her rusty 11-year-old Toyota skidded off the slick road like a can of soup rolling across a supermarket aisle.’

However, this is often this is clouded by overwriting and long rambling sections that slow the book down causing it to lose momentum in places. For example, in one part Isabel contemplates dating a much older man, and in the spur of the moment she suggests that they should go back to his place. Whilst in the kitchen she toys with the idea of whether or not she will go through with her invitation of shagging her senior date and there is a delicious to-fro moment where she considers that fact that he is so much older, what the repercussions would be on her marriage (despite the fact that her husband has moved out) when the story segues into a flashback that goes on and on and on. The flashback provides a good deal of backstory about Isabel’s life and events from the past, but it goes on for pages and pages, that by the time we are flipped back into the kitchen I’d completely forgotten that Isabel was deciding whether or not to fall into bed with her new older friend.

These meandering sections aside, Fox does convincingly portray the stages of grief, the hole that is left behind when a loved one dies, how it lingers and refuses to go away when others have long moved on. She paints an all-to-real picture of the relationship between a mother and almost-teenage daughter, the scathing pre-teen disdain, and the tensions that arise out of separating from a partner and the change in family dynamics. She throws into this emotional mix moments of humour, my favourite being where Isabel purposely drags her oil-smeared fingers along the silk scarf of one of Josie’s work colleagues, who has now also moved into Josie’s husband’s bed, leaving a trail of oily fingerprints in retribution.

While I wouldn’t say that Days of Awe was ‘daring’, ‘dazzling’ or ‘luminous’ – I think the copywriter was a little too enthusiastic, this doesn’t match the theme of the book and it’s suggestive of fun and frivolity that simply isn’t a part of the story. I would say that it is confronting, that the book manages to portray the deep despair and grief that accompanies death, and that Fox tempers this with moments of joy, wicked snippets of humour, of revealing the multifaceted nature of people and no matter how well you think you know someone they can still surprise you.

Note: I received a my copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Days of Awe by Lauren Fox (Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group 2015)

THE COLD ROOM by J.N LaVelle

TheColdRoomKaren meets Joel as she is recovering from a personal tragedy and trying to get her life back on track. A burst water pipe in mid-winter sees Karen moving in with Joel, into his ranch house. Karen starts hearing things go bump in the night and has spectral visions of a little blonde girl with killer green eyes. This is not your average ghost story. It is more poltergeist-with-malice than your typical haunting.

Karen is accustomed to her independence and she’s not sure that moving in with Joel is the right thing to do; it’s a little too soon for her liking but the burst water pipe and needing place to live in the middle of winter trumps following her gut instincts. Joel isn’t quite the intellectual stud that she’d hoped for but he’s good looking, caring and the sex is good. Then things start getting a little hinky. Karen starts seeing an apparition of a little girl with vivid green eyes, wearing a white dress; the spare bedroom, Joel’s storage room, has an icy chill about it; and Joel has created an unnerving collection of paintings and sketches of the girl in the white dress. Even more unnerving, and weird, is Joel’s refusal to admit to Karen that he knows about the green-eyed ghost, or that the ghost was responsible for the death of his wife.

It’s at this point that I think the story looses credibility. I just couldn’t believe that a man who lost his wife due to the evil machinations of a demon spirit would then pretend that the spirit didn’t exist, or would put the new woman he loves in danger. There is no resistance or fight in Joel. He’s flat and has a blancmange personality. One other odd inclusion that I struggled to understand was the cat. There are chapters throughout the book that are told through the eyes of Joel’s cat. Now, this would be fine if it served some purpose, if the cat somehow gave us additional insights but it doesn’t. Rather than add to the mystery of the story, they were disjointing, and distracting. I kept asking myself, ‘Why, why are these cat inserts here?’

Karen ultimately feels challenged: she has to take a stand to protect her man, and herself, from the evil ghost in the white dress. She starts doing some research and finds that the little girl has been haunting Joel’s family for several generations. It’s at this point that The Cold Room introduces references to Native American history and early settlers, which presumably is where the inspiration from actual events comes from. The timeline of events are actually really interesting and give the haunting a solid basis and substance.

The tension slowly builds throughout the story and finally reaches a gruesome, violent climax. Personally, I think the level of violence is excessive and unnecessary. I think that the tension, menace and fear could have been instilled in the reader with less graphic depiction of events. It was a bit like watching an action scene that went on for too long, with too much firepower, and too many bullets, which creates a rift and breaks you out of your engagement with the scene.

While this book was entertaining, I did struggle with it at times. It’s the sort of book that is good for a beach read, but there were times where I lost interest with it. The characters were well developed in places but Joel is flat, lacks depth. He was more like eye-candy, a himbo. The demon-girl gains her strength through Joel’s paintings of her, and Karen and Janet, Joel’s mother, tell Joel to destroy the paintings to prevent the girl from hurting anyone else, since she has already killed Joel’s first wife. Joel lies about burning the paining’s and instead hides them in the barn. Given the life-or-death threat associated with the ghost-girl, I found that Karen and Janet neglected to convincingly convey the urgency and danger of the situation to Joel. It was obviously a means of introducing the final crescendo of the showdown between Karen and the demon-ghost-girl, but it could have been better executed.

If you’re looking for an easy read, with the thrill of a ghost story mixed with a bit of romance, historical fact, and a clash-to-the-death between good and evil, then this is the book for you.

The Cold Room by J.N LaVelle (CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2013)                                                                                                                          ISBN: 9781494281700

ISABELLE OF THE MOON AND STARS by S.A Jones

isabelle_cover_grandeIt’s a Monday morning and the train is thick with lassitude. Wherever you look heads loll onto shoulders and eyes are glazed. Only a young woman in the middle carriage seems immune to the warm treacle atmosphere. She sits, straight-backed, intent on the scene scrolling by. It is high summer. The sky is candy-hard and cloudless with the roofs of the houses cut stark against it. The lines are so sharp you might slice your finger if you traced them on the window. She breathes in the lavender and fresh laundry scent of her home town in January and smiles.”

From the moment I read this opening paragraph, I was irresistibly drawn into this remarkable novel written by S.A Jones. The descriptions of places and events are well-crafted resulting in vivid imagery that accompanies a bold and beautiful story about love, relationships, pain, confusion, and what it takes to face the dark places of depression.

Isabelle of the Moon and Stars tells the story of Isabelle, a young woman who works in mundane government position as a data analyst where, after the ‘incident’, she is relegated to making statistical reports that no one ever reads. She knows this because she has started substituting ridiculous material into her reports such as “Sucking up to management: good or bad for building ventilation?” and “ Gonorrhoea and P3: a comparative analysis” and Jack, her boss, hasn’t mentioned a thing about it. Out of boredom and meaningless direction, Isabelle starts ignoring her work and using work time for her own personal projects, namely to plan an Australia Day party on the rooftop of her apartment complex, and to research her favourite topic: Prague.

The unspoken ‘incident’ was an anxiety attack that lead to a serious bout of depression, during which time Isabelle’s boyfriend Karl heartlessly ditched her for another woman. This pushed Isabelle to the darkest of places and almost to the edge of her life. Isabelle hates the words ‘depression’ and ‘anxiety’. They are ‘blank, nothing words’ that do nothing to describe the pain, the fear, and torture that she feels when The Black Place comes for her. She loathes that her torment and trauma is diminished to terms such as ‘the incident’ and wishes that her Black Place could come with a splint or cast to prove how real her pain is.

It is only because of her best friend Evan’s support and love that Isabelle managed to claw her way back to sanity and control. Evan is celibate, having made a promise to God to cherish his virginity but has neglected to set a reason or time as to when he can be released from this promise. Isabelle has gone to great lengths to control her life and keep The Dark Place at bay. But things start to unravel when she develops a sexual attraction for her middle-aged boss Jack, and Evan confesses his desires for Isabelle herself. Jack’s wife, Kate, is not going to give him up without a fight. She is well aware that her husband has a wandering eye but she’s no pushover and has a few tricks up her sleeve to tempt him back. In the midst of this chaos Isabelle is preparing to throw an Australia Day party, something she has never done before, and has invited all of the people in her apartment block, many of whom she doesn’t even know, to attend. This gesture brings her into the life of her dear, sweet, elderly neighbour, Mrs Graham, and the relationship that develops between them is one of gentle tenderness and deep affection.

The tension within the novel builds to a sizzling point, and as the summer heat escalates so does the risky game that Isabelle is playing with Jack. Frictions overflow, and a moment of unrestrained passion sees Isabelle doing what she does best: running away. To Prague. Running from Evan, running from her own demons.

I was first heard about Isabelle of the Moon and Stars through an interview with the author, S.A Jones, which featured on Amanda Curtin’s blog, looking up/looking down. The concept of a story that attempts to express through its main character a realistic look at how depression and anxiety are experienced intrigued me. Jones mentioned that she was inspired by ‘a dissatisfaction with the way mental illness is often portrayed in popular culture’. Depression is often still very much misunderstood with sufferers enduring a ‘get over it’ attitude by people in their lives, and society at large. It is a difficult topic to base a novel around but Jones has managed to not only construct a convincing narrative, she has created a main character that is so life-like, so engaging and flawed that I cared deeply for Isabelle, felt her pain acutely.

Jones doesn’t stereotype Isabelle. Instead we are given an insight into the daily struggle that Isabelle faces in trying to keep the threads of her life together, keep the façade of wellness in place while desperately fearful of failure, of her world falling apart, of losing the fight to keep The Dark Place from consuming her. Isabelle experiences intense panic attacks, which are her Dark Place. The intensity of these attacks, the sense of being at the mercy of her own body and mind, which seem to have conspired to kill her, are scenes that have been composed with skill and grace, they are raw and confronting, completely believable, and reflect real depressive experiences.

Depression is often viewed as a dark topic but that doesn’t mean that Isabelle of the Moon and Stars is a dark, depressing novel. The opposite in fact. It is a novel that explores what it means to have depression with sensitivity and insight coupled with humour, strength, courage, resolve, love and friendship. There are wonderful moments of tenderness and developing trust in Isabelle’s friendship with Mrs Graham; there is passion, desire, disappointment and mortification in her relationship with Jack; there is a deep solid friendship and blossoming love with Evan; and there is reflection and unification within herself.

Isabelle of the Moon and Stars was a joyous book to read. The prose was beautiful, heartfelt and kept a steady pace. I was immediately drawn into Isabelle’s life from the first delightfully written paragraph right through to the last. It is an immensely satisfying novel from a very talented Australian author, and I highly recommend you put it on your reading list for 2015.

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Isabelle of the Moon and Stars (UWA Publishing 2014)                                                                    ISBN: 9781742586038

DEAD UNTIL DARK by Charlaine Harris

Dead_Until_Dark-006The overall premise of Dead Until Dark is that of a romance which develops between Sookie Stackhouse, a down to earth waitress from Bon Temp who happens to have the ability to eavesdrop on other people’s thoughts, and Bill Compton, the one hundred year old vampire. In addition to this, someone is killing women who have a reputation for being ‘fang bangers’ – vampire groupies – and making it look like Bon Temp has a vampire serial killer on the loose. This murder mystery sub-plot provides a good balance to the romance aspect, preventing it from becoming too cloying, and serves to drive the narrative forward.

The writing in this book is simple, uses a lot of clichés, and at times it feels as though Harris has reached for the thesaurus in an attempt to make things sound more interesting, which is a shame as these words jarred against the natural flow and style of her writing. To start with, I found Harris’s writing too simplistic and off-putting. I couldn’t get beyond the first few pages without thinking it was utter trash. Frustrated, I stopped reading the book. But then I decided that the problem was a case of perspective: my perspective. I read a fair amount of literary fiction and I was applying my expectations of literary fiction upon what was quite obviously a romance-vampire-fiction murder-mystery combo. There’s no way Dead Until Dark could live up to that kind of scrutiny. I couldn’t be objective until I changed my perspective and recognised that the main objective was to answer the question: Is this an entertaining read? Determined to be more open-minded, I started to read Dead Until Dark once more.

While the writing is simple, Harris has created a distinctive voice of Louisiana folk, which serves the story and the characters well. Sookie is actually quite a well-developed character and I think her naïve/vixen persona works well within the context of the story. She’s in her mid-twenties yet very unworldly and sexually innocent, but she’s not immune to her own feminine wiles and charms, and she bounces between innocent and sexy as she tries to find her feet in her relationship with Bill. A somewhat glossed over aspect of the story is that as a child Sookie was sexually molested by her Uncle Bartlett. This factor adds to her confusion about relationships and sex with men. Combine this with her being able to hear a man’s thoughts when she’s making out with him, whether her butt is the right size or her breasts meeting expectations, and it’s no wonder she’s still sexually innocent.

The sex scenes in the book are clumsy, awkward and certainly not the steamy stuff of a Mills and Boon novel. I’m not sure if the clumsily written scenes are a result of Harris’s poor writing skills or if it’s an intentional stroke of good scene setting. Intentional or not, I think that the cringe worthy scene of Sookie’s first sexual encounter with Bill was apt: as the reader, it brought up in me feelings of discomfort, embarrassment and I just wanted it to stop, banish it from my mind. Brilliant, if you think about it, because it reflects reality; first time sexual encounters are rarely the smooth, erotic, passionate moments portrayed in the movies.

It’s Bill that I can’t quite gel with in this book. For a one hundred year old vampire he’s not very smooth as a lover, pretty cheesy actually. Harris presents him as being a bit confused in the realm of modern dating, which doesn’t fit with him having so much life experience – decades and decades of dating, womanising and the like. I simply cannot imagine a vampire living for that long and not being up to date on the changing world of dating. Sookie’s love-infatuation with Bill is understandable, given her background, but Bill’s declarations of love come across as hollow and false.

What did strike me as odd was that Sookie doesn’t have any friends. Not one close girlfriend, not a BFF of any kind. She has work colleagues but there isn’t a character who is placed as her close friend or confidant. Despite her telepathic ‘disability’, as she calls it, she’s able to sustain a close and loving relationship with her grandmother, and her brother, Jason, so it makes sense that she could also carry this over to a friendship, someone who supports her and is her ally. This lack of a close friendship made the story somewhat unbalanced.

One aspect that I do like about Harris’s book is that she has taken the classic vampire storyline and creatively expanded it to include other creatures to co-exist within the human world. These include Sam, the shapeshifter, and Sookie, a supernatural whose species has not yet been revealed in this book. She also has vampires ‘mainstreaming’ living openly within human society, and drinking a synthetically produced blood, which makes them seem more acceptable to society. By not revealing all of her characters and their attributes at once, Harris creates the desire to read the following books in the series, to unravel the mystery of Sookie. She’s more than a telepath, there’s something special about her blood, but what is she?

On the surface Dead Until Dark appears to be a fluff romance vampire novel driven by a murder mystery plot and simple writing, but there is something more complex going on within the story line and characterisation. Once surrendered myself to accepting those aspects, the book actually became more enjoyable to read. It fulfilled its purpose: to entertain.

 

Dead Until Dark (Orion Publishing, 2008)

ISBN 9780575089372

THE STRAYS by Emily Bitto

TheStraysFrom the very first page, I was attracted to The Strays, and like the main character, Lily, I was mesmerised by the events that unfolded, drawn back over and over again to the Trentham’s house, to the vibrant chaotic lives of the people that lived there. There is a seductive quality to the writing that compelled me to keep reading.

The Strays tells the story of Evan Trentham, a famous 1930s modernist painter, his wife, Helena, who comes from a wealthy Melbourne family, and the inner workings of life inside their home. Evan and Helena open their home to other like-minded artists, creating an artists’ community. This gathering offers a rich environment of stimulating creative ideas and the expansion of new concepts, however, it also has a dark underbelly of debaucherous parties with lots of booze, cigarettes and ‘reefers’. The lack of a stable, nurturing environment for the three Trentham daughters, Beatrice, Eva and Heloise leads to tragic consequences for the entire family.

The Strays is told through the character of Lily, who as a young girl first meets Eva at school. Lily is mesmerised by the Trentham family, by the bold art that she does not fully understand, by their huge ramshackle house and expansive gardens, and by the glamorous but aloof Helena. Over the years Lily is drawn into the Trentham family fold and witnesses the spirited and often wild artists’ parties, and attends exhibition openings.

“If my mother had seen any one of the familiar tableau of the Trentham circle she would have spun me around and marched me straight back to the car. These were my secrets, the false bottom of my suitcase where the documents of my true allegiance were hidden. Maria as odalisque on the green chaise, being sketched by Jerome, who was still only learning the human figure. Evan in the late sun by the bath-fire, splashes of sienna on his chin, on his skull, between the kite-bones of his pelvis. Jerome and Ugo smoking reefer over a plate of Ugo’s pierogies, swapping the joint for a pickled cucumber. Helena in her kimono at midday, flirting with Ugo at the vegetable patch as he pulled up carrots.”

Evan and Helena are erratic, focused on artistic success and accolades, fame and money – despite claiming to reject capitalism ideals they actually live their life due to the capitalist successes of Helena’s family – at the detriment of their children, whom they neglect terribly. Lily is blinded by her infatuation with the Trentham’s exotic art-infused life and as such she brushes aside the fact that Eva and her sisters often goes without cooked meals, are left to scrounge for bread and jam in the kitchen, receive no comfort from their mother and are emotionally starved for attention. Much of this is a result of Helena carring an underlying resentment over her decision to have children at the cost of her own artistic career.

Lily covets the excitement and glamour of her friend Eva’s life. An only child, she struggles to understand family dynamics between siblings and desperately wants to be accepted by the Trentham family while rejecting her own parents, categorising them as dull and boring.

“I shifted in bed, conscious of the importance of other people lying asleep in the same house, and in some fundamental way, of having surpassed my own parents.”

Lily’s insecurities and desire for acceptance lead her to make a decision that haunts her for decades to come. Out of spite and anger, after being rejected by mother-figure Helena, Lily hides that she knew 15-year old Eva was running away with her 24-year old lover-painter, Jerome.

Even into adulthood and middle age, Lily is unable to accept her own flaws and how her actions contributed to the pain and suffering of her best friend, and that of Beatrice and Heloise. Lily attends a retrospective exhibition for Evan Trentham and reunites briefly with Eva, Beatrice and Helena. Aged in her sixties and still holding on to her anger and resentment, like a long, slow burning flame, Lily announces that she is contemplating writing a memoir about her experiences in the Trentham household. She is unwilling to reconcile her part in the trauma that occurred so long ago. The memoir stands as a subversive act of retribution for being rejected, for being on the outside and never being needed as she so desperately wanted all those years ago.

It is through the reading of a note, stolen long ago, that Lily is finally able to diffuse the anger that has simmered for so long. At last she realises that Helena was a mother figure for her and that in her own aloof way Helena did accept Lily as a part of the Trentham family circle.

Lily is a self-indulgent character and although she records the events that occur in the  Trentham household, she is very fixated on herself and her own needs. I found her to be both likeable and unlikeable. The young child-Lily displays a sense of selfishness that is common among children, but when that self-absorption continues into adulthood, I found her to be distasteful. This complexity, in making Lily at once likable and unlikable displays Emily Bitto’s talent in keeping her characters real – Lily is flawed, as are the Trentham family members. But beyond that, this is a story about the bonds of friendship between girlfriends, how those bonds change, twist and strain, snap back or break. There are heartfelt tender moments amidst the chaos and frenzy of the artists community, which serve to ground and anchor the story.

The Strays and its characters are memorable, and I found them lingering in my mind, found myself contemplating them and their motives for days after I read the last page. It is this quality, that for me, makes The Strays such a great book.

The Strays by Emily Bitto (Affirm Publishing 2014)

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A COOK’S TOUR by Anthony Bourdain

A_Cooks_Tour_bookI first read A Cook’s Tour over a decade ago and since then it’s been languishing in my bookcase. Headed overseas on a 6-week trip through Vietnam, I dusted it off and threw it into my backpack certain that Bourdain would make the perfect travel companion.

I confess that I do have an affinity for Bourdain’s work. I read his first book, Kitchen Confidential, when I was working in the hospitality industry, and his brash personality, his wry sense of humour and his open honesty are all evident as much in his writing as they are in his television shows A Cook’s Tour, No Reservations and the later Parts Unknown.

A Cook’s Tour focuses on Bourdain’s search around the globe for the perfect meal, which is not defined by the most expensive restaurant, Michelan stars, sophistication or organic ingredients but rather composed of more elusive elements of romantic notions, context and memory all merging to create the atmosphere that accompany a good meal, leading to a sense of perfection.

Bourdain travels the world from places like Cambodia and Vietnam, on to Morocco, Russia, the UK and Mexico eating his way through a smorgasbord of good, bad and hair-raising food experiences. This was back in the early 2000s, and some of the places he visits are remote and still very much emerging countries – Cambodia is a haven for thrill seekers into drugs and bad behaviour along with encounters with the Khmer Rouge, Vietnam carries the ubiquitous romanticised imagery of beautiful women wearing the Ao Dai and connical hats – alongside exotic places like the inner labyrinths of the old city of Fez, in Morocco, and the freezing cold in deep-winter Russia – bleak but totally satisfying Bourdain’s boyhood notions of the KGB, melancholy and absurdity.

Alongside writing about the food and the countries he visits, Bourdain includes running asides about the film crew that is travelling with him.  The mishaps, pranks and problems encountered by a chef-turned-writer who is confronted daily with a television camera tracking his every move and a producer will do anything for ‘good television’ including an aging iguana that ends up in his soup all make for entertaining reading. Bourdain confesses to having had problems in the past with drugs, and he spends lot of his travels drinking it up with the locals, but he doesn’t hide his faults, instead he lets the reader into his life – insecurities and paranoias are shared – which I found refreshing. In the age now where celebrity chefs are the norm and their images are primped and preened to a squeaky clean level, confidence and arrogance abounds, and publicists have created the chef’s image, it was refreshing to read Bourdain’s humble confessions that he felt out of his depth, that at times he was miserable and wanted to go home. It was honest, it was human, and it reflects what it feels like to travel for extended periods. He’s enthusiastic about the food and genuine in his interactions with the people he meets – he’s not playing a role, that’s what his producers have issues with. He hasn’t mastered the art of manipulating the audience.

There are some fabulously entertaining moments, and one of my favourites is his trip to Russia. His youthful romantic ideas are well written, and he manages to give a good insight into life in Russia at the time, proceeds to get rip-snorting drunk with his buddy only to have the producer tell him at the end of dinner, when neither of them can walk straight, that the film crew forgot to shoot an opening scene, and so the two drunken men attempt to redo the scene with limited success. The trip to Fez and out into the Moroccan desert is filled with romantic charms and the mystery of the ‘other’ and his experiences in Japan uncover an aspect to food that is not widely known, especially the when he heads to a special retreat and the food arrives in a multitude of courses.

Having travelled through Vietnam, only a decade or so later, it was interesting to note how much the country has changed, developed, and that the uniqueness, the undiscovered charm that Bourdain writes about and is no longer there. In that respect A Cook’s Tour also serves as small reminder of how places change, how nothing stays the same, and the importance of getting out there and enjoying things before they disappear. The book also pays homage to the ties of friendship and the firm bonds that he has forged with his ‘crew’ the men and women from the kitchens in New York that he has worked with and how, in many ways, they are family.

Ultimately, Bourdain’s books is about more than food, it’s about the relationships we have with food, the people we dine with, the environment and nostalgia all combining to give us those great food memories that we all have. That’s what makes the perfect meal.

A Cook’s Tour: In Search of the Perfect Meal by Anthony Bourdain (Bloomsbury Publishing 2001)

LOOK WHO’S BACK by Timur Vermes

Look whos BackLook Who’s Back tackles the difficult subject of Hitler in an entirely new light. The plot line is fresh and unique casting Hilter forward in time to Berlin, in the summer of 2011, and mixes Hilter’s outlooks with modern technologies and satire to create an entertaining and engaging read.

Hitler wakes up in a barren part of Berlin and ends up making friends with a newspaper kiosk owner, who offers him a place to stay in the kiosk. Hitler is confused and astonished to discover that Germany has survived and flourished, and is governed by a woman. He is perplexed by people who walk their dogs and stop to pick up the dog poo and labels them as imbeciles. Discovered by some TV producers, who presume that he is a hard-core method acting impersonator, he is thrust into the media spotlight and becomes a YouTube sensation.

Despite the fame, Hitler struggles with modern technologies and it is these fumbling moments, the acute portrayals of how someone unfamiliar with mobiles phones, computers, email and flat screen televisions that add depth and colour to the character. Written in the first person, the reader gains access to Hitler’s own musings, his confusion and frustrations, which Timur Vermes has written with skill. There are many smart, comic moments, such as the scene involving Hiltler taking his soldier’s suit to Yilmar’s Blitz Cleaners and then later his rant at the TV producers about knowing where his uniform was at all times, which made me laugh out loud.

Timur Vermes has succeeded in creating a personality and voice for Hitler, through the use of language and writing style, which all serve to create a believable and, dare I say it, somewhat endearing character, rants aside. Vermes’s Hitler shows confusion, vulnerability at being in this new world and is even concerned about his assistant, which serves to humanise the character. Ther e is a strong political slant that at times was a little boring. I’m not a huge fan of politics, and so that could be due to my lack of political interest rather than a reflection on the writing. Underneath the satire and the comedy, the reader is also faced with the machinations of the man who actively was supported by the public, the horrors that he committed, and how easy it is for a personality to gain a following by different publics in our media-saturated world.

Overall, I found the storyline to be an interesting reinvention of Hitler and how the use of social media and what constitutes comedy can turn a dark historical figure into one of comedic relief.

Look Who’s Back by Timur Vermes (MacLehose Press 2014)

Originally published in Germany with the title Er is wieder da by Eichborn, a division of Bastei Lubbe Publishing Group, 2012.

HOLIDAY IN CAMBODIA by Laura Jean McKay

Holiday in CambodiaI was helping a friend edit her short story, a great travel piece about a trek along the Inca Trail, when she mentioned that a colleague had commented that the story didn’t have enough insight into the emotional background of the characters. I’ve noticed recently that some readers want the characters’ emotions laid out for them, to have the characters presented akin to a reality TV show, where every tedious inch is laid bare and nothing is left to the imagination. The problem is that a short story doesn’t have the time or space to delve into these areas the way a novel does. Also, a well written story doesn’t need the characters’ emotions conveyed in intimate, expanded detail. A good writer can convey intense situations through means other than describing the characters’ emotions. As a reader, I want to be guided, given some insights, but I want my imagination to kick in, to fill the spaces with a richness and vividness that is all my own. That’s the beauty of reading.

What does that have to do with Holiday in Cambodia? you ask. Well, quite simply that this book of short stories does a sensational job of withholding, of giving just enough insight, character development and storyline to get you hooked, so hooked in fact that you want more, you want the stories to go on, only they don’t. They stop. Often quite abruptly. Which, for me, only added to their appeal. I liked that there wasn’t a focus on providing an excess of detail and character emotions, that there was a tension created by the holding back, which allowed me to engage more fully with the stories being narrated.

Holiday in Cambodia is a collection of 17 short stories that portray the cultural differences between Australia and Cambodia, and highlights attitudes to life, relationships, death, superstitions and sex. The stories are cleverly crafted so as to be often fragmented, leaving the reader with the impression of having entered into a conversation halfway through, only to have it end abruptly without a resolution. McKay’s talent is evident in her ability to write intense, brief stories that are precise, yet containing just enough details to bring the stories to life. It would be a mistake to assume that the brevity of the length, or the sudden endings mean that the stories lack weight. Holiday in Cambodia is filled with weighty, powerful stories, driven by well-developed, real characters. Some so real that they’ll make you cringe, others will make you want to comfort the central character. What is certain is that these stories will make you feel a gamut of emotions. It’s hard to believe that such short stories can produce such intense reactions. The Australian characters, in the form of expats, aid workers and tourists, are immediately recognisable by the way that they behave, sometimes badly – from the expat men who frequent brothels to the mother who inserts herself into a grieving family to satisfy her sense of morbid curiosity about death. The stories push deeper beyond the stereotypes to explore Cambodian culture, superstitions and the tragedy and loss experienced by a country ravaged by war and the Khmer Rouge, and the ongoing loss of life and limb due to unexploded ordinances that lie hidden in the soil.

In the rainy season, mines slide under the mud. Landmines are travellers. They shift like worms and you have to find them again. Old ones rise to the surface and ones marked as found sink and disappear. You could end up with one next to your house, they warned, where your children play. (A Thousand Cobs of Corn)

The question of why we travel, and the desire to view the plight of others as a form tourism is raised in Route Four. ‘I’m going to India after this,’ says the rich man and the lady laughs. ‘You have to go. It’s dire.’ Three backpackers from western countries insist on catching the train to Kampot, and an orphan boy accompanies them, hoping to make some money from the rich foreigners. The tale starts slowly,  keeping pace with the rhythmic shunting of the train, but takes a dramatic turn that has brutal results. This story, among others, still haunts me, the imagery was vivid, and the ending caught me off guard.

The impact of the stories in Holiday in Cambodia is strong yet poignant, and they will stay with you after you have finished the book. Route Four, the first story in the collection, is a great leading piece, and from there I found myself consumed and fascinated by the characters, by their circumstances, and the cultural insights and perspectives that I had gained access to.

awwbadge_2014Holiday in Cambodia by Laura Jean McKay (Black Inc. 2013)

Holiday in Cambodia was shortlisted for the NSW Premier’s Literary Award 2014. 

EMPRESS DOWAGER CIXI by Jung Chang

EmpressDowagerCixiJung Chang’s methodically researched and well written biography, Empress Dowager Cixi: The concubine who launched modern China is packed with freshly unearthed facts, literary hoaxes are revealed and lies are exposed. 

Jung Chang is the acclaimed author of Wild Swans (1992), a stellar biographical tribute to three generations of her family, and co-author of the critically received best seller Mao: The Unknown Story (2005). She tackles the story of Cixi through diligent research and a desire to portray Cixi in a new light as a woman who was patriotic, politically aware, open to embracing change, and interested in advancing China on national and international scales. This presents a fresh view as opposed to the long projected image of Cixi as a usurper of the throne who was cruel and imperious. Despite being heavy on facts the Empress Dowager Cixi is no stuffy, dry historical text, but rather an engaging story presented in a light conversational style that flows easily from one section of Cixi’s life to the next. Jung Chang reveals how from behind the screen and in front of it, Cixi directed medieval China into the modern age.

Cixi came from “one of the oldest and most illustrious Manchu families” and started her life in the royal palace, at age sixteen, as a low-ranking concubine – out of the eight rungs, Cixi was ranked on the sixth rung. She was not a favoured concubine and it was only her genuine friendship with Empress Zhen and then several years later giving birth to a son, the Emperor’s first born male, that elevated Cixi’s status within the court to that of the No. 2 consort. After the death of Emperor Xianfeng in August 1861, Empress Zhen and Cixi collaborated together and successfully launched a coup to overthrow the Regents and it was proclaimed that

“all state matters will be personally decided by the Two Dowager Empresses, who will give orders to the Grand Advisor and the Grand Councillors for them to carry out … in the name of the [new] emperor”.

Jung Chang makes use of diaries, historical documents, imperial decrees, court records, official communications and private correspondence, all written in Chinese, that have previously not been access by scholars in English, making them valuable resources in offering a fresh perspective on the Dowager Empress. There are numerous new facts that have come to light, thanks to Jung Chang’s research, such as the literary hoax that Sir Edmund Backhouse wrote, a biography titled China Under the Empress Dowager (1910), in which he faked a diary in which he claimed that she urged Emperor Xianfeng to ignore peace talks with foreigners and kill their messengers. Other falsehoods include claims that Cixi bankrupted the navy in order to build the Summer Palace, and that she was so obsessed with celebrating her sixtieth birthday that she neglected the war against Japan. Jung Chang refutes this saying that it was Cixi who “founded China’s modern navy; the building of the Summer Palace did not deprive it of cash, even though she did take a small portion of funds. She did not actively participate in the war for a long time, not because she was indulging in her birthday preparations, but because Emperor Guangxi bared her”.

Jung Chang credits the Empress Dowager Cixi as leaving behind a legacy that moulded and guided China into the modern age through the development of railways, electricity, telephones, Western medicine, modernised army and navy forces, the implementation of a new education system based on Western models, and securing of foreign trade deals. She allowed and encouraged freedom of expression in the press and was a driving force behind the concept of political participation and advocated giving all Chinese people the right to vote. Cixi is portrayed as being a champion for women’s rights with her banning the centuries old custom of foot-binding. But, she was not without her faults, and Jung Chang acknowledges that Cixi was flawed; she does not try to hide this.

“She was a giant but not a saint. Being the absolute ruler of one-third of the world’s population and the product of medieval China, she was capable of immense ruthlessness. For all her faults she was no despot. Compared to that of her predecessors, or successors, Cixi’s rule was benign. In some four decades of absolute power, her political killings -whether just or unjust – which are recorded in this book, were no more than a few dozen, many of them in response to plots to kill her. She was not cruel by nature.”

For me this biography provides a refreshing  and original look at the woman who was demonised in China for many years. It goes beyond hating Cixi for her Manchurian background, beyond the male dominated rhetoric to discredit her and explores the Dowager in more detail, backed by meticulous research. Reading this book was a gripping affair, one that peeled back layers and insights into Chinese culture as well as the Dowager herself. I found her to be an admirable, intelligent woman who faced incredible odds, endless difficulties, all compounded by the fact that she was a woman. Despite her power, she never once entered the Forbidden City through the front gates, a privilege reserved for the emperor only, and alway entered the harem via the back gate. Her successes deserve acknowledgement, and I found this to be a very convincing interpretation of the life of the Empress Dowager Cixi.

Empress Dowager Cixi: The concubine who launched modern China by Jung Chang (Jonathan Cape 2013)

TSUNAMI AND THE SINGLE GIRL by Krissy Nicholson

TsunamiSingleGirlCoverTsunami and the Single Girl is a combination of chick lit and travel memoir that manages to include a host of love affairs gone awry, expat excesses and the noble job of aid work in countries affected by disaster.

In a bizarre turn of events, a broken leg on the dance floor in a club in Vietnam leads Krissy to her dream job of becoming a humanitarian aid worker. Krissy’s other dream, of finding her ‘dream man’ are not so easily achieved and she becomes entangled in series of love affairs fuelled by the drama and intensity of living in disaster-stricken countries. There are plenty of comedic moments, and the portrayal of the stereotypical expat partying hard, drinking and having a privileged life (compared to the locals) is cast against countries ravaged by natural disasters and war. The plight of locals in these events is dealt with compassionately and conveys the stress and trauma felt by both locals and aid-worker staff members, and the often insurmountable challenges that they are faced with.

After a series of romances gone astray, Krissy returns home in search of a man on more stable ground, in her home town of Melbourne. Yet, she is conflicted – her heart is addicted to the adrenalin-charged disaster situations, the heightened emotions that go with it, and she finds it difficult to settle in Melbourne. She undergoes a change in career direction and also faces serious health issues of her own. The book covers themes of self-reflection, the ticking of the biological clock, the endless yearning that accompanies the search for love and romantic fulfilment, and finding satisfaction in a career and friendships. Krissy does eventually get her man, but he’s not where she expected to find him, and he’s not who she thought he would be.

Tsunami and the Single Girl by Krissy Nicholson (Allen & Unwin, 2013)