All Over Creation – Ruth Ozeki

All Over Creation“Yumi Fuller hasn’t set foot in her hometown of Liberty Falls, Idaho—heart of the potato-farming industry—since she ran away at age fifteen. Twenty-five years later, the prodigal daughter returns to confront her dying parents, her best friend, and her conflicted past, and finds herself caught up in an altogether new drama. The post-millennial farming community has been invaded by Agribusiness forces at war with a posse of activists, the Seeds of Resistance, who travel the country in a camping car, “The Spudnick,” biofueled by pilfered McDonald’s french-fry oil.”

I’ve heard that this is not her strongest book, so I look forward to reading her other two soon, but in my introduction to Ozeki’s writing I found her writing intelligent, challenging and hilarious. Her eccentric cast of characters are drawn together in rural Ohio over the unexpected ideological upheaval surrounding potato farming. Genius, right? It’s a difficult to describe meandering exploration of environmental activism, family dysfunction, forgiveness and reconciliation. The protagonist is frustrating, but I don’t have to like my narrators to enjoy their stories. The character development and some of the events of the novel verge on parody in their seeming randomness and I’m into that. I liked it and all its commentary/critique of modern agribusiness and activism alike.
4stars
MA

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Everything I Never Told You – Celeste Ng

Everything I Never“Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet.

So begins this exquisite novel about a Chinese American family living in 1970s small-town Ohio. Lydia is the favorite child of Marilyn and James Lee, and her parents are determined that she will fulfill the dreams they were unable to pursue. But when Lydia’s body is found in the local lake, the delicate balancing act that has been keeping the Lee family together is destroyed, tumbling them into chaos.”

Authors like Ng and Ozeki both frequently explore characters who are close to my heart: mixed race females growing up in rural small-town North America (p.s. this was me). So I find myself drawn to their novels in personal curiosity. But of course, the Lee family has much in common with every family in their, at times seemingly futile, struggle to know and understand each other. It’s been described as a thriller, but I wouldn’t go that far. We begin with some expected tropes – a missing girl, a bad boy from school, but through beautiful prose, Ng crafts nuanced characters facing terrible tragedy. It’s a story about family, racism, prejudice, belonging and acceptance, growing up, love, reconciling the past and living up to expectations.

4stars
M

 

The Poisonwood Bible – Barbara Kingsolver


Poisonwood“The Poisonwood Bible is a story told by the wife and four daughters of Nathan Price, a fierce, evangelical Baptist who takes his family and mission to the Belgian Congo in 1959. They carry with them everything they believe they will need from home, but soon find that all of it — from garden seeds to Scripture — is calamitously transformed on African soil. What follows is a suspenseful epic of one family’s tragic undoing and remarkable reconstruction over the course of three decades in postcolonial Africa.”

I read this on the heels of The Mosquito Coast and was entrenched in a deep fascination with post-colonial family sagas led by fervent, overbearing patriarchs.  Kingsolver’s epic is deftly woven from the voices of the women of the Price family as they are moved to the mission field of the Belgian Congo in 1950’s by their misguided and over-zealous husband/father. Their voices are distinct and poetic, a horrifying and beautiful tapestry of pain and transformation. As a critical reflection on colonial history and patriarchy it is also a fiercely emotional exploration of family, growing up, loss and recovery. This is not an easy novel to read, but it is powerful and moving. Through the broken history of one African nation Kingsolver challenges our acceptance of cultural norms and beliefs and opens the door to questions of our own culpability in cultural privilege and hegemony.
5stars
M

The Shepherd’s Hut – Tim Winton

timwinton “Jaxie dreads going home. His mum’s dead. The old man bashes him without mercy, and he wishes he was an orphan. But no one’s ever told Jaxie Clackton to be careful what he wishes for.

In one terrible moment his life is stripped to little more than what he can carry and how he can keep himself alive. There’s just one person left in the world who understands him and what he still dares to hope for. But to reach her he’ll have to cross the vast saltlands on a trek that only a dreamer or a fugitive would attempt.”

I was privileged enough to hear Tim Winton talk about this novel and what he calls, ‘toxic masculinity’ in Sydney. Afterwards I thought there wouldn’t be much left to get out of reading the novel, but as I rounded chapter 3 I realised I was dead set wrong. The protagonist is rough, abrasive and, if not endearing, at least engrossing and he leads us on a cracking journey of survival that snaps like a whip the closer you get to the end. As with most of Winton’s writing the landscape is it’s own character and the austere backdrop for Jaxie’s plight reflects the unforgiving and shocking nature of his story. It made me both incredibly uncomfortable and supremely intrigued. It’s about manhood and masculinity for sure, but also about growing up, fear and bravery, solitude and unexpected friendship. Warning: lots of language and some violence.
4stars
MA

The Museum of Modern Love – Heather Rose

The Museum

“…’If this was a dream, then he wanted to know when it would end. Maybe it would end if he went to see Lydia. But it was the one thing he was not allowed to do.’

Arky Levin is a film composer in New York separated from his wife, who has asked him to keep one devastating promise. One day he finds his way to The Atrium at MOMA and sees Marina Abramovic in The Artist is Present. The performance continues for seventy-five days and, as it unfolds, so does Arky. As he watches and meets other people drawn to the exhibit, he slowly starts to understand what might be missing in his life and what he must do.”

Winner of the 2017 Stella Prize, the central premise of this narrative is unique – the non-linear perspectives of multiple characters who are linked by their experiences with the 2010 MoMA performance, The Artist is Present by artist Marina Abramović. Fascinatingly, Rose has used fictional characters, and a fictionalised version of Abramović’s internal monologue, to explore an incredible, challenging and inspirational real life work of art. To be quite frank I found this a very slow burn, a meditation on love and art that raised very worthy questions about both, but with whose characters I found little resonance. The most compelling aspect of the book was the exploration of the Abramović’s artwork as opposed to the narrative arc. I soldiered through to the end though and even kept reading the extras at the end and continued to research Abramović long after I put the novel down. Let’s go:
3stars
M

One of Us is Lying – Karen M. McManus

one-of-us-is-lying

“On Monday afternoon, five students at Bayview High walk into detention.
Bronwyn, the brain, is Yale-bound and never breaks a rule.
Addy, the beauty, is the picture-perfect homecoming princess.
Nate, the criminal, is already on probation for dealing.
Cooper, the athlete, is the all-star baseball pitcher.
And Simon, the outcast, is the creator of Bayview High’s notorious gossip app.

Only, Simon never makes it out of that classroom. Before the end of detention, Simon’s dead. And according to investigators, his death wasn’t an accident…
Everyone has secrets, right? What really matters is how far you would go to protect them.”

Ok, so I haven’t actually seen or read The Breakfast Club OR Pretty Little Liars, both of which have been used to describe this novel. But, for a book that didn’t at first glance seem to be my usual read, it had me completely hooked. The plot unfolds through multiple narrators’ voices and I was captivated by each individual’s secret lives – what they lived with, what they were hiding. The protagonists are tropes, absolutely, but also characters who challenged some of my own assumptions. I’m a sucker for a good murder mystery too and McManus uses well crafted suspense  to raise insightful questions about the challenging social dynamics of high school and some of the pressing issues that face her teen/young adult audience. It’s a novel about acceptance, fear, shame, parental relationships, love and the tension between personal integrity and the powerful need to belong. For it’s genre (teen fiction) I give it:
4stars
PG

The Mosquito Coast – Paul Theroux

130520“In a breathtaking adventure story, the paranoid and brilliant inventor Allie Fox takes his family to live in the Honduran jungle, determined to build a civilization better than the one they’ve left. Fleeing from an America he sees as mired in materialism and conformity, he hopes to rediscover a purer life. But his utopian experiment takes a dark turn when his obsessions lead the family toward unimaginable danger.”

This novel haunted me long after I closed the back cover, so needless to say – I loved it. It’s like a dark and disturbing post colonial Swiss Family Robinson: part extraordinary adventure, part social critique, part family saga, part coming-of-age novel. Theroux maintains an amazing balance between hope and impending doom that kept me turning the pages. It’s as captivating as a train wreck – no matter how much I wanted to, I couldn’t look away. This is a story about the hypocrisy of the American Dream, growing up, reconciliation (or not), grappling with fear and the past, utopia, power play, cultural and economic disparity, heroism, sanity, trust and family dynamics, captivity and freedom… I can see why it’s an old friend of the HSC list in the Extension 1 Elective: Retreat from the Global: I found it fascinating as a character study, a critique of Western values and globalisation and simply as a darn good story. I’m giving it 4.5 stars.
5stars
M

Hag-seed – Margaret Atwood


hag-seed

“When Felix is deposed as artistic director of the Makeshiweg Theatre Festival by his devious assistant and longtime enemy, his production of The Tempest is canceled and he is heartbroken. Reduced to a life of exile in rural southern Ontario—accompanied only by his fantasy daughter, Miranda, who died twelve years ago—Felix devises a plan for retribution.”

Shakespeare and Atwood? It’s a Canadian-born English teacher’s dream! Atwood’s retelling of The Tempest encapsulates her tell-tale wry intellect and unsentimental characterisation of modern life through the ploys of an audacious but pitiable middle-aged director. Despite setting this appropriation in modern Canada, Atwood maintains a fantastical tone: a tragic past, a melodramatic breakdown and a spectacular plot for revenge. It’s funny, a bit sardonic, very hopeful and offers some fascinating interpretations of Shakespeare’s original text. It’s also about teaching Shakespeare, so it’s no wonder it ended up on the HSC text list.

And so, as our revels are now ended, I give it the heavy end of
4stars
M

Eileen – Ottessa Moshfegh

eileen“The Christmas season offers little cheer for Eileen Dunlop, an unassuming yet disturbed young woman trapped between her role as her alcoholic father’s caretaker…and a day job as a secretary at the boys’ prison… When the bright, beautiful, and cheery Rebecca Saint John arrives on the scene as the new counselor at Moorehead, Eileen is enchanted and proves unable to resist what appears at first to be a miraculously budding friendship. In a Hitchcockian twist, her affection for Rebecca ultimately pulls her into complicity in a crime that surpasses her wildest imaginings.”

It was coming into winter and I felt like something a little dark and this novel had some good reviews/was shortlisted. While the impending sense of doom kept me persisting through the quotidian horrors of Eileen’s life, when calamity finally struck, I had to work at suspending my disbelief as it fizzled to an end. Moshfegh’s protagonist is perverse, disturbed and melodramatic – an excellent character study, but still, a bit claustrophobic. This is a grotesque exploration of the ugliness within humanity, and looks at dysfunctional family dynamics, entrapment and escape, loneliness and belonging, and moral relativism. Only –
3stars
MA

The North Water – Ian McGuire

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“1859. A man joins a whaling ship bound for the Arctic Circle. Having left the British Army with his reputation in tatters, Patrick Sumner has little option but to accept the position of ship’s surgeon on this ill-fated voyage. But when, deep into the journey, a cabin boy is discovered brutally killed, Sumner finds himself forced to act. Soon he will face an evil even greater than he had encountered at the siege of Delhi, in the shape of Henry Drax: harpooner, murderer, monster…”

After reading The LuminariesI was still in the mood for the 19th century. Long-listed for the Booker and a great back cover blurb, I dove into the explicit world of whaling, violence and survival. I’ve heard it described as ‘Jack London on steroids’ and I wouldn’t disagree. It is unapologetically profane and gory and McGuire sets a cracking pace as he draws you into a shocking exploration of moral relativism and the human will to survive. A gripping and action-packed narrative, but thoughtful enough to raise some deep and dark questions, I’d say this book gets
4stars
MA