Hag-seed – Margaret Atwood


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“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

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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

 

Ghostwritten – David Mitchell

11806798“An apocalyptic cult member carries out a gas attack on a rush-hour metro, but what links him to a jazz buff in downtown Tokyo? Or to a Mongolian gangster, a woman on a holy mountain who talks to a tree, and a late night New York DJ?Set at the fugitive edges of Asia and Europe, Ghostwritten weaves together a host of characters, their interconnected destinies determined by the inescapable forces of cause and effect.”

The first of Mitchell’s novels, Ghostwritten, introduces his signature style using a myriad of voices and styles all carefully pieced together in this complex puzzle of narrative bliss. I find his writing witty, descriptive and quick paced and all the while he is fashioning this wildly intricate fabric of connections across time, place and persons. Mitchell knows how to keep his readers on their toes and while this novel isn’t as fine-tuned as his later work, it’s definitely some mind bending fun.  He’s looking at choice and destiny, the role of the supernatural, cause and effect, truth and memory. Clever, captivating, intellectual… Mitchell is a master.
5stars
MA

Burial Rites – Hannah Kent

md22508199042“Inspired by a true story: the final days of a young woman accused of murder in Iceland in 1829. Set against Iceland’s stark landscape, Hannah Kent brings to vivid life the story of Agnes, who, charged with the brutal murder of her former master, is sent to an isolated farm to await execution. Horrified at the prospect of housing a convicted murderer, the family at first avoids Agnes. Only Toti, a priest Agnes has mysteriously chosen to be her spiritual guardian, seeks to understand her. But as Agnes’s death looms, the farmer’s wife and their daughters learn there is another side to the sensational story they’ve heard.”

Sounds morosely fascinating, right? And Iceland, who could resist? Parts of the story reminded me of Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace (19th century convicted murderess in a cold country), a comparison that left Burial Rites seeming a bit lacklustre.

I mean, Kent uses beautiful language to convey her speculative biography and the bleak landscape is as much a character as any of the members of the small isolated community the protagonist finds herself in. The story itself is interesting enough and based on some incredible research, but I felt that the narrative arch was too obvious, there were no surprises, no cliff hangers or intriguing questions to pull me as a reader along. Regardless, it is a haunting tale about morality, prejudice, fear, belonging, forgiveness and loss. It has many fine reviews as well, but for me it only gets
3stars
MA

Norwegian Wood – Haruki Murakami

norwegian-wood-haruki-murakami“When he hears her favourite Beatles song, Toru Watanabe recalls his first love Naoko, the girlfriend of his best friend Kizuki. Immediately he is transported back almost twenty years to his student days in Tokyo, adrift in a world of uneasy friendships, casual sex, passion, loss and desire – to a time when an impetuous young woman called Midori marches into his life and he has to choose between the future and the past.”

I’ve been meaning to read a Murakami for a while now and various sources recommended starting here. While I kept feeling like nothing was happening, I found strangely drawn to the world and couldn’t quite leave the book alone. It’s largely a romance, which really isn’t my thing, but I appreciate the exploration of one’s relationship to the past and the protagonist was easy to spend time with. I rather enjoyed the meandering pace and melancholic tone of the writing and I would try another Murakami no problem. And hey, it made me want to visit Japan and listen to more jazz, and for that I give it
4stars
MA

These Are The Names – Tommy Weiringa

9781925106473“A border town on the steppe. A small group of emaciated and feral refugees appears out of nowhere, spreading fear and panic in the town. When police commissioner Pontus Beg orders their arrest, evidence of a murder is found in their luggage. As he begins to unravel the history of their hellish journey, it becomes increasingly intertwined with the search for his own origins that he has embarked upon. Now he becomes the group’s inquisitor … and, finally, something like their saviour.”

I heard Weiringa speak at Sydney Writer’s Festival and when I found out that he got the idea for the novel from an obscure news story about people-traffickers fabricating border crossings, I wanted to know more. This book is reasonably short and the language, while poetic and vivid, reads easily. I couldn’t tear myself away from Weiringa’s synchronised storylines, oscillating between the horrific and the mundane, the humorous and the wise. His use of symbolism is striking without feeling forced and as the stories converge the significance of such details becomes increasingly fascinating. It is a compassionate story about migration and survival, identity and self-discovery, religion, what it is to be human and the ultimate question of redemption.

Anything I find that absorbing gets5stars
M

The Bone Clocks – David Mitchell

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“Run away, one drowsy summer’s afternoon, with Holly Sykes: wayward teenager, broken-hearted rebel and unwitting pawn in a titanic, hidden conflict.Over six decades, the consequences of a moment’s impulse unfold, drawing an ordinary woman into a world far beyond her imagining. And as life in the near future turns perilous, the pledge she made to a stranger may become the key to her family’s survival . . .”

Oh David. You’ve done it again.

Mitchell is one of my favourite authors with his dextrous, intelligent prose and ingenious narrative structures. From the blurb I found myself wary that the supernatural elements in this one would be too weird (I’m not usually into fantasy), but I’m glad I disregarded my preemptive judgements.

Just shy of 600 pages, this epic transverses the lifetime of a single character and delves into some monumental themes (good and evil, deep time, choice and destiny). As with many of Mitchell’s novels, this one is pieced together through multiple narrators (each voice impeccably crafted) from various points in time who are all connected in one way or another. It is a winding, thrilling journey through the past, present and near future that is both terrifying and reassuring.

And just in case you don’t believe me – even Josh loved this one. That’s worth double points.
5stars

MA

The Luminaries – Eleanor Catton

1385700572863 “On a blustery January day, a prostitute is arrested. In the midst of the 1866 gold rush on the coast of New Zealand, this might have gone unnoticed. But three notable events occur on that same day: a luckless drunk dies, a wealthy man vanishes, and a ship’s captain of ill repute cancels all of his business and weighs anchor, as if making an escape. Anna Wetherell, the prostitute in question, is connected to all three men. This sequence of apparently coincidental events provokes a secret council of powerful townsmen to investigate. But they are interrupted by the arrival of a stranger: young Walter Moody, who has a secret of his own.”

 

Oh. My. Word. I loved this book at least as much as the people who decided to give this the Man Booker Prize in 2013 (consequently the youngest author to have ever achieved this – she’s my age!!!). Gold Rush NZ + impeccable and confounding structural feat + beautiful prose + great mystery plot = favourite read this year.

Another tome (there seems to be a trend in my recent book choices) the construction of this novel is insanely intricate. Some people call it gimmicky, but I am in awe of the mathematical measurements (chapter lengths exactly halving in word count) and the mind boggling integrity of the astrological motif. Even without these though, the novel carries its own weight (easily a couple kilos) through a concentric narrative that orbits the mysterious occurrences of a single evening.  All within a captivating 19th century New Zealand setting, I found the characters deeply intriguing and the prose stylish in the Victorian pastiche. Long and not at all onerous, this is a complex novel that plumbs the depths of true love, destiny vs free will, the complexity of morality, truth and secrecy, the role of the supernatural and of course discovery (!!!). I don’t hand these out easily folks, but for this is definitely:

5stars

M

The Goldfinch – Donna Tartt

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“Aged thirteen, Theo Decker, son of a devoted mother and a reckless, largely absent father, survives an accident that otherwise tears his life apart. Alone and rudderless in New York, he is taken in by the family of a wealthy friend. He is tormented by an unbearable longing for his mother, and down the years clings to the thing that most reminds him of her: a small, strangely captivating painting that ultimately draws him into the criminal underworld. As he grows up, Theo learns to glide between the drawing rooms of the rich and the dusty antiques store where he works. He is alienated and in love – and his talisman, the painting, places him at the centre of a narrowing, ever more dangerous circle.”

When this novel won the Pulitzer Prize it polarised the critics, even those in the Brown household. I couldn’t’ put it down and Josh couldn’t get into it. So take that as you will.

Another fairly long book (this side of 800 pages), it is a swirling Bildungsroman set in 21st century America and Europe. The narrative voice is accessible and the plot intriguing, if at times fantastical. Many critics have lauded the text as ‘Dickensian’ with its detailed descriptions, motherless orphans and concentration on class and status.
I found it incredibly entertaining and Tartt had my full and undivided attention up until the last chapter where the narrative switches gears into a didactic philosophical rant. It’s a story about loss, class, growing up, self-discovery, truth, trust and, of course, love.  Divisive as it is, I give it:

4stars
MA