Book reviews

The Girls by Emma Cline

I chose to read The Girls by Emma Cline as a change from my usual reading matter. The Girls is a fairly recent novel, written by a younger author than I usually read. I believe the plot is based on the murder of the actress Sharon Tait by the cult members who followed Charles Manson.

The book starts with Evie Boyd, who was middle aged when an acquaintance recognised her as having been involved in a notorious cult whose members murdered several people in Hollywood during the late 1960s.

Evie then tells the reader the story of her fourteenth year. At that time she was a child in years, neglected by her separated parents, as she drank, used drugs and desperate for attention, became an easy target for a group of long-haired, bare-footed girls who groomed her to join their cult.

Unfortunately I didn’t connect with this book, although I thought the premise good. The writing style was too overdone and descriptive for my taste. The characters weren’t likeable which is probably to be expected in a story about a complicated fourteen-year old girl and the deranged cult members who follow a sleazy leader.

I had lost interest in the story by about half-way and so stopped reading. The book obviously appeals to other readers as the cover says The Girls was a New York Times best seller but this one wasn’t for me.

Elsewhere by Rosita Boland

Elsewhere One Woman, One Rucksack, One Lifetime of Travel is a collection of travel stories by Irish journalist, Rosita Boland.

Boland started travelling as a young woman. She kept a diary and saved tickets and receipts and maps and other bits and pieces to remind herself of the places she had been, but took no photos, in keeping with her love for words.

Each chapter of the book starts with an unusual and relatively unknown word and its definition, a word which the author related to her emotions at the time. For example, the first chapter, Australia, starts with the word ‘eleutheromania’ which means ‘an intense desire for freedom.’

The Australian chapter told of the author’s experience living and working in a remote resort in the Daintree Rainforest with a handful of other travellers, swimming in a pool at the bottom of a waterfall, trekking an hour through the bush to get to a beautiful, secluded beach, drinking as only far-northern Queenslanders can and watching a rugby league team’s emotions run high after experiencing a boar hunt.

‘Brame’ means fierce longing, passion and this time, the author was travelling through Pakistan, madly in love with a man in England who already had a girlfriend. Travelling on narrow roads high above gorges to a remote location was terrifying reading, and on learning that there were many, many accidents on that particular road the author decided instead of returning by road she would fly out of the mountainous, foggy destination. The plane trip didn’t turn out to be much better. In those conditions it seemed sensible that instead of giving a safety demonstration the pilot said a prayer.

One of my favourite chapters told of the author’s visit to Antarctica on a cruise ship. She backpacked to the bottom of Argentina, then managed to jag an extraordinarily cheap ticket at the last minute due to a cancellation. I prefer the warmth to the cold and have never considered visiting the Antarctica before, but reading about icebergs that glitter more colours of blue than I could have imagined, and penguins getting on with their day, and the staff of a little shop at a place called Port Lockroy reading the visitor’s postcards at night to amuse themselves make me want to go too. Not even the author’s frightening story of her zodiac being caught in ice for four hours before they could be rescued put me off, but when I investigated the cost of a cruise to the Antarctica, I came crashing back down to reality.

This book, which would give the happiest of homebodies itchy feet also included stories from the author’s travels to Iceland, Bali, London, Japan, Thailand and Peru.

The stories are well told. They are evocative and give a sense of the places the author visited and the emotions she felt while she was there. I particularly liked the word ‘Fernweh’ which means ‘an ache for distant places’ but fear my own experience will be ‘onism,’ the ‘awareness of how little of the world you’ll experience.’

Thank goodness for books. And thank goodness for people like Rosita Boland, who not only travel, but tell the rest of us what it was like.

Far From the Madding Crowd was my first experience of reading Thomas Hardy. I’m so cross with myself for never reading anything by this author before, but now I know how good his stories are, I’m looking forward to reading his other works.

Far From the Madding Crowd was first published in 1874 but I found this beautifully written, romantic story to be timeless.

The story began with a farmer, Gabriel Oak, falling in love with a milkmaid, Bathsheba Everdene. Bathsheba was beautiful, strong-willed and clever, but unfortunately, not in love with Gabriel. He asked her to marry him and she refused him.

Well, what I mean is that I shouldn’t mind being a bride at a wedding, if I could be one without having a husband.”

At the time of his proposal Gabriel was a young farmer with prospects but after an unfortunate accident caused an over-diligent sheepdog, he lost his farm and had to go on the tramp looking for work, feeling thankful that Bathsheba had not married him and so been ruined too.

Around the same time Bathsheba’s fortunes took a turn for the better, when her uncle died and left her a farm. To the surprise of the farm’s employees she decided to run the farm herself and hired the devoted Gabriel to tend her sheep.

In a fit of mischief, Bathsheba wrote a Valentine’s card to a neighbour, Farmer Boldwood, who was a man who had never noticed a woman before in his life. He didn’t see the joke and fell in obsessively in love with Bathsheba.

When a handsome and dashing soldier arrived in the district and flirted with her, Bathsheba married Sergeant Troy in a moment of weakness, disappointing both Gabriel and Boldwood, and setting in train a series of events which affect the whole community.

“All romances end at marriage.”

Hardy’s writing is very descriptive, yet there is no fluff or falling down rabbit holes. The characters are strong, the plot is interesting and entertaining and the humour is wonderful. I constantly found myself laughing as I read this story. Bathsheba’s employees on the farm are a continual source of amusement, from one character’s tendency to suffer from a ‘multiplying eye’ after drinking too much, to the gossipy, rambling conversations between Joseph Poorgrass, Cainy Ball and other delightfully named characters.

The setting is idyllic, even though farm life is portrayed accurately in that sometimes things go wrong and a farmer is ruined financially. Between the weather, sheep doing what they are not supposed to do and plain old bad luck, the life of a farmer is clearly not for everyone.

The story also includes tragedies and lessons to be learned by most of the characters, including Bathsheba.

“Dazzled by brass and scarlet – O, Bathsheba – this is a woman’s folly indeed!”

The saddest story in this book is that of Fanny Robin, who, as a serving girl, followed her heart to a bad end. No doubt her tragedy has served as a warning to this book’s readers over the years.

I was very impressed that Hardy allowed his heroine to be strong and brave and to live her life as she saw fit, particularly when at the time he was writing this would have been most unusual. I also liked that he allowed Bathsheba and the other characters to make mistakes and that there were consequences, sometimes tragic, when they did so.

“When a strong woman recklessly throws her strength away she is worse than a weak woman who has never had any strength to throw away.”

Far From the Madding Crowd was book sixteen in my Classics Club challenge to read 50 classics before my challenge end date of August 26, 2023.

The Shadow Year by Jeffrey Ford is a book I chose to read because of the cover. I liked the 1960 Cadillac’s tailfins* and saw the funny side of an author with the surname ‘Ford’ using a picture of a Cadillac.

The Shadow Year is told by an un-named narrator, a sixth-grade school boy, who along with his older brother Jim and younger sister Mary lived in a dysfunctional, although loving family home on Long Island during the 1960s. After going broke, their father worked three jobs so was rarely home. Their mother was an alcoholic who passed out most nights with a volume of Sherlock Holmes stories laid open on her chest. The children’s grandparents lived in an apartment conversion in their garage.

A prowler in their neighbourhood frightened several women before a schoolmate of the children’s mysteriously disappeared, then an elderly neighbour was found dead in a snowdrift. Although they had good reason to fear a predator in their community, instead of asking an adult for assistance the siblings banded together to investigate what was going on.

The children built a replica of their town in their basement which they named Botch Town. When events in the town started mirroring the figurines in Botch Town, as positioned by Mary, the narrator, Jim and Mary unquestioningly accepted and used the model in their search for the predator. There were several other mystical elements in this story which I accepted as the truth while I was reading.

Jim was a typical older brother in that he bullied his brother but did not allow any one else to bully him. Mary’s teachers were unable to determine if she was a genius or simple, although it was apparent that all of the children were extraordinary.

The Shadow Year was often funny. For example, when a schoolmate made a disparaging comment about their teacher, they “all learned an important lesson in how not to laugh no matter how funny something is.”

Or when Nan’s breakfast was described as consisting of a cup of boiling water with half a lemon along with a bowl of prunes, the children’s Pop asked “Why don’t you just use dynamite?”

The chapters were broken into very short chapters, which tell of a single event at a time. This seemed to me to be typical of how I remember my own childhood, as a series of memorable events. The story wasn’t particularly nostalgic, although I enjoyed the 1960s setting very much.

In Jeffrey Ford I hope I have found an author whose work I will enjoy working my way through. The events and the emotions generated in The Shadow Year often felt personal, as if the author had used people he knew along with his own childhood experiences.

*The way the back window curves doesn’t look quite right for a ’60 or ’61 Cadillac. If anyone can tell me for sure what this car is, I’d love to know.

The copy of An Artist of the Floating World by Kazuo Ishiguro which I read was the 30th anniversary edition.

As The Remains of the Day is one of the most beautifully written books I have ever read, I had high hopes of An Artist of the Floating World even though this was a very early novel in Ishiguro’s career.

The story didn’t disappoint. It is narrated by an elderly Japanese artist, Masuji Ono, as he looked back over his life with a critical eye. The story was set soon after World War Two when Ono’s reputation and art, previously held in high esteem by his peers and his community, was no longer respected. As he told his story Ono gradually realised that the nationalistic paintings he produced after leaving his art community were propaganda rather than art. With this realisation came a growing shame for ideas he previously endorsed and for his political actions during the war, which increased as he realised his daughter’s marital prospects had been harmed by his choices.

The story is set in a time when values were changing quickly. Ono was almost a relic, his opinions no longer valued by his daughters and son-in-laws or by his young grandson. The younger generation in this story looked towards America for their values, which included democracy and the rights of individuals, rather than honouring and subscribing to traditional Japanese values.

The characters’ formal and polite conversational styles meant that their true meaning was often unclear, to me, anyway. Ono and his family danced around their truths and hid behind exchanges so tactful that they were almost meaningless. A single blunt conversation between Ono and his art teacher when Ono first began to paint in a nationalistic style was the only clear exchange between characters who disagreed in the entire book.

Ono’s story appeared to be told with humility but this eventually showed as false, as was his version of events. As the story continued it became apparent that Ono only told (and possibly believed himself) a version of the events which suited his own self-image.

My edition started with an introduction by the author which I read after finishing the story, in case it assumed I had already read the book and wanted to learn more about points that a new reader would prefer to discover for themselves.

In this case, the introduction didn’t spoil anything. Instead, the author talked about about where he and his wife were living and the work they were doing when he wrote An Artist of the Floating World, along with the mechanics of how and where he wrote, and the details of a breakthrough in his writing style which he experienced at this time which happily influenced the rest of his career. I found the introduction to be very interesting.

An Artist of the Floating World was good, but I expect I would have appreciated it more had I not read The Remains of the Day first. That is a hard book for an author to live up to.

I chose to read The Lost Letters of William Woolf by Helen Cullen based on the romantic appeal of letters and my fascination with dead letter offices.

Imagine working as a detective in a dead letter office solving mysteries and puzzles without ever see a dead body or a criminal! I’m thinking of applying to work at Australia Post’s dead letter office, which is known by the far-less romantic name of MRC (Mail Redistribution Centre). I might have to lie during my interview if they ask am I good at solving mystery novels, though…

I liked the cover of this book, too. The aerogram envelope, business envelopes, postcard and the coloured envelopes which look as if they contain party invites, love letters and lovely, newsy letters from dear friends reminded me of the joy of receiving a hand-written letter in the mail.

The main character, William Woolf, worked at a dead letter office in London tracking down the owners of the letters and parcels which ended up there. He and his wife Clare, a solicitor, had grown apart over the past 14 years and were on the verge of ending their marriage. Their marriage failure had blame on both sides, but the most interesting reason for me was Clare seeing William as a failure after writer’s block prevented him from finishing a book for which he’d received a hefty advance some years past.

I enjoyed the anecdotes of William reuniting items with their intended recipients, and the stories of letters which people wrote and posted without having an actual recipient in mind (letters to God, deceased loved ones, etc) along with learning about the methods staff used to solve these mysteries. However, I was completely uninterested in the story line following William’s fascination with an unknown woman writing love letters to someone who didn’t exist. I found Clare’s emotional issues to be far more interesting but these were only touched on lightly during the sections told from her perspective.

I kept hoping for more from the actual story of The Lost Letters of William Woolf, though. I found the story and characters to be interesting but not enthralling. I believe the story would have benefitted from a hard edit to remove the many surplus descriptions, events and characters which bogged the story down.

I believe The Lost Letters of William Woolf is a first novel, so would be happy to read another novel by this author, despite the slightly depressing tone and the extra baggage in this story.

If anyone else feels as if they would like to work at a dead letter office, I found the following news story on Sydney’s MRC.

Too Much Lip by Melissa Lucashenko was the winner of the Miles Franklin Literary Award for 2019 and as such, was the obvious choice for me to begin fulfilling my New Year’s resolution of buying a book by an Australian author each month.

Not only was Too Much Lip the obvious choice, but it turned out to be a thought-provoking, unsettling and worrying look at an Australia that I know exists, but ignore. What am I ignoring? The contemporary version of Australia that many (not all) Aboriginal Australians live in. Why do I ignore this Australia? For my own peace of mind. I’m a privileged white Australian with everything I want and more. I’m automatically trusted and respected, I have choices. I have my family around me, work I enjoy and financial freedom. I have the support of the law. I was encouraged to continue my education. I’ve never been subjected to racism of any kind. I’m very grateful to be who I am, which came about just from being born. Most of the Aboriginal characters in this book don’t have and are unlikely to get what I have. Those that do are what the other characters derogatorily call ‘coconuts,’ Aboriginal people who live their life according to ‘white’ values. The question now is, can I keep ignoring these differences in real life?

Too Much Lip is set in a fictional town in Woop-Woop called Durrongo, in Bundjalung country in northern NSW. The name Durrongo amused me because it reminded me of ‘drongo,’ an Australian slang word for an idiot. I’d love to know if the author planned this. One of the characters refers to the town as the “Place of Centrelink fraud”.

The main character is Kerry Salter, who roared back to her family home on a stolen Harley Davidson motorbike with a backpack full of cash from a robbery her girlfriend had just been sent to prison for. Kerry’s Pop, who was both respected and feared throughout the Salter family and greater community, was dying and Kerry only planned on staying around long enough to say goodbye.

Kerry’s Pop grew up on a mission and did not know where his country was. As an Aboriginal, this meant that a vital part of his self was missing. As a successful boxer he earned some protection from the trouble that most Aboriginal people experienced from white Australians and later in life was able to provide his family with a home of their own and some security. Kerry’s mother, Pretty Mary, a former alcoholic, was nursing him as he lay dying.

Also living in the family home was Kerry’s brother Ken, a big, angry, former football star who had recently been released from prison. Kenny’s violent temper kept everyone around him on tenterhooks as he bullied his way through life. Kerry was horrified to realise that Kenny’s teenage son Donny was very often the brunt of his irrational rages and was suffering from anorexic.

Kerry usually bolted when the going got tough, but when her backpack full of stolen cash was stolen from her by a local politician, Jim Buckley, she stayed on in Durrongo, planning to steal it back. When she learned that Buckley was selling the land on the local river to a consortium who planned to build a jail, Kerry and the rest of the extended Salter family decided to fight the development as a land rights issue. The river and Granny Ava’s Island was more meaningful to them than I could have imagined, as the location of where Kerry’s pregnant great-grandmother Ava had been shot swimming across the river to escape white men. The river was also the home of the totem animal of the men of the family, a shark.

Kerry’s stay in town became more complicated when she met Steve, who she remembered as a dorky schoolboy but who was now a very attractive man. The only thing wrong with him is that he was white. And a man.

Kerry’s trait of ‘too much lip’ referred to her inability to keep quiet rather than voice her opinion, particularly when negotiating her way around Kenny.

While it took me a long time to stop feeling as if I were being assaulted by the constant, often vicious swearing, I accept that this also felt true to how the characters should speak. The language in this book was full of a slang that I recognised but don’t use, but also included words I don’t know, Aboriginal words such as ‘jahjams’ for children, ‘womba’ for crazy and ‘gunjies’ for police.

I was constantly shocked by the violence which the family took for granted, the crime, the poverty, the drinking, the gambling and the double standards, even those that they used themselves (for example, Kerry was furious when her cash was stolen from her, but ignored the fact that it had been stolen by her girlfriend in the first place). I was also irritated by the Salter family’s attitude towards Centrelink and government benefits, because as a worker, that’s my hard-earned tax the characters were treating as a right rather than a privilege, and their disregard for the law. Despite these moral quibbles, I was on Kerry’s side all the way through, regardless of the terrible choices she often made, as her and her family’s secrets were exposed. It was easy to recognise that their often shocking behaviours were just the symptoms of their family’s problems.

The family’s and local history continued to complicate the present for Kerry and her family. Aboriginal families were split up as children who were considered ‘white enough’ were stolen from their families. The children in the Salter family weren’t always safe from their own family members. Buckley’s grandfather had been a police officer who treated the Salter family and other Aboriginals in the area with terrible violence. The local policeman’s grandfather, who had settled the area and became a cattle baron, was even more violent than the politician’s grandfather, and had fathered a great many of the Aboriginal children in the area. Many wrong deeds continued to impact the people in this book for generations after each event.

Despite the questions racing around in my head, I found Too Much Lip to be a very funny book. There are moments of hope and joy and some inspirational characters, including Kerry’s Uncle Richard who showed Kenny a better way to live, by promoting traditional Aboriginal values instead of expressing himself violently. Kerry’s other brother, Black Superman, is another wonderful man who fosters emotionally and physically-damaged children. I loved reading about the character’s connections with birds and animals and of course, with the land which been built on over many generations of family stories. I also loved the glimpse of mystic connections with all of these elements which I believed in completely.

This has been a very difficult review to write. I’m not just commenting on a story, but on who Australians are. Not only that, but I’m publishing this on the Australia Day public holiday, which Kerry would hate (Invasion Day). Australia Day means something different to all of us, but we are all Australian and this year I’ll be thinking of what it means to be an Australian, thanks to this book.

Too Much Lip has left me with a lot of questions about what we have to do next, as a nation and as individuals, to be the best that we can. I feel as I’ve made a beginning by listening.

Too Much Lip came to my attention after Whispering Gums reviewed the book last year. You can read Sue’s review here:

I’ll be tracking my progress of my New Year’s Resolution to buy a book by an Australian author each month on my ‘Buying Australian’ page.

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