Book reviews

Posts tagged ‘fiction’

Brave New World by Aldous Huxley

Brave New World by Aldous Huxley is the most surprising book I have read so far during my Classics Club challenge.

The story is set in a future version of London where the entire population’s very existence is controlled by a council of World Controllers.

Religion and ageing don’t exist, neither do families, monogamy, illness, pregnancies or unhappiness, in fact experiencing or coming in contact with any of these would be something for the inhabitants of the World State to be ashamed of. Instead of religion the sign of the ‘T’ (for Henry Ford’s Model-T Ford) is used in the way that a Christian might make the sign of the Cross and ‘Our Ford’ being worshipped as a result of having created the assembly line.

In the World State babies are grown in test tubes and brought up in communal nurseries where they are exposed to social conditioning causing them to unthinkingly love their place in life, regardless of whether they are a cloned left-handed person of limited intellect working on a factory line along with droves of others who were bred for the same purpose, or if they are an Alpha-Plus, bred to be good-looking, clever and successful.

Everyone is young, enjoys complete sexual freedom, and consumerism and entertainment rule. Soma, a drug which promotes happiness, is used liberally. People go to the ‘feelies’ which is like going to the movies but with additional sensations. The mantra is that everyone belongs to everyone else, sexually, emotionally and and in any other way you might think of.

In the World State is vitally important for the inhabitants to be physically attractive to be happy and successful. Physically attractive women are considered to be ‘pneumatic’ and are more popular than those who are not (I’m not sure what pneumatic actually means, but for some reason the word makes me think of Jayne Mansfield).

Between the media (propaganda), education (sleep-conditioning) and the expectations of people’s peers, not much free-thinking went on in the World State but when Bernard Marx, an Alpha-Plus became critical of the use of Soma, sleep-learning and other ways that the people of the World State were controlled, took Lenina Crowne, an extremely pneumatic woman with him on an excursion to a Savage Reservation in America, they saw people who were living in a way more familiar to the reader for the first time. Lenina was so horrified and overwhelmed by the sight of old people, fat people, family units and the thought of monogamy that she dosed herself with Soma to avoid reality.

Bernard, however was intrigued, particularly by Linda, a woman who had previously lived in the World State and her son, John. Linda’s shame at becoming pregnant while on a visit to the Savage Reservation stopped her from returning to London, even though Linda and John had been ostracised by the Savage community after Linda got the women in the community offside by having sex with most of ‘their’ men. In Linda’s defence, she didn’t realise her behaviour in the Savage Reservation would offend or hurt anyone because back in the World State, everyone belonged to everyone.

Bernard took Linda and John back to the World State with him where Linda, who was fat and horribly old (she was 44) was thought by the people there to be so grotesque they almost considered her to be a monster. John, on the other hand, who had read the complete works of William Shakespeare at the Savage Reservation, found the World State to be a terrible place which did not live up to his values in any way. When Linda died, the people of the World State couldn’t understand John’s sorrow at losing his mother.

When John introduced a writer in the World State to Romeo and Juliet, the writer loved the words and appreciated the beauty of the sentence structures and Shakespeare’s words, but could not understand the passion that Romeo or Juliet felt for each other or why their families put up obstacles to prevent the lovers’ physical relationship from developing.

John and Lenina appeared to fall in love but as John was unable to tolerate Lenina’s free sexual values and Lenina could not understand her feelings towards John, their relationship was unable to develop either emotionally or physically.

I didn’t feel particularly drawn to any of the characters but found this version of the future to be funny, sad and thought-provoking. I expect I will continue to think about this book for some time to come (and I’m sure it will spring to mind when I’m next doing training at work and am hit with a slogan designed to encourage me to work harder, smarter and so on). I intend to re-read Brave New World before long, too.

I’ve already found a copy of Huxley’s The Devils of Loudun and have added this book to my next Classics Club challenge.

Brave New World was book forty-one of my Classics Club challenge to read 50 classics before my challenge end date of August 26, 2023.

A Place Near Eden by Nell Pierce

I read A Place Near Eden by Nell Pierce won the 2022 The Australia Vogel Literary Award, which is awarded annually to an Australian author aged under 35 for their unpublished manuscript.

The narrator of this story was Matilda, a young woman who had been emotionally manipulated since her childhood by her parents and friends. The story didn’t come right out and say if Matilda had autism, but it seemed likely as she was unable to ‘read’ other people and was very suggestible.

Matilda grew up in Canberra as an only child until her early teenage years, when her mother convinced her father they should foster Sem, a teenage boy. When Matilda’s parents separated several years later, Sem was returned to the foster care system and Matilda and her mother moved to Melbourne.

Eventually Matilda reunited with Sem in Melbourne along with Celeste, Sem’s on and off again girlfriend who Matilda already knew from their shared childhood in Canberra. Soon after, Matilda and Celeste left the city to live in a holiday shack near Eden on the south coast of NSW, while Sem came and went from their lives. One night when Matilda had far too much to drink, Sem disappeared leaving Matilda unable to remember what had transpired but being blamed for his disappearance.

I didn’t particularly care for any of the characters and thought the story would have been stronger had I felt more attached to Matilda or Sem. Celeste was overtly manipulative which made her easy to dislike, as was Matilda’s mother, who was so busy discovering herself as a middle-aged hippie that she rented out Matilda’s bedroom, leaving her daughter sleeping on the couch in their share-house.

The ending was left open which I found frustrating. I would have preferred to learn if Matilda was a victim of her family and friends or if she had been an unreliable narrator who had manipulated the reader. I tend to think she was the former.

I liked the settings, which included suburban Canberra, sweltering hot during summer and icy in winter. Matilda’s home in Melbourne was inner-city shared housing, while her and Celeste’s beach shack in Eden where the bush met the sea was lovely. I read the story over a single afternoon and thought that the writing was good, despite my lack of connection to the characters.

My purchase of A Place Near Eden by Nell Pierce goes towards fulfilling my New Year’s resolution to buy a book by an Australian author during each month of 2022 (September).

American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins

American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins is the most exciting book I’ve read so far this year. I suspect that when I’m reflecting on the most memorable books I’ve read at the end of this year that this book will rank near the top.

The story began with 16 members of Lydia’s family being gunned down at her niece’s birthday party. Lydia and her eight year-old son Luca were in the bathroom when the shooting started and were able to hide until the shooters left.

Lydia was a bookshop owner in Acapulco who had unwittingly befriended Javier, the most powerful cartel leader in the whole of Mexico over their shared love of books. Javier was clever, flirtatious and generous and their friendship teetered on becoming an emotional affair, although once Lydia realised who, or rather what Javier was, she was horrified. When Lydia’s husband, a journalist, wrote a story for his newspaper that exposed Javier, Lydia misjudged the fall-out.

Even though she was in shock Lydia knew that word that Javier would learn that she and Luca were still alive as soon as the police arrived at the crime scene.

They immediately went on the run with the intention of travelling to the United States of America where Javier’s cartel would be powerless to hurt them. The remainder of the story told of their journey as migrants, doing their best to remain unseen by those who would kill them to earn a reward from the cartel. As they travelled Lydia and Luca were sometimes aided by poor and kindly people, but on other occasions found that family friends refused to help them. Mostly though, they were endangered by people who were so greedy that they would steal or harm migrants who owned nothing but what they could carry.

My heart was in my mouth nearly the whole way through this story. The dangers were frightening and Lydia and Luca’s journey was extraordinarily dangerous. Other characters and their stories were introduced too and I found it impossible not to feel compassion for Lydia, Luca and many of their fellow travelers who for a variety of reasons were forced to leave their homes, hoping to make it to a safe place.

If nothing else, American Dirt exposed the differences between those who are lucky enough to live somewhere safe and those who are not. I imagine this book being used as ammunition for those on various sides of arguments about who can come to what country and who cannot, but it certainly opened my eyes as to why people attempt to leave their own country and how difficult these journeys are.

No doubt American Dirt will become a blockbuster film sooner rather than later.

The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James

I nearly didn’t read The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James because I was angry after feeling ‘suckered’ into reading Mrs Osmond by John Banville without realising in advance that the story was a sequel to The Portrait of a Lady, which at that time I hadn’t read. I also disliked the main characters in Mrs Osmond so much that I swore I would never read ‘Portrait’.

Obviously, my promises mean nothing, because I added The Portrait of a Lady to my Classics Club list anyway.

The ‘lady’ of the book’s title is Isabel Archer, a poor young American woman who was lifted out of her life in Albany, New York to travel to Europe with her rich aunt, Mrs Touchett.

Mrs Touchett first took Isabel to the family home near London, where Isabel charmed her uncle, her cousin Ralph and Ralph’s friend, Lord Warburton. Before long, Isabel had declined Lord Warburton’s offer of marriage along with another offer from an eligible young man she had known in America, telling her disappointed aunt that she preferred her freedom.

Ralph also fell in love with Isabel, but rather than try his luck where no one else had succeeded he convinced his father on his deathbed to leave half of his fortune to Isabel so that she could live a full life, so that Ralph, who suffered from ill health, could take an interest in the results of his experiment to make his cousin a rich woman.

After Mr Touchett senior’s death, Isabel travelled with Mrs Touchett to Italy, where she was manouevered by Madame Merle, a friend of Mrs Touchett’s, into falling in love with and marrying Mr Osmond, a poor American who had expensive tastes and high standards for everyone other than himself.

By the second half of the story Isabel was unhappily married to Mr Osmond, having realised that he had married her for her money. She took all responsibility for having fallen in love with an illusion.

I found it interesting that Isabel said she wanted freedom for herself yet from the very beginning of this story she was manipulated by others. In some of these instances Isabel knew what was going on and had the power of refusal, such as when Mrs Touchett visited her in America and offered to take Isabel with her to Europe or when she received offers of marriage, but in other instances, such as Ralph asking his father to make his cousin a rich woman or when Madame Merle and Mr Osmond presented Isabel with his most charming self with a view to her marrying him, Isabel’s life was directed by others.

The story moved quite slowly but it held my interest. The settings were glorious and all of the characters, including the minor characters, such as Mr Osborne’s daughter, Pansy and an American journalist friend of Isabel’s became very real to me.

I disliked the ambiguous ending of The Portrait of a Lady. After reading 600 or so pages I felt that I ‘deserved’ to know what happened next although this did leave the way open for John Banville to write Mrs Osborne, which I may well re-read now that I know who his story was about.

The Portrait of a Lady has convinced me to continue reading Henry James’ books.

The Portrait of a Lady was book forty in my Classics Club challenge to read 50 classics before my challenge end date of August 26, 2023.

The Lifeboat by Charlotte Rogan

The Lifeboat by Charlotte Rogan was slightly too dry for my tastes although I was fascinated by the plot.

This story was told from the point of view of Grace, a young bride who was shipwrecked and spent three weeks in an overcrowded lifeboat with other passengers after the Empress Alexandra sank in the Atlantic in 1914.

Grace’s story flipped back and forwards between the year leading up to her marriage, her time on the lifeboat, and four weeks after being rescued when she and several other female passengers were put on trial for the murder of a man who had been captaining their lifeboat.

Grace was seemingly quite passive but she had manipulated her way into her marriage and was honest with herself (and by default, the reader) about managing her husband and her fellow passengers, and once safe on land, those involved in her trial. She was an unreliable narrator who ‘forgot’ events during her trial, although her memory was razor-sharp the rest of the time. It probably doesn’t need to be pointed out that Grace was particularly clever at managing men.

I’m a bit of a sucker for stories set at sea and I thought that the depiction of the lifeboat’s passengers becoming more and more desperate as they ran out of food and water, faced storms and leaks and managed their own and each other’s heightened emotions was very good.

Grace wasn’t a likeable character though and I struggled to feel as if I was on her side, even though she should have elicited my sympathy because her husband died at the beginning of the story when the ship sank.

To sum up, The Lifeboat was okay but would have been better if I’d cared more about Grace.

Hovering by Rhett Davis

Hovering is Australian author Rhett Davis’ first novel.

The story is set in a made-up city called Fraser which is an enhanced version of Geelong, an actual water-front city about an hour’s drive from Melbourne. In this story Melbourne doesn’t exist and Fraser has expanded around Port Phillip Bay (where Melbourne would be) and inland to the mountains. The city’s landmarks are almost recognisable as real places in Geelong, while casual references to street names that exist as places in the Western District of Victoria gave me jolt after jolt of recognition.

The story is set in the near future with the city of Fraser having a unique feature that no one could ever have predicted, having become a tourist destination for people who want to see the phenomena of the city’s streets, buildings and public areas constantly shifting to a different location of the town. Every morning people wake up to find that their house, workplace, shopping centre, sporting ground, school and other places have been relocated, and that streets and roads have changed to go in the wrong direction, causing continual traffic jams. No one knew how or why the changes occurred.

The main characters are Lydia, her teenage son George and Lydia’s sister, Alice, who had recently mysteriously returned to the family home in Fraser after years of living overseas. Lydia and Alice’s retired parents had been cruising around the artificial islands in the Pacific for years (real islands having disappeared into the sea due to climate change).

Lydia had never left Fraser but Alice’s unsettled nature had made her a continual traveller. The sisters clearly resented each other and had little tolerance for their differences.

George refused to speak, but he managed to express himself clearly to those who listened. He was the most emotionally balanced person in his family, and was extraordinarily ‘woke’ or politically correct in an almost inspirational way (in some cases people who are so politically correct can be more detrimental to their causes than helpful).

I wondered if the constant changes going on in Fraser might have been an allegory for Australia, or even of this district’s history. Before British settlement the traditional owners of the area of Geelong were the Wadawurrung people of the Kulin nation. Geelong quickly grew into a town with outlying farms expanding further and further out, and this book made me realise that the Wadawurrung people whose ancestors had lived in the district for 25,000 years must have felt extremely displaced very quickly.

George’s character was the most accepting of the constant changes in Fraser, presumably because he was young and had never known anything different. In contrast, Lydia hid herself away, burying herself in work and playing an online game in a world that had become more real to her than her own. Alice expressed herself through her controversial art.

The story was sometimes told from the point of view of one of the characters, but other parts of the story were told through texts, or alert messages sent by the government. Other parts of the story are told by trending tweets, or stories written by journalists and intercepted HTML code. I found some of these styles to be disorienting, although no doubt that was the author’s intention.

The characters were too cold for me to care about, but I found myself thinking about the displacement of Aboriginal people after European settlement in Australia and climate change when I should have been thinking about other things (work). The unpublished manuscript of Hovering won the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award in 2020.

The Unseen Hand by Edward Marston

The Unseen Hand by Edward Marston was set in London in 1917 during World War One and published in 1919.

The story began with detectives from Scotland Yard investigating the mysterious death of a guest at the exclusive, women’s-only Lotus Hotel in London.

Harvey and Joe quickly realised the woman had been murdered but they struggled to learn who the dead woman actually was, as their investigation was hampered by deceptive hotel staff, the over-bearing hotel owner and her husband, and a rival hotel owner who would seemingly stop at nothing to steal business from the Lotus Hotel.

I thought the back stories of Harvey and Joe and the other characters in this story were much more interesting than the plot, mostly because of the time this book was written.

For example, Joe was engaged to Harvey’s daughter Alice. Alice was also a police office and was clever and exceptionally good at her work, but her career prospects were limited because she was female, while her fellow female police officers were regularly subjected to sexual harassment by their male colleagues.

Joe and Alice were saving up for a home for when they married but their incomes were very poor despite them being employed by the police force. Joe wanted to join a union to fight for better pay, but this wasn’t allowed. Joe and Harvey both struggled with their work loads, although I was amused by Harvey being annoyed at having to miss his regular sit-down breakfast on the day the murdered woman was found.

The war was in the background of the story as were other current affairs and examples of popular culture from the time, such as Harvey’s wife reading and enjoying John Buchan’s The 39 Steps before becoming alarmed by a scare-mongering novel called The Invasion of 1910 by William le Queux.

The character’s opinions and values were more closely aligned with present ideas than I had expected about issues such as the mental health of returned soldiers, women’s right to vote and work in careers which had prior to the war been held by men only. The author also clearly presented the idea that women who were raped or sexually attacked by a man rarely reported these incidents because the women were likely to lose both their case and their reputation in the process.

Unfortunately the actual writing wasn’t as good as it should have been. I’m not a very critical reader but noticed that the structure of the sentences seemed to be the wrong way around. For example, the first sentence of Chapter 2 reads, “As the police car sped through the streets in the gloom, the detectives sat in the rear seats.” I’m no editor, but surely this should have read, “The detectives sat in the rear seat of the police car as they sped through the London gloom.”

Despite the writing, I liked the characters and enjoyed the story nearly to the end, but the solution to the mystery let the rest of the story down terribly as it was both complicated and unlikely to the point of being ridiculous, which of course made guessing the answer to be impossible.

The Museum of Modern Love by Heather Rose

I was really looking forward to reading other books by Heather Rose after being transfixed by Bruny when I read it several years ago. The Museum of Modern Love was a very different story but I enjoyed it equally as much.

The story is set around a handful of characters who are connected to each other by having met in New York at the Museum of Modern Art while attending The Artist is Present, a performance piece by Marina Abramovic where the artist sat and looked into the eyes of museum visitors, some of whom had queued overnight for their turn to sit with the artist.

The main character was Arky Levin, a middle-aged composer whose main income was from creating music for films. Levin had recently taken on a job to score the soundtrack for a Japanese animation for adults, but had been unable to begin his work. He had recently moved into a new apartment alone after his wife Lydia had become comatose due to a medical condition. Lydia had taken out legal orders previously forbidding her emotionally selfish husband from visiting her if she ever became institutionalised, with her instructions to their daughter explaining that she wanted Levin to be free to continue composing.

Levin met Jane Miller while they were in the audience of Abramovic’s performance at MoMA. Jane was an art teacher and a recent widow who had visited New York specifically to attend the performance. Jane, Levin and a number of peripheral characters found themselves so drawn to the piece that they attended MoMA day after day to day, watching a succession of people sit with the artist and look into each her eyes.

I didn’t realise until about half way through reading this novel that Marina Abramovic is a real person. A quick check of the internet showed that she is a renowned performance artist and that the performance of The Artist is Present actually took place at MoMA during 2010. Many of Marina Abramovic’s other performance pieces were described in this story too and without exception they were gruelling, occasionally violent and in some cases chilling, such as when the artist laid naked on a table surrounded by 72 items and invited the audience to do what they wanted to her with the items. Abromovic was left with physical scars by the participating audience’s actions.

I have to be honest here and admit that I don’t actually rate performance art. I just don’t ‘get’ it. However, my dislike, or lack of understanding of performance art didn’t take away from my enjoyment of this story. All of the characters in this story were deeply moved by The Artist is Present and the other performances except for a single grumbling man who echoed my opinion about not seeing the point of the performance.

I do accept that one of the purposes of art is to create discussion and argument about what art is, what it might mean (if anything) and to affect people’s emotions and ideas and in fairness, performance art certainly achieves all of those aims.

The Museum of Modern Love was well-written and I found the subject matter to be enormously thought-provoking, confronting and intriguing. I didn’t feel terribly connected to Levin, Jane or the other characters but the setting was so powerful that I don’t think that this mattered a great deal.

In the book’s acknowledgements, Heather Rose thanked Marina Abramovic and various other ‘real’ people for allowing them to be represented in this story. For those who are interested a documentary film was also made about the piece.

My purchase of The Museum of Modern Love by Heather Rose goes towards fulfilling my New Year’s resolution to buy a book by an Australian author during each month of 2022 (July).

My only grievance with The Museum of Modern Love was that although Heather Rose is an Australian author, the book was not set in Australia and did not reference Australia in any way. My original intention when I started this resolution was that the books I chose would be written by Australian authors. I had also intended that the books I chose for this challenge would also be set in Australia, although I don’t think that I stated this or really even thought about it. I haven’t decided if I will chose books set outside of Australia for my challenge in future.

Pamela by Samuel Richardson

Pamela by Samuel Richardson is written in letters and in diary entries. I very quickly became bored with this slowly-told story but accept that it was probably considered to be very entertaining by readers in 1740.

To sum up, pages 1 to 50:

Dear Mother and Father,

I am fifteen years-old, very pretty and everyone loves me.

My lady has died and I was to go to live with Lady Davers to be her maid except that Mr B, my master won’t let me go. Instead, Mr B keeps trying to kiss me but I won’t let him because I’m a good girl.

I pray for Mr B even though he hides in the closet to watch me undress.

Love, Pamela.

Pages 50 to 100:

Dear Diary,

I am writing to you instead of to Mother and Father because Mr B said he would send me home where I would be safe from him but instead he kidnapped me and had me taken to one of his distant estates to be looked after by Mrs Jewkes who is horrible and ugly.

Mr B is not here and I am still a good girl.

Love, Pamela.

Pages 100 to 200:

Dear Diary,

Mrs Jewkes hit me, AND she tricked me out of all of my money so that I can’t escape.

Mr Williams, the clergyman, is going to ask all the most important people in the district if they will intervene on my behalf.

Mr B continues to stay away, and I continue to be a good girl.

Love, Pamela.

At this point, I decided life was too short for me to continue reading Pamela. I skimmed to the end and was horrified (although not terribly surprised) to learn that Mr B had supposedly reformed and that he and Pamela had married.

The following is my idea of what probably happened next:

Dear Mother and Father,

Mr B seems to have lost interest in me.

We have a new maid. She is very young and pretty.

Love, Pamela (Mrs B)

Pamela was book thirty nine in my Classics Club challenge to read 50 classics before my challenge end date of August 26, 2023.

The Beach Caves by Trevor Shearston

I was keen to read The Beach Caves by Trevor Shearston when I learned that the story had been set around Batemans Bay on the south coast of NSW, where I lived for many years before moving to Melbourne.

While the Clyde River, the national parks and the beaches settings around the Bay rang true, I was disappointed that the town itself didn’t feature apart from a reference to a Post Office Box at a Licensed Post Office that I was very familiar with!

The Beach Caves told the story of a group of university students on an archaeological dig in 1970 led by a glamorous husband and wife-team, Aled Wray and Marilyn Herr, when one of their group mysteriously disappeared.

The main character was Annette, who was an honours student studying Aboriginal lifestyles prior to European settlement under Aled’s guidance. Also on the dig was Annette’s best friend Sue.

The first site the group camped at was up the Clyde River past Nelligan, where a group of huts had been found that were older than European settlement in Australia. If I had been on the dig, I would have visited the Steampacket Hotel at Nelligan, but the group didn’t, not once during their entire stay at this location.

When a new site was discovered in caves at a beach near Batemans Bay, the group relocated there.

Then, another site that eclipsed both of the other sites in importance was found and the group divided, with Marilyn and her team heading off to the new site and Aled, Annette and the remaining students staying at the beach caves with the friction between Aled and Marilyn filtering down to their students.

Brian, a young man whom Annette had been growing fond of chose to go with Marilyn’s group and Annette was disappointed. Soon after, she realised that Brian was infatuated with Marilyn and became jealous.

When Marilyn disappeared everyone was a suspect. Annette’s awareness of Brian’s crush left her in the difficult position of having to decide what to tell the police and what to keep to herself.

The story then skipped ahead thirty four years, to resolve the mystery and to show the impact of Annette’s decision when she spoke to the police.

I was surprised that the characters on the dig did not engage with local Aboriginal people to discuss their findings, particularly when it became obvious to them that there had been a continuity of use of the area right up until the time of the dig. Perhaps that was how things were done at the time, although it seemed like a massive oversight on the part of the team not to have gone straight to the source for information.

I enjoyed the setting of The Beach Caves and found the descriptions of the area to be realistic although as I have already mentioned I would have liked at least one visit into Batemans Bay itself. I particularly enjoyed reading about the discoveries the team made during the first half of the story, but lost some interest in the story after Marilyn’s disappearance.

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