The World Beneath

…by Cate Kennedy.

15 year old Sophie lives with her single mother Sandy in Ayersville, Australia. Her mother is a 45 year old ditzy woman still living like a hippie who believes in karma, thinks being a vegetarian is important, smokes an occasional joint and still bravely sells home-made jewellery at the markets as a job. Then there’s her dad Rich. The one who left when Sophie was barely a year old. And since then, then only form of correspondence has been through letters and the phone. He is a freelance photographer with a ponytail and still living in the past. Both her parents still reminisce about their glory days as young adults when with fervour they participated in the Franklin River Blockade in Tasmania.

Things kick into action when Rich decides to take Sophie to Tasmania for bushwalking and more importantly, for an opportunity to bond with his estranged daughter. Despite Sandy’s reluctance, Sophie has made up her mind. She wants to get to know her dad who seems so much cooler than her mum. As Sophie travels to Tasmania with Rich and explores the beautiful wilderness, she comes to realise that her dad isn’t who she thought he was.

This is a beautifully written book about parenting and family dynamics. It is about the clash of generations and the struggles of a family. It is about individuals trying so hard to live in the glory of the past or the vision of the future that they forget to live in the present. It is about love and redemption. It is about the ups and downs of teenage life but also of parenting. And finally, it is about survival. Not just in the true sense of the word but also of one’s spirit.

The characters by Kennedy were extremely well drawn out. Sophie as the sullen ‘emo’ teenager who had to grow up too soon and take charge is brilliant. Your heart goes out to her. Sandy as the kooky mother is hilariously pathetic. And Rich as an arrogant know-it-all is all too real. The picturesque scenery of Tassie makes you want to visit the place. All in all, it was a fast-paced read that keeps the reader engrossed till the very end and does play with your emotions. I would definitely try to read other novels by the same author given her flowing style and narration.

I give it a rating of 4.

Until next time,

Cheers!!!

Note: This has been cross-posted on my personal blog.

A Fraction of the Whole

…by Steve Toltz.

This is a massive 700 page debut novel by author Steve Toltz and was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2008. Meet the Deans. As Jasper Dean starts off “The fact is, the whole of Australia despises my father more than any other man, just as they adore my uncle more than any other man. I might as well set the story straight about both of them…”

That statement should give you a hint of the ride you are in for as a reader.

With his father, Martin Dean now dead, Jasper tries to make sense of him while writing from gaol for a reason unknown to readers. Villain or hero? Crazy or sane? He tries to understand some of his father’s schemes to try and make the world a better place. There is one main concern that plagues Jasper: is he going to end up being crazy like his father? Throughout his father’s life, Jasper did his best to keep his distance to avoid the lunacy but at the same time, appeared to have a bond with him. After all, his father tended to have good intentions to begin with but with catastrophic consequences.

Martin Dean was a difficult, paranoid and intelligent man during his time alive. He spent about four years as a child in a coma and once out of it, felt disconnected from the world and outwardly philosophical. All Martin wanted to do was leave his mark behind in this world. And trouble began when people started listening to him. Martin’s sanity is questioned throughout the book. The uncle adored by the whole of Australia, Terry Dean, was a sporting hero in his younger days and a criminal later when plagued by injury. But a Ned Kelly type vigilante who was out to get all the sporting cheats. And hence, looked at as a hero. However, Terry is eventually captured and presumed to have died in a bushfire that ravaged the prison.

Jasper takes us on this rollercoaster journey through his father’s and uncle’s lives (narrated at times by Martin) and his father’s crazy adventures, how his father comes up with a way of making everyone in Australia a millionaire, gets married to his childhood sweetheart becomes the prime minister, then becomes the most hated man in the country, flees the country with Jasper to Thailand and his own story of jetting off to Europe to search for his absent mother’s past.

All in all, it’s a fun read and keeps you hooked to know more about the characters. It has its laugh out loud moments and its “you-can’t-be-serious” ones too. It’s a riot and one hell of a ride! A great achievement by a debutante. About Australia. About being able to not take yourself too seriously. And about craziness and lunacy of human beings. And how in life, in the end, there are only a few important people who matter. I would give it a rating of 4.

Until next time,

Cheers!!!

***This review has been cross-posted on my personal blog***

Family Album

…by Penelope Lively.

Set in Allersmead, an Edwardian house in England, this story revolves around the lives of the members of the family that lived in that house. Alison, the mother – who always dreamed of being a mother and nurturing her children. Charles, the father – who is emotionally unavailable, locked in his study concentrating his time on his work (writing books). Ingrid, the au pair – who lives with the family in the house lending a helping hand to raise the children. And then the children – Paul, Gina, Katie, Roger, Sandra and Clare.

Allersmead – what was once a home that nourished six children has now become a place where only the parents and the au pair live with the children visiting occasionally.

Paul, the eldest, leads a nomadic life of sorts…switching from one job to another, with not much of a personal life to show for either. Gina is a journalist, has a career with a TV news channel. Sandra starts off as a fashion correspondent with a magazine, but later in her life moves on to managing a boutique in Rome while trying her hands on property development. Katie graduates with a degree in English and moves to the US. Roger, who has always been interested in biology, becomes a pediatrician in Canada. And Clare becomes a professional dancer.

The book starts off with Gina bringing her boyfriend Philip to her childhood home. While all that Philip can say is how exotic a family with six children must have been growing up, Gina slowly points out how it is not all that interesting after all. The story goes forward with flashbacks into the childhood years through the eyes of the six children. With time, the readers are let into a dark secret that is kept in the family…a secret that everybody knows of, yet no one talks about. On the whole, the book, with episodes of past and the present, sheds light on the lives of the family members.

What I really liked about the book is the realistic undertone that it has to it. No family is perfect…yet to someone from the outside things look greener than where they stand. A big family house. So many siblings to keep one another company. A mother who dotes on her children. A writer for a father. An au pair. – that’s all the outsiders get to see, while it is the children who really know and have lived through the ups and downs of what that sort of a family life brings. The ones closely involved are the ones that know what makes up this family other than what meets the naked eye.

Also, the theme of the book focuses on how more than the experience in itself, it is what a person gets out of it / how a person reacts to it that makes for a good/bad memory. Even though the six children grew up in the same house, with the same parents, they each have had different experiences that have shaped their lives. What a child takes from any incident, how same thing happening to two people can be interpreted in two different ways is portrayed.

The book had its flaws too. For one, the deep dark secret the author talks about isn’t that much of a secret at all. I put a pin on it the first time a hint to it is mentioned in the passing. So, when the secret is actually revealed, it didn’t come as so much a shock to me. I guess in a way it didn’t bother me much that I deciphered the family secret early on because that helped with keeping up with the practical portrayal of issues rather than something over the top. Other than that, a couple of the characters were a little hard to connect with…but then I won’t complain much about it because it didn’t take away from the beauty of the book.

The language and the tone of the book couldn’t have been better. The author’s description of people, places, situations, etc. were all impeccable. It didn’t take much effort on my part as a reader to put together the visuals for the scene or characters…the writing took care of that. The author has a graceful style to her writing…I will be sure to read more books by her just for the way she writes.

Overall, this insightful study of family and relationships and a genuine portrayal of the same, is a good read.

My rating: 4*.

*for the rating scale, click here.

Cloudstreet

‘Cloudstreet’ by Tim Winton starts off in the 1940s in Western Australia. We are introduced to the Pickles family and the Lamb family. The Pickles include Sam Pickles, the father, his wife, Dolly Pickles and kids Ted, Rose and Chub. The Lamb family are initially a god-fearing family with Lester Lamb at the helm along with his wife Oriel. Their children include their sons Quick, Fish and Lon and their daughters Hat, Elaine and Red.

Sam Pickles is bad luck. Literally. He lost half his arm in a work accident. He woke up next to his dead father. He bets on horses. And never wins, thus gambling away money he doesn’t even have. His wife Dolly is very beautiful. Trouble is, she knows it. And spends her time in pubs drinking and sleeping with sailors and other men. By a stroke of luck for Sam in a very unfortunate manner (if that’s possible), his brother drops dead too and leaves Sam and family a house in Perth where they decide to start afresh. The house is number 1, Cloud Street. A massive house. That seems like it could fall apart. One of the conditions on which Sam has received the house though is that they cannot sell it for another twenty years. But given Sam’s gambling habits, it’s hard to maintain a house as big as this.

Enter, the Lamb family. Looking to get away and start afresh after an accident renders Fish, the favourite child, mentally disabled, they move into half of Cloud Street as tenants. They couldn’t be more unlike the Pickles. Hard working. Persistent. Oriel sets up a grocery store outside the house, thus raking in the money. And Sam and Dolly continue to squander the rental income on gambling and booze.

Cloudstreet covers both families lives over twenty years or more. We follow Quick and how he struggles with his guilt. We see Fish and how incapable and child-like he is and continues to be. We see Lon who starts off as a toddler and who he turns out to be. We see tomboyish Red and her journey through life. We follow Rose through her struggles with an eating disorder and having to be the parent when both her parents are pretty useless. All this set in the time of war in the backdrop to begin with. And whether the families are able to forgive themselves and the other members for all that has occurred.

Cloudstreet is one of Winton’s most famous books. And it did live up to its name for me. However, I must say, this is the first Winton book I’ve read and initially it was a bit hard to get around his writing style. He’s very Australian in that he writes some words the way it ought to be pronounced. For instance, ‘carn’ for ‘come on’ or ‘yairs’ for ‘yes’. Another unique feature of his style was the complete lack of inverted commas for dialogue. I found it frustrating initially as I would wonder whether it was someone thinking or actually speaking. But once you get through the first couple of chapters, you are able to understand his style better and then it flows really quickly. At the end of the day, these two families and their members could remind you of people you know. The characters are very realistic and you do feel for some of them and get angry with others at the right moments. All in all, it was a good book even though I took a break once as I had to read another book for my book club. The book has now been made into a mini TV series.

My rating would be a 4.

Until next time,

Cheers!!!

The Local News

Author Miriam Gershow’s first book features 15 year old Lydia Pasternak: intellectually gifted, bookish, skinny, a social outcast and a nerd. Following the mysterious disappearance of her popular older brother Danny, Lydia becomes somewhat of a celebrity in her small community and is almost neglected by her parents who are consumed with the need to find Danny. At school, she is suddenly popular among Danny’s friends and is almost overwhelmed by the attention and the outpouring of sympathy and grief. The problem is, Lydia herself hasn’t been too fond of Danny. And grief is hard to come by. Despite this, she tries her best to help with his search particularly when her parents hire a private investigator who Lydia finds very interesting and intriguing. What they find in the end, is something everyone, including Lydia is unprepared for. And it continues to haunt her for the rest of her life.

This is an interesting book by first-time author Miriam Gershow. It looks at the manner in which people grieve — publicly and privately. How much is too much? And can you grieve in private if your grief is made a public affair? What happens to a family after a traumatic event? And is there an appropriate way to grieve? What if you felt ambivalent about the person who you lost? What then, is the etiquette to grieve?

Through Lydia, her mother, her father and members of the Fairfield community, Gershow portrays differing ways of coping with loss and evokes the above questions. The book is narrated through Lydia’s point of view — how she sees others grieving and how she herself struggles to find the tears. How she struggles being known mostly as ‘Danny’s sister’. Does she eventually manage to deal with the loss? Or will she continue to be distant and avoidant? I found Lydia’s character to be warm initially and really liked her but then, as the character grew distant from other characters, I felt the same sense…as though she were growing distant from us the reader as well. And yet, it wasn’t a bad thing. It just made it seem a bit more real.

All in all, a good effort for a debut novel.

I’d give it a rating of 4. (Although 3 and a half is probably more appropriate)

Until next time,

Cheers!!

Broken Glass Park

…by Alina Bronsky.

Narrated by seventeen year old Sascha Naiman, this book reads as her journal as she goes through life after her mother is killed. Born in Russia, Sascha now lives in Germany with her two younger siblings and a relative who is their guardian. The story beings with Sascha pointing out that she has two dreams – one is to kill her stepfather, who murdered her mother and her mother’s lover, and the other is to write a book about her mother. And from there the book goes on as a chronicle of Sascha’s life as she takes care of her siblings, goes to school, and tries to live with that grudge against her stepfather who is now in prison.

The book is a journey into a teenager’s life as she’s trying to get over a tragedy, while being there for what is left of her family. Sascha’s voice is very engaging…she lets the reader get into her mind slowly but steadily; yet, keeping herself closed to a certain extent, so as to leave the reader wanting more. She sheds light on the past every now and then, narrating all those events from the past leading up to her mother’s murder. She pours out her anger, builds a bubble around herself to keep her from getting close to anyone.

What I liked most about the book was the depth of Sascha’s character. Even after the nightmare of a past, she emerges as a strong and smart personality. And a very accurate portrayal of what goes on in her mind just adds to how easily a reader is able to relate to that character. On the other hand, the powerful beginning lead me to want an equally compelling end, but for some reason it all fell very flat after a point, and that’s where I was left disappointed.

Overall, this realistic and touching story about a teenager with a brutal past is worth a read.

My rating: 3*.

*for the rating scale, click here.

The Well and the Mine

…by Gin Phillips.

Set in the 1930s Alabama, this story is about a family – father, a mine worker; mother, a housewife; and three children – Virgie, Tess and Jack. One evening, Tess witnesses a woman throw a baby into her family’s well. At first, everyone dismisses her claims, blaming her keen imagination. Things turn around though, as they discover a baby’s body the next day. The rest of the story is woven around showing the readers how the characters’ perspectives change with regard to everything happening around them.

What caught my attention enough to want to pick up this book was the storyline. I couldn’t imagine any good reason for having a baby thrown into a well and I wanted to know more.  And I must admit that, from that angle this book didn’t do any justice. The thing to remember before reading this book is to not expect this big incident that happens in the beginning to be the main focus of the novel. The book starts off with a bang with such a big episode, but if you keep your hopes high on that one thing carrying on throughout the book and ending it with a big revelation, then you are probably in for a disappointment. While it sets the scene for the rest of the story to take place, it is just one of the threads that weave this book together – and once you understand that and realign your expectations, then you are in for a great read.

The book sheds light on the family, its members, and the struggles of the times that they live in. The story is narrated in first person by each of the five main characters’ point of views…so readers get to understand what goes on in each one of their minds with respect to all that is happening around them. The times are not easy…the book is set in Depression. Even though the family not poverty struck as some of their neighbors are, they still have to try hard to make ends meet, especially when emergency strikes and they have not much savings to rely on. The parents do their best to provide a loving home for their children even during the hardest of times. And that love is something that comes out so beautifully throughout the story.

The writing is simple and beautiful. The characters are well-developed. And the flow is well paced. The imagery the author puts forward is so vivid and powerful – that is the one thing that kept me hooked to the book and that’s what I missed once I finished reading it.

Overall, this book, driven by its characters, the time that it was set in more so than the story itself, is a poignant read.

My rating: 4*.

*for the rating scale, click here.