Archive for the ‘Contemporary fiction’ Category

How is War and Peace treating you? Are you finding it a hard slog or racing through it? Or somewhere in between?

I’m loving it so far. I’m finding the battle scenes a little confusing at times and need to reread to work out who’s doing what but I’m getting the hang of it.

It’s not too late to join so come on and become immersed in War and Peace.

If you read only one article this week make it Liking Is For Cowards. Go for What Hurts by Jonathan Franzen.

He is an incredible thinker and writer. Wow.

A sneak peak at Jeffrey Eugenides’ upcoming novel, The Marriage Plot. Looking forward to it. Big fan of Middlesex.

This couldn’t be more off topic really but I had to share it: Style your garage

I would love, love, love one of these for our garage door but as our garage can be seen from a main road as cars come around a bend down a hill it’s perhaps not the best idea to be creating a major double-take distraction for drivers. (But it would look sooooo good.)

Thanks for reading.


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‘He had rented a smile off somebody and it was the wrong size.’ It’s lines like this that, for me, define Zadie Smith’s writing and keep me coming back for more. Having thoroughly enjoyed her other two novels, On Beauty and White Teeth, her second novel, The Autograph Man, did not disappoint.

The Autograph Man
Alex-Li Tandem is the ‘autograph man’, an autograph dealer waiting for that life-altering deal to happen. Whilst adamant that he is a dealer and not a collector his one treasured possession is the autograph of Kitty Alexander, an elusive 1950s movie starlet with whom he is obsessed. On a trip to New York for a tradeshow he meets Kitty and so follows a series of unusual events including Kaddish, subterfuge and the biggest deal of Alex’s career.

Smith packs so much into her stories, in some ways, more than she needs to but at the same time it’s just enough. I imagine she was that kid at school who always did extra homework, producing an essay with an accompanying diorama when a one-pager would have sufficed. It is such meticulousness and dedication to her story that makes one want to show one’s appreciation by being a good reader; to never rush, to heed every word; to pause and consider.

As always it is Smith’s characters that are the bedrock of her story. They do border on caricature at times but not in a way that undermines their integrity. Smith maintains a beautiful balance between humour and humanity that keeps her characters grounded in the real world. Smith never takes herself, or life, too seriously; there’s always a light side.

The plot in The Autograph Man does drift a little occasionally. This may have been deliberate; however Smith’s latest novel, On Beauty, is much tighter and I tend to think that experience is making her a more disciplined writer.

Clearly I’m a fan of Zadie Smith and enjoyed The Autograph Man. If you’ve never read any of Smith’s novels I recommend reading On Beauty first; it’s a great introduction to the work of this talented writer and a somewhat easier read than her other two books.

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Set in present-day Paris, Hunting and Gathering introduces us to Camille, a talented artist with a mysterious past. Camille weighs just forty-eight kilos and seems on a mission to starve herself into invisibility. Suffering exhaustion and severely undernourished she is rescued from her freezing attic room by her neighbour, Philibert, a sensitive upper-class man with a passion for history. Camille moves into the apartment Philibert shares with his womanising, cantankerous flatmate, Franck, a chef. Despite their many differences this unlikely trio form a bond and become the first real family any of them have ever really known.

Hunting and Gathering
Translated into English from the original French version, Ensemble, c’est tout, Hunting and Gathering is Anna Gavalda’s latest novel. Her previous work includes I Wish Someone Were Waiting for Me Somewhere, a short story collection that brought her fame in her native France, and a short novel called Someone I Loved.

The writing in Hunting and Gathering is eloquent and rich yet it doesn’t draw attention to itself. It’s humble writing and is happy to let the plot and the characters take the centre stage that is their due. I would be interested to know how the French version reads and how it compares with the English translation. I can’t imagine anything has been lost in the translation so refined and detailed is the English version.

For reasons that aren’t revealed until late in the novel Camille gave up drawing and found work as an office cleaner. As she settles into a stable home life with Philibert and Franck she starts to pick up her pencil again and draw everything in sight.

From the beginning there is tension between Camille and Franck and for much of the book the reader is left hanging in a ‘will they-won’t they’ state that thankfully is resolved by the end.

Hunting and Gathering is a fly-on-the-wall view of the lives of the three main characters. They are perhaps a little exaggerated but Gavalda cleverly maintains a sense of reality by not making her story one of high drama, there aren’t explosive moments of great joy or sadness. This is an insight into the ordinary lives of three extraordinary people.

At just under 500 pages, Hunting and Gathering didn’t seem long enough and I was disappointed to find myself approaching the final pages. Gavalda has succeeded at creating unique and engaging characters that will stay with you long after you’ve finished reading. Highly recommended.

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You know that feeling when you pick up a book and you just know it’s going to be good? Maybe it’s the cover design or the title or something else, intangible. Well I had that feeling with Emily Ballou latest novel Aphelion and, sure as eggs, I proved myself right. This is a wonderful book.


Set in Australia’s own Snowy Mountains Aphelion tells the story of Hazel, a new arrival in Adaminaby, and the four generations of women she meets when she moves into one of the houses on the shore of Lake Eucambene. There’s Hortense, 101 years old and still driving like a demon; her ailing daughter Esme; Esme’s niece Byrne; and Byrne’s daughter Lucetta. The four women live together but it’s a situation that becomes untenable due in large part to the complex dynamics of their relationships.

Hazel has been recruited by one of the locals to produce a museum exhibit about the drowning of Old Adaminaby in the 1950s to make way for the hydro-electric scheme. The story is set in 2002 with flashbacks to events over the previous sixty years or so, often stories told by Hortense and Esme to Hazel as she conducts research for her project.

From the first page I felt bathed in warm afternoon sunlight by this novel. It is beautifully written but not in a way that makes it challenging to read, rather, Aphelion is a comfortable, easy read, almost as if you’re reading your own story. I found it to be one of those rare novels where I never got bored nor did I ever feel overwhelmed or in over my head with it. It just flowed naturally without any stress or strain.

Born and raised in the United States Ballou’s moved to Australia in 1991. Aphelion is her second novel, her first, Father Lands, was published in 2002. Ballou is also a screenwriter and award-winning poet having won the Judith Wright Prize for Poetry in 1997 and, as if that’s not enough, she recently published her first children’s picture book, One Blue Sock.

Ballou’s prose in Aphelion is subtle and she says almost as much with what she doesn’t say in words. She draws the reader in as her confidante and trusts them to read between the lines. Like Ballou herself, a foreigner who has adopted this country as her home, there is something exotic yet familiar about her writing. And Aphelion is full of unexpected, poignant snippets of life. One of the most memorable for me is in early on in the novel when Esme is recalling when she was a young girl driving in the car with her mother, Hortense: ‘Esme watches her mother’s face in profile as she hurtles along, in order better to learn the shape of her love. A mother is like this for some people.’ (p11).

Whilst Aphelion’s plot is intriguing it plays second fiddle to the characters; they are so interesting and unpredictable that it was them that kept me turning the pages. And the history of Adaminaby and its drowning adds another layer of interest. Aphelion reminds me of The Shipping News by E Annie Proulx, mostly in style but also with regards to the plot. Co-incidentally both novels involve a house being moved (several houses in Aphelion’s case) and water and drowning feature heavily as metaphors in both.

One of my favourite scenes sees Hortense buying medication for her heart condition. The pharmacist warns her that one of the side effects is a feeling of doom:

“‘Doom?’ she asked.
‘You mean like I’m dying Doom?’
Hortense nodded and her brow creased. ‘Is there anything you can give me so I don’t feel the Doom?’
‘There is, but not with the other things you are taking, I’m sorry.’
She seemed to think about it, her bottom lip pulled in under her teeth and chewed for a moment. ‘Doom, eh?’” (p351.)

Aphelion is a beautiful tale of family, love and loss. It is sad and funny, heartbreaking and uplifting all at once. An absolute must-read.

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Rose by any other name, the latest novel from Maureen McCarthy, is about Rose O’Neil, a young woman with the world at her feet. Her future as a lawyer seems assured with a brilliant HSC mark and her love life is looking up when she meets Nat, the university student who just moved into her street. However this perfect picture starts to fall apart when her father leaves her mother for another woman. Without giving too much away this triggers a series of events that see Rose’s life taken a dramatic turn from the life she had planned for herself.

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The story alternates between events of last summer when Rose’s parents separate and she meets Nat and events from this summer when she takes a road trip with her mother to visit her dying grandmother. At first I found this technique to be quite effective but it soon became confusing as I struggled with the timeline trying to figure out what happened, when.

Rose by any other name is a coming-of-age tale suitable for older teenagers. It’s a little too clichéd and corny in parts to provide a satisfying read for an adult. Rose’s road trip and her burgeoning independence will appeal to teenage girls. Narrated by Rose the writing style is casual, chatty and easy to read.

McCarthy’s characters are rich and varied, from Rose’s mother who is bravely recovering from her broken marriage to Rose’s best friend, Zoe, with whom she has a falling out.

The ending is quite abrupt which I found to be appropriate; a tidy resolution of all of Rose’s problems would have been unrealistic however some readers may want more closure than McCarthy offers.

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Simone Lazaroo’s The Travel Writer is a beautifully told story of a Malaccan woman, Ghislaine and her daughter, Isabelle and the challenges they face looking for love and escape from the banality of their lives. As an impressionable young woman in Malacca, Ghislaine meets Walter Humphries, a charming travel writer who, to Ghislaine, represents an opportunity for an exciting life in another land. Decades later, recovering from a failed marriage, Isabelle repeats history by turning to her writing tutor to satisfy her need for affection and acceptance.

The Travel Writer is the third novel from Australian author, Simone Lazaroo’s. Her previous novels, The World Waiting to Be Made and The Australian Fiancé won the TAG Hungerford Award and the Western Australia Premier’s Literary award for fiction respectively.

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Lazaroo’s storytelling is very subtle; it gets you in whilst you’re not looking. Whilst I wasn’t overly engaged by this book and had no trouble putting it down at the same time I never contemplated not reading to the end. Lazaroo creates so many questions and openings in her narrative that I found myself needing the closure of finding of what happens to the two main characters.

The story switches back and forth between the almost parallel stories of the two women: Ghislaine’s story in post-war Malacca and Isabelle’s in London during the 1980s as she nurses her dying mother.

Realistic and unsentimental The Travel Writer is a story about love but it’s not a love story. Ghislaine and Isabelle aren’t exactly lucky when it comes to men; they have a penchant for attracting self-absorbed, worldly men who make promises yet ultimately fail to meet the expectations of both mother and daughter. Unfortunately, being written with a strong female bias, with the exception of Ghislaine’s father, Wish, the male characters are one-dimensional and predictable which takes a little of the shine from this otherwise well-rounded novel.

Lazaroo’s vivid descriptions of everything from the Malaccan landscape to the cake Ghislaine lovingly bakes for the travel writer make this a highly visual story that strikes me as being suitable for adaptation to film.

The Travel Writer is beautifully written and evocative of other times and places. Whilst not a page-turner it will quietly hook you in its grasp and leave an impression that will have you thinking well after the final page.

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Growing up in post-cultural revolution China gave Fan Wu a real life canvas on which to base her first novel, February Flowers. Like her main characters, Ming and Yan, Wu attended university in China in the early 90s, a time when the economy was opening up after years of Communism and when the culture was changing at a rapid rate.Opposites of each other in so many ways, Ming and Yan form an unlikely friendship. Ming is introverted and bookish; wholly committed to her studies and with little interest in boys. Yan is a party girl with a mysterious past who seeks to escape her minority status by marrying a local Guangzhou man.

Yan treats Ming almost as a novelty for her own entertainment and sees her as a representation of the innocence she lost long ago. For Ming, Yan is the experienced woman of the world with fashionable clothes and an exciting lifestyle. February Flowers takes place over the course of eleven months and during that time each girl’s understanding of the other never really extends beyond their initial impressions.

Wu skirts around the edges of Ming’s potentially sexual feelings towards Yan yet stops short before delving in and letting this sub-plot develop. I’m left wondering whether it’s simply Wu’s style to let the reader draw his/her own conclusions or is she hesitant to explore a gay storyline given her still relatively conservative Chinese audience. Perhaps a little of both.

Wu’s prose is quite innocent and straightforward. English is her second language after all and at first I found her style a little jarring but I soon got used to it and actually found it a refreshing change to the inflated, allegorical prose of some literary fiction.

However, I found the depth of February Flowers to be limited by Ming’s first person narrative. It may have been Wu’s intention to let the reader make up their own mind about Yan however, for me, this lack of insight into Yan’s perspective simply had the effect of further distancing me from her. The information I was given about Yan via Ming was neither enough to help me draw a conclusion about her nor even really care about her. And this all hinges on Ming’s lack of understanding of Yan; Yan remains an exotic mystery to her and so that translates to mystery for the reader.

The character I found most interesting was neither Ming nor Yan but rather the changing face of Chinese society. It plays such an important role in Wu’s story, ever present and such an influence on the two main characters. The constant discord between traditional Chinese culture and the emerging Westernised culture is highlighted so well when the girls’ university enters a Top Ten Campus competition. For the duration of the competition previously permissible behaviours, such as smoking and public displays of affection, are prohibited. To be considered an excellent campus means regressing to the conservative mores of yesteryear and so China remains in the conflict between traditional and modern values.

February Flowers is an impressive debut from Wu. It offers an insight into contemporary Chinese life not often seen in literature of Chinese origin and will leave the reader wanting more of the same.

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