Tag Archives: Reviews

Saving Francesca

Saving FrancescaSaving Francesca by Melina Marchetta

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I wanted to like Saving Francesca more than I did. After all, it’s about a topic close to my heart: depression. In particular, it’s about the effects on a family when a parent is incapacitated by depression.

It’s not really fair for me to measure this depiction in view of my own experience of a parent with depression. Every family will experience it differently; indeed, every person within a family will experience it differently. So, while Francesca’s experience didn’t always ring true for me, I could appreciate what an important topic it is for writers of YA Literature to address. After reading so many YA books wherein parents die, the far more common reality of clinical depression is due more attention.

The strength of this novel is the characterisation of Francesca’s friend and family groups. As with Looking for Alibrandi, I found myself enjoying the lead character’s interactions with her school friends more than with the love interest. I guess Prince Charming is doomed to be a boring character type. Marchetta also writes developed teachers and school administrators; for the most part, they genuinely care about and respect the young people in their care. (Of course, there’s always one bad apple who really shouldn’t be teaching.)

Overall, I found myself laughing out loud at the antics of Francesca’s friends and extended family, and being moved to tears by her love for her brother. But I screamed internally at some of Francesca’s overwrought monologues and raised my eyebrow sceptically at a group of Year 11’s knowledgeable discussions of multiple Shakespeare plays.

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Does My Head Look Big in This?

Does My Head Look Big In This?Does My Head Look Big In This? by Randa Abdel-Fattah

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

My first thought about Does My Head Look Big In This? was, “It’s Looking for Alabrandi for a new generation.” That impression may have more to do with the narrator of the audiobook version I listened to using the same wide-eyed tone that characterised the reader of the audiobook version of Alibrandi. Still, the similarities don’t end there. Both books have young, female protagonists who, simply because of their cultural and religious backgrounds, have no option but to think about their place in the world. Unlike the predominantly Anglo-Australians each girl goes to school with, they’re required to move between two worlds as often as they go to school and return home each day.

In this book, the central character, Amal, makes the decision to become a full-time wearer of the hijab. Her parents are concerned about the response she will attract from her school and friends, while her school and friends demand to be reassured her parents haven’t forced her to wear the hijab against her will. Inevitably, perhaps, Amal becomes representative of Islam and every act done in its name; consequently, she is required by non-Muslims to explain the atrocity of events like the Bali bombings and, to the well-intentioned, be a spokesperson and educator on her religion.

First published in 2005, I think this might be an early attempt in young adult literature to help young people explore issues of religious identity in a post-September 11 world. In Australia, the Bali bombings, which are featured in the novel, would have added a particular urgency to the need for this kind of discussion. Certainly, there’s a sense that Abdel-Fattah wrote a list of the most common expressions of ignorance and bigotry towards Muslim-Australians and incorporated them into the experiences of Amal, her friends and family. It feels quite jam-packed and sometimes didactic. That said, Does My Head Look Big In This? has made me curious about other books from the perspectives of other western Muslims.

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Looking for Alibrandi

Looking for AlibrandiLooking for Alibrandi by Melina Marchetta

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

3.5 stars

I think if I’d read this book twenty-three years ago I’d have appreciated it more. It’s a coming of age story from what seems to be a more innocent time: pre-September 11, pre-social media; from an era when a family gathering to make a year’s worth of passata was cause for embarrassment rather than a mark of culinary cosmopolitanism and a sure-fire ticket to the MasterChef grand final.

I suppose it’s a good thing that third-generation Italian-Australian Josephine Alibrandi’s narration of the trials of her final year in high school now seems dated; being of southern European descent, a ‘wog’, no longer attracts unfavourable commentary from the casually racist in this country. Not that there’s much evidence, more broadly, that Australian society has become less racist in the intervening years–attention has merely shifted to more recent migrants who have arrived in Australia after fleeing war and persecution in their homelands.

For better or worse, the storyline around the mental well-being of one of Josephine’s friends has stood the test of time. I look forward to the day when John Barton’s fate is rendered unbelievable.

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Fetish by Tara Moss

Fetish (Makedde Vanderwall, #1)Fetish by Tara Moss

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Given the concerns about representations of violence against women in popular culture, I often wonder about women who write violent crime stories. And women who like to read or watch violent crime stories. I am sympathetic to the critiques of the parade of brutally abused female body parts across our screens and pages; and, from what I’ve gleaned of Tara Moss on the periphery of my Twitter feed, she certainly wouldn’t be advocating a sensationalising of violence against women, despite the fairly graphic descriptions in this, her first novel, of the proclivities of her villain, dubbed the Stiletto Killer.

So, what is going on here? Why do I like these psychological thrillers? Why have I watched Cracker, Wire in the Blood, Prime Suspect and so on over the years, where sooner or later a woman is going to end up sexually assaulted, tormented, and, very likely, ceremoniously murdered? Why have I already decided that I’m going to listen to Tara Moss read the remaining five novels in her series, where Canadian Makkede Vanderwall, part-time international model-part-time forensic psychology student, pursues her friend’s killer, attracts psychopaths at every turn, all the while continuing to earn her qualification and fall in love?

The answer can’t be a kind of Stockholm Syndrome, or desensitisation in the face of countless such representations; none of us are stupid, either. This is perhaps why I’m not convinced by arguments that uniformly decry such depictions; I get fairly impatient with the prescriptive nature of them; and then I don’t really say anything for fear of not being a Good Feminist. Let me be clear, I’m not criticising feminism or feminists here; indeed, using a critical feminist perspective, I have to conclude that something else is going on here–it has to be.

I suspect that so many women write, watch and read violent crime as a way of working through fears about violent crime. Perhaps these fears are unfounded; perhaps they’ve been exacerbated by these very kinds of stories. Still, this is what is reassuring about the crime genre: the fears and anxieties about violence are contained in the pages or pixels of the stories and, in the end, the detective triumphs over the killer and she is all the much stronger for it.

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The Man Who Loved Children

The Man Who Loved ChildrenThe Man Who Loved Children by Christina Stead

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Henrietta (Henny) and Samuel Pollitt both knew before they married that they never should have married, yet, bound by social convention and the need to secure a dowry, they did marry, and so, perhaps, the trajectory of their lives could only be the tragedy that plays out in this novel.

Henny and Sam’s thwarted expectations of life and marriage have repercussions beyond their individual disappointments to affect their children: Louise (Louie), Sam’s child from his halcyon first marriage, and the five children Henny subsequently bears. The children grow up in the cesspool of this bitter liaison, nurtured on their parents’ mutual violence.

I’m not entirely sure what Jonathan Franzen is talking about when he says this book is funny. Perhaps he’s referring to the moments where Henny’s threats seem like so much hyperbole, or when Sam’s baby-talk to his children descends to utter ridiculousness , but beneath that there is so much despair and narcissism, for Henny and Sam respectively, that for me every one of these moments contained a well of horror.

The Man Who Loved Children is a frightening, moving portrait of dysfunctional family life. Here, it is read by Fiona Press who, despite some distracting pronunciations of words (piahno), ensures we never wholly condemn any of the characters, even while deploring some of their actions.

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The Casual Vacancy

The Casual VacancyThe Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Casual Vacancy portrays the Pagford community in the aftermath of the death of Barry Fairbrother, one of its most prominent citizens. As a member of the local council, Barry was a champion of the much maligned public housing estate, The Fields. He worked tirelessly to create opportunities for the abject citizenry of his childhood home. While Barry’s death creates the casual vacancy of the title on the Pagford council, it proves devastating to Krystal Weedon, a teenager from The Fields and a member of the school girls’ rowing team that Barry coached.

Rowling’s first adult novel is a critique of the myth of social mobility. All too often, exceptional individuals, such as Barry, are paraded as evidence that with hard work anyone can be successful. But as the divisions and resentments between the residents of Pagford realign in the wake of Barry’s death, it becomes clear that age-old class and cultural distinctions will prevail, not least because of the machinations of its most influential citizens. Rowling offers insight into the often inexplicable psychology of poverty, as well as the complacency and entitlement of the privileged, all the while managing, admirably, a cast of complex characters.

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Reviewing Good Reads (including thoughts on The Luminaries)

I’ve been a member of Good Reads for the second time for a month now, and today I received an email from them requesting that I rate their site.

It’s good timing on their part–no doubt, someone has done research into matters of feedback and timing–because I had recently been thinking about the ways that Good Reads has affected my reading.

The first time I joined Good Reads, I attempted to show not only what I was reading at the time but also what I had read in the past.  I soon learned that trying to review every book I had ever read was a fool’s errand. It left no time for reading. And it felt competitive.

I felt inadequate as a by-product of the sense of competitiveness Good Reads engendered in me, so I quit the site and breathed a sigh of relief. If that sounds precious, then I assure you, those feelings emerged at a complex intersection of my personal history of class and capital in sociologist Pierre Bourdieu’s understanding of social relations.

Anyway, I rejoined Good Reads with far more modest ambitions. I really just wanted to know how many books I might read in the year ahead.

To this end, Good Reads provides the opportunity to set yourself a reading challenge. I’m not a prolific reader, so I’ve set myself a modest number of 26 books for the year.  A friend noted of the challenge she set herself last year, that while she didn’t meet it, it had the effect of making her sit down and read. I’ve already noticed that Good Reads has  had this effect on my reading habits too, and a sense of purpose about reading is not a bad thing at all.

An effect of Good Reads that I’m more ambivalent about is that I tend to read in anticipation of assigning a star rating and perhaps finding something to say to justify that rating. On the one hand, the description attached to each star is different to what I would intuitively assign to them. For example, if I thought a book was ‘okay’, I would assign three stars rather than the two afforded by Good Reads for that description. No doubt, my rating is a hangover of marking essays and assigning grades. 2 out of 5 stars would be a fail in an essay–not having made the half-way mark–whereas three stars is a pass: it’s ‘okay’. I’ve made every effort to adjust my rating system to that of Good Reads, but still, I feel a bit mean assigning a well-loved children’s classic like The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe only two stars. Similarly, my three star rating of Hannah Kent’s Burial Rites doesn’t quite convey the degree to which I liked it.  I liked it.  It’s better than a passing grade but, for the reasons I outlined in my review, I didn’t really like it enough to indicate that with a four star rating. (I do wish I Good Reads would allow half-star ratings.)

I recently saw an article on Brain Pickings about Virginia Woolf’s essay ‘How should one read a book?’  Woolf asks the reader to ‘banish all … preconceptions when we read ….’ She continues: ‘Do not dictate to your author; try to become him. Be his fellow-worker and accomplice. If you hang back, and reserve and criticize at first, you are preventing yourself from getting the fullest possible value from what you read.’

Without a doubt, one of the effects of Good Reads for me is that by Woolf’s measure, I do not read well. I approach each book with a critical mindset; I do, indeed, hang back. For example, while reading The Luminaries, upon encountering the descriptions of the characters representing the stellar bodies, I immediately thought of the composition principle  ‘show, don’t tell’. Why, I asked, am I being told how they will act and react in any given situation? Why aren’t I simply witnessing these characters interacting?

Perhaps, at this point, I was closing myself off to the ‘signs and hints of almost imperceptible fineness, from the twist and turn of the first sentences’ that Woolf suggests the author offers the reader, that were being offered by Catton, that I had ignored in my rush to compose my Good Reads review even while I was still reading.

I had finished reading  The Luminaries, when I was directed to a review of Catton’s reviews in the Sydney Review of Books, which pricked my conscience about my reading as much as Woolf’s instruction. Julian Novitz considers the bad reviews of Catton’s novel in view of her conscious and ironic use of 19th century literary devices. He defends Catton against the critics who dismiss her novel as ‘pastiche’ and a ‘creative writing exercise’ arguing for the merit of formal inventiveness. Here, I reflected,  if Catton did tell her reader about her characters, did not show them by way of their daily interactions, then my reaction to her anachronistic storytelling could only be, as Novitz suggests, due to her ‘wry metafictional reflection on the nature of storytelling’.

Novitz’s defence of The Luminaries is convincing on many levels and it makes me want to appreciate the book more, but ultimately, I don’t know that ‘an awareness of the structure working behind it [does deepen] one’s pleasure and absorption’

At my book club, which I read this novel for, the enjoyment of the mystery story of The Luminaries was unanimous. Most felt relieved that such a large novel was so absorbing and thought, at last the Booker had been awarded to a rollicking good story rather than a worthy tome. The astrologically informed structure and 19th century literary devices were peripheral to their conscious pleasure and absorption.

In the end, I enjoyed the story too, even as I admitted the ‘heavily furred and gowned’ critics of Woolf’s essay into my reading. Still,  as I came to understand Novitz’s pleasure in  ‘the structure working behind it’, I couldn’t share in it.  The astrological premise simply didn’t resonate for me.

***

Despite my reservations about the effects of Good Reads on my reading, I won’t be deleting my account again.  I’m still curious to see how many books I’ll read and it will be nice to have a contained record to review my thoughts on my reading. As well, I enjoy seeing my friend’s ratings and reading their reviews–they’re smart and insightful and I get ideas for things to read. With a bit of effort and some help from Virginia Woolf, I think–I hope–I will, eventually, be a good reader on Good Reads.


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