Jul 27, 2017

The Soldier's Curse by Meg and Tom Keneally

In the Port Macquarie penal settlement for second offenders, gentleman convict Hugh Monsarrat hungers for freedom. Originally transported for forging documents passing himself off as a lawyer, he is now the trusted clerk of the settlement's commandant. His position has certain advantages, such as being able to spend time in the Government House kitchen, being supplied with outstanding cups of tea by housekeeper Hannah Mulrooney, who is his most intelligent companion. 

Not long after the commandant heads off in search of a rumoured river, his beautiful wife, Honora, falls ill with a sickness the doctor is unable to identify. When Honora dies, it becomes clear she has been slowly poisoned. Monsarrat and Mrs Mulrooney suspect the commandant's second-in-command, Captain Diamond, a cruel man who shares history with Honora. Then Diamond has Mrs Mulrooney arrested for the murder. Knowing his friend will hang if she is tried, Monsarrat knows he must find the real killer.

There are a handful of points that succinctly describe this first of the Monsarrat series by the father and daughter Keneally team. Firstly, that it is (and no doubt meant to be) an easy ‘whodunit’ read, that although set in the difficult and contentious convict era, keeps things light and entertaining.

Then there is the authorship question … who did the actually writing, Tom or Meg?

Thankfully, someone did their homework and discovered that Meg wrote and Tom edited, which made sense to us as no one felt The Soldier’s Curse was written in a typical Tom Keneally style.

Overwhelmingly, this book was considered a ‘good but not great’ read and that its biggest plus was the under-dramatized and ordinariness of convict life. A real breath of fresh air from the grisly and brutal depiction currently favoured.

Perfectly written with a screenplay in mind, the two main characters, Monsarrat and Mrs Mulrooney, combine to make the classic detective duo within an Australian historical context. Something we are sure will not be missed by film and TV producers.

Always supportive of Australian talent, we wish the Keneallys well with their latest project and our group will await the television series/movie with interest and careful optimism.

Jun 29, 2017

 When Emma Rouault marries Charles Bovary she imagines she will pass into the life of luxury and passion that she reads about in sentimental novels and women's magazines. But Charles is a dull country doctor, and provincial life is very different from the romantic excitement for which she yearns. In her quest to realize her dreams she takes a lover, and begins a devastating spiral into deceit and despair.

This year’s classic comes in the form of Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary,

which, despite its undeniable ‘wordy-ness’, was mostly enjoyed by our prudent classic readers. Biggest praises go to the descriptive passages and the humour that sits surprisingly well within the story, lifting the enjoyment level up a few notches for most of us.

It would be fair to say that Emma was not well liked by our group … thought to be, for example, ‘… an unlikable, self-absorbed, unrealistic girl/woman’ with ‘… a life with no goals outside her own selfish existence’, ‘a modern day desperate housewife[!]’. Harsh words, but mostly shared by all our members.

No doubt this was the view the author intended his readers to take. He did little to inform us on why Emma had become such a self-centred soul, and it was noted that the lack of an omnipresence narrative leaves the reader (if deciding to even care) wondering how she became so. The fact that some reviewers see Madame Bovary as a prelude to feminist writing we found interesting. Back then, well bred women with the good luck to make a respectable marriage did not carrying on in such a manner, but whether this donates feminist leanings, or simply an ill matched pairing is debatable. It could be that Flaubert was simply writing a tale of a relationship strangled by unrealistic dreams and high expectations.

Whatever the intent, a classic such as Madame Bovary does not survive the test of time unless it resonates with a series of generations. This is clear when it was asked by a member, ‘Don’t we all know someone like Emma?’ Yes, we do. And it seems as though Flaubert was on the money when it came to bringing her to life.

May 30, 2017

Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout

Olive Kitteridge: indomitable, compassionate and often unpredictable. A retired schoolteacher in a small coastal town in Maine, as she grows older she struggles to make sense of the changes in her life. She is a woman who sees into the hearts of those around her, observes their triumphs and tragedies.

We meet her stoic husband, bound to her in a marriage both broken and strong, and a young man who aches for the mother he lost – and whom Olive comforts by her mere presence, while her own son feels overwhelmed by her complex sensitivities. 

A penetrating, vibrant exploration of the human soul, the story of Olive Kitteridge will make you laugh, nod in recognition, wince in pain, and shed a tear or two.

How can a critical, ornery, self-absorbed character, totally lacking in empathy and manners, become the latest rage in fiction? Well, however it can happen, the popularity of Olive Kitteridge was clearly evident in our group discussion with nearly everyone giving high scores and great praise to Strout for her writing style and character depth.

Without exception there was praise for the short story style and how the whole community was introduced through Olive. A sense of place was quickly created and moving stories of the human condition found a spot in our hearts … just as the author intended, we are sure.

While not a page turner, the readability of Olive was also commented on, ‘ … happy to pick it up’ , and ‘ … couldn’t wait to read on’, were some of the remarks. Others suggested that the writing was pleasant to read because it was ‘not over the top’ or pretentious, and would not hesitate to recommended it as a ‘really good read’.

Quite often a concurring opinion can lead to a somewhat stilted conversation, but in this case we had a lively and completely satisfying discussion with plenty of laughs and recollecting of characters and narratives. In the end the only disagreement came from the likability of Olive. Some grew to like, or at least feel sorry for her, while others continued to loathe her. Which ever the case, we all agreed that Olive Kitteridge, as unlikeable as she might be, was a most interesting character to read about.

May 25, 2017

Three Sisters, Three Queens

When Katherine of Aragon is brought to the Tudor court as a young bride, the oldest princess, Margaret, takes her measure. With one look, each knows the other for a rival, an ally, a pawn, destined – with Margaret’s younger sister Mary – to a sisterhood unique in all the world. The three sisters will become the queens of England, Scotland and France. 

United by family loyalties and affections, the three queens find themselves set against each other. Katherine commands an army against Margaret and kills her husband James IV of Scotland. But Margaret’s boy becomes heir to the Tudor throne when Katherine loses her son. Mary steals the widowed Margaret’s proposed husband, but when Mary is widowed it is her secret marriage for love that is the envy of the others. As they experience betrayals, dangers, loss and passion, the three sisters find that the only constant in their perilous lives is their special bond, more powerful than any man, even a king.

We have some keen history lovers in our group, so it would be an interesting experiment, reading a Philippa Gregory. Historical fiction can play an important role in widening the knowledge base of fiction readers, especially when the research is thorough and accurate. Gregory fills this role admirably and the majority of our group recognised this.

However, there were some of us who felt Three Sisters lacked something essential in the details and found it hard to continue with the writing style and a quick search on Google delivered more information, filling in some important gaps. It could be argued this alone is a positive reason to read historical fiction. Any book that has you reaching further for information has to be a good thing, right?

Then we had those of us who enjoyed both the content and writing style. The details of court life and the role of women within the royal fracas was found to be entertaining and engaging. Such a personal look into the women’s lives fills the need of the fiction reader, while at the same time imparting knowledge without the dry (and at times tedious) facts and figures of non-fiction.

Either way Three Sisters, Three Queens showed the clear lines between those who love their pure history and those who are willing to speculate and enjoy an intriguing tale within the confines of the past.

Mar 28, 2017

Talking to My Country by Stan Grant

An extraordinarily powerful and personal meditation on race, culture and national identity.

In July 2015, as the debate over Adam Goodes being booed at AFL games raged and got ever more heated and ugly, Stan Grant wrote a short but powerful piece for The Guardian that went viral, not only in Australia but right around the world. His was a personal, passionate and powerful response to racism in Australian and the sorrow, shame, anger and hardship of being an indigenous man. 

Stan Grant was lucky enough to find an escape route, making his way through education to become one of our leading journalists. He also spent many years outside Australia, working in Asia, the Middle East, Europe and Africa, a time that liberated him and gave him a unique perspective on Australia. This is his very personal meditation on what it means to be Australian, what it means to be indigenous, and what racism really means in this country.

If there is one issue in which our group finds complete agreement it would have to be the matter of racism. Over the years we have read many novels with this as either an underlying or central theme. It can lead to a highly emotional discussion, but one that always leaves us passionately opposed to what we consider one of the worst of all human flaws.

Grant’s Talking to My Country did not disappoint in the discussion stakes, and although the general opinion was one of high regard for what the author was saying, our views differed on how he said it.

Some felt that it was an especially personal account of suffered racism and on that level, very confronting. Grant’s childhood experiences … consistent relocating, indifferent teachers, juvenile justice … were not overly surprising to us and while he did encounter a certain amount of ‘luck’ in his educational path, we felt the strong family unit he was raised in helped in no small way to create a solid, resilient character. Something he put to good use in his chosen career.

There were those of us who tired a little of the repetitive nature of his dialogue, feeling he laboured the point just a little and there was some discussion of the reconciliation debate and what has (and hasn’t) changed in the last 20-25 years. How racists are Australians and why don’t those who believe differently speak out?

Then there is the Adam Goodes speech, the Australia Day invasion debate, deaths in custody and Indigenous education … all fiery issues that we spent the better part of 90 minutes discussing.

But in the end there were but two things said which sent a jolt through most of us …

As quoted from Stan Grant ‘… ours is an inheritance of sadness …’

And from Shirley ‘… I was brought up to be thankful that I was born in Australia, with a white face …’
As sad and alarming as both these statements are, they could be the start of moving towards a different way of thinking. Let’s hope that day arrives sooner rather than later.

Feb 28, 2017

On the Blue Train by Kristel Thornell

It was the work of a moment: On 4 December 1926, Agatha Christie became Teresa Neele, resident of the spa hotel, the Harrogate Hydro. With her wedding ring left behind, and her minimal belongings unpacked, the lost days begin.

Lying to her fellow guests about the death of a husband and child, Teresa settles in to the anonymity she so fiercely desires. Until Harry McKenna, bruised from the end of his own marriage, asks her to dance.

In this entrancing novel of creativity and grief, Kristel Thornell combines fact and fantasy to reconstruct Agatha Christie's retreat from a life that had become too difficult.

If a novel can be given a prize for creating stimulating conversation, On the Blue Train is a winner! Although our scores for this book did not widely vary, our views on whether Thornell successfully portrayed Christie’s lost days did.

Chris commented that she failed to see why this moment in Christie’s life needed to be written about, as it had already been done (numerous times) and we will never really know what happened, as Christie herself has refused to inform.

That said, it is made clear that this is a totally fictional account, blending fact and fiction into a novel that leaves much to the imagination concerning the author’s actions and thoughts. Besides, there were other issues that needed addressing … Denise found the ‘questionable adjectives’ encumbering and felt that Thornell was trying ‘way too hard’. This was an opinion shared by a few of our group which grew into a great discussion about the importance of language and over compensating with difficult words … a real annoyance for some of us! But for some, the language is what gave us place and time, feeling that it was intentionally written as Agatha Christie herself would have.

It also gave us the opportunity to envisage what we thought Christie might have been going through and experiencing during this time. The death of her mother, her pending divorce and a perceived case of writer’s block to us all added up to a woman going through a very trying time. How would any of us cope with such pressure? Again, some stimulating conversation that never fails to satisfy our willingness to openly share our thoughts on the more challenging stuff of life!

Generally, we found the characters a little on the light side, but everyone gave points for the research and descriptive hand used. It was agreed that this book is not a 'sticker', in the sense that it will be with you long after the reading. Then again, if you are a fan of Christie and her world (fictional or otherwise) it could be considered an essential read.

Jan 31, 2017

Alexander McCall-Smith, often referred to as 'Sandy" is one of the world's most prolific and best-loved authors. For many years he was a professor of medical law and worked in universities in the UK and abroad before turning his hand to writing fiction. 
He has written and contributed to more than 100 books, including specialist academic titles, short story collections, and a number of immensely popular children;s books. This month we will be reading a selection of Alexander McCall-Smith books.

If any author has a diversity of novels to choose from, McCall-Smith has. Everyone found something different to read … whether it was from 44 Scotland Street, Corduroy Mansions, Isabel Dalhousie or simply a collection of short stories, we all brought something to the table that had us smiling and shaking our heads in mirth. Fan or not, you have to acknowledge his talent for spinning a witty (albeit quirky) yarn.

McCall-Smith’s droll sense of humour and clever use of language found approval with the majority. And although some of us warmed to him more than others, his gentle stories and believable characters satisfied our group’s desire for skillful writing and gratifying discussion.

Some of us were first time McCall-Smith readers, others have been doing so for sometime, but if the general tone around the table is anything to go by, it could be that this month he acquired a few more converts to his already long list of aficionados!