Book title:    The Tidal Zone

Author:    Sarah Moss

Premise:

Adam is a stay-at-home dad who is writing a history of the bombing and rebuilding of Coventry Cathedral. He is a good man and he is happy. But one day, he receives a call from his daughter’s school to inform him that, for no apparent reason, fifteen-year-old Miriam has collapsed and stopped breathing. In that moment, his world fractures. The story of his life and the lives of his family are rewritten and retold around this shocking central event: a body that has inexplicably failed. 

Review: 

During moments of reading this novel I felt as though I was caught in its tidal zone, one moment basking in its warmth and wit, particularly through the character of Miriam, the next submerged in her father’s fears. The story is told from Adam’s perspective and while his paranoia about the welfare of his children is, in most part, poignantly written, at times I found it cloying, and his defensive position as a stay-at-home dad, irritating. Sarah Moss skilfully breaks up the story with two parallel narratives that bring relief, and she brings to light some of our unspoken fears about the inexplicability of life and death in exquisite prose: ‘Who can believe his wife will die while cooking in her own kitchen, that his children, tonight, won’t survive bathtime?(83)’; ‘It is a pity that the things we learn in crisis are all to be found on fridge magnets and greeting cards: seize the day, savour the moment, tell your love—May we live long enough to despise the clichés again, may we heal enough to take for granted sky and water and light ...(132)’. This novel is not a page turner, but one that causes the reader to pause and reflect on the fear of losing a loved-one. However, it is also one of hope - that it is possible to rewrite our lives in the aftermath of tragedy, and for that reason, as well as the author’s obvious intelligence and humour, it is definitely worth reading.   

Rating: Four star: Definitely worth it.

 

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AuthorAmanda Apthorpe

Book title:    Forever Young

Author:    Steven Carroll

Premise: 

In the tumultuous period of change and uncertainty that was Australia in 1977, Whitlam is about to lose the federal election, and things will never be the same again. The times they are a changing. 

Radicals have become conservatives, idealism is giving way to realism, relationships are falling apart, and Michael is finally coming to accept that he will never be a rock and roll musician. 

Review:

At the Adelaide Writers’ Week in 2014, Carroll claimed that fun was really important to writing and that if you’re having fun as an author, it shows on the page. However, I’ve never seen evidence of that fun in his writing—though perhaps we would differ on what that word means. All I know is that when I closed Forever Young, I cried, not because of a poignant and beautiful ending, but because I felt depressed. Steven Carroll does this to me every time and I wonder why I continue to read him. In truth, I do now why I read his work, and why I cry, because he taps into places in my heart and soul that are tender and he presses and presses. 

Michael is the central character in this novel, but more by way of his connection or near connection with the other characters who steal the limelight from him in their individual chapters. A couple of my favourites:

Mandy, is soon to become Michael’s ex to the soundtrack of 10CC’s ‘I’m not in love.’ Later, after an accident, she learns that she has lost a six week old baby that she didn’t know she was carrying: ‘ ... to be both born and to die, and for nobody to know, is to be alone at the beginning, the end and in between.’(209)

Rita, Michael’s mother spontaneously hops on a tram to the beach rather than turn up, as she had for years, to her job in a Melbourne department store. That small step propels her on a journey to the other side of the world, but in a concrete suburb outside Venice she ponders ... ‘All of her life it’s been like this —this giving that becomes a point of pride ... lived for other people, other people’s lives, as if her own were unimportant ... As if there were always some greater good to which she readily deferred and which defined her. Moulded her. To the point that she can stand here in a foreign street, on the other side of the world years afterwards, and it can still claim her.’ (255) 

 

Much is made of the Whitlam years, for good reason and with its end is the knowledge that, ‘things will never be the same again,’ but we have another perspective when seen through Rita’s eyes: ‘And when she looks at the poster of Whitlam, he has, she notes—for all the grandeur of his bearing ... that goodbye look in his eyes. And she notes, at the same time, that he was always theirs really. This Whitlam of theirs, Michael and his kind. He was always theirs more than hers ... and all of them, Michael and his kind, have cut their hair and the young women aren’t wearing overalls any more. And what does that mean?’ (319)

Carroll’s ease of prose, the repetition of phrases, his poignant insights into the beauty of the ‘everyday life’ that it is never so ordinary, and the capturing of Australian culture in, arguably, the most significant period of its social and political history makes Forever Young an excellent read. 

Rating: Four star: Definitely add to your reading list. 

 

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AuthorAmanda Apthorpe

Book title:    The Secret Chord

Author:    Geraldine Brooks

Premise: 

The Secret Chord: Annointed as the chosen one when just a young shepherd boy, David will rise to be king, grasping the throne and establishing his empire. But his journey is a tumultuous one and the consequences of his choices will resound for generations. In a life that arcs from obscurity to fame, he is by turn hero and traitor, glamorous young tyrant and beloved king, murderous despot and remorseful, diminished patriarch. His wives love and fear him, his sons will betray him. It falls to Natan, the courtier and prophet who both counsels and catigates David, to tell the truth about the path he must take. 

Review:

The Secret Chord: I have come to expect that, as the winner of numerous awards for her novels, including the 2006 Pulitzer Prize for March, Geraldine Brooks will deliver a great read, and she has done it again. The story of David, told by the courtier and prophet Natan kept me spellbound throughout. I felt as though David had stepped from the pages of the Old Testament to meet me - not just as the legendary boy slayer of Goliath and ultimately mighty king, but as a man who lived pasionately, who overlooked the shortcomings of the sons he loved, and was at the same time ruthless and compassionate. I am resolved to return to my battered copy of the Bible with new appreciation for the remarkable stories between its covers. My admiration for Brook’s writing ability has hit a new height: in this 384 page novel, there is not a single sentence that is not beautifully crafted. Fabulous. 

Rating: Five star: Absolutely loved it. Dont’ pass this one up.

 

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AuthorAmanda Apthorpe

Book title:    The Landing

Author:    Susan Johnson

Premise:

The Landing (Allen & Unwin, 2015): Jonathan Lott is confused. His wife has left him for a woman and he doesn't like living alone. Is it true that an about-to-be-divorced man in possession of a good fortune is in need of a new wife? Would Penny Collins do, divorced herself, school teacher and frustrated artist? What about beautiful Anna, blown in from who knows where, trailing broken marriages behind her? There's a lot happening at The Landing, where Jonathan has his beach house, and he's about to find out how much love matters.

Review: 

The Landing: Susan Johnson was my creative writing teacher when my first novel was hatched and ever since I have followed her writing career with interest. She never disappoints, and this is especially true of her latest novel, The Landing. On the jacket of the book is a reviewer’s quote ‘an awe-inspiring ability to explore emotional truths’ and I couldn’t say it any better. This novel is Johnson at her finest; experience and maturity saturate the narrative. 

A strong cast of characters jostle for centre stage in the small community nestled around the banks of a lake one hundred and fifty kilometers from Brisbane. Though Jonathan is the protagonist of this novel, for me it’s Penny’s story - divorced, her fickle mother is insisting on moving in, her daughter has run off with the neighbour’s husband and Penny just wants to revive a long-abandoned dream of being an artist. This is summed up in rich prose: ‘What were the chances of a middle-aged—no, older than middle-aged—of an ageing, older woman, rushing towards the future, bursting with excellence?’

All characters in The Landing are intriguing and fuel the reader’s desire to know what will happen to them all, but it is the exploration of their internal lives that is the most enthralling for me. If I have a criticism it is that I found the ending a bit rushed as though Johnson has burned herself out and just needed to rap it up. But that’s a small criticism. 

Rating: Four star: Definitely worth it.

 

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AuthorAmanda Apthorpe

Book title:    Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear

Author:    Elizabeth Gilbert

Premise:

By sharing stories from her own life, as well as those from her friends and the people that have inspired her, Elizabeth Gilbert challenges us to embrace our curiosity, tackle what we most love and face down what we most fear.

Whether you long to write a book, create art, cope with challenges at work, embark on a long-held dream, or simply to make your everyday life more vivid and rewarding, Big Magic takes you on a journey of exploration filled with wonder and unexpected joys.

Review: 

I’ve decided that I love Elizabeth Gilbert. So much so that I’m going to admit that I loved Eat, Pray, Love, and that I thought The Signature of All Things was one of the best novels I’ve read in recent times, largely because she’s an excellent writer and largely because I spent twenty-five years as a Biology teacher. It’s subjective isn’t it - what we love about books? Only two days ago I was sitting on the train, daydreaming, when my eye was caught by a somewhat garish advertisement for her latest offering, Big Magic. Out came the iphone, the ebook was downloaded in less than two minutes, and the unkept backyards of outer suburban Melbourne were forgotten. I loved this book. I loved it because I needed it and I trusted her to tell me why. 

 

Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear is for those, like me, who need reassurance sometimes that the creative journey is a valuable one. Gilbert’s spiritual leanings might frighten some away (not me), but her advice is simple: have fun, love what you do and be loved by what you do. The chapter titlesgive a clue for what’s in store: Courage, Enchantment, Permission, Persistence, Trust and Divinity. Yes, it might sound fluffy, but I didn’t feel fluffy when I finished it. I felt a return of my resolve. Gilbert’s writing is peppered with gems - some hers and some of her favourites, such as:

The universe buries strange jewels deep within us all, and then stands back to see if we can find them. 

You can measure your worth by your dedication to your path, not by your success or failures

As said, it’s subjective what we love about books.  

Rating: Four star: Definitely worth it.

 

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AuthorAmanda Apthorpe

After reading Lola Bensky, I was determined to read more of Lily Brett. Like Lola Bensky, Brett's central character in this novel, Ruth Rothwax, bears a more-than-passing resemblance to Brett herself. In Too Many Men, Brett's most acclaimed novel, Ruth Rothwax takes her father back to Poland to revisit his family home, the ghetto in which he and Ruth's mother were forced to live, and finally the concentration camps of Auchwitz. Despite the sombre nature of this journey, Brett infuses her character with great insight and humour, particularly in her mental conversations with a significant player in the Third Reich. Brett's knowledge of this sorry period in Western history is deep and I learned a great deal that I didn't know before. (I'm sorry to say that this is partly because I haven't wanted to 'go there'. One visit to the Holocaust Museum in Melbourne was enough for me to block out the stories of some of the survivors and the images in those photographs). Ruth Rothwax is intent on taking her father back to the scenes of his personal hell and it becomes clear that the journey is more about her need to come to terms with what happened to her parents, and to make some connection to a family history she has had little knowledge about. There were times. in this novel, when her intensity and prejudices against the Polish people were irritating, as was her seemingly selfish need to drag her eighty-one year old father from one bad memory to another. At times, I had to pull myself from becoming irritated with Brett herself. Of course, she is a consummate craftswoman and led me to understand that the children of Holocaust survivors are burdened with their parents' histories. Rothwax's father, based, I believe on Brett's own father is a wonderful character. Despite the severe hardship and trauma experienced at the hands of the Nazis, his simplistic sense of good will, his love of his daughter, and even his immense appetite are endearing. That he could 'move on' in his life while his daughter could not was food for thought. 

Other than being raised in the same city as Brett, I have nothing in common with her, but her style of writing, her humour and candour evident in both of these books (and I'm sure, her others) make me feel as if I know her well. I look forward to reading more of her work.

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AuthorAmanda Apthorpe

While it took me a little while to adapt to Lily Brett's writing style, ultimately I was fully engaged with the character of Lola Bensky. A little more than 'based' on her own experience as a rock journalist in the 1960s, Brett imbues Lola with wonderful warmth, humour and her self-effacing attitude is very endearing. Of course, the entree into the personal world of the 60s Rock Greats adds to the interest of this novel, but more than that, it is Lola's inner turmoil as she tries to come to grips with being the daughter of Holocaust survivors that is written with most effect. In an interview Brett was asked if she was ever in awe of the Legends she interviewed. She replied, "When your parents were in the Concentration camps of Auschwitz it's hard to be in awe of a Rock Star" (paraphrase). This book will have wide appeal, to those who just like a good story, to those who remember or are fascinated by the hype of the Rock Gods of the 60s, to those who appreciate the psychological and physical displacement for survivors of atrocities and for their children, and for those who can appreciate the humour embedded in this novel. To my shame I have not read any of Brett's previous works, but I will definitely rectify that now.

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AuthorAmanda Apthorpe