My Reading and Writing

Personal reviews, writing and appreciation of literature.


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Jasper Jones by Craig Silvey

JapserJonesJasper Jones is the second novel by Australian author Craig Silvey. The story is situated in the fictional town of Corrigan in Western Australia. The residents of Corrigan, the majority of whom work in coal mining or the local power station, thrive on gossip yet still harbour secrets. Set during the turbulent 1960s, the oppressive heat of an Australian summer holiday period is a predominant aspect of the novel.

Jasper Jones is narrated by Charlie Bucktin, a thirteen year old dreamer who has a love of reading and is preoccupied by his infatuation with the amiable and bookish Eliza Wishart. He is wise for his years in his questioning of faith and the actions of others, yet his displays of intelligence attract the unwanted attention of school bullies. He also tries to assert himself with his bitter and volatile mother who is a force to be reckoned with in his youth.

The novel begins when Charlie is approached by Jasper Jones, the teenage son of an alcoholic, unemployed, Anglo-Australian father and Indigenous Australian mother who passed away when he was young. Jasper is the antithesis of Charlie, self-assured and skilful, even though he is blamed for the misfortunes of the town and the target of unfounded rumours. What Jasper reveals to Charlie becomes a secret they share, which results in the loss of Charlie’s innocence and naivety and the basis for a promise he maintains throughout the book.

Another character who features strongly in Jasper Jones is Jeffrey Lu, the child of the town’s only Vietnamese residents. Jeffrey is relentlessly bullied and oppressed due to his racial heritage, yet never ceases to be optimistic and excitable. The banter between Jeffrey and Charlie with their talk of sport, girls and superheroes is typical of adolescents and a joy to be privy to.

As the story unfolds and tragedy is revealed, Charlie and the town’s residents become driven by panic and anxiety. Racism, domestic violence, fear and courage are powerful themes throughout the novel, along with luck, destiny and what motivates the choices people make. Silvey also includes poignant references the classic works of writers such as Harper Lee and Mark Twain within his text. The conclusion of Jasper Jones and the revelation of secrets is very moving. It is difficult to write about the plot without disclosing the intricacies of Silvey’s story but both the characters and narrative make for a mesmerising read. I thoroughly enjoyed Jasper Jones and recommend it for teenagers and adults alike.

Publisher Synopsis
“Late on a hot summer night at the tail-end of 1965, Charlie Bucktin, a precocious and bookish boy of thirteen, is startled by an urgent knock on the window of his sleepout. His visitor is Jasper Jones, an outcast in the mining town of Corrigan. Rebellious, mixed-race and solitary, Jasper is a distant figure of danger and intrigue for Charle. So when Jasper begs for his help, Charlie steals into the night by his side, terrified but desperate to impress. Jasper takes him through town to his secret glade in the bush, and it’s here that Charlie bears witness to Jasper’s horrible discovery.

Carrying the secret like a brick in his belly, Charlie is harried by a suspicious town tightening in fear. In the simmering summer where everything changes, he locks horns with his tempestuous mother, falls nervously in love, and battles to keep a lid on his zealous best friend, Jeffrey Lu. And in vainly attempting to restore the parts that have been shaken loose, Charlie learns to discern the truth from the myth, and why white lies creep like a curse; why the truth of things is so hard to know, and even harder to hold in his heart.”

ISBN: 9781742372624


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One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

OneDayInTheLifeOne Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich is based on Solzhenitsyn’s own time “spent in a camp in the town of Ekibastuz in Kazakhstan” (http://www.nobelprize.org.html) and if his other works are as profound as this novel it is clear why he won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1970. The story details a single day in the life of its protagonist, Ivan Denisovich Shukhov, who has already spent eight years within the Soviet Gulag system in the 1940s. Having first spent time in the general Ust-Izhma camp, Shukhov, amongst others who were imprisoned for alleged political crimes, was transferred to the ‘special’ camp where this story is based. Death, disease and violence are commonplace within the forced labour camp and day to day survival becomes all encompassing, for body, mind and spirit. Solzhenitsyn describes an inhumane existence where prisoners are reduced to mere numbers and set to work on various building sites or plants at least six days of the week in freezing conditions. Fed meagre portions of bread, porridge or soup and dressed in identical clothes hardly fit for the climate and even then stripped from them at the whim of guard searches, the men are grouped in teams and only granted reprieve from their duties when the temperature drops to -41°.

The teams in which the men live and work are the closest to family or friends, particularly in conditions where negotiating the system is paramount to survival and alliances can change within moments. The sources and targets of frustration and ill will interchange rapidly, particularly when food or fleeting moments of personal time are threatened. Mutual respect with team leaders is all important given their slight sway in making deals with the authorities. Learning the politics of the camp is integral, such as who to befriend, aid or share rare gifts of food with. Communication with the outside world or family is scant and almost becomes irrelevant in the monotony of camp life, unless a prisoner is the recipient of a food parcel. Resigned to their fate, the prisoners eventually stop counting the days of their sentence, some still with the hope of freedom, others just doing the best they can to stay alive, relishing small pleasures such as the butt of a cigarette or an extra serving of the daily ration.

Solzhenitsyn’s narrative is honest and frank and his style isn’t overly emotive in order to emphasise his views. By describing just one day in such detail he allows the reader to comprehend the horror of living such a punishing existence day in, day out with no respite. One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich grants perspective to current first world complaints and privileges taken for granted and is also a testament to the strength of people who suffer at the cruel hand of other human beings. Most definitely a valuable read.

Publisher Synopsis
“This brutal, shattering glimpse of the fate of millions of Russians under Stalin shook Russia and shocked the world when it first appeared.

Discover the importance of a piece of bread or an extra bowl of soup, the incredible luxury of a book, the ingenious possibilities of a nail, a piece of string or a single match in a world where survival is all. Here safety, warmth and food are the first objectives. Reading this book, you enter a world of incarceration, brutality, hard manual labour and freezing cold – and participate in the struggle of men to survive both the terrible rigours of nature and the inhumanity of the system that defines their conditions of life.”

ISBN: 0141184744


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Hey Yeah Right Get a Life by Helen Simpson

HeyYeahRightThis collection of nine short stories was one of six books ‘prescribed’ to me by Nina Killham (www.ninakillham.com), herself a published writer, following a bibliotherapy session I attended at the School of Life (www.theschooloflife.com/melbourne). Being a mother of two young boys, Simpson’s collection of stories which seek to shatter the “conspiracy of silence” surrounding motherhood was a welcome read over the new year and summer period.

Motherhood is clearly the overriding theme throughout this compilation, with time—or the lack thereof—also featuring prominently. Simpson is a delightful wordsmith and her lyrical writing enhances the English locales of her stories and the narratives of her female protagonists, who undoubtedly offer recognisable traits and thoughts to fellow mothers. Simpson gives voice to feelings of guilt and inadequacy which are often unspoken and highlights how mothers feel the need to justify their choices, particularly with other parents, with whom judgement and competition is rife.

Hey Yeah Right Get a Life explores family dynamics, the relationships between husbands and wives, friends, parents and their children and the battle of wills these regularly entail. The decision of whether or not to work after having children and the complications and difficulties of both are explored. Most of the stories are subtly linked, however Millennium Blues, in which a woman witnesses a plane crash and its subsequent wake of destruction, seemed an odd inclusion.

With only the occasional insight from a male perspective or women who aren’t mothers, I am not sure if Hey Yeah Right Get a Life would resonate with those who aren’t mothers as much as those who are. Whilst beautifully crafted, I would be hesitant to recommend this book to readers who don’t have children given the subtleties and nuances of stories which all have an emphasis on motherhood.

ISBN: 9780099284222


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Dark Paradise: Norfolk Island by Robert Macklin

DarkParadiseDark Paradise beings with Macklin’s scathing opinion of British colonisation and their successful propaganda as a means of justifying their actions. He continues with Captain James Cook’s discovery of Norfolk Island in 1774, which was uninhabited at the time. His reports lead to the settlement of Norfolk Island by Lieutenant Philip Gidley King in 1788 as a penal colony, with just “15 convicts … and seven free men” (p. 20). What follows are detailed accounts of the brutal treatment of hundreds of convicts encountered at the hands of one sadistic commander after another over nearly a century. What was an idyllic location with arable land and a beautiful landscape, became a nightmare for convicts, and at times their overseers. It is mind boggling that humans could treat other humans with such contempt and torment – many for petty crimes – although Norfolk Island became reserved for those convicts deemed the worst. The convicts themselves staged a number of failed breakouts over the decades and violence and sodomy amongst each other was also rife.

The island housed up to 2,000 convicts in vile conditions before it was vacated in 1856 to be resettled by 194 Pitcairners, who were of the false assumption that they would be “granted a new homeland” (p. 228). This lead to the struggles of the islanders to assert themselves and live by their own ways up to the present time. Macklin also reveals the story of the mutiny of the Bounty crew and how Fletcher Christian and eight of his loyalists came to settle on Pitcairn Island with a number of Tahitians. The history of Pitcairn was one marred by murder, the activation of a sill which introduced the islanders to liquor, causing further trouble, and incestuous relations and illegitimate children due to the disparity between the number of men and women.

The population of Norfolk Island grew, particularly when it became the base of a Melanesian mission, yet it always fell under some form of British or Australian governance or administration. The book is concluded with the murder of Janelle Patton in 2002 and subsequent investigation, then sadly details an island cursed by alcohol, drugs, an ailing economy, waning tourism and a stubborn populace.

I happily snapped up Dark Paradise from a sale table recently as my husband has ancestors from Norfolk and Pitcairn Islands (his mother being born on Norfolk Island) and was keen to learn about his heritage. I found the history that Macklin details to be fascinating and it prompted me to undertake further research. The impact of colonialism on Australia was also brought home with the number of names mentioned throughout the text which are familiar as being Australian townships, rivers, landmarks and so on. At times the repetitive nature of the historical facts became a little monotonous and I had some difficulty keeping track of the many individuals introduced throughout. Macklin also does little to showcase the beauty of the island and the opinions of its current inhabitants.

Publisher Synopsis
“Aren’t remote South Pacific islands supposed to be paradise? Perhaps, from a distance, Norfolk Island looks a peaceful place lush with tall pines. But look closer and that idyllic façade is shattered.

For all of the 220 years we have known it, Norfolk’s story has been one of darkness, pain, rage and horror. Long-buried bones and axes hint at the violence before Captain Cook arrived and claimed the place for England. And then the horror truly began. From its earliest days, the isolation of life on this rocky outcrop took its toll.

Robert Macklin, author of bestselling SAS Sniper, tells the vivid, bewitching story of how a unique lifestyle and culture evolved amongst the almost two thousand inhabitants. From a brutal penal colony, a refuge for descendants of the Bounty mutineers when they outgrew Pitcairn Island in 1856, to the murder of Janelle Patton in 2002, Norfolk Island is exposed like never before. A place full of shadows and wrongful deaths, its history is a mesmerising tale all the more powerful because it is true.”

ISBN: 9780733628603


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Cat Out Of Hell by Lynne Truss

CatOutOfHellI spied Cat Out Of Hell at my local library and was drawn by the title, cover design and author. I have a weakness for cats and have been keen to read something from Lynne Truss’ repertoire for some time.

The novella begins with a retired librarian taking a holiday to ease his grief following the death of his wife. While away, he receives an email from a former colleague containing a folder of electronic documents. Through his perusal of these documents we learn about ‘Wiggy’, an actor summoned by his sister to look after her cat Roger, only to find she has mysteriously disappeared. What follows is the revelation of a talking cat, whose mannerisms are superbly depicted. Truss decodes the characteristics of felines and plays on the idea that they are villainous and evil. Roger the cat is also highly intellectual, a fun contrast to the not so intelligent Wiggy.

Truss’ human characters are meticulously yet subtly portrayed and she weaves a clever mystery with murder and intrigue. Although I found the denouement rather implausible, Cat Out Of Hell is an amusing and lively novella which can be read in a short amount of time. Truss keeps the narrative interesting with the incorporation of screenplay, email and first person accounts. I also appreciated her occasional intertextual references.

All in all Cat Out Of Hell is an entertaining read, particularly for cat fanciers who like the notion of giving voice to our four legged friends.

Publisher Synopsis
“The scene: a cottage on the coast on a windy evening. Inside, a room with curtains drawn. Tea has just been made. A kettle still steams.

Under a pool of yellow light, two figures face each other across a kitchen table. A man and a cat.

The story about to be related is so unusual yet so terrifyingly plausible that it demands to be told in a single sitting.

The man clears his throat, and leans forward, expectant.

‘Shall we begin?’ says the cat …”

ISBN: 9780099585336


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Peyton Place by Grace Metalious

peyton-placePeyton Place is a fictional small town in northern New England whose residents thrive on gossip, harbour secrets and consider anyone without a generational history in the town to be an outsider. Metalious explores life, death and religion through the eyes of the citizens of Peyton Place and seamlessly moves from the differing points of view of men, women and children.

Peyton Place is a little like a soap opera, but Metalious brings depth and richness by providing intricate details of the town and its inhabitants. She showcases the traits of her characters, some of whom are sympathetic, but many of whom are vile, manipulative, self-centred or abusive.

Originally published in 1956, Peyton Place still has an impact with its themes of alcoholism, madness, paedophilia, murder and unwanted pregnancy, many of which were taboos of the time but still resonate today. Together with the general angst of teens and keeping secrets, she also portrays a distinct division in class. Interestingly, there are no African American or indigenous characters in Peyton Place (with the exception of the town’s namesake) and the town predominantly comprises white people. The impact of World War II is also underplayed by Metalious, considering the book spans this turbulent time in history. In writing of strong female characters, career women, single mothers and ambitious girls Metalious displays subtle feminist critiques, especially in contrast to other, less endearing characters who epitomise the stereotypes of mid twentieth century mothers and housewives.

Taking into consideration the era in which the novel was written and overlooking some of the generational attributes, I delighted in Peyton Place and was keen to follow its characters through the 1930’s and 1940’s.

ISBN: 9788087888674


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The Flanders Panel by Arturo Pérez-Reverte

FlandersPanelThis novel was recommended to me by a Spanish friend who advised Pérez-Reverte is a renowned author in Spain. The Flanders Panel begins with Julia who, in the process of restoring a fifteenth century painting, discovers a hidden inscription and a five hundred year old mystery. As she becomes embroiled in murder and threats against her own life, Julia seeks aid and support from her antiquarian father figure César, frivolous friend Menchu and the reserved chess mastermind Muñoz. Pérez-Reverte vividly describes each of his characters, including ruthless art dealers and their curious clientele.

The author’s talent in merging medieval history with a contemporary setting is admirable. He plays on history in such a way that I had to check whether the painter, artworks and dignitaries written about were factual or fictional.

Sadly, the intertwined chess references were lost on me as I have never developed an interest (or ability) in the game and I found myself glossing over paragraphs and diagrams which focused on the contest.

I would have liked Pérez-Reverte to elaborate on the uniqueness of Madrid a little more, especially given his wordiness throughout other aspects of the novel which I found hampered the suspense of the story. The Flanders Panel is a very intelligent piece of writing however and the ending took me by surprise.

Publisher Synopsis
“The clue to a murder in the art world of contemporary Madrid lies hidden in a medieval painting of a game of chess.

In the fifteenth-century Flemish painting two noblemen are playing chess. Yet two years before he could sit for the portrait, one of them was murdered. Now, in twentieth-century Madrid, Julia, a picture restorer preparing the painting for auction, uncovers an inscription that points to the crime. Quis necavit equitem? Who killed the knight? But as she teams up with a brilliant chess theoretician to retrace the moves, she discovers the deadly game is not yet over.”

ISBN: 0099453959