February 27, 2011

Aphrodite's Hat - Salley Vickers

I have found myself moving from a reader who never looked at short stories to one who is now actively seeking them out! Maybe it is a sign of reading maturity? Or just a reflection of where I am in my reading life? Whatever the reason, I am now a lover of the short story genre.

It probably doesn't hurt that I am managing to find short story collections that are blowing me away with their honesty, depth of emotion and clarity - my latest read, Aphrodite's Hat, being no exception.

The overarching theme for the stories in this collection is love - love lost, love gained, love needed, love gained but then not wanted and love in different forms and situations. I thought this theme was weaved perfectly through all of the stories and for a lot of them the theme was twisted and turned in a way that we may not have thought about before which I found refreshing.

Some of the stories in this collection are quite short - but the pacing and timing for each of them seemed just right.

As in all collections there are favourites - the final story "The Fall of a Sparrow" probably being my number one - simply for the reaction it was able to bring from me in the final line - powerful. But there were certainly others that provided a similar response and feeling.

A beautiful and memorable collection.

February 20, 2011

The Vagrants - Yiyun Li

After I have finished reading books like The Vagrants I always find myself wondering about how such a beautiful, compelling and poetic novel can be made from such traumatic incidents and situations. What makes trauma and horror so readable?

I would never have even bought this book if not for attending The Sydney Writers Festival last year and listening to it's author, Yiyun Li, speak with such unassuming passion about her work. The description of the book just sounded so maudlin to me until I had heard Yiyun Li talk about what had inspired her to write the book and the process she had gone through to finish it - yet another example of finding reading inspiration from the source (and why I love attending writers festivals and the like whenever I can).

The Vagrants starts on March 21 1979 in a provincial town in China called Muddy River. This day is a significant one as it is the day that former Communist devotee, Gu Shan, is to be executed for dissent - an event that the whole town will turn out to watch and celebrate - all except for her parents who are separated by their grief.

The Vagrants introduces and follows many different characters - we are shown their whereabouts and activities on the day of the execution - and in some cases their connections to the young woman about to be killed.

Th execution of Gu Shan is only the beginning - the event reaches each of the main characters in a different way and causes them to take action in their lives and in their town.

The oppressive nature of the Communist regime in China at the time is explored through the characters lives - we are shown very clearly how the personal is political and it is this connection that make this book pure magic for me. I am appalled by the conditions in which the characters live but at the same time I am hopeful that there can be, there will be, change - even when all the evidence seems to indicate differently.

There are some graphic, traumatic events in this book - as to be expected - and as difficult as they were to read at times I could see how essential they were to contributing to the honesty of this book.

I fell in love with Yiyun Li's prose and the way she let her characters speak for themselves - I love books like that, when the author is invisible and you really do feel as though you are hearing the story straight from these "people" in the book.

A powerful and beautiful novel - not to be missed in my eyes.

February 15, 2011

Waiting for a Treat...

Feeling a little down about having to return to the routine of work and greatly missing my afternoon reading sessions I ordered this beautiful hard copy edition of Dr Zhivago.

I am already looking forward to the day when it will be waiting on my door step when I arrive home...

February 12, 2011

All Good Things Must Come to an End...

Today is the last day of my lovely week long holiday - tomorrow it is back to work and the reality of everyday life!

I have had a lovely week spending time with my partner, eating too much (thankfully I am going to the gym bright and early tomorrow morning!), watching movies and reading the days away.

I have read some wonderful words over the holiday, Five Bells by Gail Jones was a highlight and I have also made a lot of progress with A Suitable Boy - I'm now well over half way through. I was feeling a bit bogged down by it's level of detail and description but some real action and drama has just taken place and I can feel a real turning point coming.

I have also started a new book - The Vagrants which is just incredible - can't wait to finish this one and tell you all about it.

So, tomorrow I will start juggling two jobs as a lecturer and a social worker as well as my own study - looking forward to the challenge (and still having plenty of time to read!).

February 10, 2011

Beautiful Jane Eyre

A trip to Borders last night found me purchasing this gorgoues new Penguin Classic Deluxe Edition of Jane Eyre. It is true that I do have several copies of Jane Eyre on my shelves already - but really, how could I resist??

February 09, 2011

Black Swan

As part of our "holiday at home" my partner and I have been enjoying lovely meals at home and out as well as catching up on our movie watching. Last night it was the turn of Black Swan starring Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis.

One of the many rave reviews for this movie describes it as a "psycho-sexual thriller" and it is certainly that! The word running through my head at the end of the movie was "intense".

The film is set in a New York ballet company and its new season is about to begin with a showing of Swan Lake. The principle role of the Swan Queen has been won by Nina Sayers (played by Natalie Portman) but a new dancer in the company, Lily (played by Mila Kunis) shows promise and Nina becomes convinced that she is trying to wrestle the role from her. The stress of taking on the role and being able to access the darker side of her personality in order to be able to portray the role of the Black Swan convincingly takes its toll on Nina and she begins to sink into a world of paranoia and hallucination - or does she?

This was an amazing, if at times difficult, movie to watch. The costumes, sets, music and dancing were magical (I have gone out and bought the soundtrack to the movie today!) and the performances by the two main female characters were incredible - Natalie Portman in particular deserves the praise and accolades she is receiving for this role.

A movie that will stay with me for a while...

February 08, 2011

Five Bells - Gail Jones

Five Bells is the latest novel from Australian author, Gail Jones. I have not read any of her previous novels but there was something about the description of this novel that captured my reading fancy. The book is told from the perspective of four characters over the course of one day as they each travel to the tourist spot of Circular Quay in Sydney for different reasons. I love books that are totally contained in one day - there is something about that narrative technique that really appeals to me as a reader.

The characters in Five Bells are each struggling with memories and experiences from their pasts - experiences that they are very much carrying with them in their present. Ellie and James knew each other as children and adolescents and they are recollecting their pasts together as they come to meet each other for the first time in years as adults. James is haunted by an accident in his recent past - an incident that he dearly wants to share with Ellie and perhaps unburden himself in some way.

Pei Xing is an older Chinese woman who emigrated to Australia with her young son after her brutal treatment during China's Cultural Revolution and Catherine is an Irish journalist, escaping to Sydney after the sudden death of her beloved brother.

This is a beautiful, lyrical novel - I wouldn't recommend it if you are a fan of lots of "action" in your books - held together by the memories and stories of the individual characters. The depth of each character is felt and each of their stories would easily make a novel on its own. In some ways the novel is an exploration of the role of past experiences in our present lives - how they impact and are carried with us - no matter where we travel or what we do.

I loved reading this book - I was carried away by each of the characters - my only minor complaint is regarding the "event" that comes towards the end of the novel that is supposed to bring the characters together in some way - I'm not sure that it was really needed and it felt as though it was just dropped into the storyline and not really built in as it might have been. But this could be just my reading of the book and I have missed something along the way! I did recognise the importance of the number five throughout the novel (in line with the title) and the importance of there being five key players instead of four.

Overall, I fell in love with Jones' writing style and characterisation and I will be keeping an eye out for her earlier novels.

February 06, 2011

Holiday Change of Plans

My partner and I were supposed to spending this week in sunny Cairns but because of the horrendous weather in far Northern Queensland at the moment we have had to cancel our trip. We are disappointed not to be heading up north but we are grateful it is only our holiday plans that have been ruined and not our livelihoods or homes.

We are still lucky to be having a week away from work to spend time together doing lots of fun things - including reading of course!

I have a pile of books I will be working on during the week (see photo above).

From bottom to top they are:

A Suitable Boy - Vikram Seth, I am still working my way through this epic. I'm now up to page 635 - so more than a third of the way through and am still enjoying the read - although am finding I need to take a break from time to time and read other things.

Stillwater Creek - Alison Booth, A popular Australian novel the sequel of which has just been published. I thought this one looked like a good holiday read.

Aphrodite's Hat - Salley Vickers, I am a big fan of Vickers's writing and this is her latest publication, a book of short stories looking at the theme of love.

Margaret Olley: Far From a Still Life - Meg Stewart, A biography of one of Australia's most famous artists - a book I have had on my shelf for a while now.

Five Bells - Gail Jones, The latest book from this Australian author which is told from the perspective of four different characters over the course of one day in Sydney.