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The Choke by Sofie Laguna

the choke

The Choke is Sofie Laguna’s latest novel and is on the longlist for this year’s Stella Prize. It is a story that I have resisted reading since it was first published because her stories usually concern the darker side of human nature, and the reader has to be prepared for the immersion into that world. The Choke is set in the world of troubled families where the children are neglected due to the adults not being able to manage even their own lives, but, as with her other books, Laguna’s writing is so beautiful, it is hard for the reader not to keep following the story.

As with the previous novels, the story is told fom the viewpoint of the child involved. In this case, the main character is Justine a ten year old girl who lives with her grandfather. Her mother left the family when Justine was a baby, and her father lives a chaotic life of transient work involving much wheeling and dealing. Although Justine’s grandfather loves her and does the best he can with looking after Justine, it becomes obvious through the story, that she is a severely neglected child who lives in extreme poverty.

The story is a very disturbing and unsettling one to read, but it is fascinating to see how Justine copes with her life, because it is all that she knows and she does have the love of her grandfather. However, as the story progresses and Justine becomes older, more is revealed about the cycle of abuse that the family has endured, but also then perpetuates. It is particularly distressing to see the glimmers of hope that emerge in Justine’s life, only to see them eveporate and watch as Justine slips through the safety nets of missed opportunities.

The conclusion of this novel is both startling, but also realistic and, I do believe offers the reader some reason to hope that Justine may be able to break free of her family’s cycle of violence.

 

 

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Australian Women Writers Challenge 2017 Completed!

This year, once again, I have completed the Miles Franklin level of the AWW2017 meaning that I have read 10 books, (actually 11), by Australian women writers and reviewed 6 of them. Listed below is the list of wonderful books that I have had the pleasure of reading this year…it’s been very satisfying and a lot of fun to have a reading challenge such as this, as it continually reinforces the fact of how lucky we are to have such a wealth of talented female authors. I am looking forward to signing up again next year!

  1. The bird man’s wife by Melissa Ashley (reviewed)
  2. Between a wolf and a dog by Georgia Blain (reviewed)
  3. The crying place by Lia Hills
  4. Leap by Myfanwy Jones (reviewed)
  5. My life as a hashtag by Gabrielle Williams
  6. Half wild by Pip Smith (reviewed)
  7. Portable curiosities by Julie Koh  (reviewed)
  8. Extinctions by Josephine Wilson
  9. Force of nature by Jane Harper (reviewed)
  10. Five bells by Gail Jones
  11. The world without us by Mireille Juchau

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Force of Nature by Jane Harper

force of nature

This is the second novel by the exciting new Australian novelist, Jane Harper. Harper again features the character of Detective Aaron Faulk who was central to the story of “The Dry”, which was a hit with bookclubs and all readers in 2016.

This story is based on a group of work colleagues, who are sent on a workplace teambuilding hiking adventure. The team is divided into two groups, with the male members heading off on one route, and the five females heading off on another route. The plan is to meet back at the starting place after two nights out in the bush. The men make it back in plenty of time, but after a long delay, only four women return.

Like her last novel, Jane Harper builds the tension of the mystery disappearance gradually. The reader knows that one of the hikers will not make it back, but it is quite sometime into the story until we know who has actually disappeared. Leading up to this point in the story, and through the various interactions of the different characters, we learn of their different relationships and the numerous tensions that already exist amongst them. I certainly spent a great deal of my reading time in a state of suspense, wondering what was going to happen and to whom!

When the unfortunate event occurs it is both unexpected, but also unsurprising. The relationships between the various characters have been built up in such a way that the reader comes to various conclusions as to who might be at fault. It is only through the careful investigation by Detective Faulk and his colleague that the full story and chain of events is revealed.

This novel, much like “The Dry”, is a guaranteed good read for most readers, so if you are still wondering what to get for the “hard to buy for” person on your Christmas list, “The Force of Nature” will solve that problem.

 

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Portable curiosities by Julie Koh

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This is a collection of quite bizarre short stories, some of which are darkly amusing, by Sydney writer Julie Koh.

Short stories are a fantastic format for experimental writing that is capable of taking the readers far out of their comfort zone. This collection is no exception, and the stories, some being uncomfortably funny, mostly left me with a feeling of distinct discomfort.

The stories cover a range of issues that highlight the malaise of modern western culture generally, but these stories focus particularly on the Australian society. Tales are told of racism, affluenza and the particularly modern plight of parents who push their children to overachieve.

Some of the stories that stood out for me included, “The Fantastic Breasts” – the title says it all, and leaves the reader with a strong sense of the author’s anger. This is about a particular man’s relationship with some fantastic breasts, his love for them and how well he treats them. However, he states, towards the end, that “…once the Fantastic Breasts begin to slouch and sag…I’ll need to begin keeping an eye out for a more youthful, more fantastic set of breasts…” Another very uncomfortable story is, “The Fat Girl in History”, which examines both female body image issues and the racist sterotype of Asian female body image. In the story, the character says, ” The problem everyone has with my body is not really that I am heavy-boned for a woman in general, but that I am heavy-boned for an Asian woman.” The character goes on to say,” I sit and think about all the white guys I’ve met lately who have yellow fever. Even they reject me now. I’m not petite and Asian enough”. Not all stories are quite so confronting. “Slow Death in Cat Cafe” is the ridiculously funny story about a group of patrons stranded in a cat cafe when the owner decides to secede from Australia and create his own micronation called the Republic of Cat Cafe.

All stories in this collection are very cleverly written, and leave the reader with many thoughts and reactions. For this reason, this book would be an ideal title for any bookclub and any reader looking for a very different style of writing.

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Half Wild by Pip Smith

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This incredible story, which begins in Wellington 1885, is a fictionalised account of the life of Eugenia Falleni. Her life story is a fascinating account of a determined and brave transgender person, at the beginning of the 20th century, who after being born a female, goes on to construct a completely male life, which includes two marriages.

Eugenia’s story begins with the account of her childhood and of her being brought up by a traditional Italian family. It is a vivid description of what is typically expected of female children, and descibes Eugenia’s loathing of the help she is expected to provide her mother in the household, and her desperate preference for the outside labour that her father undertakes. It is obvious that there is no way that her wishes can be accomodated, and she eventually runs away from home and manages to obtain employment – posing as a man!

Eugenia’s story continues in Sydney with her new identity being Harry Crawford. Harry is a hard worker and eventually marries Annie, who already has a son. Their life together is not easy, and it is not obvious whether Annie knows Harry’s true identity. Annie disappears, and Harry, who is still looking after Annie’s son, eventually marries again.

However, Harry’s past does catch up with him, he is convicted of the murder of Annie and he is forced to resume life as a woman.

This story has been structured in quite an unusal way, and is told from the perspective of a semi-conscious Jean Ford, (Eugenia), who has been hit by a car and is remembering her life. It is a compelling story that is interesting from an historical perspective, looking at a lower middle class life in early 20th century Australia. However, the most astounding aspect of the story for me was to see how determinedly this person, who identified as male, was able to live a life as a male at a time when it must have been close to impossible.

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Leap by Myfanwy Jones

Leap

Leap is a moving story about Joe, a young person who finished school just a few years ago. The book perfectly captures that awkward in-between stage of people’s early twenties, where having finished school, their whole life is now in front of them, but as not-quite-full adults, there still seems to be so many hurdles to jump.

Joe is living in a share house in the inner suburbs of Melbourne and is working at a job that passes the time while he tries to come to terms with the tragedy that happened during his final year of school. Throughout their senior years at high school, Joe and his girlfriend were the perfect couple, and had plans for University and their lives beyond school. However, at a party that gets out of control, a tragic accident occurs, and Joe’s girlfriend is killed.

The book also explores the story of Elise, a middle aged graphic designer, whose marriage is unravelling and who is also wondering about moving forward with life. I did not feel quite as involved in Elise’s story and wondered at times what it was about. However, the conclusion of the novel draws all the threads together with an ending I found as quite a revelation and full of hope.

This novel is truly a thought provoking story that sensitively shows the journey of our lives, and how our lives and our relationships are not static, but always evolving.

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Between a wolf and a dog by Georgia Blain

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Georgia Blain’s novel, which is currently shortlisted for the 2017 Stella Prize, is the story of a family told over the course of one day. The family is widowed mother, Hilary, her adult daughters April and Ester, along with Ester’s estranged husband, Lawrence and their two daughters. Hilary is a documentary film maker who is finding that her life as a widow is challenging, and April is the daughter who cannot quite pull her life together. Ester is the busy professional who practises as a psychologist, but is frantically trying to navigate her life, separated from her husband and sharing the parenting of their daughters. Lawrence’s life just does not seem to be working out at all how he might have imagined it doing so.

The many aspects of this family are revealed over the events of the day and are shown at different times from the perspective of each of the main characters. It is from each of their perspectives that the reader learns of their backgrounds and of the family relations between them. It is important to be able to see the events told from the different characters point of view because, just as in real life, the stories of each of the characters evolve as a result of their own particular set of circumstances.

The title of this book is what first attracted me to reading this book and is taken from the French expression, “l’heure entre chien et loup” which refers to the in-between time of twilight when it is hard to see if an animal is a dog or a wolf. This is a wonderful description for this novel because it presents the family’s story as the series of daily incidents and interactions, the times that seem to be in-between major events, as those that tell the real story.

Blain’s writing is beautiful to read, and many readers will recognise the description of the wet humid Sydney day that is described. Although, this is just one family’s story, many readers will also recognise the aspects of family life that are part of us all – that is what makes this such a thoughtful story – most will see a part of themselves in it. I am so glad that the book is now shortlisted of this year’s Stella Prize, as I believe that as many readers as possible should make sure that they do read it.

 

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