Review: ‘The Anti Cool Girl’ (Rosie Waterland)

The Book
The Anti Cool Girl by Rosie Waterland
Published: HarperCollins, 2015
Genre: Memoir

Synopsis (from back of book):
Rosie Waterland has never been cool. Growing up in housing commission, Rosie was cursed with a near perfect, beautiful older sister who dressed like Mariah Carey on a Best & Less budget while Rosie was still struggling with various toilet mishaps. She soon realised that she was the Doug Pitt to her sister’s Brad, and that cool was not going to be her currency in this life.

But that was only one of the problems Rosie faced. With two addicts for parents, she grew up amidst rehab stays, AA meetings, overdoses, narrow escapes from drug dealers and a merry-go-round of dodgy boyfriends in her mother’s life. Rosie watched as her dad passed out/was arrested/vomited, and had to talk her mum out of killing herself.

As an adult, trying to come to grips with her less than conventional childhood, Rosie navigated her way through eating disorders, nude acting roles, mental health issues and awkward Tinder dates. Then she had an epiphany: to stop pretending to be who she wasn’t and embrace her true self – a girl who loved drinking wine in her underpants on Sunday nights – and become an Anti-Cool Girl.

What I thought:
Whoa. This chick has had a hard life. And for that reason, this isn’t an easy read. If you like stories of underdog-come-good, this is great, and ultimately uplifting, but it’s real, it happened, and a lot of what happened to Rosie Waterland wasn’t very nice. So yeah, not an easy read.

Now I don’t normally read memoir, and would I usually choose to read this book? Probably not, for that reason. I read it for book club, and it was enjoyable, well written, told with sass and recounts a tragic failure of the parental, government, foster and school system without self pity, self indulgence or sentimentality.

That said, I did feel at times like some important points that would have injected more emotion into the telling were left out or glossed over. But perhaps that was a deliberate choice, and perhaps given that the writer is still young and much of what she recounts didn’t happen to her that long ago makes this a necessary survival mechanism as much as anything else. And like I said, I don’t read a lot of memoir so I don’t know if this is the norm in this genre or not either…

Possibly also for that reason I found this book quite hard to get into at first, and some of the early stuff feels a little long winded, although that’s not to say it’s not interesting or gripping. Just that I think possibly some of the more recent parts of her life deserved a little more time in the limelight and some of the earlier events could have had a touch less. The kiddy stories about poo (there are a few, actually there are a lot of poo stories in general) are funny, but maybe a little laboured, for example. I think it’s done to set a certain tone (the Anti Cool Girl tone, aptly) but it did stop me getting really committed to the writing for a good few chapters.

I think if non-fiction is your gig, and especially if you watched every Bachelor episode with fervour and devoured Rosie’s recaps afterwards with even more so, you’ll really like this. And if you’re stepping out of your fiction comfort zone like me, it’s still a decent, snappy read, about a gal with a lot of heart, and a helluva lotta guts (the Coles story. That’s all I’ll say. If nothing else, read the Coles story…)

-DF

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Review: ‘The Life and Death of Sophie Stark’ (Anna North)

The Book

The Life and Death of Sophie Stark by Anna North
Published: Orion Publishing, 2015
Genre: Literary fiction

Synopsis (from back of book):

The Life and Death of Sophie Stark is the story of an engimatic film director, told by the six people who loved her most.

Brilliant, infuriating, all-seeing and unknowable, Sophie Stark makes films said to be ‘more like life than life itself’. But her genius comes at a terrible cost: to her husband, to the brother she left behind, and to an actress who knows too much.

What I Thought:

This was a terrific read. Pacy, beautifully written and a truly original, perceptive and thought-provoking study of character. Each chapter is narrated by a different voice: Sophie’s girlfriend (and actress) Allison; her brother Robbie; Daniel, the boy Sophie’s obsession with in college leads to her first film and so on. Sophie herself doesn’t get a chapter but her voice and character come shining out of the voices of those who knew her best (or thought they did).

What we realise as the novel progresses, is that everyone knew her differently: was that their failing or hers? Can we ever really know one another? And do we perhaps only come to know ourselves through the lens others reflect back at us?

The book also explores the cost of genius, the sense of isolation all humans carry no matter how far (and how differently) they try to run from it, our connection to other people and to this earth, and whether we can ever be both true to ourselves and to others at the same time. The character of Sophie is both universal and utterly unknowable. She is complex in her simplicity, joyful in her desolation, helpless in her strength. A very interesting character study and some completely wonderful sentences. I loved how the prose left things hanging, played with images (fitting, as Sophie is a film director), and struck a strong emotional chord using a character who struggled with how to feel (and show) emotions like “normal” people.

Okay, the book wasn’t perfect. There were a few parts towards the end in particular where I would have liked the characters to do less explaining, and more leaving interpretations open to the reader. I felt at times like things that would have been more powerful unsaid were over explained, but overall I think this book is a terrific example of the power of the time break and paragraph space.

A really interesting and rewarding read that had me gripped from start to finish. Highly recommend.

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Review: ‘Never Let Me Go’ (Kazuo Ishiguro)

The Book

Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro
Published: Faber and Faber, 2005
Genre: Literary fiction, speculative fiction

Synopsis (from back of book):

In one of the most memorable novels of recent years, Kazuo Ishiguro imagines the lives of a group of students growing up in a darkly skewered version of contemporary England. Narrated by Kathy, now 31, Never Let Me Go hauntingly dramatises her attempts to come to terms with her childhood at the seemingly idyllic Hailsham School, and with the fate that has always awaited her and her closest friends in the wider world. A story of love, friendship and memory, Never Let Me Go is charged throughout with a sense of the fragility of life.

What I Thought:

Another slow-to-start novel, I took a long time to warm to this one, although I found the subject-matter intriguing from the outset. The  issue I found was that Ishiguro has used a similar ‘voice’ for his narrator, Kathy, in this book as for the reserved butler in his renowned and beautiful novel The Remains of the Day. But while I found that voice utterly appropriate in the latter novel, in this one I felt it slowed the story down a little unnecessarily. This is not to say I don’t think Kathy should have been the narrator, but I am not sure she needed such a detached voice. I get what Ishiguro was trying to do, to make a very harrowing tale seem matter-of-fact does magnify the poignancy when it works, but in this case I don’t think it quite worked. Or at least, not all the way through. I very nearly put the book down altogether a couple of times simply because I didn’t find the narratorial voice particularly captivating.

The book does raise some excellent philosophical questions though, and the story it tells – once you dig down past all that detachment, as was no doubt Ishiguro’s aim – is a deeply touching, and intriguing one. I did like the drip feeding approach to what is really going on in this imagined version of England, and I really enjoyed the story… but I don’t think this work is on par with The Remains of the Day. Funnily enough though – and I almost never say this – I thought the movie was excellent; even better in this case than the book. This was because the visual interpretation of the story gave it an immediacy and impact which it was lacking in the novel.

However, I would highly recommend reading the novel first if you can, then watching the film, because although the film stands on its own it is necessarily condensed and I think you will take a lot more away from it, and better understand and feel with trhe characters if you have read the whole story.

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Review: The Night Circus (Erin Morgenstern)

The Book

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern
Published: Vintage, 2012
Genre: Literary fiction, speculative fiction

Synopsis (from back of book, to save time!):

The circus arrives without warning. No announcements precede it. It is simply there, when yesterday it was not. Within the black-and-white striped canvas tents is an utterly unique experience full of breathtaking amazements. It is called Le Cirque des Rêves, and it is only open at night.

But behind the scenes, a fierce competition is underway—a duel between two young magicians, Celia and Marco, who have been trained since childhood expressly for this purpose by their mercurial instructors. Unbeknownst to them, this is a game in which only one can be left standing, and the circus is but the stage for a remarkable battle of imagination and will. Despite themselves, however, Celia and Marco tumble headfirst into love—a deep, magical love that makes the lights flicker and the room grow warm whenever they so much as brush hands.

True love or not, the game must play out, and the fates of everyone involved, from the cast of extraordinary circus per­formers to the patrons, hang in the balance, suspended as precariously as the daring acrobats overhead.

What I thought:

I found this book a little slow moving to start, but ended up really loving it, and staying up well into the wee hours to finish it. It’s delightfully inventive, but the real magic is the story of love and yearning, and the collision of worlds explored by the Celia/Marco love affair. The scenes described in the text are also stunning, and if you have a graphic imagination then reading this book is as visually orgasmic as a Baz Lurhmann film :) In fact, it would probably make a great Baz Lurhmann film.

If you love a tug at the heart strings and to let your imagination go a little crazy, this is a charming, whimsical read.

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Mistress of Murder: Sulari Gentill on writing, truffle farming and homicide

Sulari Gentill: such an inspiring author, and a darn nice person to chat to!

Sulari Gentill: such an inspiring author, and a darn nice person to chat to!

Sulari Gentill is funny, artistic, a loving wife and mother, a loyal Harry Potter fan, a truffle farmer, a lawyer “refugee”, a board member… oh, and a self-confessed murderer.

Of characters, that is.

In the six years she’s been writing, Sulari’s killed off her fair share of characters – good, bad and ugly. It’s par for the course when you’re an Australian historical crime fiction writer.

Sulari is a corporate lawyer-turned-author, and has written a Young Adult trilogy based on Homer’s Odyssey (see my review of the first book in the series here), but is perhaps best known for her Rowland Sinclair crime fiction series, which has its roots in true historical events.

(The first book, A Few Right Thinking Men, for example, weaves in true details, such as the historic ‘crashing’ by Francis Edward de Groot of the opening of the Sydney Harbour Bridge.)

The hardest part, Sulari says, is killing off people she knows. She often gives characters the names of fans or friends (in fact, she’s run competitions where fans can win the right to have a character named after them), but the newcomers are more often than not bad guys or bit-parts, which means more often than not, they have to go.

“You wouldn’t believe what people would do to get in the book! I’ve got a list a mile long of people who want to be in,” she says during our telephone conversation. (Sulari is sitting in the dining room of her Snowy Mountains home, surrounded by paintings she’s done – a talent she shares with her protagonist Rowly. I’m in my study, hoping the baby will sleep through our interview.)

“People often barter with old letters and things that they have from their historical archives from their family.

“…It’s hard, because you can only have so many good guys. I’ve actually had to say to people you’ve got to realise this is not you it’s just your name. It’s not what I think of you. Please don’t get upset!”

And with such a prolific output, it’s no wonder she’s had [...Click for more...]

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Author hotseat: Sulari Gentill

Sulari GentillI had the very great pleasure of chatting recently with the talented Australian author Sulari Gentill.

Click here for my review of Chasing Odysseus (Sulari’s pacy YA reinvention of Homer’s Odyssey). I’ll be posting a review of the first book in her renowned Rowland Sinclair Aussie crime fiction series soon.

Like me, Sulari used to be a lawyer, and like me she figured out one day that she loved inhabiting fictional worlds more than clauses and contracts. We had a brilliant discussion covering everything from Harry Potter, to Sulari’s prolific output and wonderfully quirky (and effective!) writing rituals.

I’ll be posting a proper profile, arising from that interview, shortly. In the meantime, here’s a little taster: Sulari’s off-the-cuff, ‘gut’ responses to 12 quick-fire questions. Enjoy!

1. Are you right or left-handed?
Right

2. Cat or dog person?
Dog

3. Thunderstorms – scary or exciting?
Exciting

[...Click for more...]

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Review: ‘Burial Rites’ (Hannah Kent)

Strong prose, vivid characters

Strong prose, vivid characters

The Stats
Book: Burial Rites by Hannah Kent
Published: Picador, 2013
Genre: Historical Fiction

Of interest: Winner, 2011 Writing Australia Prize for Best Unpublished Manuscript | Shortlisted, 2014 Indies Fiction Award, 2014 Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards, 2013 Guardian First Book Award, 2013 Nib Award for Literature | Longlisted, 2014 Stella Prize

The Plot
Burial Rites fictionalises the true story of Agnes Magnúsdóttir, the last woman to be executed in Iceland. It is 1829 and Agnes has been convicted for her part in a brutal double murder in the icy northern region of the country. A dead woman walking, Agnes is sent to the farm of District Officer Jón Jónsson to await her death sentence.

As the weeks drift by, Agnes confides in the young Assistant Reverend, Tóti, while Jón and his family struggle with having a murderess in their midst. And as Agnes tells her story, her hosts are forced to ask themselves whether Agnes is everything she seems…

My Verdict
Really enjoyed this book, very strong prose and a vivid character portrayal. [...Click for more...]

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Review: ‘Chasing Odysseus’ (S.D. Gentill)

A fresh, fun look at Homer’s Odyssey

The Stats
Book: Chasing Odysseus by S.D. Gentill
Published: Pantera Press, 2011
Genre: YA Adventure

The Plot
The Ancient Greeks have vanquished the city of Troy, and they’re blaming the peace-loving Herdsmen of Mount Ida for helping them.

The Herdsman brothers Machaon, Cadmus and Lycon, and their little half-Amazon sister Hero, are outraged. Certain the cunning Odysseus is behind it all, they set off to chase him down and clear their people’s name.

My Verdict
A fresh, fun take on the famous tale of Odysseus’ 10 year round-the-world trip following the fall of Troy.

[...Click for more...]

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Review: The Song of Achilles (Madeline Miller)

Song of Achilles_BloomsburyThe Stats
Book: The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller
Published: Bloomsbury, 2011
Of interest: Winner, 2012 Orange Prize for Fiction

The Plot
A retelling of Homer’s Iliad (the Trojan War) from the point of view of Achilles’ childhood friend and lover, Patroclus.

My Verdict
Took me a few chapters to really warm to the characters and the writing style, but from there I couldn’t put it down.

Review
My mother-in-law loaned me this book with such praise that I felt certain it would disappoint.

It didn’t.

I am a huge fan of mythology and loved studying Latin and the classics in high school. I have no objection to retellings – particularly when the story is as strong and timeless as the tale of Troy – but I was nonetheless pleasantly surprised to find this retelling so fresh and original.

Like so many others, I’ve read and watched this story from many perspectives over many years, but Miller has used her own classical teaching background to draw out different, more obscure parts of the tale. [...Click for more...]

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Review: The Luminaries (Eleanor Catton)

Loved this book. Couldn’t put it down!

The Stats
Book: The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton
Published: Granta Books, 2013
Of interest: Winner, 2013 Man Booker Prize

The Plot
Set in 19th Century New Zealand, The Luminaries opens with the arrival of Scot Walter Moody in the thriving gold town of Hokitika. Come to make his fortune, and fleeing personal demons of his own, Moody stumbles upon a secret conference of local men who have gathered to discuss the strange events of the past fortnight. A wealthy man has disappeared, a whore has tried to end her life and a fortune has been found in the home of a drunk. Moody, along with the reader, is drawn into a twisting tale of love, death, and fortunes foul and fair.

My Verdict
Loved it and couldn’t put it down!

Review
I loved this book, and despite having a very time-consuming 7 month old son, I polished it off in just under a week. This is really saying something, as my reading time is depleted and, at 832 pages, the book is no trifle.

I’d describe this as a literary whodunnit. The prose is skilful without being conceited, [...Click for more...]

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