Tuesday, July 22, 2008

The Art of the Engine Driver - Steven Carroll

The Art of the Engine Driver
Steven Carroll

Published in 2001 in Australia this is the first of a trilogy about suburban Australian life written by Melbourne born and based author Steven Carroll. Prior to writing this novel which is set in the mid to late 1950's in a suburb north of Melbourne, Steven had published three other novels, but it is this one that brought him to the general attention of Australian literary readers with it being short listed for the 2002 Miles Franklin Award (widely regarded as the most prestigious award in Australian Literature).

For me, I'm new to the Australian literature scene and was introduced to Steven Carroll through his latest work 'The Time We have Taken' winner of this year's Miles Franklin Award, in fact at the time of the announcement I was flipping the 200th page! And at the conclusion of the book I made haste to reserve the first two books in the series from the library. A very good move in hindsight, as even though the library has increased its available copies from two to about eight, there are today over 25 people waiting for the book to become available. And so for me it was the book I chose out of the pile of 18 odd books I currently have on loan!

It is a quick book to read, easily digestible and accessible to all readers in its straight forward manner. I commenced it on Sunday night and ignoring my wonderful partner, the traffic and my daughter in the car trip to work this morning devoured the last glorious pages. And my initial summary is that this book is better than the third (which immediately nags at me to find out who the winner of the Miles Franklin was for 2002!) and also makes me wonder whether the win this year for the 3rd book, whether the judges have in a way considered all three?

But speculation aside this is the story of a wonderfully ordinary typical Australian family, battlers living in the suburbs dealing with the issues that each of us face on a day to day basis. It centres around three main characters Vic an engine driver with ambitions of promotion from hauling goods by steam to the privileged and eagerly sort position of a big wheel driver (driving passengers by diesel), of Rita and her struggle to come to a decision on her life and marriage, and of Michael their 12 year old son who dreams of cricket, of being a kid, and is facing the reality of growing up too fast.

Steven Carroll takes the mundane normality of these ordinary lives in this ordinary suburb and explores them deeply. He is not afraid to really pick them apart, expose their weaknesses, their fragile foundations and the parts of their character which they will not compromise. It is his skill to dig so thoroughly that really placed me there on that one summer night north of Melbourne as Vic, Rita and Michael stroll down their street to George Bedser's house in order to celebrate the engagement of his daughter. Greeting the neighbours and lost in the thoughts of their lives, ambitions, hopes and failures. There is magic to be found and for me it was how Steven takes what I would consider a boring middle class family in a nothing suburb and turns it into a story that I have thoroughly enjoyed.

There is only one sound that matters. The sound of speed. The old cork ball barely leaves his hand when he hears the snap of impact, sees the ball ricochet off the edge of a fence paling, fly onto the side fence and bounce onto the lawn in front of him. He is aware that the neighbourhood will be listening. He is always aware of the raised eyebrows all around him and the muttered comments that the kid will destroy the fence before he is finished.

Uniquely the book is based on one summer night, and opens up with a 'portrait' of not only Vic, Rita and Michael but also the whole street, the suburb, the party, the whole scene in all its Australian splendor. The Party is the centre piece of this story and the narrative roams back and forth always returning or starting on this night, with a side story of Paddy, Vic's hero, who at the same time is pulling out of Spencer Street Station.

One aspect of Steven's writing amazes me, and that is his wonderful talent of being able to deliver the ending to a story before its truly begun without losing the reader. I am not sure if other people would find this delightful as I do, or irritating, and indeed in other books I have found the looking forward such as 'this would be a moment they would remember for years to come' or 'this single moment, Jack would ponder many times in his future' to be an annoying way of underlining text to ensure the reader knows its important. But in this story I found it charming, in an odd way, it is like being let in on a secret that only you and the author share.

And that's the way his life will end. A quiet funeral. Rita, Michael, and a few of those sympathetic strangers he would call friends throughout the last years. A couple of drinks afterwards. A short drive to the cemetery. And a nice spot in a tropical garden for the urn full of dust that he will become.

In summary the book is like a path which you know leading somewhere important, and as you reach that place it is the consequences of the journey that make the decision. This is a thoroughly enjoyable novel.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Orange Prize for Fiction

So it starts again!...

The Orange prize for fiction is a prize for the most talented female writer of an English novel sized book! On 18 March the long list was announced.. it is...

Anita Amirrezvani - The Blood of Flowers
Stella Duffy - The Room of Lost Things
Jennifer Egan - The Keep
Anne Enright - The Gathering
Linda Grant The Clothes on Their Backs
Tessa Hadley The Master Bedroom
Nancy Huston - Fault Lines
Gail Jones - Sorry
Sadie Jones - The Outcast
Lauren Liebenberg - The Voluptuous Delights of Peanut Butter and Jam
Charlotte Mendelson - When We Were Bad
Deborah Moggach - In the Dark
Anita Nair - Mistress
Heather O’Neill - Lullabies for Little Criminals
Elif Shafak - The Bastard of Istanbul
Dalia Sofer - The Septembers of Shiraz
Scarlett Thomas - The End of Mr.Y
Carol Topolski - Monster Love
Rose Tremain - The Road Home
Patricia Wood - Lottery

The short list will be announced mid April, so there is no chance we'll get through these by then, especially as there are 20 of them!! However we'll read a couple and then devote our attentions to the short list when it is announced!

Hopefully we will start them soon, and we have ordered them from our trusty library which supports us very well, but we'll pause until we finish our current books.. for me that is 'The Inheritance of Loss' by Hiran Desai (booker 2006 winner) and for Ian, one of my favourite fantasy books, 'Mirror of her Dreams' by Stephen Donaldson.

The Drawing of the Dark - Tim Powers

Published: London 2002 by Gollancz

This is a different book for me to choose, but I have been swayed by Ian who absolutely loves this book!! In fact he has read it many times. I started it about 2 months ago, but due to other commitments (mainly work) didn't really dive in until about 4 days ago when I started reading with enthusiasm. I haven't read much at all recently and have missed it much more than I realised.

As an aside.. This book was a nominee for the Balrog Award in 1980 and also ranked 17th in the Locus Poll Award for best fantasy novel in 1980.

Ian Review:
Read: about 4 times, most recently in January 2008
Rank: 91/100

Recommendation - read this book while drinking beer! I love this book - one of my all time favourites. An irreverent mix of the mythology of the West, coupled with a witty, seasoned, and (at his heart) good natured and somewhat world weary veteran mercenary as lead character. A fantasy set in an urban landscape rather than trekking through dungeons. From the teasers in the first part of the book, while the character (and the reader) build towards the revelation, the reader is kept enthralled. One of the reasons I love the book is that by the time the revelation comes around, of what is really happening, both yourself as reader and the main character (Brian Duffy), already know what is coming, so there is a no surprise but rather a bitter, resigned humour on the part of Duffy, and a 'tick the box' acknowledgement on the part of the reader - but it works as it doesn't take itself at all seriously! The idea of the rise and fall of the West being linked to beer is a novel and fantastically enthralling concept. Some of the dialogue made me laugh out loud. Get a Coopers Best Extra Stout and sit down for a great read.

Rach Review:
Read: 31 March 2008
Rank: 87/100

This book isn't a literary masterpiece, it is not crafted the way a booker winner is, but it is a true adventure and a wonderful 'whisk away from today' book! The first book (the book is split into three books and about 25 paragraphs), is my favourite, it is the story of a rough, tough and hardened man who has a dry but very witty sense of humour's journey from Venice to Vienna. It is the magic, the myth and the question that it puts in your mind about what is real and what is fiction that completely drew me in. I love fantasy science fiction, but with this book in the first section it skirts the edges of novel and fantasy, and left me so intrigued, that I dived into the second book with a passion.

The second book was not so compelling but still enchanting and mystifying until I reached the reveal when I was a little let down by its ludicrously.

That is not to say that I didn't enjoy this book! I opened a door and found something I wasn't expecting and that was almost comical, but overcoming this, I read on with an urgency to reach the conclusion to find out the riddle of this witty book and enjoyed it thoroughly. I cannot however say it was my favourite fantasy book, but is an excellent fun story, full of evocative story telling that draws you in. It's only failing is with the sceptic reader (i.e. me) that cannot quite stretch my brain to combine history with fantasy. To be honest if this book had been full fantasy without the historic element I would have loved it so much more! As it was though it is a wonderfully painted journey through a magic realism set in the 1500-1600s!

Thoroughly enjoyable fantasy read! My highest joys in this book was the wit of the main character Brian Duffy who is very easy to identify with, both intelligent, gruff, witty and real, his character is the most brilliant thing!

Man Booker Announced

So this post is very late, in fact I have just recovered this blog and am going to dive in again! But more on that shortly!! First it is important to briefly cover off the important facts!! Who won? and also would we have chosen that book as our favourite??

On the day before the big announcement, we sent each other our lists...

1. Animal's People
2. Mr Pip & The Gathering
4. Darkmans
5. The Reluctant Fundamentalist
6. On Chesil Beach

1. Animal's People
2. Mr Pip
3. The Gathering
4. The Reluctant Fundamentalist
5. On Chesil Beach
(I didn't read Darkmans in time)

And the winner.....

The Gathering!

Saturday, April 5, 2008

The Welsh Girl - Peter Ho Davies

The Welsh Girl

Ian's Review:
Read: 15 September 2007
Rank: 87/100

Great work, evocative, and a real culture disconnection. For some reason this book didn't resonate emotionally, even though this is a powerful book. I think this was more to do with my current state of mind than the story.

Rach Review:
Read: 24 September 2007
Rank: 91/100

Twenty-four hours (or something poetic like that) I started this book.. the Welsh Girl by Peter Ho Davies, my expectations low. The book both winner and loser, a consolation formed part of the Booker Prize Long list for 2007, but failed to make the short list. But still surely this book should compete for worthiness in my eyes before opening its cover, and indeed it had done until my partner in this journey through the long list gave his sanction to another book over this.

My feelings now on completing both are the opposite, both books (the other being On Beauty by Zadie Smith (Booker Short List from 2005)) are brilliantly constructed, and what more could you expect. Both also tell the tales of ordinary people captured and embraced by their circumstance, their nationality, their time and place on this earth. They both ring of the importance of where we come from in our choices and our life.

They are also both emotional books, On Beauty is a surburban mixed black and white family living in white Wellington US, and threads many other deep and intricate characters into the story, picking up and dropping them as life does, which lends it a graceful reality.

The other The Welsh Girl set in the 2nd world war in Wales focuses on one character, and interweaves several different points of view, but two other key characters.

Both are about identity, the crossing of our nationality and beliefs and the effect that has on us when we are bound by a society of expectations. The choices we make in the circumstances presented. So I guess in the end the difference is the personal connection and the ability to connect the story, the emotions and experience directly to our heart.

The Welsh Girl did that for me. It was simple and complex, heart wrenching and comical, the hate of war and the intimacy of love, and the undercurrent throughout the book encompassing the three main characters of the quest to define and know one’s self. The raw nerve of this proposition is one to which I relate, the shock of a personal decision which is made but not understood and the question of how we can know what is right for us, ourselves our being but not truly relate it to being ourself that has made it and then the further interrogation of our deeper motives and self that challenge and scare us. The power of making that choice, the consequences and how they tug at our heart, this book sings those things to me.

So I sit here, 4pm Australian time, (some ungodly hour in England), heavy tears rolling from my cheeks as I feel the character’s pain, the sorrow and joy wrapped in the ending. How much the story relates to mine, and how much it doesn’t.. how significant her choices were, and how significant (albeit not as huge) are to me.

I long to debate this with you. Challenge the paths the authors chose, how similar and different the books are, the merits, the pitfalls, in particular, what do you think of the ending? I found it well rounded, worthy to the book, tying in all the queries, resolving the open threads and leaving me humble.. still aching for the passion and somehow for it to work between them. In this you are right! in this story, I didn’t wish for him to return from war triumphing to his love, but to the passion of the intimate exchange between two supposed enemies.

Most of all I am in love with the poetic tangle of all the relationships of the characters with themselves, the English man who is German Jewish, the German who fought full of pride, then learns that he is not the person he thought and the Girl, Welsh but longing to be what she is not, tied now with English blood, German Love and Welsh pride. I loved the journey.

Gifted - Nikita Lalwani


Ian's Review
Read: 5 October 07
Rank: 92/100

Really enjoyed it - fantastic book. Very much around the protaganist, her internal world and her family. They are Indian living in the UK and are very well portrayed. You can understand their motives, out of good intent, even as they damage each other more and more, particularly Rumika (main character) as we are more privy to her thoughts. Interesting again that there is a strong context of cultural dislocation to the book, as in the others we have read. This one did have an emotional impact on me as well as being a work I enjoyed.

Rach's Review
Read: n/a
Rank: n/a