Thursday, November 3, 2011

I'm moving blogs!

To make life easier on myself which will allow more blogging, I've moved to Wordpress. Please come and visit me there - I've already reviewed some delicious books for you!
first impressions is the name of the blog, and the first book I'm talking about is "Blood" by Tony Birch

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Big Brother is always watching...

1984 - George Orwell

How could I talk about contemporary classics without including 1984 (see my previous post).

What makes it especially relevant to the audience I'll be talking to is the popularity of dystopian fiction (especially YA dystopian fiction) of late, i.e The Hunger Games, The Bridge, Days Like These and oh so many more. 1984 is arguably the greatest dystopian novel of all time, and has eerie relevance to our contemporary society. After re-reading this book I found it hard to shake the feeling of being watched - especially in the wake of documentaries such as Erasing David which goes to show just how much of our personal data is available.

George Orwell's understanding of the class system, and it's irrefutable place in all societies is amazing, and the transferable nature of the war in the book to the war in our own time (and likely for many to come) is eerie.

The book is a snatch of an ongoing and hopeless battle and is devastating in its timing and bleakness. The battle is for power, but the fight is fear and hatred against hope and the endurance of the human spirit. Given that it is almost commonplace now to carry a level of suspicion in most human interactions (and certainly our interactions with characters, where we almost expect to be fooled or betrayed), it is sort of wonderful that the betrayals in a book can still be surprising and heartbreaking.

From my first reading to my current reading, nothing has been lost in the relevance of this book and the amount of contemporary relevance makes 1984 not recommended, but compulsory reading.

Contemporary Classics

I've been asked to run a schools session in October entitled "Literary Landscape". Basically I'll be talking to a group of year tens about a group of contemporary classics that I feel have the power to shape the way you think and that are interesting and worthwhile reading.

Not everyone gets into 'classics'. At a recent panel launching Meanjin's Tournament of Books  (a literary smackdown pitting Australian canonical novels by women against each other until a bloody winner is revealed) there was a great deal of debate as to what makes a 'classic'. There are certain texts that are considered seminal, but often these are associated with heavy, old, boring books who smack you in the face with their teachings and are read only by people who want to look 'clever'. Whether this stereotype is true is really irrelevant, especially when the aim is to get a younger audience to read older texts. Readers will only discover the quality of a book once they actually read it, so if there's an idea that stops them from doing that, for many, these texts will remain unread and underrated.

So I'm excited to be doing this panel. It's a chance to talk about books (awesome) and especially a list of modern and/or edgy classics that have particular relevance to me. And it's a great chance to sit at home and revisit these books.

So this is my list (in no particular order)

1984 - George Orwell
The Malese Falcon - Dashiell Hammett
The Great Gatsby - F Scott Fitzgerald
The Ballad of the Sad Cafe - Carson McCullers
The Scarlet Letter - Nathaniel Hawthorne
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy - Douglas Adams
One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest - Ken Kesey
Fahrenheit 451 - Ray Bradbury
The Catcher in the Rye - JD Salinger
A Room of One's Own - Virginia Woolf
Slaughterhouse 5 - Kurt Vonnegut

I'm going to try to post about each as I re-read them, but with A Thousand Words Festival coming up this weekend (!) some may be brief, so be warned :)
In the meantime, I would love to hear some of your favourite underrated novels that you think all young adults should read - or books that you feel should be a 'classic' but aren't.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Mary Hoffman at A Thousand Words

If you're here to read the latest post on Mary Hoffman's blog tour you need to head over to A Thousand Words. The event was incorrectly advertised as appearing on my blog, but never fear, the post is up and ready for your eager eyes right now!

Monday, June 20, 2011

Review: Room by Emma Donoghue

                                                                                                                                                                    I should reiterate before I even start reviewing that I warned you when I finished A Fine Balance that I would probably be ruined for other books for some time.

With that in mind, I had every intention of reading something light, something I didn't have high expectations of, so that I would be back on a level playing field before starting any more quality books. But instead my untrustworthy hands picked up Room. 

Room is the story of Jack. It opens on his fifth birthday, and he wakes in Room, the same room that he has spent every day of his five years so far. Against the wall is Wardrobe, where he sleeps, and when he wakes he sees Ma, the only other person that he has ever had real contact with.

There is a fantastic air of mystery at the opening of the story. Although it is clear that Jack and his Ma are trapped it isn't clear where or why. Are they in jail? Have they been kidnapped? Is Room even real? Does anyone else know about them?
And then little by little, Emma Donoghue doles out the whole horrifying tale.

It is difficult to talk in depth about the plot of Room without giving too much away, because so much of it is reliant of the timing of the information. It is easy though, to talk about Jack, a character who is both stunted and incredibly advanced because of his lifelong confinement.  In some ways it was difficult to get into the narrative at first because Jack speaks of all of the items in Room as though they have individual identities. This, coupled with the childlike nuances in his voice mean that the reader has to get used to the tone and flow of the narration before they can really lose themselves to the story.

Once you are in Jack's voice doesn't let go easily. He and Ma are likeable characters for the most part, and his story is as touching as it is disturbing. It is interesting to compare it to A Fine Balance as both were shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize (A Fine Balance in 1996 and Room in 2010). Where one is a sweeping  saga with universal themes, the other is a much more localised drama with an intimate cast of characters. It is an insightful glance at the tastes of judges over the years, and shows just how subjective any prize is.

Room is an interesting but troubling read. It is worth it in the end, but needs time to be digested and enjoyed on its own. So be sure to keep something light on either side of it on the shelf!

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Review: "A Fine Balance" by Rohinton Mistry

"You see, you cannot draw lines and compartments, and refuse to budge beyond them. Sometimes you have to use your failures as stepping-stones to success. You have to maintain a fine balance between hope and despair."

I have to read so much young adult fiction for work, reviewing it, speaking about it, blogging about it, that I don't get enough to read the massive stacks of general adult fiction that I have on my shelves. Or, I will start a book, and just as I'm getting into it, be given a deadline on something that requires more urgent attention. I worried that the same thing would happen when I picked up A Fine Balance earlier this week because of the giant stack of beckoning 'work' books.

And then I got bailed up with the flu. Which has been no fun at all, except that because I'm too sick to do anything useful, I've been able to get in some guilt-free reading time.

A Fine Balance is captivating. When I picked it up I was determined to at least read a good amount every day rather than letting it drag out in minute portions (which really ruins the book). Each day, I would return to the pages, reading more and more each time, until finally today I sat and read every last page.

Nothing I can say will do it justice. This is the kind of book where there is meaning, thought and precision in every single word. Mistry is an absolute master. A Fine Balance  isn't a short book, but there isn't one word too many or out of place. Every piece of the story threads through and loops around, to create a richly woven scenario where every character's story adds to the overall tapestry.

No character is neglected. In some novels, the secondary characters are little more than names, with only the barest outline making them more than words. In A Fine Balance every character is given their own story. What is beautiful is that there are frequently moments where a character from another piece of the story appears again, which gives them more significance in a reader's memory. Although this means that there are no 'secondary' characters, the four characters who exist at the forefront of the book, and tie together the complete circle of the story are Dina, Maneck, Omprakash and Ishvar. These four characters are the epitome of the title as they walk a sharp line between joy and despair.

In any other hands the events of this book would be too unbearable to read. Somehow though, Rohinton Mistry works joy and hope into events that should be soul-crushing. His eloquence makes the lengthy, often devastating pages fly by and ultimately speaks of the human abilities to endure and find joy even along the dustiest of paths. A Fine Balance is an exquisite piece of writing, that will no doubt spoil me for other books for some time.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Generalising Genre

The city of Melbourne has exploded in the past week or so with literary events like Reading Matters, The Emerging Writers' Festival and Express Media's National Young Writers' Month. In many of the events that I have been to have ended up on the topic of genre classifications. Are they necessary? Or should fiction avoid the arguable trap of being labelled with a genre?

On Monday night, I went along to a panel for the Emerging Writers' Festival: Get into Genre:Young Adult. Host Andrew McDonald discussed the conventions, joys and downfalls of young adult fiction with the State Library's (and blogger Persnickety Snark) Adele Walsh and YA authors Tim Pegler and Fiona Wood. The speakers discussed the need for honesty and the need to be direct when writing for a young adult audience. I'm not suggesting that either of these traits is a negative thing, or something that should only be used for younger readers. In fact, with most adults pleading 'too busy' as an excuse for poor reading habits, honest, quality, to the point writing seems like something that all fiction should be striving to mimic, rather than patronising it and putting it to the side for 'young' readers.

Last night was Dirty Words, and Linda Jaivin , in a mini debate against  Harlequin Publishing Executive Haylee Kerans, argued that 'Erotic Fiction' should be banished from the face of the earth. "Why" she argued "should 'erotic' fiction not just be 'fiction' in the same way that a 'female' poet should just be a 'poet'". This idea echoes the debate that has been raging through the book community of late, surrounding the possible introduction of an Australian Orange Prize for Women. (you can read a brilliant post on this issue here by Literary Minded's Angela Meyer)

Why should we classify genre? Surely all 'good' fiction should transcend genre barriers to be appealing to readers. Some argue that it is an arbitrary marketing tool. Perhaps. But it seems to me, that from a purely financial perspective, that publishers would prefer to be able to sell across genres, readerships and age groups, giving them the opportunity to sell more books.

Perhaps some authors like to be writing to a genre. Certainly, there are conventions within each genre that pull particular groups of books together, and while some are good enough and strong enough to stand on their own, it would be naive to think that there are not writers working strictly to a formula to increase their chance of sales and 'success'.

Could it be that we are not classifying the book so much as we are classifying the reader? Although we might wince at the idea of a book being classified by it's genre or cover, there is something to be said for making 'guided suggestions' to readers who know what they like, and are more likely to continue reading if they can easily find what they are looking for. And although there is undeniably an attitude from some to those who read (or write) in particular genres, more and more we see open minded readers making smart choices, discussing books and opening their attitudes to other recommendations. Most adults I know are just as happy to read a YA novel as they are to read crime or romance (in many cases happier). And there are plenty of young adults reading adult fiction. We see books leaping out of their once limiting genres (take 'The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo' which once upon a time would only have been known by the extensive but insular group of crime readers) and been passed frantically around offices and book clubs. Walk into a bookshop to buy the hit adult book 'Things We Didn't See Coming' by Steven Amsterdam, but pick up a VCE book list and realise that as a set text the book is being read and discussed by a large young adult audience.

It is dangerous for anyone to be limited by their classifications, reader and writer alike. The idea that being a part of a genre is no different to belonging to a community. It might bring you closer to like minded people, give you access to the activities that interest you, but is in no way the RULE. The best fiction often plays with these barriers, and as engaged and interested readers, it is our responsibility to play right back.