Stuff I've been reading, thinking & eating

Jan
16

one summer in veniceIt’s a bittersweet feeling finishing a novel. In one way it’s a relief to have every last comma inserted in the correct place and every sentence polished to as high a shine as I can manage. But it’s sad to say goodbye to the characters I’ve spent so much time with. After a year of thinking about them pretty much obsessively they always seem real to me.

In my new novel, One Summer In Venice (coming April/May), there’s a character I’m struggling to let go. Her name is Coco and she’s fabulous. In fact, I wouldn’t mind being her when I grow up. She dresses beautifully and behaves badly and gets away with it. Oh and she’s quite old – because why should young people have all the fun?

Sometimes my characters force their way back into future books. That’s happened with this one. If you’ve read The Villa Girls or The Italian Wedding you’ll recognise Addolorata. She’s a colourful, spiky sort of person and I’ve always thought she deserved a book of her own.

Of course you don’t have to have read those other novels to enjoy this one. It’s not a sequel at all. But I always used to like the way the late Maeve Binchy had characters who cropped up again and again in her stories. If you remembered them then it was like meeting old friends. If you had forgotten them, it didn’t matter.

One Summer In Venice is out of my grasp now. It isn’t really my novel anymore. It’s heading out into the world, with Coco and Addolorata at its helm, and will become different things for different people. All I can hope is that they enjoy reading it as much as I (mostly) did writing it.

Jan
6

funny girlI’ve never been a devotee of Nick Hornby’s more laddish books but this one isn’t blokey at all and I loved it. Funny Girl is the story of the pop culture of the 1960s when television sitcoms were beginning to make their mark. Barbara Parker is a young pneumatic blonde in the mould of Diana Dors (Google her kids!) who wins a beauty contest but surrenders her crown to follow her dream of becoming a comedienne like her heroine Lucille Ball. She moves to London where she lands a role in a long-running sitcom and shoots to stardom.

Hornby has a lot of fun sending up cultural snobs and punctuation pedants as well as touching on more serious subjects such as the reality of being gay back then. It’s a smooth and entertaining read that captures an era in British television that was more naïve and immeasurably more glamorous.

Dec
1

umu prep 1laulea beach1nickyThe humpback whale rises out of the water in front of the boat. It’s so close I can’t suppress a small scream. There is a rule in Tonga that you have to stay five metres away from these vast creatures but the whales don’t know that and this one has come much nearer to check us out. Within moments it is gone again, back beneath the water, but it’s not long before we see more of them, breaching and barrel rolling to display their white bellies or flicking their tails above the waves.

July to October is when the whales come down from Antarctica to the warmer waters surrounding Tonga to give birth to their calves. Many of the resorts have boats that will take you out to get a glimpse, some whale watch operations even offer the chance to snorkel with them although the day we go out the sea is too choppy and the whales don’t stick around for long enough. Still they’re not difficult to spot. A day later a pod swims past the beach we’re staying on and puts on a private show for us.

There are 176 islands that make up the Kingdom of Tonga. The main one is Tongatapu where we are staying at a guesthouse on an ocean beach called Laulea. The friendly family hosting us are happy to share their food culture. They gather a seaweed called limu to make a delicious salad, cook up some crayfish, show us how to make fresh coconut milk and on Sunday the extended family come from the local village and prepare a traditional umu with baked taro and sweet potato, taro-leaf parcels filled with meat and a suckling pig.

But it’s the ota ika I can’t stop eating, raw tuna marinated in citrus juice and coconut milk then mixed with finely diced chilli, cucumber and tomato. Thankfully the ingredients are easy to come by. Talamahu Market in the bustling main town of Nuku’alofa sells fresh, locally grown vegetables and on the wharf there’s a seafood shop (next to a really good fish and chip place) where you can buy huge wheels of tuna for $20 – $30.

While there are a number of resorts, Tonga is still relatively undeveloped and, staying at Laulea Beach House, we barely see any other tourists. Driving is interesting – pigs and dogs roam freely and straying beyond the main roads we find the dirt tracks are cratered with potholes. Fortunately it’s a short trip to one of the more interesting attractions, the Anahulu cave. This natural lime stone cathedral has an underwater swimming pool and for a $10 fee you’re given a torch and shown the way down. The cave is unlit and the rough track not properly marked but swimming in the silky dark water beneath the stalactites is an experience.

The other must-see is the Mapu’a a Vaca blowholes near the village of Houma. Go on a windy, rough day and witness the impressive power of the water shooting up through the rock formations – but be prepared to get soaked with sea spray.

Tongatapu is a real Polynesian island experience, rather than simply a resort escape. It’s an adventure as much as a holiday.

Best drink….there are several good local beers like Kingdom Lager, Mapa and Popao

What to pack…. Imported foods are expensive so even if staying in a resort it’s worth taking a stash of nibbles and chocolate with you, plus meat, cheese and olive oil if you’re self-catering.

Not to be missed…. The Oholei Beach Resort puts on a Tongan feast followed by a display of traditional dancing inside the Hina cave, every Wednesday and Friday evening, and the locals say it’s the best show on the island.

Local etiquette…Tongans are very religious so on a Sunday everything stops in Tongatapu. It’s a good day to relax or take a boat from the wharf to the tiny resort island of Pangaimotu.

Shopping destination….Talamahu Market has handicrafts upstairs where you’ll find bone carving necklaces, freshwater pearl bracelets and coconut hair combs.

 

 

 

Jul
27

lost & foundImagine a novel told entirely from the perspective of the very young or very old, one that’s heartbreakingly sad one moment and funny to the point of farcical the next, a book with grief as its central theme that has a shop mannequin called Manny playing a starring role. What you’re imagining is Lost & Found by Brooke Davis and yes it is as crazy and amazing as it sounds.

Millie Bird is seven years old, growing up in Western Australia and obsessed with death. She’s noticed that around her all sorts of things are dying, from pet dogs to grandmothers and Christmas trees. Still the last thing she expected was for her Dad to become a dead thing too.

The book opens as Millie’s mother loses the plot and abandons her in a department store. Not that the child realises she’s been abandoned. She thinks her Mum will be right back and waits where she’s told to, beside the Ginormous Women’s Underwear rack. She waits and waits, eventually sleeping beneath the undies, and leaving her mother a series of handwritten signs so she can find her.

Two unlikely saviours come to Millie’s aid. Grieving widower Karl the Touch Typist who is on the lam from his rest home. And eccentrically cranky Agatha Pantha who has been leading a lonely and rigid life since her husband died. Both are octogenarians and not always fans of obeying the rules. Together they set off on an eventful and unpredictable road trip in a bid to prevent Millie’s mother running away to America.

As they travel by road and rail the unlikely trio have amazing adventures. There are superheroes and bullies, a stolen car, elderly people pashing, things on fire. For all of them this is an incredible journey.

This novel has been creating a lot of buzz and deservedly so. Davis takes topics we might prefer not to think about – the sadness of old age, the gradual closing down of life, the devastation of death – and plays with them, producing a story that is amusing yet at the same time tragic. It’s a clever trick, and although the action veers towards the cartoonish at times, the overall result is poignant and immensely thoughtful.

The history behind this fiction is that Perth-based Davis lost her own mother very suddenly in an accident while she was travelling overseas. Lost & Found is a distillation of her grief, the result of her discovery of the sadness that stalks us all, of the inevitability of loss. It is also fantastically quirky and the child’s eye perspective in particular is endearing and very clever.

This is a wonderful debut novel, already sold into 25 countries. Davis captures the Australian landscape in all its breadth and grandeur. Her voice is fresh, her take original and mostly her prose is spare and useful. If she lapses into cutesiness everyone once in a while then I’m very happy to forgive her.

 

 

Apr
19

Collected-Works-AJ-FikryFew things please me more than discovering a wee gem by a writer I’ve never come across before. US author Gabrielle Zevin has written several novels for adults and teenagers but her latest, The Collected Works Of AJ Fikry (Hachette) is the first I’ve read. It’s a lovely story, quietly charming, fairly eccentric, poignant and very amusing.

AJ Fikry owns a slowly failing bookshop on an island off the Massachusetts coast. The rest of his life is a mess too. He’s lost his wife in a car accident, his only real asset, a valuable first edition, has been stolen and he’s dealing with it all by isolating himself and drinking his way through depression.

To compound his problems a mother abandons a toddler called Maya in his bookstore, leaving a note saying she can’t look after the child and wants her to grow up in a place with books.

Learning the woman has drowned herself in the icy waters surrounding the island, AJ can’t bear to hand over the little girl to social workers and so he ends up keeping her.

When sales rep Amelia Loman appears at the shop, she’s hoping to get this cranky but adorable bookseller interested in her publishing company’s winter releases. Instead AJ delivers a very funny diatribe about the sorts of books he dislikes (which pretty much covers all of them) then sends her on her way.

Amelia can’t be dispatched so easily however. She has to turn up three times a year to run through her company’s hottest new titles and AJ finds himself warming to her. In fact, he develops a little crush.

This is more than a simple love story. It’s about how people can come into a life and change it in unexpected ways, bringing with them second chances and the potential for redemption. It’s also about how we define ourselves by the books we read and how, even if you don’t think you’re a reader at all, there’s the perfect novel out there somewhere that will change your mind.

The book world setting is quite delicious, with literary jokes and references aplenty and a witty take on the whole business of writing, publishing and selling them.

There was just one thing that almost put me off right at that beginning. Often I struggle with novels written entirely in the present tense. Rather than giving the prose immediacy I find they can be awkward and self-conscious.

But Zevin is an adroit writer and within the first few beautifully put-together paragraphs I knew she’d pulled it off.

“Every word the right one and exactly where it should be,” says the bookseller AJ at one point about a book he has enjoyed reading. The same words could just as easily describe The Collected Works Of AJ Fikry itself.  It’s a story that’s a complete joy to read even if it is liberally laced with tragedy. A treat for anyone who loves books about books.

 

Mar
19

after i'm goneBroadly speaking there are two kinds of crime novel. The high octane thriller with loads of action,violence and gore. And the more nuanced, character driven affair often involving a slow-moving detective carefully pieceing together the clues.

Laura Lippman’s latest book, After I’m Gone (Allen & Unwin) is firmly in the latter camp and it’s my kind of crime fiction. The story spans over 50 years and is concerned with love, loss and survival as much as it is with homicide.

While far from pacey, the plot is elegantly engineered and each character is a fully fleshed-out person. We learn about their hopes and failures, their flaws and petty jealousies, what drives them. Lippman shows us the minutiae of their everyday lives and takes us inside their heads, with an attention to detail that is at times almost too exhaustive.

Our detective is Roberto “Sandy” Sanchez . He is retired but still working cold cases in Baltimore for extra cash. Sandy has had a tough time of it. He’s lost his wife to cancer, his only child is severely autistic, his attempt to open a Cuban restaurant has failed. This is not an upbeat fellow. Outside of work, he can go days without speaking to anyone.

When Sandy starts investigating the murder of stripper Julie Saxony he finds himself untangling a complex case involving a charsimatic crook called Felix Brewer and the five women he left behind after disappearing mysteriously decades earlier.

Chief among the abandoned and heartbroken is his beautiful wife Bambi Brewer. While Felix fulfilled the promise he made to her that some day they’d be rich, he fled the threat of imprisonment without a word, leaving her penniless and stuggling to bring up their three daughters alone. When his mistress Julie Saxony also disappeared it was assumed she had the money and was off to join him. Years later her body is discovered. But who killed her? Armed with a file full of missing person flyers, reports and photographs, the lugubrious Sandy backtracks over the mystery, chatting to everyone connected to Felix and his dead mistress.

As a whodunnit this is a winner – I didn’t come close to guessing the identity of the killer. But the murder isn’t the point of this novel. As its title suggests it’s really about the aftermath of a man’s disappearance, about the ripples that continue run through the lives of those he loved for years afterwards.

Author Lippman is best known for her Tess Monaghan series. She says this stand-alone piece of fiction was inspired by the real-life disappearance of Julius Salisbury, the head of a large gambling operation in Baltimore, leaving behind a wife, three daughters and a mistess.

After I’m Gone may be short on car chases and splatter but  it’s an engrossing read. The trickiest thing is it’s not told chronologically. In fact, it lurches from decade to decade so unpredicitably it can be disorienting. For that reason this is a novel to read steadily rather than pick up for a chapter or two every now and then.

 

Mar
11

we are all completely beside ourselvesWhen I review a book I’m always careful not to give away the ending. The tricky thing about Karen Joy Fowler’s brilliant new novel We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves (Serpent’s Tail) is that the beginning of the story is the part it’s important not to ruin. That’s where you’ll find the big surprise, the one the rest of the tale turns on.

To write about this book, without revealing too much and ruining its impact, involves keeping pretty cryptic. In fact, if you hate spoilers then steer clear of almost everything you’ll find on the Internet about it, including interviews with its author, but read on because I’m going to do my best.

I’m helped by the fact Fowler herself starts the story in the middle. It’s the winter of 1996 and Rosemary Cooke is in her fifth year at the University of California and still no closer to graduating much to the annoyance of her parents. Then one lunchtime in the school cafeteria she becomes caught up in a messy fight between a girlfriend and boyfriend. Food is spilt, dishes shattered, things are thrown. The campus cops arrive and mistakenly take Rosemary off to the county jail along with the tantrum-prone girlfriend Harlow.

There is a reason that Rosemary finds herself drawn to chaotic, impulsive Harlow even though she’s clearly not great friend material. It’s linked to the reason she avoids her psychologist father and emotionally fragile mother, although as a result of the jail incident she has to agree to go home to Indiana and be with them for Thanksgiving.

The Cookes are a fractured family. Both Rosemary’s brother and sister are missing and she blames her parents for it. But they don’t talk about the past. In particular they avoid discussing the summer when Rosemary was five and was sent off to live with her grandparents without warning or explanation. And certainly no one ever mentions her beloved sister Fern who vanished at exactly the same time.

Around a quarter of the way into the story Rosemary explains who Fern was and why she was different. That’s the bit I’m not going to spoil.

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is a heartbreaker of a novel. It’s about memories and the tricks they play on us; the way we revise and repress them, their power and unreliability, their play on the present. It’s about the nature of family and love, the arrogance and wonder of humanity and how far we’ll go in the quest for knowledge; it’s about being different.

The story is partly based on fact although Rosemary herself is an entirely fictional character. I found it sizzling with smarts and very funny but at the same time deeply tragic. You’d need to have a hard heart not to feel it shattering as piece-by-piece Rosemary puts together the events that have defined her life.

US writer Fowler is best known for the best-selling The Jane Austen Book Club. This is the first of her novels I’ve read. One thing I can safely reveal is that it won’t be the last.