Tag Archives: Emma Donoghue

Five star reads of 2014

I’ve probably read more this year than any other year since I finished uni. That’s one of the reasons I enjoy writing this blog, I find I’m able to keep track of what I’m reading and I’m more inclined to try new genres and authors. It’s been a spectacular year for Australian literature, and, thanks to the almighty power of the internets, I’m more knowledgeable about Western Australian authors who are doing great things. Here’s my five star reads of 2014, according to my Goodreads account, posted in no particular order.

Slaughterhouse Five, Kurt Vonnegut

Obviously not written in 2014 but one I finally got around to reading this year and spent some time carrying around with me even after I’d finished it, so much did I enjoy it.

The Ark, Annabel Smith

Inventive, chilling and entirely believable, this is science fiction at its very best. I’m interested in seeing if other authors follow Smith’s lead by embracing online content as an addition to their work, rather than a duplication.

The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August, Claire North

Every time I think of this novel I’m reminded of the Time Traveller’s Wife but without the romance (which generally makes me cringe). It helps that this one hasn’t been made into a disappointing film as well. I and saw the world a little differently after I’d read North’s novel, which is exactly the point of art, right?

Frog Music, Emma Donoghue

I’m interested in this rating because I only gave Donoghue’s wildly celebrated Room, which I also read this year, three stars. I’m not sure if I’m being harsh on Room or generous with Frog Music but I definitely enjoyed the latter more. It got off to a shaky start but the sense of place, use of language and portrayal of gender in this historical novel was so satisfying, all the more so because of its factual basis.

A Girl Is A Half Formed Thing, Eimear McBride

This is a hard read, both because of McBride’s original stream of consciousness style and because of her subject matter, which follows a young girl through a violent and sexual coming of age as she deals with her brother’s cancer. Disturbing, powerful and moving this is one I won’t forget for a long time.

A Wrong Turn At The Office of Unmade Lists, Jane Rawson

Rawson’s thoroughly enjoyable, heartbreaking, story of a climate changed world and the power of invention is probably one of my favourite reads ever. Combining a bleak vision of a Melbourne of the future with talented story telling and emotional depth, the novel recently won the Small Press Network’s Most Underrated Book Award and deservedly so.

Dept. of Speculation, Jenny Offill

Part verse novel, part memoir, this slender work punches well above its weight. Offill’s gift with words made the isolation, loneliness and breakdown of her character so, so real. I wanted to give her a hug.

Letters to the End of Love, Yvette Walker

Speaking of hugs, Walker’s first novel is an absolute stunner, heart breaking, honest and beautifully written. You will probably cry in public and that’s okay. If anyone bumps into Walker in Perth tell her thank you from me. Thank you for writing this.

Only after compiling this list do I realise that it’s almost exclusively comprised of women. There’s three Australian authors and two of them are from WA. I hope this means I’m holding up my end of my commitment to read more Australian women writers. But it also means I could have missed something awesome. So it’s your turn. What are your five star reads from this year? Tell me why I should give them a go.

Based on a true story: Frog Music by Emma Donoghue

This is said to be the foreignest city in America; almost none of these people were born here. Back in Paris, Blanche remembers, there are so many protocols, so many ways to behave comme il faut, “as things are done”, because that’s how things have always been done. But San Francisco’s a roulette wheel, spinning its citizens and depositing them at random. Blanche has been driven around by cabbies who’ve claimed to be gentlemen temporarily down on their luck and she’s spent well paid nights with michetons who’ve boasted that they began as coal miners.

Frog musicIt is the summer of 1876 and in an inn just outside of San Francisco Jenny Bonnet, a cross dressing woman who catches frogs for a living, has been killed. Her friend Blanche, who would do anything to find her lost baby, is certain her estranged partner Arthur is somehow responsible. As the City suffers through a simultaneous heatwave and smallpox epidemic the streets are a dangerous place and people everywhere become desperate. But not Jenny, whose devil may care humour and ever present energy get her into just as many scrapes as she can get out of. With the exception of a shotgun blast.

For a novel that took me some time to get engrossed in, this one became a desperate page turner at the end. Donoghue tells the story from two different points in time, immediately after Jenny is shot and a month earlier when she and Blanche first meet. Blanche is a burlesque dancer and sometime prostitute who is doing fairly well for herself. She manages to buy the building she lives in and keeps her partner Arthur and his friend Ernest in style as they get around town pursuing gambling and various schemes. But Jenny’s friendship, her calm sense of injustice and shrugs in the face of moral ambivalence, forces Blanche to question her choices.

Jenny’s like a good strong drink when you didn’t even realize you needed one. Maybe the reason Blanche has never been one for making friends is that the women she’s encountered til now have bored her. Jenny’s an odd kind of woman: part boy, part clown, part animal. An original, accountable to no one, bound by no ties, who cocks her hat as she pleases. Their closeness has sprung up as rapidly and cheekily as a weed.

This is the second novel I’ve read of Donoghue’s and both have carried vein of the trials and triumphs of motherhood. Donoghue paints a world in which women, varied and individual as they are, have few options beyond their sexuality and their reproduction. Oh, and I should mention this novel is sexually explicit, sometimes uncomfortably so. Blanche’s life is hideously populated with sexual coercion and potential violence. Consider yourself warned. Jenny, who steps outside of the virgin/whore roles entirely, is imprisoned, challenged and spends her life avoiding police as well as her own troubled past. But she is convincing and charasmatic, with a long list of friends willing to do her a favour, far more than Blanche, when the chips are down. The easy friendship between the two was a joy to read and whether they would have become long term lovers in the end had Jenny not been killed is uncertain, I like to think yes. Especially enjoyable/heartbreaking to read is the biographical information on all the characters, only three of which are entirely fictional. Donoghue’s research went so deep she even includes a link to 20th Century recordings of all the music she quotes from, which contributes a great deal to the tone of the novel.

Something about the phrasing struck me as slightly false in the early pages of the novel but that misgiving had disappeared by halfway through. The time jumps were a little irritating, I just wanted to know whodunnit dammit, but by pursing it this way Donoghue ensured the suspense was brilliantly constructed. By the last few pages I was gripping my kindle with white knuckles, reading frantically, both dinner plans and the damn thing’s low battery warning threatening to cut me off. For me, this was a hugely satisfying novel, especially so because the world Donoghue has created is so real, so rich and a society not evolved so far from our own.

Frog Music, Emma Donoghue: four and a half stars.

Read it to: travel to a different place in time, enjoy the company of women, be thankful for vaccines.

#YesAllWomen? On feminist fiction

Once upon a time I wrote a feminist blog. It didn’t start out that way but more and more I noticed the way the stories we told each other sidelined women’s interests, subbed out systemic inequality and constantly buried the lead of an ongoing pattern of violence. So the #yesallwomen stories, a social media response to the shooting in Santa Barbara, stirred both sadness and anger.

However, this is a book blog. So let’s dial it back a notch. Not so much with the hardcore political discourse. Let’s talk about feminist fiction. I started to compile a list of novels that I really enjoyed that were, intentionally or not, feminist in nature. Then I realised something. How devastatingly the stories of white, middle-class women the feminist fiction on my shelves is. Virginia Woolf and Margaret Atwood sure, both of whom I love, but where’s Alice Walker and Toni Morrison, both of whom I’ve read and enjoyed but recall only vaguely. I will reread in the near future. Meantime this is what I have:

The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood“I long to commit the sin of touch.”

A modern classic, I think you either love this one or hate it. Atwood’s blunt and only thinly veiled social commentary is about women as the Madonna and whore writ large across a dystopian Christian fundamentalist US society. Our narrator is called Offred. Because she is the Handmaid “of Fred”, the commandant she has been assigned to be impregnanted by. Let that sink in.

Room, Emma Donoghue

A metaphor for women and children living under an oppressive power in miniature. Ma and Jack eventually escape Old Nick in a desperate escape attempt that involved faking Jack’s death. On the outside, to add insult to injury Ma is criticised on her parenting while in captivity. Great job society!

The Carhullan Army, Sarah Hall

Feminist and queer friendly, Sarah Hall’s novel pictures a dystopian future in which food parcels are shipped to Britain from the US and women are forcibly administered with contraception devices and subject to random, routine checks to ensure they are wearing it. Our narrator escapes to a women’s commune where living is hard but at least the State stays out of her pants.

Wide Sargasso Sea, Jean Rhys – “Who you to tell me to go? This house belong to Miss Antoinette’s mother, now it belong to her. Who you to tell me to go?”

Jane Eyre itself is a feminist novel, for its era, but I loved Rhys’ reimagined life of its most marginalised character. Putting Antoinette, Mr Rochester’s one day wife, into the centre of the narrative against a backdrop of colonalism; race, wealth and gender co-mingle to create the perfect storm that drives her to breaking point. And then he locks her in an attic. Charmer.

Persepolis, Marjane Satrapi – “This time, you’re leaving for good. You are a free woman. The Iran of today is not for you. I forbid you to come back!”

An autobiographical graphic novel about Strapi’s growing up in revolutionary Iran. Anti-authoritarian, anti-patriarchy, and class-conscious, the novel is a sad, frightening and occasionally funny series of snapshots of a girl’s relationship with Iranian politics and the contrast with western culture. I’m not a fan of graphic novels, but this one is a must read.

I asked around on Twitter and Facebook for more suggestions. I love the good people of the internet. This is what I got:

PBPsoftcover.qxdThe Paperbag Princess – this is a really great nomination. I only remembered it after I saw the illustrations. There’s a blog post on it here.

Crimson Petal and the White, Michael Faber.

Octavia Butler – sci-fi by a feminist, rather than feminist novels per se.

The Collector, John Fowles.

The Millennium series, Stieg Larsson.

The Ancient Future, Traci Harding.

The Phryne Fisher Mysteries series, Kerry Greenwood.

Daughter of the Empire, Raymond E. Feist and Janny Wurts.

The Bloody Chamber,  Angela Carter.

Alice in Wonderland,  Lewis Carroll.

The Bell Jar, Sylvia Plath.

The Color Purple, Alice Walker.

The Dispossessed, Ursula Le Guin.

A Woman of Substance, Barbara Taylor Bradford.

Your turn, can you add a favourite novel to the list?

Oh, about the old blog. I became unable to sustain any kind of timely blogging schedule, as you can see from my being unable to uphold my current blog’s sporadic blogging schedule, and in the end I gave it up. It currently sits locked behind a login screen. There are far more reliable witnesses, people with far more spirit and stamina than I, still reliably making excellent points about the culture of silencing, belittling and victimising women. I suggest you read them here, here and here and about a thousand other places.

Spending some time in the world: Room, Emma Donoghue

When I was four I thought everything in TV was just TV, then I was five and Ma unlied about lots of it being pictures of real and Outside being totally real. Now I’m in Outside but it turns out lots of it isn’t real at all.

Room_coverJack lives in Room with his Ma. He has only ever lived in Room, he was born there and his every day and night has been spent there. He watches TV, not too much because it rots your brain, but he knows that TV isn’t real. Only Room is real and beyond that is just Outerspace.

Until one day Ma tells him some of the things in TV are real. In fact, trees, buildings and aeroplanes are real too. The ocean is real. Room is in fact a cell, built into a garden shed, in the backyard of Ma’s abducter – Old Nick.

Narrated by Jack, Donoghue writes with the tone and cadence of a phenomenally literate, but completely isolated, five year old boy. As consistent and dedicated to her style as she is, it grated my nerves for some time. But as I became accustomed to the rhythm of Jack’s thoughts, I found the novel deeply unsettling. Jack has no idea how painstaking his Ma’s efforts to keep him alive are; regular “Phys Ed”, careful meal planning and hygeine, daily “screams” to the skylight in the roof are all part of the routine. Ma wakes up during the night and turns the lamp on and off in irregular patterns, to help her sleep Jack says. She has meticulously created Room as its own world, isolated with the exception of Old Nick who brings food, and on Sundays treats, from Outside.

Having escaped from Room, Jack and Ma find themselves in an alien world populated with people. Jack has trouble with pronouns – refering to someonee else has never been necessary before. He refuses to be touched, he has never worn shoes or walked down stairs. He’s never seen, or touched, grass, or a tree. He’s never been in sunlight.

Somehow, and with remarkable subtlety, Donoghue turns the novel’s gaze onto society, its excesses and inconsistencies, and where we find our families. Jack is surprised to notice most parents don’t seem to like their children. He’s confused by shops, the idea that his Derek the Digger book could have multiple copies for sale on book shop shelves. He is suddenly thrust into the world as an intelligent five year old and can’t fathom why houses have more than one room, most of which aren’t used. Why there is a playground in every neighbourhood?

As a chapter in nature versus nurture it’s fascinating. As a metaphor on parenthood or a side bar to the guilt the world forces parents to feel, no matter how meticulously they raise their children, it’s intruiging. As a story it’s perfectly wrought and genuinely moving. Probably most importantly, it makes you stand outside the world for a while and view it anew. And isn’t that what fiction is about?

Room by Emma Donoghue: three and a half stars.

Read it to: get a new perspective, be surprised by humanity, get outside yourself.

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