Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Middlesex ~ Jeffrey Eugenides

Not content with the emotional impact, nor the anatomical insight, contained in a diary written by an intersex convent girl in the 19th Century Jeffrey Eugenides decided to write a novel instead that would satisfy the reader's inquiring mind.

Middlesex is loosely based on the author's life and his own Greek heritage, however, Calliope/Cal (the protagonist) is his own creation and therefore the novel is not autobiographical.

I loved this book!!  Not only does it explore the themes of nature vs nurture, rebirth and the impact of a recessive gene on three generations of one family, but it also chronicles the life of two immigrant silkworm farmers from their isolated hillside home in Greece to their new life in prohibition era Detroit.

Calliope, their grand-daughter is born a hermaphrodite; however this is not discovered until she/he reaches puberty.  Told retrospectively, and commencing from the womb, Calliope takes us back to when her grandparents were young and how the recessive gene which is quite often found in isolated in-bred groups of people begins to rear its ugly head.

Really, this novel could have been distasteful however we are introduced to a wonderful group of characters with great personalities and eccentricities trying to make a success of their life in a new country, not knowing that their life choices are taking them down a road that will cause the teenage Calliope untold anguish.  Calliope suffers from the usual female teenage angst..... when will her period start?  Why is she so flat chested when her classmates are developing?  Why does she have a crush on her best friend?  Being of Greek heritage other tell tale signs are missed as she grows older .... the unwanted hair on her upper lip that needs waxing, the husky voice and the beginning of heavy set features.  I truly felt for Calliope as she brought back memories of my own insecurities as an introverted teenager.

One thing I didn't get was why Calliope's brother was called Chapter Eleven.  All the way through the novel I was hoping it would reveal itself.  It does actually, but very subtly and being Australian I didn't pick up on it.  American's would get it.  I won't spoil it here, read the book and if you are still in the dark you can Google Eugenides' answer.  It's quite clever.


Maxine

Friday, August 15, 2014

The House of Mirth ~ Edith Wharton

Whilst Jane Austen used her knowledge of drawing room conversions as inspiration for her novels, Edith Wharton has drawn upon her experiences as a member of New York’s Upper Class Society for her novel The House of Mirth.

This book was wonderfully written, with the conversations between each character feeling completely natural.  Wharton shows the fabulously wealthy as being conceited, shallow and condescending, where their only good advice is to make sure that you ‘marry money’, where ‘breaking in new people’ is tiresome and where the most laborious job of the year is going through your furs.

Lily Bart, the novel’s protagonist, is a popular and beautiful member of New York’s Upper Class Society around 1890.  She has no money of her own and her parents are deceased, but her Aunt takes her in and as she is very wealthy she makes sure that Lily has the best clothes to wear for any occasion. Lily’s mother and her Aunt have groomed her to be a beautiful ornament, but whose arm she is to hang off remains to be seen.  At 29 years old she is under pressure to marry, but she cannot make up her mind.  She loves Lawrence Selden but she would be stepping down in the world if she made that match, and he definitely could not afford her extravagances.  Percy Gryce is fabulously wealthy but he’s a mother’s boy and Lily’s smoking and mounting gambling debts scare him off.  Simon Rosedale, a Jewish suitor is distasteful to her, but he begins to be her only option as time goes on.

Whilst she ponders her future, Lily finds herself in more than one compromising situation; although totally innocent on her part they spark malicious gossip about her that will not go away.  When she is accused of trying to steal away the husband of one of her friends, Bertha Dorset, whilst holidaying on the Dorset’s yacht the scandal ruins Lily’s status.  Lilly is innocent of course, but Bertha is trying to deflect possible gossip about her own indiscretions with a poet.

As the rumours circle round Lily’s Aunt is appalled by her apparent behaviour and in the final weeks before her death she disinherits Lily leaving her only a small legacy which will just cover a debt which is hanging over Lily’s head like a black cloud. The payment of the legacy is withheld for almost a year until legal problems with the Will are ironed out, and Lily is forced to find work.  Having been groomed for nothing but ornamentation Lily’s work output is poor, she is let go and her health and state of mind begin to suffer.

No longer needing to aim so high for social standing, Lawrence Selden is once again a possible match, but fate will see to it that they can never be together.

What a tragic figure Lily Bart is, and this novel highlights once again how social conventions of the time make life extremely difficult for young single women.  Thomas Hardy shows us time and again with his novels, and now we see that it cannot be escaped even with the wealthy.

As for the title, it comes from Ecclesiastes 7:4: “The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning; but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth”.

A great read.

Maxine 

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

The Chimera Vector ~ Nathan M Farrugia

I was contacted by the author on Good Reads requesting a review in exchange for a free copy of this book.  I’d read a few Matt Reilly’s and this was touted as being a comparable novel.  To be fair, I haven’t read a Matt Reilly in a while and my tastes run towards 19th Century fiction these days, but I read the novel in its entirety and what follows in my honest review.

The Chimera Vector is a science fiction action novel which proposes that the economy and politics of the world are run by psychopaths (possibly a correct assumption) and a group of re-programmed Fifth Column operatives aim to break this stranglehold on humanity.

So far so good, but the story is much more complicated than this.  The theme is inspired by current events (being the ‘War on Terror’). The premise is that the war on terror is a façade manipulated by the secretive agency ‘The Fifth Column’.  I started writing down key points as they came up, but I must confess that the book lost me in the end.  Encryptions and viruses, counter encryptions and viruses, double agents, triple agents, quadruple agents …… an Axolotl vector which enables the carrier to heal like a Salamander and a bad guy who has found the fountain of youth……. I can only suspend my disbelief so far.  That is not to say that this book isn’t well written, it is, but I felt it tried to be too clever by half. 

It wasn’t as fast paced as a Reilly, and it wasn’t as much fun.  I didn’t care about the characters and ‘Damien’ and ‘Jay’ didn’t work for me as major character names.  It’s not until three quarters of the way through the novel that the pace actually picks up but I had trouble visualising the scenes and locations as there’s not much in the way of descriptive writing.

This is Book #1 of the Fifth Column series and will, however, probably gain a following from the target audience (which I believe would be young adult males who are into a bit of techno action) - it just wasn’t for me.

Maxine




Friday, August 1, 2014

Far From the Madding Crowd ~ Thomas Hardy

Bathsheba Everdene is a strong spirited girl, and whilst she thinks she knows her own mind she has not a clue with regards to the workings of a man’s mind.

Farmer Boldwood is a confirmed bachelor and even the beauty of Miss Everdene can’t turn his head at market. Bathsheba’s maid points out Boldwood’s indifference to her so, out of fun or maybe girlish spite, she sends him a Valentine Card sealed with a stamp marked ‘Marry Me’. 

This frivolous throw away moment changes everything. 

Boldwood becomes a man desperate to possess her, and presses her for her promise to marry to the point of breaking her spirit. Bathsheba had already turned down a proposal of marriage from the kindly Shepherd Oak when she first arrived in Weatherbury and Oak’s status looked like it was improving but, as her own situation improves by taking on her late Uncle’s farm, Bathsheba is in no hurry to lose her independence.  Unfortunately, during her unwanted courtship with Boldwood, she is dazzled by a rake (Sergeant Troy), who has already ruined one young woman, and the chance of future happiness begins to unravel for all.

Through this emotional drama Shepherd Oak remains a staunch and loyal friend, putting aside his own feelings to manage Bathsheba’s farm and trying to morally guide her.  In a time when propriety means everything, he has to withstand gossip from the neighbourhood which insinuates that he’s just hanging around Bathsheba and ‘biding his time’.

Set in Wessex, I loved the country setting and also the minor characters that work the farm.  Their dialogue and actions hark back to simpler times which consisted of manual labour, cider and gossip.

This novel highlights the fickleness of young women in matters of love. In an era when a promise is a promise, and solemnly binding, there’s no room for mistaken feelings. I’m not usually sentimental but Bathsheba’s realisation of Oak’s true friendship towards the end of the novel, and Oak’s realisation of his one dream, had me fighting back tears.

As for the title of the novel, it was taken from the following:

                      Far From the madding crowd's ignoble strife
                      Their sober wishes never learn'd to stray;
                      Along the cool sequester'd vale of life 
                     They kept the noiseless tenor of their way.
                                                        Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard by Thomas Gray

Throw away your bodice rippers, and read a love story with real class!

Maxine


Monday, July 7, 2014

Dying Embers ~ M R Cosby

This is the first time that I have waited in anticipation for the release of a book by a home grown author. Knowing that the style was inspired by one of my favourite writers, Robert Aickman, I was very keen to read it.

Aickman has the ability to unsettle your nerves when writing about everyday events that at first appear normal then go slightly off kilter.  I can honestly say that I wasn’t disappointed. These short stories are very well constructed, and the unsettling nature of each varies in degrees as does the strangeness. 

Abraham’s Bosom was one of my favourite stories as it brought to mind how I felt on my recent visit to Rangitoto Island.  My partner and I had walked off the beaten track looking for lava caves and I became increasingly alarmed when I couldn't hear any of the other trekkers and was unable to orient myself to where we should be on our map.  This story of a jogger becoming separated from his running mate and experiencing a supernatural event reminded me not only of Robert Aickman but also of Alfred Noyes’ Midnight Express by the last passage.

Building Bridges I found to be a nice cloying story about a father wanting to reconnect with his family however forces move against him during a visit to a museum exhibit. 

The Next Terrace is the perfect opening story and lays the foundation to what can be expected within the following pages and Playing Tag I thought was a beautifully written story which really evoked the grounds of an English stately home.

La Tarasque was probably my least favourite of the collection but mainly because I couldn't identify with any part of it, and I’m still trying to work out the title of the last story (Fingerprinting) although I did really enjoy the story itself.  I’m staying in some obscure small towns at the end of the year on my first ever Aussie road trip, so I shall bear this story in mind!

This whole collection has been put together very nicely; Some of the stories are very subtle whilst others grab at you, but what I liked most about these stories is that they are very identifiable as being Australian (although you can’t take the P.O.M.E. out of the collection either – just like me!)

Maxine 

Monday, June 23, 2014

A Revelation

“……., it is because I am insane—quite insane: with my veins running fire,
and my heart beating faster than I can count its throbs.”      
 (Brontë, Jane Eyre, 1847)

Through the ages there have been plenty of stories about mad women. I have often wondered how come there were so many scapegoats during the witch hunts, (I had put it down to schizophrenia but surely there could not have been that many schizophrenics back then?).  I have also wondered why did seemingly well-to-do 19th Century women turn to Laudanum and in the process become opium addicts?  And there's recent times too, I'm sure we've all heard about a Mrs so and so back in the 60’s and 70’s who had just had 'a breakdown'?  

At the moment I’m reading Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables, and in it he speaks of the previous nuns of the Petit-Picpus convent, two of whom went mad in their middle years.  It’s all a bit weird don’t you think?  Well, these past two months have been an eye opener for me and all I can say is thank goodness I am a 21st century woman and have been saved from the fate of these poor women.

It started quite insidiously really - I just noticed that I was sleeping less.  At the beginning of January I went from being an 8-10 hour sleeper to around 6 hours a night.  No big deal, I felt ok and it was good to get stuff done on the weekend as I had more time by getting up nice and early.

Then I started waking around 4am to go to the loo.  I put this down to getting older but as long as I could get back to sleep again I wasn't worried.  Only, I stopped being able to get back to sleep again, so I cut out my evening cup of tea but this barely made any difference.  Then I started steadily waking up earlier and earlier  by the half hour – 3.30am, 3.00am, 2.30am, 2.00am.  I was starting to feel a bit alarmed by what was happening by this time.  I tried counting back from 100,  I downloaded meditation apps (which I would listen to over and over again in one night but to no avail), and I even tried an astronomy course of lectures – but even they couldn't send me to sleep. 

Last month I went away for the weekend with my partner.  I wasn't feeling great, I was feeling totally strung out from lack of sleep, but I was hoping a change of bedroom for a couple of nights would take away the fear I was beginning to feel every time I got ready for bed.  On the first day we had a big day of walking and eating and didn’t end up going to bed until midnight – I woke up at 1am.  The next night I couldn’t even fall asleep, by the morning I was quite distraught.  What was happening to me?  Had I ruined my ability to sleep because I'd been sleeping elevated due to my BPPV?  Or was it due to my dieting habits? I had been under a bit of pressure at work but I wasn't worrying about it at night.  I obviously couldn't go another night without sleeping so I called my doctor’s but my usual doctor was on holiday. ......I had a specialist appointment that afternoon so I decided to ask if I could have a script for sleeping pills to get me through the week until I could see my doctor. 

Just talking to the specialist about how I was feeling took a major load off my shoulders, ‘no problem’ she said ‘ I’ll give you a script on the proviso you talk to your doctor about starting HRT’.  HRT??  It had never occurred to me that this was a symptom of going through ‘The Change’. I had been suffering horribly with hot flushes but that was all I knew about starting menopause.  Not only is insomnia a common symptom, it is also the best kept secret.

The sleeping pills helped me fall asleep but I would wake around 2 – 3am.  Frustrating, but at least I was getting some sleep.  I told my boss what was going on as I was really struggling with my concentration and mood, but he was very understanding (another weight off my shoulders).

Finally I got to see my doctor and a blood test showed that my hormones were low and I started HRT three weeks ago.  I still can’t fall asleep without the sleeping pills – this could take another couple of months, and I still wake up around 2-30am but I am starting to fall back asleep again.  Yippee!  I feel human again, and I can function normally again, and not only that - no more hot flushes.

Every day I think about what those poor middle aged women went through without today’s medical knowledge.   I’m not happy that I need HRT given the long term risks but really what is the alternative.... madness?

Maxine

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Going Retro

Sick and tired of the quality of most TV programmes these days, I started looking back at the shows I used to enjoy. The ones that had a decent story to tell, where characters weren't constantly yelling at each other, and children showed respect for their parents.

I had to go way back unfortunately, but what I did remember and have now re-watched brought back fond memories and I was very surprised how the quality of the shows stood up. Yes, there is a kind of innocence about them but I do feel that they hark back to better times.

Sky

This is a series that I thoroughly enjoyed re-watching. Initially all I could remember was a fair haired boy sitting crossed legged in a cave with the most amazing blue eyes. A quick search on Google and I found the DVD. Sky is in fact a God modeled very much on David Bowie and The Man Who Fell to Earth who needs to get back to his own time and dimension. The synthesized soundtrack adds to the eeriness of this series and as a kid I loved it.  The benchmark was set for my future viewing habits


The Changes

This was a favourite of mine when I was about 9 or 10. Something causes society to turn against machines. Cars, tractors, radios etc are destroyed or locked away never to be used again. Set in the south west of England one young girl is separated form her family as they try to flee to France, this is her story of survival. Forget zombies.... when society moves back to a simpler way of life, pagan beliefs and superstition become a dangerous foe. 


Shadows

All I could remember about this series was the episode The Other Window, I don't know how old I was when I first saw it but it scared the hell out of me, even just thinking about the ending frightened me for a long time.  Of course, re-watching it with adult eyes it isn't frightening at all.  This is a really good award winning macabre series for children that ran for three seasons.


The Outer Limits

I always preferred the original series of The Outer Limits to The Twilight Zone. It brings back memories of babysitting on a Saturday night and waiting for 11pm so I could watch this show. It's definitely dated to watch now, but it's messages aren't. My favourite episode is The Architects of Fear. I even think this episode inspired Bill Clinton judging by a report I read recently about his term in office. Scary.


Tales of the Unexpected


Finally how could I forget this one. With a wonderful theme tune and originally based on works by Roald Dahl the later episodes were by various well known writers, and acted by some very well known stars. The stories at times are a little predictable but they all have a wonderful twist. Whether you guess the twist or not matters little as the quality of each show is a joy to watch. For the record my two very favourite episodes are The Flypaper and The Man at the Top.


Children of The Stones

I've only just got a hold of a copy of this one, and have watched the first episode.  It's a shame that kids these day watch such violent shows, or rubbish like Home and Away where there's no respect between any of the characters.  They're not learning anything except how not to speak to people. Programmes like Children of the Stones have a real sense of time and place, with a focus on the history and beliefs of the area.  I love the opening title!


Another series I'm quite enjoying is The Crow Road based on the novel by Iain Banks which I have just read.  But, that's a post for some other time :)

Maxine