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 fa├žade 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