2020 Alphabet Soup Challenge: Author Challenge – Bridge of Clay – Marcus Zuzak

Genre: Australian Fiction, Family

Narrative Style: First person, non-chronological

Rating: 5/5

Published:2018

Format: Kindle

Synopsis: The five Dunbar brothers are left without adult supervision after their mother dies and their father abandons them. They live by their own rules. When their father returns to ask them to help build a bridge, only Clay is able to respond.

Reading Challenge: 2020 Alphabet Soup: Author Challenge

After reading – and loving – The Book Thief a few years ago, I avoided reading any other books by Zuzak. I’m not really sure why. The Book Thief was such a great book and seemed like such a one off, I wasn’t sure that any other book by the author would be able to live up to it. I’m happy to report that Bridge of Clay is easily as good.

There are similarities with The Book Thief. Bridge of Clay is narrated by the oldest Dunbar brother, Matthew but he is not at the centre of the story. As with Death in The Book Thief, he is often narrating other people’s stories so that he becomes an omniscient narrator of others’ lives. This gives the novel a curious tone, caught between the detachment of Matthew’s position and the emotional resonance of the stories that he tells.

At the beginning of the novel, the boys’ father returns for the first time since the death of their mother, asking for help to build a bridge. Only Clay is able to respond and he leaves with their father, despite risking the wrath of Matthew who tells him he will beat him if he ever returns. The story of the parents, Penny and Michael is intertwined with current events, leading up to two devastating events for Clay in particular but the rest of the Dunbar boys as well.

The building of the bridge is literal and metaphoric as it allows the boys to rebuild their relationship with their father and Matthew comes to realise why he could no longer stay and why Clay was the only one who could rescue him.

This is an incredibly powerful novel. If I’d been reading this at home, and not on the tram, I’d probably have had a good cry at the end. This a story about death and grief but also about redemption and recovery. It’s also about the ties of family and the love that brothers have for each other. Zuzak took a long time to write this book, admitting that if he hadn’t finished it this time, he might have had to abandon it. I’m certainly glad that he persevered.

Books Read in 2015 – 15. My Brilliant Career – Miles Franklin

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Genre: Australian Fiction, Classics, Bildungsroman

Narrative Style: First person

Rating: 3/5

Published: 1901miles-franklin-my-brilliant-career

Format: Paperback

Reading Challenges: TBR Challenge

Time on Shelf: About ten years. A relative was selling off some books and she thought I would like it so I bought it but then forgot about it. 

Synopsis: Sybylla Melvyn is headstrong and stubborn. She feels that she doesn’t belong in her community, knowing as she does about music and literature. She hates the monotony of the life in the farming community. She much prefers life at her grandmother’s where she stays for a while. It is here that she meets Harold Beecham who is quickly beguiled by her. Sybylla is not so sure that marriage is what she wants. 

Like many coming of age novels, this may have been more enjoyable to me at a younger age. I did find Sybylla a hard heroine to like. Despite what anyone said to her, she was determined to believe that she was ugly and unloveable and that started to grate after a while. Her behaviour was often odd and I couldn’t really figure her out.

When she meets Harold Beecham, it is immediately obvious that there will be some romance between the two. However, as the blurb on the back declares that Sybylla does not accept his proposal, any tension there might have been was destroyed. Strangely, I found myself wanting Sybylla to accept. Harold was lovely and would have supported her dreams of being a writer. While it is suggested that she refused in order to keep her independence, it seemed to me that she actually refused because of her own perceived unworthiness. Also, the blurb also mentioned that in the film, Harold was played by Sam Neill , one of my early crushes. I know this influenced me, after all, who could say no to Sam Neill?

What I did enjoy were the descriptions of the hardness of life in 1880s Australia. Sybil’s sojourn at her grandmothers is interrupted by the news that due to her father’s drinking, she has to go to work for a man that has loaned him money. When she gets there, she is faced with the horrors of life in poverty. The family are happy but filthy. They cannot afford to eat very much or very well. The children lead Sybylla such a merry dance and the circumstances are so horrible that she becomes ill and has to return to her parents’ home.

Still, it is a testament to Sybylla’s strength of character that she does not accept Harold’s proposal even though it would take her from the monotony of life on the farm. At the end of the novel, she is no further towards her ‘brilliant career’ as a writer and there seems little likelihood that she will escape from her life on the farm. It is a sad ending which did leave me feeling pity for Sybylla.

 

Books Read in 2014 – 56. Barracuda – Christos Tsiolkas

Genre: Australian Fiction, Sport, GLBTbarracuda

Narrative Style: First person moving back through events, third person moving forward through events. 

Rating: 5/5

Published: 2013

Format: Kindle

Synopsis: Danny Kelly has one desire – to win olympic gold. His whole life is focused around swimming, racing and training. When he loses for the first time, he feels the world come crashing down on his head. He almost doesn’t recover. 

At the beginning of the novel, the grown up, present day Danny Kelly is clearly in a bad place in his life. He is out of place – both literally and metaphorically – and unclear where his life is going. You know something has gone badly wrong for him. This is reinforced in the third person sections of the text which describe Danny starting a fee-paying school on a swimming scholarship and his many racing successes. The reader is immediately drawn in. What on earth could have gone wrong?

Clues are slowly revealed such as the fact that Danny has been in prison. The first person narrative moves back in time and presents such a startling contrast to the third person that at times it is hard to believe that this is the same Danny Kelly. The two narratives converge on the same moments in time in roughly the middle of the novel. It was nerve-wracking reading up to this point as it becomes more and more apparent what is going to happen. I wished so hard to be able to stop the inevitable but Danny could not be stopped from hitting the very bottom.

After this, the pace changes, the first person narrative is now the one that is filled with the joy of swimming as it relives Danny’s early years and the third person narrative shows Danny slowly becoming a new person after his spell in prison. There is still a contrast between the two narratives but it is less jarring than in the first half of the book and I began to hope that Danny would find some sort of contentment.

One of the reviews that I read of this book suggested that it was ridiculous that Danny would fall apart after just one race but I think that actually Tsiolkas describes his downfall well. It is all tied up with the fact that Danny is working class in an essentially middle/upper class environment. When he fails, it is only the inevitable catching up with him. Even his father seemed to believe that failure was just there waiting for him. There is no sense in trying again as he there would only be more of the inevitable. Tsiolkas offers a strong commentary on class and the meaning of success in this novel. I particularly enjoyed his critique of the Sydney Olympics which was close to how I felt in 2012.

Danny is gay but this is just an accepted fact and causes him no problems. The problem for Danny is his class not his sexuality. It was very pleasing to read a novel where sexuality was just taken as a given, not as an issue in and of itself. Definitely one of my reads of the year.

 

Books Read in 2014 – 49. For the Term of his Natural Life – Marcus Clarke

Genre: Australian Fiction, Prison, Classicsfor the term of his natural life

Narative style: Varies – some third person, some first person extracts from diaries and letters

Rating: 4/5

Published: 1874

Format: Kindle

Synopsis: After discovering the truth of his parentage and promising his mother he will never reveal said truth, Richard Devine leaves home knowing he will never return. He comes across a crime already committed and is taken for the murderer. Unable to save himself, he is shipped off to Australia with the other characters that are to play out his fate with him.

The main reason I picked this up is that I can remember watching it in the eighties when it was televised. I could remember that I enjoyed it but not the details of the story so my expectations were high. I was not disappointed.

As I have mentioned before, I don’t find it easy to read classics as I tend towards modern fiction. Howver, while the language and sentence structure definitely dated the novel, the themes definitely still resonated and the plot was extremely pacy (my usual complaint about classic novels is the lack of action compared to the number of words expended.). This is a long book – 620 pages – but it never once dragged and I was never tempted to abandon it.

Richard Devine – or Rufus Dawes as he becomes – is the noble prisoner and is easy to empathise with. He becomes symbolic of the way that men are destroyed by a barbaric system carried out by bullying men. There is a clear moral here about a system that treats men like animals and then is surprised when animals is what they become. Interestingly, Clarke also hints that too liberal a system would not work either. He offers no solutions to how punishment should be meted out but simply shows that too lax or too strict does not work. I think that this is what makes it palatable – whilst Clarke has a clear point to make, he never moralises but leaves it to the reader to make up their own minds.

There is something a little soap opera-ish about some of the subplots especially as the twists and turns often are based on mistaken identity, loss of memory and coincidence. In the hands of a lesser writer this might have been hard to take but Clarke masterfully switches between the subplots and allows all his characters to become real to the readers – they are never mere devices.

If I have any complaint, it would be the length of time it took to read it. I did sometimes think, I’m sure this could all be set down with less words – Clarke goes into detail about everything including the geography of the prison islands. Howver, it would be hard to know what you could take out as every detail proves crucial in the end – even the geography which figures in the various escapes made by the convicts.

The ending of the novel is devestating and if I’d remembered it from the TV programme, I may not have managed to finish it. However, it is a fitting ending and anything else would have given a romance to the tale and made the reader forget the horror and pain of Rufus Dawes’ life.

 

 

 

Books Read in 2014 – 44. Picnic at Hanging Rock – Joan Lindsey

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Genre: Thriller, School
Narrative Style: Third person, chronological
Rating 3/5
Published: 1967
Format: Kindle
Synopsis: It was Valentine’s day in 1900 and the girls from Appleyard College for Young Ladies are excited about the picnic at Hanging Rock. The weather was perfect for the annual day out. Unfortunately three girls and one teacher would not return from this trip, the repercussions of which effect the entire town.

I liked the style in which this story was told with almost perfect detachment from the events therein. While some of the events described involve hysteria, the prose is never less than level headed and was very easy to read.
The lead up to the disappearance of the girls is nicely handled and excitement builds slowly but steadily with subtle hints that things aren’t quite right, everyone’s watch stopping at the same time, for example. When it is realised that the girls are missing then panic ensues, panic which is heightened when one of the missing girls comes crashing out of the undergrowth at the bottom of Hanging Rock. At this point, I was anxious to find out what had happened and eager to read on.
However, the novel changes not long after this and becomes less of a mystery story and more of a study in human nature – watching the various character’s reactions to events rather than solving the mystery. This wasn’t badly done but wasn’t what I was expecting. There are still moments of excellence – the hysterical reaction of the school girls to the one girl they manage to find is extremely well described but ultimately, I found the change in direction disappointing.
I also found it difficult to differentiate between some of the teachers and girls. They didn’t stick in my mind and I was constantly checking who was who.
The ending of the novel was unexpected and returned a little more to the mystery style and I did find that enjoyable but overall, this was an uneven read.

Books Read in 2014 – 27. The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas

Genre: Family, Australian Fiction

Narrative Style – A series of third person perspectives from different characters’ points of view. 

Rating 4/52014tbrbutton

Format: Paperback

Published: 2008

Synopsis: At a barbecue in suburban Australia, a young child is out of control. While others look on in horror, a man who is not his parent slaps the child. The repercussions of this act ripple through the lives of all present that day. 

Challenges: TBR Challenge

Time on Shelf: Only about three years. I meant to read it before it was on TV but then I only managed to watch the first episode (not because it wasn’t good but because I was too busy and/or hopeless) and the urgency fell away. I was quite glad not to have watched it as I really enjoyed not knowing what would happen. 

Before reading this, I was interested to see how the issue of child discipline would be handled. This is a emotive issue. If you are seen to disagree with modern parenting methods then you are perceived as some sort of barbarian. But sometimes it does seem that children are being done no favours by parenting methods that give them a choice article-1304653-0AC0591E000005DC-621_233x353about everything but neglect to teach them that sometimes they won’t get their own way. Tsiolkas handles these issues successfully due to the method of giving each person a chapter and opinion. He shows the multi-faceted nature of the issue at hand.

There is not doubt that Hugo is a little monster, still being breastfed at almost four, refusing to play nice and told by his mother that he is the most important person in the universe. Actually, Rosie, his mother was one of the less convincing characters, she was too cliched an earth mother for me and I found her chapter one of the least fun to read. However, this may be due to the distance between myself and this sort of women. She was the sort of person I would never be friends with.

Harry, the person who slapped Hugo was suitably horrible – racist, sexist, violent. After all, even if you might think that child could do with  a slap, there aren’t many of us who would put that into action. Even so, I was pleased that the court decision went his way. You shouldn’t slap someone else’s child but surely you don’t need to take it to the police either.

I enjoyed reading the different viewpoints and trying to understand how different characters came to their decisions about the incident. The story unfolded cleverly and there was always reason to keep reading. The ending pulled together most of the narrative threads and was largely satisfying. The only thing I might have liked was more from the early characters as hints are dropped about them but you don’t actually get to see how they have changed.

When I rated this on Goodreads, I was surprised by the number of negative reviews. There is s something a little soap opera like about this but I don’t think this is necessarily a bad thing. The issues raised – like those in a soap opera – are pertinent to everyday life. I enjoyed this and will certainly be reading more of TSiolkas’ books.

 

Books Read in 2014 – 10. Jasper Jones by Craig Silvey

Genre: Young Adult, Bildungsroman, Crime

Narrative Style: First person narrative, Straightforward chronological timeline

Rating 4/5jasper-jones-book-cover1

Format: Kindle

Published: 2009

Synopsis: Charlie Bucktin is both alarmed and gratified when Jasper Jones first knocks on his window. However, he soon wishes not to share Jasper’s secret and it weighs heavily on him over the summer. The sleepy town where he grew up, that seemed so safe becomes a place of secrets, violence and prejudice that he desperately wants to escape. 

This book had me from the first. Charlie’s excitement and worry is almost palpable when Jasper Jones, town outcast, first comes to his window to ask for help. Their journey to Jasper’s hideout is agonising. The suffocating weather doesn’t help. You can almost feel the heat. Of course, from the synopsis of the novel, you realise that Jasper has probably discovered a body so that wasn’t really a surprise but the boys decision to cut the body of Laura Wishart down and throw it into the river so that Jasper will not be blamed for her death is a little more shocking.

Events soon start to spiral. Charlie finds it hard to live with his knowledge and that contributes to his disintergrating relationship with his mother. He starts to fall in love with Laura’s sister which makes his secret knowledge all the more uncomfortable. Jasper’s decision to confront who he assumes is the killer reveals town secrets that go back decades. The seemingly innocent town reveals its darker side with a series of racial incidents.

Charlie was a lively and intelligent narrator who read as if his life depended on it. He describes life in the town vividly, as well as his own insecurities and worries. The novel is full of school boy humour through his conversations with his best friend. It was easy to read and compelling enough to want to read on. Jasper Jones, as the town outsider, blamed for everything, was full of pathos but never pathetic.

If I have any complaints, it would be that it was easy to see what the reveals were going to be. There were no surprises although the bad luck that might have saved Laura’s life was well plotted and interesting. Having said that, I always wanted to read on to see how Charlie and Jasper would react to the events as they unfolded.

The issues in this novel were skilfully handled. There was no preaching, just the sense of a young person trying to find their way in an increasingly difficult world.