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Author Archives: Ste J

About Ste J

Living my life through the pages of books and attempting to be social from behind the covers.

Dream Stories – Merlinda Bobis

A village holding back the rising of the moon.  A White turtle ferrying dreams of the dead.  A queue of longings in Sydney.  A river sweet with lemon grass.  A working siesta in a five-star hotel.  An anomalous kiss in Iraya.  Or the secret of the tightening shoes.  These are among the twenty-three dream stories that Merlinda Bobis conjures between the Philippines and Australia.  The mythic weave with the wistful, the quirky with the visionary, and always in a storytelling that sings.

Confusingly this book has already been published in Australia as White Turtle, and in the U.S. as The Kissing, why it needs a different name in every country its published in is beyond me.  Looking at this in the local bookshop, it seemed like a very enticing read but thanks to the habit the shop has of wrapping them all in clear plastic I was unable to read any of the contents.

It is hard to write about short stories without big spoilers but I shall endeavour to give you a flavour of the work whilst avoiding any key points.  I may as well start with a note about two stories mentioned above as I have to begin somewhere.

White Turtle is a story about cultures, the meeting of old ways, of old story telling and modern, and how they can be understood in different more flexible ways. The Kissing, tells of a stolen kiss and the consequences it brings upon the lives of a house.  Both of these stories were the major highlights along with The Sadness Collector which talks about family bonds and the struggle of a long distance relationship, one involving a child.

Bobis is a strong writer and her feminist views are shown in full force.  Her anger at the stereotypes about Asian women are particularly vivid as are her portrayals of horrible foreign men, especially Australians.  Getting past all the vitriol, there are some interesting stories but I think less is more when it comes to making an impact when about such experiences. Read the rest of this entry »

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Posted by on 02/08/2018 in Fiction

 

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Faceless Killers – Henning Mankell

One frozen January morning at 5am, Inspector Wallander responds to what he believes is a routine call out. When he reaches the isolated farmhouse he discovers a bloodbath.

An old man has been tortured and beaten to death, his wife lies barely alive beside his shattered body, both victims of a violence beyond reason. The woman supplies Wallander with his only clue: the perpetrators may have been foreign. When this is leaked to the press, it unleashes a tide of racism.

Wallander’s life is a shambles. His wife has left him, his daughter refuses to speak to him, and even his ageing father barely tolerates him. He works tirelessly, eats badly, and drinks his nights away. But now Wallander must forget his troubles and throw himself into a battle against time and against mounting racial hatred.

It’s been a long while since I’ve read a crime novel and as there have been a significant number coming out of Scandinavia in recent years, in both books and on TV. Being, always behind the times, my first foray into the subgenre arrives fashionably late like a clue that traditionally cracks the case.

Faceless Killers is the first novel in the Wallander series and as you would expect the landscape, plot and the titular character’s personal life are all a bit bleak.  There are plenty of descriptions of the weather which will please the Brits, a grim murder scene to be analysed and a familiar feel to protagonist Kurt Wallander.  Family struggles, drinking copious amounts of alcohol, and being a lover of classical music are by now all common themes in the detective world.

There are lots of meetings in this book, which I liked, as it felt properly police procedural, rather than being a case of swanning off every five minutes to badger a suspect because nobody likes paperwork.  Most compelling is the patient layering of lots of different pressures coming from many angles,it helps keep distract from the main focus of the investigation but brings up some interesting questions about life in Sweden and the complexities of its politics..

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Posted by on 31/07/2018 in Crime

 

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The Lacuna – Barbara Kingsolver

Mexico, 1935.  Harrison Shepherd is working in the household of famed muralist Diego Rivera and his wife Frida Kahlo.  Sometimes cook, sometimes secretary, Shepherd is always an observer, recording his experiences in diaries and notebooks.  When exiled Bolshevik leader Lev Trotsky arrives, Shepherd inadvertently casts in his lot with art and revolution and his aim for an invisible life is thwarted forever.

This has been on my to read pile ever since I read Cuban writer, Leonardo Padura’s excellent novel, The Man Who Loved Dogs. The title, The Lacuna alludes to much in the text, the gaps in the reader’s knowledge of Shepherd’s life, his feelings of not fitting in, and of the other characters stories and in part their motivations.

Like a game of football, this is a book of two halves. The latter part I found to be a lot more engaging, partly because it allows the narrator more room to speak, and also as it helps fill in another gap in history that I hadn’t really much knowledge about.  Perhaps that is excusable as most of European literature and history is focusing on the rebuilding of the continent after WWII and our own part in the Cold War.

The past is all we know of the future

To begin with I wasn’t overly blown away by the writing, more annoying was that certain themes were alluded to and then outright brought to my attention through the narrator. It would have been much more subtle, if left hanging in the background, for the reader to discover, even if on a second or third read through.

I didn’t get much of a sense of Diego Rivera as a character either, he is fairly peripheral, his wife Frida is more interesting and remains pleasingly enigmatic, although she is seen as faultless, precisely because of her faults. Trotsky is mainly seen as a hero/saint type of figure, lacking some of the complexity that could have made him more interesting, as in Padura’s book.  Shepherd himself is detached in this first part, as he struggles to discover his place, and true self. Read the rest of this entry »

 
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Posted by on 26/07/2018 in Fiction

 

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Wandering in a Fantasy World

On a rainy Sunday a few weeks ago, our car climbed into the hills above Lake Taal, the fog allowing for brief glimpses of the now familiar – but no less picturesque – view.  No journey is complete without a bit of drama and this comes with a drive over a narrow section of road that is being repaired, and has an almost sheer drop on one side, that was one thing to thank the fog for, obscuring the stomach lurching drops that would be visable on better days.  The reason for our trip is to visit what was once promised as ‘the Disneyland of The Philippines’, but the owners ran into financial problems and so it is now a mere shell of theme park.

Greeted by the sight of turrets over the treeline, it all started to look as familiar as it did out of place.  As the car turned we were greeted with a vista of what resembles one of those German castles that looks like it’s come straight from a fairytale.  It was an impressive introduction as an approach to the car park.  I didn’t get a photo of that but I don’t think it would have done it justice had I done so.

A few years ago I did a post on abandoned theme parks and that melancholy feel, real or as in this case, possibly just imagined by myself.  It does get the imagination going and reminded me of Helen Cresswell’s The Watcher’s: A Mystery at Alton towers which is a tightly plotted adventure and well worth getting your hands on for a bit of escapism.

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Posted by on 24/07/2018 in Melancholy, The Philippines, Travel

 

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The Lunar Men – Jenny Uglow

Led by the larger-than-life Erasmus Darwin, the Lunar Society of Birmingham were a group of eighteenth-century amateur experimenters who met monthly on the Monday night nearest to the full moon.  Echoing to the thud of pistons and the wheeze of snorting engines,Jenny Uglow’s vivid and swarming group portrait brings to life the inventors, artisans and tycoons who shaped and fired the modern world.

If ever there was a book to celebrate the exhilaration of investigation, that infectious enthusiasm for knowledge, then this is surely a strong contender. In an age where amateurs could be at the forefront of breakthroughs in the sciences, the Lunar Society were keen to share knowledge which brought on new trains of thought and enquiry, as they dared to dream the fantastical.

These pioneers were to explore many different facets of our world;  through botany, geology, physics, medicine, art, literature and so on, as well as profit (for themselves and country), politics, and market forces.  The group also felt the full force of the beginnings of the burgeoning, awkward relationship between science and religion.

The scope of the book is impressive, each of these men could have had a book devoted to themselves so combining them into one overlapping narrative is a monumental feat.  To keep things fresh, we move between the main players frequently, it helps with both pace and the narrative structure, and allows the huge amount of innovations to be explored in their (more or less) chronological order.

It feels genuinely exciting to follow these lives and the societal changes that stem from their drive.  The book doesn’t just focus on the professional but humanises them with plenty of details about their personal lives, which are as eccentric as their work lives.  It reveals heart and a resonance that is lacking in some other – drier – books on this era. Read the rest of this entry »

 
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Posted by on 19/07/2018 in History, Science

 

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Book Memories #2: Ruminations on Train Travels

The second in a (very) occasional series about experiences that comes to mind about my reading past.  I honestly thought I had done more entries than this but a quick look at the 205 drafts saved, reveals a bunch of rotting posts in waiting, that need to be rewritten.

Dashing off these notes in that zone of midday when the intersection – of which we reside on one of the corners – is devoid of people and noise thanks to the heat.  Only the whir of the heroic electric fan and the clicking of Rambo’s claws on tile as he wanders around intrude upon my silence.

As I read (the perfect pastime to aid digestion of the midday meal, and it’s not considered a meal unless it is with rice) my latest fiction book, The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver, one of those random thoughts arrived at the station of consciousness.  It was a memory of a train journey that I didn’t take.  Although the memory is hazy, I am certain it was a train journey taken by Michael Palin in one of his travel books, probably Sahara or Himalaya.

Judging by the two narrowed down titles, I am certain I would have read both in Summer, thanks to my ‘method reading’ and the reasoning that unless it is a book from a so-called cold country then Summer is undoubtedly the season to embark on book travel, as well as real.  It wasn’t the actual journey that was the focus of my thoughts though, rather the accompanying feeling to reading the words.  It’s that sense of the intrepid, a unique kind that is available only to the armchair traveller, accompanying through the words but layering it with one’s own imagination and experiences.  It’s an exhilarating call to the upcoming adventure and the unpredictability that inspires and excites creativity.

Unlike actual travelling which is on the whole less romantic, where the sense of the uncharted is undermined by all the research and planning, it is rather the sense of open-ended wonder of the unfamiliar that is placed in a comfortable framework of certainty.  This reading experience is by no means a common thing, rather it follows the reader around and creeps up from time to time, a welcome companion who greets me every so often, signalling a new part of a expedition, promising new perspectives and rituals to discover.

 
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Posted by on 13/07/2018 in Book Memories, My Writings

 

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Fire in the Blood – Irène Némirovsky

Set in the rural French town in Burgundy that would also form the backdrop to the bestselling Suite Française, Fire in the Blood is the story of Silvio, his cousin’s wife Hélène, her second husband Françoise, and of the truths, deaths, marriages, children, houses and mills that bind them with love and hatred, deception and betrayal.

This novel is an absolute rural treat from one of my favourite 20th century authors, tragically lost to us at Auschwitz.  The story is a wonderful showing of her talent for unflinchingly portraying the passions and flaws of her characters. Her brutally honest observances of the human nature (in all of her books) make for some wonderfully memorable protagonists, and although this book was unfinished at the time of her death, it still retains its power to captivate the reader.

The story opens with an intimate family setting, a real country way of life, very family orientated and in this instance in touch with nature, its beauty and the integral part it plays in their community. The opening’s vibrant scene setting is both rich in detail and in building characterisation and is a great foundation for the forthcoming drama.  None of which I will comment on as at 152 pages, I run the risk of spoiling too much of the plot.

The layering of intricacies in this small close-knit town and the beautifully drawn characters is slowly teased out over the course of the story, allowing us to change allegiance to people as we understand them in greater depth. It’s a claustrophobic, rule laden arena, made all the more obvious by Silvio, who has travelled the globe, lived a varied life, and cares little for the social nuances he has returned to.

In nature, there is a moment of perfection when every hope is realised, when the luscious fruits finally fall, a crowning moment towards the end of summer.  But it quickly passes and the autumn rains begin.  It’s the same for people.

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Posted by on 11/07/2018 in Fiction

 

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