Holiday Reading 4: All the Birds, Singing

All the Birds, Singing by Evie Wyld (2013)

All the Birds, Singing by Evie Wyld (2013)

Summer book number four is something I bought in Paris last year from Shakespeare and Company, a gorgeous English-language bookstore near Notre Dame. Ah ‘in Paris’.  Apparently I’m one of those people.

This book was a bit of a random choice. I scarcely knew where to begin when I wandered into the store – with books piled high in every corner and on every surface, I was too busy trying to look in every direction at once.  The blurb revealed very little about the story, but All the Birds, Singing had a lovely cover and that was about the extend of my decision making process.

Here’s what I know now: All the Birds, Singing comes to us from a British author called Evie Wyld.  The setting of the story jumps between an unidentified British island and the Australian outback.  I always find it interesting to read a foreign author’s impression of Australia, being an Aussie girl myself.  Evie Wyld writes skilfully but this book is probably my least favourite of the summer so far.  But don’t stop reading yet! Let me elaborate.

The protagonist, Jake, is a young woman who lives in self-imposed isolation on a windswept British sheep farm.  There, she tries to escape her old life in Australia – a terrible crime she encountered as a girl and a man who held her prisoner in the outback.  But something menacing is stalking her in her new home, picking off her sheep one by one in the dark.

As I said before, Wyld is a talented writer.  One of the highlights of All the Birds, Singing is the way she evokes a beautiful sense of place – her description of the both the Australian and British landscapes were vivid, sensory and enjoyable.  However there were unfortunately a few things I didn’t enjoy about the story.  Firstly, the book is written in a highly literary style – almost poetic in places.  Often you read books with passages like this that are meant to be a little obscure and thought-provoking and usually you are able to interpret this as you read on and find our more about the plot and the characters.  I felt like All the Birds, Singing sustained this style for the most of the book.  As a result I found it hard to get into and while I enjoyed reading it once I picked it up, I was not gripped and never got a strong narrative arc to follow.

Another element that exacerbated this was the chronology of the story, which I didn’t pick up until I was at least halfway through.  The British setting is Jake’s present and the Australian setting is her past – however the Australian flashbacks seem to be in reverse chronological order.  This is incredibly confusing as we meet characters and situations that are not introduced or explained until we move further back into the past.  Now, I have read books that use this sort of structure to great effect – an example that springs to mind is On the Jellicoe Road by Melina Marchetta (read my review/deranged fangirl ramblings here).  The problem with All the Birds, Singing was that I was reading and waiting for the penny to drop – for that ‘ah ha!’ moment where everything falls beautifully into place.  It never came. Maybe it was there, but clearly it was too subtle for me to pick up on.    The ending was deliberately open and heavy with symbolism – the kind of thing my high school English department would have loved. But as a grumbling simpleton, I felt unsatisfied.

Finally, there was the difficult subject matter.  Eventually, we discover that Jake spent most of her teenaged years surviving as a prostitute before being held prisoner by one of her regular clients who wants to pretend she is his niece.  In addition to all this, there are the circumstances under which Jake left home as a fifteen year old.  These are revealed at the very end of the book so I won’t give too much away for those of you who are interested in reading it for yourself.  I’ll just say that I found parts of the book quite depressing.  I don’t usually have a problem reading books with dark themes but I suppose I felt I didn’t get much of a warning going in to the story.

So I guess that’s that. I always hate to write negative reviews because reading and writing are such subjective things. All the Birds, Singing was an interesting read by an accomplished writer.  Personally, it wasn’t for me.

Next up – This House is Haunted by John Boyne (of Boy in the Striped Pyjamas renown)

Holiday Reading 3: The Ocean at the End of the Lane

The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman (2013)

The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman (2013)

I’m kicking off 2014 with a short and hopefully sweet review of The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman. Yes, Gaiman for anyone who regularly peruses this blog. I hope you enjoy him as much as I do, if not, I apologise. Feel free to recommend different titles for my summer reading list!

Guys, I had so much fun reading this book. One of the reasons I love this author is that he writes your favourite childhood stories for a grown up audience. The Ocean at the End of the Lane is very dark but wonderfully familiar at the same time – like a twisted Enid Blyton.

The story begins as our adult narrator recalls an episode in his childhood when his parents decided to rent out his tiny bedroom to supplement their income. One day, a tenant steals the family car and kills himself on a lane by the house, unleashing a dark and force on their idyllic English village. The narrator’s only allies are the Hemstock family who live on a farm at the end of the lane, including 11-year-old Lettie, who has been 11 years old for a very, very long time.

For me, there was something very nostalgic about this story and I think that’s why I enjoyed it. Seeing as the last Gaiman I read was American Gods, I wasn’t expecting such a simple and almost ‘wholesome’ story – well as wholesome as his adult books get anyway. It’s a short and uncomplicated read about courage, adventure and apple pie. It reminded me of the books I loved as a little girl, although I don’t think any of the fathers in those stories tried to drown the protagonist in a bathtub. The Ocean at the End of the Lane may feel like a children’s story, but it would have seriously disturbed 8 year-old me.

I definitely think this book appeals to a particular kind of reader. The writing is lovely but the story is directed at big kids, like me. If you favour intricate fantasy novels and adult protagonists I’m not sure you would enjoy it. But to those of you still love a good old adventure on a Sunday afternoon – I absolutely recommend it.

“Someone’s just trying to give people money, that’s all. But it’s doing it very badly, and it’s stirring up things around here that should be asleep.”

Holiday Reading 2: Burial Rites

Burial Rites by Hannah Kent (2013)

Burial Rites by Hannah Kent (2013)

Every now and then you read something lovely – Burial Rites is that kind of something.

NB: word on the grapevine is this book is being optioned for a movie starring Jennifer Lawrence  . . .

Burial Rites is the story of Agnes Magnúsdóttir.  Beheaded in 1830 for her part in a double murder, she was the last woman to be executed in Iceland.  The novel follows her final days as imagined by young Aussie author, Hannah Kent. Kent heard about Agnes whilst on a Rotary exchange in Iceland. She was so intrigued that she went on to write a novel, instead of bumbling around and watching TV like 90 per cent of university students.

What’s to like?

First and foremost – Kent’s achingly beautiful prose.  It’s the sort of book that totally silences my pesky inner critic and enables me to fall deeply and effortlessly into the story. Basically it makes me green with envy happy.

The book opens as Agnes is moved from her cell to the farm of District Officer, Jón Jónsson, where she will wait to die. There, she works side by side with his family who reluctantly take her in, facing the forces of the merciless Icelandic landscape. Kent describes the novels as a ‘dark love letter to Iceland.’ Her Iceland is a stunning, frightening setting and a perfect compliment to to Agnes as a character – who struggles for survival in every sense.  One of my favourite images is where a character recalls seeing two icebergs colliding at sea, setting some driftwood alight and causing a fire to burn for days out on the freezing water.

Kent’s treatment of the question of Agnes’ innocence/guilt was particularly impressive. Apparently, she is sort of demonized in Icelandic memory – particular as the two people charged with her were teenagers at the time of the murders.  Kent resists the urge to turn Agnes into martyr. First and foremost, Agnes is depicted as an ordinary human being – not evil but not blameless.  She’s a person who is swept away by forces beyond her control – poverty, a poisonous love affair and the law of land that does not see shades of grey.  As readers we discover this through the eyes of her young spiritual counsellor, Tóti, who discovers she is more willing to talk than to listen.

Finally, Agnes’ attitude towards death is refreshingly relatable.  She doesn’t march towards the executioner with her head held high and every hair in place.  She has spent her whole life desperately clinging to life and although she begins to accept her fate, it still terrifies her.  She’s not a religious person but she’s highly intelligent and educated intriguingly literacy has been almost universal in Iceland since the late 1700s and even the poorest of the poor were taught to read and write. Although Agnes’ life is dramatically different from my experience as a contemporary middle-class Australian, she felt extremely relevant – maybe this is what attracted Kent to her story in the first place.  The theme of death is treated in a thoughtful way and when we finally hear Agnes’s account of the murder, the scene is gut-wrenching rather cheap and shocking.  Agnes finally faces her own end with the knowledge that this life is that that she has.

“You are not going home you are gone silence will claim you and suck your life down into its black waters and churn out stars that might remember you, but if they do they will not say . . . and if no one will say your name you are forgotten.”

I always know I’ve read something special when I’m left quiet and thoughtful after the final page.  Burial Rites left me feeling desperately sad, yet immensely satisfied.