Thursday, 30 May 2013

Louis Nowra's Into that forest

Courtesy: Allen & Unwin
Prepared by Jenny C.

A cosy group talked through their views on Louis Nowra's Into that Forest. It tells the story of two young girls, Hannah and Becky, who are taken in by a Tasmanian Tiger couple when they find themselves lost in the bush after their boat capsizes and the adults with them, Hannah's parents, die.

We had different views on 'getting into the book': some found it compelling storytelling and were absorbed and others found it hard to return to the book. Some found the language a distraction. Another key detractor was credibility. For example, some thought the story itself unbelievable, or that the girls' responses seemed far fetched, or even that there were inexplicable inconsistencies (such as the sophistication of Hannah's thinking and memory, yet her language seemed so affected by her experience).

In terms of literary style, we noted the similarities between earlier work we have reviewed (Keri Hulme's The bone people) and it was suggested that this book could fit into the category of Young Adult fiction. It was also suggested that this is a highly visual novel, and that it could easily be crafted as a play.

We also discussed some of the behaviours exhibited by the characters and why they responded to the events. Becky's behavior seemed inconsistent, for example, and this was put down to the fact that her father was alive, and that she therefore had a reason to want to adjust to her human world. Hannah on the other hand knew her parents were dead, and we considered the possibility that her sense of being and emotional security was found through her connections with her thylacine family. It was also noted that there would not have been any counseling for PTSD at the  time of the story, and the difficulty Hannah and Becky must have experienced in overcoming trauma and finding a sense of self back in human society.

One of the themes we discussed was the animalistic behaviour portrayed by the girls, such as the adrenalin rush that came from the pack hunt, the kill and the fresh blood. Parallels were drawn between this great sense of fulfillment and the thrill that must come from well planned crime or other adrenalin filled adventures. The lure of the hunt (or crime) appears compelling in contrast to our mundane and unadventurous lives. We also wondered whether the author was commenting on the bravery and fearlessness of children, and their capacity to adapt in life threatening circumstances.

We complimented the author on his description of the bush. Some commented that they could smell and feel the bush, the descriptions were so vivid. The author really immersed the reader in the thylacine's world - we got to know them to some extent, and several of us felt a good deal of empathy for the animals (especially Corinna towards the end).

We were puzzled about the rationale for the book. Why did the author write this story? Why did he focus on thylacines and that era? Was it because modern children are so spoilt, privileged and unchallenged? We thought it would be good to research these issues and bring back some 'answers' at a future meeting.

Overall, most attending thought it was an absorbing tale and a compelling piece of story telling. We all agreed that the story line and concepts were thought provoking.

Sunday, 26 May 2013

Schedule ideas for second half of 2013

Ideas to continue the Canberra-and-environs author-or-subject theme (alphabetical by author):
  • Nigel Featherstone's recent novellas Fall on me or I'm ready now: Nigel would come to a meeting if we asked him and he were free; and Blemish Books, his publisher, currently has a "pay-what-you-like" deal for an e-version of Fall on me
  • Irma Gold's Two steps forward (collection of short stories): shortlisted for the inaugural Most Underrated Book Award
  • Alan Gould's The seaglass spiral
  • Marion Halligan's Shooting the fox (collection of short stories)
  • Roger McDonald's When colts ran (or another?): in 2011/2012 shortlisted for the Victorian Premier's Literary Award and the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, and a long story incorporated in it won the O Henry Prize (short stories) in 2008
  • Alex Miller's Autumn Laing (or another?): in 2012 shortlisted for the Prime Minister's Literary Award, longlisted for the Miles Franklin Award, won the Melbourne Prize for Literature
  • Meanjin's special Canberra edition
  • Canberra poets evening: there's a good selection in The invisible thread and Meanjin Canberra edition, for a start
Other ideas (higgledy piggledy order):
  • Carrie Tiffany's Mateship with birds: won the inaugural Stella Prize and the NSW Premier's Prize for Fiction, and has been shortlisted for the Miles Franklin Award
  • Michele DeKretser's Questions of Travel: shortlisted for the Stella Prize and the Miles Franklin Award
  • Drusilla Modjeska's The Mountain: shortlisted for the Miles Franklin Award
  • Romy Ash's Floundering: shortlisted for the Stella Prize and the Miles Franklin Award
  • Melissa Lucashenko's Mullumbimby : indigenous writer who has won and/or been shortlisted for several awards with previous novels
  • Amanda Curtin's Elemental: Western Australian writer
  • Classic novel: by Trollope or?
  • Non-English author: Hans Fallada or Diego Marani (The last of the Vosyachs and New Finnish Grammar) or ?
If you send me other ideas, I'll add them to the list ... we have five spots to fill.

Jean-√Čtienne Liotard [Public domain], Ritratto di Maria Adelaide di Francia vestita alla turca, via Wikimedia Commons

Wednesday, 1 May 2013

Andrew Croome's Midnight Empire

It was a lively meeting when we met to discuss our April book, Midnight Empire, with its author Andrew Croome. There's nothing like having an author present to get discussion going. Midnight Empire, essentially a spy thriller in the Le Carre tradition, is rather outside our usual literary fiction fare, but it fit our decision to focus on Canberra in our reading this Centenary year. Croome currently lives in Canberra, and the main character in the novel, Daniel, comes from Canberra, though the book is set in Las Vegas and Europe.

Courtesy: Allen & Unwin
Croome told us that the inspiration for the book was drones. Daniel Carter is a 26-year-old computer programmer whose company's encryption program has been bought by the US government for its drone program. Daniel is sent by his company to Creech Airforce Base, out of Las Vegas, to install the software and make sure it runs properly. Suddenly he finds himself at war, albeit sitting at a computer terminal in the American desert, a long way from Afghanistan where the actual war is being waged. This though is the point Croome wanted to explore: the idea that in modern drone-driven warfare, you can be at war during the day, in your office, killing people, and come home at night to bathe your kids! Unlike the airforce pilots and CIA agents Daniel is working with, he has not been trained for war. He is, in fact, a rather naive young man who, through most of the novel, still feels like "a boy". He's not though, and gradually he becomes mired in some dirty business.

Running parallel to the political/professional story of Daniel's work is his personal story. He comes to Las Vegas for work against the wishes of his long-term girlfriend Hannah. Their relationship has been floundering and this, to her mind, poor decision of his is the catalyst for her to break up. Daniel is disappointed, but it leaves him free to meet someone new - and he does, of course. He meets Ania at the poker table. This is Vegas after all and Daniel decides to take up poker to fill in some after work hours. Besides his interest in the recent world-wide poker-playing phenomenon, Croome told us that he saw poker as a way for Daniel to define and develop his masculinity.

In terms of the plot, things start, as you would expect for the genre, to go awry. An agent double-crosses them, and the drones are sent in to Peshawar to take out their targets. At the same time, pilots start dying mysteriously in Vegas. Daniel becomes perturbed about the morality of what he sees and takes some actions that, let us say, the CIA would not like. Meanwhile, his life with Ania becomes complicated when she tells him her brutal husband has come to Vegas looking for her. Daniel is torn between his work and his personal responsibilities, and starts crossing even more lines from which he may not be able to return. As we read on, we are not sure who to trust or believe. Is or isn't Ania the traditional spy-tale Femme Fatale? And are the CIA starting to suspect him? Suffice it to say that Daniel ends up on the run playing poker - off the grid, as Croome described it - throughout Europe. And that's about all I'll say about the plot.

Our discussion, with Croome, led us down all sorts of paths. We discussed the construction of the book with one Minervan feeling that it was more about plot than character. She wanted to know more about Daniel, wanted his character to be developed further. Another Minervan felt that having Daniel's relationship break up at the beginning was a clever device. It showed that Daniel had been given the chance to change, but hadn't taken it, and it also set him free for new relationships. Most of us felt the set up was plausible, and one member said she felt sorry for Daniel who was too naive to realise that he couldn't "fix" things as easily and simply as he thought. A couple of members talked of how "visual" the book is, and liked the strong transitions between Daniel's loft in Vegas and the airforce base. Croome, we discovered, did spend some time in Vegas researching the book. Several of us found the Poker sections too technical and wondered whether this was more of a "man-thing". Croome responded that he tried to make human points about the play rather than get too carried away with the recording the technical play itself. We could see that, but probably still felt there was a little more play than we needed! And the ending was to most of us more ambiguous than Croome intended - but we gathered that we weren't the only readers to feel this. Hopefully, Croome enjoyed our perspectives and took them in the right spirit. I think he did.

The discussion then turned back to drones and their military and civilian uses - leading to a discussion about privacy. We of course had no answers, but Croome believes that we need to be aware of the increasing incursions into our right to privacy if we are going to have any chance of controlling/protecting it. Some of us, I suspect, feel it might be a lost cause!

Croome mentioned a few authors/books that he likes, including Ian McEwan, Don DeLillo (that was intriguing) and Kevin Powers' novel, Yellow birds, about the impact of war on soldiers and those at home.

It was a good night's discussion. There's nothing better than a book that stimulates discussion about it, itself, and then leads us onto talk about the wider issues it draws from. Midnight empire proved to be such a book and we felt privileged to have the author with us to contribute to both discussions. Thanks Andrew for giving up your time to talk with us.