Posts Tagged With: novel

MATTHEW FLINDER’S CAT by BRYCE COURTNAY

MATTHEW FLINDER’S CAT by BRYCE COURTNAY

Description
Billy O’Shannessy, once a prominent barrister, is now on the street where he sleeps on a bench outside the State Library. Above him on the window sill rests a bronze statue of Matthew Flinders’ cat, Trim. Ryan is a ten-year-old, a near street kid heading for all the usual trouble. The two meet and form an unlikely friendship. Appealing to the boy’s imagination by telling him the story of the circumnavigation of Australia as seen through Trim’s eyes, Billy is drawn deeply into Ryan’s life and into the Sydney underworld. Over several months the two begin the mutual process of rehabilitation.
Matthew Flinders’ Cat is a modern-day story of a city, its crime, the plight of the homeless and the politics of greed and perversion. It is also a story of the human heart, with an enchanting glimpse into our past from the viewpoint of a famous cat.
Published 2003

 

I listened to the audio book, an unabridged version and was captivated. The story is a real emotional rollercoaster, inducing feelings of anger, disgust, sympathy, empathy, admiration and tenderness – to name but a few. At the beginning you wonder how an educated man can become reduced to such circumstances, from successful and comparatively wealthy professional to a ‘derelict’ or street person. As the story unfolds you realize that Billy’s past is complicated and heart-breaking as he freely admits he made terrible mistakes, but tear apart some of the carefully cultivated exterior and it is clear that Billy is a tender hearted and honest man, whose regrets about his life’s choices eventually lead him to try and make amends in whatever way he can.

Ryan, an incredibly intelligent little boy has a disadvantaged background yet he works hard to help his drug addict mother and his elderly grandmother. He is resourceful, clever, sometimes cheeky, but he is immensely likable and very real. Billy and Ryan’s friendship is peculiar and unexpected, yet very heart-warming, and Billy’s determination to help the child as he veers toward a dangerous future is unrelenting. Both characters became very real for me and I often felt as if Billy was teaching me about life, a life I knew nothing about, as he travelled on his journey of redemption. I really learned so much about his world and the way alcoholics think and feel, (although one cannot generalize), and also how difficult it is to shake off the problems you encounter once you have sunk this low. With the best will in the world, you’d have to be pretty strong to be able to recover just by yourself. Billy and Ryan highlighted these problems. Every city in every country has these issues to one degree or another, but how often do we turn a blind eye? Bryce Courtenay doesn’t preach, but he does open our eyes and question whether we feel comfortable in a society which discards people like litter on the street.

Mixed in with the main story is a separate thread about a famous cat, Trim, who belonged to a famous navigator, Matthew Flinders. Flinder’s, although born in Donnington in England, spent much of his working life charting the coast of Australia and he is credited with naming the country. He is therefore a renowned character, as is his cat who accompanied him on his travels. When Ryan expresses an interest in the statue of Trim, Billy begins to tell him the story of the navigator’s cat, and with a cat’s view point and a few elaborations along the way, the story becomes very compelling. It forges a strong relationship between man and boy which proves indestructible and saves them both. At no time did I feel that the outcome of this relationship or the events surrounding it were inevitable. The story twists and turns and the reader is buffeted around, sent reeling from one surprise to another, or suddenly stripped of former beliefs and value systems. The story is gripping, but so too is the tale of Trim and they become ever more entwined until eventually the work of the one is done and saves the other. The lesson in history was appreciated too!

I loved this book. It is possibly the best book I’ve read in many years and I recommend it to everyone who is not afraid to look deep into their own conscience and admit that they too could be Billy, or that they could do more for the many unknown Billies out there in the urban margins. This is a book which tackles important issues and asks questions of politicians and society. I hope that somewhere, someone with the power to change things is listening, and that we as citizens give them our full support.

 Susie (Kimmikat)
2/6/08

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C’est la Folie by Michael Wright.

Synopsis
One day in late summer, Michael Wright gave up his comfortable South London existence and, with only his long-suffering cat for company, set out to begin a new life. His destination was “La Folie”, a dilapidated 15th century farmhouse in need of love and renovation in the heart of rural France.In a bid to fulfil a childhood dream of becoming a Real Man, he struggles to make the journey from clinically social townie to rugged, solitary paysan. Through his enthusiastic attempts at looking after livestock and coming to terms with the concept of living Abroad Alone, he discovers what it takes to be a man at the beginning of the 21st century.

Review
Michael Wright has written a column about his exploits in La France in the Telegraph with much success and has now written a novel based on these adventures. The novel, C’est La Folie is a wonderfully candid description of his life in France, battling with the natives, and an ancient delapidated farm house, overgrown land, and the hilarious problems of animal husbandry. And…added to all that, we hear about his vintage aeroplane, his piano, his triumphs at the tennis club, and his attempts to socialise and become integrated into the french community.
He decided to up roots and take himself and his cat to France, in an attempt to ‘become a man’ and prove to himself that he could do ‘manly’ things. So, accordingly he recounts his desire to acquire manly tools, which might persuade him to do manly jobs, like the desperate work that needs doing on the farmhouse, just to make it habitable. As the story progresses, we hear him inwardly balking at the idea of chopping wood in the snow, and other manly tasks, yet he does them all, somehow sticking to his guns and proving he can do it, and enjoy it. He discovers he quite likes physical work, once he gets going, and such are the distractions of his new home, he finds no time or inclination to write his novel, (well…mainly because he can’t think how to start it off!)

This book is hilarious. I had the audio copy which is read by Michael Wright himself, and I have to say that even if it had been the most boring book, I’d have listened because his voice and story-telling skills are great. I loved the gentle humour, which popped up so often and so subtly at times that I found myself in danger of missing bits here and there. I loved the fact that there were half a dozen strong themes running throughout which made the stories all the more interesting, and most of all I loved this man’s honesty. He is so self-deprecating, and yet somehow manages to charm everyone, and learns quickly from his mistakes. We find that despite his assertions to the contrary he ia a very able person, and at the end of the book, he is able to realise this for himself and leave the crutches of the past behind and look to the future.
The animals played a major part in the story and the joys and grief as Michael learns about life in the raw are beautifully portrayed, and it would be a stone-hearted person who could shrug at the deaths of Emil the little sheep, or Mary the chicken.
I really enjoyed this book and will enjoy reading it again and hopefully the follow-up, which I believe is planned for release next year (2009). To those who have criticised it as not being a literary work…it isn’t meant to be, not in the sense of an heavy duty tome, but it is a literary work that recounts life and people in the 21st century and all the struggles, hopes, triumphs and loves that keep folk sane and able to get on with their lives. Whether you can relate to his lifestyle or not, you will be able to relate to the man and his steps towards knowing himself a little better, and becoming ‘manly’.
Susie / Kimmikat

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The Fiction Class (Loving books and falling in love, Manhattan style) by Susan Breen

Synopsis 

‘You’ve known there was something special about you for a long time, haven’t you?’

On paper, Arabella Hicks is perfectly qualified to teach a creative writing class on the Upper  West Side; as well as being an author herself, she loves fiction, more than anything in the world.

‘You still feel something every time you pick up a book; you still connect to characters in ways you’ve never connected to people you actually know, and you know you’re more than you appear to be. You have to give it one more shot; you have to see if you can be a writer.

But neither her own novel, nor her life are working out quite as she planned, and she is beginning to wonder whether this year’s students will be just as bad, mad and complicated as all the others; whether, as she fears, real life will never be as enjoyable as a really good novel

She is wrong.

Review

This debut novel by fiction teacher Susan Breen is different from most romantic novels, in that it attempts to enlighten the reader by showing the world of the author. In itself that is perhaps not earth-shattering, but when your world is all about books and writing, it is something different to the average reader. However, that said, (and ‘different’ is good), it may be one of the downfalls of the book. I am not sure how many readers would be interested in a writing class, and the exercises that go with it. At the end of each chapter covering the evening class, Ms Breen writes down the homework, and the reader, if interested, can make use of this. A good idea for aspiring writers, but I am not convinced that the avid romance reader will be impressed.
The book has several themes, notably disability and illness and the caring responsibilities attached to this situation: then there is the difficult relationship between mother and daughter; impending death; the romance; writing; the growth of the protagonist’s self-awareness and confidence, and faith – a steady thread throughout the book, which in a way is the glue that holds it together.

Initially I had problems with the characters. The main character, Arabella, didn’t come alive for me until well into the second half of the book. I am not sure why she remained transparent, but she wasn’t real for me.  Once fleshed out and more believable, she stayed with me long after I’d finished reading the book. Her mother, Vera Hicks, was the only character who seemed believable. I’m not sure why. Whereas Arabella was a little too ‘goody-goody’, her mother was nasty, cruel and unfeeling, yet you felt sorry for her and could relate to how you thought she might be feeling, given her past life. Arabella was a bit like a character from  an historical romance, a young woman from the Regency period perhaps, demure and sweet, and in the background. She was, after all, named after a character (and book) written by the romantic novelist Georgette Heyer, so perhaps this was deliberate on the part of the author, and in true Jane Austen style, we see the awakening and strenghening of the female protagonist’s character as the story progresses. I read Georgette Heyer in my teens and am now going to re-read her, having had my memory jogged! The other characters, Chuck her patient lover, and her students, were interesting to a degree, but a little clichéd, I felt,  and I found myself confused by the sheer number. I began to mix them up.

I liked the originality of the story, and the boldness of some of the ideas and the questions arising from them, such as the daunting moral dilemma of whether a parent should be sent to a nursing home, or cared for at home, and the contrast between Arabella’s decision to do the latter, whilst her mother had given up her life to care for her husband at home. Arabella’s vague awareness that things are not always as they appear is given a sharp jolt as reality hits hard in some of her students lives. I felt that the reminder about disability became too invasive and whiny. It was in danger of being over stated. It is something I feel strongly about too, having been a carer, but I began to get irritated as I felt that it was used too many times in the book and the impact was lost. However, the idea of a woman’s faith keeping her together (no matter that it was a belief in a miracle) was important, and illustrated Vera’s humanity in a way that contrasted with her daughter’s genuine and gentle honesty, a humanity which could so easily have been her ruin.

I wasn’t sure about the book at first, as the first few chapters were slow and seemed repetitive, and the inclusion of exercises could have put people off. By the end of the book I was convinced that it worked, and was sad to finish it, and the characters did stay with me for a while afterwards which is always a good sign. I noted that there were many parallels between the author and her protagonist, (auto-biographic?) and hope that Arabella’s good fortune will perhaps rub off on her creator’s pen. I would certainly be happy to read any second novel that Ms Breen might produce and wish her well in her writing.

Susan Breen lives in New York with her husband and children and teaches fiction at the Gotham Writers’ Workshop in Manhattan

Susie -Kimmikat

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The House in the Forest – Michelle Desbordes

Synoposis;

In her cottage in the French countryside, an old woman receives an unexpected visitor: a boy whispering in an unfamiliar language,and bringing sheaves of paper, in the letters and jottings of her youngest son. Sometime before – and not even the locals who relate the story can remember how long – her son had done as she had told him , and left to seek his fortune on a Carribean island. Once there, the promised wealth had disastrously eluded him – and now, not far from the old woman’s cottage, the locals see a mysterious stranger, with a boy and a dog, carrying planks into the woods to build a place to live…

“Désbordes seeks to show that there is no such thing as an ending, that-like life itself-stories repeat themselves…her writing resembles an extended poem with an incantory quality, like a French version of Eliot’s Four Quartets.”(Observer)

This book is probably very different from any other book you have read, and, it has to be said, will not be to everyone’s taste. When I began reading the first chapter, it was not long before I questioned myself. Did I really need to read this, or want to read it? It wasn’t the content that was the problem. It was the style of writing, which at first appears to be almost totally without punctuation. However, after persisting with it a while longer, I realised that this is the whole point of the book. The commentary from the locals that the critic from the Observer said resembled an incantory style, for me was more like the chorus in some of the Greek plays of the past. The voices tell the story from their perspective, but speculating all the time on the thoughts and feelings of the three main characters, the woman, her son and the young boy. Each voice is given a chance to describe what they see and understand, and you hear it all in a semi-jumbled form as if listening to a crowd of people all talking at once, randomly all telling the same story. The narrative is repetitious, and at first I found this tedious, but later enjoyed it, as I was intriqued to see how the author could say the same thing over and over, yet each time, alter or add something minutely, giving away a few more details, or changing the mood or tone of the narrative a little. This very clever style, for me, embodied the message of the story…that life, and all the stories, events and seasons are neverending. No one story ever ends completely before it is begun again, and then again, just as the winter never quite ends, but repeats year after year. Because of this, life and time itself merge into one long amorphous story, where humans become lost and entangled, losing individuality, and sense of purpose. The same things happen, the same questions are asked, and the same answers given. The same feelings are expressed, and the same opinions, but nothing changes, as everything is cyclical like the seasons and each life ends with the start of another.

The story is deceptively simple. The young man goes to seek his fortune in a foreign land, at the behest of his mother, is away for twenty or more years, but does not find the wealth he seeks and returns. He does not look for his mother, but builds a shack in a copse nearby and shortly afterwards succumbs to the illness which has stalked him persistantly throughout his journey home. Despite this outward simplicity, I found that there were many questions I wanted to ask. They had no proof that the man was who they thought he was. It was all supposition. There are lots of unanswered questions about his relationship with his mother. What had happened to the other sons? Why would a mother ask her son to do something like this in the first place? Many many questions arising from this short narrative, but which make us question are own beliefs about the world around us and our perception of it, and our perceptions about how others see it and respond to it. Is this indeed a story that has been repeated over the centuries, time after time, in many continents? Is it something that goes on all the time, but we lose sight of it in all the details of everyday life?

I really liked this book, but it did take me a couple of chapters to get into it and understand the authors style. Once I had grasped the concept I thorougly enjoyed it and look forward to reading more from this author, whose debut novel La Demande (The Maid’s Request) was published to great critical acclaim. 

Susie 6/01/08

 

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