Understory – Inga Simpson

I came across Inga Simpson at Adelaide Writer’s Week. My interest was piqued after listening to her read an excerpt from her novel Where The Trees Were. I fell in love with that novel, have now devoured Understory and certainly plan to make my way through her first two novels. Understory is the tale of Simpson’s tree change from suburbia to a cottage in the forest and interweaves the stories of her life that shaped her path as a writer.


Part of what I love about Understory was that I found Simpson so relatable. All the anecdotes, the passing details are so familiar to my own life that I could;t help but feel comfortable in her world. Gardening in your undies, finishing the day with a beer, the love for wine, good food and solitude. It was all too easy to picture and immerse myself in. I also loved the continuous references to Lord of the Rings and in particular the Ents. I adore LotR and loved reading about the parallels she found in her life in the forest.


Understory is not just a memoir of Simpson’s life, but of the trees in the forest too. The reader visits the canopy, the middlestory and the understory. When reading this book be prepared with a device for googling images of the trees. While Simpson’s descriptions are vivid and beautiful I also enjoyed a visual representation. Each chapter within each part is the story of that tree, the reader learns all about it, where it fits in the forest and hear a story from Simpson’s life that relates back to that tree. This is not your typical memoir told in chronological order detailing life from infancy to present. This is something different, more personal, the reader understands just how intertwined Simpson’s life is with the forest.


If you are ecologically-minded I highly recommend picking up Understory. If you aren’t ecologically-minded I still recommend picking up Understory. I love the approach to life, the relationship with natures, the lessons learned all contained within this memoir and already know it is a book I will return to again and again over the years. In fact, I immediately went out and purchased Simpson’s first novel, Mr Wigg, before I had even finished reading Understory after reading about the inspiration and process of writing it.  I believe Simpson is becoming an important voice in Australian literature and highly recommend picking up something of hers if you have not yet. We can all do with a little reminder of just how much we influence our environment and what we can do to protect it. I give Understory four strong trees of the forest.


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The God of Small Things – Arundhati Roy

Over the years  I have picked this book up at a book store and put it back down many times undecided as to whether I would purchase it or not. Perhaps a sign of things to come? I finally purchased a copy, had it sit on my shelf for four months and now have actually read it. How did I feel? A little underwhelmed to be honest (but can you ever just be whelmed?). I don’t know if perhaps I had expectations a little too high? The God of Small Things follows a family living in India in 1969. The two egg twins Estha and Rahel, their mother Ammu, Uncle Chacko, the enemy Baby Kochamma just to name a few. When Chacko’s English ex-wife and daughter, Sophie Mol, arrive the whole family find their lives are turned upside down and are shattered forever.


As I mentioned, I found myself a little under whelmed by this book. I wonder if I might enjoy it a little more on a second read. I found the first half of the novel quite confusing, constantly hinting at what might have happened to Sophie Mol and then chopping and changing between the past and the present. I was quite lost and found it difficult to concentrate on the prose and keep track of my bearings within the story. The writing from the perspective of you Estha and Rahel is fascinating but also difficult to relax into, hence why I think this novel might have more to give the second time around. I did read this book over the course of a month, breaking it up into smaller pieces, a continuous read through might help the reader gain a little momentum. I feel like I lost something reading it over such a long period of time.


The characters within the novel were all vivid and entertaining. Some were likeable, many were not and yet each was captivating in their own way. I would have loved to have understood them a little more, in particular grown up Estha and Rahel, Ammu and Chacko in particular. More insight into their action and consequences would have added a bit more to my experience. The themes within the novel and the social constructs of India in the late sixties were interesting and another highlight, however, I found myself wishing they were explored a little more. I guess my overall feel form this novel was that I would have liked a little more. I felt there were many ideas and events alluded to, without a lot of clear explanations and I was left with many lingering questions. Hopefully a second read will shed some light in the future. Overall, I would recommend this book. The prose is a definite highlight but just be prepared that you maybe be left wanting a little more. I give The God of Small Things three little ships sailing across the river.


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Memories Unwound – Ruby Dhal

change is what

we all see

yet it is

a door that

– no one wants to open.


Memory Unwound by Ruby Dhal is a beautiful collection of poetry to be savoured. For fans of Rupi Kaur, her and Dhal have similar writing styles. These poems are certainly not as biting or intense as Kaur’s but that isn’t to say they are any less meaningful or hard hitting. Instead they are understated and elegant. Dhal writes that “each piece aims to go beyond just words and reveal emotion”. The title emphasises poetry that is “universally relatable” and these words are just that. Beautiful, flowery and pleasing words describing common feelings, a universal understanding that I would struggle to to put into any words let alone such beautiful poetry. Memories Unwound is life poetry, so many phrases and ideas that I can relate to in my ay to day life. This collection was highly enjoyable and is something I can pick up, flick to a random page and find words that will settle my soul. I highly recommend giving this collection a go.


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Into The Water – Paula Hawkins

I have to admit, I was not the biggest fan of Hawkin’s first novel, The Girl on the Train. I found the protagonist difficult to identify with, which made it difficult to enjoy the book. I was a little apprehensive trying Into The Water but thanks to Erica from Libretto Reviews I was lucky enough to win a copy. Into The Water starts wth the death of Nel Abbott only days after calling her estranged sister Jules for help. Now Jules must return to the old Mill House to care for her orphaned niece all the while trying to find what happened to her sister, while suppressing her terrible memories of this place. See, Nel was obsessed with the town’s river and the Drowning Pool, where many women have lost their lives over the years and Jules is certain she wouldn’t have joined them willingly.


I have to say I definitely enjoyed Into The Water much more. The concept immediately drew me in: the fascination with the Drowning Pool, the stories of women past, a fresh murder, estranged sisters. There is so much going on in this story, yet not too much to confuse the reader. There are so many threads to this story that the reader finds themselves racing to see how they knit together in the end. There were many aspects of the writing that appealed to me. I love a short chapter, particularly in books that written to be fast-paced, I find it keeps me interested. I also enjoyed the changes in perception, it was a little confusing at first but then I settle into the varied perspectives nicely. Each character narrating the story slowly revealed a little more of the twisted plot slowly tightening to one complete, tragic story. In particular I enjoyed learning about the individual stories of the past women who fell victim to the drowning pool.


Each of Hawkins’ characters were fascinating in their own way. I liked the range of unique characters, men and women, children to older adults, each had something to add to the novel and in my opinion, none were excessive. I loved the way Hawkins wrote Jules’ perspective and how she related and spoke to her deceased sister, it was unique and made sense to the characters and their relationship. The only slight let-down with this story for me was the ending. Don’t get me wrong, the twists and turns and the actual conclusion was great – I had no issues there. Somehow I just lost the pacing and the urgency in the last part. Perhaps the ending was little too protracted for my liking? I’m not quite sure but I found the first half of the book more of a page-turner for me. Overall, I would recommend Into The Water and found it an enjoyable read. I give Into The Water three books, an important part of this story, whether it be Nel’s manuscript or a young Jules reading The Secret History.


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The Queen of Whale Cay – Kate Summerscale

There is no better way to describe this novel than truth really is stranger than fiction. In fact I’m going to follow Margot from Project Lectito and say after reading this biography Joe Carstairs would most definitely be one of the five people dead or alive I would want to have dinner with. If, like I was, you are completely unaware who Joe Carstairs is firstly she was the fasted woman on the water in the 1920’s. Born to an American oil heiress and a British army caption, Joe was born Marion Barbara Carstairs and worked as a driver during WWI. Post-war she named herself Joe, dressed as a man and embarked on affairs with a host of actresses and young women while aspiring to be the fastest woman on water. Eventually she tired of the limelight and the fickle whims of the media and bought an island in the Bahamas to live on with the love of her life Lord Tod Wadley, a doll given to her by her girlfriend Ruth. On Whale Cay she built a thriving community, championed for the rights of the Bahamians and threw debaucherous parties.


Joe Carstairs was an enigma, a more fascinating person you will not find. From her childhood and relationship with her mother to her flair for the dramatics and practical jokes. To Lord Tod Wadley and her many girlfriends, to her lifelong generosity and passion for the local Bahaminans and mission to make them self-sufficient. Joe had many contrasting personality traits, both negative and positive in equal amounts but regardless she always meant well. All I can say really is read this book! To go into more detail is to spoil all these amazing stories for all you potential readers.


Summerscale’s writing and tone was a highlight of the book, apart from Carstair’s escapades of course. Her comments speculating on the psychology of Corsair’s actions were well-placed and not ver-done. There was not too much or too little detail. This biography engages the reader throughout. The photographs and other mages were a great addition to add to the readers experience. Overall, this was a great non-fiction read for a giggle and a unique story that if someone were to fictionalise would be thought to be over the top and too ridiculous. While many of Carstair’s actions were laughable and entertaining she had much more depth than one might initially assume. I give The Queen of Whale Cay four dolls to keep Lord Tod Wadley company.


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Station Eleven – Emily St John Mandel

I just can’t seem to get enough of post-apocalyptic fiction and Station Eleven was no exception. One winter’s night a well-known actor dies on stage performing King Lear. Hours later the world as we know it collapses as a deadly flu pandemic breaks out killing those who come into contact with it. Twenty years later Kirsten is an actress performing Shakespeare with the Travelling Symphony when an encounter with a self-proclaimed prophet threatens to disrupt their delicate way of life in a world without electricity, medicine or modern comforts. As the story switches back and forth from past to present the threads of the story slowly come together.


One thing that struck me about this novel was that it seemed a little more hopeful than your average post-apocalyptic tale. Don’t get me wrong this story did’t shy away from the harsh realities of life without civilisation or sugarcoat anything but there was an undertone of hope or maybe just a lack of desolation? There are still a band of people dedicated to bringing some joy and beauty in a broken world that still remembers what they have lost and who would have thought Shakespeare is what the post-apocalyptic society wants?


I loved getting to know each of the characters across the novel and learning about their stories before and after the end of the world. The storyline shifts across several characters from the past to the present as the reader watches the pieces slowly fall into place, which I loved and savoured. Their lives tell as story of humanity and life and the constant shift of whims and desires. How do we keep humanity in times of emergency? This novel explores some of these ideas in a beautiful, simplistic manner. The prose was beautiful and the mood and tome were superb keeping the story flowing towards the climax.


My favourite chapter describes an incomplete list of all that has been lost in this post-apocalyptic world, which I found elegant and reflective. I haven’t come across a chapter like it in any other apocalyptic novel and thought it put so much into perspective, what life could be like should a similar disaster befall us. Some great concepts are also explore and touched upon within this story, such as is it worth remembering the past and all that has been lost or is it better to move forward and let the old ways slip away from the newer generation? So many thought provoking ideas flowed from these pages.


Overall, I would highly recommend this evocative and descriptive read. I found it a pleasure to read and devoured it in two evenings. Besides, how could I not fall in love with a novel that references one of my other favourite post-apocalyptic novels: The Passage. That being said, if you don’t typically read this kind of book I would urge you to give it a go as it is much more than just a post-apocalyptic story, it is literary and unique. I give Station Eleven four seahorses living in the Undersea.


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The Narrow Road to the Deep North – Richard Flanagan

Ohh dear, I didn’t quite love this one as much I was hoping to. I may have suffered from too high expectations here. Don’t get me wrong this is an important and beautifully written novel. The Narrow Road to the Deep North is a harsh but beautiful account of how war ravages us all, of life and death, expectations and truth and everything in between. This book for the most part follows Dorry Evans and his life before and after the war where he served as an Australian surgeon in WWII and found himself a POW in a Japanese camp. We also follow the paths of his comrades as they struggle with a daily battle for life in the harshest of conditions and, uniquely, those holding them captive: Japanese and Korean officers upholding the will of the Emperor.


At first I found the changes in time, pre-war past, the war and post-war present and then the changes of perspective at little difficult to follow. It took probably the first half of the novel to find my feet. By the second half I was settled and enjoyed the rest of the novel a lot more. The writing in this novel was beautiful. Flanagan has a gift with words and I loved his prose, the beautiful passages about life and death. They were bleak but beautiful showing the ugly flaws of humanity at it’s worst, and yet, small pockets of hope and mateship. I feel as though this was a realistic narrative of war showing both the ramifications during the experience, as well as, quite importantly how it affects life afterwards.


Once I had settled into the book I loved the mixture of perspectives. Each unique story showed the variety of paths that were taken and a range of reactions that are each acutely realistic. The language and descriptions were perfection. Flanagan puts the reader directly in each of the character’s shoes. He describes not only what the scenery looked like but what it smelt like so the reader feels like they are right there too. I also loved that Flanagan included perspectives from the enemy, the Japanese, both during and post-war. It truly shows than no one thinks of themselves as the villain, everyone is working for the greater good and their side is correct. I enjoyed the way Flanagan captured the Japanese psyche of honour. Upholding their honour is paramount and this aspect is captured perfectly in the text.


The one  thing I did not like was Dorrigo and Amy’s love affair pre-war. I found their story frustrating, their actions pointless and selfish and after it all they never fought for each other. I did think that Flanagan nailed post-war Dorry and how he copes and inserts himself back into society. I do know that this is a book I would like to read again in the future further down the track, without expectations to see if my opinion changes. Overall, it is an intimate and realistic portrayal of war and all it’s consequences and I understand why this is such a celebrated novel. Flanagan is a gifted writer and I look forward to reading more of his work. I give The Narrow Road to the Deep North three stars, which I hope to increase in the future.


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