Thursday 31 March 2016

Book Review: How To Be A Heroine by Samantha Ellis

On a pilgrimage to Wuthering Heights, Samantha Ellis found herself arguing with her best friend about which heroine was best: Jane Eyre or Cathy Earnshaw. She was all for wild, passionate Cathy; but her friend found Cathy silly, a snob, while courageous Jane makes her own way.

And that’s when Samantha realised that all her life she’d been trying to be Cathy when she should have been trying to be Jane. So she decided to look again at her heroines – the girls, women, books that had shaped her ideas of the world and how to live.

How To Be A Heroine is Samantha’s funny, touching, inspiring exploration of the role of heroines, and our favourite books, in all our lives – and how they change over time, for better or worse, just as we do.

I read How To Be A Heroine as part of my two reading challenges - the Nonfiction Reading Challenge and the Eclectic Reader Challenge, which asked for a 'book about books'. Being an avid reader I was drawn to the premise of Ellis' book; I think it's a fascinating idea to go back and re-read novels you enjoyed in your youth to see if you view the characters differently with adult eyes. And I can certainly relate to the idea that characters in novels become as important to you as your real-life friends, especially when you read books as an adolescent. That's the beauty of fiction - authors create characters that can come alive on the page and readers get to use their imagination to give these characters form.

Ellis' book is well-written. It was interesting reading about characters and novels that I haven't thought about in years. It was fun to think back on my own first reading of Wuthering Heights, Pride and Prejudice, Gone with the Wind etc, remembering how much those books meant to me. I especially liked how Ellis re-read fairy tales from a feminist perspective. It's always good to be reminded of the absurdity of these stories- eg: the Little Mermaid gives up her legs and her voice, all for a man. Ridiculous!

I must admit, however, that I ended up skipping a few chapters in this book. Some of these were because I hadn't read the novel Ellis was discussing so her reflections meant very little to me. But it wasn't just those chapters; I found myself growing bored. For some reason this book failed to hold my attention. It definitely has little to do with the quality of the book, because that is excellent - Ellis is a great writer. And while I could relate to some of Ellis' life decisions, I came to view it as monotonous and unrealistic that Ellis would be so enamored with fictional characters that they would guide her life so significantly.

For Ellis, it seems, books are her world, her passion, her life. Of course that's fine. I respect that. And I do relate to it - that's why I chose to read her book in the first place. But unfortunately, I didn't fall in love with How To Be A Heroine. I wish I could have, because the premise was so intriguing to me.

Wednesday 23 March 2016

Book Review: This House of Grief by Helen Garner

On the evening of 4 September 2005, Father’s Day, Robert Farquharson, a separated husband, was driving his three sons home to their mother, Cindy, when his car left the road and plunged into a dam. The boys, aged ten, seven and two, drowned. Was this an act of revenge or a tragic accident? The court case became Helen Garner’s obsession. She followed it on its protracted course until the final verdict.

In this utterly compelling book, Helen Garner tells the story of a man and his broken life. She presents the theatre of the courtroom with its actors and audience, all gathered for the purpose of bearing witness to the truth, players in the extraordinary and unpredictable drama of the quest for justice.

I read This House of Grief as part of both the Nonfiction Reading Challenge and the Eclectic Reader Challenge (which asked for an investigative journalism book). Even though I'm Australian, I've lived in London for many years so I was unfamiliar with the tragic story of Robert Farquharson and his three sons. After choosing to read This House of Grief, I purposefully didn't look up the case; I was able to read about the trial without any idea of whether Farquharson would be found guilty or innocent.

Helen Garner is such a fantastic writer. She was able to turn the somewhat boring legal proceedings into a compelling narrative. I was hooked from the first page and devoured this book in two days. I was desperate to find out what would happen to Robert Farquharson. It wasn't long in to the book that I decided for myself that he was certainly guilty. His strange behaviour immediately following the incident, and his inability to say exactly how he had helped to save his sons from drowning, made me question Farquharson's coughing blackout story. My instincts told me that something was just not right there. Surely a parent would be frantic, trying desperately to save their children's lives? Farquharson seemed to accept his boys' fate too willingly.

Reading about this horrific incident made my heart ache for the boys' mother Cindy Gambino. To lose all of your children in such a tragic way was heartbreaking. This House of Grief is a hard book to read, even though it is expertly written. Garner's thorough descriptions of the trial left me with visions of those three innocent souls fighting for their lives in that cold, dark water. It was torture to imagine such things and I don't even know the family personally. To understand the depths of their grief is impossible for me, but my compassion for them is boundless.

This House of Grief is investigative journalism at its absolute best. Garner's writing kept me enthralled throughout and I was able to relate to all of the emotions she so eloquently spoke about experiencing as she sat through week after week of Farquharson's murder trial. Garner is herself a compassionate observer while also being a competent journalist who is able to give us an uncensored report of every aspect of the trial. Garner has her own opinion of Robert Farquharson, but at all times she asks questions of herself and her reader, so as to look at this man from every possible angle. If he is as innocent as he claims, a misunderstood man, then he really is living every parent's worst nightmare.

After reading this book though, I don't believe in Farquharson's innocence. I think he made a terrible choice, out of spite and revenge, to take his children away from his ex-wife Cindy. I'm no expert, but if two separate juries found him guilty of intentionally driving that car into the dam and murdering his sons, then that's evidence enough for me. What Farquharson did is unforgivable. As heartbreaking as it was to read about this tragedy I'm grateful to know the story, so the lives of Jai, Tyler and Bailey can be honoured and remembered.  


Friday 18 March 2016

Book Review: The Girl in the Ice by Robert Bryndza

'Her eyes are wide open. Her lips parted as if to speak. Her dead body frozen in the ice…She is not the only one.

When a young boy discovers the body of a woman beneath a thick sheet of ice in a South London park, Detective Erika Foster is called in to lead the murder investigation.

The victim, a beautiful young socialite, appeared to have the perfect life. Yet when Erika begins to dig deeper, she starts to connect the dots between the murder and the killings of three prostitutes, all found strangled, hands bound and dumped in water around London.

What dark secrets is the girl in the ice hiding?'

I read The Girl in the Ice as part of the 2016 Eclectic Reader Challenge, for which I needed to read a 'serial killer thriller.' I chose this particular novel because it is set in South-East London, where I live, and because the book had so many glowing reviews.

The Girl in the Ice is a typical crime novel, so fans of the genre will likely enjoy the story. Although some reviewers have questioned the accuracy of the police procedures in the book, that wasn't an issue for me. Die-hard crime novel fans might feel that stretching artistic license when it comes to describing police investigations is a no-no, but I was able to suspend disbelief and just go along for the ride. As you can tell, I'm not a die-hard crime novel fan. I don't often choose to read crime novels, but when a reading challenge calls for it I always manage to find one that I enjoy.

The best part of reading The Girl in the Ice, for me, was its setting. Reading a story set in places that are so familiar to me really made the story come alive. It was easy for me to imagine the action and picture the characters in their surroundings. This made the story much more realistic for me and really allowed me to engage with the characters' actions.

I especially liked the main character, Detective Erika Foster. In the opening chapters it is clear she's a woman who stands her ground and commands authority. It's refreshing to read a strong female character who holds her own among her male colleagues. But there is also a vulnerability to Erika Foster, which she tries to keep hidden. She's dealing with a personal tragedy that makes her behaviour a little erratic. I notice some reviewers said this was unrealistic, but for me I enjoyed that side of Foster as it made her a more rounded character. We all have our flaws, even strong police officers aren't perfect.

I enjoyed The Girl in the Ice. It was a fast-paced and engaging read. I didn't know who the killer was so I found the last few chapters especially exciting as the hunt for the killer intensified. The writing was good and I liked the way the author used the snowy and rainy weather to create a haunting atmosphere. There were some minor errors in the book though; mainly editing issues, things being forgotten etc. Overall, an easy read that entertained me.