Review – Claire Varley – The Bit In Between

The Bit In Between

The Bit In Between is the story of two twenty something Australians, Alison and Oliver, who meet in an airport lounge, both on their way back to Melbourne, and share an instant connection despite Alison promptly throwing up on Oliver.

The two are likeable enough but when we first meet them, Alison and Oliver are also extremely self -centred and somewhat annoying. Alison follows Oliver to the Solomon Islands on a whim following a few days of fun together, and a funeral, and without seeing her family as planned, making them wait at the train station three times for her to arrive. Oliver’s relationship with his Greek family is explored in some depth in the book. Alison’s is not, and I think this is a pity and a very big gap in the story.

Oliver struggles with his writing – it’s hard to believe at times he is a published author – and Alison does not fit in, especially with the other expat women. As Alison’s friendship with Sera develops, she finds ways to use her skills to help local women and her own confidence and outlook grow as a result.

Conflict arises in the relationship as Alison gains more confidence and Oliver’s writing seems to impact more and more on their lives together. Both of them mature a lot as the story progresses and by the end of the book the reader has more respect and affection for them. The minor characters in the book are interesting, complex and sometimes hilarious.

The Bit In Between is a terrific book. It really nails the restless search for identity and place by young Australians abroad and its portrait of the Solomon Islands is warm and insightful. I recognise so many of the characters from my own travels and Alison’s stumbling efforts to forge her own identity and find something meaningful, reminds me – somewhat uncomfortably – of myself at that age.

The dialogue is spot-on and quite often very funny. I really enjoyed the back stories of people Alison meets, sometimes only in passing. Each of the characters comes across as very real.

It is a pity that the book is being promoted as a romance for twenty-something readers. While the relationship between Alison and Oliver is central to the story, the themes of the book – identity, family, relationships and culture – deserve a wide audience and I feel that potential readers who would enjoy the book may be put off by that narrow marketing focus. I feel the weakest part of the book is the ending. The book finishes quickly and in a way that supports the romance focus and it seems, to me at least, as if it is not entirely true to the rest of the book. Unlike Oliver, I’m not against happy endings. It’s just that this one seems a little more forced than the book and the characters’ increasing depth would suggest.

It’s fascinating to read a book set in the Solomon Islands, one of our close neighbours, especially by an author with such experience and affection for the country. The Bit In Between is Claire Varley’s first book, hard to believe as she has such a strong writing voice. I look forward to her next one.

Claire Varley grew up on the Bellarine Peninsula and now lives in Melbourne. She has taught English in China and coordinated community development programs in the Solomon Islands. She has drawn on these experiences, and her Greek Cypriot heritage, in the book.

Claire’s website is www.clairevarley.com

More about The Bit In Between can be found here:

http://www.panmacmillan.com.au/9781743535608

Thank you to Pan Macmillan for providing a review copy. The book is available in your local bookshop now.

Review – Deborah O’Brien – The Trivia Man

I blame Jane Austen. Or maybe it’s human nature – when we find a book we enjoy, we want more. If not more by the same author, then books which are similar but, of course, also different. Alas, Austen was not as prolific as Dickens or Trollope and yes I know it’s not her fault.

I was a bit wary when Deborah O’Brien’s The Trivia Man came with the recommendation “If you liked The Rosie Project….” I loved The Rosie Project (less so The Rosie Effect…) and I worried that The Trivia Man was a copy-cat book and wondered whether it would suffer in comparison.  The two cover some similar themes, but they are very different – one laugh out loud, the other more charming and insightful.

Kevin Dwyer is a 48 year old forensic accountant who loves trivia competitions. Kevin knows himself, but other people seem to have trouble understanding him, including his sister Beth. His best friend is his eight year old nephew Patrick. Kevin struggles to make sense of the social cues around him – unfortunately people are not very logical. Kevin believes that “trivia is a serious business, not a social occasion.” When he joins the Clifton Heights Sports Club trivia night he enters as a one-man team but his win in the first round means the other teams start lobbying him to join them.

Maggie Taylor teaches Latin and is a music buff. A work colleague has dragged her along to the trivia competition to meet new people and to contribute her movie knowledge to the team. She and Kevin bond in the back stairwell and Kevin ends up joining her team.

This is a terrific book with lots of comedy, great insight into people and relationships and some heartbreaking moments. Plus trivia questions! (but not answers – grrrr.) The story takes place over the ten weeks of the  trivia competition, with flashbacks that help us get to know the characters in more depth. The relationship between Kevin and his nephew Patrick is beautifully written, very warm and at times very moving.

It’s interesting to follow Maggie and Kevin’s growing friendship. On the surface, Maggie would seem to have a better grasp of social cues, but for many years she has been held back by her feelings for a man who consistently treats her badly. Maggie is a slow learner, at least when it comes to relationships. Their friendship could be the fresh start they both need.

(I would have thought that Maggie’s attachment to Brad was an annoying plot device – such an intelligent woman! – if I hadn’t seen so many intelligent women fall for narcissists and ignore the warning signs when they show up again. No!!!!!!!! When Maggie finally – oops, spoiler alert. Let’s just say I gave a little cheer at a particular point of the book. You will too.)

I would happily recommend this book. I think the book’s message is get out there and meet people. Not because you might meet “someone”, but because, in mixing with other people, you might get to know yourself better. Maybe that will help you make better choices. My only real criticism is that the trivia answers are not given at the back of the book!

Deborah O’Brien is a writer, teacher and artist who divides her time between Sydney and the country cottage where she does most of her writing.

Deborah’s website is http://www.deborahobrien.com.au/

More about The Trivia Man can be found here: http://www.randomhouse.com.au/books/deborah-obrien/the-trivia-man-9780857988027.aspx

Thank you to Random House for providing a review copy. The book is available in bookshops now.

Wrap up for Lifesaving for Beginners read-a-long

Warning: spoiler alert!

http://1girl2manybooks.wordpress.com/2013/02/25/lifesaving-for-beginners-ciara-geraghty-read-a-long-discussion-pt-3-wrap-up/#comment-6607

“The Cad” recommends – the books of William Boyd

When you get a group of single women together, the stories flow for hours. There is a lot of laughter and sometimes a few tears. Single life is a foreign country and there are things you quickly learn which are so far from your experience as a married or partnered person. I see it from a female perspective of course but sometimes a woman can get a little insight into life as a single man. A few months ago I had dinner with a charming, intelligent man who was very good company. Things were going swimmingly until we got onto the topic of how he was finding the single life. His happy demeanour dissolved, he hung his head and said sadly, “Women read a lot of books.”

So I consider myself lucky that my first romantic encounter as a newly single woman was with a man who was a great reader of fiction. Never mind that he was subsequently labelled “The Cad” by one of my very dear male friends. He put me onto William Boyd, a wonderful English writer in the tradition of W Somerset Maugham, Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh. Beautiful writing and terrific stories. For this, I will be eternally grateful (and forgive his much later recommendation of The Time Traveller’s Wife).

I credit A Good Man in Africa as getting me back into reading again, or rather, enjoying reading again, after a few hard years. I laughed so much. Morgan Leafy is a young British diplomat in the small African republic of Kinjana. The book is set in the 1960s and is a tale of incompetence, corruption, blackmail and venereal disease – of the British in general and Leafy in particular. Leafy is in love with a woman who has just become engaged to someone else and his personal failings lead him from one disaster to another. By the end of the book, there is no sense of resolution or redemption. It’s hard to believe that Leafy has learnt anything at all. It’s a funny and intelligent book and it was hard for me at the time to think of anything I had ever enjoyed so much.

The Ice cream War (Penguin Decades 1999) was the next Boyd book I read. Set in German East Africa in 1914, it follows the private dramas of a number of men and women, set against the growing inevitability of war. It is a tense experience for the reader – we know how the big picture pans out. Boyd spent his early years in Africa and he certainly knows a lot about the history. This knowledge doesn’t get in the way of the story. Ice Cream War is not light hearted like A Good Man in Africa but it is a very satisfying read.

Ordinary Thunderstorms (Bloomsbury 2009) is set in present day London and examines what happens to an individual when everything is taken away from them. Adam Kindred, a climatologist, is in London for a job interview, following difficulties with his marriage and job in the US. He is anxious for a new start. After random conversation with a stranger in an Italian restaurant, he is quickly drawn into a series of events where he is wrongfully accused of murder and forced to flee from both the police and the murderer. In order to survive, he has to abandon everything that identifies him and he begins to live as a beggar on the streets of London. Boyd has clearly set out to play with the classic English thriller novel (think The 39 Steps among others) and the book examines the dark side of contemporary London (or any large, international city) – the underworld, corruption, big business, the pharmaceutical industry, prostitution…  Some reviewers feel that this book was not among Boyd’s best but I found it a compelling story. The BBC has bought the rights to the book and Boyd himself will write the screenplay. I look forward to it.

The next Boyd book I read was Waiting for Sunrise (Harper 2012). I must admit I was very disappointed by this book. Ordinary Thunderstorms was not a perfect book, and it tried to do too much, but overall the story and writing made up for it. The same can’t be said for Waiting for Sunrise. The book begins in Vienna in 1913. A young English actor, Lysander Rief, is in Vienna for psychotherapy. After an ill-advised passionate affair with a fellow patient (aren’t they always?), Rief is drawn into the shadowy world of espionage. It seems odd that the troubled young man turns into such a confident spy. It is all linked to the complicated psychoanalytic theories of Rief’s therapist. (Freud appears in the book to discount the theory.) It’s all a bit too “clever”. The book jumps around in tone, moves confusingly between London and Vienna and does not seem to know what it wants to be – psychological drama, spy thriller, family saga. All very confusing and in the end unsatisfying and disappointing.

I have a number of other, earlier, books by William Boyd on my bookshelf waiting to be read. Like all new, intense relationships we saw quite a bit of each other in the beginning and I was inclined to see him as the perfect man/writer. We’re past that heady stage now. I can read other authors. I can enjoy them and I have even stopped comparing them to him. But I do like him. A lot.  

William Boyd has been contracted by Ian Fleming’s family to write a new book about James Bond. It is set in 1969 and Bond is 45 years old. I am very much looking forward to its release in September 2013.

Women do read a lot of books it’s true. And when The Wheeler Centre runs literary speed dating nights, tickets for women sell out almost immediately and they have to run stories in The Age at the last minute to get enough men along.  Men must read books, but it’s been rare in my experience to meet one who reads widely and can recommend authors I can fall in love with. Prove me wrong. And if you can find one who is not a cad, I’d be even happier….

Read-a-long – Ciara Geraghty – Lifesaving for Beginners

I am taking part in a read-a-long hosted by Bree at http://www.1girl2manybooks.wordpress.com

Today we are discussing the first 149 pages of Lifesaving for Beginners just published by Hodder and Stoughton and released by Hachette Australia. Next Monday (18 February) will be pages 150 – 296 and the following Monday (25 February) will finish the book – pages 297 – 438.

It’s hard to say too much about the book without a major spoiler but it is told from the point of view of Milo, a ten year old boy in Brighton and Kat, a 39 year old woman in Dublin. “Just one day can change your life” says the blurb on the cover and that’s true in the story. Carefully organised lives unravel and secrets put aside many years ago come back to the surface and must be faced.

I’m enjoying it so far and it’s a struggle to stop at page 149. I’m keen to see how things play out.

Review – Kate James – When Gods Collide

The daughter of Christian missionaries, Kate James spent a good part of her childhood and early teens in south India, and she continues to visit India regularly when time and money allow. When Gods Collide: An unbeliever’s pilgrimage along India’s Coromandel Coast is Kate’s account of her journey to India to find out more about the murder ten years earlier of Christian missionary Graham Staines and his two young sons.

She had always thought of India as a place tolerant of different religions, and so she also wants to know how religious sentiment is changing in India. Having rejected the faith of her extended family as an adult, she is still bound on many levels to those she calls “my people”. It is not entirely clear until the end of the book exactly why the murder raises so many strong emotions in Kate and her motivations become clearer, to herself and also to the reader, as the story unfolds. Along the way she visits her old school, an ashram, temples, and a hospital. The people she meets have their own stories and insights to share.

Kate tells a journalist that she is always happy in Singapore, no matter in which direction she’s travelling, because it means she is on her way home. It’s a comment that sums up her life in a way as someone who has lived between countries and cultures. My favourite chapter is the last one when she comes home to Melbourne. Her dogs lick her face and cry with happiness when they see her again – “of course, they also do that when I come home from a five minute trip to the milk bar.” It’s autumn, the best time of year in Melbourne and a trip to the bustling Preston Market – with the Vietnamese woman who sells Kate her fish, Shane the butcher, the Italian owner of Placido’s Coffee – makes her think “maybe these are my people”.

This is an incredibly honest book. Kate shares her uncertainties, questioning and insecurities in a very open way. I suspect the journey Kate James is on is not over yet. I very much enjoyed this book and I hope to read more the next time she takes to the open road.

Kate James – When Gods Collide

published by Hardie Grant 2012

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