All The Books I Can Read

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Review: The Bit In Between by Claire Varley

The Bit In Between 
Claire Varley
Pan Macmillan AUS
2015, 272p
Copy courtesy of the publisher

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}:

There are seven billion people in the world. This is the story of two of them.

After an unfortunate incident in an airport lounge involving an immovable customs officer, a full jar of sun-dried tomatoes, quite a lot of vomit, and the capricious hand of fate, Oliver meets Alison. In spite of this less than romantic start, Oliver falls in love with her.

Immediately.

Inexplicably.

Irrevocably.

With no other place to be, Alison follows Oliver to the Solomon Islands where he is planning to write his much-anticipated second novel. But as Oliver’s story begins to take shape, odd things start to happen and he senses there may be more hinging on his novel than the burden of expectation. As he gets deeper into the manuscript and Alison moves further away from him, Oliver finds himself clinging to a narrative that may not end with ‘happily ever after’. 

Last year we spent 129 days in lockdown and at the beginning of the year, I optimistically had a lot of things to accomplish in 2020: spend 20 nights away from home, do 20 day trips/family outings, etc. None of those ever eventuated but the one thing I did complete was read 20 books from my shelves that I’d owned for at least 12 months. Considering I went no where and did nothing for the better part of the year, my reading was a huge part of what kept me grounded last year. So this year I decided to keep that and added in ‘read 21 books from my shelves that I’ve owned for at least 12 months’ to my personal goals for 2021. And then promptly forgot about it until last week when I realised I’d pretty much completed my February TBR pile and it would still be a little while before I’d have to start on my March TBR. I needed some things to read but luckily…..there’s never a shortage of books in this house!

I was sent this for review over 5 years ago, which is a bit embarrassing but it’s impossible to get to every single book I’m sent some months. However I keep a lot of the ones that I think I will get to one day, just for times like these! I also remember that I really loved Claire Varley’s second novel, which I read a couple of years ago so when I saw this on my unread shelf, I thought it’d make the perfect first choice for my challenge.

However, I didn’t love it as much as I loved that second book. There were parts of it that I found interesting and there were parts of it that I didn’t think worked for me personally. Oliver and Alison meet in an airport when both of them are transiting through there on flights home to Melbourne. Oliver is returning to bury his yiayia and Alison has left a relationship after spontaneously following him to China. When she hears of Oliver’s plans to go the Solomon Islands, where he plans to set his second book, she makes another snap decision to go with him. They connected well and spent a few days together in Melbourne after the quite unfortunate airport meeting (where she vomits all over him) and their savings allow them to live quite well.

I don’t think I’ve ever read a book set in the Solomon Islands before and so that was interesting to me. Oliver’s second book is about the end of colonialism in the area and the emergence of the country as a new, independent one run by its own people (although his book seems to focus not on that, but on the people handing over the power). Oliver wrote one novel which was quite successful but he’s very bitter that the publisher wanted a different ending to the one he envisaged and he ended up writing it but this time around, he wants to do things his way. However at a certain point in the novel, Oliver begins to feel like everything he’s writing is coming true with each person on the island now representing someone from the book he’s writing. He begins writing certain things just to see….not really taking into consideration the thoughts and feelings of the people he believes he is subjecting to certain things. That whole plot line didn’t really work for me, it felt like it was more skimmed over, not explored enough and although he and Alison fight over it a few times, it seems like mostly she just dismisses it (until she maybe doesn’t feel she can anymore) and he just furtively writes things to see if they’ll come true. I think it came on too late and wasn’t a big enough part of the novel for what it sort of demanded, to have any impact on the plot.

But my biggest issues were the main characters themselves. I couldn’t relate to Alison, who followed a man to China on a whim, left him when things weren’t going so well, met Oliver in an airport on her way home and then followed him to the Solomon Islands. I just don’t really relate to that sort of impulsiveness and I found her quite inconsiderate. She’s supposed to be met at the train station in her country town by her parents after her flight lands in Melbourne but she misses the first train and then just decides to spend days with Oliver. Her parents turn up to meet the train for days and she can’t even be bothered to call them and tell them she isn’t coming. To be fair, her parents didn’t seem that concerned (I feel like mine would be, if I were flying in from another country, didn’t turn up when I was supposed to and couldn’t be contacted for days) but obviously hers are used to this sort of thing. I liked Oliver more but found his friendship with the irritating Rick a bit tedious and every time Rick appeared in the narrative I wanted him to go away. Ed is a complete bonehead and Alison’s actions between him and Oliver are at times, a bit baffling to understand. Towards the end, there was a melting pot of incidents that just felt thrown in for comedy but for me, didn’t really work.

The one thing I did love is that every time we meet someone new in the story, no matter how small their role, the book breaks to insert their backstory and how they came to be where they were. That, I loved. It for me, was the best part of the book.

6/10

Book #26 of 2021

The Bit In Between is book #11 in The Australian Women Writers Challenge for 2021

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Review: The Book Of Ordinary People by Claire Varley

The Book Of Ordinary People
Claire Varley
Pan Macmillan AUS
2018, 407p
Copy courtesy of the publisher

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}:

A grieving daughter navigates the morning commute, her mind bursting with memories pleading to be shared.

A man made entirely of well-cut suits and strictly enforced rules swims his regular morning laps and fantasises about his self-assured promotion.

A young lawyer sits in a fluorescent-lit office, typing indecipherable jargon and dreaming of everything she didn’t become.

A failed news hack hides under the covers from another looming deadline, and from a past that will not relent its pursuit.

And a young woman seeking asylum sits tensely on an unmoving train, praying that good news waits at the other end of the line…

In this charming, moving and affectionate novel, Claire Varley paints a magical portrait of five ordinary people, and the sometimes heartbreaking power of the stories we make of ourselves.

This was an absolutely beautiful book and I loved it!

It’s the story of, as the title says, five ordinary people. They’re all living in Melbourne, in close proximity to each other and at first glance, as you meet each of them, they don’t seem particularly connected, with the exception of the two lawyers. But the further you read, the more you realise how their lives are intersecting, without them even knowing it.

Aida is a young asylum seeker from Iran, waiting. Waiting for the news of a letter that will tell her that her application to extend her visa has been approved. After having been in camps, released into the community, a large amount of asylum seekers were suddenly told that they had to reapply. Now their lives are in limbo, waiting for that piece of paper that tells them yes they can stay or no, they cannot. Aida lives in a small 2 bedroom house with Elham, also an asylum seeker and Elham’s daughter Niki who attends the local kinder and is struggling, perhaps because of her disrupted upbringing. Aida and Elham are not really friends at first but their bond strengthens. Aida’s story was without a doubt the one that I found the most powerful in the book, her chapters were always the ones I looked forward to the most because she was the one that I really felt had the most to lose in the book. She’s well qualified in Iran but here she finds herself taken advantage of, paid minimal amounts cash in hand because who is she going to complain to? Aida soldiers on, day by day and I just wanted her to get her letter telling her that her application was successful already.

Although I think I connected the most with Aida’s story, I enjoyed reading about the other characters too – Rik, a disgraced journalist who has isolated himself from everyone he knows, writing puff pieces on residents who “love living in the northern suburbs”. Rik is clearly suffering some sort of PTSD and you don’t realise his true identity right away. And then it becomes about discovering what happened to him, why he’s doing this to himself. Evangelia is a Greek Australian who is still mourning the death of her mother and wants to desperately write her story only she can’t seem to find her mother anywhere she looks. Evangelia’s story included a really in depth look at the Greek mourning traditions, the stories and the responsibility and role of the eldest woman in the family. She struggles in comparison to her elder sister Lydia, the two constantly at odds and bickering about everything. Evangelia and her husband own a gyros shop which is a constant source of stress for many reasons. And then there’s Nell and “DB” – they both work in a law firm. Nell is young and being mentored by DB, who dreams of a promotion and writes breezy, humblebrag letters to someone called “Jonesy” about how amazing his life is even as it starts to fall down around him. DB becomes obsessed with money, status, class and impressing the boss. Having a big house in a particular area, despite the fact that it makes life harder when his wife wants their son to attend a community kinder closer to her parents place in order for them to be able to care for him while DB and his wife are still at work. When Nell comes up with a partnership idea with a community legal firm, DB learns a lot about what he’s prioritising and how it’s affecting his life.

I loved the glimpses into these totally ordinary lives of ordinary people. People who are struggling with the day to day of juggling family and work, dealing with feelings of grief, isolation and even recovering from trauma. I love the connections between all the characters that kept appearing and how their circles intersected constantly over the course of the novel. But ultimately I kept coming back to Aida’s story and how it must be indicative of thousands of people at the moment who just want to escape a place of oppression and find somewhere to live freely. Her and Elham and Niki. I think the scene where they collect Niki from kinder and the nervous teacher tries to explain that Niki might need some assistance is the one that just stuck with me the most. Elham doesn’t speak English so Aida has to translate for her and there’s just so much fear and nervousness from Elham as she struggles to understand. I’ve had a child that needed extra assistance at kinder – occupational therapy was recommended for my youngest to help with his fine motor skills and it was over a 6 month wait for a public facility. To go private is expensive and there are many people who simply cannot afford that it when you’re struggling to make ends meet. Many times by the time the child gets into the programs, they are almost ready to start school or have started school and are no longer eligible and then you have to try other things. This complication must be amplified into the thousands when you don’t speak fluent English yet and are not skilled at navigating things like doctors appointments. Simple things like advocating for your child become an impossibility and this can be how children fall further behind.

This was a really thought provoking read and I enjoyed every page of it.

8/10

Book #132 of 2018

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