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Review: Being Jade – Kate Belle

being_jade_COVER_HI_res smallBeing Jade
Kate Belle
Simon & Schuster AU
2014, 300p
Uncorrected proof copy courtesy of the publisher

Jade and Banjo have been married for twenty-five years when he walks out. Their youngest daughter Lissy comes home and once again finds them squaring off against each other, in the middle of an argument. It’s something she’s seen many times before and she leaves them to it, an action she will come to regret.

Because Banjo has never walked out before. But this time he does and he is killed, the victim of a hit and run. This leaves Jade and their children Cassy and Lissy to grieve and Banjo can only watch on unseen helplessly as Jade collapses into a deep depression. Lissy feels the ultimate guilt in having left – maybe she could’ve done something, stopped the argument. Now she seeks to pull her mother out of her terrible depression. She discovers a sketchbook and is shocked to discover that it chronicles her mother’s numerous lovers, the affairs she had over her parents long marriage. Lissy and Cassy are divided on their opinions of what their mother was doing and what was really going on in the marriage between Banjo and Jade.

Lissy uses the sketchbook to try and help her mother, inviting her former lovers to come and see her, hoping that one of them can penetrate through the deep fog that surrounds Jade. As each man visits and recounts his experiences with Jade, Lissy begins to learn more and more about her mother, her reasoning and her character. And in a corner, Banjo watches, discovering the truth in death that he could never quite bring himself to believe in life…

It is really very fitting that Kate Belle’s guest post for me (which you can read here) deals with how she’s throwing aside the star rating system when she reads books. Because although I star-rate books on goodreads and give them a numerical rating out of 10 on the blog, I do find plenty of books that it’s difficult to assign that number too. And this book, Being Jade is definitely one of them. And it’s not because I don’t like it – books I don’t like are easy to rate! It’s just that this is a very complex book, full of wonderfully difficult characters and it is a book that challenges social boundaries and forces a reader to think outside of what might be their comfort zone. I’m well aware that as I read this, my feelings for Jade were mostly based on social constructs, of what a wife and mother is ‘supposed’ to be. And I’m both. This book isn’t afraid to hold that up and then tear it back down.

Jade was raised by her prostitute mother who died of a drug overdose when Jade was a teenager. From there she was taken in by Banjo’s family. It is clear that Banjo has always loved Jade….loved her madly, to the point of distraction. They were married very young, but it wasn’t too long before Banjo discovered that Jade had had, and would always want/need to have, other men or lovers. He found this very difficult to live with but ultimately chose to remain with Jade because it was better than life without her. He wanted to keep his dignity, that she be very discreet and that she not tell him. But it wasn’t very hard to him to figure out. He began to learn the patterns and when Jade often left the home for several days either to work on or show her art, it was nearly always a given that she was meeting other men. This included when she was 8 months pregnant with one of their daughters, and continued after their daughters were born.

I struggle with books that contain infidelity because I’m so against it myself. And yes, that might make me a product of society, etc but it is my idea and wish that the person I have chosen, also chooses just me. So whilst at times, I did feel for Banjo because he loves Jade so much and her actions do cause him great pain, at the same time…he’s an adult. He chose to remain in the relationship and accept that part of Jade that needs other people to fuel her creativity and feed/heal her soul. However I found that the fact that it adversely affected their children made my feelings towards Jade more negative, because they didn’t choose it. They didn’t choose to have a mother that disappeared for days at a time, that the town gossiped cruelly about. None of it was their fault and yet they suffered for it too. I know that says more about the society as a whole as well, that Jade did become such fodder for talk, but also, her absences did impact on her children. No one sacrifices everything but it is the general expectation that your children will mostly come first, in their early and formative years anyway. Jade doesn’t accept this – she puts herself first, she does what she needs to do. One hand I admired her for always staying true to herself, for not bowing to the social pressure after she became a mother but on the other hand…..I did wonder what she really and truly thought about the impact her absences had on their children.

Which brings me to my original statement about this book – how do I rate it? When I finished this book, I agonised for some time, deliberating about what to give it when I added it to my Goodreads, which is what I do whenever I finish a book. 5 stars is “I loved it” – but I’m not sure I can honestly say that I loved it. I think it is a wonderful, challenging story. The writing is very good – probably fantastic. It made me feel a wide range of emotions as I read it from dislike to admiration to sadness to anger to pity. Most times I found Jade a bit too selfish – and I’m not saying this is essentially a bad thing, because she was doing what she needed to do to be true to herself, it’s just that I couldn’t agree with many of her decisions nor could I really believe that her actions came to be seen almost as everyone’s saving grace. I think this would be a fantastic book to recommend to my bookclub because I can already picture the discussion we would have on it. I can see it being passionate and lengthy and people debate the character and actions of not only Jade but also Banjo. Sometimes I recommend a book to someone saying, “read this, I think you’ll love it”. But with this one I’d say “read this, it will challenge you and I’d love to hear your thoughts”.

My final verdict?

8/10

Book #118 of 2014

AWWW2014

Being Jade is the 42nd book read and reviewed for the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2014

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Author Guest Post: Kate Belle

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Today I’d like to welcome Australian author Kate Belle to the blog. Kate’s first book, The Yearning was released to much critical acclaim last year and her second novel, Being Jade is out this month from Simon & Schuster. You can read my review of The Yearning here and check back later today for my thoughts on Being Jade.

Today Kate is talking about star ratings….and why she’s no longer doing them. Over to you, Kate!

The fault with our stars

Like the very lovely Bree, I love reading and reviewing books. And, like most people, I have followed – or tried to – the notorious star rating system adopted by Goodreads, Amazon and everyone else. Comparing, judging, assessing and rating everything in stars is par for the course these days -from books to accommodation to a giant packet of gummi bears (you MUST click on the link and read the reviews – pure GOLD). But recently I’ve been rethinking the wisdom of jumping on the bandwagon of this star rating system and here’s why.

In March I read Natasha Walker’s Secret Lives of Emma: Beginnings. I knew the true identity of the author (John Purcell in case you’ve been meditating in a cave somewhere) and was due to share the stage with him and others on a Sex in Words panel at The Wheeler Centre in early April of this year. I had been keen to read this erotic book and the panel and a long weekend gave me the impetus to do it.

Being the control freak I am, I began internally rating as soon as I started reading, swinging from a measly 2 stars when the main character Emma didn’t please me, through to a mighty 5 stars when John put a blow torch to the sexual tension. But when I’d finished the book I was conflicted. My feelings about it were so mixed I couldn’t decide how to rate it

So I took the lame option and shot it with a 3.5 stars – a middle of the road judgement. But I never felt comfortable about it, because a handful of stars didn’t accurately reflect the complexity of my response to the book.

After I published the review I sat on the panel and listened to John speak about his character, Emma, and how so few people understood what she was about. It dawned on me I’d missed the point of Emma entirely. With new insight, I suddenly saw the book in a new way and realised I’d fallen smack bang into predictable social judgements in my assessment.

It’s not news that reading is completely subjective. Our view of a book will vary wildly according to mood, stress, age, experience, context, to time available to read, educational background, personal values and beliefs, culture, the book we last read, what our manager/partner/relative just said to us and so many other variables. There are books I would have rated 5 stars twenty years ago I’d only give 1 to today, because views about life  have changed over time. Those stars I felt compelled to allocate to Secret Lives of Emma, and any other book I’d read for that matter, were a poor facsimile of my ever evolving response to my reading experience.

Star rating as a system is inherently flawed. Individual interpretations of what 5 stars means is as varied as a Kardashian’s shoe collection. I’ve read rave reviews with 2 star ratings and complete sledgings with 4 star ratings. It is wide open to misuse, misunderstanding and manipulation. I’ve heard about the unscrupulous readers who go around rating books based on their blurbs or covers, without even bothering to read a single page, while others automatically give certain authors low or high star ratings because they simply do/don’t like them.

In creating the star rating system we have now fallen victim to it. We all know it is hellishly inconsistent and routinely manipulated and abused, yet we feel compelled to continue to use it, to quantify and simplify our reading experience into a handful of cute, pointy yellow images.

The truth is most books, especially good or challenging ones, are far too complex to reduce down to a single, simplistic star rating. So I’ve made a decision.

I’m starting a small rebellion. I will continue review books, but I am no longer going to let myself get pulled into the star rating thing. Instead I am going to focus on thoughtful and honest reviews. I’m going to use words (those precious, precious things) to capture the breadth and depth of my reading experience, and leave readers to make their own assessment, as they should.

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Being Jade at Simon & Schuster

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The Yearning – Kate Belle

The YearningThe Yearning
Kate Belle
Simon & Schuster AU
2013, 323p
Copy courtesy of the publisher

It’s 1978 and Solomon Andrews, a high school English teacher moves to a small country town to take up a new position and perhaps escape a whisper of scandal.

Living next door to him is one of his students, a shy fifteen year old girl who watches him from behind the windows of her house. This doesn’t bother Solomon – he’s used to the attention of teenage girls. He’s young, he has long hair, he dresses differently to the teachers they know and he teaches in a way that they’re not used to. At first the girl watching him is a source of amusement….but then the notes begin to arrive.

He knows they’re from her but he’s surprised that this shy girl can write with such unabashed passion and abandonment. Against his better judgement, he becomes interested, the sweet letters awakening in him a desire to have her. To open her up and get to know her and introduce her to the unknown pleasures she hints at in her letters. Solomon tries to resist her words – this is a complication he doesn’t need. He finds solace in the arms of other women, ones who are more experienced and know the game. But her words continue to stir him and their game of her watching him has stepped up a little as he begins to show her more and more of himself. One day when he’s reading her latest letter, he turns around and there she is.

Soloman’s decision will have not just a long term effect on the girl, as she seeks to negotiate this adult world that she is catapulted into, but also himself.

I have to admit, The Yearning took me by surprise. The student-teacher story line is something I always find fascinating (maybe because all of my teachers were so imminently unattractive and unlikable, I’m baffled) so I wasted no time requesting this one. I expected perhaps a YA type story due to the age of the teenage girl but The Yearning isn’t that. On one hand, it”s a sensual and very erotic story of a girl’s sexual awakening. She develops a crush on her teacher, a man of already questionable morals who has been forced to leave one teaching post after an incident with a teenage student. You can tell that Soloman does attempt to resist the passionate words of the letters but they excite something within him, perhaps the desire for more than just a simple sexual gratification, even if he doesn’t realise it. To be honest, his attempts are not very good… he strikes me as an inherently selfish person, even as he is generous in bed and in his teachings of the ways of passion with his student. I don’t say love, because Soloman doesn’t give her much in the way of that, even though she falls so desperately in love with him. She’s not worldly, she’s quite sheltered in her small country town, not many friends, very little experience with boys. It was inevitable that she would fall in love with Soloman, just as to me, it was inevitable the way their affair/relationship would go. Generous with his body but not with his feelings, feelings that he perhaps doesn’t even recognise in himself. For a large portion of the book, I wasn’t very sure what to feel about Soloman. He gave his student something that at first glance was wrong – sleazy and secretive, taking advantage when he was in a position of power. However that pales in comparison to the fact that the gave her something she would search fruitlessly, endlessly for, years afterwards. She could never reproduce those feelings, find that generosity in another partner.

However ultimately, my feelings for Soloman came to be pity. I think he believes he lives the ultimate care free life – no commitments, no wife, no children, not even any girlfriends. Just another town, more pretty women who know the score (and some who don’t). He relishes in attention and pleasure, a tactile connection rather than an emotional one. In fact I came to feel pity for his former teenage lover too – in her attempts to seek what she had with Soloman in adulthood, she succumbs to the first instances where she feels it might be possible and ends up unhappy, unsatisfied in a failing marriage to a man she doesn’t understand, doesn’t know anymore and doesn’t love. She can’t let go of the thoughts of Soloman, her lover from so long ago and she needs to do that as an adult, in order to be truly happy and satisfied.

The Yearning certainly gave me a lot more than I bargained for and I definitely enjoyed the ride. It’s a book I find hard to classify – it’s more explicit sexually than I expected, especially given the ages of Soloman and his student but it’s much more than that. It’s an exploration of sexuality and feeling, it’s a deeper insight into what makes that connection, how it can be found in unlikely places and then lost. It’s about a fear of intimacy (not sexual, but emotional) and perhaps a chance missed. It’s a rich journey, well written. I may not have much in common with either of the characters but I often find dissatisfaction easy to relate to. We all have regrets, we are all searching for something that will make us feel, or keep the feelings alive.

8/10

Book #104 of 2013

AWW2013

The Yearning is book #44 of the Australian Women Writer’s Challenge 2013

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