26 August 2021

Guest Review: Hyphen by Pardis Mahdavi

Hyphen by Pardis Mahdavi book cover
* Copy courtesy of Bloomsbury Australia *


It's time for another instalment in my series of book reviews from the Object Lessons series by Bloomsbury Academic. This time, Neil B√©chervaise takes a look at Hyphen by Pardis Mahdavi.

Neil's Review

What a pleasure to meet an object that is, at once, informative, entertaining and insightful. Pardis Mahdavi’s Hyphen is a delightful relief from the ‘full-court press’ of the publish-or-perish academic approach of several other ‘Objects’ I have tried to read. Her personal narrative as an academic who strongly identifies with her students confirms both the power of the hyphen as a point of connection and as a reminder of the potential difference that the punctuation mark commands.

Identifying Dionysus Thrax, the second century Greek student of Aristarchus, as the scholar who invented the hyphen and the apostrophe, Mahdavi provides an easy-to-understand outline of the value of his punctuation innovations for reducing the reader’s/speaker’s difficulties in separating and providing intended emphasis on words which were written without any spacing at all. 
“…[clarifying] for the speaker [how] the words should be understood – and spoken – as a single entity.” Page 16
By the time she introduces the 1440’s role of Gutenberg’s bible as probably the next-most significant development in clarifying our ability to read written text with the emphasis that the author intended, Mahdavi has already established her own identity as dependent on the role of the hyphen in twenty-first century America.

Weaving the backgrounds and college-formative experiences of several of her ‘hyphenated American’ students into her own Iranian-American-feminist-activist narrative, including her arrest and interrogation as an American spy when she speaks in Tehran, Mahdavi provides a chilling insight into the difference between multi-cultural inclusivity and multi-racial bigotry.

Drawing on the first generation Chinese-American, Mexican-American and African-American origins of three of her students at Arizona State University, Pardis Mahdavi foregrounds the issues that both she and they encounter in locating the fine line between being accepted as Americans and maintaining the integrity of their birthrights. Ania, identifying as Latin-American is called out for daring to represent her fellow Latinx students while being unable to speak her mother’s Mexican Spanish. Nigerian-American AdeChike’s ‘bending a knee’ while the national anthem is played before his football game leaves a football crowd with no memory of the final game score but an enduring memory of the un-American coloured player's action. Chinese-American Daniel adds outrage at their homosexuality when they seek to have their sperm preserved before undergoing sex-change therapy – and changing their pronominal identity to she. The ‘hyphenated Americans’ seek acceptance into what appears to be an unapologetically racist society, their skin colour no more an issue than their hyphenated identity.

Supporting her beguiling social narrative with the historical refusals of successive American Presidents and supportive power figures across the nation to accept any identification except ‘American’, Mahdavi identifies establishment efforts to remove the hyphen from the naming of the New-York Historical Society. She compounds her observation with infuriated reactions to the removal of the hyphen from over 1600 previously conjoined ‘words’ in the 2007 edition of the Shorter Oxford Dictionary. The response, she argues, denies recognition of the evolutionary role of the hyphen as a grammatical bridge – as exemplified in health care becoming health-care before morphing into healthcare.

While unapologetically admitting that this review contains ‘spoilers’, I have to assert that Hyphen has broken all my resistance to the Bloomsbury’s Object Lessons series. I can readily accept that hyphens and dashes are different -
“The dash divides. The hyphen connects. Brings together.” Page 129
So maybe there will come a ‘dash’ but that may be pushing my luck a step too far.

More importantly, more emotionally, I feel that I have a better understanding of how, 
“Living in the gap – or embracing the hyphen, as I like to refer to it – is important because there is great strength in being able to bridge, connect and birth new things.” Page 142
Through her own and her students’ lived experience as ‘hyphenated Americans’, Pardis Mahdavi’s has given a scope and a depth to both the grammatical and the lived meaning of the hyphen – not only for Americans but for everyone who sees themselves as a more complex being than the tick-a-box descriptions with which society too often labels and dismisses us.

You can seize this book at Booktopia.

Neil's Rating:

23 August 2021

Review: The Ex-Husband by Karen Hamilton

The Ex-Husband by Karen Hamilton book cover
* Copy courtesy of Hachette Australia *

In The Ex-Husband by Karen Hamilton, married couple Charlotte and Sam work together on cruise ships to befriend rich guests and con them out of their money. They only target those who can afford it, and spin elaborate tales of woe to convince their targets to donate to fundraising pages. These 'worthy' causes are entirely fiction, and the pair line their own pockets as they aspire to lead the lifestyles of their wealthy targets.

Unfolding in dual timelines (then and now), Charlotte has broken up with Sam and is trying to live a good life when she starts receiving threats. She learns Sam is missing, but can't help wondering if this is just another one of his scams. Is he the one behind the threats or has a victim of their fraud tracked her down, looking for justice?

I thoroughly enjoyed reading The Perfect Girlfriend by Karen Hamilton back in March 2018 and have been keeping my out out for Hamilton's books since then. There are some similarities between Juliette (of The Perfect Girlfriend) and Charlotte in The Ex-Husband. They're both slightly dysfunctional main characters who regularly overstep the boundaries of what we would call acceptable, however in this case, Charlotte is a con-woman and a criminal. Charlotte's complicity and avarice made her a less enjoyable protagonist than Juliette, but I was still caught up in trying to solve the mystery before Charlotte did or it was too late.

The Ex-Husband is a thrilling mystery and I enjoyed uncovering the full scope of Sam and Charlotte's deceptions while trying to work out who was behind the increasingly dangerous threats. The Ex-Husband is recommended for thriller readers and those who miss being on the high seas.

You can seize this book at Booktopia.

My Rating:

18 August 2021

Review: Billy Summers by Stephen King

Billy Summers by Stephen King book cover
* Copy courtesy of Hachette Australia *

Stephen King is at the top of his game and Billy Summers is an unforgettable character, as well as the title of his latest book. A war veteran and one of the best snipers in the world, Billy has become a killer for hire renowned for disappearing as soon as the hit has been made. Billy has been hired to do one last job and despite his immaculate planning and convincing back story, there's no accounting for bad luck, or is it destiny?

Billy is a likeable anti-hero with his own code and an admirable set of values. His relationship with Alice is touchingly complex and Billy's actions and decisions left me aching for him to find his place in the world. The scenes with Billy's neighbours also made me nostalgic for a time and place that often only exists between the pages of a Stephen King novel.

There's plenty of humour to keep the pages flicking by, and reading this observation while in another Melbourne lockdown made me laugh out loud.
"Billy doesn't care if it rains, sleets, snows, or shits bananas. He's going to be in this basement apartment no matter what the weather is." Page 203
As we learn more about Billy's background, King manages to set the scene in what feels like a very American book. In doing so, the reader is able to pick up on the author's politics and view about the country in which he resides and in which the book is set.

According to Billy:
"There aren't just 2 kinds of people, good and bad, like I thought when I was a kid who got most of his ideas on how people act from TV. There are 3. The third type of people go along to get along... Those are the most people in the world and I think they are gray people. They will not hurt you (at least on purpose) but they won't help you much, either. They will say do what you want and God help you. I think in this world you have to help yourself." Page 101
King is on fire in this novel, combining deep character insight with tension, action and plenty of danger. There's also a few instances where the writing is very meta. The first comes when Billy is engaged on a long haul hit and needs to pose as a writer hiring an office space from which he'll make the hit.

Another meta moment comes when a person is reading Billy's work.
"Billy understands he's downplaying her intelligence to protect his ego in case she doesn't like it, and he understands that's stupid because her opinion shouldn't matter, the story itself shouldn't matter, he's got more important things to deal with. But it does." Page 249
I thought this was incredibly insightful from Stephen King, and I think a few emerging and established authors would do well to take note of this insight.

The ending of the book was brilliant and very meta, but don't worry, you won't find any spoilers here. All in all, Billy Summers is another outstanding novel in Stephen King's considerable oeuvre and I highly recommend it.

For those who have already read this, I have just two words for you.... Fucking Marge!

You can seize this book at Booktopia.

My Rating:

12 August 2021

Review: Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro

Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro book cover
* Copy courtesy of Allen & Unwin *

I wasn't sure if I was going to enjoy a science fiction novel about an Artificial Friend, but I did! Klara is an Artificial Friend (AF) with extraordinary observational skills who studies the behaviour of people and learns from their interactions. When we meet Klara she's on a shop floor waiting to be purchased and I really enjoyed this period of the novel. Klara is soon purchased to become a companion to teenage girl Josie and the novel explores their complex relationship.

Narrated by Klara, I was captivated by her speech, thought processes, observations, and unwavering drive to look after Josie.

Ishiguro presents themes of loneliness, love, privacy and sacrifice and of course the complexities around treating Klara like a person, an AI, or something in between. The interactions between Klara and the Housekeeper were an amusing touch.

The book is set in a futuristic and somewhat dystopian setting that I could never really understand or fully comprehend. Having said that, I wonder if the author intended to make the setting vague to focus the reader on the family unit instead, rather than what/where/how we came to be where we are.

Longlisted for the 2021 Booker Prize, Klara and the Sun was an enjoyable read for me and a slight diversion from my regular reading choices. I'm giving it an extra star for the way in which Ishiguro manipulates the reader into considering whether an AI can 'feel' and prompting in me an unexpected reaction to Klara and Josie's ending.

I enjoyed reading The Remains of the Day back in 2008 and I'm glad I have a copy of The Buried Giant waiting for me on my TBR from this Nobel Prize winning author.

You can seize this book at Booktopia.

My Rating:

06 August 2021

Review: The Inner Self by Hugh Mackay

The Inner Self by Hugh Mackay book cover
Australian Hugh Mackay is a psychologist, social researcher and bestselling author, and is known for studying attitudes and behaviour. In 2015, he was appointed an Officer of the Order of Australia for distinguished service to the community for this work, and I see him pop up on TV from time to time.

In this book, The Inner Self - The Joy of Discovering Who We Really Are, Mackay outlines our top 20 hiding places where we hide from the truth about ourselves. An interesting concept, these hiding places can include busyness, victimhood, nostalgia, anxiety, perfectionism and work, just to name a few.

Mackay provides case studies to throw light on each of the hiding places, and I found them insightful and sometimes quite funny. I particularly enjoyed the chapter on perfectionism and the case study of Helen dealing with her husband George's pedantry. Throughout the book, I was able to recognise some of these 20 hiding places in the traits of people I know, and of course, within myself, which is the whole point.

Mackay has a great way of speaking and I enjoyed listening to him reading The Inner Self on audiobook. Each chapter can be enjoyed independently of the others, but listening to this over a long period as my reviewing schedule picked up, no doubt diminished the overall impact of the book for me.

I do miss listening to Mackay's pearls of wisdom and I'm sure I'll be seeking out another of his books on audio before too long.

You can seize this book at Booktopia.

My Rating:

04 August 2021

Review: The Memory Collectors by Kim Neville

The Memory Collectors by Kim Neville book cover
* Copy courtesy of Simon & Schuster *

The premise of this book completely hooked me in. Ev has an ability to feel the emotions attached to objects. She uses this gift - or is it a curse? - to find objects infused with positive emotions, and sells them at the Chinatown Night Market in Vancouver. Ev refers to objects like these as being stained, and she knows that people can react to a variety of emotions contained in stained items. Objects stained with love and nurturing emotions give off a positive feeling, while objects imbued with negative emotions like jealousy, despair or hate can have a detrimental impact on those owning, or even holding the object.

Harriet is a hoarder and has been collecting treasures her whole life. She collects items made bright by the emotions of previous owners, and the sheer volume of her collection has been making other residents in her building feel sick with headaches and other maladies. As an aside, if you've ever wondered what it might be like to navigate through a hoarder's house, you're going to find out here.

Bright and stained objects can be anything that has been infused with intense emotion from the previous owner, a baby blanket, a scarf, a jar of buttons, sewing scissors, a gun or even a wooden spoon.

Harriet dreams of creating a carefully curated museum of memories, where members of the public can come and view these treasures. She wants to organise them into positive themes like motherly love or childlike joy and invite guests to seek out the section of the museum that feels 'right' to them, and leave the exhibition feeling that their sense of wellbeing has been nourished and their spirit replenished.

Both Ev and Harriet have troubled histories, and Ev's dark past in particular and the relationship with her sister forms the mystery of the book. The Memory Collectors is emotionally charged (pun intended) and I enjoyed learning more about our two protagonists and seeing how they used their gifts and interacted with each other.

Despite the darkness, The Memory Collectors by Kim Neville is ultimately a hopeful and inspirational read and an outstanding debut. Highly recommended.

You can seize this book at Booktopia.

My Rating:

02 August 2021

Winners of Blood Trail by Tony Park Announced

Blood Trail by Tony Park book cover
Thanks to the readers who entered my giveaway last week to win one of two signed copies of Blood Trail by Tony Park. Everyone correctly answered that the book is set in a South African game reserve.

The giveaway closed at midnight last night, and the winning entries were drawn today. Congratulations to:

Claire Louisa Holderness & Crystal Rudd

Congratulations Claire & Crystal! You've both won a signed copy of Blood Trail by Tony Park valued at $32.99AUD thanks to Pan Macmillan Australia. You'll each receive an email from me shortly with the details of your win, so start thinking about how you'd like your book signed and inscribed.

Carpe Librum!