Monday, 19 March 2018

Reading Challenge Week 11 - A Book Set in Your Hometown/Region

The challenge for this week was to read a book set in your hometown or region, which gave staff and students at JCU the scope to read books from all around the world, when you think about it.

Luc read a mystery novel set in Melbourne, Sharon read a fictionalised account of historical events set in Townsville, and Scott read a classic Australian novel set amongst the South Australian fishing communities.

Did you find a book to take you close to home?

Luc Brien read Murder on a Midsummer Night (Phryne Fisher #17) by Kerry Greenwood.

Being a Melbournian, it was a wee bit difficult to find a book set in my home city amongst JCU’s extensive collection of North Queensland literature. However, with a bit of searching, I found that we have a few Phryne Fisher novels by Kerry Greenwood. I’ve seen several episodes of the TV series and enjoyed them, so I thought I’d look at Murder on a Midsummer Night (820A GREE 1C MUR/GRE) for my first outing with the Honourable Miss Phryne Fisher.

The setting in this book is both familiar and strange to me. While it’s set in Melbourne - a city I know very well - it’s a 90-year-old fictional version of the city, and there are many references to places and buildings that no longer exist, if they ever did. For example, Phryne lives at 221B The Esplanade, St Kilda. The number is an in-world nod to Phryne’s favourite detective, Sherlock Holmes, but here’s the real problem: The Esplanade, home to Luna Park, the Espy (the stories I have…), and the St Kilda Market only goes to number 32. It’s not a long enough street to have 221 houses on it. It’s a discombobulating experience - even accounting for poetic license.

Murder on a Midsummer Night was a challenge for me. While I do read and enjoy mystery novels, the detective stories that I consume generally have some paranormal or supernatural element, and there was a disappointing lack of eldritch terror or things with tentacles in this one. However, challenge is the name of the game, and I quickly grew used to the world Kerry Greenwood has created for her lady detective.

Speaking of Kerry Greenwood, once I got past the flowery and overly descriptive writing (there is a lot of telling in here), it turns out that Greenwood is a giant flapper era nerd which, being a nerd myself, I love. I might not have the same interests, but I can appreciate good nerdery when I see it. This book, with all its flaws, is an immensely well-researched piece of historical fiction. And I absolutely respect that.

The plot follows a fairly standard and predictable formula: Phryne is given two unconnected mysteries to solve (investigating the apparent suicide of a successful merchant, and then trying to find a dead woman’s illegitimate child), but as several fans have pointed out, if you’re reading a Phryne Fisher book for the story, you’re going to be disappointed. The real joy lies in Greenwood’s world-building; her alternative version of 1929 Melbourne and the people who inhabit it. For her part, the eponymous Phryne Fisher is a bit dull. In scenes that I felt should be dripping with tension, Phryne is cool, collected, and unflappable. She is good at everything, especially detective-ing, and she seems to float through the story, being largely unaffected by the various goings on around her, and occasionally wandering into Mary Sue territory. While Mary Sues are not inherently bad, they’re very hard to do well. In this case, Phryne is not well done.

While I learned to enjoy this book and its idiosyncratic prose, I think I’ll stick to TV series for now

Sharon Bryan read Affection, by Ian Townsend.

Somewhere out there in the world is a list of “conversation points” for book clubs who are reading this book, and one of the questions on that list must surely be:  “What is the significance of the title?”

For the record, I have no idea.

The title of the book and the blurb on the back jacket made me think this book was going to go in a particular direction, but it never did. It didn’t even threaten to. Which is unnecessarily misleading, because I have previously picked up the book, read the title and the blurb, and decided that it fits into a genre that doesn’t particularly interest me so I put it back down again. They say you should never judge a book by its cover, but you have to admit that the title and description do provide some first impressions.

My first impressions of this book were completely wrong. I thought it was going to bore me, but I thoroughly enjoyed it. I can’t say for sure I would have read it anyway, even if it had been more descriptive, because it’s still not the kind of book I usually read.  This is why I’m grateful that the Reading Challenge prompted me to pick it up.

Affection (820A TOWN 1C AFF) is set in Townsville during the plague scare of 1900, and it was fascinating reading descriptions of the town back then. Townsend clearly did a lot of research (he included the JCU library in his acknowledgements), and part of me wants to go trawling through old maps of the city to see some of the places he mentioned that are no longer here. It’s a gripping telling of a story that was worth reading, and I highly recommend it.

Scott Dale read Storm Boy, by Colin Thiele.
Storm Boy cover 
I made this week’s challenge a little easier for myself by deciding to revisit a book I’d known about since I was a child. I grew up in Adelaide and spent many days down at Goolwa and the Coorong region fishing, twisting for cockles, and surfing.

I saw the movie Storm Boy, based on the Colin Thiele book that I read this week (820.94 THI), when I was in primary school. Hearing Storm Boy shout out to his pelican Mr Percival has always stayed with me (just like hearing the cries of “Miranda!” from Picnic at Hanging Rock).

The story of Storm Boy has some longevity with the 1970s film, a remake of this film on the way (starring Geoffrey Rush), and multiple theatre productions.

Reading Storm Boy took me back to those cold, windswept shores and I enjoyed reminiscing the landscapes of my oh so distant youth. I identified quite closely with Storm Boy not wanting to go to school up in Adelaide and especially enjoyed the scene where Mr Percival shows what a pelican can do, saving some men in trouble at sea with a bit of coastal ingenuity.

Reading Storm Boy is a nice way to spend an hour or two.

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