Writers’ Web review: Russian Documents, Mongolian Dust by Rensina van den Heuvel

This review was first published on Writers’ Web, which is an awesome site providing free reviews of books for budding writers. Writers get the chance to see what people think of their books and book-lovers (and budding professional reviewers) get to read and say what they think. It’s win-win. It rocks.

Russian Documents, Mongolian Dust is a travel memoir of the author’s incredible journey driving from Korea to Switzerland through Mongolia and Russia. The story is told in the first person, in a loose diary style. Beginning with retrieving the four-wheel drive from a shipping container in Pusan, Korea, we follow Rensina and her companion Allen through their daily adventures driving across country, camping in the wild and negotiating a huge range of cultures and languages. From the rock hard and tasteless Mongolian cheese to the ten centimetres of makeup on a Russian vegetable-seller, the premise cannot be anything but compelling!

From the beginning, it was clear that the book had been written using diary entries made throughout the trip, which was made in the latter part of 2007. This brought a real immediacy to the writing, and punctuated with the author’s personal style, Aussie colloquialisms and beautiful expressions, it was enjoyable reading. The idea of a trip of this kind is so interesting, but I must give credit to the writer’s abilities and say that her style really did contribute positively to the pleasure of reading. However, there are many spelling, grammar and punctuation errors throughout, and some of the syntax is a little ‘bumpy’ with a few consistency issues making things a little puzzling at times. The author really does have a gift for words, though, and it would really detract from the story if her voice was in any way dulled by heavy editing. It’s extremely difficult to translate a diary into prose, especially when it comprises over 200 pages!

The author’s description of her encounters with various special people along the way and her spiritual connection to the places she travels through is just beautiful. Her insight and openness when it comes to sharing her personal experiences, emotions and thoughts really makes the book worth reading. My criticism of travel writing is usually its lack of personal touch, that I desperately want to know about the person travelling, but this does not apply to Russian Documents. It is the perfect balance of personal reflection and compelling storytelling. Having read through, I can now understand the choice of title, but I still find it a little off-putting, however accurate.

After reading Russian Documents, I definitely have no desire to go to Russia! The drunks, the rubbish, the attitudes, the corruption, what a place! But Bulgaria and Mongolia sound extraordinary and this book has brought me a great deal of insight into these oft overlooked places.

Anyone with any interest in other cultures or travel would really enjoy this book. I think being Australian helped me enjoy it, but the Aussie-centric expressions and anecdotes are not out of reach for those unfamiliar. Overall, this is a brilliant story, compelling and fascinating, and I would hope the author can work with a good editor to really polish it up and bring it the audience it deserves.


Book review: Sun on Distant Hills by Elizabeth Egan

Written for NSW Writers’ Centre Newsbite

Surely there are many who don’t have children or grandchildren, yet have a story to pass on. Sun on Distant Hills is one of these stories. In fact it’s not so much a story as a series of anecdotes covering a life in full and parts of other lives.

Beginning during the Depression, Elizabeth Egan’s self-published novel takes us through the life of Irene, a country girl with grand aspirations.  There’s a sense of epic finality throughout the book, and we know from the outset that the story will be long but the outcome will be ultimately positive.  The naivety of the narrative and its simple, anecdotal, plodding flow is sweet in its purity, and the setting and context is one that many Australians, especially those who grew up in the country, will find endearing.

Sadly, the writing is, at best, grammatically correct and full of clichés.  I would put it in the category of Pride and Prejudice, however unlike the classic it fails to provide much in the way of originality or intrigue. There is little left to the imagination and I found reading this book like watching a soap opera – compelling, only in so much as I wanted reassurance that what I predicted will happen in the end, and I’d rather not have to read all the waffle in between.

While this book has clearly been impeccably proof read, the style of writing and the way the story unfolds is quite childish.  That’s not to say it isn’t believable (and we all know that good fiction must be believable), but the reader isn’t given any work to do.  In fact I found it a little patronising, in the same way I find it patronising when my mum tells me I should put on a jumper as I’ll catch a chill.  Some parts made me cringe as I read, and I found a lot of it very contrived.  It reminded me of East Enders or The Bold and the Beautiful – sex, death, lies, illegitimate children, fantasies, suicide, abuse – could we fit in any more obstacles or tragedies for the characters to overcome?  The story itself is interesting, or rather, contains interesting events and could be full of interesting characters, but because everything is so predictable and clichéd, we never get to see any of that interesting stuff.  The main character, while seemingly hard-done-by, is somewhat difficult to sympathise with and I found her and her constant neurotic musings quite annoying by the end of the book.  I didn’t want to hear about every little thought that went on in her head, I wanted to be shown the unfolding of events, not told about them so explicitly.  Similarly, the odd and somewhat sloppy jumps into the heads of other characters throughout was disconcerting, and although the story is told in the third person, Irene is the protagonist, so it didn’t feel at all natural to suddenly find ourselves hearing the thoughts of other characters.

I commend Elizabeth, for putting the story down and making the effort to have it published; I understand the importance of that for an author.  I wanted to like this book, but I can’t; it’s the kind of writing I got rapped over the knuckles for in highschool – far too many clichés, not enough originality, not properly worked, not interesting writing, and the parts of the story that could prove interesting were glossed over.

Book review: Ubby’s Underdogs – The Legend of the Phoenix Dragon by Brenton E McKenna

Written for the NSW Writers’ Centre Newsbite publication

Having not read a graphic novel before, I wasn’t able to make a comparison with similar works, however this first instalment in the Ubby’s Underdogs trilogy is certainly compelling, exciting and very innovative.  This first ever Indigenous graphic novel tells the story of Ubby, a young and tough Aboriginal girl, and her friends, collectively known as the Underdogs.  Set in 1940s Broome, the novel weaves in real elements of culture and identity, creating a rich and detailed fantasy full of different characters and intertwining plot lines that will appeal to children and young adults.  The graphics are something akin to the manga style, but with a fresh twist.

What struck me about this book is the attention to detail shown, the exciting and fantastic story fashioned by a clearly passionate author who loves his work.  No element is left to chance, and, meticulously constructed, the story is epic and the context highly original.  The imagery and dialogue seem somewhat complicated for the uninitiated, but not in any way that it could be considered sloppy or lacking in flow; if anything, the novel compels the reader to step up to the challenge of learning how to read a graphic novel, and once used to it, the reader experience is another dimension beyond that of a regular novel.  It can be considered something of a link between the novel and film, refreshing, fun and fast-paced.  If I were a kid again, I would be waiting with bated breath for the next instalment!

Book review: All I Can Handle – I’m no Mother Theresa by Kim Stagliano

From the NSW Writers’ Centre Newsletter…

This bright pink, blog-style debut work by American autism activist and mum, Kim Stagliano, presents a new and somewhat refreshing take on dealing with autistic children. Kim and her husband have three daughters with autism, quite an unusual situation, given the condition is four times more likely to occur in boys.

All I Can Handle tells a disjointed story of one family’s struggle with severe autism, coupled with other difficult circumstances, such as unemployment and moving house. It’s impossible not to sympathise with Kim’s predicament, and she deserves much credit for her continued work into finding a cure for autism and bringing the condition out of obscurity.

The writing is conversational, with numerous anecdotes and references that are fairly obscure and confusing to a non-American audience. Others describe having ‘laughed and cried’ throughout this book; I can’t say that I did either, as the humour was something akin to an average sitcom and the emotion, while momentarily twinging, seemed a little blurred by the stream-of-consciousness style.

For a parent dealing with an autistic child, this book provides some interesting information, and shows an overview of the current state of play in the autism community; the various schools of thought, latest research and information, and the confronting ‘craptastic’ episodes that no doubt dominate the lives of those living with the condition.

And continuing on…

I was quite excited about being asked to review this book.  Although I hadn’t heard of it or the author, I am interested in child development and autism in particular interests me because I’ve read a lot about vaccination and its possible link with the condition.  Kim does touch on this topic and has been criticised for being ‘anti-vax’, however I don’t believe she tries to push this agenda on anyone, even in her book.  She talks about her own experience with vaccinations and their connection with autism only very briefly for someone who is supposedly so against artificial immunisation.  In fact she doesn’t try to convince anyone of a link; she just states her view, and I think she handled this part very professionally.

As for the humour in the book, I find it hard to appreciate it.  Not being American, for one, makes me unable to grasp many of the references scattered throughout, and although I was fully aware of who Howard Stern is, I didn’t find it particularly amusing, intriguing or relevant that the author enjoys his radio comedy.  I was particularly confused by the chapter beginning with a sort of foreword, showing the author’s struggle with writing about sex when her minister and mother would be reading the book.  The chapter concerned didn’t seem to mention sex at all!

This leads me to my overall impression of the book: it’s disjointed.  It’s like reading the transcript of a one-way conversation, complete with the speaker’s random thoughts interspersed throughout.  It takes no effort at all to understand the text, but to try and grasp the underlying meaning is quite tiresome and in the end, not really worth it.  I wanted some more meaning, I wanted emotion, and rarely did I get it.  There are moments in the book where Kim touches on how it really feels to hit rock bottom, what despair is like, but they are very quickly glossed over, and not often with humour.

Not having read any other books on autism, I can’t claim that this one isn’t worth reading for someone dealing with the condition.  However I think the book would really have benefited from some editing – if only to rid it of those pesky typos, of which I discovered eight throughout the book, and some of the odd syntax which makes the prose feel somewhat awkward at times.  Conversational style works really well, it’s just when it’s too colloquial that it isn’t successful. Perhaps this is the author’s intention, that the book give the reader that sense of unease, as one might have at perceiving the first sign of autism in a child.

Kim Stagliano has been successful with this book, if only in that she’s achieved her goal of bringing autism and the stories of her beautiful daughters out into the open, showing us just how challenging life can be but why it’s all worth it in the end.  If it weren’t for people like Kim, the mystery that is autism would have a smaller and less significant voice.