Shell

Pub Date:   |   Archive Date: 23 Oct 2018

Member Reviews

I was drawn to this book with its beautiful cover of the Sydney Opera House & Harbor. The muted colors and softly blurred image is really appropriate for this historical fiction story. Olsson writes a tender, poignant contemplation of the atmosphere and times of 1960's Sydney, with a backdrop of events of the building of the Opera House and the Vietnam War lottery draft of young men. The story features two characters whose paths cross: Axel, a glassmaker from Sweden contracted to create an sculptures for the Opera House, and Pearl, a Sydney journalist on a mission to find the younger brothers she hasn’t seen for ten years.

The pace of the story is slow and contemplative. It’s less about plot, and more about immersing the reader in the sights, sounds, and feel of the time and place. What I liked the most was the connection of the Opera House to its surroundings and getting a feel for how strongly the architectural elements communicated that connection.

The characters of Pearl and Axel and their relationship were less interesting to me, it felt a bit odd that they even crossed paths to begin with, and I never really felt the connection there.

With the slow pacing and lyrical writing of this book, I found myself only able to read a handful of pages at a time, and then putting the book down for breaks of ever-increasing breaks. As others have commented on, I too found the dialogue all in italics vs. quotation marks to be annoying.

While I didn’t love the book, I appreciated the insight into this period of time in Australia when the Opera House was being built. I enjoyed learning about the design and construction challenges and public perceptions of the project at the time.

With thanks to Atria Books via NetGalley for providing me an ebook version to read in exchange for an honest review.
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First published in Australia in 2018; published by Atria Books on October 9, 2018

Shell is about finding the shapes of the world. Pearl Keogh learned from her father to see the world as a triangle, the privileged residing at the apex, the masses providing the support that allows the privileged to stay on top. Axel Lindquist is searching to find the shapes that will express the identify of Sydney, Australia by examining its history, geography, and litter.

In 1965, Australia is about to start drafting soldiers to fight in Vietnam. Because she joined a protest against the draft, the newspaper that employs Pearl questioned her objectivity and relegated her to the women’s section.

Pearl’s younger brothers are draft age, but they ran away from the nuns that were minding them after their mother died. Now Pearl wants to find them, to protect them from the war. She does not think of them as missing. It is her old self that has gone missing, hidden behind “a veneer to protect herself, a shell she could slip beneath, to hide from the predatory world.” That’s one of several instances in which the novel’s title is used as a metaphor.

Kristina Olsson develops Pearl’s pain-filled backstory in detail, making clear her need for a purpose in a life that has closed all doors to opportunity. Pearl doesn’t realize that in the years since she last saw her brothers, they might have developed opinions about how to live their lives that she does not share.

Pearl’s story alternates with that of Axel, a glassmaker from Sweden who has been commissioned to make a piece for the foyer of Sydney’s controversial opera house. The architect who designed the opera house, Jørn Utzon, is a Dane who apparently became acquainted with Axel’s parents two decades earlier when Utzon helped smuggle Jews out of Denmark. Axel explains to Pearl that his father went missing in those years. That Pearl and Axel will get to know each other intimately is inevitable.

The story of conflict over Vietnam, turning neighbors against each other and causing pro-government Australians to spy on resisters, parallels the story of America, both during Vietnam and in our current climate of division. So does the story of art’s intersection with politics, as many come to view the opera house as a waste of money because conservative politicians oppose public art, preferring to fund bombs instead than beauty.

Other pervasive themes include the role of women in Australia’s male-dominated professions (particularly news media) during the 1960s; the way cultures sit atop each other, the new burying the old; the way architecture that “aspires to myth and dream” creates a “spirit of inquiry” that confronts or threatens residents who cling to parochial perspectives of their city; the way men and women around the world toil “without choice and little reward” while gaining strength and dignity from labor; the heavy weight of the past; and how intense experiences influence the creative process.

Olsson uses evocative prose to paint Sydney during the 1960s as a city divided by age and politics, while stressing the Australian quality of “mateness” that binds together its male residents. The resistance to Utzon’s design of the opera house is fascinating. My only criticism of Shell is that the story is too often dull. Pearl and Axel both live largely inside their sedate heads, and despite its attempt to make gain mileage from a late-blossoming plot twist, the novel builds no tension until its final pages. Still, the ending is dramatic, and for the ideas the story conveys, as well as the language that conveys them, Shell is worthy of a reader’s time.

RECOMMENDED
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My feelings about this book are very divided.  On one hand, I was fascinated by Olsson’s evocation of the setting; Sydney in the mid-60’s was a culture deeply divided between its past and its future.  On the brink of the Vietnam war draft, with the iconic Opera House in mid-construction, Australia was a country of immigrants unsure how to deal with its diversity.

Ultimately, though, the plot moved too languidly to keep me fully engaged.  I was interested by Pearl and Axel, and their back-stories, but not enough to continue to plow through the adjectives and beautifully written turns of phrase.
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I wanted to like this book more than I did.  It was very slow reading in the beginning and the constant back and forth between characters and time periods (something that seems to be popular with writers lately) was irritating.  The writing was poetic at times but in other times just wordy.  I think this writer shows promise, though, and I look forward to her next book to see if that promise is realized.  For this book, though, it was 'just ok' for me.
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3.5 rounded up.
Jodie Picoult is a prolific writer, and if you’ve read any of her books, you know she confronts head on some tough, controversial and always relevant issues. This one couldn’t be more timely with this predominantly conservative Supreme Court we will more than likely have, who could possibly reverse Roe v Wade. We see mass shootings and hostage situations too frequently on the news. This book takes us inside a hostage situation, where people are shot inside an women’s clinic that provides abortion services. Picoult has done a terrific job of reflecting both pro-choice and pro-life points of view. Most people who read this book will probably have their own opinion on the issue, and what happens here most likely isn’t going to change that.  At the very least by giving us characters with different perspectives, those who want their babies, those who don’t, or those who do, but just can’t because of circumstances, she gives us a chance to see things differently from where we may stand.

I’m not going to focus at all on the plot, but rather on the number of things that I liked  about this story. I liked how the hostages, some of whom didn’t know each other connected. I liked how Picoult moves rapidly from character to character and gives us each of their stories. In this cast of characters, my favorite was Louie, the abortion doctor, who was pro-life but wanted those who wanted an abortion to have it safely. He remembers his mother. It made me think about how easily we judge people without knowing what they have experienced. It made me think about the victims of these types of crimes and of how little we know them except for a few things they tell us in the news. 

What didn’t quite work for me was the structure of the book which reads backwards in time and I’m not really sure why. It didn’t add anything to the story for me. It felt repetitive at times. There were a couple of relationship twists which I guessed, but ultimately did made sense for the story and were realistic. Picoult could have been preachy, but she wasn’t. She has written a thought provoking story, one that encourages dialogue. In the end what I liked about the book outweighed what I didn’t like so I will round up it to 4 stars. 

I received an advanced copy of this book from Random House Publishing Group - Ballantine through NetGalley.
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I thought Kristina Olsson's book would be right up my alley: historical fiction, Sydney in the mid 1960s, the construction of the Sydney Opera House. Unfortunately, I did not like this book at all. Olsson utilized one of biggest pet peeves: no quotation marks. Instead, all dialogue was in italics and within the paragraphs instead of separated out. In addition, I did not like the structure, which continually switched back and forth between the two main characters (and time periods), Pearl and Axel, within the same chapter. Finally, I did not like Olsson's writing style, which seemed to me like she was trying too hard to be lyrical and artistic.
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Thanks to the publisher and NetGalley for early access to this book, although I was unable to finish it, I do greatly appreciate it.
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A poignant historical novel that infuses the turmoil of the Sixties; the Vietnam War movement, the building of the Sydney Opera House and the lives of two professionals. Pearl, an ambitious reporter and Axel, a professional glass-blower, new too Australia from Sweden who are thrown together by their commonalities and their differences.

It's a crazy time for them both as they deal with their haunts of the past, their hopes for the future while trying too make sense of it all..... whether together or apart. 

Along with the fictitious characters weavable stories, you will be left with more knowledge than you thought possible from this novels historical standpoint of Australia during this particular time period.

It is exquisite in its descriptions of art pertaining to every day occurrences that play out much like poetry. 
The characters are likeable and the story interesting, however, I found it to be a tad deflated in spots but it kept my interest none the less. 

An effective, enjoyable read.

ARC NetGalley
Novels N Latte
Novels & Latte Book Club
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The way that Kristina brought Pearl Keogh and Alex Lindquist together seemed rather forward for the time.  Pearl talking to Alex and saying that Swede's were good lovers.  Pearl was an Australian journalist that had views on the Vietnam War in regards to her brothers and Alex was from Sweden to work on glass for Sydney Opera House.  Each of them had problems with relations with their families.  Pearl with her brothers and her running off after her mother died and Alex with his father running off when he was 10 years old and blaming himself.  Each of these problems was handled by Pearl finding out what had happened to her brothers and also to Alex's father by talking to people in the know.  These are the background problems that affect them both.  However each of them had several problems that were discussed affecting their relationship.  This could lead to another book but I will accept this as a stand alone.  There was no real criminal activity during the book, so I would call it General Fiction.  I gave it 4 stars.
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REVIEW
Kristina Olsson's Shell explores themes of beauty and war in this novel that explores feelings around the Vietnam War and a glass artist helping to design pieces in the Sydney Opera House. What's interesting about this book is the orbiting relationship between reporter Pearl and artist Axel. Additionally, it's interesting to read about the political complexities of the era set in Australia. Will be a good read for fans of historical fiction. 

AUTHOR
Kristina Olsson is a journalist and the award-winning author of the novels Shell, In One Skin, and The China Garden, and two works of nonfiction, Boy, Lost: A Family Memoir and Kilroy was Here. She lives in Brisbane, Australia.

PRAISE
"A beguiling, original, and beautifully written imagining of Sydney of the sixties. " -Gail Jones, award-winning author

“A beautifully crafted novel about a fascinating time in our history. There is a luminous precision in every sentence.” -Heather Rose, award-winning author of The Museum of Modern Love

Many thanks to Atria Books and NetGalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an unbiased review.
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Shell is a beautifully written book.  It is about feelings and actions set in Australia in the 1960's.
Not a fast paced read, but worthwhile.
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This was an interesting read. I enjoyed learning about this time period that wasn't so long ago. I found the characters likeable and would recommend this book.

I would like to thank Netgalley and the publisher for providing me with a review copy in exchange for my honest and unbiased opinion of it.
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This was just OK for me. I appreciate what it's trying to do, but it just wasn't sticking for me. I'd give this author another shot with her second book maybe.
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Excellent!  Being a baby boomer, this is a period in time that remains important to me.  Seeing it through the eyes of these characters from different countries and cultures was fascinating.
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