Wednesday, 16 August 2017

A Room of One's Own by Virginia Woolf

 "All I could do was to offer you an opin­ion upon one minor point—a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fic­tion; and that, as you will see, leaves the great prob­lem of the true na­ture of woman and the true na­ture of fic­tion un­solved"

I know that Virginia Woolf is considered to be one of the most amazing authors and yet I find her almost impossible to read. Not because the sentiments here aren't spot on - they are. Sadly, women face many of the same issues today as when it was first published in 1929, many still struggle for financial independence, we grapple with inequity of earnings and the glass ceiling. That being said, I feel she could have got to the point in about half the number of pages and still conveyed the same message. Her meandering style never fails to drive this reader to distraction and long for a fast forward button - terrible to admit I know.

Money, freedom and education are necessary to facilitate women's voices to be heard and to record their view of history. There I've basically summarised the essay in a sentence. Throughout history circumstance and social convention have contributed to the empty shelves concerned with the history of women, and let's hope that has changed at least. For this at the very least, we should be grateful for Woolf's contribution.
For who could argue with making the most of the opportunities that have been so hard won for us?

As the author suggests, "A thou­sand pens are ready to sug­gest what you should do and what ef­fect you will have. My own sug­ges­tion is a lit­tle fan­tas­tic, I admit; I pre­fer, there­fore, to put it in the form of fic­tion" and as an avid reader myself, I can't help but agree.

5 out of 5 for the notions, despite the long path to get there.

Antic Hay by Aldous Huxley

"Gumbel talked. He talked of the marriage ceremonies of octopuses, of the rites intricately consummated in the submarine green grottos of the Indian Ocean. Given a total of sixteen arms, how many permutations and combinations of caresses?"

When sifting through the many and varied tomes on the 1001 novels list, the synopsis of this Aldous Huxley novel sounded suitably mad cap and intriguing. Just the kind of thing that would appeal to me, pneumatic trousers no less. I'd like to say that promise was realised, and yet that was not to be the case. Despite the blurb pointing to boundless hilarity I was lucky to raise a wry smile, well if I'm honest probably my face moved to some kind of mild smile around four times at its content.

Admittedly, life has been distracting me from my reading. Adventures far more delightful than the content of this novel and a much needed respite from the past two years cursed by a Voldemort-like figure of misery, have impeded my reading progress somewhat. Nevertheless I persevered, albeit at a snail's pace. Possibly a snail with a limp.

On Monday, I was sitting on a plane to the nation's capital- a rather quick flight - and finally the end seemed nigh. I began to fly through this novel and even raise the odd smirk. A rather delightful passenger sat next to me (he was reading a far better book) and commented on his disbelief that I was actually reading at the speed the pages were turning. Indeed I was flying though the text, desperately seeking some kind of humorous interlude that I really never found. The novel has this rather condescending tone and yet, at the same time, makes fun of the intelligentsia. It made me wonder, to whom it would appeal. It screams " look at me I'm clever and speak Latin and French" and despite the fact I could understand those quotes, I felt a very real sense of disconnect. Possibly the only times I felt entertained was when the topic turned to sex - or possibly that's just where my head's at currently. Perhaps that also extends to the fact that the facts of life don't change, whereas economic and social circumstances do and contribute to our appreciation of satire.

When everything is going well and your heart is light, perhaps the cynicism of this novel isn't the best reading selection. I wonder if I read it last year, whether I would rate it more highly? Probably.

 3 out of 5 - I'm just not in the mood for this old hay.

Friday, 28 July 2017

Dream Story by Arthur Schnitzler

"A shudder went through her naked body, transmitting itself to him and almost depriving him of his senses."

At last, the antidote for the last dreary death obsessed novel I read was  this short novella, dripping with lust, unfulfilled and all consuming. Our hero and his wife make the usual mistake of being just a little too honest about times where they may have been tempted to stray. That utterance once voiced lends an air of unease and jealousy. Such a trap for young players. 

In this frame of mind, Doctor Fridolin heads out for a house call and proceeds to experience an unusual evening. SPOILER ALERT - He spurns the unwanted advances of a daughter grieving her father, is bewitched by a young lady of the night and crashes one hell of an eyes wide shut style gathering. Damn, I've said too much.
The writing is exquisite and oozes longing tinged with guilt and transgression.
Eighty eight pages of heady delight that hint at the power of desire and the attraction  of infidelity.

5 out of 5  lingering looks lead to strange places.

The Dark Flood Rises by Margaret Drabble

"Sara is newly dead, Pauline Boty is long dead, Simon Aguilera's wife is long dead, and Ishmael is improbably very much alive."

I had been counting down to the day when this novel arrived in my letter box and I feel I was sadly mistaken. Certainly a novel about ageing, dying and decay was not really the perfect antidote for yet another birthday. I may have rebelled in spectacular fashion to countermand its influence.
My reading journey was a rocky one, short snippets of misery that seemed somewhat interminable, which is perplexing given the many endings posited within. It felt like being on the phone to my mother when she is telling a never ending tale concerned with people, names and places which are completely unfamiliar to me.
Stylistically it is well fashioned and yet it just didn't gel with me. Old age, I'm not ready for you yet. Perhaps this is something I need to re-read later, much...much...much later.

I'm guessing my mother will like it.

 4 out of 5 times getting old is not a happy place to be.

Wednesday, 19 July 2017

The Medium is the Massage by Marshall McLuhan and Quentin Fiore

"Today's child is growing up absurd, because he lives in two worlds, and neither of them inclines him to grow up"

How to review this one? I'm not really sure. It is perhaps best summarised as a kind of visual poetry accompanied by some interesting commentary. First published in 1967 and revised in 1996, this one has some "bottle age" and yet some of the concepts are still relevant today. The visuals are impressive and it makes for an intriguing time capsule.

4 out of 5 images a go go.

Monday, 3 July 2017

Night by Elie Wiesel

“One day when I was able to get up, I decided to look at myself in the mirror on the opposite wall. I had not seen myself since the ghetto. From the depths of the mirror, a corpse was contemplating me. The look in his eyes as he gazed at me has never left me.”

Awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986, for this harrowing account of his time in Auschwitz and Buchenwald, Wiesel's book is as horrific as it is brilliant. There's a tendency sometimes to be overwhelmed by the horrors of war and push them aside in the too hard to deal with basket. This personal account is so immediate, no fifteen year old should have to experience such things and yet he did. What is even more disturbing is the fact that we have such visceral accounts and yet, as a human race, we learn nothing and horrific treatment of other cultures, races and religions carries on even in these times when we think we've progressed.
When our rights are stripped away, when we live in a culture of fear, horrific events become the norm and we revert to animalistic survival mode. That is not the mark of an enlightened, educated, society. That is the stuff of pure nightmare.
Night  is 126 pages of pure nightmare and shows just how quickly civilisation can disappear and an ordinary life full of aspirations can reduce to something inconceivable.

5 out of 5. I don't feel any glib comment is warranted here. This is a reminder that our grip on an ordinary life is a tenuous one, and that there are those who would take it away because they don't realise theat we are all human being first and foremost.

Thursday, 29 June 2017

This Census-Taker by China MiƩville

"That first night alone with my father I sat in the kitchen without hope".

This is a very unusual novella that seems almost cinematic in scope. It begins with vivid movement and  despite its meagre size, the book brings a sense of energy, reminiscent of the child running down the hill -  the tale's opening.
That sense of movement is at the centre of this story's pull and feeds into the reader's sense of unease and confusion. It is rare to experience such a tasty little morsel and it is a rather different one. Go on, grab yourself a copy and see for yourself.

5 out of 5 good things come in small packages.

Sunday, 25 June 2017

The Last Bar in NYC by Brian Michels

"I might've looked the part when I was hired at the new hot spot and I was plenty capable of handling the same old work but I didn't know a thing about biting my tongue or keeping my dick in my pants."

Firstly, for transparency I will note that I was given a copy of this by the author and I would like to thank him for that. This was just the tonic (gin and tonic?) I needed this week and will undoubtedly appeal to anyone who has a misspent youth and a thirst for vodka. 
Can our protagonist be a bit of a jerk at times? Oh yes, and yet you, dear reader, will enjoy the ride.His personality wavers between extreme cockiness ( of the 'oh yeah, I totally can bang three broads at a time' kind of scenario) - to conflicted  ('oh dear,  should I really be doing this  and does coke make it really all better?') to a guy who starts to get his act and bar together - or does he - read it and find out.
Sometimes the chapters are a little jerky in their transitions and it takes a few pages to re-orientate, however that is only a momentary distraction and problematic only in the sense that you want to know what happens in the interim. The writing is great, there's a real sense of immediacy and you feel that you've been to every dive bar, sports bar, hooker hangout, cramped sleeping quarters and hostile lesbian bar, standing right alongside the narrator.

5 out of 5 cocktails are the answer.


Last Orders By Graham Swift

"When you've been thinking about the dead you notice how the living hurry"

This is one of those very rare occasions where I enjoyed the movie a hell of a lot more than the book. I'm probably doing the book a disservice, to be honest, because I don't think the tale of a group of friends carry their mate's ashes around is the most uplifting material to read when you are in a bit of a funk.

Last Orders  brings a lot of voices to the party, as all the players in Jack Dodds' life reflect on his life, and their own. All the secrets and dramas of life and long term friendships are eventually laid bare while they go about their journey to the seaside with a quick side trip to see a hard to find war memorial up a rather large hill.

Perhaps the work of Helen Mirren ( I do so love her) et al in the film version coloured my appreciation of the source novel. I found it difficult to reconcile the two versions at any rate.
Perhaps I just wasn't in the mood for a book that discusses the minutiae of life - love, war, motorcars, butcher shops, abortions, and trips to Margate, at a time when I prefer my reading to be slightly more escapist in subject matter.

3 out of 5 pints might help.

Wednesday, 21 June 2017

The Black Dahlia by James Elroy

 "I remember moving toward him and I remember picking him up two-handed by the neck, wondering how hard you had to squeeze a dog's throat to make its eyeballs pop out."

I used to be a massive fan of film noir and love L.A. Confidential  also based on an Ellroy novel. I have vague recollections of seeing the cinematic rendition of this novel and yet the plot seemed completely new to me as I read the book.Perhaps it was a little forgettable.

Unfortunately, the last few weeks and months have been a little fraught with drama of a non literary variety. That might be one of the reasons why it took me such a long time to finish this novel. Even the opportunity to tick off another 1001 list book wasn't enough to increase my speed of consumption.

Another reason, in these rather sombre times where the horrors of watching people die in a burning building in real time on the television is the new reality, the idea of reading about a violent murder, combined with a tonne of other violent acts and sad loveless couplings just wasn't the kind of thing I was inclined towards. Ellroy's stock in trade is grimy violence and lately, I'm not sure that's what I need.

Is it well crafted? Why, certainly. There were moments, particularly the seedy bars and sweaty boxing matches, where , as  a reader, I felt completely immersed in the tale. There were other times where I felt like perhaps I needed a long, hot, bath and a course of antibiotics.

 3 out of 5 cover ups are murder.

Monday, 19 June 2017

The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell

“Books’ll be back,” Esther-in-Unalaq predicts. “Wait till the power grids start failing in the 2030s and the datavats get erased. It’s not far away. The future looks a lot like the past.” 

This is a book, I mean, if you threw it at someone it could do serious damage. Don't take that as a critique by any means, I've rather loved the journey through time and lives and unravelling the mystery across its many delightfully written pages.
It is also a gorgeous experience that has got me through a rather crappy vortex of a shit storm that has been my life of late. The weather is clearing, fear not.

Reading this at odd intervals, sometimes a page or two, sometimes a hundred pages, probably added to the confusion of the non-linear story and yet somehow also made me love it even more. I appreciated this escape into another reality where underlying forces are waging war within the bodies of mere mortals without them even knowing. It is a fascinating conceit, potentially extrapolated from the notion of bacteria and/or even particles. My science is iffy - so seriously, don't quote me on that.

Regardless the writing is beautiful and offers delightful morsels of insight on everyday life in between the action. Other readers have fallen in love with Mitchell's Cloud Atlas,  which left me a little cold, despite my love of time travel, or rather, my love of reading about the idea.
I lacked the tenacity to stick with that novel and yet this one I found more approachable. I'm not sure whether that is indicative of greater patience on my part or a different style of writing or a more approachable subject. There is something vampiric about the "villains" of this piece that was always going to draw me in. I don't know why I'm always attracted to that trope and yet who could resist the opportunity of reading up a storm that eternal life would facilitate?

5 out of 5 Holly's journey drew me down the rabbit hole.

Friday, 9 June 2017

Only Dull People Are Brilliant at Breakfast by Oscar Wilde

"Men marry because they are tired; women because they are curious. Both are disappointed."

An absolute delight and how could it not be? A collection of Oscar Wilde's witticisms makes for fifty two pages of curated brilliance. No-one could coin a phrase quite like Wilde and this gorgeous little book clearly illustrates his amazing talent. Oh to be able to travel back in time and hang out with Oscar, or better yet, transport him to the present day where hopefully he'd find an easier life.
I could re-read this over and over again and will no doubt be stealing quotes from it at every possible occasion.

5 out of 5  - "One should always be a little improbable"

Thursday, 8 June 2017

The Dark Circle by Linda Grant

"One floor above Lenny and Colin, Miriam was screaming that she wouldn't get undressed."

So, by now you will no doubt have read that the winner of the Bailey prize has been announced, and here am I still not through the shortlist! The Dark Circle,  did not take out the prize and I'd have to say I definitely preferred The Power and am not surprised that it won. Now to the matter at hand, I have to admit to being a little nervous about reading this particular novel due to the subject matter. Reading the synopsis - a brother and sister being sent to a post war tuberculosis facility in Kent - did not send me running to the bookstore for a copy. Nevertheless, the novel is intriguing and surprisingly drew me in.

The writing seemed a little uneven, much like the plot and while there is much to recommend, ultimately this tale left me a little cold.
I found it difficult to relate to the protagonists and that distanced the story somewhat. What is far more successful is the sense of youth trapped in a cage, as Lenny and Miriam come to grips with their unusual new surrounds, peopled with characters very different to their familiar circles.One of the quotes on the cover makes reference to the great sense of atmosphere and I'd have to agree that Grant's strength is creating a sense of place.

I will be looking forward to see what my reading buddy Nicki thinks of it when I lend it to her.

4 out of 5 patients have patience.

Monday, 29 May 2017

Rather Be the Devil by Ian Rankin

"He knew he should do something about them, but knew too, that he never would. That would be someone else's problem -Sammy's probably - after he was gone."

I was fortunate enough to attend the Sydney Writer’s Festival session with Ian Rankin on “Who says crime doesn’t pay”. I’d bought the tickets based on name recognition, and so grabbed his latest paperback at the Airport in Brisbane on my way home, and to the festival. A real page turner, I’d managed to take in three quarters of the novel on my journey and just in time for the session.

While the author today oozes charisma wrapped up in one hell of a fantastic Scottish accent ( think David Tennant’s older brother), this hasn’t always been the case and his self-effacing tales of the struggles of his early writing career were particularly charming. This interview with the abc might give you just a taste of being there.

Back to the book and, Rebus, the  hero of some 21 novels, this being the 21st and frankly I'm hooked. I'm sure it would have been interesting to get on board the band wagon earlier in the series when Rebus was a younger man, and yet his sprung from retirement ex-cop makes for a compelling protagonist. Big scary crooks carrying some serious bottle age still make for an intriguing read and let's not forget that a cold case can still bring the heat.

I'm confident that I've not let you in on any plot points or given the game away, so get yourself a copy and jump into the shadowy Edinburgh underworld.

 5 out of 5 pints would be great if I wasn't gluten intolerant.

Wednesday, 24 May 2017

The Buddha of Suburbia by Hanif Kureishi

“Dad taught me to flirt with everyone I met, girls and boys alike, and I came to see charm, rather than courtesy or honesty, or even decency, as the primary social grace.”

Clearly a constant fixture on all the editions of the 1001 books you must read before you die for a reason, Kureishi’s The Buddha of Suburbia is at heart an enjoyable, compelling and often transgressive coming of age tale. The recipient of the 1990 Whitbread Award for the best first novel, it centres on seventeen year old Karim, the offspring of an Indian father and English mother (much like the author), the impact of his father’s affair and his resultant attempts to fashion himself as a kind of guru for hire among the smart set frequented by his new lover, Eva. That serves as the launching pad for twisting side tales that will have you engrossed.

Take for instance, the man you can’t have but everyone wants – Charlie; Karim is smitten. It doesn’t help that Charlie is the son of the woman Karim’s father is romantically involved with. He is far more interested in securing international fame than responding to Karim’s crush.

Karim’s cousin and sometimes bed partner is a rather interesting character. The reader feels her constant struggle to reconcile the world around her and that imposed on her by her father. This leads to a rather disastrous arranged marriage which introduces the reader to the delightfully hopeless Changez. He steals the novel for me as a figure of such sadness and schadenfreude. He might be useless in his father in law’s grocery store but don’t let him loose with a sex toy!

There is quite a bit of sex going on in the book and that’s natural given that it is possibly the central preoccupation for a teenager. Sex is fraught with danger and despair here. It drives a wedge in Karim’s family life. It leads to some often hilarious circumstances  and yet to reduce the story to merely its sexual leanings would do the book a disservice. Growing up is all about questioning everything, where is this going, why do my parents act this way, who am I, what do I want? An endless array of questions and that sense of growing curiosity combined with the self obsession of young adulthood is fantastically captured here.
What is particularly remarkable are the aspects that resonate regardless of one's race, upbringing or circumstances there are central human truths about growing up we can all relate to. That sense of the forbidden, the inexplicable, the precociousness of youth is infectious. Life is a glorious mess and that is something this book so beautifully expresses.

 5 out of 5 people have moments where their parents are a source of embarrassment.

Monday, 15 May 2017

Holding by Graham Norton

"How strange that she could imagine sharing a bed with him again but couldn't envision looking into his eyes and asking him what it was he felt."

I am a massive fan of Graham Norton's talk show and his autobiographical writing to date has been as charming as his interview style. When I heard he had branched out into fiction, I was eager to get myself a copy. This is the perfect read for a cold winter's night. Settle down with a glass of Graham's Wine (I've not tried it, but its from New Zealand so I imagine  it is drinkable) and launch into this touching murder mystery set in a sleepy little corner of county Cork.
When property developers discover human bones on an old farm, the portly Sergeant PJ Collins will have more worries than mere traffic management. Everyone in the village has skeletons in the closet including three spinster sisters, an unhappy wife, a miserable husband, and a mysterious cleaning lady. The characters are completely engaging, a heady mix of angst, lost opportunity and insecurities. Their human frailties gorgeously explored.

Go get yourself a copy or you might end up chucked off the red chair. Thanks for lending me your copy Nicki

5 out of 5 villages can be deadly.