The Girl Booker

The Girl Booker

Friday, December 9, 2011

A Year In Reading

I was going over what I'd read this year in order to pick out my favourites for a list at work and I realised that 2011 has been an excellent reading year. I wanted almost all the books I read to be my favourites, because I got so much enjoyment from so many of them. Perhaps I picked well, in terms of what I happened to be in the mood for, or perhaps I was just lucky to come across so much great stuff. Two that I regretfully bumped off the final list were When God Was A Rabbit and Once Upon A River which I posted about earlier this year. Both these books hung around in my mind for ages after I finished them. They were wonderful. Another standout was How I Became A Famous Novelist.

In the craziness that is December, I may not have a lot of time for blog posting but I'll hopefully have time to do plenty of reading, and will catch up on my posting in the new year. Buon Natale!

Sunday, November 27, 2011

When Too Much Plenty Is Never Enough

Have I raved enough about Yotam Ottolenghi's book Plenty in my life? Probably not, because I could happily discuss it at length every single day and still not be sick of it. It is billed as vegetarian food for non or part-time vegetarians, but the actual vegetarians I know who use the book seem to be pretty happy with it too!

Everything I have cooked from it has turned out beautifully. Because one of our favourite topics of conversation at the bookshop is "Guess What I Made From Plenty Last Night?" I know that several other recipes I haven't cooked also work well. Anyway, here are my favourites (in no particular order):

"Caramelized fennel with goat's curd". Is there a word in that sentences that does not sound utterly divine? And what if I add the words dill, lemon zest and a touch of black pepper?

The recipe for "Fried butterbeans with feta, sorrel and sumac" has actually turned into my most produced standby meal. I follow the basic principle but mix up the ingredients depending on what is to hand. I almost always end up stirring through some quinoa and often replace the feta with Greek yoghurt.

The "Puy lentil galettes" (which I always make minus the galettes) are amaaaazing. Just the right balance of sharpness and creaminess and greeny freshness.

And the one recipe I keep looking at but have yet to make? Shakshuka. It looks incredible, but as it is a breakfast dish, I feel it demands a special occasion (ie a free weekend with no busyness but when I am not too tired to cook up a feast on Saturday morning. This occasion has yet to occur).

Seen here is the double page image of Shakshuka from the book that has my mouth drooling and my stomach rumbling every time I look at it. I promise to report back!

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

The Big Orange Splot

As a child I had a book called The Big Orange Splot (Daniel Manus Pinkwater) and I loved it. I recently tracked a copy down and had it for my bedtime story last night. I still seriously love it; the central message is about individuality and self expression, and how happiness can come from standing up for one's personal vision. Looking at the book with a bookseller's eye was a bit of a shock though, because it's... um... terrible! It breaks almost all the rules; there is too much text on some pages, the illustrations are a little amateur and the rhythm and pace of the text is completely off. But I loved it as a kid and still love it, even though I can see it isn't nearly as polished and clever as a kids book must be today to get anywhere.

It doesn't seem to be aimed at a specific age group which these days is like a mortal sin in a kids book but I remember loving it for a long time. I might be imagining this but I seemed to like it for different reasons and to understand new layers of the story as I got older. It seems a pity that a book like this just would not exist today because there isn't any room for it in the sea of primped, sculpted and pitch-perfectly crafted children's literature.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Pining For New York

Season To Taste by Molly Birnbaum is best described as a book that brought me joy. It was wonderful to read: an interesting, well-written, well balanced mix of personal experience and factual detail. Birnbaum has taken her experience of losing her sense of smell and made it a truly wonderful read.

It reminded me of Not Eating Out in New York by Cathy Erway which I also loved. Both are full of beautiful, clear writing and food descriptions, and both make me want to go to New York. Sadly, I think I'll have to settle for being wistful about travel for a while yet.

Not knowing anything about the author, I was worried it was going to be one of those books I hate - the type written by somebody who has one book in them. That is, a person who isn't really a writer but happens to have experienced something extraordinary that gets turned into a book. The problem with these books is that they have been re-written so much by an editorial team that they usually end up sounding hollow and bombastic at the same time. As is rather obvious from my earlier comments, I needn't have worried AT ALL!!

I loved reading about somebody who made it through a life-altering experience with new skills, new direction and new hope. I loved learning some of the science and data behind taste and smell, and I loved experiencing life through an intense focus on sensations I often ignore.

Both authors I have mentioned in this post have wonderful blogs that can be found in the "Browsings" sidebar on this blog, or - a one time special for readers of this post - here:
Molly Birnbaum
Cathy Erway

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

King Brilliant

Ed King is ----King Brilliant! I have never read anything by David Guterson (he of Snow Falling on Cedars fame) and had always assumed he wrote soft, desolate, beautiful, thoughtful books. I think this assumption was based purely on the title of Snow Falling on Cedars, which sounds like a line from a haiku poem. Well, it turns out that Guterson writes sassy, tight, clever shit. Who knew? (probably everybody except me).

What I found most particularly brilliant was the final denouement, which is stretched out over a tense 50 or more pages. The reader knows the ending, (even before reading the book, as it is on the blurb) but waiting for the characters themselves to discover it is excruuutiating!!

... I wonder what this dude (formerly of the band Lynard Skynard) thinks of the fact that there is now a book with his name as the title? ...

It was a book that made me think about genetics, the meaning of family, technology's role in our lives... but it wasn't a 300 page lecture, it was a great, nuanced, story.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Back In Print

I finished Higland Fling last night. It has been out of print for several decades and was only just republished last year. It was the one Nancy Mitford fiction title that I hadn't read and, as expected, it was just delightful.
Hooray for for Ms Mitford!! [Must use small words here to look good down side of pic] ... There is a carelessness and a breeziness in her writing that makes it feel very fresh and un-laboured, as though the whole thing were somebody telling a story to a friend over coffee, or a very rough first draft- almost stream of consciousness. I know this style is not to everyone's taste but I relish it. It was her first novel and while it is possible to see developing complexities and polish in her later work, Highland Fling is still a lovely book to read; very funny in parts, sharply observed and concisely written. .
While I spent months tracking down and waiting for Highland Fling to arrive I was also anticipating the republication of three Stella Gibbons titles: Conference at Cold Comfort Farm, Westwood and Starlight. Conference was ok. It was rather like a movie sequel where they can't get any of the original actors on board. The ho-hum-ness makes you remember how fantastic the first one was, and you admit it was loyalty to the memory of this that made you even remotely interested in the sequel. I didn't have great expectations so I wasn't really disappointed. Some elements were great but overall it seems to have dated pretty badly. Nevertheless, I was still keen to read Westwood and I am so glad I did. I drove Tallboy nuts by flopping about and sighing all over the apartment and saying things like "oh, wow" and "it's so lovely!". Reading Westwood was like drinking a cool, crisp glass of water on hot, stuff day. I was in such raptures over it that I have just bought Starlight which looks to be another great read.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Cocktails and Cordials

Heavens to Betsy, a month since my last post! It may look as though I have abandoned my blog but as a matter of fact I have had one of those disappointingly persistent viruses that made me feel like death warmed up and hung around for weeks. I have quite a backlog of reading material to discuss so I think I’ll tackle it in a few stages.

I’ve read a couple more kids books – I feel like a bloody champion as a result but I just realised that actual kids read this stuff all the time so I guess it isn’t all that impressive. Something else that isn't all that impressive is the ability to italicise mysteriously disappearing form my blogger dashboard. Please excuse.

Marcelo In The Real World by Francis X. Stork is one of the most amazing, remarkable, moving books I have read in a very long time. Ostensibly it is written for a teen audience, and while I think teenagers and even advanced 11 or 12 year olds would love it, it felt like an adult read to me. There was nothing a younger person couldn’t manage in it but it was so insightful and oddly charming that I think a lot of adults would get a lot from this one.

Fancesca Simon’s The Sleeping Army was quite enjoyable but not something I would rave about. It is basically a story about a young modern girl in a world identical to ours except Christianity died out and the prevailing religion is that of Norse myths. Freya finds herself transported to Valhalla and forced to undertake a quest for the Gods. It could really tickle the fancy of any kids who are keen on history, probably for 8-10 year olds. But comparing it to Marcelo is a bit like comparing a glass of cordial to a cocktail of Frangelico, pear juice and a dash of lime.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Drum Roll Please

A mere 4 months after starting it, I have finished The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins!!!!! It feels like such a great achievement. It is a long time since I really persevered when I was reading something that I didn't enjoy much and this has really paid off. Call me crazy, but I am half considering reading The Moonstone, also by Collins.

Throughout The Woman in White Collins creates a drifting, mysterious, creepy, creeping mood. The storyline gets you sucked in but it took me a while to attune to the pace of the novel. I think reader's expectations have changed in the past 100 years and I was expecting a more punchy read at first. Eventually, I discovered the key was to only read it when I had a lot of time and mental space before me. If I did that then reading it was a delicious, floaty pleasure. If I tried to cram in a page or two between appointments I became irritated and disappointed.

This is most emphatically not a book to read on the train or during a lunch break. It is, however, perfect for reading in bed at your partner's parents' house in North Carlton while the rain lashes and splashes outside and you contemplate the day's busy schedule consisting mostly of coffee-related events.

Read this book: if you are stuck in bed with a cold or are planning a trip to a beach house during winter.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011


I have a friend who constantly uses the word "amazeballs" on facebook, and it's been floating around in my head for a while now. I always think that made-up descriptive words make the object under discussion sound even better; like it's so good that an already existing word isn't enough to do justice to how fantastic it is. Please bear this in mind when I say that How To Be A Woman by Caitlin Moran is AMAZEBAAAAALLLLLS!!!!!

It's so awesome to read a book on an important topic that is superbly funny while simultaneously taking the topic seriously. I think pretty much everyone would love this book, apart from people who really don't want to read an entire chapter on vaginas. If you're a fence-sitter on this issue then trust me: Moran will convince you it's worthwhile. I can reluctantly imagine a couple of grandparental types, church ministers or 8 year old boys who may find it a bit much.

I am so excited about this book that I just want to rant and rave about it. I have been trying to write this post for 3 days now and I have reached the conclusion that I find it impossible to talk excitedly enough about How To Be A Woman without the use of hand gestures. It is a Wagnerian, Beethovanian symphony of a book. It is AMAZEBALLS!!! Read it!!!

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

A Pimply Youth With A Carving Knife

The Cook by Wayne Macauley is told in the first person narrative voice of a teenage boy. I found the writing style a little off-putting for the first page or two but quickly came to be charmed by it. It reads very smoothly but I suspect that each sentence took some time to get just right.

It follows Zac through his time at Cook School (a program for wayward teens designed to teach them cheffing skills and then get them decent work), and then to his first job as a cook. It was another read-in-a-day book for me; Macauley makes small moments compelling. The device of his naive narrator sheds new light on old ideas and keeps the reader keen.

There is a twist that I did not see coming at all; I actually threw the book down and had to stop reading for a bit. I didn't want to touch the book until I had calmed down. It was quite disturbing, and got under my skin for several days. Four and a quarter lamb carcasses out of five.

Friday, September 9, 2011

The Streets Are So Wide...

A treasure, a delight, a gem; Kerryn Goldsworthy's Adelaide is one of the most moving, interesting, personal and beautiful books I think I have ever read.

Several months ago, I discovered that New South Books were bringing out a series of books about Australia's capital cities and since that time I have been watching and waiting for the Adelaide volume. Although I have lived in Sydney for close to a decade, I was born and bred in Adelaide's wide, grid-patterned streets, and have spent long hours debating where "home" is, and what Adelaide is to me if it is no longer home.

Adelaide is about the history of the city, but it is also about how the residents and past residents feel about the city. While I adored every single sentence of the volume, I suspect the depth of one's association with the city would exactly replicated one's depth of enjoyment of the book. It is excellently written; full of beautiful phrases and quirky facts and I am sure anyone would love to read it but I do concede the personal, passionate attachment to it that I have felt would probably only be experienced by those with a connection to Adelaide itself.

Goldsworthy quotes Paul Kelly's song Adelaide a couple of times in the book, and this song has always said so much to me of my own push-pull experiences with the place:

The streets are so wide,
Everybody's inside,
Sitting in the same chairs
They were sitting in last year.
This is my town

Reading this book made me fall in love with Adelaide again, and want to forgive all the quirks and annoyances that I have held like petty grudges against the city of my birth. Chapter 6 reminded me so viscerally of the sights and smells of childhood Summers and my greatly missed grandparents that I cried. It almost(!) made me want to move back there.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Gimme Fame

How I Became A Famous Novelist (Steve Hely) -piss funny. Really, those two words sum the book up perfectly. But if it will take more than 2 words to convince you, here are a few more: It's about Pete Tarslaw, a character who hovers in the middle ground between Scallywag and Bum. He decides to write a popular novel (not a good one, because that would be too hard and he is all about minimum effort for maximum impact). .

Pete's project is a brilliant foil for Hely to mercilessly caricature the state of the book and publishing industry today, and his jokes are very, very close to the bone. The book is so funny that I had to read huge swathes of it aloud every time my laughing fits caught Tallboy's attention. It made me happy to be a reader.

I sort of wish the ending had been a little more nihilistic; it was a bit of a cop out after the punchy, pacey body of the book but I am being picky. Overall, it deserves 98 out of 100 Laughter Snorts.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

The Publishing Event Of The Year

The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides was a very difficult title for me to remember, mostly because the reading copy was covered in the phrase "The Publishing Event of the Year", so that is what Tallboy and I have been calling it. I loved this book so much that I want to use swear words for emphasis, but since this blog is pink it somehow feels wrong. For several years now, I've had people tell me on and off that I should read Middlesex, also by Eugenides. I finally understand what all the fuss is about; Eugenides is a fantastic, rave-worthy author. The Marriage Plot is one of those books that is so vibrant that it feels like a conversation with a live person when you're reading it.

The three central characters each had a huge bagful of flaws but I nevertheless loved each of them and wanted them to live happily ever after. Since they were caught up in a love triangle, this didn't seem likely but I still desperately wanted it to happen. I think this little nugget is the key to the book's success; at least for me.

I read Rip Tide by Stella Rimmington in a day. Not because I was compelled to, but because I was able to. It was ok: a bit slow to start then quite entertaining but nothing amazing. I guess that's why I don't tend to read crime much.

A Discovery of Witches: what a discovery this was! Deborah Harkness has written a book so fabulous and gripping and well-written that I am looking into getting hold of her previous work, which happens to be academic non-fiction. She is a great storyteller, and has managed to write an intelligent novel about witches and vampires. Not being a big fantasy or paranormal reader, I am small-mindedly assuming that this is unusual for the genre.

I like to read out of my comfort zone from time to time, and when I do, I usually end up enjoying what I've read in a lukewarm sort of way (see Stella Rimington above). A Discovery Of Witches, however, is going straight to my wild-eyed, breathless, "I LOVED it!!!!" department. Unfortunately for the people close to me, I will be ranting and raving about A Discovery... for weeks.

Because Harkness is actually an historian, it is an excellent read for anyone interested in history who is after a good piece of entertaining fiction. Despite her obvious knowledge, she doesn't overdo it; the historical detail isn't pushy or gratuitous. To sum up, I evny anyone who has the experience of this book before them!

Monday, July 18, 2011

A Fantasy

I have just freshly finished Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Liani Taylor. My struggles and (small) triumphs with reading teen fiction have been documented elsewhere on this blog, and I am therefore pleased to report that I have now read another teen novel and really enjoyed it!

I browsed through a few online reviews for Daughter of Smoke and Bone, and it has a very intense "best-book-EVAH" following. I wouldn't go that far, but I enjoyed it immensely. And far more than I had expected to, which was a nice bonus. It's a fantasy novel about unearthly creatures, magic, wars in other worlds and a 17 year old girl with blue hair trying to figure out who she is and what her place is in the aforementioned tangle. I loved the worlds that Taylor has created; setting the book in Prague means that even the "Earth" bits are magically escapist, dreamy and quaint.

I felt there was a certain amount of sophistication lacking in the peace/war analogies, but I think that's more a product of the book having been written for teenagers than a lack of ability on the author's part. It didn't stop me from enjoying the book, it was just something I happened to notice. All up, I would give it five stars as a teen book and three and three quarters as a grown up book.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Night Has Fallen

Last week I finished The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern and wandered around in a daze. The best way i can describe how I felt was that it was a bit like entering the real world after having had a massage; you feel giddy, and warm and fuzzy. The light seems brighter and everything looks clearer.

I hate it when people say they don't want to tell you too much about the book or they'll ruin it... but I don't want to tell you too much about the book or I'll ruin it! I've mulled over this problem for a few days because it seems like a cop-out. So the conclusion I've drawn is that the plot is not the reason it is such a good book - the reason is really in how Morgenstern makes everything come alive for the reader, and that isn't something you can describe easily in a quick conversation. However, the plot is quite unusual so it is tempting to latch on that when trying to explain to someone why the book was so amazing.

So I won't describe the plot here, I will only say that a wonderful, whimsical, richly imaginative world was created by Morgenstern and I was enthralled by it. I enjoyed reading The Night Circus so much that I forgot to bring a critical eye to the experience; I just got wrapped up in the story which is really what it should be all about, all the time.

Sunday, June 12, 2011


The Deadly Space Between was deadly. I am technically still reading The Woman In White but I needed a fix of something a bit less turgid* so I turned to Patricia Duncker with The Deadly Space Between. I've been working my way through her work and this one wfrom about 10 years ago was just republished. I love her writing so much; I like to describe it as a British, toned down version of magical realism. Nothing really crazy ever happens in her work, but always just enough to make you feel a little uneasy, and a little unsure of where the boundaries of reality in her world lie. It keeps you guessing. I find A.S. Byatt similar in that way.

I actually lost time reading this book - went back to bed for a 10 minute read and when next I looked at the time it was two and a half hours later! I am hesitant to say anything else about why it gripped me so much; I think that speaks for itself. I've read some wonderful stuff in the last few months but I can't remember the last time I got so absorbed that I forgot the real world.

*Not that it is completely turgid, just a little slow moving and dense to read all the time

Friday, June 3, 2011

Not Just Books

I want to post a bit on stuff I am currently reading, but I am struggling a little in the book department. I am reading The Woman in White (Wilkie Collins). So many people mentioned it to me in the space of a two week period that I felt I had to read it. If I believed in Signs From God then this would have had to be one. If this is the case, then I think God is a little peeved with me right now. To be perfectly honest, I am enjoying the book in a lukewarm way, but (probably because it is so long - 600 odd pages) it feels just like when I had to read something for Uni or school. The sense of duty outweighs the sense of enjoyment, and possibly mars it a little too. I will definitely finish it, and write a 2000 word essay on it when I'm done.

I am also reading the latest issue of Dumbo Feather. Dumbo Feather is a mook (half magazine, half book) which comes out 4 times a year. This is the first issue under a new editorial team. As always, it is brilliant and I love it and the only thing I could possibly say against it is that some of the white text on coloured background is too hard for my grandma eyes to read. It's like an anti-glossy. The interviews and articles are about life and art and ideas. People like midwives and stylists and apple growers have been profiled and interviewed in the past and, for me, it is always inspiring.

Other things keeping me distracted from my homework of The Woman In White include Frankie magazine, my electricity bill, and the New York Times Most Emailed articles.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Sweet, But Not Too Sweet

Friendship Bread by Darien Gee sat around by my bed for a few weeks before I read it. On the one hand, it looked like a nice, comforting read on a subject I find fascinating: food bringing a sense of community and healing to a group of people. On the other hand, it seemed dangerously easy for this very topic to fall into the twee, saccharine mush that I abhor. Luckily, it was brilliant and I loved it!

If I were to bring a critical eye to the book, there was one minor character who seemed hopelessly unreal and was a tad annoying. There were also a few moments, especially in the last couple of chapters, that tipped a little too close to the World of Twee for my liking, and it was only after I finished the book that it occurred to me that all the male characters who swear say "heck" as in "damn them to heck", and the female ones never swear. I have all sorts of problems with this but since I didn't notice it while I was reading the book it doesn't feel like a terribly big deal.

I'm always excited to come across a book like this because it fits into a category that I think there is a real desire for: something intelligent readers can enjoy when they don't feel like plowing through a literary tome, but isn't so sappy that they get annoyed with it. Unfortunately, there is a lot of pap out there as well as a lot of Serious Literature that is hard work to read and often depressing. I know I often want something between these two camps and it isn't always easy to find.

A final tip: do not read this if you are on a diet because you will be driven insane with all the descriptions of sweet, steaming loaves of Amish Friendship bread that fill the house with their delicious aroma...

Sunday, May 15, 2011


Earlier this evening, I finished At Last by Edward St Aubyn. I started thinking about the post I would write about it as I read the final pages and it struck me that it is quite similar in one sense to another book I finished a few weeks ago and never got around to posting about: Once Upon A River by Bonnie Jo Campbell. Each book, in its own way, was quite hideous and ghastly. I don't really mean that as a criticism, because in each case it is part of what made these books what they are.

Nevertheless, I found both books difficult to stomach at times. At Last is full of nasty, awful, mean, selfish and vicious people. Really, really horrible. The whole book takes place at the funeral of a person who will not necessarily be missed or mourned by all, and interspersed with descriptions of the funeral are stories about her life through the perspective of various friends and relations. More and more is slowly uncovered about who she was, mostly through the prism of her son figuring out how he feels towards her.

There have been times in my life (sometimes for a few hours, sometimes for several months) when I have been unable to read sad or "difficult" books. I am glad this is not one of those times because it really is a fantastic book. Despite this, I don't have the emotional attachment to it that I have had to other books, such as The Legacy or When God Was A Rabbit. On an intellectual level I liked it a lot. As with Augusten Burrows, I admire St Aubyn's ability to keep me compelled to read something so nasty and awful. And I should mention that it is really quite funny and clever in parts too. Since finishing the book, I have discovered it is the fifth in a series about the same family. Honestly, I cannot bear the thought of reading any more about these people.

Once Upon A River... such a drifting kind of book... it's about a young woman (still high school age) who runs away from home after her father dies. She is really too young to cope with all that has been thrust upon her, and her actions show her to be a child with a strangely tough and independent streak. Her life becomes something that I found profoundly sad. Her vulnerability is so evident that it's just heartbreaking to watch her being taken advantage of over and over again.

It's funny because before writing this out I thought the tough bits were the deer hunting and animal skinning scenes (it feels like there is one almost every 10 pages) but actually what upset me a lot more were the displays of cruelty from one human being to another. The hunting and skinning is quite graphic, and fairly relentless but they work as an undercurrent to the book's main idea about the cruelty toward the vulnerable protagonist.

I am sure it will sound odd at this point, but I think this is a truly beautiful book. There are some awfully tough scenes in it, but there are also beautiful, tranquil moods and small triumphs and tactile pleasures and moments of healing and pools of calm. I am glad I have given myself this opportunity to think about Once Upon A River a little more deeply, because I think it is a thoughtful, late bloomer kind of book, only fully appreciated after the fact.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

A Book In A Day

I started and finished The Forgotten Waltz by Anne Enright today. Reading an entire book in one day is odd; I obviously loved it or I would've left it to do something else, but I haven't had the chance to think about it while not reading it as I usually would. So I feel as though I have potentially diminished the experience.

Why did I like this book? Well, I suppose because I could completely believe the central character. Some elements of her were utterly alien to me, but enough of her thoughts and history and character were like me for that not to matter. Or perhaps to make it an even better read. Since I was reading a slightly off kilter version of myself, I didn't know what I was going to do next. The character was nice enough (or perhaps enough like me) that I felt sad for her in her failings rather than angry or contemptuous.

Last night I finished The Easter Parade by Richard Yates. I think Yates' idea about the two sisters in his story being doomed from childhood tainted my reading of The Forgotten Waltz and I couldn't help feeling it was a little the same with Enright's two sisters. Two examples of a "free spirit" in successive relationships who never feels secure, juxtaposed against the safe suburban sister who is seemingly trapped, perhaps left me reading more into The Forgotten Waltz than I was supposed to.

In any case, Yates is stunningly good. I find his writing heartbreaking in a very quiet yet immensely profound way. His character's whole lives spin (usually to unravel) on small moments and seemingly inane events. As a reader, it makes you feel safe, because you are so far from being so lost. But he is careful to make it real enough that the safety feels just a bit fragile. I know I have not given any meaningful details of The Easter Parade but it feels too much like I would be destroying a spider web covered in glinting drops of rain.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

There Should Be More Reading

I haven't posted here for a little while but it's because I have been too busy reading. I have read some really wonderful books in the last 3 weeks. I have been thinking about the blog posts I would write, but there's always another great book winking at me from the bedside table.

There Should Be More Dancing, written by Rosalie Ham is due to be published in July this year. It was fantastic: witty, dark and intriguing. I remember reading her first book (The Dressmaker) and really loving it for the sort of modern gothic feel. This is completely different but probably better (t's hard to be sure since I read the other one about 10 years ago, but I think so).

I enjoyed the reading experience, while at the same time appreciated technical elements of the structure. The way Ham builds interest, and combines events from past and present to make certain points is great. I mean, who wouldn't read the next chapter to find out about "The Public Scalping Incident", especially when a sweet little old lady is at the heart of it? But actually, she isn't all that sweet - she's a mix of nasty, stuffy, proper and generous. And some other things. Lots of other brilliant things I loved about it but I'd rather people read the book than this review so I'll move on to the next one...

Love In The Years of Lunacy. Like Ham, Mandy Sayer is an Australian author, and has based her novel in the area where she lives. There Should Be More Dancing was all things Brunswick in Melbourne, while Love In The Years of Lunacy is set in the Sydney of World War II. Again, I loved it. Most of it is based around Potts Point and Kings Cross, which is where I live so it was lots of fun to to try and imagine my 'hood peopled with the characters from the book.

Apparently it took Sayer 10 years to write this book. I feel a bit sad that it only took me 3 days to read it! She has clearly spent a lot of time on research and there are some wonderful details about things like the Trocadero ballroom which no longer exists. Despite meticulous research, it doesn't feel forced or overdone; it's all beautifully blended into the story and not just a litany of facts strung together with a bit of dialogue. And the factual detail wouldn't really be much without vivacious, three-dimensional characters. Ultimately, that is what makes you keep reading - caring what happens to the characters.

I followed these two super-new reads with The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton. I had read it a long time ago but remembered nothing. I am in raptures over this book. I want to sigh and swoon all over this post but it's difficult with a keypad. The language! The poignancy! Oh the poignancy! It is heartbreaking, yet utterly beautiful. There are so many moments that I can vividly imagine, such as when Newland's tears freeze on his eyelashes. I keep thinking about these images; the feeling of the book will haunt me for many weeks. It is an unutterably sad book, but it just would not work at all today. Society and etiquette are so different that although the awful dilemma faced by Ellen and Newland is perfect in its context, it would be laughed away if someone tried to write a book about putting honour and stuff above personal happiness. Well, I think so... I'll be on the lookout for something to crush this thesis.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

A Tale From This City

More Tales of the City by Amistead Maupin is one of those books that feel like I have already read, and loved. There was a TV series made a few years ago based on the first couple of books in the series, which I loved, so I just assumed that I also loved the books, even though I never actually got around to (ahem) reading any of them.

I did finally read a volume, and it was odd - I found it hilarious and witty and sharp, but kept forgetting that I was enjoying it when I wasn't actually in the act of reading it. Finding out that it was originally a newspaper serial subsequently made into a series of books helped this to make sense. And the idea of different writing styles for different formats was really illuminated for me. It doesn't make a bad book, but I can see that it would be far more memorable as something read in snippets, with forced waiting for each installment.

I feel like I have probably read enough for now, although if I were stuck in a holiday house somewhere with rain pissing down outside and nothing else to do, I would be very excited to find one of these books on the shelf to read. Or if I were stuck in bed with a cold.

Oddly, it isn't merely funny fluff, but it is written in such a way that it feels as though it is. There is really great stuff about relationships, gay rights, city life and human emotions and I suppose that is what makes it such an engaging read - the possibilities for connection with the reader are great, yet it is also possible to just have a little giggle and forget about it.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Irma Voth

It's funny - I really enjoyed reading this book, but now that I come t write about why, I'm not sure what to say. Although I love how the character's name sounds both strong and soft at the same time... I suppose it created an atmosphere that as compelling. And the first person narrative made me want to know more and more and more about Irma. She was intriguing andlikable.

At the outset I thought it'd be intense and gloomy (probably partially prompted by the cover image that looked like a new edition of The 19th Wife). I thought I'd need some kind of sponge-cake read to follow it with but it turned out to be a nice balance; intense, gloomy, quirky, fierce and beautiful.

See what I mean about the cover? I guess a book about present-day Christian-esque cults in America says "black clothes, long hair and DON'T SHOW THE FACE" to the cover designers of this world.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

The Kitchen Sink

After having finished When God Was A Rabbit I wasn't able to settle on a new book for a while. It was just too wonderful. Too, too bloody wonderful. I finally kicked on with a couple of travel memoirs, and then a couple more kitchen sink dramas, with mixed results.

The first memoir was Searching For Women Who Drink Whisky by Miranda Kennedy. Kennedy's approach to writing about her experiences living in Delhi is refreshing - rather than a list of "I saw this, I met them, I did that" she used a lens of Indian women's lives through which to focus. I would have liked it to go a little deeper, but but I still enjoyed it. The ideas she raises about women's liberation and traditional roles for modern women are thought-provoking, and a little distasteful.

No Chopsticks Required by Katrina Beikoff didn't seem to go very far beyond the surface, but I'll admit that I didn't finish it. I think it would have been fine if I hadn't just read a rather good travel memoir, but because I had, I needed something to do more than fill in the mental gaps of space in my brain like a magazine in the dentist's waiting room fills in time. Really, it was just someone grappling with language difficulties, unfamiliar surroundings and Shanghai's extreme pollution and the only thing that made it different from the thousands of other travel memoirs out there was the odd big word or two. I am coming across a tad too grumpy - I would definitely recommend this to someone with an interest in or connection to China, or to someone who needs a "holiday read" (euphemism for "no effort required"), even though I didn't love it myself. It was ok.

Cuckoo by Julia Crouch was also "ok". I had high hopes for this kitchen sink psycho drama, and I really loved reading it but the ending was a big fat lard lump of disappointment. Not only was it weak and a tiny bit confusing, but it opened up a lot of other holes in the plot when I tried to figure everything out. AND made me notice things about the central character that were uneven, which I had been quite happy to ignore while the story was rollicking along. Another one for the "holiday read" pile.

Too Close to Home, Georgia Blain. This book took me three days instead of two to read because it made me sad and uneasy, so I needed to put it on stop for a little bit. It really did get to me. Part of what I loved was the Sydney and Australia references, which might make it too specific for other audiences, especially some of the references to Australian politics. I don't think so though.

I'm now trying some history once again, but there is a new fiction title on my horizon that looks like it might be 2011's answer to The Nineteenth Wife.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Ha Ha Ha

I have recently read three very funny but wildly different books: Wigs On The Green (Nancy Mitford), Sexually, I'm More Of A Switzerland (David Rose) and When God Was A Rabbit (Sarah Winman).

Wigs On The Green has been out of print for decades and has only just become available again in the last few months. It is a pre-World War II satire on Nazis and fascism and political fervour, so it isn't hard to imagine a few raw nerves being touched. I found it curious; in some ways it is even fluffier than Mitford's other novels, yet the underlying sentiment is far more serious than this lightness might suggest. It is definitely worth doing some background reading on it first, at least the introduction which in my edition is written by Charlotte Mosley. I really like the idea of deadly serious messages being delivered in seemingly flippant ways, and by making certain characters and ideas appear utterly ridiculous, Mitford does this splendidly. The book's biggest flaw is that it's too short.

I've been reading the other two books simultaneously, because Sexually... is a collection of personal ads from the London Review of Books and therefore something to be dipped into. I'd really like to read a section of the personals in the paper itself, to get an idea of how typical these ones are. They are sometimes completely bizarre, often hilarious and at other times totally incomprehensible. Really, the best thing for mw to do is give some examples:

This advert may well be the Cadillac of all lonely hearts adverts, but its driver is the arthritic granddad with a catalogue of driving convictions. Arthritic Granddad (67) with a catalogue of driving convictions including "Driving whilst trying to turn the dang wipers off", "Driving whilst wondering if his urology appointment has come through", "Driving whilst "Hey! Isn't that where your Aunt Maude's first husband lived after the divorce came through? He's settled in Jersey now. I could never stand him - he used to do this thing with his teeth..." " Would like to meet someone who knows how to stop the oven from beeping. Box no 9729

I walk the line between indifference and, meh, whatever. If you're going to write do it quickly. The OC is on in half an hour. Woman. Thirties. Box no 5710

The finest mind in the academic world conceived this ad, but it was his secretary who took two and a half hours out of her day to collate his angst-ridden ramblings, phone the LRB and pay for it with her own money. He's basically looking for an affair with a twenty-something idiot tart who needs good grades. I'm looking for a better job, a decent pension package, and a man to 50 who's great in bed and doesn't make condescending comments about every damn book I read. Man, 57. Or his secretary, 43. Box no 1207

Casanova began his career as a librarian. I've begun mine as a museum curator, which is more or less the same thing except it involves old bones and stuff instead of books. And there is a designated picnic area in a museum whereas libraries don't like you bringing in food. And we have fun maps you can colour in as you go around. And help points for the disabled. Man, 24. Museum curator and potential Casanova. Box no 7971

To be honest, it almost makes me want to be single so I can give it a crack.

And now to When God Was A Rabbit. Funny, funny, funny! Yet also terribly sad and beautifully written. It is Winman's first novel and she really is an excellent writer with a fantastic ability to draw characters. There were several awkward moments when I laughed out loud while reading this book in public. There is a lot of sub-par writing out there, so I find it really heartening to read something of this quality.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Strike Two!

My second teen book! It was Tortall, a collection of short stories by Tamora Pierce. I just loved her stuff when I was a teenager and it was fantastic to go back to her work and realise that I still love it. Some of the stories left me wanting to know and read more which is a frustrating aspect of short stories, but also the sign of a good writer being able to hook you in on very little.

While I was reading it, and enjoying the rich imaginary worlds and nicely rounded characters, I realised that the reason I often don't like teen fiction is that it seems to me to be somewhat anaemic. Perhaps because younger readers are not expected to pick up on subtleties of character, structure or style they are often absent. It is possible that I am being unfair, given the very small sample size I am basing all this on, but I figure blogs are supposed to be all about ill-informed agro rants so I might as well go with it.

Another Big Tick area for this book goes to the strong female leads. At times it is a tiny bit too obvious (pssst: HERE IS A GIRL, DETERMINED TO DO SOMETHING NONE OF THE VILLAGERS THINK SHE IS CAPABLE OF. What will happen?), but generally, I think it's fantastic and certainly something I remember as being a large element of my enjoyment in reading the books when younger.

I think it's a real shame there aren't more books for teens of this calibre available, especially for girls, although I read a lot of adult fiction as a teen because of this situation and maybe that isn't such a bad solution. Speaking of adult fiction, I am going to stick to that for a while now.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

History: It's All In The Past

In the last few weeks I have been on a huge non fiction bent. Tallboy and I have been reading A History of The World In 100 Objects (Neil MacGregor) together for several weeks now, and we reached object 100 last night. It was so informative and incredibly easily digestible. The range of objects discussed includes Japanese pottery, Mayan figurines, early scripts and examples of money. Each chapter is complete in itself, and many of them grapple (and succeed) to explain big leaps in the development of humankind; through the objects in question. It was fascinating.

Apart from this slow and steady bedtime read, I set aside much of my time last week to read a dear friend's Doctoral thesis. It was an interesting process for me; the intensely close reading that was required (in order to catch the odd typo) made it a rather challenging read. I didn't initially appreciate how much longer it would take me than something I would read purely for enjoyment. Nevertheless, I did enjoy it. The content itself was interesting, and I loved reading well constructed and beautifully flowing sentences that were written by someone I know!

I bookended my reading of the thesis with The Chocolate Wars by Deborah Cadbury. I have had my eye on this book for a while (it was released some time before Christmas) because I love chocolate, and I also love Deborah Cadbury's writing. She's able to pull the quirky, meaty wheat from the chaff of historical detail while making it all sound as though she's having a chat with you over a cup of tea.

Cadbury is indeed descended from the Cadbury chocolate makers and either because of the family ties or because they just happened to be more interesting, the Cadbury empire is at the heart of this book, with smaller amounts on the other chocolate behemoths such as Hershey, Mars and Nestle. It's hard to tell if there is a family bias at play or not. Much of the book focuses on the Quaker ideals of the Cadbury family and of other Quaker chocolate families (such as Fry and Rowntree). These companies all began by manufacturing and selling cocoa as a wholesome alternative to alcohol. Cadbury writes about "Quaker capitalism" and the charity and socially inclusive visions of the Cadburys, which lead to several grand initiatives including a garden village for the factory workers.

The book is chock (haha) full of much more than recipe development and marketing wars which is precisely what makes it such a great read. Cadbury uses the model of her forebears to gently critique capitalism today, and the premise of companies that think only of short term financial gain. I will add to my recommendation that of a cantankerous, notoriously difficult to please regular customer at our shop with exceedingly high standards for quality reading material: She reported yesterday that she is enjoying it!

Friday, February 4, 2011

Tried, But Failed

My recent reading experiences seem to be all about Not Finishing. I am OK with that. I started reading Let The Great World Spin by Colm McCann. I could tell after reading about a tenth of it that it was beautifully written and excrutiatingly sad. I decided that I had read enough to get the experience I needed from it. I don't want to sound flightly, but I just couldn't deal with another sad book, even if the payoff was a beautifully written story.

I also gave up on the first Kate Morton (The Shifting Fog) after quite a solid attempt of about 130 pages. It pleases me to know that her writing has improved with leaps and bounds in each of her books, but that doesn't mean I want to suffer through attempt number one. It irritated the hell out of me, I think because there was a LOT of first person narrative and it was bad and unconvincing and trite.

The Nancy Mitford I mentioned in my last post, Don't Tell Alfred was all I hope it would be; a confection of a book. Reading it was like drinking a beautifully fragrant cup of tea. Mitford's writing reminds me of my Grandmother which adds to my enjoyment. I don't have a single negative thing to say about this book so I'll stop now to prevent gushing of embarrassing proportions.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Crime, Punishment, and Reward

About a week ago, I finished reading The Lake of Dreams by Kim Edwards. It was a perfect January read. Even though I myself am not on holidays, everyone else seems to be and things are slower and more relaxed. I guess the phrase "holiday read" can therefore be applied. This book was about a woman in her late 20s who returns to the town of her childhood for a visit, after having lived away for her entire adult life. I loved the mood, the constant descriptions of water, and summer breezes. It also spoke to my experiences of coming "home" to something that isn't home anymore, but sort of is at the same time... and trying to figure out what is home and what is memory. The foil of finding old letters that reveal family secrets is beginning to get a bit tired for me but this wasn't too clunkily done; it was almost believable.

Although I was totally immersed in The Lake of Dreams, I found once I had finished it that it marked a further step in a long line of fiction reads, and I was more than ready for something tough and factual. So I dove right in and began reading The Case of The Pope, Geoffrey Robertson's examination of whether the Pope could be, or indeed ought to be, charged with crimes against humanity for the Catholic Church's child sex abuse scandal. I am about 10 pages from the end and it is tough going. He writes well and engagingly but the subject matter is horrific and upsetting and anger inducing. Additionally, some of the legal details are of necessity dense, but Robertson manages to keep them readable enough to persevere. As a result of reading this book my views on the Catholic Church have moved from indifference to anger. This is most definitely a book I think everyone should read. Nevertheless I am looking forward to my reward after the hard slog, which is a recently republished Nancy Mitford. Lovely, delicious, witty, fluffy delight awaits!