Houllebecq‘s title Platform was quite the exercise in hedonism, with some dark celebration of globalisation and capitalism thrown in. Some have called it pornographic, and it’s true, it does stray into male fantasy many times, but it was also extremely readable and super sexy. I enjoyed it and I’m giving it 4 stars.
The publishers of Ordinary Thunderstorms by William Boyd have tried to have it both ways – package up a simple, readable, man-in-the-wrong-place-at-the-wrong-time premise with a dust jacket that talks “serious fiction” and try to persuade both reader demographics that it’s for them. Only it isn’t that good really. A page turner yes, preposterous and movie plot-worthy yes, but there’s too many daft things going on that are improbable here. The casual killing of a treacherous aquantaince, the seamless romancing of a policewoman, the transformation from white-collar worker to successful street beggar. Just silly stuff and I really wasn’t convinced at all. It almost felt like a young adult novel to me, though it did whiz by quickly. 3 stars.
In a rare moment of vocal enthusiasm about books, Kim recommended Shadowboxing (her Book Club homework) – a memoir by Australian Tony Birch. So much so that she persuaded me to try it in the 6 days she had left before it got returned. I’m glad I did and I managed with several days to spare. These are simple stories of a poor disfunctional family (mostly dad’s drinking) in Fitzroy in the 1960’s. The directness of the prose and the brutality of the behaviour made you wonder how the bloke survived into adulthood. It reminded me of I, Romulus – short, very readable and completely captivating. 4.5 stars.
It’s hard to resist a potentially salacious (and short) Australian anthology of “sexual and relationship debacles”, especially when Kate Langbroek and Molly Meldrum are fans. So, I had no hesitation in plowing through 2 Girls and a Camel by Paul Birman (2001). It was a fun romp that had me turning for the next chapter as soon as I’d finished one story. 4 stars.
Where I’m Reading From by Tim Parks (2014) – Now for something a heck of a lot more thoughtful and dry than anything I’ve looked at lately. A bit like that Robert Forster book about music criticism, I felt like I was in the hands of quite an original thinker; it was a pleasure to see literary norms challenged and debated, even if I disagree with him on e-books. Unfortunately for me, the last third of the book strayed into his professional realm (being an Italian translator) and took on some dry topics, so the book fell away a lot after a brilliant start. The bit on Jonathan Franzen being loved by Europeans was terrific though. Who would have known he’s lived in Italy for over 40 years now? 3 stars.
Even after flicking back through From a Low and Quiet Sea by Donal Ryan (2018), I can recall little. I remember it being well written and engaging enough, but unlike Jonathan Frazen, the book has not “stayed with me” much at all. There’s a very dramatic and unexpected confluence of the three main characters at the end, which got my pulse racing and which was masterfully done. 4 stars.
After the last two books, something light, maybe a bit bitchy and saucy felt the right fit. The contrast was enormous, and having abandoned Eleanor Catton‘s The Illuminaries only a year or so back, I was worried about it a little. But nope, The Rehearsal (2008) was an entirely different beast; confidently written, intriguing and unpredictable, although having perhaps a bit more drama class content than I’d wanted. The flawed and manipulative teachers entertained and together with a spicy sex-with-a teacher scandal I somehow ended up enjoying this coming-of-age novel, just when I was sure I couldn’t read another. 4 stars.
Although I didn’t really buy the wealthy-middle-aged-woman-becomes-tattoo-fiend premise of Indelible Ink (2010), there were mid-life reflections that I identified with (and certainly wouldn’t have 20 years ago). Fiona McGregor has written a quietly excoriating critique of modern Sydney: it’s real estate and class obsessions, and highlights a families’ compartmental lives, selfishness and dysfunction. Beautifully done. 4.5 stars.
I really didn’t expect to find Old Filth (2004) to be about an esteemed gentleman lawyer (Eddie Feathers) in very late life, falling apart and revisiting past relationships in his final act. Jane Gardham writes a touching and sympathetic novel about a man righting some wrongs and seeking answers before it’s too late. I was never bored and the chapters jumped around in a nice unpredictable way. 4 stars.
There’s a terrific sense of drama, urgency and outright danger in the short Border Crossing by Pat Barker (2001). A psychologist, feeling guilt for an earlier unsympathetic assessment of a boy, is lured into breaking professional boundaries when coincidentally running into him in later life. It would have made a fantastic mini-series or movie I think, since I was on the edge of my seat throughout, however I suspect many modern readers would be disappointed with the open ending, lacking final revenge . It’s hard to believe that the author wrote the Regeneration series about WW1, I must be one of the few people who read and enjoyed both. 3.5 stars.
I’ll agree with a reviewer that Transit by Rachel Cusk (2016) is a page-turner. About half way I thought to myself, is this just going to be about repeat setups where the narrator runs into random people, elicits their story, and adds a touch of psychological insight whilst giving very little of herself away? It’s voyeuristic, compelling and insightful but also removed and clinical. The last section on cousin Lawrence and new wife Eloise (and children) was truly revolting and gripping at the same time. I’m not sure I’m a huge fan of Cusk, but I’d like to give her a third go sometime. 3 stars.
For some reason, I associated The Tortilla Curtain (1995) and T.C.Boyle with crime writing – is it the cover/font? Once I’d read the synopsis, I knew it might be a tense read, but the plaudits encouraged me on, and I’m happy I read it – such a fantastic (and early) expose of white anglo entitlement and the fear and defensiveness accompanying it. A novel about have’s and have-nots in California, with an unforgettable avalanche of an ending. 4.5 stars.
The 1974 short novel The Driver’s Seat by Muriel Spark is not one I’ll forget in a hurry – what starts as a glimpse into a young woman’s break from her pedestrian working life slowly devolves into a dramatic, what-is-happening 24 hours of madness in France. The unpredictable plot and unhinged behaviour were horrifying to behold and had me gripped. 5 stars.
Kim knew I’d listened to Kirsten Krauth‘s Almost a Mirror podcast about the inner Melbourne music scene of the late 70’s to mid 80’s and found the novel at Sacred Heart Op Shop. The thing I liked best about the podcast was the interviews with people who were there, and not so much the expansive poetic aspects which seems to be a signature of Krauth’s style. It’s too touchy feely for my taste, but others may like it. I can’t say I enjoyed this coming of age novel a lot really. 2 stars.
Everywhere I Look (2016) by Helen Garner is a collection of stories that somehow passed me by. I’ll read anything of hers really, and once again, I loved so much of this. She really is a national treasure. Quite a few of the stories were made of of 10-20 simple 3-4 sentence snips of her observations of people out in public and in my eyes were probably not worthy of being included, but on the whole it was a very satisfying reading experience. 4 stars.
I’d been fearful of Vasily Grossman‘s Stalingrad (written in 1952, published in English in 2019) as I didn’t know how academic it would be, and the size of it was intimidating. A bit like War and Peace, it proved to be fairly readable, though there’s a huge cast of characters. It’s more focused (expecially in the second half) on the individual battles and logistics of the Russian defensive efforts. According to the excellent introduction, the novel is a prelude to his “famous” Life and Fate book. The novel was uneven and felt unfinished. There’s a repetitive element throughout, describing the enduring spirit of the Russian people (and their suffering) that made it mildly annoying and propagandic in parts. I didn’t realise how decisive the Eastern Front battle of Stalingrad towards the end of 1942 was, since the book leaves the battle midway. I guess it’s a novel (and not a history book) – I had to Google the rest. Not sure I’d recommend this one, but at least I know a bunch more about WW2 history. 3 stars.
After Australia (2020) was on my bookshelf and I’m unsure how it got there, since it’s really not my usual fare. Michael Ahmad put this collection together: “after empire, after colony, 12 diverse writers imagine an alternative Australia” and it was interesting to see the range of those who directly addressed the theme (or didn’t). I found it pretty fresh and interesting mostly – provocative and creative. I’m not sure that I’ve read any aboriginal writing since Sally Morgan’s My Place and I’m glad I did. 3 stars.
I went back looking for a prior Kate Grenville book in my history and didn’t find one, which was surprising, since I thought maybe I’d read The Idea of Perfection at least. Everyone and his dog seems to have read The Secret River (2005), so I figured it was my turn to have a go, and was rapidly taken in by the assured touch and confidence of it. The research behind it is subtlely woven in, the opportunity-laden frontier temptations of Australia in the early 1800’s spelled out, and the equal parts fear / wonderment of early aboriginal encounters are beautifully done. There’s a brooding sense of upcoming conflict throughout, and Grenville expertly keeps the reader guessing as to which side the poor English convict settler family will take. The end chapter is like a gut punch – it’s a wonderful novel. 5 stars.
The Woodchopper (2008 – another Op Shop grab) by Cry Bloxsome was fun and forgettable. A self-published (nothing on the internet at all about it) edgy, Oz-crime story of a man arriving in Perth to investigate his brother’s apparent murder. Meets a secretive recent partner and a bunch of dodgy crimimal types who all seem suspicious really. Becomes an (unwilling?) sexual plaything of a lady geologist who has needed info, and raised everyone’s hackles generally. Let’s move on – 2 stars.
The American Boy by Andrew Taylor (2003) delivered the period drama, intrigue and length that I absolutely needed after the casual, slapdashery of the last book. Tightly written and plotted, the murderous antics of these cutthroat Recency period chaps in London were gripping – the story was beautifully revealed. Gripping and enthralling – 4.5 stars.
I’d read the reviews and heard the podcasts and yet I still thought it was wonderful. Katie Kitamura‘s Intimacies (2021) is about the non-belonging of an expatriate woman in the Netherlands working as an interpreter in the Hague. It’s a dreamy meditation that reminded me of the (also amazing) Milkman novel I read last year. Completely compulsive. 5 stars.
You need to pick the right time of year or mood for a book like James Rebanks‘ The Shepherd’s Life (2015). It quickly became captivating to me for it’s description of the physicality and volume of work on a sheep farm in the fells of Yorkshire; a niche industry that’s been insulated from large scale commercialisation due to the terrain. It’s like reading a story from the 1800s but then realising it’s still going on right now. Delightful – I follow him on Twitter now. 4 stars.
Luckily it was short because I may have tossed it if it was 300 pages. Foe (1986) by Coetzee was a reimagining of Robinson Crusoe, and although when I flick through it now a few months later, I see lots of good writing, and the basis for a great story, but it was just a bit miserable to read really. I’m not recommending it to anyone! 3 stars.
The perceptive and claustrophobic considerations of Anita Brookner for her characters have made her pretty recognisable to me by now. I don’t think I’ve ever read anything like her for these lengthy and sometimes devastating analyses of character that’s she does. With Falling Slowly, it’s two sisters Beatrice and Miriam and there’s no shortage of commentary in the absence of action. I can see how people may find her dreary or limited to the domestic, but I always enjoy them. Another solid book – 4 stars.
The Passenger (2022) by 89 year old Cormac McCarthy has got to have the worst book cover I’ve ever seen, and was also a tough read (particularly the sister’s story). I can’t say I liked it at all, though there were bits of great writing or turns of phrase that I admired or was at least gripped to see what happened – i.e. the diving down to the plane wreck in the ocean, the visit to the disintegrating friend in the swamp. It was a bit of a mess though (his ridiculously sisterly obsession was just annoying by the end) and had too many unexplained fragments. Certainly not enough to make me care to read the sequel. 2 stars.
I swore decades ago that I wouldn’t read Julian Barnes again, after a disappointing novel, but enough time had transpired and it won the Booker and it was 150 pages. I felt like he had to pull quite a few tricks to make The Sense of an Ending (2012) work, but it was so fast paced and engrossing that I didn’t mind when I’d pretty much guessed the last minute gotcha. Absorbing and audacious, I’d recommend it for sure – 4.5 stars and wonderfully short.
Time for a classic I said; review on back cover says “the only English novel that challenges comparison with Tolstoy’s War and Peace” – wow I said. 800 pages I thought. Let’s go I said. Vanity Fair (1848) by William Makepeace Thackeray (like War and Piece) was very readable though it would have been nice to have a family tree or two to help make sense of all the Crawleys and Osbournes and the rest. Time after time I’d think, there’s the Bute Crawleys, the Pitt Crawleys and then Captain Crawley, Miss Crawley and Mrs Crawley – gah. The Introduction of the novel (which I read afterwards) was fantastic in its comparison with War and Peace (less battle scene glorification and generally very anti-war, unlike the Russian novel), but also pointed out the many character similarities in Thackeray’s life (he himself was a real-life Dobbin, which explains why that character was so exasperatingly honorable and tortured, and in pointing out weaknesses in many of the relationship depictions. What was refreshing for a novel of this time, was the author’s willingness to document the lack of discretion and mercenary nature of anyone who stood a chance to benefit (they did not hesitate!) so in hindsight it was a cynical view of society that inspired “Vanity Fair” – the endless craving for upward mobility and association with the moneyed for gain. It took me 3-4 weeks, but I thought it was fantastic, even if Becky was impossibly charming year after year. 4.5 stars.
I wasn’t a huge Choose Your Own Adventure reader back in the day (1980s?) but the two individuals in The Boy in the Book (by Nathan Penlington) certainly were. It’s an obsessive and stalker-y journey by a late 30’s man who probably should know better, and probably drove his partner and friends mad with his self indulgence. It’s an easy and fun read really, but you have to feel for Terence (the seller of the book trove which started all the madness) as he’s pursued and quizzed by the author. Lots of fun – 4 stars.
How can you not notice the striking covers of Rachel Cusk books and not be attracted? This was my first, and won’t be the last, even though I was worried the Sans Serif font would be a dealbreaker. Second Place is the story of a happily married woman who invites an uncompromising and indifferent older artist to live on their coastal property in the shabby cottage well down the path. Maybe she thinks his originality and creative energies will rub off on her and invigorate their lives a bit. He then shows up with a much younger girlfriend which somewhat ruins a possible erotic narrative. Annoyingly the artist barely talks or looks at her and she becomes increasingly frustrated. I loved it and will read more of hers. 4 stars.
Who knows how Homeland by Barbara Kingsolver worked its way into my pile, but boy it was a terrible mood match for what I wanted to read. It’s a collection of mostly southern U.S rural tales (1989) which gradually won me over with their humanity and tenderness. Some of them (Rose-Johnny for example) were truly shocking. There’s a maturity and competence in her writing that modern day writers just can’t match. 3.5 stars.
I spent the first half of Leave the World Behind by Rumaan Alam with a deep sense of unease due to the cover reviews: “resonant and terrifying” and “will keep you awake even after it ends”. I was sure a serial killer was going to sneak out of a cupboard and torture and butcher everyone, but thankfully it was a very different kind of affair. A young, wealthy family rents an isolated luxury cottage and over the course of a few days, a series of events (starting with the arrival of an elderly black couple, who claim the house is their home) bring increasing unease. The tension is kept beautifully throughout by vague and worrying descriptions of possible external calamities and the helpless reliance of modern day people with technology. What happens to our minds when it all doesn’t work anymore? Loved it – 5 stars.
I barely remember Half a Life by Naipaul, except that I was in the caravan in Woolgoolga and I was fighting to read it over the TV that Kim was watching on the front lounge. I recall my favourite section was not the English or Indian settings, but the one the one where things are disintegrating in Mozambique, with people pulling out as the situation deteriorates. I was fine with the passive and sex-starved Willie unlike many others on Goodreads! 3 stars.
The Adventures of Augie March by Bellow was a frustratingly dense exercise – something that ended after a record 30 pages. How embarrassing for me, who’s been known to plow through some tedious stuff. It was never going to happen in a caravan, with needy dogs to entertain and such old, rich prose needing so much attention to do it justice. I feel sad thinking about how I might have managed this in my 30s but ambition and aspiration take a second seat to attention span now. Unknown stars!
Why did I decide to pickup House of Meetings by Martin Amis? Because he’s a rogue and seems to be widely disliked and I hoped I’d get some of the wild, fuck you stuff of Black Dog I suppose. Yeah, this was bad, even for a short, possibly contractually obligated book. Not much of a plot and the usual obtuse meanderings that pass for intellect maybe. It was pretty unreadable and definitely not recommendable, despite the promising blurb – tricked! Two stars.
It was easy to like Between the Assassinations by Aravind Adiga, since the stories were punchy, if bleak, and the characters kept changing and I really didn’t know how things would end up. Although the themes were critical of entrenched caste positions and disadvantage in mid 80’s India, the writing was still fresh and approachable. 4 stars.
Talking about bleak, this one takes the cake. Apparently a bestseller in the Netherlands, and winner of the Booker International in 2020, The Discomfort of Evening by Marieke Rijneveld is a deeply unpleasant read, detailing a traumatised Amish (?) family’s deterioration after the death by misadventure of the oldest son. As an animal lover, there are many scenes here which were hard to get through, and it isn’t a book for any but the most hardened of readers. The ending is simply chilling. Unlike others in this series of brief reviews, I didn’t need to flick through it again to remind myself of the tone or storyline. It’s also annoying when a 12 year old narrator sounds like a wizened adult. Ugh! 3 stars.
Another $1 Op shop cheapie, this one surprised. Although overly long, and full of scenes of gay longing and lines of coke – hardly my normal cup of tea, there was something assured about the writing and depiction of the balancing act that family-friend Nick enacted with his school-friends’ wealthy politician family in mid 80’s sloane ranger Britain. The troubled character of Catherine was particularly fantastic, her sarcastic and cutting comments skewering the privilege and falsity of this Tory family’s life. The depiction of the gay scene 40 years past is also fascinating, with the devastation of AIDS just around the corner. Very imaginable as a movie. Apparently it beat Cloud Atlas to the Booker that year – I’d have a hard time separating such different, yet amazing novels. The Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst was an easy 4 stars.
Who can resist a novel called Come Join Our Disease (by Sam Byers) – and with such a provocative front cover – not me. Well, let’s just say it didn’t last long. Part one was a fairly predictable redemption story of a street person to Instagram striver, documented and engineered by a kindness-washing corporation with ulterior motives. Part two digressed into endless and repetitive depictions of unchallenged reversion to their most primitive selves by a small group of fed-up women in an industrial squat. It you’d like to read about what it feels like to shit yourself and lay in it, or eat moldy food and vomit a lot, and not wash for months, this is the novel for you. Although set in London, the entire book felt American and false – I didn’t think he wrote convincingly about the women, and even the language and pacing seemed off. The critics seem to love it. 2 stars.
I figured I ought to begin on some of my Patrick White first editions, and the cover of this one was suitably bleak – perfect. After a slow start, Riders of Chariot (1961) began introducing religious symbolism which I should have guessed at with a title like that, but nonetheless made me a little dismayed. It was not the easiest of books to plow through and the battles of Miss Hare and Miss Jolley at Xanadu were a bit of a trial. The tortured and helpless Himmelfarb and aboriginal artist Dubbo were interesting, but ultimately fated and frustrating. The well named and beautific washerwoman Mrs Godbold completed the mystical four “Riders” of the title. There are some lovely tender moments and I was aware I was in confident hands, but the general theme wasn’t of great interest to me. It ends badly for everyone! 3.5 stars (many people rate this as a masterpiece).
Thrillers have changed since 1971’s Wheels by Arthur Hailey (more famous for Airport), but my god this was a straightforward, dated read about the automobile industry and it’s up and coming execs. I had reached page 164 before I realised that life was too brief to endure the other 2/3rds. It gets surprisingly good reviews online but I absolutely could not recommend it. 1 star.
Before a Peter Carey novel, I always brace myself, as I’ve had such different experiences, and I know I’m not the patient young Illywhacker reader any more in the digital age. Theft (2006) was quite a nice surprise – the alternating chapters between the artist Butcher and his imbecile brother Hugh were a fantastic contrast, and the story kept jumping to new crisis-points, though you had to decipher much of it with your own intuition. Compelling and very true to the early Carey’s style. That’s 3 hardbacks in a row for me now. 4 stars.
Cley (1991) by Carey Harrison was the sort of book I read in the 90s – a bit sexy, a bit weird, and with a bonkers, deluded protagonist. It’s 1968 and and a witness to a car accident becomes convinced that the survivor is and old school teacher of his, living a double life in a different part of the English country. Easily readable, the dialogue rang true, and there was a sense of what happened next about it which makes me want to read his other one “Richard’s Feet” to find out. 3.5 stars.
I’ve never loved Irish novels, so maybe I just need to read more of the good ones like this one – Milkman (2018) by Anna Burns, which is a harrowing and claustrophobic masterpiece. No dialogue whatsoever, just ominous intimidatory behaviours and racing-mind monologues about 1980’s Belfast and its gossipy informers and the awful consequences. Such a unique and incredible book. 5 stars.
After the last book, this 1976 bit of farce The Big Day by Barry Unsworth seemed a bit silly and inconsequential – sexually unsatisfied Lavinia plans a seductive affair in the absence of the faltering Cuthbertson. This is what I remember Tom Sharpe being like in the Wilt series – quite fun at the time, but very forgettable, with an odd, unexpected ending in this case. 3.5 stars.
Finally, a second book by Graeme MacRae Burnet that I have given 5 stars to. Amazing. His Bloody Project (2015) felt like a retelling of a real-life Scottish court transcript of the the 1860s, but was apparently completely fictional. I could barely stop reading this thing – completely engrossing. 5 stars,
Joe Speedboat is exactly the kind of coming of age stuff that I have fallen out of interest with, but I couldn’t resist the simple cover, the arresting title and the author Tommy Weiringa, who intrigues me (from the Netherlands, and born the same year as me, etc..). It’s the tale of resentful, wheel-chair bound Frankie, crippled at a young age in a rural harvester accident but encouraged by the always busy, confident and freewheeling Joe. His unlikely progression in life towards amateur arm-wrestling, and unrequited love for the blonde amazonian P.J made for an always interesting read. 3.5 stars.
A bit like Lincoln in the Bardo, with it’s odd subterranean, psychic plot, Lanny by Max Porter is a fascinating and sometimes frightening read about the fate of a boy, and the adults and ghosts who influence and surround him. This is not a book to be recommended lightly, as it really is of quite radical structure, though very short. A triumph though – and to think Kim got it for $2 at the Op shop. 4 stars.
Next was the completely different, longish, bestselling book A Gentleman in Moscow, by Amor Towles. After the raw earthiness of Lanny, this felt like such a controlled, on-the-rails affair which I was lukewarm about until the unexpected exhilaration of the last section. When I repeatedly read phrases like “Now in all of Russia, there was no greater admirer of the written word than Count Rostov” I felt like I was reading a fairytale for a child. Large sections of it felt a bit that way, and it started to grate on me. An aristocratic man is confined to lifelong detention in a fancy hotel, and through detailed knowlege of people, place and habits, plots an unlikely eventual (decades) escape. Depsite the length, the characters still felt like 2 dimensional caricatures. 3 stars.
There’s a lot of sex talk in Yellow Dog by Martin Amis (2003), and I mean a ridiculous obsession with it, and it’s to the book’s detriment. Otherwise I was enthralled by the disjointed sophistication of it – the earthy asides, the humour, the broken banter and the feeling the Amis is making you work very hard to piece it together. It reminded me of Australian David Foster and his genius-like wordplay and pieced-together logic. The crude originality and lack of telegraphing made for a shocking but thrilling experience in an age that one reviewer called an antidote to “the prevailing literary piety”. A lot of people hate this book! – 4 stars.
From a book that celbrates societies’ worst to one that champions bold open minds and vulnerability, The Museum of Modern Love was quite the unexpected revelation. Written by Australian Heather Rose, it fictionalises characters around a real life artistic event in a U.S Art Gallery in 2010 by Marina Abramovic (and won the 2017 Stella Prize for Fiction). I was captivated from start to finish. 4.5 stars.
After the jubilation of his Booker Prize win, it was sobering to find that I struggled to enjoy Damon Galgut’sThe Promise. The theme didn’t appeal much, and I’d say it took more than half of the book for things to accelerate to the point where I was enjoying where it was going. Amor Swart seemed an impossibly distant construct put in place to bridge the decades; barely a glimpse of her life on display. Her brother Anton was better realised, manic and overrun, disappearing into madness. Far from my favourite work of his – 3 stars.
Something more gruelling and sad was Anita Brookner’sA Closed Eye, a book I had almost no recollection of, before remembering chapter after chapter of a desperate mother seeking emotional connection with her oblivious daughter, and her repressed fascination for a friend’s husband, after settling for an older man as a young woman because her family expected it. I enjoyed it, but it was overly long – 4 stars.
I’m only putting this book in the “read” pile because it was the least read of any novel I’ve any attempted. Ducks, Newburyport by Lucy Ellmann was an impossible 1030 pages of no punctuation and a million brief ideas, bridged largely by the phrase “the fact that”, which after only 31 pages I decided was such a one trick pony of intellectual vanity and indulgence that my life should no longer be wasted on it. Unreadable as a whole – 1 star.
Light Perpetual by Francis Spufford was so forgettable that I had to flick through it for awhile to even remember the characters, and I know that sounds like it was awful, but it wasn’t. It was just a bit of a naff theme really – 5 London teenagers killed during the blitz in 1944 reimagined as leading full lives in a 21-Up-style slideshow. A well chosen title since it was upbeat and optimistic and enjoyable read – 4 stars.
It’s hard to add anything original to add to the mountain of reviews and studies of Ford Maddox Ford‘s The Good Soldier. Considered his best work, having finished it, I certainly admire the unusual structure; the delicate way the story is revealed through a series of repetitive and tortured, tangled scenes. Considering the few individuals in the novel, it was surprising how many permutations and asides Ford could wring out of them, and yet the “good soldier” himself, Edward Ashburnham still remains such an enigmatic figure till the end. How can you not start to question the narrator, when a man of so many adulterous affairs and proclivities continues to be shown in such a positive, accepting light. Circular and well worth a read again in the future, the torment of the characters is well described and believable – 4 stars.
Is Last Letter to a Reader really Gerald Murnane‘s last? I feel like he’s been threatening this forever really, but as a man in his early 80’s perhaps this is it. Dedicating a small chapter to the feelings he has for each of his previous books – of course not in as literal a way as a reader might hope, he admits to his favourite sentences in some cases, in others to his family situation when writing, and to writing droughts and unpublished dross. As always there are always mentions of his many filing cabinets of notes (for a man of some humble beliefs, the ego of this has always sat funnily with me) and again, the failed “O, Dem Golden Slippers” and his love of Proust and Emily Bronte. For the Murnane tragic (and I am one), it was a lovely slice of candour and admission. What a unique individual he is – 4 stars.
New Grub Street by George Gissing, published in 1891, continues my willling exploration into older, more moderately acclaimed titles (e.g. The Good Soldier) introduced by the interesting Backlisted podcast. A warning to the scholarly and uncommercial writer, recurring sections dealt with the misery and fate of the honest and scrupulous, and of the advantages given to populist, opportunistic writers. Far from a morality tale, the cheeky, morally dodgy guy gets the girl, which was a bit hard to take since the other blokes died or starvation or pneumonia. An enjoyable slice of life from an age of innocence in the act of turning – 4 stars.
I’m always cursing that I didn’t write up a summary when I finish each book. I end up having to flick through things to remind myself of what it was like, so don’t expect anything deep this time around.
I had to look up the meaning of the word Apeirogon by Colum McGann, and it’s completely nonsensical to me – “a polygon with a countably infinite number of sides”. How is something infinite and yet countable? Anyhow, it was an engrossing (overly long) read about two families that had lost teenage daughters to Israeli / Palestine acts of domestic terrorism, who had formed a strong bond over their shared losses. Completely gripping in the first half, whilst details were being trickled out, but a touch repetitive by the end. 4 stars and a delight.
You have to hand it to Murakami, whose Kafka on the Shore is inventive, metaphysical and compelling, whilst not losing a middle aged reader in the process. I suspect my tolerance for magic realism has been on the wain for a long time, but the simultaneous quests of 15 year old Kafka and the simple 80 year old Nakata grabbed me hard and kept me wondering if they were the same person, at different stages of life or? Long, but effortless, it gets a 4.5 stars from me.
I had high hopes for Sylvia Townsend Warner’s Selected Stories, but again, short stories just don’t seem to be doing it for me this year. The last quarter of them, from 1977’s Kingdoms of Elfin, I skipped as they were completely unreadable. The remainder were arranged thematically, which I thought was a mistake, finding myself only really enjoying a half dozen in around the same section of the book. She’s highly acclaimed, and there’s a lot of variety here, but I certainly couldn’t recommend it. 3 stars.
What was it about 2021 which made me give some older women writers a go, when formerly apart from Proulx, Garner and ?, I pretty much avoided them (sorta shameful really). I think it was the podcast Backlisted which convinced me to try Muriel Spark, and her short “The Girls of Slender Means“, which was delightfully dated, but at times incomprehensible, needing careful reading. The last third whizzed by due to a incident with an unexploded mortar affecting the safety of the girls household, but overall, this was not what I expected and left me unsatisfied. 3 stars.
When I went back through 2020, I had a few 5 star books, but none for 2021 – well, with my last one ($3 from the Op Shop thanks to Kim), I’ve finally cracked it – the incredible Brighton Rock by Graham Greene was my book of the year; an unexpected delight. Published in 2003, it details the turf wars of seaside Brighton in the 1930s – reminiscent of Clockwork Orange or even something like Orwell’s Of Mice and Men (don’t ask me why I say this!), mostly the story of the inner workings and conflicts of 17 year old Pinkie, a better character study of which you won’t find anywhere. Amazing! Visceral, frightening in parts, and completely believable, it had me completely entranced and gasping by the end. 5 stars to you Graham Greene!