Eclectic or what

I just have no tolerance once a book becomes religiousy anymore, certainly not if it extends for a chapter or more. And the further back you go with books, the more religious elements form the central themes. I remember getting a bit worried during Patrick White’s Riders in the Chariot, and the same with Life of Pi, or stuff from Umberto Eco. So, Forest Dark (2017) got the heave-ho 100 pages in once Nicole Krauss began moving into a theological direction, citing the Kabbalah, The Tree of Knowledge and Jewish themes. No doubt it’s cerebral, clever and insightful, but I felt tricked into reading a thesis on a topic with no interest to me. 2 stars.

I have a vague recollection I tried another Stanislaw Lem book about 25 years ago, and abandoned it, so I was nervous about this one, his “classic” Solaris (1961). For the most part, I didn’t need to be worried – providing I skimmed the occasional dense section on Solaristics. The planetary exploration elements provided a diversion from the mental challenges and traumas affecting those on the ship. Original, intriguing and pretty hard to make a film of, I would have thought. Not so says Twentieth Century Fox. 3 stars.

The Little Misery (1951) by Francois Mauriac, was indeed mostly misery for all involved, including me. An unloved young French boy, despised by his family, finds hope in a recently-arrived village schoolteacher, who then falters in the face of possible scandal. Utterly depressing, but at least short and sharp. 2 stars.

Good lord this book was long, way longer than needed. Winner of the 2023 Booker Prize, Paul Murray‘s The Bee Sting has plenty of detractors as I found out. Apparently many of them due to the ambiguous ending, something a modern era reader deems unacceptible, needing certainty and THE FULL FACTS in their novels, since they don’t get it in real life. To me, it had the perfect finish – and tons to like along the way; a cast of memorable characters, flawed all, and an open, warm writing style, although it felt Franzen-like and at times I thought it was set in America. A blackmailed Dickie (the closeted second favourite son), seeking escape from a mismatched marriage to his dead-brother’s wife Imelda, becomes involved with a local doomsday prepper and builds a hidden, forrested bunker, with terrible consequences. 4.5 stars.

The shoes on the table and the errant salt shaker are what lured me into buying this mercifully short $30 new book (People who Lunch by Sally Olds) – I’m not totally regretting it, but the term “academically eclectic” comes to mind, and not in a great way. It’s high on analysis and low on entertainment, veering into coldness and self disgust in parts. There’s a great brain at work here and topics like Polyamory, Cryptocurrency and Clickbait headlines promise a lot, but presented so clinically, much of the appeal is lost. 3 stars.

Here’s another book: The Heart of the Matter (1948) by Graeme Greene about a highly moral officer of the English Army, living in West Africa, who is heavily impacted by his religion and what it demands of him. His wife, eternally disappointed by his lack of ambition, is miserable. His pity for her and others allows a brief moment of weakness, which cascades and brings his decline. For someone supposedly so tortured, he is pretty flatly written in most of the novel – perhaps it’s the age though. Engrossing to the end, I enjoyed it a lot. 4 stars.

Reading 2 Sci-Fi books in a calendar year – what is happening to me! A $2 Op Shop internal dare to myself, I swung into it (The Best Australian Science Fiction Writing – 2004 A Fifty Year Collection by Rob Gerrand) with enthusiasm, and then slowly regretted the 600 page odyssey over the next few weeks. I guess I’ve never been a huge fan of the genre besides some early English stuff like Hoyle and Wyndham etc. I only skipped one tedious story from Stephen Dedman, and the best was The Diamond Pit by Jack Dann. David Lake’s Re-Deem the Time was good too. The rest? hmmm. 3 stars.

A major gap in my Australian reading has been Christina Stead, and although I was fearful of the theme, I chose a very foxed 1975 paperback of the 1940 “classic” The Man who Loved Children, which at 480 pages was about 250 more than I recalled from childhood library shelves (not that I read it then). I hadn’t realised that most of her working life, Stead had been in Europe or America until returning to Oz in her 60’s and had assumed it was a “Sydney book” as opposed to one set in Washington and Baltimore. Being a book of this length, the insights into societal life, familial debt / poverty and household economy are extensive and genuinely jaw dropping in parts. It’s a world away from the modern reader and their luxuries. The in-your-face element of the book is the many squabbles between an ill-matched husband and wife and their adaptive gaggle of children who know no different. I increasingly found myself aware of the flaws of both parents, and their characterisation alone by Stead was wonderful. Less tolerable was the tedious baby-talk of the husband to his kiddy widdies and so on – there are many paragraphs that are mildly sickening in that regard, though it does paint a picture of a man who will do anything to have his children on his side (and be his friends), even if it means stifling their personalities and wanting 100 percent conformity. Caught in the middle is his only daughter to a former wife, the sullen Louie (14) who operates as a defacto housekeeper, and who is old enough to see motives the younger children can’t. The decline of the family’s fortunes brings shameful poverty and a wretchedness to wife Henny, who seeks regular escapes to the city for trysts and monetary loans to put food on the table. There were moments reading the book that I questioned I’d finish due to repetition but I’m glad I did. I’m not going to spoil anything here; I find myself thinking about it a lot today and want to read summaries of it tonight. That’s a good sign – 4 stars.

It’s my last few months off work and I’m enjoying it of course

Fancy me reading a cricket book! I’ve struggled to be interested in the sport ever since the rotten, mean-spirited Glenn McGrath days really, but this Peter Roebuck biography Chasing Shadows had enough intrigue, and the legitimacy of Tim Lane helped. I’m glad I read it, though there are plenty of discomforting moments where I was conflicted between the various trains of thought (people took advantage of his generosity and blackmailed him vs. he had made too many enemies and was killed vs. he knew he’d be crucified for his sexual indiscretions). A brilliant, driven and compartmentalised man, whose battlescars eventually got the better of him. Wonderfully done – 4.5 stars.

The Glass Pearls (1966) by Emeric Pressburger was a delight – the German “Karl Braun”, living an anonymous life in post-war London becomes increasingly paranoid about pursuing Nazi-hunting agents. I loved the insights into his co-workers and odd, miserly housemates – especially the business-minded, deal-making Strohmayer. Compelling and enthralling till the end. 5 stars.

The Blazing World (2014) by Siri Hustvedt is a book I would have finished in my 30s when I was more patient (and forgiving), but boy, did those 186 pages before I stopped test me. Reading the Goodreads reviews afterwards, I was very happy I gave in at the half way point. Based on a wonderfully cynical premise about the nature of the art-collecting world, a female artist passes off her maniacal and obsessive art installations as the work of various other suitable male counterparts to prove industry biases. It was dense, cerebral and overly serious, which started to become repetitive and harping at a certain point. Well written, but 3 stars.

It took me a while to warm to the short, farcical, spy thriller Pigeon Pie (1940) by Nancy Mitford, but I eventually got there. A shallow societal madam in London realises almost too late that her husbands’ friends are Nazis and are planning evil deeds. A satire on between-the-wars society with a quirky premise that only just works. Still a fun read – 3 stars.

A third of the way in, the chunky, overspaced and simple novel Clarke (2022) by Holly Throsby had me annoyed by it’s lack of anything much. With chapters that alternated between two damaged neighbours in the small town of Clarke, there was an overplayed hopelessness about them which was tedious. I’m still not convinced it’s a very good book, but gradually the mystery of their investigation of a missing neighbour (based on the real-life story of Lynette Dawson) was uncovered, and the co-detectives were somewhat healed and I conceded I’d been won over. 3.5 stars.

I had a sense of deja-vu when reading The Fraud (2023) by Zadie Smith until I realised that I’d heard her discuss the novel on a podcast not long ago. On the whole, it was an interesting read, and the strong willed but flawed (and trapped) Scottish widow Mrs Touchet (the Targe) was likeable and complex (she bedded her brother in law and fading author William Ainsworth and his wife separately!). There was a mid-section (Volume 6) where I got distracted and a bit lost in the backstory of Bogle in Jamaica, but after that it was pretty much all about the adjacent real-life Tichborne Trial (1873) where a Wapping butcher Arthur Orton (by way of Wagga Wagga) made a claim to the Tichborne baronetcy and estates. Beautifully done – 4.5 stars.

A bit of a mixed bag this Cleveland Anthology (second edition) – put together by Piiparinen and Trubek. I had been putting off reading it since acquisition in 2018 on my sports trip to Ohio, and decided it was now or never. There were some great pieces in here, plus the expected, earnest, I-grew-up-in-Ohio-and-moved-away-but-I’ll-always-think-of-Ohio-as-home ones. What I didn’t expect was that it would make me want to revisit the city, since I thought I’d rid myself of any general U.S related travel-related interest thesedays. I don’t know if “Rust Belt Chic” is still a thing, but I bet there are still plenty of affordable places to buy and rough neighbourhoods to gentrify a little. That city brings out a weird, latent property renovator/speculator version of me – so much history and charm in the housing and neighbourhoods of Cleveland just waiting to be found and loved. 3 stars.

Now for my annual crime novel (courtesy of the Op Shop like most of these) with the awkward title of Blues for Outlaw Hearts and old Whores by Massimo Carlotto. I can’t say I’m a huge fan of the hardboiled style, where I get overwhelmed by the complexity (x double-crossed y who was working secretly with z who then had x investigated and tortured. He then revealed he worked with a, whose boss was b who struck a deal with z to get y and a exonerated but meant the end for a and x. It was dizzying at times trying to figure out who was in cahoots with whom, but along the way there was an unlikely Italian/Austrian love story which seemingly motivated an entire gang to kill a bunch of people so the couple could ride off into the sunset, only to have her leave him at a later point because that is just how things go. The author had a weird obsession with lyrics to blues songs, but generally the writing was sound and it left room for future escapades. 3.5 stars.

35 for the year is maybe a record?

Six of these eight are straight out of the Op Shop, two of which would have been binned due to “Library Book” and “condition”. The first by Noah Hawley, The Punch, mostly notable for the comically detestable mother Doris and the misery she inflicts on her sons leading up to a larger family reunion to celebrate/send off her late husband. Never boring, it was an easy addictive read, even if son David and his dual relationships was far fetched. 4 stars.

I’d been wanting to read Beyond the Sea by Paul Lynch for ages, and then next thing I know, he’s up for a Booker nomination and then wins it, shortly after I’d finished this book. I’d say I enjoyed the first third, or maybe half of this, and then it went a little too poetic and feverish – I found myself skimming. Repetitive in a way that Life of Pi was not (both feature characters marooned on a boat that become increasingly desperate and desparing). I can’t give it more than 3 stars.

Did I read Samira Sedira‘s People Like Them in a single session, maybe two? I don’t remember but the font was big enough to make me feel like a pensioner. Fantastic short read really – some great tension between wealthy newcomers to a working class French town, and the modest locals, culminating in a horrific crime of frustration and envy. 4.5 stars!

Middle Engand by Jonathan Coe – a bunch of often funny vignettes showing the moods, enmity and polarisation that led to a successful Brexit vote. I’m not sure that Sofie’s end decision was very convincing or boded well for her future, but the author seems to determined to show a positive outlook for it all. A traditional plot that was thoroughly enjoyable and solid. 4 stars.

Cool title, not so cool stories. The Teeth of a Slow Machine by Andrew Roff made me feel old and impatient. Some of the tales here just made me want to skim and skip, and I’m glad it was short. I don’t think my brain is plastic enough to enjoy radical and inventive departures like this, which I would have enjoyed in my 20s. I’m not the target audience. 3 stars.

I’m been interested in reading works by / about minor writers or critics from a former age – say 1950s and 1960s. The people we read about in popular culture are no less interesting, but their stories have been over-told to death. There is something about the style or writing I enjoy too – its shows experience, perspective and erudite reasoning in an era where the printed word was far more important than it is today. Ian Hamilton (1938-2001) is one such writer – in his The Trouble with Money collection (1998), within about 100 pages I’d learnt about Cyril Connelly, Edmund Wilson, Elizabeth Bishop, W.H. Auden, Stephen Spender and Salmon Rushdie – all excellent shortish pieces mostly reviewing biographies written about them. I just loved this collection even if I’ve forgotten nearly everything about those individuals. 4.5 stars.

The only way I was ever going to read Hermann Hesse was by reading one of his short ones, and it couldn’t be shorter at 139 pages. Peter Camenzind (1904) details a young writers’ passionate musings whilst wandering through Europe (mostly Italy) and then in the second half, reflecting on his decisions and judgements of people, including the poor Boppi, a half crippled hunchback. Interesting enough, but I doubt I’d get through 400 pages of Hesse. 3 stars.

The Terranauts was my annual attempt at pseudo-Sci Fi, and yeah, maybe not that successful really, and certainly not “excrutiatingly funny” as per the Times. It’s my second book by T.C Boyle and it was far too long, and too exaggerated in it’s human failings aspects for me to buy in to this story of the eight “colonists” to enter a bio-dome and the one envious colleague who would do anything to have herself inserted in their place. Not quite “Lord of the Flies meets Hunger Games” either. Just a fairly bitchy expose of the grumpy, tired science workers and their slowly deteriorating bodies. The final twist was not believeable either. I had such high hopes – 3.5 stars.

Octoberish

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.

8

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.

More

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.

Fair slab this time

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 RebanksThe 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.

Last ones for the year

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.

Some poor performers this time around

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.

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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,