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.
Yes, I’m still buying here and there, and thanks to Kim’s Op Shop and Elke, I’m still adding to “the pile” (which now numbers 105), cheaply for the most part. I managed around 21k of pieces this year across 18 puzzles (biggest was 3/4s of a 5400 piece masterpiece), down a bit from previous since I truly did burn myself out on that Degani 8k a year or two back and couldn’t face anything too large and long again.
I’ll call 2022 the year of the missing pieces since 6 of my puzzles ended up being short a piece or more (including 2 brand new ones). Luckily the polish Puzzle Manufacture one was able to be replaced. I started using the Picker Wheel website to add drama to the selection process (so far I’ve obeyed its command without question), and have finally created “to do” and “done” Google Photo albums.
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,