27 February 2009

The History Boys (Alan Bennett)

Sometimes it sucks being a girl. There aren't many books (or films) out there about the camaraderie of women during war, or women getting together to stick it to the big boys (unless it is something equal rights related and then of course, but we don't have an all female version of Watership Down is what I'm saying). All the best moments in Lord of the Rings are amongst the fellowship peeps (ALL MALE); Lord of the Flies is boys, it was Tom and Huck who went adventurin'... I could go on.

The History Boys is a play written by Alan Bennett. Earhart has already pointed out that GOOP is not a book, but honestly, that's the only thing I've read in the past couple of days. Now I shall probably be told The History Boys is a play, not a book. HOWEVER, I read the play, I didn't just see it on stage, so hopefully she will let it slide.

Alan Bennett has never written anything bad. EVER. If I'm going out on a limb to say that, it's an incredibly strong bough and could only be felled by a disaster of unbelievable proportions. His humour is gentle and crass simultaneously; his insecurities poured onto the page without reservation are heart-warming and brilliantly observed. When I moved to London I wrote to Alan Bennett to thank him for writing Untold Stories, as it made me feel I could make my own place in this big, scary city. (Look, it was cold and grey and I had just met a bunch of mad Swedes who made me go HIKING. Ugh.) At nine pages I'm certain he thought I was a fruitcake, as I'm sure you do too now, but that story is just to show the extent of his talent and how much it has resonated with me.

The History Boys is another prime example of why it's better to be a boy. Eight boys are trying for Oxford and Cambridge in the 1980s. The play is about their studying in the lead-up to these exams. Their education is presided over by three teachers, one of whom takes the term 'hands-on teaching' a little too liberally. The dialogue is fast, witty and confident; Bennett obviously knows what he is doing and allows his own Oxford education to come streaming onto the pages. However, it's the relationship between the students and the camaraderie they enjoy which is so inspiring and enjoyable. You can read it in a couple of hours, it is incredibly diverting and my IQ rose about 60 points (from an already astronomically high number) upon completion.

Rating: 9/10

26 February 2009


I have a serious problem with emailing lists. As my fingers hit the keys I have 2843 unread messages in my inbox. I have no idea why or when I signed up for The Peters of Kensington newsletter, Blackmores Health, the Alessi online catalogue, Astrology Weekly or the National Rail service announcements, but they come, at least once a week, although P of K comes once a day.
Who needs that much information about cookware?

A long time ago it got to the point where I knew I could never read or be bothered to sift through and delete this excess mail. (As for actually removing myself from the mailing lists, that is headache inducing before I even begin.)

However, one newsletter I actually remember signing up for is Gwyneth Paltrow's GOOP: Nourish the inner aspect.

If you're not a big reader but like a laugh I suggest you sign up too. These emails arrive weekly, advising me on what I should make, go, get, do, be and see. I now know to stay at the Ritz when I'm in Paris and I have learnt how to shuck an oyster exactly as Gwyneth does.

GP has been mocked up and down the information superhighway for these newsletters and the website that goes along with them. I, however, derive great enjoyment from reading them. I don't know if it's the enjoyment that Gwyneth was anticipating; I'm not nodding sagely at her advice and running out to 'stick to my exercise regime' (WHATEVER Gwynnie). But I'm drinking Havana Club through a Tim Tam and smirking so much I think at least my facial muscles are getting a work-out.

Dead Babies (Martin Amis)

Quentin and Celia Villers are hosting a weekend party at their country home: Appleseed Rectory. As well as the bright young things gadding down from town, a group of Americans are expected and they have ensured there are enough drugs and alcohol to fuel the debauched few days.

The term 'dead babies' refers to those periods of ennui that the characters experience when they are without chemical stimulation and are forced to face reality. Fortunately for us, these periods are few and far between. The weekend takes a turn for the dramatic when, after a day of topless sunbathing and philosophical discussion, one of the guests overdoses. The situation is worsened with the plying of the young man with more narcotics in an attempt to revive him. This coupled with the anonymous, threatening letters everybody has been receiving all weekend from 'Johnny' darken the mood somewhat, although provide good acceleration towards the bloody, brutal and chilling end.

Compared to Money or London Fields it may not seem as intelligent or visceral a comment on society. But it's freaking hilarious and Amis' style is racier, more exciting than in his later work. The characterisation is particularly sublime although it is Keith Whitehead who is the most entertaining and richly described. I am not going to bother paraphrasing Amis' brilliant words; here is Keith's introduction for you to read for yourself:

"Whitehead is an almost preposterously unattractive young man- practically, for instance, a dwarf. Whenever people want to say something nice about his appearance they usually come up with 'You've got quite nice colouring', a reference to his dark eyebrows and thinning yellow hair. That granted, nothing remained to be praised about his unappetising person, the sparse straw mat atop a squashed and petulant mask of acne... The more clothes you took off him, the more traumatic the spectacle became... As he entered the Wimbledon municipal swimming pool two teenage girls spontaneously vomited into the shallow end."

The book was made into a film a few years ago. I will pass no judgement on the film but merely quote Paul Bettany who starred as Quentin: "It's an amazing novel... it's a less amazing film."
The poor PR team probably already had the job from hell promoting a film called Dead Babies and after that they would have curled up in the foetal position and sobbed.

This is not a book for people who are easily offended or who entertain politically correct notions. It's a bit of a liability, being so laugh-out-loud funny yet having the title Dead Babies. You will get some strange looks on the tube, but for a select few of you who can stomach the disgusting and hilarious cruelty of this novel, it will be worth it. Martin Amis is polarising... he is the Vegemite of authors.

Rating: 8/10.

24 February 2009

The Big Sleep (Raymond Chandler)

If you've not read any Raymond Chandler then you are yet to meet possibly the coolest character in fiction: Philip Marlowe.


Marlowe is a fast talking, rye drinking detective of the hard-boiled persuasion. And, even cooler, he is played by the gorgeous Humphrey Bogart in the 1946 film version of The Big Sleep. Mmmm...

Can you tell I've a bit of a crush?

The Big Sleep opens with Marlowe 'calling on four million dollars'. General Sternwood needs Marlowe's help in controlling his two daughters, both beautiful and both wild. (Although only the younger, Carmen, pulls the wings off flies.)

Carmen is being blackmailed over a few risque photographs. Marlowe's investigations lead to encounters with various characters of the underworld, such as Geiger, who rents out pornography, and Canino, hired gun of casino owner Eddie Mars. The mystery becomes increasingly convoluted, with many of the characters bumping off many of the other characters.

But the thing is, you don't read Raymond Chandler to be gripped by the plot; constantly on the edge of your seat. You read Chandler because his books are incredibly atmospheric, and really evoke that 1930s/1940s noir period. You read them because characters sell each other out for a nickel. You read Chandler because Marlowe is ridiculously cool.
My favourite line in the book?

'I went out to the kitchenette and drank two cups of black coffee. You can have a hangover from other things than alcohol. I had one from women.'

See what I mean?

(Plus, while you are reading it, you wont be able to stop picturing yourself in a trench coat and fedora. Which, lets be honest, is just about the coolest look ever. You will want to make a permanent move to the 1940s.)

The Big Sleep: 9/10
(Marlowe: 13/10)

23 February 2009

Author Love: Cormac McCarthy

'Tis tasteless, I fear, to follow on from the Still Waters post with a review of Martin Amis' Dead Babies. I'll look as though I'm falling into a reading rut. Hence, this homage to Cormac McCarthy.

Those who are well acquainted with McCarthy's work will be aware of the general mood his stories take: dark, twisted, violent, despairing, barren and ultimately apocalyptic basically sums him up. His most recent work (The Road) won the 2007 Pulitzer and was his most emotionally traumatic to date. His style seems to have evolved into more simplistic prose over the years, and to great effect. One could argue that no dialogue and descriptive text could be simpler than in The Road, yet only McCarthy would be able to turn these words into a passionate, desperate reaching of hands towards a hopeless, extinguishing light.

The Road has been made into a film with Viggo Mortensen as the father. I personally feel that Paul Bettany would have been an excellent choice. I know he could bring the darkness and desperate humanity needed to the role. Viggo is just plain moody. Also, I don't think I'd be able to worry about his survival or future. To me, he will always be able to fall back on the help of the elves. This ruins the suspense somewhat.

That is all hypothetical because I could barely read the novel; seeing it on the big screen may, in fact, shatter me to my deepest possible emotional depths. I can't even go into more detailed descriptions of The Road; it's too upsetting for me and FAR more destabilising for you to just pick it up and read it.

The book I've just read however, is Outer Dark. An earlier work of McCarthy's, it is much easier to read and not nearly as emotionally traumatising. It tells the story of a young woman (Rinthy) who gives birth to her brother Culla's child. He abandons the baby in the woods and lies about his death to Rinthy. The story then follows brother and sister in their desperate yet separate searches for redemption.

With allusions to the Bible, King Lear and Snow White this could have turned into a symbolic nightmare. Well, it's definitely still a nightmare, but in a TOTALLY good way, if you can stomach incest* and cannibalism. It's a dark parable, with no moral message at the end, just the destruction of hope and love.

I think it's a good introduction to McCarthy, with enough of the fable in it to not seem real (that way it's not as scary). Alternatively, you could start with No Country for Old Men, which is considered McCarthy 'light'.

Outer Dark/No Country for Old Men: 9/10.
The Road: 10/10.

*Incidentally, I CAN stomach incest. I think it's because I have no brothers. I can't comprehend the grossness of the situation.

20 February 2009

Still Waters (Camilla Noli)

A publishing rep told me this was a 'kick-ass' read and unlike anything I would have read in the past.
The last bit was true: I don't recall ever having read anything this bad before. I probably have, but not in recent memory.

Still Waters tells the tale of a successful career woman who has become a full time mum and wife. Her life has become so mundane and pedestrian and the children rail on her nerves so much that she begins to fantasise about killing them.
And then she does.

Publication for Still Waters has been delayed here in the UK because of the Baby P. case that was all over the news. Rightly so, although I don't know when IS a good time to debut a book about baby killing, and I'm not really sure what the marketing team were worried about: a loss of sympathy for the narrator of the story? Were we supposed to feel for her?

My biggest problem is with the way this book was marketed. "All mothers love their children... don't they?" is splashed on the front cover. I was particularly horrified when a woman picked it up in the shop and mused: "I was never that maternal you know."
LADY. Did you kill your kids?
Then trust me, this is not the book to read if you're looking to empathise with the woman in it. There is a difference between a lack of maternal instinct and COLD-BLOODED MURDER. This isn't a book about the issues successful women have in adjusting to home life, or the toll taking care of children can have on a person. It is about a psychopath and should be marketed as such.

Then of course, we come to the narration. Telling a story in first person-present tense is hard enough, but with Noli's lack of narrative ability it turns the already mediocre prose (or... more accurately... words strung together) into a hack job. A reviewer on the author's website likened the narration to Camus' The Outsider.

I'm restraining myself... no, am not done:


Of course, the cliches between husband and wife coupled with amateur dialogue do nothing to help the matter. "Thoughtful issue-raising" aside (and I don't believe we have anything here other than a D-grade version of American Psycho), I don't know who would benefit from reading this book, thus it's '2' status.
(There has to be a certain horrific stigma attached to a novel to attain a '1'. Level 1 is reserved for such tomes as Mein Kampf. Doubtful that we'll ever read this... but it gets an honorary '1' anyway).

Rating: 2/10.

19 February 2009

The Ringmaster's Daughter (Jostein Gaarder)

Am going through a bit of a re-reading old favourites phase at the moment, am about 2/3 through Atlas Shrugged (which is pretty much consuming my life so apologies for the lack of reviews lately....) and just before that I read The Ringmaster's Daughter by Jostein Gaarder. I love this book. I have read it maybe 10 times, and each time I love it more. It doesn't have the meaning of life hidden in clever metaphors, or explain the mysteries of philosophy (and lets be honest...inserting 10 page long information dumps about various philosophical movements does not make for a page turning read..)

What this book does have is a fantastic plot. Well, a number of fantastic plots, since the protagonist, Petter, makes a living out of being a storyteller. Ever since he was a child, Petter has lived partly in a fantasy world, not always able to distinguish between his real life and his imagined life. Looking back over his childhood, Petter is unable to tell which memories are real and which are imagined (but he is pretty sure the time he was able to fly didn't actually happen). One of the main characters, the Metre Man (because he is exactly one metre high) only exists in Petter's mind (although he makes the mistake of occasionally pointing him out to his friends). So all in all, Petter seems, well, kind of crazy. But really likable at the same time.

When he grows up, instead of becoming an author himself, Petter sells story outlines to writers suffering from a creative block. Happy to reside in obscurity, Petter becomes very rich by selling ideas. In reading Petter's life story, we are lucky to also read many of his imagined stories which he passes on to others. The way the various stories are woven together make this book truly amazing, and really enjoyable to read.


18 February 2009

Fallen Skies (Philippa Gregory)

Philippa Gregory used to be a sure thing.
Oh, I wouldn't say she writes well.
At all.
I would say she knows EXACTLY how much factual information to insert into her historical fiction; and she is able to gauge to within a paragraph when our attention is beginning to wane so she can slip in a bodice-ripping scene or two. No problem really... that's my kind of thing and it's why I read her. There's nothing better to curl up with on a rainy day than hot chocolate and loved-up Tudors who could, at any minute, lose their heads.

However, lately, Gregory has been stumbling a bit, churning out any old rubbish and hoping mega ruffs and her name on the cover is all that is needed to sell the books. The Other Queen (2008) was absolute junk: Gregory turned one of the most fascinating women in English history (Mary Queen of Scots) into a boring, vacuous Mills and Boon heroine; and the plot read like a Radio 4 dramatisation on a particularly off day.

I thought perhaps Gregory was losing her touch and needed some sort of getaway at a historical fiction writer's spa. The sort of place where authors swan around in velvet, empire-waisted gowns with ridiculous sleeves and talk about codpieces and how Henry VIII is so over right now, their faces plastered in mashed haggis.
Mashed haggis?
Because I can, that's why.

However, having just finished Fallen Skies which came out in 1993 I have come to the realisation that Gregory's success with The Other Boleyn Girl and the others in the Tudor series was perhaps a fluke and now she is regressing back to where she began.

Fallen Skies was, first of all, a complete disappointment between the bedsheets. Our heroine Lily (who is quite, quite annoying) has two lovers: one is her husband Stephen who prefers her to impersonate a starfish during the act so she doesn't display wanton desires; and the other is Charlie, her true love, who had his man bits blown off during the war.
WHY, Philippa, WHY?

Then of course, we have the sinister nanny who we are immediately suspicious of. Several of her previous charges have died in mysterious circumstances. The author appears to forget about this as the nanny is phased out of the story and never returns. Misleading the reader is something I do not look favourably upon so this added to the fact that she led me on in thinking Stephen was gay made me doubly peeved. (I was sure all that time he spent with his mute chauffeur eating grilled cheese sandwiches was fishy. Apparently not.)
Gregory also appears to lose any enthusiasm she may have had for finishing the novel properly. It is a slow, sexually frustrated snail of a book until the last chapter, when it finishes so quickly, with no resolutions or sense, that we can only assume that's when the plot line of The Other Boleyn Girl came to her and she rattled off the end any which way.

Much as I'm doing now...

Rating: 5/10.

17 February 2009

No Word of a Lie...

Some may question the ratings table on this blog. We have had several emails berating Earhart and myself for our reviews (fans of Disgrace and The 19th Wife seem particularly irate).
Tough bikkies.

And thus I go on to give another 9... to Gavin and Stacey: From Barry to Billericay, the follow-up book to the show. It was released a little while ago but I have only just now had the pleasure of delving into it.

Discovering Gavin and Stacey is the best thing that has happened to me since moving to London. Alan Carr is the second (he ENCHANTS me, I can't explain it) and Bar Italia runs a close third.

The book is a great follow-up to the show: basically all new content and none of it inferior to the series. Watching it I picked up a pretty convincing Welsh accent (well, I can say "Way-ells" in a Welsh accent); I renewed my love and enthusiasm for Alison Steadman; and I have developed a healthy respect for the writers of the show. The book is a credit to James Corden and Ruth Jones who have created another brilliant piece of comedy cold.

N.B. The book is NOT a credit to the woman who sidled up to me in Foyles whilst I was blatantly reading it in the shop (apologies J and R... in a pinch, my money goes on coffee) and informed me most of the content was stolen from her personal diaries.

Fourth best thing: the London wildlife.

Rating: 9/10.
P.S. If you have never watched the show, the book will no doubt be incomprehensible.

16 February 2009

The Yellow Wallpaper (Charlotte Perkins Gilman)

If you have a spare fifteen minutes I would seriously recommend reading this short story. Written in 1892, it is the story of a woman suffering from depression (I suspect post-partum) who is taken to stay in a large country house with her husband for three months in order to recover. Husband John is a physician and his cure for his young wife is to keep her away from her child and any 'stimulating acquaintainces'. She spends most of the three months in a room at the top of the house, decorated with a psychedelic yellow wallpaper.

For the first few weeks the woman is able to talk about her confinement logically, although she has an irrational hatred of the wallpaper. Gradually she begins to see a woman in the patterns of the paper, a woman who is trying to get out. Husband John and the housekeeper Jennie become concerned at her fixation with the wallpaper. Suddenly, the woman is convinced that it is she who is the woman in the wallpaper. She ties herself up with rope and walks around the room in constant circles, carving a groove in the wall with her shoulder because she is pressed so tightly against it.
Husband John comes in and faints to see her like this.

I know I've just told you the plot, but that's not the attraction of this story. The writing is fantastic: honest and whimsical prose give way to an unbelievably creepy denouement. The text seems to become faster, the pages turn a lot quicker at the end as the woman's mind speeds towards and then overtakes the line of sanity.

If you can get over the fact that Husband John is a patronising chauvanist and the woman, (even before she goes completely bonkers) is kind of whiney and immature, go sit in a room with bad wallpaper and shot this down like a Patagonian Black Bush.

Rating: 7/10.

13 February 2009

The 19th Wife (David Ebershoff)

There are three Richards in my life.
One is my father.
The second I shall remain semi-coy about for privacy's sake.

If there is ever a book with a "Richard and Judy bestseller" sticker emblazoned proudly on the front cover, do not read this. Put it down and walk carefully away.

This is what I should have done with The 19th Wife. My fascination with polygamists is in the same vein as my fascination with the Amish. Sort of. I don't want to be a polygamist but I suspect I would like to try being Amish. For a very short while. Maybe I just really like the show Big Love and that's where my FLDS interest stems from. Regardless, I feel that if I were either I would be a far more interesting dinner party guest than the usual line-up of atheists, agnostics and humanists.

Thus I ignored Dick and Judy on the front cover and paid actual money for this novel by David Ebershoff. It switches back and forth between the story of Ann Eliza Young who was the 19th wife of Brigham Young (if you don't know who that is you're clearly lacking some serious grounding in FLDS history) and BeckyLyn Scott, a modern-day 19th wife who is on trial for murdering her husband.

I have two main issues with this novel. In the historical segments set in the 19th century we never get a clear narrative because the author is insistent on including excerpts from diaries, newspaper articles, the encyclopaedia... it goes on. I understand mixing up the format a bit, but these chapters feel like you're reading the bibliography the author used to research the novel. BORING.

In the modern segments, BeckyLyn's arrest and trial are narrated by her son, Jordan Scott, who was thrown out of the community when he was fourteen, a common fate as it means there are more wives for the old guys. He is now in his early twenties, gay and severely disillusioned with the religion in which he was raised. Jordan speaks with the most annoying 'modern' voice I can think of. It is so obscenely forced it is very hard to take him seriously.

All authors (including you, Geraldine Brooks) please take note. If you want to learn how to write in a 'modern' voice (I understand this is hard as a lot of you spend most of your time creating historical prose), read Brief Interviews with Hideous Men by David Foster Wallace. These short interviews/stories are insane in their brilliance, searingly honest yet totally original. It feels like you're meeting one Caulfield after the next, each more disarming than the last.
It's short, so you won't have to leave your typewriters for long.

If you have a bit of an interest in Utah polygamists you could, I suppose, give this book a gander. But there has to be a better novel about them out there and when I find it I will get back to you.

Rating: 5/10.

12 February 2009

Mr Darcy: Most Eligible... Ninja?

Okay. I couldn't let this pass without saying something.
Pride and Prejudice is now out of copyright.
Is the thought that just passed through your mind 'Great! Now I can use her original text, and adding elements of my own, create Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, a surefire masterpiece'?
Cause that was definitely my first thought.

Unfortunately Seth Grahame-Smith beat me to it, since his book is due for release in April this year. Apparently 'Austen fans are in for a shock, with heroine Elizabeth Bennet and her four sisters becoming zombie slayers taught how to fight like Japanese ninjas by Mr Darcy'.


Maybe that's why one ought to steer clear of the attics at Purvis Lodge - they are a popular haunt for the undead.

11 February 2009

Author Love: Paullina Simons

At first glance, Paullina Simons' books could be construed as chick-lit. Thick bricks of chick-lit. The new Harper Collins covers do her no favours either. RIDICULOUS.
But, open one and start to read.

And then give it 50 or so pages because the lady takes a while to warm up.

Born in the Soviet Union and emigrating to the U.S. when she was a small child, Simons incorporates all the tragedy, history and black-humour that we have come to associate with the great Russian sagas. I tell readers to prepare to have their heart wrenched out, several times. If the characters stumble... fall... seem unlikely to overcome their numerous and achingly sad trials, you as the reader will feel unable to go on with your own life. These novels are emotional testaments to the pain and suffering that humans endure in the name of love, honour and passion.

Simons relentlessly attacks her characters: both with interminably depressing plot lines and a no-holds barred attitude to uncovering every thought and feeling the character has ever entertained. Tully (in the novel of the same name) is hardly likeable, holding herself to a strict moral code that has nothing to do with treating people well and everything to do with ensuring her own life remains as miserable as possible. She is one of the greatest female characters to have been written in the last decade, obscenely alluring and entirely unforgettable. (Give Angelina Jolie a bad dye-job and she'd be perfect.)

Yet it is The Bronze Horseman which is Simons' greatest triumph. It is the story of Tatiana and Alexander, lovers who must survive the suffocation of Soviet Russia, the torture of the Viet Cong in Vietnam and all the temptations of simmering Arizona before we can begin to hope that happiness may lie in their destinies. I am normally reluctant to tell people The Bronze Horseman is the first in a trilogy. I feel they don't experience the full weight of emotion and despair if they know there is more of the story to come (i.e. hope of salvation). Having read the novel before the sequels were around I still recall the devastation I felt upon completion; and the sheer delight and exhilaration when I found out the author was putting the characters through two more books worth of hell.

This may all sound a bit over the top. Simons' prose is not brilliant or unique. But her emotional intelligence is astounding and it is impossible to read her work and not be swept away on a tide of longing, darkly tainted with despair. I don't feel enthusiasm like this that often (I am tensed with excitement, hunched over the keyboard), so this is genuine, I assure you.

We attended an event with Simons a couple of years ago. In front of hundreds of people I raised my hand.
(Cue gushing voice).
"Paullina, whenever I sell one of your books in the bookshop I get the most amazing feeling inside, like I'm passing on some sort of gospel. I want to thank you for emotionally enriching my life."
(Earhart sinks slowly to the floor next to me in morbid embarrassment).

I would like to point out my comment wasn't nearly as awful as the woman who told Paullina she couldn't get pregnant until she read The Bronze Horseman.
That was most amusing.

The Bronze Horseman: 10/10
(Steer clear of The Road to Paradise. Only hard-core fans would enjoy this. I wouldn't recommend Simons' books to anybody battling depression... I do not want to be responsible for any bridge-leaping).

10 February 2009

Disgrace (J.M. Coetzee)

Much as I would love to join the almost universal, prodigious admiration that surrounds J.M. Coetzee's Disgrace, I find my feet dragging somewhat.

This concerns me. Structurally, linguistically, the novel is beyond reproach. It tells the story of David Lurie, a professor of communications at a university in Cape Town. He is forced to resign when an affair with one of his (very) young students becomes public. He leaves Cape Town and finds refuge on his daughter's farm in Grahamstown. Set in a post-Apartheid South Africa, Coetzee uses this as a backdrop for Lurie's growing awareness of his own character as a terrible event befalls the family.

Here is where we start with the problems. We know he's really into women, that he's in his 40's yet still bedding 20 year olds. But when David starts to lust after a young teenager I lost all feelings of empathy for him. In fact, I felt I couldn't have any confidence in him anymore. Admittedly, he's a character in a book, not someone I'm walking down the aisle towards, but still. You know you have serious trust issues with a character when you wonder if he's hitting on Lucy.
Who is a lesbian.
Oh, and his daughter.

The characters lack definition, humanity. After tragedy strikes and they are attempting to deal with the aftermath, soft spots begin to show, hidden traumas appear not as easily dismissed. Yet nothing resonates, it still feels cold. The characters felt like they were all cemented in place, with no room for growth or change.

The idea of animals as the canvases on which a person's humanity becomes imprinted is continuous throughout the novel. I understood this, I got the connection. I certainly didn't need to be slapped around the head with the symbolism when David graphically imagines castrating himself. I did feel a swelling of emotion when Lurie describes how the men at the incinerator beat the bodies of dead dogs to break their bones so they fit properly in the furnace. Although, again, definitely something I could have lived without.

At the novel's denouement David is composing an opera, based on Lord Byron's life. Coetzee takes pains to draw the lines of parallel between Lord Byron, his Theresa and what has occured in David's own life, but this doesn't solve of the problem of where David, a communications professor, suddenly felt he had the gumption and talent to write an opera. This seems a ridiculous, overly-romantic end to what is a very bleak novel.

Boyd Tonkin of The Independent states that Disgrace is "...perhaps the best novel to carry off the Booker in a decade." I have feelings of self-doubt, anxiety. Clearly, I'm an ill-educated moron who doesn't understand the subtle nuances of Coetzee's writing. But then I remember The Remains of the Day, The English Patient and The God of Small Things.
Yeah, whatever, BOYD.

At just 220 pages in length, I doubt there are many novelists who could pack so much intensity and detail into what is a very short novel. I understand that I am speaking from the point of view of someone who has never lived in South Africa, never experienced Apartheid and its after-effects. I completely agree that Coetzee is a masterful creator of prose.

None of this means I had to like it.

Rating: 7/10.

09 February 2009

February Book You May Have Missed: I Have a Bed Made of Buttermilk Pancakes

Let me tell you a little bit about the Zing family. Fancy Zing is married to Radcliffe (not a Zing) and writes lists (types of leaves, sounds, irritating things about her husband). Marbie Zing (full name: Marbleweed) lives with Vernon and his sister Listen, and is contemplating an affair with an aeronautical engineer. Maude makes amazing (truly amazing: life changing) pies; and Cassie can run as fast as a bus (no, really).

Oh, and every Friday night they meet in the garden shed to have Zing Family Secret Meetings.

I'll admit, before I even knew any of this I was won over by the title: I Have a Bed Made of Buttermilk Pancakes. Yummy. Combine that title with the surname 'Zing' and I'm yours. The world of IHABMOBP is one where it snows in Sydney, flying beach umbrellas are a real danger, and spell books containing useful things like 'Spell to make someone take a taxi' are available to 12 year old girls.

By this point you are either really excited about the book (which is what I am hoping) or you are looking sceptically at the computer screen thinking 'what is she on?' in which case I was never going to win you over. If you're in the former group read on... and then go read one of the most original books I have read in a long time. Not just the plot, but the way the story is structured: the interweaving of about 10 million different plot lines (one of them is set in 1810!) and the way tiny bits of the Zing Family Secret are revealed slowly, slowly throughout the book make it a fantastic un-put-downable read.

Jaclyn Moriarty is well known in Australia as a writer of YA fiction, and this was her first foray into the world of adult fiction, (you know...for grown up people. Not porn. Although there is a Zing who writes erotic fiction...) and it would be a great pity if your lives weren't enriched by reading the marvelousness that is I Have a Bed Made of Buttermilk Pancakes. Which, incidentally, shortens to the coolest initialism ever.


06 February 2009

The Well-Tempered Clavier (William Coles)

On the recommendation of a friend I wandered into Foyles the other day and asked for "The Good-Tempered Clavicle."

Hilarity ensued and when the salesman managed to stop laughing he handed me The Well-Tempered Clavier.

I would have laughed at me too... now that I've looked up what a clavicle is.

Without the recommendation I would never have chosen to pick this up. For one thing, the two people engaged in what appears to be some serious wall action look like they're pressed up against a backdrop of acid-washed jeans.
I know we shouldn't judge a book by the cover, but, having worked in a bookshop for years I understand the importance of covers. Marketing dropped the ball on this one.

Which is a real pity because I feel this would have turned into one of those slow-burners... ESPECIALLY in America and Australia. If you're not English you have a complete fascination with institutions like Eton, Oxford, the House of Lords etc. etc. Alistair Darling's not the Treasurer, he's the Chancellor of the Exchequer. The English know how to create an aura of history and pomposity around something until they have the rest of the West enthralled. When I first moved to England last year I went on a tour of Eton, that's how intrigued I was with the school.

Unfortunately, I was on the 'expectant parents' tour instead of the one for tourists. I was the only girl without a bump.

Coles' novel tells the story of Kim, a young man in his last years of Eton College who falls in love with his piano teacher India. She introduces him to the Well-Tempered Clavier, Bach's stunning collection of preludes and fugues that is one of the most influential works in the history of classical music (ahem, thank you wiki). They embark upon a love affair but are torn apart when inevitable discovery occurs.

Kim is an intriguing character, slightly Caulfield in his grounded yet removed take on life; slightly Manolin in his innocence combined with dedication. India is merely the female in the relationship and in my opinion Kim could have fallen in love with anyone put in her situation, which makes him all the more believable as a love-struck seventeen year old. Considering this is essentially a love story, Coles has done very well to create a novel that could be equally enjoyed by the guys and the gals, the sweat is mixed in with the roses and the story is all the better for it. The writing is such that regardless of how much appeal the setting of Eton should have for all the Anglophiles out there, the delicate and deliberate prose will be what ensures the devotion of the reader until the very last page.

The book has been re-released this year with a different title and cover which will hopefully help sales... in the meantime ignore any aesthetic reservations you may have and give it a go.

Rating: 8/10.

05 February 2009

The Castle of Otranto (Horace Walpole)

I've been perusing the brick 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die. Some of the titles seem bizarre to say the least. I mean, we're on this earth for a very short time. Surely one should steer clear of such books as Euphues: The Anatomy of Wit (John Lyly)?

I noticed with some amusement that The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole made it onto the list. We studied this book in school and after reading the first chapter aloud my English Lit teacher was faced with a classroom of stony-faced students.
"We're studying this as a bad example of the gothic." she assured us.
Considering the good example was Wuthering Heights (and it is well-documented how we feel about that), I have been left with a relatively healthy disregard for the entire genre.

I doubt there is another book that begins as ridiculously as Otranto does: the villain Manfred's son is killed when a giant helmet falls from the sky and crushes him.
Then we of course have the token virgin, the lusty pursuer who clearly mutes his television during the advertisements ('No' means 'No' Manfred), a blood-red moon, baying wolves, water-logged dungeons and breathless chases at midnight. A smorgasbord of gratuitous ludicracy that should leave all lovers of the gothic satiated, if not stuffed.
Is it ridiculous?
But, I suspect that, given half a chance, I would derive great pleasure from reading this again, sufficiently sloshed of course. I might even spill some red on the carpet and pretend the moon is bleeding, to REALLY get me in the mood.
Rating: 6/10.

04 February 2009

February Classic: Brideshead Revisited (with mention of The Secret History)

I count this as one of my favourite books, even though I haven't read it in years. Thinking I better read it again as my featured classic this month I grabbed a copy the other day and prepared myself for a reawakening of my literary senses... a re-working of my laughing muscles... a renewed enthusiasm for Sebastian and Aloysius.

Except I had the strangest feeling I'd just read it... every page I was deja vu-ing like you wouldn't believe.

Then it hit me. I haven't read Brideshead Revisited in the last five years, but I HAVE read The Secret History by Donna Tartt recently.


I can't believe I failed to make the connection sooner. The narrators, Charles in Brideshead and Richard in Secret History, are two of the most annoying, passive and boring characters ever to be written. Both are keen to enter worlds they are not quite interesting enough to prosper in, worlds which contain the eccentricity only found amongst those that spend a great deal of time together. Charles has just come up to Oxford to read History and Richard is at an exclusive East Coast college where he eventually reads Ancient Greek. For both narrators, their university education takes a second place to the emotional journeys they subsequently take.


Sebastian Flyte, the young man who lures Charles into the world of Brideshead, is one of the most original, compelling and marvellously disturbing characters to have ever been written. Whilst mention must be made of his special relationship with Aloysius, (who is, in fact, a teddy bear), it is his exuberance and gradual decline into a permanent state of melancholy whilst still possessing the ability to charm all those in his path that makes him so enigmatic. (The fact that he's totally smoking hot doesn't hurt). His alcoholism eventually leads him to what we assume is the most ridiculous yet fitting end Waugh could conjure for him, but it is a pity as the reader is loathe to let him leave the story.

What makes Waugh so utterly brilliant is that I believe he sees the world as it is, but he can imagine the ridiculous, the surreal, the escapist world that his characters wish to capture and reside in. Thus we have these magical, romantic scenes that contain Waugh's personal mixture of morality, hilarity and the eagle-eyed take of one whose phenomenal social perception would have left him laughing behind pot plants at many a cocktail party.

There is nothing wrong with the way Donna Tartt writes, but Evelyn Waugh she ain't.

Brideshead Revisited: 9/10.
(The Secret History: 7/10)

The Elegance of the Hedgehog (Muriel Barbery)

I should start by saying that this book was not at all what I expected. Although really, all I knew before I picked this up was that it was written from the perspective of a concierge in a Parisian apartment building and it was a bestseller in France. 'Fabulous,' I thought, 'a nice light holiday read, romp in Paris etc etc etc'. What I didn't know was that the concierge in The Elegance of the Hedgehog is very into art, Russian literature, science and philosophy. Whole chapters are devoted to the phenomenology of the spirit, which are very interesting, but not quite the light reading I had hoped for.
From the outside, Renee appears to be a 'typical' daytime TV watching, uncultured concierge, an image which she strives to maintain for reasons which have a lot to do with not alarming the bourgeois residents of her building. It is not until a new resident moves into the building and discovers that Renee's cat is named Leo in homage to her favourite Russian author that the truth slowly comes out.

The book alternates between Renee's story, and the Journal of the Movement of the World of Paloma Josse, a twelve year old girl who plans to kill herself and burn down her parents' apartment on the eve of her thirteenth birthday. Melodramatic much? Paloma's family are bourgeois to the point of being caricatures, and she can think of nothing worse then the future which she sees before her.

The book took a little while to get into, possibly because I'd finally be getting into the Renee story line, only to be interrupted by Paloma musing on the fact that the 'cat is a modern totem'.
I did enjoy reading it, and would have more had the characters not both been so ridiculously resigned about the world. ('How French!' A customer said to me when I made this comment....more like 'How annoying!') If Paloma was in fact as brilliant as she claimed (many many times), why didn't she set her (brilliant) mind on changing the path set out for her? Possibly I am missing the point here. But what does it say that here I am, a few weeks after finishing the book and one of the only things that has stuck in my mind is how annoying one of the characters was? I understood what Renee had to say, I was interested in her views on literature and art, I just wasn't enthralled. Don't get me wrong, I enjoyed reading The Elegance of the Hedgehog..I am just a little undecided. And I think writing this review has made me even more so.


03 February 2009

Crow Lake (Mary Lawson)

With the out of focus image of bare-legged young kids on the front cover I was immediately streaming Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood before I opened the book.
This was sooo much better.
Set in Northern Ontario, Crow Lake tells the story of Kate Morrison, orphaned young and left (with her baby sister) to be brought up by their two older brothers. The protegee of her brother Matt, Kate is raised with an intense fascination for pondlife.
Yah, pondlife.
But seriously, keep reading, it's good.
The story jumps between present-day Kate who is a university invertebrate biologist (*sigh*, these passages get a bit long to be honest) and past-Kate who struggles to grow up in this atypical family. Woven through the retelling is also the story of the Pyes, the family next door whose unfortunate genetic disposition for passing on the same revolting and violent character flaws from father to son for generations has an air of the fable about it, yet this too works.

Supreme sacrifice, emotional manipulation and the concrete ties of family all come together in a bittersweet yet subtle finale that packs quite a punch. Getting to the end of this book I didn't want to read it again, I just wished I had written it myself.

Rating: 8/10.

02 February 2009

Of Cheese and E. Bronte

First off let's get the preliminaries out of the way, this is an Emily Bronte-free zone. Or, to be more exact, this is a Heathcliff-free zone. Cathy we take issue with as well, but we hold a much larger chunter with Mr. H.
It is almost, almost the same issue I have with those ridiculous people out there in the virtual world who find Severus Snape compelling/sexy/misunderstood, (Les Francais, bien sur.) Except that Snape redeems himself somewhat, (ack, hope I'm not ruining some tortoise's Harry Potter experience here. Really though, slow and steady will only leave you disappointed), and Heathcliff NEVER DOES. He is the most hideous, selfish reprobate, without any of the gorgeous maverick connotations that often come with the latter term.

I think perhaps some of my hatred of Heathcliff (and Cathy) is an extension of my dislike of the layout of the novel. Wuthering Heights is no structural masterpiece. Cathy's early death means that the reader never actually gets a chance to emotionally invest in her relationship with Heathcliff. (And Emily, Heathcliff talking to her ghost and planning to exhume her do not count as relationship progression.)

Of course, we then come to Bronte's complete inability to think of names for her characters. Seriously, she came up with 'Heathcliff' and then had a complete and utter mental block and had to use the same names of the original characters in part 1 for all the other characters in part 2. I know the importance of lineage and family in the story, but when I can't work out if one of the Lintons is courting his sister or his cousin or his niece it's VERY disconcerting.

Hailed as one of the best love stories of the period and in fact IN THE WHOLE HISTORY OF LITERATURE if you listen to certain misguided fools, I put forward another argument. This is melodramatic drivel. Twilight and Romeo and Juliet at least attempt to toe the line of decency, although they do overstep it on occasion. The line is not even VISIBLE to Wuthering Heights.

If you're going to do cheese, do it well. Make a minimum of one of the characters in the relationship likeable, relatable or at least believable. Make the sexual tension appealing rather than abhorrent. I do not want to read about greasy-haired leers from the corner or fever-soaked hallucinations that lead to death rather than a romp in the bedroom.

The best part of this novel is at the beginning, with two very choice quotes from Mr Lockwood's narration.. the first being when "Mr. Heathcliff and his man climbed the cellar steps with vexatious phlegm"... hah. The second is when he asks Mrs Heathcliff if her favourite animals are what he assumes to be a pile of sleeping cats on a cushion. "Unluckily, it was a heap of dead rabbits."
Seriously, stop there. That's all you need to read. The rest is just AWFUL.

Rating: 4/10
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