30 September 2009

The Spare Room (Helen Garner)

I apologise for having promised this review for a few days now and not delivered. I am generally of the opinion that if you promise to do something enough times people will assume you have actually done it. Unfortunately, on a blog where the evidence of having posted a review is the physical manifestation of said review things get a bit trickier. Thus I have had to bite the bullet and write the bloody thing.

Why am I dragging my feet on this review?

Because I KNOW it's brilliant. Garner is a superb writer and her prose seems effortless, organic even. I imagine Helen wafting around her house, putting on the kettle, writing a few sentences, drifting into the garden and weeding for a bit, writing a few more sentences as she passes by her typewriter to make lunch, calling a friend and mindlessly jotting down ideas on a pad of paper next to the phone... almost as if it comes so naturally to her that she needn't interrupt her life to write.

The Spare Room is about a woman named Helen (an extremely subtle hint that this is not really fiction) who has a friend come to stay for three weeks whilst she undergoes cancer treatment at an alternative therapy place in Melbourne. Helen, pragmatic and sensible, is unable to understand why her friend Nicola will not accept the fact that she is dying and instead insists upon putting her body through brutal coffee enemas and vitamin C injections.

Hideous, gut-wrenching stuff and the novel is short, to pack that much more of a punch. Helen's frustration reads as a diary entry, inviting the reader to experience everything as vividly as if they too were in the room. I was going to call the reader the 'voyeur' and then I looked the word up to work out how to use it properly as a non-continuous verb and realised that the most common definition for 'voyeur' is someone who gets sexual pleasure from watching people having sex from a secret vantage point! Am I the only one who didn't know that?

This honesty and generosity relates to what Martin Amis said recently in Spain when talking about ageing writers: "... worst of all are the novelists who have fallen out of love with the reader.... You present yourself at your most alive; you want to give the reader the seat nearest the fire, the best wine and food." Garner is definitely still placing her readers in uncomfortably warm seats.

So then why, you ask, was I so reluctant to write this review?

Because I STILL didn't like the book. As a comment on the human condition it was insightful and moving. I'll admit that I did feel a connection to Helen- I too can get extremely frustrated with people who don't do things the right way (my way). But I put down the book knowing that I would never again feel the need to revisit it and that's my mark of a REALLY good book- how much I'm looking forward to picking it up again.

Rating: 8/10.

Bonnet Rippers

I'll admit to not having read an Amish novel in awhile. In fact, looking at the Categories list, it appears I have only reviewed one Amish novel all year. In my defence, for all my self-professed enthusiasm and fascination for the Amish, in recent years there haven't been that many novels that aren't rubbish or insufferably religious.

However, it seems this is no longer the case! Having just read this article I am now adding several new Amish titles to my reading list.

This wasn't the only weird article on the Guardian Books website today. In a terrible piece of blasphemy Wayne Gooderham compared Holly Golightly to Jay Gatsby in drag (I'm offended for Jay rather than Holly). Things went from bad to worse when I saw features on both Sarah Palin and Jeffrey Archer. I closed down the site and made myself a bowl of chopped banana with a shot of coffee poured over it.

Breakfast heaven.

29 September 2009

The Mistress (Martine McCutcheon)

Oh god this was horrendous. Not in a good way. I didn't feel the guilty, glorious satisfaction I fully intend to feel when Bai Ling's autobiography Nipples is released. I don't know if she has a publishing deal yet but I can't wait to get my hands on a copy of what I feel is going to be a phantasmagorical masterpiece.

No, no, poor old Martine McCutcheon, on the other hand, has merely produced a truly awful piece of pedestrian drivel, catering to the lowest common denominator. It reads like it was written by a thirteen year old who takes remedial English. I don't blame the thirteen year old. She doesn't know any better. She's never read an entire book before! The fault, Your Honour, lies with the publisher, Pan Macmillan. Who, interestingly enough, decided to release the first chapter of The Mistress online... which can only serve to severely diminish sales. P-Mac? You need a new marketing team.

The heroine Mandy immediately proves herself to be an intelligent, insightful character. Through McCutcheon's masterful grasp of the English language we are introduced to Mandy as she is getting ready for a big night out to celebrate her thirtieth birthday. In the cab on the way to her party she waxes lyrical on London's appeal: "... it felt to Mandy like the most exhilarating city in the world, with the speed of New York, but the history of a Paris or a Rome."

Any Paris, any Rome. Just one of them.

Mandy soon feels a burning sensation on the side of her head when she gets to the party. I was excited, thinking that the candelabra at the Wolseley had set her shining dark mop on fire, but it turns out to be a guy, staring intently at her from across the room. Cue guy meets girl plus obstacles scenario... yadiyadiyada... he's married, with two beautiful boys, sob. I'm welling up. Wait! Mandy can't deal with this right now! Her birthday cake is coming out!

If you want to read the entire chapter, click here. If you want to pre-order The Mistress (the first in a series of three!!!) get in your car, drive to a Thames or a Nile and THROW YOURSELF IN.

Martine, dearest, you cannot write. If you need some cash, may I suggest getting a job as Gordon Brown's secretary? I'm sure he'd have you. He knows you're qualified.

Rating: 2/10.

Remember, 1/10 is saved for books that actually CAUSE HARM. Despite McCutcheon's best efforts, this is no Mein Kampf.

Why would you want to read when you've got the television set sitting right in front of you?

Tim Minchin has been asked by the RSC to turn Matilda by Roald Dahl into a musical. Read full article here. Whenever I see him on shows like Buzzcocks I find Minchin incredibly annoying, but the fact that he actually looks like a Quentin Blake illustration is a massive point in his favour. It could be fabulous... or it could suck.

There seems to be a reinvigorated enthusiasm for Dahl at the moment, what with Fantastic Mr Fox coming out this year as a film. Earhart thinks this will be a novel butchering of epic proportions. I don't agree. Hello??? George Clooney!

Later today: Helen Garner's The Spare Room.

24 September 2009

Small Wars (Sadie Jones)

I am trying to create the perfect ambience to write this review, as I have been putting it off for a week and I think that perhaps it is my writing environment that is the problem. I am snuggled on the couch with coffee and a blanket- temper and temperature have been catered to. I have changed my wallpaper to an Antoni Tàpies painting to imbue me with inspiration and superimposed a picture of Daniel Craig on it to make it more interesting. Radiohead's Exit Music (For a Film) is playing to suppress my mood in hopes of directing my concentration to the task at hand.

Small Wars by Sadie Jones...

Is it well-written? Without a doubt. Jones has a deft, no-nonsense approach to her writing. She comes across as an incredibly creative and articulate author who has no patience for flowery prose. Her writing always seems to have been reined in to within an inch of its life, yet still, determinedly, beautiful sentences blossom on the page.

Is it compelling? Sort of. Like Ian McEwan, Jones has a knack for creating tension from the most inane of moments. Was she able to twist my stomach with anxiety and excitement like McEwan does? No. However, maybe she wasn't going for the clamorous, institutionalised menace that McEwan favours. Maybe Jones was AIMING for soft core tension.

Is is predictable? No... to her credit it is not. I picked the extramarital affair within the first couple of chapters and felt a rising scorn for this second offering from Jones. Compared to The Outcast I was preparing myself to be most disappointed with this follow up. Then, suddenly, OUT OF THE BLUE, the plot does an abrupt 180 and the reader is left scrambling to work out what just happened.

I think the main problem I have with the novel is tempo. It has a relatively slow and uneventful story line throughout and then a huge amount happens within about 15 pages. And then it ends. The denouement I also have a problem with. Is it ambiguous or is it lazy?

If pressed to tell you what the book is actually about I can't sum it up in a way that sounds interesting. Hal Treherne has been posted to Cyprus in 1956. His young wife Clara and their twin daughters join him. Mild tension ensues. This inane synopsis should not deter you. If pressed to produce a blurb of In Search of Lost Time I would probably come up with something similarly lacklustre.

That's not to say I think Jones is on par with Proust. But you get my drift.

All in all, a good, solid novel, lacking the raw intensity of The Outcast but perhaps, instead, demonstrating a more polished writing style. Whether or not this is a good thing... sigh. I don't know.

Rating: 8/10.

My Cold and the Nobel Prize

Good morning dearly devoted readers. I have been convalescing after suffering dreadfully from a revolting cold which I fear may be a harbinger for winter miseries to come. Fortunately, the dreaded swine failed to claim me but I am still determined to spend the next week as close to my bed as possible. This is because Earhart will be arriving shortly and I refuse to be sick for her visit.

In light of my self-imposed laying up I am going to endeavour to catch up with all my book reviews. I hope to post several today, so stay tuned.

If anyone is interested, here is a link to a Guardian article on Amos Oz as the most likely candidate to win the Nobel Prize for Literature this year. Well, the person the bookies are supporting anyway. Remember, the Nobel Prize is awarded for a body of work, not for a single novel. Once nominated, a candidate remains nominated, therefore each year the winner is chosen from an ever increasing list.

13 September 2009

This Side of Paradise (F.Scott Fitzgerald)

Often after I have finished a book I take a few days to ruminate on the characters I have just given free passage into my subconscious. They all reside in a particular space in my brain- I call it the Syd Barrett Memorial Room. 'Tis a wonderful place; its only problem being it IS located right next to my memory room, and the adjoining door does not lock.

This has proven embarrassing over the years. I will be entertaining a group with an anecdote and be interrupted with- "That wasn't you, that was Huckleberry Finn, YOU EGOTISTICAL FREAK." Having been berated thusly I will shake my head vigorously, which looks to be a denial but is, in fact, me merely trying to get everyone back into their proper rooms.

As you can see, this adjoining door which does not lock has been problematic. In fact, 'adjoining door' is incorrect. It is more of a swinging half-door, like those you see in old-fashioned saloons. Sharon Stone often strides through it wearing chaps, dragging a be-chained Russell Crowe behind her. I must stress they belong in neither room, but have wandered over from the 'Career Aspirations' part of my brain.

I digress.

ANYWAY, in the SBMR all the characters I have ever met lounge about haphazardly. Those that are hazy around the edges are people who left little impression on me. Those with sheets draped over them were extremely memorable for terrible reasons and I have tried my best to forget about them (the more enterprising have cut holes in the sheets so as to retain a certain amount of vision and dexterity).

My favourites are those normally to be found at the bar. Vernon God Little is always hanging around the door to the Gents. Jo March and Olive Kitteridge do not get along AT ALL and tend to stand on opposite sides of the room. Aloysius normally takes refuge under a chair so as to avoid unwanted cuddles.

And everyone defers to Gatsby... including myself when I am able to get away from the incessant nothingness that is my life. He stands to the side of the room, drink in hand, never taking a sip. He is tall and commanding; a chilly heat permeates from his person. No one can take their eyes off him, but no one can talk to him.

Just recently, Amory Blaine from This Side of Paradise has been admitted into the SBMR. He shares a father with Gatsby, as well as a certain poise, smoking jacket, 'man about town' air. But he stumbles where Gatsby stands tall. He is drunk when Gatsby remains sober. He falls to pieces when his love is spurned. But worst of all, his courage is shown only through the supremely self-indulgent journey he takes and his final realisation: "'I know myself,' he cried, 'but that is all.'"

Great Amory. Compare yourself to Gatsby, who sacrifices his reputation and livelihood for the girl (who doesn't deserve him it must be added) and ultimately forfeits his life. You, Amory, have moped for 254 and a half pages and the only admirable thing you've done is taken the rap for your friend who was entertaining a lady in his hotel room.

Because some of their characteristics are similar I suspect Amory may have been a young, rough prototype for Fitzgerald's greatest character Jay Gatsby. Gatsby also had his flaws and weaknesses, but they merely served to strengthen his character's attractiveness rather than render him useless and pathetic. In fairness, this was Fitzgerald's first novel and he's done a bang-up job- it's intelligent, witty, memorable and passionate. But compared to the elegance and restrained desperation of The Great Gatsby it is clear Fitzgerald perfected his craft over the years.

Rating: 7/10.

*Earhart 4 Harper Collins* No More

Harper Collins you are dead to me. Pushing back the publication of Russell Brand's My Booky Wook 2 by a whole YEAR...why do you do these things to the people who love you? I was all excited, ringing Alcott, jumping up and down like a kid who has eaten too many jelly beans. Then, the Harper rep. comes, brandishing the new releases for October... My Booky Wook 2? There, in the corner... with a big cross through it. You can imagine my devastation when I found out that I would have to wait for an entire extra year before I could delve into the witty revelations Brand has to offer about life in the fast lane.

I loved you once you know Harper, remember the Skulduggery Pleasant days? They were good. Or the days when Oliver Jeffers hardbacks weren't out of print? (Oh yeah, that's another thing I'm angry about!) Or when Paullina Simons covers didn't incite comparisons to Jodi Picoult? It seems you were destined to disappoint me...

Bring the hardcover Lost and Found back into print and perhaps I can consider reconciliation, but until then... this is good bye.


08 September 2009

Booker Shortlist 2009

I have already waxed lyrical on this blog on how stressed shortlists make me... you can find that overly insightful post here. The Man Booker Shortlist has just been announced and without further ado, I present to you my immediate (although somewhat irrelevant and erroneous) thoughts on the list:

Let's see, let's see. Byatt for The Children's Book. Ffft. Definitely not as good as Possession. I haven't read it... but definitely not as good as Possession. Ohoh! Look who it is! My old friend Coetzee! Yeah whatever Coetzee. I'll pay for the book if you pay for my valium. Next... The Quickening Maze... not ringing a bell. Simon Mawer for The Glass Room. Never heard of it... Gah. Is that two already I haven't heard of? Hilary Mantel... Wolf Hall? What's that about? Wiki... why isn't wiki loading? Yadiyadiyada... political intrigue blah blah blah... HELLO!!! Henry VIII!!!! I think we're in business. Better pick up a copy. That won't win. Actually, I don't know. I'm so out of touch. WHAT AM I DOING WITH MY LIFE? I'm drifting and I don't have my finger on the book pulse anymore. I'M PATHETIC. A pale, shrivelled version of a once genius bibliophile. Reduced to nothing but a... OHOHO! What do we have here? Sarah Waters? Well, well, well Pulitzer. Booker is seeing your Oprah-esque novel and raising with LESBIAN ROMPS. Looks like the game of 'Whose Book Prize is Groovier' just got interesting.

Now bookshops around the world must endure the advent of customers racing in to buy those books that two months ago they waved away with a petulant frown, seriously enamoured with their imagined intelligence. "No, no. I want something HIGH BROW. Something like Christos Tsiolkas."

J.M. Coetzee for Summertime
A.S. Byatt for The Children's Book
Sarah Waters for The Little Stranger
Simon Mawer for The Glass Room
Adam Foulds for The Quickening Maze
Hilary Mantel for Wolf Hall

07 September 2009

Chaos Walking 1: The Knife of Never Letting Go (Patrick Ness)

So I've just re-read this book in preparation for reading and reviewing book two which has just come out; I now remember how completely brilliantly amazing it is and so I thought I should spread the love a little. This is another one of those young adult / adult crossovers, except that this is perhaps the only one wherein the crossover is really justified. Twilight - adults could really just read a Mills and Boon to have the same experience (albeit vampire free ). The Forest of Hands and Teeth - probably too adult, too scary, too zombie-y - I have yet to sell this book to an actual young adult. The Knife of Never Letting Go, on the other hand, should be read by... well... everyone. Part sci-fi, part dystopian future (you see what hooked me!), reading this book is an experience worth having.

The novel is set on a completely different planet (we've messed Earth up so much that it is verging on becoming uninhabitable), where the first human settlers arrived about 25 years before the book starts. Todd Hewitt (our hero) grew up in Prentisstown, surrounded by a constant barrage of other men's 'Noise' - that is a stream of conscious thought constantly broadcasted to everyone around, unstoppable, unblockable, and quite uncomfortable. There are no women in Prentisstown and when Todd finds a girl (!) surrounded by a patch of silence (unheard of in a town full of Noise) his world is shaken... BUT the Mayor, Deputy Mayor, Pastor.... (anyone in town with any kind of authority that may now be challenged by Todd's discovery) are unhappy. To put it mildly. To put it less mildly- they chase Todd out of Prentisstown with rifles and follow him halfway across the country determined to silence him.

I don't really want to give much away because this is the kind of book where the revelations about the history of the New World were so shocking, so unexpected and so well crafted into the story that I don't want to spoil it. Suffice to say, I love it.

I realise this review is written COMPLETELY like I am selling the book to someone, but I swear it's not copied and pasted from one of my newsletters. (If a review of book two shows up, I cannot make the same promise). I just feel like telling EVERYONE that this is a book you should read.


06 September 2009

The White Queen (Philippa Gregory)

The White Queen.
Not to be confused with The Other Queen.

Ye gods Philippa, at least PRETEND to try.

The name is only the pastel coating on one massive Paris almond of trouble. The Other Queen was quite bad. I didn't finish it, mainly because it jolted between three narratives and NOT ONE of those characters was mildly enigmatic. I'm sure they were interesting in real life, but Gregory, with this new magic of hers which has only surfaced in recent novels, managed to strip them of any remarkable characteristics or three-dimensional thoughts... a feat you must agree is impressive when one of the characters is Mary Queen of Scots.

Not a shrinking violet by any means.

However, in The White Queen Gregory has taken the gormless narrative to a new level of inanity. Her protagonist, the Lady Elizabeth Gray, tells of Edward the Usurper's rise to the throne, the death of her husband and her family's swinging loyalty all within the first page. She meets the king on the third page. She pleads her case, she makes him endure a mild bout of playing hard to get and VOILA they are married. The coronation is grand. Her family's new found power is cemented with several strategic weddings. Uproar! The man who put Edward on the throne is planning to put his brother on the throne instead!

This was a very VERY fascinating period in history. The warring houses of Lancaster and York were both deluded as to their own importance and grabbed what they could accordingly. So it is a splendid, nay, GLORIOUS feat on Gregory's part to have rendered these events monotonous and inconsequential. The above events I just described to you have all occurred within about the first three chapters of the novel. This, Ladies and Gentlemen, is where I stopped reading.

For one, it is exhausting to read at that kind of pace, especially when the quality of the writing is akin to something Mr Squiggle would churn out if he had to give a history lesson. Secondly, I have no love or hatred for any of the characters. None are captivating, all are stick figures in terms of development. (Admittedly, this is probably where Mr Squiggle could actually be of use.)

At the pace the novel is going I assume this (not small) book will cover about three hundred years of English history. Whilst useful for cramming for an exam on this period (admittedly, an exam at the University of Inferiority, where my major would be 'History Taught Succinctly and Melodramatically') I have no other use for this novel.

Oh and the cover is embarrassing. I feel self-conscious on the tube.


You used to be FAB!

The Other Boleyn Girl? That was brilliant!

The Virgin's Lover? Intelligent bodice-ripping at its very best!

Do you know what I think, dearly devoted readers? I think Philippa has stopped writing. This and the last novel (The Other Queen) are terrible. The only reason they were published is because they have her name attached to them. THUS I strongly suspect Philippa is using her millions to holiday in Barbados and has left her ideas for plot lines and characters lying around her house. Great Aunt Millicent (who is house-sitting) has found these notes and decided to do Philippa a favour and bang out a couple of novels. Unfortunately, Great Aunt Millicent is not very worldly and her only foray into reading has been historical Mills and Boons.

In light of this, I suppose we have to cut her some slack. Milly, these are not that dreadful, all things considered.

If, however, my hypothesising is incorrect and Philippa is just churning out this junk herself... I profess myself disappointed.

Rating: 2/10.

I've just remembered I reviewed an earlier work of Gregory's (that I was less than enamoured with) here. Nevertheless, her current work is more substandard than anything I could have imagined.

And we've changed the font to accomodate Internet Explorer/ Safari/ Firefox and Google Chrome. You're welcome.

05 September 2009

Junky (William S. Burroughs)

I actually started writing this review about a week ago whilst on Skype with Alcott, got one sentence in and promptly forgot about it. If my posts are a little sporadic for the next couple of weeks it is because I am currently writing reviews for FOUR publications (if you count this one) and seeing as this is the only one for which I get no money... it may be put on the back burner. This is not to say that I don't love writing reviews here; this is the one place I can write a review and completely slate a book should I so desire. Not so with my other forays into reviewing. Anyway, rejoycement over negative review ability aside here is a book which I LOVED. It is also a book which confirmed my belief that I don't really want to be a heroin addict, and also made me yearn (just a little) to have lived in the Beat Generation. I am talking of course about Junky by William S. Burroughs.
Although published as fiction, it is pretty well accepted that this is an autobiographical (or at least semi-autobiographical) account of Burroughs' own addiction. The main character is called William, last name Lee - the maiden name of Burroughs' mother and a majority of the incidents in the book were, surprisingly enough, incidents in Burroughs' own life. The book starts with Burroughs' first shot of morphine, details his many attempts at 'quitting for good' and lets you in on all kinds of secrets which you probably would know nothing about if you (like myself) have never taken heroin cut with milk sugar (bought from a shady Mexican lady) and cooked it up in a spoon over a Bunsen burner.

Through a series of really interesting musings about junk as a way of life, not just as a trip, you get to see inside Burroughs' head. And what a messed up place it is. We are talking about the man who shot (and killed) his wife when he convinced her to put a shot glass on her head so he could re-enact the William Tell shoots apple off son's head incident. Except with a gun. And he missed the glass and got his wife instead. (The same wife who is pictured on the cool first edition cover which I got thanks to the wonder of the internet - the very pulpy novel cover depicts an actual scene in the book.)

Anyway...I am running out of steam already with this review that never really got off the ground (although it got further off the ground than Alcott's first attempt at a Blackberry Wine review) - But this book is an amazingly written account of a narcotics addiction that spanned Burroughs' entire lifetime... it is fascinating... just go read it. Okay?

(ALSO - I am the proud new owner of a MacBook - have discovered blog looks kind of weird and small in Safari - sorry about that to all you Mac owners who have known this for a while and wondered why we insisted on using such tiny font - not our choice I am afraid.)
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