Sunday, December 12, 2010

The Man Who Smiled by Henning Mankell

Okay I'll admit it.  I have been reading alot of Henning Mankell lately (Are three books by the same author in as many weeks alot?) and I may have overdosed.

The Man Who Smiled I think is the fourth book chronologically in the Kurt Wallander series.  I enjoyed it, but found that it did get a little bogged down.  There were a few too many case meetings at the police station etc that seemed to be going over the same old ground.

Don't get me wrong I still love Kurt, and he had to overcome considerable odds to solve this one.  But I think a break form his escapades is in order for me.

I do have another Scandinavian crime thriller on the way from book depository: Three Seconds by Roslund & Hellstrom, as recommended by Zohar over at Man of la Book.  and I can't wait for that one.

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

Everyone, it seems has read this truly impressive book by Suzanne Collins.  My only regret is that I didn't read it sooner. 

Set somewhere in the future The Hunger Games is an annual event where 24 teenagers are selected through a lottery across the 12 districts of Panem (what is left of the United States in this future world) and pitched to fight against each other in a, to the death, winner take all, reality TV program.

Katniss and Peeta are the contenders from district twelve.  The narrative is told in the first person from Katniss's perspective.  She is sixteen and volunteers for the Hunger Games to save her younger sister Primrose from having to take part.  Katniss has been providing food for her family by hunting, since she was eleven. after her father was killed in a mining accident.

The Hunger Games can be enjoyed on many levels, and all of them are pitched perfectly.  This is a story that I imagine would appeal to  young and adult readers alike.  Everyone has reviewed this book, so I don't feel the need to carry on with a lengthy review here.  I am the one who has been slow to this party.  So let me just add to the chorus that I was amazed and captivated by The Hunger Games.  I couldn't put it down.  It is well written, dramatic and moving.  I can't recommend it highly enough.  And feel certain that I will be looking more closely at YA fiction in the future.  This is one of the most enjoyable reads of the year for me.

As a brief postscript, the first thing that came to mind when I was reading The Hunger Games was a short story by US writer Shirley Jackson called The Lottery.  For those of you who love The Hunger Games and are unfamiliar with this short story, originally published in The New Yorker in 1948, I encourage you to check it out.  I don't know if the short story was any sort of inspiration for Collins.  The Lottery by Jackson captures some of the same chilling themes very well.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Dragonfly in Amber by Diana Gabaldon, Audio Book read by Davina Porter

I finish this year lighter and fitter than when it commenced.  I partially have Diana Gabaldon and Davina Porter to thank for this.  I listened to the audio book Dragonfly in Amber (the second book of the Outlander series) while pedalling on my exercise bike and jogging and walking around my local streets for forty enjoyable hours.

On many days, it was my interest to see what was happening in the lives of Claire and Jamie Fraser as they fought 18th Century foes, that compelled me to put trainers on and get active.

This of course touches on the issue of audio books, and are they the same as reading.  The answer is simple to me; of course listening to an audio book is not the same as reading, but what a brilliant way to consume a story!

The Outlander series is a timeslip series that follows Claire Randall who is an English nurse from the 1940s.  While on holiday with her husband in Scotland she stumbles across a circle of stones that transport her back to the mid eighteen century, where she becomes part of the world of Scottish highlanders and their struggle against the English powers.  Claire falls in love with the incredibly dashing, heroic and endlessly wonderful highland lord Jamie Fraser.  Dragonfly in Amber picks the story up in the 1960s, where Claire has returned to Scotland with her adult daughter. Claire's daughter knows nothing of her mother's past in a different century.  With the help of a historian, Roger, Claire brings us up to speed with events that transpired between the time her and Jamie left Paris at the end of Outlander, their efforts to stop the Jacobite rebellion that culminated in the bloody battle of Culloden in 1746.  We also learn why Claire returned to the twentieth century.  Wonderfully, Gabaldon leaves the reader with a massive cliffhanger at the end Dragonfly in Amber when the historian Roger, who has been listening to Claire's tale, reveals something that rocks her to her very core. 

Gabaldon has a talent for sustaining drama, and with Jamie, Claire and their extended entourage, she has created memorable characters that I kept wanting to rejoin on their seemingly endless adventure across Europe.  With audio books the quality of the narration is king (or queen as the case may be) and Davina Porter is simply superb as the narrator of this forty hour epic.  In addition to her remarkable skill at character voices, she injects the narration with the right sense of warmth and fun.

For me, audio books are about sheer enjoyment.  I still read as many books as ever, the audio books allow me to enjoy stories at times when I wouldn't be able to read, such as exercising, doing chores or long car journeys.  I am currently listening to Ken Follet's World Without End.  Like Dragonfly in Amber, it is an audio book without an apparent end, but I am loving it.  It is just so much fun and transforms forty minutes, of otherwise tedious exercise, into something that I can't wait to embrace each day.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Faceless Killers by Henning Mankell

This is the first in the Kurt Wallander crime series by Swedish author Henning Mankell.  I recently read and reviewed the second novel in the series: The Dogs of Riga.  Faceless Killers introduces us to detective Wallander who is in his early forties, separated from his wife, gaining weight, and drinking too much 

Faceless killers opens with an elderly man waking up to discover the truly grisly attack on his elderly neighbours, in a quiet rural community in Skane, Sweden.  Wallander and his team are up against it in trying to solve the murder of  this couple.  There are very few clues, apart from the apparent double life of the murdered man.  The dying words of the murdered woman suggest that "foreigners" were involved in the killings.  Once news of this is released through the press, debate around refugee policy in the country is sparked and further atrocities are committed.

The story, including the refugee element, is sensitively handled by Mankell.  Mankell's novels are written in Swedish and translated.  As I have asserted in other posts I do think that some modern crime fiction has a measured literary feel to it.  Mankell writes beautifully:

Wallander looked at the man sitting in front of him.  There was something hard and dogged about him.  Like a man who had been brought up eating gravel.   p 72

I enjoyed the plot of the second novel in this series The Dogs of Riga slightly more than Faceless Killers.  Overall Dogs of Riga was more complex and satisfying in terms of the story.  But that doesn't really matter because I suspect that much of the enjoyment from these novels comes from the character development and exploits of Kurt Wallander, himself.  His life struggles and foibles appear to share centre stage with any crime that is being solved. 

In Faceless Killers we learn of Wallander's challenges with his failed marriage, his father who has dementia, and his wayward daughter.  As with all good characters, there are certain contradictions within Wallander.  His crime solving style is pedantic and dogged but in his personal life Wallander can be impulsive, embarrassing and appears to fall in love at the drop of a hat.  This all makes for a nuanced and sympathetic character that I look forward to following through the remaining novels in the series.

The Hottest State by Ethan Hawke

The Hottest State  by actor, director, screenwriter Ethan Hawke was published in 1996.  I came across it on a library shelf when I was looking for something else.  Always being a fan of Ethan Hawke's film roles I thought it would be interesting to give one of his novels a go.

The narrative is told in the first person from the point of view of William a twenty year old Texan actor living in New York.  The story takes place in the months around his twenty first birthday.  It is mostly concerned with his tumultuous affair with Sarah, a young singer and childcare worker.

Hawke writes really well.  The book is fast paced and engrossing.  The character of William is fairly unsympathetic, but I found myself hooked into the story non the less. For the most part William comes across as a self absorbed, vain and idle young man.  He  also appears painfully insecure and vulnerable at times.  There is something relatable and uncomfortably real about the relationship between William and Sarah as it unfolds. He captures very well the pain and insecurity of young relationships.

Sarah is a handful for William, she does not conform to the usual glossy types he is used to being around.  The relationship brings William face to face with himself.  There is some wonderful character development as William is unhappily forced to learn relationships aren't just about his needs and projections.

I could see how some might find The Hottest State a bit self indulgent on Hawke's part, but to me that was part of the point.  It has a similar "Generation X" slightly neurotic feel to it like the film Reality Bites.   Above all I was impressed and surprised by the quality of Hawke's writing.  He can really write.  I enjoyed it and look forward to reading Hawke's other novel "Ash Wednesday" at some stage in the future.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Book Blogger Hop

Book Blogger Hop

Tis Friday and time for the Book Blogger Hop, hosted by Jennifer at Crazy For Books.  This week's question is:

What is your favourite book cover?

I can't say that I have a favourite.  This answer is appalling I know because so much time and expense goes into creating book covers these days.  One that stands out is a book I read recently by Agatha Christie: A Caribbean Mystery.  It stands out because the cover was a bit macabre.  The most beautiful cover I have seen recently is from Monsoon by Di Morrissey.

I will be interested to find out what other people think of as their favourite.

Hope you have a good weekend.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

The Flight of the Falcon by Daphne du Maurier

The Flight of the Falcon, by Daphne du Maurier was first published in 1964.  Before launching into this review I feel that I should provide some context in terms of my relationship with Du Maurier's fiction.  When I was 13 I read Rebecca, by Du Maurier and it began my so far lifelong love of good fiction.  Before age 20 I had read all of the Du Maurier novels and short stories I could get my hands on.  I pretty much love it all. Generally speaking Du Maurier's work is tense and suspenseful and often keeps the reader feeling slightly off kilter.

The Flight of the Falcon like several of her other novels, is told in the first person from a male perspective.  The narrator of the story is Armino Fabbio, an Italian tour guide.  The tale starts out with Armino conducting a tour bus of American and English tourists through Rome.  Here one evening he notices an old vagrant lady slumped in the doorway of a church.  He approaches the old lady to give her some money and is struck my her strong resemblence to his childhood nanny.  The next day he learns that the old lady has been murdered and he decides to return to his childhood home Ruffano (a ficticious Italian town) as he has a vague sense that he wants to determine if this woman had been Marta, his nanny, and what might have lead to her being in such a situation in Rome.

Armino, who is now 32, returns to his hometown after an absence of 25 years.  As the story unfolds we learn of the history of his family, who were tragically torn apart during the second world war.  Armino, who always believed his elder brother, a fighter pilot during the war, had been shot down and killed, learns on his return that his brother is very much alive and changed.  The Flight of the Falcon is really the story of the brothers' relationship.

The novel is perhaps not as instantly alluring as some of the other Du Maurier novels.  It took me a while to become immersed in it.  But it had me well and truly hooked by half way through. There is a wonderful sense of place in the novel, and the Italian town and landscape come alive in Du Maurier's narrative.  Ruffano is a university town in the 1960s complete with students, vespas, hilly streets and piazzas.  There is a strong tension in the novel, and to avoid spoilers I will not reveal too much about that, except to say that there is a rising sense of doom in the story.  Followers of Du Maurier will know that her novels rarely end happily and this one is no exception.  Having said that the ending is satisfying and very moving.

It is many, many years since I have read a novel by Daphne Du Maurier, having read so many when I was a teenager.  Because of this I approached the Flight of the Falcon with some trepidation because I wondered if this sort of novel would still captivate and enchant me.  And while The Flight of Falcon is by no means my favourite Du Maurier novel, it has many of the wonderful and unusual elements I associate with her style and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

The Dogs of Riga by Henning Mankell

I really enjoy Henning Mankell novels and The Dogs of Riga was no exception.  I would argue that no one does cold desolate landscapes better than Mankell.  The Dogs of Riga is the second in the Kurt Wallander crime series.  Swedish detective Kurt Wallander is sent on a crime solving escapade after a life raft containing two well dressed bodies washes up on the shores of his hometown of Ystad Sweden.  The action moves from Sweden to the political and social upheaval of Riga in Latvia during the early 1990s.

I like crime novels that inform while entertaining.  The Dogs of Riga provides some interesting insights and perspective into the sequelae of the fall of the USSR for the Baltic states.  I also don't seem to be able to get enough of these frozen country crime novels.  I suspect that this is partly because being Australian, frozen landscapes seem wonderfully mysterious and exotic to me.  I also think that the freezing, minimal daylight atmosphere seems to lend itself really well to torment, conspiracy and murder themes.

Henning Mankell's crime novels have a literary feel to them.  The Dogs of Riga in particular reminds me of Peter Temple's Truth and The Broken Shore.  Like the Temple books, the pace of the action is more of a slow burn and the landscape plays a leading role in the story. 

I haven't read any of the other novels in the Kurt Wallender series, but look forward to doing so.  Like alot of these leading detective types Wallander is a loner, and a bit jaded, but I really liked him.  There seemed to be a sense of humour lurking around the edges, even in the most dire situations:

"He had landed in a country where it was just as cold inside as it was out, and he regretted not having packed a pair of long johns."  p. 98

The story is compelling because Detective Wallander is taken out of his usual crime solving jurisdiction in Sweden and thrown into the completely foreign, corrupt and fear driven social landscape of Latvia after the fall of the Soviet Union.  This makes for a different type of detective novel.  Wallander has to live by his wits in a country he does not understand and where he has no professional or personal support.

If you like crime fiction in frozen landscapes where the tension mounts slowly but inexorably, The Dogs of Riga is well worth a look.  I also enjoyed  The Return of the Dancing Master earlier this year by the same author.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Book Blogger Hop

Book Blogger Hop

It is Friday and time for the Book Blogger Hop.  The Hop is hosted by Jennifer over at Crazy For Books.  To help Hoppers find out more about each other Jennifer poses a different question each week.  For this week:

"If you find a book that looks interesting but is part of a series do you always start with the first title?'

Well yes.  EXCEPT for my current read funnily enough.  The Dogs of Riga is the second in Henning Mankell's Kurt Wallander crime series.  I have read other books written by Mankell, loved them and was keen to read his Wallander series.  When I was at the library recently I couldn't find the first in the the series called Faceless Killers so decided to break the habit of a lifetime and be satisfied with commencing this series on book number two.  I am loving the book by the way and have suffered no apparent ill effects from reading number two first.

Have a very happy weekend!

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Dracula by Bram Stoker

Dracula, written by Irish author Bram Stoker, was first published in 1897.  This is the novel that I believe we have to thank or curse for the original inspiration behind the modern wave of vampire fiction.

I really enjoyed this novel.  It loses some momentum about two thirds of the way through and becomes a bit tedious and repetitive but overall it is a well spun tale of good versus evil.

Basically the story is about how a band of friends have to defeat the evil  Count Dracula to save the soul of a woman they all in different ways love. 

There is some wonderful imagery in the novel especially at the beginning when solicitor Jonathan Harker is on his way to first meet the mysterious Count Dracula at his remote castle in the creepy Carpathian mountains of Transylvania.

The story is told from multiple perspectives entirely through the writings (letters and journal entries) of the main characters.  I think this type of narrative device can be difficult to pull off but Stoker combines the different perspectives seamlessly and the narrative continues to flow.  The action moves from the Transylvania mountains to Whitby in Yorkshire to London and then back to Transylvania as Jonathan Harker ably assisted by vampire expert Van Helsing and other friends chase count Dracula to ground.  And as we all know these vampires are well and truly difficult to kill:

The nosferatu do not die like the bee when he sting once.  He is only stronger; and being stronger have only more power to work evil.  p. 223 (Mina Harker's journal)

I can imagine this novel would have been seen as quite shocking and ground breaking at the time.  Now it seems quite restrained.  It does seem to take an interminable number of pages (at least half the book) before the characters are prepared to openly acknowledge to each other that they might in fact be dealing with the supernatural.

Dracula has everything you would hope for in a book about the Un-Dead.  Dracula himself is mercurial and strangely arresting.  He is also ably assisted in his evil making by a team of voluptuous and beguiling female vampires.  Dracula and his vamps can take multiple forms, from wolves to bats to tiny specks of dust in the moonlight.  I now know everything I could ever want to know about vampires and how to protect myself from them.

I suspect that some devotees of the modern Vampire stories might be a little disappointed with the original.  And perhaps I am also voicing my own disappointment here when I say there is a very patronising tone to the treatment of the female characters.  Not the female vampires for they have real flair and are truly fabulous.  The fallen women always seem to have more fun don't they?   It is more the damsels in distress approach to Lucy and Mina.  Chivalry is certainly not dead in this book, and actually becomes one of the major themes of the story.  It grated on me a tad. But I suspect Stoker is trying to say something about the role of women and how female sexuality was viewed in Victorian society.  It is just a bit frustrating, but on reflection interesting on a social commentary level.  If one wants to explore the social commentary aspects of a vampire novel that is.

Dracula takes some getting through but I do recommend it because while entertaining in its own right, it also provides some interesting context and insight into readers' seemingly endless fascination with Gothic themes and the supernatural.  I will give Professor Van Helsing the last word:

Do you not think that there are things which you can not understand, and yet which are: that some people see things that others can not?......Ah it is the fault of our science that it wants to explain all; and if it explain not, then it says there is nothing to explain.  p. 182

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Teaser Tuesday: Dracula

Teaser Tuesday is a wonderful meme hosted by MizB at Should Be Reading.  All you have to do is provide two teaser sentences from your current read, avoid spoilers and include the title and author.  I am currently reading Dracula by Bram Stoker.  I am loving this book!  Can't wait to get to the end and post review.  For now:

"Ah, well, poor girl, there is peace for her at last. It is the end!"
He turned to me and said with grave solemnity:-
"Not so! alas! not so.  It is only the beginning!"        p156

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Mini Review "Siren" by Tara Moss

Okay Tara Moss is a Canadian-Australian author and former model.  She writes thrillers featuring the very beautiful Makkede Vanderwall who is a Canadian-Australian former model, psychologist and private investigator.  I have read one other of this series "Split" several years ago.

The writing itself is good.  I mean this is not fancy literary fare by any means but Moss's style is clear, smooth and enjoyable to read.  The plot however is ridiculously over the top.  I know I know, what did I expect?  Well I guess I expected something a bit less far fetched.   But hey these Tara Moss books are big sellers and they are fun.

If you like your thrillers with a seriously kick-ass and gorgeous heroine, who can escape from all sorts of improbable scenarios; dark and dramatic settings such as the redlight district of  Paris; odd characters such as an incestuous cabaret troupe and a giant, disfigured,  tortured-soul  assassin who trails around after Mak for most of the book, then this one might be for you.

As a last word I couldn't help but compare Mak to one of my all time favourite literary characters, Sue Grafton's female PI Kinsey Millhone.  If you like the private investigator crime genre, you really must check out the Alphabet Series by Sue Grafton.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Book Blogger Hop

Book Blogger Hop

It is Friday again!  And time for the Book Blogger Hop which is hosted by Jennifer over at Crazy For Books.    Her question this week to help with the get to know you stuff is:

What is your favourite beverage while reading or blogging?

For me being Friday and all, I have to say I am sitting here with a glass of red wine, and enjoying it thoroughly :)

Hope you have a wonderful weekend and Happy Reading!  I want to make a bigger dent in Dracula this weekend, and it is pouring with rain here so I am hopeful I will :)

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Teaser Tuesday

Teaser Tuesday is a fun meme hosted by MizB over at Should be Reading.  All you have to do is choose two random teaser sentences from your current read.  Be sure to include the name of the book and author so others know what you are reading.

This week mine comes from Siren by Tara Moss.  Sure Tara Moss is a bit of a departure for me.  What can I say, it is a bit of a guilty pleasure :)

His eyes seemed to burn intensely as he spoke.  They were bloodshot, vulnerable, huge.  Her eyes passed over his lips as they trembled slightly.  At this display of vulnerability she felt some part of her let go.    p. 100

Sunday, October 3, 2010

The Death of Bunny Munro by Nick Cave

The Death of Bunny Munro by Australian musician, songwriter, screenwriter and novelist Nick Cave is not for the faint hearted or the easily offended.  I have not included a picture of the unusual book cover because it is somewhat risque.  Have I piqued your interest yet?

The story is about Bunny Munro, a door to door salesman in Brighton England and an absolute womanising bastard.  I have to tell you Bunny is a very well drawn and memorable character.  Off the top of my head the only character I have read this year which was more memorable was Colm Toibin's portrayal of Henry James in "The Master".

Bunny's life is unravelling fast.  He is becoming unhinged.  His usual coping mechanisms aren't working anymore and after his wife commits suicide, largely caused by his own appalling behaviour, he is left to care for his young son, Bunny Junior.  The story is like watching a train wreck in slow motion, and is just about as exhausting.  Everything is catching up with him and he has no where to run.  The narrative is very well written.  The pace does not let up and only increases as Bunny's efforts to hold on become more and more frenzied.  There is a real masculine energy to the flow of the story that strikes me as unusual in literary fiction.  I think the tone of Patrick Suskind's Perfume comes close.  The story is visceral and tragic.  There is a scene towards the end of the book between the three generations of Munro males: Bunny, Bunny Junior and Bunny's decrepit and spiteful father.  It is about as tragic and poignant a scene as I can imagine and will stay with me for some time.

Another theme that is given full rein is guilt.  Earlier this year I read Bliss by  Australian author Peter Carey.  Bliss also focuses on the theme of male guilt but while Bliss starts with the train wreck and moves to some sort of redemption, the tale of Bunny spins from denial to ruin.  The story, which again will not be to everyone's taste, is masterfully put together.  There is not a wasted word.  It is darkly funny at times, and very human at others.  Ultimately for me The Death of Bunny Munro is a modern tragedy, and a very convincing one.  I found it fascinating.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Book Blogger Hop

Book Blogger Hop

It is Friday and time for the Book Blogger Hop.  The Hop is hosted by Jennifer over at Crazy For Books.
It is a wonderful way to discover new book blogs.  Each week there is a question with a book or blogging theme to add interest.

When you write reviews do you write them as you are reading, or wait until you have read the entire book?

My answer:  I have never started a review until I have finished the book.  Usually I write the review very soon after finishing the book.  But I am getting a bit behind with reviews of books read at the moment.

Happy reading!

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Room by Emma Donoghue

Room by Emma Donoghue has been short listed for this year's Man Booker prize.  I read it after it was chosen by a book loving friend of mine who suggested that we both read the same book at the same time, in the spirit of a book club.

It wasn't until I was pulling it off the Borders bookshelf that I realised "Oh, it's that book.  The Josef Fritzl type forced captivity book, told through the eyes of a five year old." I was regretting the decision already.  And then as I was wondering around the bookstore with this book in my hands, flicking through it, I must have been looking sceptical because a shop assistant approached me very enthusiastically and gushed, "That is the best book I have read this year.  It is just wonderful."  There were almost tears welling in her eyes as she said this.

On reaching the checkout counter, a different shop assistant, on picking up the book exclaimed "Oh everyone here just loves this book.  I haven't read it yet but I will definitely read it soon."

So what did I think of it?  It is a well written story that is quite moving in parts.  It is a very easy read.  The literary device of writing the book in the voice of a five year old boy did not entirely work for me.

Room tells the story of Jack and his mother "Ma".  Ma was kidnapped at age 19 on her way to uni and held a prisoner in a backyard shed.  During her forced imprisonment she gave birth to her son Jack who is now five.  Room is the story of their life together, their relationship with each other and their relationship with the world outside, as told by Jack.

There is plenty I enjoyed about this story, perhaps most of all I liked the way the relationship between the mother and son in this extreme environment was explored.  This relationship rings true and is consistent throughout the story.  The character of Ma also has an authentic feel: for me she was courageous and measured.

I just found the perspective, thoughts and language of the story telling tedious at times.  I realise this means I may not have a soul given the level of gushing that has gone on about this book, but there it is.  I do think Emma Donoghue has captured reasonably well the voice of Jack.  I also think it is impossible to be one hundred percent spot on all the time in telling a story from the perspective of a very young child; especially when it comes to children's language and a projecting a consistent and believable level of child understanding.  It is even more difficult when it has to be sustained over the entire length of the novel.  For me the language was cutesy at times and there were other times when Jack showed insight that was well beyond his years and I felt this was stretched to amp up the story telling power.  For me it just jarred.  The often repeated childish language annoyed me after a while, because maybe I didn't believe a particular word the first time and so by the time the word or phrase was repeated the tenth or twelfth time I was even more over it.

It is a very human and uplifting story in many ways, and it is such an easy read compared to some of the things I have tackled recently that I didn't feel that reading it was a massive investment in time or energy.  I am glad I read Room but it didn't fully captivate me, certainly not to the extent it appears to have captivated many readers, given the current hype surrounding this book.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010


I have been away from the blog sphere for a month or so I think.  Other stuff just came up and I lost the urge.  I have read a couple of interesting books in the last week or so and look forward to posting reviews in the next couple of days.  These are "Room" by Emma Donoghue which has been short listed for this year's Man Booker prize and "The Death of Bunny Munro" by Australian author and song writer Nick Cave.

I am still reading Wolf Hall and frankly not sure if I will ever finish it.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Teaser Tuesday: Wolf Hall

Teaser Tuesday is a wonderful meme hosted by MizB over at Should Be Reading.  All you need to do is open your current read at a random page and share two teaser sentences.  Be careful to avoid spoilers.

Mine this week comes from Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall.  You could get more than one week of Teaser Tuesdays from this one, as it is 650 pages long.  Very exciting story though, set in the court of Henry VIII.

Try always, the cardinal says, to learn what people wear under their clothes, for it is not just their skin.  Turn the king inside out, and you will find his scaly ancestors: his warm, solid, serpentine flesh.  p.99

Saturday, August 21, 2010

North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell

It is not often that I arrive at the end of a lengthy novel from the Victorian era regretting that I have come to its conclusion all too soon.  North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell is such a book. 

First published in 1855, North and South encompasses many themes and introduces the reader to a host of truly memorable characters.  As so often seems to be the case with me, I suspect some of my enjoyment of the story came from knowing so little about it and having few expectations.  In keeping with this I will not give too much of the story away here. 

The North and South of the title refers to the north and south of England where culture, lifestyle, occupations and expectations were very different during the nineteenth century and I suspect, remain somewhat  different to this day. Our heroine Margaret Hale and her family are forced to move from the relatively genteel setting of a village in the south of England to a smog filled city in the industrialised north.

There is of course a "will they or won't they" love story at the heart of this novel.  I was struck while reading North and South that it  reads a bit like a Charles Dickens version of Pride and Prejudice.  I know you might think me mad for making such a comparison, but to my mind Gaskell out does both Austen and Dickens with North and South because while there are swoons a plenty and romantic intrigue, this is at its core a novel that makes a strong social statement about class struggle.  For mine, it really has all one could wish for.

Margaret Hale as a character is direct, adaptable, compassionate and not prone to over analyzing her feelings and motives, which I think certainly helps keeps the pace of the novel swift.  We come to know Margaret very much through her actions and conversations.   Margaret who grew up in a quiet country village and spent some years living with her wealthy cousin in London is flung into a world of dirt and hardship.  She is forced to grow up very quickly.  Part of the real enjoyment of the novel comes from following her bumpy journey to understanding and independence.

And then there are the suitors.  Firstly we have Mr Lennox who is a young barrister and whose brother, a captain in the military, is married to Margaret's cousin Edith who she grew up with like a sister.  The other leading man is Mr Thornton.  Mr Thornton is a wealthy factory owner in Milton (the town the Hales move to in the north).  Initially Margaret finds Mr Thornton brutish and coarse (aren't they the best kind of leading men!) and doesn't want to have anything whatsoever to do with him.  For his part Mr Thornton, while arrested by Miss Hale's striking appearance, believes her to be unendurably uppity:

'A more proud, disagreeable girl I never saw.  Even her great beauty is blotted out of one's memory by her scornful ways.'    (p.80)

There are a multitude of well drawn characters in this novel.  Gaskell's writing does remind me of Dickens in terms of the characters.  The story is bursting with a wide variety of characters, that deliberately encompass a full sweep of society.  Gaskell's expert use of dialogue brings this large host of characters to life.

The story is interesting.  The theme of industrial unrest and the differences and conflicts between business owners and workers eerily resonates with our modern world some 150 since this book was written.   I also loved how the relationship between parents and adult children is highlighted and explored.  Nearly all of the characters can be clustered into family groupings where the relationship between parents and their children form a central part of the fabric of the story.  Very memorable to this end is Mrs Thornton, our hero's stern faced and indomitable mother, whose opinion of Miss Margaret Hale, and anyone haling from the south, is far from welcoming. 

North and South is the first of Elizabeth Gaskell's novels I have read, and I look forward to reading more of her work.  I thoroughly enjoyed spending time with these characters who are at times proud, warm, dramatic, funny but most of all very human.  All in all a very engaging and enjoyable story.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

The Ballad of Reading Gaol by Oscar Wilde

I happened upon a second hand copy of The Works of Oscar Wilde earlier this year.  I have been dipping into it from time to time.  This afternoon I read his final written work, the poem, The Ballad of Reading Gaol, and was really moved and impressed by it so thought I would share a bit with you.  And no, I have not blogged about poetry before but this lengthy poem is accessible, very dramatic and so atmospheric that I feel compelled to start.

Wilde, an Irish playwright, poet and novelist spent two years in three English prisons, the last being Reading Gaol, serving hard labour for "gross indecency."   

I remember reading his only novel "The Picture of Dorian Gray" when I was a teenager and really being captivated by it.  Wilde's sharp observational writing and flamboyantly chaotic life have ensured that he continues to loom large as one of literature's most memorable characters. 

And you know I didn't think I would want to read The Ballad of Reading Gaol, it being an enormously long poem after all.  But from the first verse I was caught up in the rhythm of it and couldn't stop reading.  It is a ballad that depicts, or almost chants really, about the dark, soul destroying existence of  life behind bars at the end of the 19th century.

We were as men who through a fen

Of filthy darkness grope:
We did not dare to breathe a prayer,
Or give our anguish scope:
Something was dead in each of us,
And what was dead was Hope.         

The poem explores what it was like for the prisoners in the lead up to a hanging.  It is really very moving.  And I guess the whole thing has extra poignancy because Wilde has not made this up, this reflects his lived experience as a prisoner.  When the poem was first published in 1898, it was not attributed to Wilde but written under the name C.3.3.,  standing for "cell block C, landing 3, cell 3." 

So with curious eyes and sick surmise

We watched him day by day,
And wondered if each one of us
Would end the self-same way,
For none can tell to what red Hell
His sightless soul may stray.             

Wilde was the celebrated and then notorious "bad boy" of his day.  After being released from prison he went to France, never to return to the UK.  He died in Paris at age 46 in abject poverty. It is a very sad story and one that has always intrigued me.

You can read The Ballad of Reading Gaol online if you are interested.

The portrait of Wilde included in this post was sourced from Wikipedia

Friday, August 13, 2010

Book Blogger Hop

Book Blogger Hop
It is Friday and it is time for the Book Blogger Hop.  For all of the details please pop over to Crazy For Books where Jennifer hosts the Book Blogger Hop.   The question for this week's hop is: How many books do you have on your to be read shelf?  Well, currently I have six.  But I am expecting another to arrive from the Book Depository next week, that will definitely shoot up the waiting list and be read next I think.

All the best for the weekend and happy reading!

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Teaser Tuesday: Monsoon by Di Morrissey

Teaser Tuesday is a wonderful meme hosted by MizB at Should Be Reading.  All you have to do is open your current read at a random page and give two teaser sentences.  Be sure not to give any spoilers and include the name and author of the book so others know what you are reading.

My teaser this week comes from Monsoon, a book largely set in Vietnam, by popular Australian novelist Di Morrissey. This is the first of her books I have read.  It is a light read and I am enjoying it so far.

     Hung gave a slight smile. "No one uses the grotto; it was once a place for..." he struggled for the right word and finally Sandy attempted to help.
    "Smugglers? Pirates? Shipwrecks? Bandits?"  p.60

Monday, August 9, 2010

A Caribbean Mystery by Agatha Christie

It is a few years since I have read an Agatha Christie mystery and so it came as a very pleasant reminder when I picked up A Caribbean Mystery just how delightful these stories can be.

In a Caribbean Mystery Miss Marple is wintering in the West Indies to benefit her health.  Her nephew Raymond sent her on this holiday after she contracted pneumonia during the previous winter in St Mary Mead.  At the Golden Palm Hotel, Miss Marple is of course soon ensconced in trying to unravel a complicated murder, which inevitably becomes three murders.

My favourite aspect of this Christie novel is the central role idle gossip plays in this resort town.  It is deliciously evoked all the way through.  And while I know gossip usually forms the cornerstone of the Miss Marple mysteries (what else has the poor old dear got to work with) in this novel it really does take centre stage and is done with fun and mischievous flair.

"It seems," said Miss Prescott,  "though of course I don't want to talk any scandal and I really know nothing about it- "
''Oh, I quite understand," said Miss Marple.  p. 52

There are the usual suspects so to speak on this Caribbean holiday experience in the early 1960s.  The couple who own the Hotel are much liked, but also much gossiped over.  There is the young American couple and the young English couple who share an interest in insects and birdlife and who appear to holiday regularly as a quartet, and it is whispered that on first appearances it is difficult to discern who is indeed partnered with whom.  There is the crotchety old millionaire businessman who never has a pleasant word to say to anyone especially his long suffering secretary ( a serious young widow) and his masseuse (a good looking jack the lad type).  There is the English vicar and his sister, the gorgeous South American senora and poor old Major Polgrave who doesn't last much beyond the first couple of pages as his gossiping to Miss Marple no less, about an old murder, is overhead and he is found dead the very next day.

I think perhaps I have read maybe 10 Christie novels over the years, including The Murder of Roger Ackroyd.  Between Poirot and Miss Marple, I have always preferred the Poirot mysteries because more seemed to happen.  A Caribbean Mystery has gone some way to remedying this as I just loved it for what it is: a well plotted, well written, cute and cosy murder mystery.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Teaser Tuesday: North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell

Teaser Tuesday is a fun meme hosted by MizB at Should Be Reading. All you have to do is open your current read to a random page and provide two teaser sentences from that page. Be sure not to give away any spoilers and include the name of the book and author so others know what you are reading.

This week my teaser is from Elizabeth Gaskell's North and South:

Oh dear! how she could have loved him if he had but been different, with a difference which she felt, on reflection, to be one that went low -deep down.  Then she took it into her head that, after all, his lightness might be but assumed, to cover a bitterness of disappointment which would have been stamped on her own heart if she had loved and been rejected.  p.30


Monday, August 2, 2010

The Eiger Sanction by Trevanian (audiobook)

The Eiger Sanction was first published in 1972 by US author Rodney Whitaker who wrote under the pseudonym Trevanian.  It is an action packed spy thriller romp told very much in spoofish tongue in cheek style.  In its day it was a world wide best seller, and as a self confessed fan of the spy novel genre, I was curious to check it out. 

Our hero is Dr Jonathan Hemlock who is an art professor, art collector and mountaineer.  He lives in an old renovated church and has an extensive art collection. To keep himself in the style to which he has become accustomed he carriers out assassinations, also referred to as "sanctions" for the a US intelligence agency.

His final sanction, for he has decided to leave this particular line of work on its completion, takes him to the treacherous Eiger mountain in the Swiss Alps.  A complication in this particular sanction is that Jonathan does not know ahead of time which of his three fellow climbers is the sanction target.  The action sequences on the treacherous face of the Eiger are very well written and as I was listening I found myself totally absorbed.

The Eiger Sanction is a cleverly written spoof of the spy novel.  I found myself smiling or laughing out loud at times as I listened.   However it does strike me as a bit dated.   Unfortunately there is the occasional reference or joke that is frankly not acceptable anymore and I found myself wincing at times also.  It is a shame, and it got me thinking about the difference between novels that are timeless and able to be fully enjoyed by generations of readers, and those which may be well plotted and well written,  as The Eiger Sanction surely is, but seem a bit crass and dated when read, or listened to, in the light of our present day.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Book Blogger Hop

Book Blogger Hop
It is time for the Book Blogger Hop which is hosted by Crazy for Books every week.  Please check out out the Crazy for Books blog for more information.  This week's question in the hop is:

Who is your favourite new to you author this year? 

Great question and for me there is no contest, because this year I read a novel by  Colm Toibin.  You can read my review of his brilliant novel about Henry James "The Master" here.

Enjoy the hop and the weekend!

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Cosmopolis by Don DeLillo

I enjoyed Cosmopolis for Don DeLillo's slick writing.  But I found the story to be weird, wild and not altogether satisfactory.  The premise for the story is a fascinating one.  The action takes place during a single day in the life of multi billionaire market investor Eric Packer on a day in April 2000.   We follow Eric as he leaves his 40 plus room luxury New York apartment in his white stretch limousine as it makes its way through the streets of down town Manhattan, where his first order of business for the day is to get a haircut.  But this of course is no ordinary day and in fact becomes Eric's ultimate day of reckoning so to speak, and the hair cut is a very long time in coming.

What follows is a very strange tale as we get to know Eric and his world a whole lot better.  The limo itself is marble floored and cork lined (to keep out the traffic noise) and houses a mind boggling array of screens which display market and currency information.  Different employees and advisors pop in and out of the limo to discuss business with Eric.  Eric also keeps his daily doctor's appointment with his doctor in the back of his limo.  You see for all of Eric's narcissistic brilliance he is paranoid about his health and subjects himself to a daily prostate examination.  I told you this was a weird one!  And that is only the beginning. 

Eric alights from the limo at various times during the day for meals and apparently random sexual hook ups, sometimes with his new wife and sometimes with other of his female associates.  The guy has some stamina.  While all of this is happening, Manhattan has virtually shut down due to  violent anti capitalist protests and the large scale funeral of a much celebrated Sufi rapper.  Eric's body guards are also highly tensed because there have been reports of a credible threat on Eric's life.  Yes, it is seriously all happening in this book.

As I said earlier I really like DeLillo's writing.  He has a truly beautiful and unique writing style that is deceptively simple and full of movement.  DeLillo also uses some interesting literary devices in this novel that I enjoyed.  The image of rats recurs throughout the novel.  The rat appears to symbolise the whole flow and mood of the story.  Again it is odd but effective.  There is a constant hinting at redundancy of things and concepts and this too reveals itself to be very significant for Eric who has built his fortune on anticipating what is going to be relevant next.  It would seem this has become his undoing as now everything feels passe to him and without meaning.

But by the end I was disappointed.  I think partially because the character of Eric is so unlikable and implausible and partially because this epic,  kaleidoscopic montage of a day doesn't really seem to mean all that much once it reaches its grim and dramatic conclusion.   I was also disappointed because I enjoyed DeLillo's The Body Artist very much.  The Body Artist comes together as a glorious whole and I found I could really engage with it.  Cosmopolis,while I found worth reading for the expert writing, left me wanting.  I couldn't engage with the outlandish characters and found it altogether too unreal and grim.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Teaser Tuesday: The Little Prince

Teaser Tuesday is a fun meme hosted by MizB at Should Be Reading.  All you have to do is open your current read to a random page and provide two teaser sentences from that page.  Be sure not to give away any spoilers and include the name of the book and author so others know what you are reading.

Mine for this week is from The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery:

When you are trying to be witty, you are apt to sometimes wander from the truth.  I have not been altogether honest in describing the lamplighters.  p. 57

Monday, July 26, 2010

It's Monday! What Are You Reading?

It's Monday! What are you reading? is hosted by Sheila at Book Journey

I have just finished Daisy Miller by Henry James.  Review is here.  I am working my way through Cosmopolis by Don DeLillo.  And I have started The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery after a trusted bookish friend recommended it as a must read. 

I look forward to starting North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell soon as it arrived from Book Depository last week.  Happy reading!

Daisy Miller by Henry James

Daisy Miller is a novella by Henry James and was first published in 1878.  I thank Mel U at The Reading Life for recommending it to me as one of the more easily digestible of James's works.

Daisy Miller is a bright, lively and enjoyable read.  Daisy is a  wealthy American young lady holidayimg in Europe with her younger brother and mother.  She comes across Winterbourne, a more cultured compatriot while holidaying in the Swiss resort town of Vevey.  It is Vevey, on the shores of Lake Geneva that is depicted on this very sweet book cover, by the way. 

Winterbourne is introduced to Daisy by her younger brother Rudolph who is nine and quite adorable.  Winterbourne is instantly captivated by her beauty, freshness and apparent lack of guile or affectation.  When Winterbourne learns that Daisy and her family will be passing the winter in Rome he makes sure his plans also take him to Rome.  When Winterbourne arrives in Rome he learns that Daisy has been getting about with all and sundry and generally scandalising the other Americans with her carefree behaviour.

Even though the tone of the novel is largely bright and breezy, I do feel that James is trying to make some serious comment about the stifling social morays and expectations of the times, especially with regard to   what was deemed acceptable behaviour for young unmarried women.   The snobbish character of Winterbourne's aunt, Mrs Costello is priceless as she condemns Daisy and her family: 

"They are very common," Mrs Costello declared.  "They are the sort of Americans that one does one's duty by not - not accepting." p.19  And later

"They are hopelessly vulgar, " said Mrs Costello.  "Whether or no being hopelessly vulgar is being 'bad' is a question for the metaphysicians.  They are bad enough to dislike, at any rate; and for this short life that is quite enough." p41

So you see, poor free spirited Daisy Miller does not stand much of a chance in this social environ. 

The novella is loaded with wonderfully drawn characters.  From the well meaning social matrons who endeavor to save Daisy's honour by unceremoniously turning their backs on her, to the handsome Italian suitor that also catches her eye.  Daisy's mother is an insipid hypochondriac, while Winterbourne whose perspective we largely see the story from, is sophisticated, well meaning, but also lacks a certain type of courage.  And then there is Daisy herself.  She grew on me as the novel went along. The main tension in the narrative derives from the question of her character. 

Daisy Miller is delightfully readable, there is none of that convoluted prose that seems to be a hallmark of James's later work, and the characters are wonderful. I definitely recommended it.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Teaser Tuesday: Cosmopolis by Don DeLillo

Teaser Tuesday is a weekly meme hosted by MizB at Should Be Reading.  All you have to do is open your current read at a random page and share two sentences.  Please avoid spoilers and include the name and author of your book so others can make note or the book if they wish.

Mine this week comes from Cosmopolis by Don DeLillo.  I have just finished The Body Artist by the same author and was fascinated by this author's style so have embarked on another of his novels.  This teaser is from page 43 of Cosmopolis:

He looked past Ingram while the doctor listened to his heart valves open and close.  The car moved incrementally westward.  He didn't know why stethoscopes were still in use.  They were lost tools of antiquity, quaint as blood-sucking worms.   p43

Cosmopolis is very different to The Body Artist.  It has a sparse coldness to it that is quite unsettling.  Hopefully I will finish it and have a review up over the next few days.

The Body Artist by Don DeLillo

The Body Artist is an exceptionally fine novel.  Original is an understatement in the case of this book. DeLillo is undoubtedly a word artist and I am only sorry that I have not read him sooner.

I picked up this book after hearing a Don DeLillo short story called Baader-Meinhof being read on a New Yorker fiction podcast a few months ago.  The atmosphere created in the short story was mesmerising and so I made a note to find other work by DeLillo.

The Body Artist is about Lauren Hartke who does performance art with her body.  This is the sort of novel that unfurls slowly and unexpectedly so I am loathe to go into any detail about the plot or even the major themes.  I will say I was captivated from the first page and literally did not put the book down until I had completed it.

DeLillo's style is so different to anything I have read before.  In someways it is more like poetry, in that it draws the reader into single moments.  Time slows down in some ways and I felt hypnotised by the beauty and experience of everyday things.

He bit off the stem and tossed it toward the sink.  Then he split the fig open with his thumbnails and took the spoon out of her hand and licked it off and used it to scoop a measure of claret flesh out of the gaping fig skin.  He dropped this stuff on his toast - the flesh, the mash, the pulp - and then spread it with the bottom of the spoon, blood-buttery swirls that popped with seedlife.  p15

The moment to moment intimacy of the prose really drew me in and held me fascinated.  The narrative is told in third person and mostly from the the perspective of the body artist.  For me the magic is that from observing and experiencing the routine day to day moments as Lauren the body artist does, we experience who she really is at a very intimate and meaningful level.  The journey is quite weird at times.  The body artist is no girl next door type.  DeLillo captures what I imagine to be the essence of someone with artistic sensibilities in a way that I have not read before.

I admire what DeLillo has achieved with The Body Artist.  Most novels are largely cognitive experiences, that is, we form mind pictures and our emotional reactions are largely thought based.  The Body Artist, like a good piece of art, is experienced first and the thoughts come later.  I know this book will not be for everyone.  You have to sort of surrender yourself over to experiencing a story in a different way.  DeLillo plays around with language and dialogue and again you are invited to just go with this and feel. 

The experience of this book feels very personal.  In the hectic hurly burly of life, where most of us survive and thrive by identifying as thinkers first, I feel that DeLillo is challenging us to slow down and fully inhabit our moments.  The body artist shows us how.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Dead Spy Running by Jon Stock

I have been away and picked this one up to read on the plane.  I am very particular when it comes to reading while travelling on planes.  The book needs to be easy and gripping so as to distract me from the bumping around, slight claustrophobia and noise of plane travel.  I usually end up with a spy novel or other thriller.  Dead Spy Running by British author and journalist Jon Stock is no literary masterpiece nor does it set out to be.  It is however a taut modern espionage drama and I really enjoyed it.

The story opens with disgraced and suspended MI6 agent Daniel Marchant running the London Marathon with his girlfriend, Leila who is also a British secret agent. Marchant spies (sorry I couldn't help myself) a runner who appears to be wearing a belt laden with explosives.  In his efforts to save the US Ambassador who is also participating in the marathon and countless others from being killed, Marchant manages to further discredit himself, and finds himself hunted by intelligence agencies from both sides of the Atlantic.

As with most books of this ilk, the characters are paper thin.  But it doesn't really matter.  The sense of place is good.  The story mostly takes place in London and Delhi.  Stock captures the essence of both places well, especially the dirty heat and bustle of Delhi.   Stock uses clever plot devices to keep the pace up and the readers interest piqued.  The action switches between the spies on the ground to the spy chiefs of the various international agencies wrestling for dominance.  Many of the chapters end in a breathless cliffhanger.

The story is set post London underground bombings and so features modern tensions and "enemies."  The plot does all of the spy stuff well: disguises, tailing and counter surveillance, and answered any questions I might have had about water boarding and what it entails.

I do not know why spy novels continue to captivate me.  The first I remember reading and loving was Ken Follett's The Man From St Petersburg.  The best I have read in recent times is William Boyd's Restless.   I can only speculate that there is something about maintaining a dual identity that is universally appealing and thrilling at some level.  Dead Spy Running is not exceptional or life changing, but it delivers what it intends: a fast paced, cleverly plotted story that is pretty much guaranteed to keep the pages turning during even the most tedious flight.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

"Bliss" by Peter Carey

Bliss is by Australian author Peter Carey and was first published in 1981.  I really had to wrestle with this book for about the first third of its length and I think it is pretty safe to say that if I was not blogging about books I would probably have abandoned all efforts to try and get through it.  I am very glad I persevered, if only for reasons of pride originally,  because this is a truly unique reading experience that will stay with me for some time.

The premise that begins the novel is simple enough.  Harry Joy, a successful advertising executive dies on his front lawn from heart failure.  Harry witnesses his own death and is brought back to life through medical intervention.  What unfolds is the truly strange journey of Harry trying to make sense of his life.

Bliss can be described as a modern fable.  The settings and characters in Bliss are painfully real.  But there is a surreal mythical cast to the whole narrative.  It is like we see much of what is happening through a fugue.  You can see the immediate action clearly enough but everything else is very blurred at the edges.  I found this unsettling.  The tone changes towards the end of the book and more depth is given to descriptions of place.  I am sure this is all very deliberate as Harry, after much torment, comes to find his own sense of place.

This is a difficult novel for many reasons.  One that stands out for me is that most of the characters, including Harry I found to be unlikeable and distasteful.  Again I am sure this is part of Carey's point.  After all, for most of the novel Harry believes he is in hell.  Harry's wife and children are awful.  I could go on and on about this but I won't.  Except to say that I ended up feeling that perhaps Bettina, Harry's desperate, frustrated and mercenary wife was not supposed to be interpreted as a real person after all.  Maybe she is meant to be seen as everything that is wrong with a society that is hell bent on a consumerism frenzy.  To this end I found it interesting to note that the novel was published in the early 1980s and perhaps Carey is predicting the greed fuelled financial crash of that decade.

One of the things that kept me going through this dark strange tale was Carey's seriously beautiful and accomplished writing,  For instance:

There was toughness in Harry Joy you may not have yet suspected, and although he appears, lying between the sheets of his hospital bed, surrounded by food and friends, to be mushy, soft, like a rotten branch you think you can crack with a soft tap of your axe, you will find, beneath that soft white rotted sapwood, something unexpected: a long pipe of hard redwood which will, after all, take a good saw and some sweat if you are going to burn it.  p36

And this insightful use of simile and metaphor just goes on and on throughout the book to breathtaking effect:

Yes he had been happy.  Of course he'd been happy.  But he had always been happy in the expectation that something else would happen, some wonderful unnamed thing which he was destined for, some quivering butterfly dream soaked in sunlight in a doorway.  p.45

I mean, who can write like that?  Isn't it to die for?

There are many elements to this story.  Too many to try and cover here.  It has the quality of a genuine adult fairy tale or fable.  I found combining the adult with the fairy tale style disturbing at times.  It is like a fairy tale because awful things happen suddenly, without preamble, as in children's fairy tales.  There are also strong strains of good, evil, and hoped for redemption, that feel like a moral story or fable.  Some of Carey's descriptions are not for the faint hearted.  I found myself a bit "grossed out" occasionally as he graphically depicts the more base side of some of his characters.  Again I am sure this is done deliberately to unsettle the reader.  It adds to the "hell" experience I am sure.

The appearance of the character of Honey Barbara does provide a needed lift to the story.  Honey is in many ways the antithesis of all that is wrong in Harry's sordid, soft and safe existence. 

I think that Carey is trying to say something profound with this novel about the struggle that plays out in all of us.  And not just inside us, but between our inner desires and the complexities of the competitive world we live in.  I feel that he largely succeeds with this.  However, for this reader, some of the elements were just a bit too stark and ghastly for me to want to fully embrace.  It is not the most enjoyable reading experience I have had recently but I would recommend it to those who are wanting to experience some excellent writing and perhaps be pushed a little outside of their usual zone of comfort.  Bliss,  Peter Carey's first novel, is an audacious and original piece of top quality literature.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

A Short Story on Sunday: The Open Window by Saki

Short on time? Or feed up with your current read?  I am and going through a bit of a reading slump.  I often turn to short stories to cleanse my reading palate so to speak.  I thought I would aim to review some of my favourite individual stories and collections over coming Sundays.

The first short story I remember reading and loving is The Open Window by Saki.  H H Munro wrote under the pseudonym of Saki and he is an absolute short story master.  For me The Open Window is everything a good short story should be:  it is short to start with, only a couple of pages, and is insightful and above all entertaining.  I found a copy online if you are interested in reading it.    I read this one originally as a teen and it inspired me to read more short stories.

A couple of months ago I bought The Collected Short Stories of Saki from the Book Depository for a couple of dollars.  It is a wonderful collection and I dip into it when I want a break from my current read.  His style is a bit like PG Wodehouse or Somerset Maugham.  There is lots of cutting social observation, mixed with humour.  Another good one from the collection is "Sredni Vashtar."  This story follows a common theme amongst some of Saki's stories.  Namely the plight of a child who has lost his parents and is raised by one or more unkind relative.  My understanding is that this mirrors Munro's own experience as a child.  Here is a taste:

Conradin hated her with a deperate sincerity which he was perfectly able to mask.  Such few pleasures as he could contrive for himself gained an added relish from the likelihood that they would be displeasing to his guardian, and from the realm of his imagination she was locked out - an unclean thing, which should find no entrance.    p.117 of The Collected Short Stories of Saki

There are well over 100 short stories in this collection and I have not read them all.  But I enjoy picking them up from time to time for something different.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Book Beginnings on Friday 2nd July

Book Beginnings on Friday is a meme hosted by Becky at Page Turners.  All you have to do is share the opening sentence of you current read making sure that you share the title and author so others know what you are reading.

Mine for this week comes from "Bliss" by Peter Carey.  Yes I am still reading this book.  And while I believe that it's beginning could arguably be one of the best book beginnings in the land, getting through the rest of this novel is starting to wreck my head.

Harry Joy was to die three times, but it was his first death which was to have the greatest effect on him, and it is this first death which we shall now witness.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Teaser Tuesday 29 June: "Bliss" by Peter Carey

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of  Should Be Reading. Anyone can play along.  All you have to do is open the book you are currently reading to a page at random and share two sentences from that page.  Be careful not to include any spoilers and please share the title and author of the book so others can add it to their TBR list if they wish.

My teaser this week is from "Bliss" by Peter Carey an Australian writer:

"Pleased to meet you, Harry."  Billy de Vere placed a fistful of notes on the table.  "If you'll allow me," he said, "what will be your pleasure?"  p.63

Henry James the Italian tour guide?

I have been discussing Henry James lately, both with reviews of The Master by Colm Toibin and  The Turn of the Screw by Henry James.  This quaint article came out in the NYTimes last week and is titled Henry James Walked Here and looks at James's love, impressions and recommendations for travelling through Tuscany and Umbria in Italy.  Italy features in James life and much of his work.  Worth a squiz for those going through a James phase :)

Monday, June 28, 2010

"The Master" by Colm Toibin

When I finished this book I actually hugged it to myself.  It is an absolute marvel.

The Master is a novel based on the life of writer Henry James.  It depicts James in his mid and late fifties reflecting back on important events, people and losses of his life.  The portrait that Toibin builds up of James is astoundingly complex, clear and nuanced.  I loved this book.

We get to know James as a very solitary man.  A man of enormous intelligence who at once craves, seeks and guards his isolation and yet at times does seem to regret some of the decisions he has made, over the years, in order to maintain it.

Colm Toibin explores this isolation in all of its complexity.  James is portrayed as a watcher, an observer of life rather than a participant.  For me much of the sadness of his character is tied in with this.  It seems that James often sees the people who inhabit his worlds through a lens that is always on the lookout for possible story lines for his writing.  To me it seems that Toibin is suggesting that James's alertness and astute observation is some sort of defense or protection against any sort of self disclosure or intimacy.  The pain of this is achingly real at times.  Occasionally James will contemplate lowering his guard with someone, or is brought to the brink of making real contact, and yet does not take that leap into abandonment or hope or whatever that thing is when we allow someone to get close.  Several times while reading the novel I had to put the book down momentarily to manage my own response to the anguish that just flies of the page.

The impact of the deaths of James's family and friends on his life feature in the novel.  The way Toibin portrays the effect of death and its sequelae is truly beautiful.  There is a scene where James has to dispose of the clothes of a deceased loved one.  I have not read a passage in any book that better evokes the sense of unreality and desolation that follows a death.

World events and other literary characters give a wonderful context to this story.  These include the American Civil War and literary figures such as Oscar Wilde, Thackeray, George Eliot, Constance Fenimore Woolson and many more.  Toibin captures what I imagine would be the spirit of the times.  The differences in outlook between the new world of the United States and the more controlled environs of Britain and Europe, where Henry James made his various homes.  The cities of London, Venice and Rome in the closing decades of the 19th century come alive in this novel.

Toibin has created a seamless story where we go back and forth from James's present to related incidents from his past.  There is not a wasted word and the pace of the narrative is swift.  So much so that I found I read the last two thirds of the novel in a single afternoon sitting.

Toibin does it all.  I can't think of a book I have read this year that has involved a more complete portrait of a character.  We experience the very heart of Henry James complete with foibles and contradictions and amazing kindness at times.  There is drama and poignancy in relation to opportunities lost, and at other times Toibin's observations are deliciously sharp as with this little gem that took place at a dinner party:

The Baroness, in finishing, looked at Henry as though daring him to contradict her.  Clearly, he had displeased her, and she seemed uncertain whether she had made herself disagreeable enough.  He sat with her as she made up her mind that she had not.   p.281

And the best news is that while the writing is beautiful, it is not at all difficult to decipher, unlike the work of James himself.  And while I have said there are poignant and sad elements to the story, do not be put off by that because it is not at all dark or depressing.  "The Master"  is above all incredibly moving and illuminating.  I can not recommend it highly enough.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Idle Book Thoughts 27 June 2010

Well I have been very remiss with the blogging this week . Work has loomed large and I have had to shift my attentions unfortunately.  But to help me through I have been devouring a truly glorious book: "The Master" by Colm Toibin.  It is a novel based on the life of Henry James.  The writing is excellent.  Hopefully I will finish it today and have a review up soon.                                                               
To other matters, I am having a new large bookcase delivered tomorrow.  This is incredibly exciting because currently I have books everywhere.  My bookshelf currently houses books of every kind including cookbooks, a lot of non fiction, travel books, and lots of texts related to my work and a shelf devoted to puzzles, games and kids' books to amuse  my nephew and niece when they visit.  Oh yes and there are a couple of very cramped shelves devoted to fiction. 

And I have discovered a couple more really good second hand book shops in my area so keep bringing stuff home.  Now it will all have a shelf to call home.

It is a dreary winter's day here, perfect for reading and cups of tea, so I am off to enjoy.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Thomas Keneally "A Dutiful Daughter"

"A Dutiful Daughter" by Australian author Thomas Keneally (better known for the award winning Schindler's Ark) is an interesting novel.  The story begins with Barbara, a young woman in her twenties who cares for her parents, and runs the small family dairy.  Barbara is awaiting the arrival of her brother Damian who is due back at the farm on a break from university.  What unfolds is a very disturbing tale, largely told by Damian, of the Glover family drama that has led to Barbara both at once dominating, and being dominated by, the family dynamics.

My feelings are mixed for "A Dutiful Daughter."  The language is amazing and often perplexing.  Much of the narrative is told in the second person, addressed to Damian.  I can not readily recall a book I have read recently that uses this type of story telling:

The moment you saw her she surprisingly extended her hand, commanding yours.   You instantly grabbed the hand with both of yours, as if you needed rescue.   p.24

The use of "you" is even more intimate than first person narrative.  As soon as Damian enters the drama and the narrative switches to the "you" of second person, I felt inextricably drawn into this whirl pool of family hardship and guilt.

Other intriguing story telling tools include the use of a reflective journal written by Barbara.  The journal is largely about her feelings and comments on the life of Joan of Arc. Here she clearly identifies with the trials of Joan of Arc to express feelings of her own sense of duty.

A Dutiful Daughter is told in an allegorical style.  Often books using strong symbolism tend to leave me a bit cold.  However Keneally makes this work.  The symbols used are extreme and quite horrifying, but I felt they were appropriate for the message Keneally is trying to convey.  And I guess, as allegorical stories are more open to interpretation than other fiction, the following comments on the themes are only that; my interpretation.

I felt at the heart of A Dutiful Daughter is a sense of enmeshment and suffocation between the family members, and the guilt that often follows this sort of enmeshment and misplaced sense of duty:

Suddenly you found yourself angry that she so consistently saw herself as the centre of gravity in the Glover vortex of suffering.  p.30

A Dutiful Daughter was first published in 1971 and set during the preceding decade or so.  I mention this because I do get the sense that Keneally is making a statement about the effect of feelings of "duty" not just to aging parents but also the effect of constraints and expectations of a parents' generation on their offspring.  I suspect that while some of these issues are still relevant today, they were particularly relevant during the 1960s.

I just felt so incredibly sorry for the brother and sister at the heart of this story.  Damian and Barbara are both struggling in different ways, to form an identity of themselves that is not a tragic product or reflection of their truly awful family ties.  Keneally also beautifully captures that things can go terribly wrong even when the family players have no ill intent towards each other.  I think it is this that makes this story so incredibly sad.

The landscape also features in this novel and forms part of the tempo of the narrative.  Keneally gives a good sense of place and small town life.  The heavy rains and rising flood waters add to the mood and momentum of the story.

In summary this is a particularly dark novel.  I did find myself compelled to read on though, and at only 147 pages it is a quick read.   I genuinely admire what Keneally has achieved with this book.  Using a very shocking narrative he explores themes of family, duty and identity that aren't really tackled in modern fiction.  I would recommend it to anyone who wants to enjoy an expertly written, unusual story.