Saturday, 26 November 2016

One On One 101 True Encounters by Craig Brown

"Marcel Proust, once so social, is nowadays very picky about going out, preferring to stay in his bedroom"

I am a big fan of both Annabel Crabb and Leigh Sales and was delighted to listen to their Sydney Writer's Festival chat Our Reading Year. Delighted because it lead me to this intriguing book and also because those two are just so entertaining - I'd love to have them around for an afternoon of discussion and cake ( sadly, gluten free in my case - but pavlova falls in that category so not all is lost).

Back to the book in question. This is a particularly entertaining and intriguing rendered account of some of history's stranger encounters. Consisting of 101 tales of encounters between famous historical figures, each figure then features in the next chapter such as Eli Wallach encountering Frank Sinatra, and then Frank Sinatra meeting Dominic Dunne in the next chapter. Each snippet is detailed in 101 words, with 101 meetings and the entire word count coming in at 1001 words - certainly an impressive feat.

The notion that truth is often stranger than fiction is certainly played out in this collection of stories, all elegantly foot noted with even more intriguing snippets of information. Who wouldn't want to enjoy the interactions of Elizabeth Taylor and James Dean or Harry Houdini and Theodore Roosevelt? This is the kind of fare that can serve as a real lifesaver on the dinner party conversation front, it is expertly executed and entertaining to boot. As Molly Meldrum would say "do yourself a favour" and check it out.

4 out of 5 because not all meetings are winners

Of Love and Evil by Anne Rice

"And I was so aware of the angels watching that I think I blushed"

Full confession, somewhat apt given the subject of seraphim, I bought this novel a heck of a long time ago, along with the first book in the series. I was suitably unimpressed with the first one and, as such, this has lingered in my to be read pile for what seems like eons. My memories of loving Rice's vampire series back in the nineties fuelled an optimism characterised by the purchase of two books at once.

As the year is slipping away at an alarming pace and I still have quite a way to go to meet my 120 books aim for the year, I thought perhaps I'd crack this one open. I know I read it, but retained very little in the way of impressions. Frankly this review is a bit of a bust and probably fairly useless in terms of guiding any reader's book choice.

1 out of 5 with zero interest.

Wednesday, 16 November 2016

The Wonder by Emma Donoghue

"So many peculiar symptoms, but they didn't constitute anything Lib recognised as a disease."

Emma Donoghue has this amazing ability to drag you into a story that you would normally run like the plague from.  English nurse, Lib Wright, a protege  of Florence Nightingale, takes on a nursing role in Ireland. The nurse's role is to watch the wonder that is Anna O'Dowell, a young child who appears to be surviving without food.
Is Anna being fed surreptitiously by someone in the house or is her sustenance truly manna from heaven?
The premise of the novel is so far removed from my experience and interests that I think my engagement with the story is indicative of how fantastic this author's work is. She draws you in to another, quite foreign world, and peaks your interest with a deftly rendered dash of suspense. I'm reticent to share too much of the plot, as I feel this is a story best experienced unimpeded by preexisting knowledge. The notion of interpretation of religious texts is an intriguing one , paired with the sponge like qualities of a young mind.

5 out of 5 times I've wondered where will she take me next?

Friday, 11 November 2016

I love Dick by Chris Krause

"Dear Dick, I wonder what I'd do if I were you."

So my always adorable (and ladies he's single) friend Drew, decided, in his infinite wisdom to recommend this book to me. Let's say, the title was so hilarious I could not resist. I'm kind of questioning his recommendation. This book is way more cray cray than my life, mind you, if I was still married, I expect I'd find myself in similar crazy circumstances. Yikes, what a thought.

Back to the book. A couple have one dinner with an acquaintance and bam their lives are turned upside down. Chris falls  way crazily in love with the Dick of the title, even though their interaction is sleight an uninspired. She tells her husband and they begin a series of strange letter writing to explain their feelings to Dick. Much like over-talking and over-thinking anything goes kind of nowhere and sends you way down the rabbit hole, so the couple get carried away with this imaginary concoction.
The novel, or partial memoir ( it is never clear) strikes me as something truly sad. If you find yourself in a relationship where the only thing you share is a desire to interact with a third party, I'm guessing it is a big sign that things are not going to last.
In case it isn't immediately obvious, this wasn't my cup of tea. Chris appears kind of neurotic and when she gets called Kris in the letter towards the end, well that just cut way too close to home for me.

The title is catchy. The writing is intriguing and yet, I was left just a little cold and saddened by reading it. Perhaps that's just me. I'd be interested to hear others' thoughts on the matter.

4 out of 5 because sometimes loving a dick is hard.

Sunday, 6 November 2016

Black Rock White City by A.S. Patrić

"He could imagine how all this mixed in the hungry imagination of Tammie Ashford and worked closer to the bone, tearing open her anaesthetised layers of mind to get to a core of pulsing life, where she could feel something primal and actual."

Wow, this has to be one of the best books I have read this year. No wonder it won the 2016 Miles Franklin award, it is visceral and compelling stuff. Definitely not a relaxing beach read this strange concoction of trauma, death, love and lust wrapped around a kind of mystery tale thanks to the mysterious Dr Graffito, is a novel that should definitely be on your to be read pile (if you haven't already).

Jovan, once a poet in the former Yugoslavia, now works as a janitor in an Australian Hospital, where strange things are happening. Bodies desecrated with words, and meddled with eye charts are just some of the calling cards of Dr Graffito. Both Jovan and his wife's lives are in constant torment at the remembrance of the tragedy that befell their two young children and the  half life they are living is challenged by the immediacy of fresh horrors that come to the fore.

It took me a while to get past the first few pages as I was a little distracted and then BOOM, I could not put this one down.It was intriguingly set in Melbourne and there were a lot of familiar locales, indeed one character lived just off a street I used to live in. That being said, the feelings of despair it invokes could occur anywhere and that makes me feel that it is a novel that is relate-able to readers anywhere. It also feels rather topical in its humanisation of the trauma of displaced refugees attempting to build a life after war torn suffering and discovering that a peaceful place can be anything but.

5 out 5 a novel deserving of accolades.

Saturday, 5 November 2016

Thais by Anatole France

“Then, at the idea that she had given herself to others, and not to him; that she had poured forth an ocean of love, and he had not wetted his lips therein, he stood up, savagely wild, and howled with grief.”

A hermetic monk, who resists all the pleasures of the world, hears of the irresistible courtesan, Thais, and sets out to convert her in order to save her from licentiousness. While he is successful in his endeavours - no mean feat in converting the most popular ho in Alexandria, in the end he finds his devotion is more to her beauty than anyone upstairs. In the end he achieves his end but never gets his end in and is therefore confused and frustrated.
Apparently based upon the story of a fourth century saint, the novel, published in 1890 begins very much in the religious mode, which was hard going for me. He goes off into the desert and tries to convert all  and sundry, somewhat unsuccessfully until he finally gets to the ravishing, Thais. Finally, when he questions his own faith, everyone flees from him because he looks like a vampire. Fun times, don't all men want what they can't have - even monks one suspects. On the plus side, another tick on the 1001 novels list - yay!!

3 out of 5 times you should just give into temptation.

The Sellout by Paul Beatty

"You won't find Dickens, California, on the map, because about five years after my father died, and a year after I graduated college, it, too, perished"

So I finished this year's Booker Prize winner with considerable speed; to be fair, I was stuck at the hairdressers for a few hours today (I'm not naturally blonde). This is another somewhat problematic read and I'm struggling somewhat to piece my thoughts together about it.
I read someone else's review that it is difficult to digest a novel's worth of satire and I think perhaps that is because it becomes a little intense. However, it you feel there's some significant injustice done to you in your life and you choose to use humour to tackle it, you could understand why it make take quite a few pages to really let fly.
This is also not your typical plot driven novel and to discuss it in those terms would be a little pointless.I certainly had some laugh out loud moments, some awkward in my seat moments, some slightly guilty moments and then a few lost in the wilderness moments. If you take that into consideration, you can clearly see that this is much more than mindless entertainment and that my attempts to come to grips with it are indicative of something special, a book that makes you think. Isn't that the best kind of fiction?

4 out of 5 what the Dickens?

Thursday, 3 November 2016

Romancing the Inventor by Gail Carriger

"Eventually, they were both mere puddles of joy"

There just aren't enough puddles of joy these days. This reader was super happy to get that lovely email from the tunes that starts with "i" to say her pre-order was ready for devouring. I am a massive fan of Ms Carriger's steampunk world and am extra delighted at these little morsels that have appeared of late.

It is great to see minor character, Genevieve Le Foux, getting her own little love story and with a dash of Alexia Maccon for good measure (just for those fans like myself). This is heavy on the heaving bosoms kind of romance and it makes for a nice little getaway from reality.

The impossibly beautiful pauper, Imogene Hale escapes her provincial surrounds where all the boys (boys yuck as far as Imogene is concerned) want to marry her. Taking a serving role at the home of a vampire seems the perfect escape with potential for all sorts of non male related wanton-ness for the innocent maid. Who knew love was on the menu?

Mathematics and blood letting might seem strange bed-fellows and yet anything can happen at this hive. Can't wait to see what Gail Carriger delivers next.

5 out of 5 maid's uniforms always get a response.

Submission by Michel Houellebecq

"For men, love is nothing more than gratitude for the gift of pleasure, and no one had ever given me more pleasure than Myriam".

I swore to myself I'd never read another Houellebecq. My resolve was tested by all the heat this new novel has attracted. Certainly he can write, he always conjures up some hideous male characters that are quite palpable. One gathers he's probably a little back door obsessed, like his protagonist and a number of basically insecure men who need to assert themselves by constantly testing the barriers to make themselves feel more potent. In any case, I always feel a little grossed out by the detached and loveless couplings within his novels that I've read to date. His character thinks he's in love only when the object is removed, I digress however.

Much of the hype/scandal around this particular novel goes to the topical subject matter. In an atmosphere of fear around the rise of Islam, Houellebecq takes us to a potential near future in France, where Muhammed Ben Abbes of the Muslim Fraternity does to power and the separation of church and state, a hallmark of the French way of life is destroyed. It feels very much like a personal response from a literary elite, questioning how his life would change within these new circumstances, personalised through the eyes of the narrator. So is he being merely darkly humorous when his final take away from this erosion of free will, from exile from his Jewish girlfriend ( supposedly a love interest and yet quickly written off with distance), is that he might have to accept conversion and no longer enjoy the sight of women in shorts, but hey it comes with teenage wives, so it can't be all that bad? Or is that just the final joke?

Clearly I did not enjoy this work and yet I cannot deny its brilliance. It feels like lifting the lid on the middle-aged male, literary snob for whom women are valued only in youth and numbers. Sex is reduced to hum drum sport that seems devoid of anything meaningful, he's depressed, lost and sad. Just as our "hero" can't perform with the first prostitute he encounters, when there's more than one its fine, and he seems to take great pains in telling the reader about the size of his tip (the money, I mean, out of the gutter people). The protagonist's ability to merge with his surroundings is similarly ineffectual to begin with and he runs off to the country-side without enough petrol, before heading back to reality and eventually finding his rhythm there. The fact that I recall all these details (unusual for me) is due to a mix of disdain at the subject and wonder at its execution. The evocation particularly of a messed up political situation, violence ,confusion and then a strange shift into a new status-quo is particularly well done.

For someone like me, that craves equality for all, I feel Houellebecq's characters tend to personify the kind of creeps that constantly seek to keep women down because they feel threatened by them. Reducing women to footnotes, replaceable after a certain age when their minds have matured to fully comprehend their powers. This is my personal interpretation and I'm still optimistic that not all men are of that ilk.

4 out of 5 uncomfortable reads are a challenge of their own and help us better understand the world.