Monday, 30 April 2018

Mythos by Stephen Fry

“The lesson of Phaeton did not stop humankind from reaching even higher, however. No lesson, no matter how grim, ever seems to deter us.”

There are two things that perpetually hold my interest, the musings of a certain Mr Stephen Fry and tales of Ancient Greek mythology. It is perhaps no great surprise then that when this book was announced I pounced gleefully on a copy. Well as surely as one can pounce on a copy of a book ordered online; in any case I was keen as mustard to crack that spine.

As you may well imagine, I had heightened expectations going in, and these were somewhat perplexed by the prose. It is all together something different to what I imagined it might be. Fear not, it remains a great read, and yet a strange genre bending telling of mythology. Verging between a non-fiction exploration and a fireside chat, peppered with entertaining anecdotes that relate to the world today. Come to think of it, I guess that is his signature style. I thought perhaps this might be more of an engrossing selection of tales a la Neil Gaiman’s Norse Mythology. It is not, and yet it is still a delight.

Once expectations were metered and I fell into the rhythm of this weighty tome, I began to appreciate it more. It is reminiscent of a good episode of QI, where facts and stories combine for a pithy or witty comment and that ultimately spells entertainment.

An easy read, I feel this would make for a great audio book, or perhaps an engrossing nightly read to someone in hospital, Scheherazade style, to keep you looking to the next instalment. The sordid goings-on of those crazy Mount Olympians retain their appeal, much like Narcissus’ reflection and the overall feel is engaging and charming, as The Guardian’s reviewer would no doubt concur.

5 out of 5 times, old tales invigorated and yet, unfortunately all too brief.

Pachinko by Min Jin Lee

“No one is clean. Living makes you dirty.”

This epic tale of a Korean family accompanied me on my holiday. In fact, much of it was enjoyed on a sundrenched beach lounger which seemed poles apart from the enormous struggles of its characters. It does seem rather wrong to be reading about starving refugees when drinking cocktails, perhaps that’s why I’ve chosen the quote above.

If you love a multi-generational historical saga this one is definitely going to keep you turning those pages. The characters are beautifully drawn, despite the breadth of time covered and the number of them. You may find your eyes dampen with emotion as you are drawn into unfamiliar worlds, only to realise how similar familial binds are no matter where you hail from. It is strange to be able to relate so palpably to characters from such foreign lands and historical periods and yet that is exactly what you get here. Much of the story reminded me of my own grandparents’ stories of crossing oceans and re-inventing their lives in a foreign place – something that countless people whether due to war, economic opportunity or choice, do every day.

There is a reason this novel was chosen as one of the New York Public Library’s (my pictures below) 10 best of 2017 and holds a place on the ALA’s 2018 Notable Books List.

I’m very excited to note that the author will be appearing at the Sydney Writer’s Festival and I’ll be attending her session on the novel next week. The opportunity to hear more about the novel’s underpinnings direct from the author has me counting the days!

5 out of 5, life is a journey of turbulent seas.

Friday, 13 April 2018

Bridge Burning by Kitty Flanagan

"I went because I thought, or hoped, that university would offer me a social life, something which had been largely absent in my life thus far, unless you counted playing tennis on Saturday afternoons and then going to the local bowling club afterwards for a glass of lemon squash with the team."

Oh Kitty Flanagan, I've always had a massive girl crush on you and now, having finished your book, it has only intensified! In fact, I'm going to write this review to you. Firstly I'd like to apologise for not actually paying for your book. In  fairness, my delightful friend Kate had brought a copy with her on our holiday and we're doing a bit of book swapping to lighten the luggage load. I am the world's worst packer for holidays (I'm not going to lie, the books always put me over weight).

Alrighty, back to your fab memoir and I have to say I laughed out loud repeatedly and somewhat like a madwoman at the cool beach club where I sat under the umbrella, ignoring the gorgeous scenery to be transported back to Sydney and a lifetime of bad dates. Oh lady, I can relate to so many of your hilarious anecdotes. I loved the way you ended relationships by moving away, and the gravedigger who loved your central heating - as a woman of a certain age, I sometimes wonder if any date that lasts more than a month or two in summer is more about my air conditioning too.

This is an engaging and thoroughly entertaining read, that was just what the doctor ordered. A welcome respite from some of the more harrowing reads I've been engaged in of late. We all know the world is going to hell in a hand basket , but sometimes its refreshing to focus on the minutiae of life and the things that make us smile. Kitty your sage advice is spot on, but should I really be banned from internet dating?? Hmm.... yeah, perhaps you are right on that front too.

If there's one take away that I think you've helped the world of women out there with particularly, it is about bidets. They are an amazing invention and I only wish more houses in Australia had them. I used to think about it often when I lived with a man whose underpants I had to wash, thankfully that is a distant memory that has pretty much skidded away.

5 out of 5 - Kitty we could compare notes over a thousand wines - err now I just sound like a crazy stalker - strike that - just thanks for a fab read and keep on doing what you're doing!

Tuesday, 10 April 2018

Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie

"There he sat, his father's son. It didn't matter if they were on this or that side of the political spectrum, or whether their fathers were absent or present, or if someone else had loved them better, loved them more: in the end they were always their fathers' sons."

I've been waiting for this pre-order to hit my mailbox for quite some time and it arrived just before I went on holiday. While I'd only heard good things, I'd not paid much attention to the content. Needless to say, I felt a little nervous travelling into the USA reading a book about two sisters with a jihadi brother and yet this novel is so much more than that.It is about family and the intense impact they can have on your life.

While trying to avoid spoilers, I have to say the last pages left me  physically shaken and aware of the fact that I'd held my breath for just a little too long in shock. This book is timely and amazing. We, as humans, are always afraid of the other, it is our natural fall back position and can cause a lot of trouble. When things go wrong we all point fingers and make judgements to appease our sense of righting wrongs, even when sometimes those judgements can be misguided.

It's a fraught notion for me in some ways, particularly when the judgements are around religious persuasions. Being an atheist, a part of me struggles to understand people who follow any set religious doctrine. My fears around the way dogma can be twisted to divide and promote hostility are at the centre of that. However, I respect that everyone has a right to their own opinions, provided they are not hurting anyone. If I attend any kind of religious celebration or funeral, I aim to be respectful in that house of worship, as I would be in anyone's home, even if I feel a sense of unease. Looking at this very human story, you can feel a palpable sense of unease at the society we live in today. One where people are forced to construct a palatable social narrative to fit in, despite their other senses of obligation and beliefs.

Sisters Isma and Anneka's interactions with the new home secretary's son, seem rather innocent at first. The nature of the circumstances of their brother Parvaiz are not immediately revealed and it becomes a slow burn to see what is really happening. You can feel the conflict between family connections/expectations, and societal ones in a world where complex disagreements are all too often shrouded in black or white statements that don't fit the bill. 

Here is a son,Parvaiz, bereft of a father, who is taken in and shown a new truth. It is a seductive argument, that has him leave his everyday life and travel to a war zone to make terrorist propaganda, a reality which he shuns when he realises its true horrors and from which it seems impossible for him to escape from. History is full of ideological young men going off to fight battles based upon romantic notions of idealism and I think that is why it is so hard to dissuade kids from getting swept up into that kind of action.Throw into the mix, being mistreated for your beliefs, or banned from certain countries on their basis and you have a perfect storm for developing generations of unrest.

The impact of the girls' brother's actions is wide reaching and harrowing. Beyond the horrors, he is complicit in recording, it is the devastation his choice to become a foreign fighter wrecks on not only their own family, but so many others that truly smarts and it is the impact on the novel's central love story that is the most keenly felt. I think this one just might win the Booker Prize - it should.

5 out of 5, not a relaxing read by any stretch of the imagination.

The Arrangement by Sarah Dunn

"It was like a whole world of signals and signs had been floating right past her — lingering looks, secret smiles, eyes moving up and down, wine-glasses lifted in solidarity, charged conversations in bookstores"

Are you perhaps planning on going on holiday, somewhere warm, to soak in the sun and read something enjoyable? This is the book you should pack ( or download if you're the e-book kind of reader). It is just so easy to relate to, fun and destined to ring a few bells with anyone who has been married, ever ( even for a Hollywood style short time).

A chance dinner party conversation with another couple, leads Lucy and Owen to consider a six month experiment to spice up their non existent love-life. Married with a special needs child, they are both unsatisfied with their lives and tempted by the prospect of transgression within the boundaries of some clearly designed "fight-club" style rules.

No doubt you can guess that things do not go as anticipated. Like most people, when you're in a relationship and bored, the idea of something else is appealing, until the realisation that the other party will be in the same boat. The 'what's good for the goose is good for the gander' idea is rarely okay with most people.

What this novel points out, in an entertaining and partially tongue-in-cheek way, is that a binding commitment to one person can be exceedingly dull and it takes a lot of effort on both parts to keep things fresh and interesting. It is all to easy to lose one's sense of worth and self in the role of wife or mother, we all need to feel wanted, able to do things just for ourselves and like we've still got it. It is quite funny me giving advice in that regard, I am literally the most single woman alive. The longest I've ever lasted with anyone was two years. One day I plan to break that particular record, until then, I'll just enjoy the sun on the beach and reading entertaining books such as this, to see how the other half suffer. Greetings from Playa del Carmen btw x

5 out of 5, seriously Owen, Izzy was trouble from the beginning man.

Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward

"I gulp against the feeling I want to throw up all the food that I ever ate"

 While praise has been heaped upon this novel - and it is indeed an interesting piece of work - it is hard going. I almost gave up on it for a while. I was in peak panic about trying to pack for two different seasons in two weeks - I mean snow and Mexican sunshine - and was not quite prepared for how torturous this would be. The novel - not the packing, just so we are clear.

Told by a number of narrators within a rather troubled family which include Jojo, whose mother is black and whose father is white and in prison); Leonie, his mother who isn't coping and resorts to drugs on a regular basis to cope with the absence of her partner, and the burden of raising two children.Leonie is also haunted by visions of her dead brother which tend to accompany her efforts to get high. She has some rather dubious acquaintances and strange priorities which come to the fore as she takes her two children to collect their father from prison.

You can sense this book is not an easy read from the opening scenes of animal slaughter. Not a great idea to read this book if you are squeamish about death, ghosts, vomit or poorly treated children. So now that I've completely put you off, I'm going to roll things back a little and possibly appear a tad contrary by saying I think it was actually a fantastic novel.It is so real and harrowing that it will stay with you. I guess nothing good comes easy right?

5 out of 5 bad road trips involve puke.

Call Me by Your Name by André Aciman

"It was moments such as these that left me feeling so vulnerable, so naked."

So, first of all greetings from the USA - actually I'm on my way out to Mexico but that's my current location. So, I did read this fantastic novel on the way over from Australia to New York, a very long way my friends. I struggled to read most of the time and so this rather slim volume took me some time.

Having already seen the movie, I was keen to experience the novel from whence it came. I'm mindful also that its author will be visiting Sydney for the Writer's Festival. I hope its not sold out on my return- must look into that!

This is a beautiful love story that just happens to be about two young men. Their caution and misunderstanding makes for an intense read. If you've heard of the infamous scene in the movie involving fruit, it is in the source material and just as sticky. That is the only particularly saucy moment that I can recall, overall this is just a searingly beautiful romance and coming of age story.

 5 out of 5 and I now feel like a Peach Bellini.

Sunday, 8 April 2018

The Empty Grave by Jonathan Stroud

“The ghost’s face had disappeared now; only the skull was showing. Even I had to admit that its death-black sockets and leering toothy grin weren’t entirely reassuring.”

There is only one thing wrong with reading one of Jonathan Stroud’s series, and that is finishing them. The endearing crew of misfits that make up the Lockwood & Co agency will be sorely missed by yours truly. I actually shed a tear at the end of this book that’s aimed squarely at an audience quite a few decades younger than I.

The action is amped up to eleven and menace approaches from both the here and now, and the hereafter. Throw on a spirit cape and enjoy the thrills and spills, perhaps even take a walk on the other side. Our intrepid heroes have some mighty opponents and an unthinkable mystery to solve. Have they locked on to the reason behind “the problem” and what is the deal with the Fittes Agency?

If you love the talking skull as much as I do, if you pine for the day when Lockwood and Lucy might find a happy ending and if you enjoy a thrilling adventure, then look no further – this is it!

I finished this on the train this morning and immediately experienced a sensation of emptiness. My spirit crushed like a bested Type Two Spectre at the thought of never being party again to the conversations of Lucy and the Skull. Fear not blog readers, I will recover.  There are many other books out there for me to read. Nevertheless, Lucy, Lockwood, George and Skull will remain as a happy thought – most likely when I’m reading something tiresome.

5 out of 5 endings can be elating and deflating at the same time.