Thursday, November 19, 2015

As Good As Dead by Elizabeth Evans

A shy girl from a small town and working class family, Charlotte is ecstatic to be accepted into the prestigious Iowa Writers Workshop. She heads to Iowa City to find an apartment and meets the beautiful and beguiling Esme. She and Esme move in together and become best friends. Many years  pass and Charlotte is a published author and tenured professor. Her university boyfriend, who was away in Italy completing his doctoral research while Charlotte lived with Esma, is now her husband, and he and Charlotte live a settled life in Tuscon. Charlotte and Esme are no longer friends; Esme moved away from Iowa and stopped answering Charlotte's letters. Out of the blue, an older, fatter, less beautiful Esme turns up at Charlotte's house and all of the wounds she thought had healed from the past reopen, tearing her life apart.

This book has some really good points. It is very well written and it is an excellent evocation of life in academia. I was not surprised to red that Evans herself is an emeritus professor - the academic aspects of the book are incredibly authentic. I also thought it did an excellent job of capturing the rivalries and love in some university female friendships, where neither of you are sure who you really  are yet. It does have a few problems, though. Esme's husband, Jeremy, who Charlotte slept with while he was dating Esme and Charlotte was dating Will (not a spoiler - it's revealed in the first chapter) is so repulsive that it's impossible to understand why he would come between the beautiful Esme and the talented Charlotte. Nor did I buy that Esme would do what she did at the end of the novel - it was set in the 1980s, not the 1950s, and her actions seemed more suitable to an earlier time. Plus I found the ending of the novel such an anticlimax! Because the book starts so strongly but tapers off near the end, I wonder if it just lacked enough meat to be a fully fledged novel and the story might have been better suited to a novella format.

Despite these flaws I enjoyed reading this book and would definitely read another Elizabeth Evans novel. Three stars.

Friday, October 30, 2015

Thug Kitchen: Eat like you give a f*ck (2014)

The Thug Kitchen cookbook developed from the widely popular Thug Kitchen blog. For those who don't know the back story, it was an anonymous blog that posted vegan recipes with lots of "fuck" and "shit" littered everywhere. When the cookbook came out, it turned out the two "thugs" behind the kitchen were a white university-educated couple in their 20s who like pretending to be thugs on the internet. It's kind of obnoxious but I didn't really give it much thought.

However, I did always like the recipes, so when my library got the cookbook I put a hold on it. There's a lot of swearing. Not just a little bit - a lot lot. There is so much swearing that the library put the book underneath the counter and checked with me how I felt about profanity before giving it to me. I swear all the time so profanity is not an issue but I that the ratio of profanity to non-profane word would be about 1:10. There is *a lot* of swearing.

While I don't give a fuck about swearing (see what I did there?) I do care when I start reading a cookbook where the authors clearly think their readers are well below average intelligence. For example, on a page entitled "congatufuckinglations" (they're congratulating me for buying the book. Most authors thank the reader for choosing to spend their hard earned dollars on them, but the authors of Thug Kitchen are actually doing me a favour by allowing me to buy their book. Thanks guys!), the authors give the following advice:

"There's a big difference between 1/2 teaspoon of salt and 1/2 tablespoon. One is going to complete a dope dinner and the other is going to end with a plate of regret."

Thanks guys! I have the intelligence to look at your recipes on the internet on a computer I purchased myself with the proceeds of my work but until you pointed it out, I had *no idea* that tablespoons and teaspoons were different! How embarrassment. That's not dope at all.

Other gems are when the authors of a vegan cookbook explain that a salad is really just plant nachos. Because of course someone who is interested enough to borrow or buy a book on vegan cooking would need an explanation of what a salad is because I'm certain they've never seen a salad before. What the fuck, Thug Kitchen? Just give your reader the tiniest bit of credit.

Look, the recipes look pretty good but the tone of the book is so obnoxious that it's hard to look past.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Purity by Jonathan Franzen (2015)

There are many long detailed reviews of Purity on the Internet that discusses the themes, plot and writing of this book in great length. Rather than add to their numbers, I give you this.

Based on reading Purity, here is a list of things that Jonathan Franzen likes:
* writing about penises
* writing about masturbation
* the sound of his own voice
* feeling like he is cleverer than everyone else
* going on and on about the things he does not like

Based on reading Purity, here is a list of things that Jonathan Franzen does not like:
* women
* mothers
* women
* kids today
* the Internet
* women
* modern life
* attempts to address environmental issues
* women

Apparently Jonathan Franzen is married, which surprises me because this book reads like it was written by someone who had never actually spoken to a woman and is attempting to reconstruct them based on what he had read in other books. 

Purity is not good. I strongly advise you to read the Intercept review Stop Sending Me Jonathan Franzen Novels instead of the actual novel - it's eminently more satisfying.

One star.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Last Drink to LA by John Sutherland (2014 reprint)

Anyone who has been reading this blog or following my reviews on Goodreads will know that I adore a drinking memoir. Next to cookbooks, they are my favourite type of non-fiction. I have an insatiable thirst for them (see what I did there? *pats self on back with cleverness in true John Sutherland Style*). Last Drink to LA is a different type of drinking memoir to the normal one. Divided into three parts and an epilogue, former academic John Sutherland takes a discursive approach to drinking. He's not interested in facts or statistic: he likes stories, and that is what makes up most of this book.

The first section is a history of drinking through a literary lens. Sutherland discusses famous drunk historical figures (mostly authors) and provides quotes from the writers' literary outputs relating to their drinking. This section was largely interesting, although Sutherland's frequent use of Latin got a bit tiring after a while. We get it, you've had a classical education. Bully for you. For those of us who haven't (basically everyone under 70), you're just making it harder for us to enjoy your writing. I also found the author's fondness for using the phrase "topped himself" to describe successful suicides a bit cavalier, but maybe I'm sensitive on the subject, seeing suicide as a bad thing. The drunks he discusses in this section are all men; for John Sutherland, women drunks aren't an actual thing. It's not their fault - their weak female bodies can't handle the drink, unlike the strong manly men for whom drinking is related to cultural ideals of masculinity. Sure thing, John.

The second section is where my problems with the book really built up. It is a history of AA. I am not a fan of AA. Many other authors have written of its negative aspects. I have a lot of problems with it: the centrality of religion; its complete lack of accountability; its poor success rate; its promotion as alcoholism as a disease for which abstinence is the only cure (many people who have periods of problematic drinking are able to be social drinkers later in life without any problems with alcohol); and its clear sexism. Sexism is not a problem for John, who as I mentioned only considers men true drunks (the two drunk women mentioned in the first section were wives; the two drunk women mentioned in this section are prostitutes, so John neatly slots women into the the Madonna-whore literary dichotomy). John is not concerned with facts, only with stories. Since the AA model is based on stories - people (men) standing up in rooms and recounting how they got there - John likes it a lot. In fact, he says the reason that he stopped attending AA meetings is because he wasn't a good enough storyteller (John likes to be the best at everything). He acknowledges the central cognitive dissidence of AA - that it both asks you to accept alcoholism as a disease that is not your fault and at the same time take responsibility for all of the horrible things you did while drunk and be responsible for choosing abstinence - but he doesn't explain it, just acknowledges it and move on. This section was not very interesting.

The third section was the one where I really got cross. This is John's story of how he sobered up. Basically, his life in London was falling apart due to his problems with alcohol. Because he was brilliant, he got offered a job at an American university, which he took, leaving his wife and son behind in the UK. The only bar within walking distance was a gay bar, so that's where he went to drink. One morning he woke up in the bed of a man, went to touch the man's penis but instead of a penis found only a stump. He went home, drank three bottles of wine, and the next day rang AA to give up the demon drink.

This story is full of so much what-the-fuck I don't even know where to begin. Firstly, being gay is not contagious. You don't catch it by going to a gay bar. John says it's lucky he gave up drink because if he hadn't he probably would have got AIDs. Dude, it's not the drink that gives you AIDs, it's unprotected sex. I just can't even with the attitudes towards gay sex here. Also, why include the information about the penis stump? If there had been a penis there when you groped the guy ("accidentally, as I trust", he says, har har), would you still be drinking? In fairness, he does say in the epilogue he shouldn't have included that information in the original book, but I was reading a reprint. Take it out if you don't like it.

The bit that made me see red was this statement: "On at least one occasion, I had been physically abusive to my wife and son. Drunks do these things (and worse)." No, John, drunks don't do these things - domestic abusers do those things. You committed domestic violence. You hit your wife and child, not the drink. Does he acknowledge this or get help for it? No, of course not. None of this is John's fault! It's the drink. John is blameless. He later reveals that his son attempted suicide as a teenager and has had a lifelong struggle with drugs and alcohol. He writes: "Addiction was, I suppose, my legacy to him, his patrimony; like alcoholic father, like addict son." Bullshit, John. The poor kid grew up with an alcoholic violent dad who hit him and cheated on his mum. He dealt with this by taking drugs and drinking. You can't hand wave this away by pretending there's some genetic lottery your son has just lost. You were violent and abusive and, if you bothered to do any research, you'd see the connection between experience abuse and abusing drugs and alcohol.

As for the epilogue, just don't read it. It's a bunch of self-serving twaddle about how great John is. He got to serve on a Booker prize and made a really important decision that was really important because John is super important. Since quitting booze, he's never even wanted a drink, because John is excellent at all things, even not drinking. Shut up, John.


Tuesday, September 8, 2015

On Writing, by Stephen King (2001)

As I have mentioned previously, I am currently reading a lot of books on writing in a desperate attempt to get the tools (and, more seriously, the motivation!) to finish writing my thesis. Quite a few of these books mention Stephen King's On Writing. Given that Stephen King is a novelist, it's not one I would have considered but my due date is soon enough that I am prepared to try anything, so I picked it up from the library.

On Writing is part memoir part writing guide. The memoir provides some details of his childhood, where he and his older brother were brought up by their mother in rural America. It was a rough childhood. I did find the memoir part a bit boring - mainly because, as King himself points out, a lot of the things he remembers clearly he has put in his books. The bit of the memoir I found interesting was his history as a writer. Even as a primary school kid, he was writing books for his mum. Then, as he got older, he was inspired by a gory horror film to write a book, which he made copies of at home and sold at school. As a teenager, he wrote short stories and sent them into magazines. They were rarely published but he kept going - writing was a compulsion for him. After high school went to college and qualified as a teacher. He met his wife at uni and they had children quickly. After he graduated, he wasn't able to get a job as a teacher so he worked in a laundry while his wife worked at Dunkin Donuts. He continued to write at night, working on the novel that would become Carrie. King knew that writers should have an agent, he got an agent. The Kings lived in poverty until he sold Carrie for the princely sum of $200,000 and his life changed. He became a huge success, had more children, became an alcoholic and drug addict, got sober and then, a few years later, got hit by a bus. There was really quite a lot going on!

In the writing part of the book, King gives his advice on how to be a good writer. His tips are pretty simple - read a lot, write a lot, and above all work hard. In fact, the number one piece of advice I took from this book was that to succeed, you need to work bloody hard (which, FYI, did not prevent me from faffing about all day yesterday on the internet and ending up with about 50 words added to my thesis. I did feel really guilty about it though, so thanks for that, Stephen!). I think every budding fiction writer should read this book for this message alone. That said, King says quite bluntly that no amount of practice is going to make a bad writer a good or even competent writer, so while working hard will make you a better writer, you can't do anything if the inspiration isn't there in the first place.

On Writing was published in 2001, and it shows. There's little in it about the internet, and I imagine  the how-to-get-published part of the book is well and truly obsolete. I would love to read an updated version and find out what King thinks about the internet, because he really hates television. He writes:

But TV came relatively late to the King household, and I'm glad. I am, when you think about it, a member of a fairly select group: the final handful of American novelists who learned to read and write before they learned to eat a daily helping of video bullshit. This might not be important. On the other hand, if you're just starting out as a writer, you could do worse than strip your television's electric plug-wire, wrap a spike around it, and then stick it back into the wall. See what blows, and how far.

Just an idea.

I did have a few minor quibbles. King meets his wife, Tammy, in a writing class. They both want to be writers, but he said that she didn't make it because she couldn't find that extra hour in the day to work on her writing. The truth is that she couldn't find that extra hour because she was using it to look after the kids while King was writing. He had such a compulsion to write and has been such a success that I'm not sure she had any other choice, but it was definitely unfair of King to place the burden on her (also, I was a bit sick of Tammy by the end of the book. King talks about her all the time but only ever in relation to what she does for him. He devoted thousands of words to her but I know nothing about her after reading all of those words). That said, On Writing is well and truly worth a read for anyone who works with words for a living. Four stars.


Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Purl Up and Die by Maggie Sefton (2015)

You know the concept of hate-reading? I tend to not hate-read much (who has the time? Plus, I at one stage I was hate-reading so much I almost disconnected my right eye by rolling it too much*). However, my exception to the rule has always been Maggie Sefton's Lambspun series. This series of books are so bad! The characters are basically cardboard cutouts that are given really terri;e dialogue, the dialogue is awful (all of the characters sound exactly the same) and the books are so repetitious that about 90% of the story could cut with no noticeable effect on our understanding of the plot. But I keep reading them, bitch about how terrible they are, then put a reserve on the next one as soon as it arrives at the library.

BUT NO MORE! 2015's Lambspun mystery, Purl Up and Die, is officially my last. The novel opens as Kelly goes across the street to work in the yarn store (guys, Kelly likes to work on spreadsheets at the yarn store). She orders an ice coffee (guys, it's hot in Colorado in summer AND Kelly likes coffee). Then a woman who is not in the main group comes into the yarn shop. Because Sefton only introduces two new characters per book, this woman will either be murdered or be the murderer. The only mystery is which one it is. Kelly, who is the literary equivalent to the chewing gum that gets stuck on the sole of your favourite pair of runners, sits in on a class without paying the teacher for it, causes a disruption for the other attendees who actually paid, then leaves.

Next, Kelly goes and visits her client, who is apparently a successful businessman. Not according to this dialogue:

The buzzer on Arthur's phone system sounded. "Oops, that's my secretary. Reminding me that my next appointment is here."
Kelly drained the last of the coffee and gathered her portfolio into her briefcase bag. "I'd best get back, anyway. You're in good shape, Arthur. So now I need to see what Don Warner and company have waiting for me."

While Arthur may be playing a professional businessman, it is more than clear a professional editor never went near these pages. For starters, one doesn't gather a portfolio into a bag - one either gathers a portfolio and places it in a bag or just simply places it there without gathering it first (also, not briefcase bag but either briefcase or bag - briefcase is a noun not an adjective). Additionally, who says "oops" when a buzzer goes? How can you be reminded of something you haven't been told about in the first place? Why are these people speaking in single-clause sentences? It is all so, so bad.

A few pages later, Kelly's boyfriend "smiled into her eyes" (you smile AT someone, not into random physical features), and I was out. Done. Finito. All over.

There's bad which is fun to read and play with and then there's work that is so excrutiatingly bad that you feel bad for the author, publishing house and anyone who has their name attached to the book. The Lambspun series has now reached that point and I am done with it. HereIRead out.


*Not a true story. However, more believable than any of Maggie Sefton's bestselling novels.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

The Children Act by Ian McEwan (2014)

When I was younger, I loved Ian McEwan. I first read him during the long dark final weeks of my Honours year, where in an effort to gain a bit of sanity and perspective I had escaped to the fiction section of my university's library and grabbed the first book from an author who wasn't dead who I had heard of. The book was Atonement, and I loved it. I then promptly devoured Black Dogs and Enduring Love. I was mesmerised by Saturday - I wanted to roll around in the prose of that one eventful day that in fact told the story of an entire life. But then, the McEwan-HereIRead love affair came to a crashing halt with the publication of On Chesil Beach. I bought this "book" for full price from a reputable bookseller, only to take it home and realise it was the novel equivalent of the first-year essay I'd submitted with 2.5-line spacing and 5cm margins, hoping the lecturer wouldn't notice that it was about half of its expected length (they did). On Chesil Beach is a short story padded out (and charged like!) a full novel based on some clever typesetting and a lot of blank pages. Even worse, it is a stupid story. I felt both ripped off and cross. Despite this, I still bought Solar when it came out. Just to give you an idea what type of story Solar is, there is a chapter where the protagonist thinks his penis has fallen off but in fact what fell off was (I think) the lid of a tube of lip balm. Stupid stupid stupid. I didn't even end up finishing it. I am clearly a slow learner, because I gave McEwan one more chance with Sweet Tooth. With a much kinder than I would be today two-star review, I was done with McEwan.

That is, until I watched last month's ABC's The Book Club. Marieke Hardy described Ian McEwan as that old boyfriend you feel fond about but forget how crap they are until you give them a call to talk to them again. I agreed with her completely! So when said that that his new novel, The Children Act, was wonderful, I picked it up.

The best I can say about this book is that it's not completely awful. Much like Saturday and Solar, we see the whole book through the eyes of a single character, in this case Fiona Maye, a High Court judge. When the book opens, she is reeling from the shock of her husband telling her he wants to have an affair because they haven't had sex for seven weeks and one day. She says no, he moves out and then she has to make rulings on a number of difficult decisions, including whether or not to rule that doctors can separate Siamese twins when the separation means certain death for one boy but not separating them means both twins will die and whether or not to override the wishes of a Jehovah's Witness boy who is 17 years and 9 months old and refusing a life-saving blood transfusion.

The Children Act is written very well because McEwan writes very good prose but, again, as with On Chesil Beach, the plot is just so stupid. No-one jeopardises a 30-year marriage because they haven't had sex for seven weeks but McEwan's characters act like this is a reasonable course of action for an educated couple whose professions are based on communication to take. Reading this book made me feel like McEwan hasn't actually spoken to any real people for a long time because actual humans just don't act like the characters in his novel do. Plus, let's be honest - McEwan is a massive elitist snob who doesn't like women very much. His contempt for women and the lower classes leaps off the page, not even barely disguised. It was quite surprising how obvious it was (although not surprising in and of itself).

Not a terrible book but I don't want to contribute to encouraging anyone to read it, so two stars.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Secret Keeping for Beginners by Maggie Alderson (2015)

Secret Keeping for Beginners centres around three sisters: Tessa, Rachel and Natasha. Rachel has just divorced her husband and is juggling a new job in a fantastic PR firm with running and paying for a London household for her, her two children and the manny, Banko. Tessa and her husband Tom own a successful salvage yard and were happy in the country with their three boys until Tom was discovered by television and now hosts his own successful TV show. Natasha is a hugely successful make-up artist who travels the world making up supermodels and high fashion shows. All three women are beautiful, fabulously talented and have heaps of Instagram followers and all of them are in someway at breaking point in their lives.

The central conceit of the book is that despite their closeness, the sisters are keeping big secrets from each other. Rachel is in dire financial straits and is struggling to even find enough money for food. Tessa is incredibly depressed and is withdrawing further and further into her own private world. Natasha is refusing to reveal her sexual identify for fear it will damage her in her business, and the double life she lives creates a barrier between her and her sisters. So far, so good (although I did find hard to believe that Natasha wouldn't talk to her sisters about her sexuality - I can understand not talking about it at work (although of course one should not have to hide any part of one's sexuality for work, which is why there are discrimination laws in place), but not her sisters? I did not buy it). However, it gets more complicated. It turns out that Rachel's boss, Simon, had a brief fling with Tessa  before she was married and he's in love with Rachel and his business is experiencing financial stress and he's carrying around a big secret that he refuses to tell anyone until 10 pages before the end. The mother of the girls, Joy, has been receiving mysterious letters addressed to the person she was before she changed her name at 16 that she refuses to open. Plus Banko is hiding his secret crossdressing from Rachel and then lies about wanting to be a fashion model.

THAT'S TOO MANY SECRETS. Seriously, about seven of these could have been cut and it would have made not one whit of difference. I understand secrets are the theme of the book but there was no need to create a "secrets are the theme of the book" stick and start whacking your readers over the head with it. Joy's secret was frankly stupid and completely unnecessary. Giving Simon four secrets was massive overkill. That said, Alderson writes really well, so the book was lovely to read. There were moments of genuine humour and the relationships between the sisters was lovingly depicted. So, how do I rate this book? Using the patented HereIRead Book Evaluator Tool (TM):

Pros:
Including LGBT characters not defined by their sexuality
Good depiction of relationship between sisters
Enjoyably written
Funny

Cons:
Too much unnecessary plot
Used the annoying trope of a smug wise elderly woman who gives out excellent advice
Alderson cannot write from the point-of-view of a man and should never ever try again. Simon's sections were cringe-worthy
The entire character of Tessa

A book that should only be borrowed from the library but is nice easy reading: three stars.

Friday, August 14, 2015

Gone But Knot Forgotten by Mary Marks (2015)

It's a regular Tuesday and Martha Rose is heading to her weekly quilting session. She is stopped by an unusual phone call - her high school best friend Harriet has been found dead and Martha is the executor of the will. Martha hasn't seen Harriet for decades and in that time dramatic things have happened - her son died, her husband vanished and she became a recluse, roaming the halls of her mansion alone. When she was found, she had been dead for 10 months. Martha feels awful that someone she once loved died so alone and was determined to find out how her gregarious and outgoing friend became someone that no-one missed.

At the same time, Martha has quite a bit going on in her personal life. Crusher, a big biker who she had a steamy night with one book ago, has decided he wants to marry her and is slowly trying to work his way into her life. Her daughter has moved in with a man, so Martha has started a wedding quilt, just in case. Plus, not far into sorting out Harriet's estate she receives another shocking call - Harriet has been murdered, and Martha is determined to find out who the murderer was.

This is the third Martha Rose novel. I realised a few chapters in that I had actually read the first one (review here) and I liked it. I feel exactly the same about this one. It's well written, the characters are engaging and Martha feels like a real person, with both good and bad qualities. I liked that she was spunky enough to stand up for herself but I did wish she'd cut back a bit on the refined sugar and saturated fat (this girl's diet is not good! If she keeps up her current levels of red and processed meats, she's in for a heart attack before too long). The book is a little light on quilting for a title with a thread pun in it but the quilting is there (and there's a free pattern at the back). It is a nice book and a good cosy way to spend an afternoon. That said, I took an entire star off my rating because the author is a gun control advocate who misunderstands the second amendment. I can't be supporting that.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Blackout: Remembering the Things I Drank to Forget by Sarah Hepola (2015)

Blackout opens in Paris, where journalist Sarah Hepola has been sent on an assignment. She remembers drinking cognac, smooth and sophisticated in its distinctive snifter. She has flashes in the cab back to the hotel, walking carefully across the foyer so as not to display her drunkenness to the concierge and then...nothing.

This happens to me sometimes. A curtain falling in the middle of the act, leaving minutes and sometimes hours in the dark. But anyone watching me wouldn't notice. They'd simply see a woman on her way to somewhere else, with no idea her memory just snapped in half.

Hepola blacked out, and when she woke up, she was having sex with a stranger. Hepola is an alcoholic, a blackout drinker. She describes a blackout as:

..the untangling of a mystery. It's detective work on your own life. A blackout is: What happened last night? Who are you, and why are we fucking?

A blackout occurs when a person's blood alcohol is so high that their brain simply stops making longterm memories. The person doesn't pass out - they can still talk, dance, (fuck...) but they have no memory of it the next day. Hepola was a blackout drinker: her Saturday mornings were characterised by questions like the ones in the quote above. But while blackouts may have been common for her, she was also an alcoholic: she drank often and she drank a lot.

Blackout: Remember the Things I Drank to Forget is an account of how Hepola became an alcoholic and then came out the other side, alcohol free. It starts when she was a child, transplanted from Philadelphia to Dallas, Texas. Her childhood is characterised by poor self-esteem and a lack of ability to fit in: as the poorest kid in a rich district, other kids were making fun of her house and her parents car. She also grew up with an often-absent mum and an extremely unexpressive father, although she does not blame them for what happened to her. By the time she was a teenager, she was sneaking sips of beer from half-opened cans her parents left in the fridge. It was by drinking that she was able to make friends at school, with alcohol breaking down the barriers between different social groups. Hepola used alcohol to give her courage; to let the wild child within out. This continued through college and into her working life until, 20 years later, she reaches rock bottom while living in New York City.

I have written before of my deep and abiding love of the drunk memoir, and this is one of the best. Hepola's writing style is honest but not brutal. She describes perfectly the conflicting feelings of being cripplingly shy and wanting to be famous at the same time. She is genuinely funny without being flippant, which is a fine line to balance with this subject matter. I really enjoyed reading this book - even the bits after she sobers up, which are usually the boring parts. Obviously the references to AA and a higher power were fairly eye-roll-causing (AA really does rub me up the wrong way) but I felt happy that it helped her and that she was able to recover from her years of pain.

In the final chapter of the book, Hepola returns to Paris to try to find out what happened that fateful night but she couldn't: all the people she met then had left. It's a fitting end for a great book about learning to accept the person one is and the pain one carries - these things can't be changed or fixed but they do need to be lived with. An excellent drunk memoir; four stars.

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson (2015)

Two years ago I reviewed Kate Atkinson's Life After Life. Although I thought it was well written, thought provoking and terribly clever, I did not like the book. I felt the trials meted out to Ursula became torturous after a while; when reading about her, I felt sadistic, a feeling I did not enjoy. Hence, when the companion book to Life After Life (which was made very clear is not a sequel or prequel but a complementary novel) was released this year, I was reluctant to pick it up. However, I do love Kate Atkinson and I really hate not having read a book that everyone else has (would I jump off a cliff...) so I borrowed it from the library. It sat on my shelf, borrowed but unread, for about two months until I got an email from the library telling me someone else had requested it and asking that I return it in three days. I reluctantly picked it up and then, within an hour, started kicking myself quite hard in the shins for waiting so long, because this book is excellent.

Like Life After Life, this book does not follow a linear narrative. However, unlike Life After Life, which explored parallel realities, where the different actions of the characters affected that particular reality but were wiped out when Ursula died and was reborn again, A God in Ruins sits within one reality only (thank God). Instead of moving between universes, the story moves back and forth along the lineage of Teddy - Edward Todd - and his parents, children and grandchildren. Broadly, Teddy, who was his mother Sylvie's best boy, goes to war, becomes a pilot, returns from war, marries Nancy, with whom he has Viola, who herself has two children, Sunny and Bea. Although Teddy is central to the story, Viola and Sunny both have chapters told from their perspectives. The story spans Teddy's entire lifetime of 90 years, which combined with the multiple perspectives results in a really full, fascinating exploration of a family and the effect of two terrible wars.

Given that I had to return the book to the library in three days, I read this book much more quickly than I wanted to. It is really beautifully written, with the kind of language that I wanted to savour and take my time with. At the centre of the story is Teddy, who every loves. He promises himself that if he survives the war, if he has an "after", he will be kind. And he is, but kindness and love don't necessary look like he thought they would. Like Life After Life, there is great loss and love throughout the book. In a testament to the power of this book to evoke feeling, for the first time in a long time, I cried while reading a book. I recommend this book strongly: five stars.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Dietland by Sarai Walker (2015)

Plum Kettle lives a constrained life. In the morning, she gets up and eats a Waist Watchers breakfast, before heading to the cafe where she works at her job where she responds to emails from young girls in her role as pretending to be Kitty, the magazine editor of teen mag Daisy Chain. Once a week, she goes to a Waist Watchers meeting, where she is weighed and picks up the latest Waist Watchers recipes. Always dressed in dark-coloured long shirts and ankle-length elastic-waisted skirts, Plum lives her life within a five-block radius, living a half-life while waiting for her real life to begin. You see, Plum is fat and waiting for lapland surgery, after which her inner thin person (called Alicia) will emerge and her life will really begin.

That all changes when Plum notices that she is being followed. She hates being looked at, being seen,  so is incredibly aware of the strange girl with dark eyeliner and bright tights who watches her, always taking notes. One day the girl slips her a book called Adventures in Dietland. Adventures in Dietland is a expose of the diet industry written by Verena Baptist, whose parents found the Baptist Diet, an unhealthy restrictive diet Plum was on as a teenager. Rich from the money her parents made but cognisant of the damage that the Baptist Diet caused, Verena has formed a feminist collective in the heart of New York City. Upon finding out that Plum is planning on doing lapland surgery, Verena offers Plum $20,000 if she agrees to go on the New Baptist Diet, a special plan designed for Plum by Verena which forces Plum to look at her life, how she treats her body and how she feels about herself. Plum agrees, starts the plan and her life begins to change.

While these changes are happening in Plum's life, a terrorist group called Jennifer are enacting violence on misogyny and misogynists - kidnapping and murdering men who have got away with enacting violence on women and using violence to change how women are represented.

I haven't described the plot of this book very well. It's a fascinating exploration of the impact of diet culture on an individual. Like Plum, I have had days where I thought "If only I were x kgs thinner/my boobs were bigger/I was taller/my hair was more blonde then my life would be better." I've tried Weight Watchers, the Liver Cleansing Diet, the 5:2 Diet (actually, I just borrowed the book for that one from the library - the fasting seemed really unhealthily). Every time I turn on the TV or the radio there are ads for meal replacement shakes or Michelle Bridge's 12 week transformation or I Quit Sugar programs. Women are bombarded with images of female perfection all the time while at the same time being told that they aren't pretty/smart/sexy/fuckable enough. Plum's sense of self is so closely tied up with her weight and her idea of what her weight should be that it is emotionally paralysing for her. It is literally stopping her from doing what she wants; not because she physically cannot, but because emotionally she can't. Breaking the years of Dietland training and damage is incredibly hard but so fascinating to read about. The New Baptist Diet challenges Plum breaks out of her shell like a dieting caterpillar into a gorgeous butterfly with a healthy sense of self and relationship with food; Dietland chronicles her journey and whether or not it is even possible to break out of a lifestyle so deeply ingrained.

One of the beset things about this book is that makes explicit the connection between the way women's bodies are portrayed in the media, advertising and television and both the violence women experience and diet culture. Sometimes it does feel like the only way to fix the problem is to tear everything down and start again. I don't think it will happen, but this book raises very interesting questions about misogyny, patriarchy and the everyday treatment of women. Every girl should read this book as a teenager. Five stars.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera (1984)

I want to open this review by saying that I am absolutely not qualified to review a Milan Kundera novel. His books are complex, multilayered and amazingly evocative, none of which I have to skills to capture in my brief 300 word "this is what I liked" book review posts. So, rather than posting a proper review, I am going to write about some general thoughts I had upon reading Milan Kundera's The Unbearable Lightness of Being.

Milan Kundera is one of those writers I think just about every cultural studies student discovers for the first time in their second year. I can't even remember which class had The Unbearable Lightness of Being on its reading list but once I read it I was a Kundera convert. It was so smart! So cleverly constructed. So elegantly written. So fascinating and (best of all for your standard 20yo Arts student wanker) so very quotable. I frequently dropped into conversation (and even class, such was my a complete wanker thing to do) such nuggets of obnoxiousness such as, "That reminds me of the observation Milan Kundera made in The Unbearable Lightness of Being about Freud's theory of dreaming." I was such a cliche! But, while I regret being so obnoxious, I don't regret the time I spent reading, thinking about and absorbing the work of Kundera.

The story contained within Unbearable is hard to explain clearly. It opens with a philosophical discussion of Nietsche's conception of eternal return as the heaviest burden. This begins the discussion of the concepts of lightness and heaviness and their relationship to goodness, sadness, happiness, meaning and burden that recurs throughout the book. This section also introduces the author as a character of the book, an "I" who had family killed in the Holocaust yet felt strange empathy with the watercolours of Hitler, the engineer of his family member's demise. Tereza, a barmaid in a small town, turns up on the doorstep of Tomas, a surgeon, who she met briefly a few weeks ago. They immediately make love and then she becomes very sick, requiring him to look after her and forging the love bond that is the central thread of the the book. While it does centre around the love between Tereza and Tomas, it is about so much more than that. It is set in the Communist-run Czechoslovakia of between 1968 and 1980 and much of the book deals with life in Czechoslovakia. It is these sections from which I learned the most but, at the same time, made me feel most inadequate because I know so little about that time and the politics of it.

The structure of the novel is postmodern. It jumps between timeframes and perspectives; diegetic events and philosophical explorations. Kundera often addresses the reader directly, for example to explain the inspiration for the characters. It is chaotic but it works - Tomas is an compulsive cheater. One of his mistresses is Sabina, a painter, who becomes involved with Franz, an academic. Each of them is affected by their upbringing in ways that are central to their character; for example, Teresa was punished by her mother for being the reason that she (her mother, the most beautiful of women) was forced to marry the most manly of men, who deliberately ignored her whispered requests to be careful when making love. Teresa's decision to stay with a man who cannot be faithful is influenced by her mother but never solely attributed to it. Just as important as her mum are the beautiful coincidences that cause one to fall in love - the music playing on the radio at the moment you first meet, the shared interest in books and the simple happenstance of being in the right place at the right time.

I don't know if you can tell but I love this book. The urge to quote it at dinner parties has (thankfully) left me but I was unable to shake the feeling that I should be taking notes so I don't forget a thing. I enjoyed reading this book such a lot I cannot wait for the new one (Festival of Insignificance) to arrive at my library. Five ardent-Arts-student stars.

Friday, July 17, 2015

West of Sunset by Stewart O'Nan (2015)

West of Sunset is a recently published book written by Stewart O'Nan that fictionalises the time that my literary boyfriend F Scott Fitzgerald spent in Hollywood. Now, I usually avoid both books that fictionalise the lives of real people and books written by men, but the cover for this title was so gorgeous that I just couldn't resist.


See what I mean? It's gorgeous. Now, having finished the novel, I kind of do and I kind of don't regret having picked it up. Let me explain.

The novel opens just as F Scott Fitzgerald (Scott) has been offered a contract at MGM for $1,000 a week to fix scripts. He is broke, in debt and struggling with an alcohol addiction. His wife, Zelda, is in an institution and his daughter, Scottie is at boarding school. He packs up his hotel room, gets on a train and moves to Hollywood.

Once there, he starts work at "the Iron Lung" - the MGM building named after its late head Irving Thalberg (whom Scott liked and on whom his final work, The Last Tycoon, was based). He bumps into his old friends from New York, like Dorothy Parker and Alan Campbell, and moves into the same apartment block as Humphrey Bogart (Bogie) and his second wife Mayo Methot (what a name!). This frequent and excellent research/name-dropping is the absolute best bit of this book. I spent just as much time on Wikipedia as I did actually reading the text and I now have a huge pile of books and DVDs on my desk waiting for me to find the time to read and watch them, starting with Tender is the Night and including Parker, Hemingway and Zelda's novel for good measure. When my eyes are tired from reading too much, I'll watch early Bogart and Crawford films and then the original A Star is Born, which I have (shamefully) never seen but was partly written by the great Dorothy Parker. This book inspired me to re-enter this amazing period in literature and film and for that I am incredibly grateful.

But. BUT! The protagonist of this book is supposed to be F Scott Fitzgerald. It is not F Scott Fitzgerald. Like many Scott fans, my knowledge of him has mainly been cobbled together from articles in Sunday papers, Matthew J Buccoli's biography Some Sort of Epic Grandeur, and reading his novels nine million times. Scott had his faults but he is my true literary boyfriend and I love him completely. One of his faults was his alcoholism, which defined him for much of his career. However, in West of Sunset, booze is just not that big a deal. Sure, references are made to empty bottles of gin and a bender or two but there is no sense of the great thirst that F Scott Fitzgerald was reportedly believed to have destroyed his life and his literary promise. Once he got to Hollywood, he just drank a lot of Coke and had an occasional gimlet. I did not buy that for one second. Alcoholics just don't give up alcohol that easily and with that little drama. 

What's more, O'Nan's Scott just walks around feeling sorry for everyone all the time. He feels sorry for Dorothy Parker, because they slept together a few times in the 1920s and he thinks it's a mistake but she'd go another round if he was up for it (never! Dottie was divine and Scotty was gorgeous; hence, never a regret. He should have been flattered or amused.). He feels sorry for his daughter, his wife, Bogie, Dietrich, Hemingway, Joan Crawford, everyone, including himself. The author of The Great Gatsby, who so exquisitely captured human emotion and the sense of both a particular time and the human condition, would never be reduced to just one key emotion: pity. I would have bought him wallowing in a bit of self-pity, but not all-around self-defining directed-at-everyone pity. Also, Sheilah Graham comes off like a bit of a pill and I just did not get her appeal at all. I know the real F Scott Fitzgerald was infatuated with her but it just did not translate for me through this book at all.

So, I didn't hate the book. I didn't like it and I absolutely would not recommend it but I am thankful to it for reminding me about a period of time I had forgotten about. Three stars.


Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Sweater Quest by Adrienne Martini (2010)

"Had I not discovered knitting, I would not be the paragon of sanity that I am today."

So begins Adrienne Martini's Sweater Quest: My Year of Knitting Dangerously. She tells us that after the birth of her first child, she experienced postnatal depression so severely she needed to be hospitalised. During that time, she discovered knitting and, long after she stopped taking the drugs she needed to get well, knitting stuck with her. She had a second child - less eventfully this time - and kept knitting, using knitting to help her get through the long nights and sleep-deprived days.

However, after raising her kids for a few years, Adrienne gets bored. The tedium of everyday life means an entire year has passed her by without anything interesting happening. This (for obvious reasons) sucks, so Adrienne decides to set herself a goal of knitting an Alice Starmore sweater in one year and chronicling her journey in what became this book.

I was quite disappointed with this book. Martini has a really engaging tone and at time her discursive excursions into parts of knitting history, like the history of fair isle, were really engaging. However, the book just didn't know what it wanted to be. It wasn't really a knitting book, because there's very little about the actual knitting of the sweater. There are also these really odd quite patronising sections in which basic knitting concepts are explained in detail ("remember, circular knitting makes a tube") but an understanding of the online knitting community is expected. It was a project that Martini obviously needed because some sense of excitement or purpose was missing from her life but it's not a memoir, because Martini never tells us much about her everyday life. What we're left with is a journal of Martini's travels to visit famous knitters and basically transcripts of the conversations she had with them, which I'm sure was super interesting for her but, for the reader, not so much. There's so much missing information in the storyline - why Alice Starmore? Why this particular Alice Starmore sweater? In one bit, she gets most of her wool in one brand but one colour only comes in a different base, which is a disaster...that is never mentioned again. Why did the editor not bring this to Martini's attention? Not good enough, team Sweater Quest.

The end of the book is really rushed - the last three months take up only 14 pages - and there is a sense that Martini is really bored with the whole thing. Most bewildering for me, is that *spoiler alert* the whole time she has been knitting a sweater that is not her size. She's spent hundreds,  maybe thousands, of dollars on a project that will not fit. WHY?!?!? Look, I think Martini sounds like someone who would be fun to have a coffee and a chat with, but this book needed a lot more work on it before going to print. Two stars.

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Threads of Evidence by Lea Wait (2015)

After spending two years in Arizone, Angie Curtis is back in her home town of Haven Habor in Maine. She is taking over as director of Mainely Needlepoint from her grandmother, who is marrying Haven Habor's reverend. Her life is coming together: she has friends, is learning a new and interesting business, and finally feels at home again. 

Angie's world is made much more interesting when movie star Skye West moves into town. Skye has bought a huge run-down mansion Aurora and is renovating it with the help of her very handsome adult son, Patrick. Aurora fell into ruin after the death of its owner, Millie Gardener. Mrs Gardener had refused to leave the house after the death of her only child, Jasmine, in 1970. Jasmine's death had been ruled a accident, but she was convinced it was murder. Millie told Skye her beliefs before she died and Skye was determined to find out the truth of what really happened. After finding out Angie used to work for a private detective (and that her son Patrick thought Angie was the prettiest girl in Maine), she hired Angie to help her solve the mystery of what happened to Jasmine that fateful night 45 years ago.

I love a cosy mystery. If that cosy mystery is somehow connected to something crafty, even better. However, although Threads of Evidence contains needlepoint as a key plot point, there's not any actual needlepointing in it. I was a bit disappointed at that (cosy and crafty just go so well together...) but other than that I don't have any complaints. It was a well-put-together cosy murder mystery, with a compelling story and likeable characters. I read it on a cold winter's afternoon while drinking hot chocolate; I give it three cosy stars.

Sunday, July 5, 2015

Sisters by Rosamund Lupton (2010)

Beatrice lives a comfortable life. She owns a nice apartment in New York, she has a nice finance with whom she enjoys buying nice things, and she has a nice job. Her comfortable existence comes to an end one Sunday, when a nice Sunday lunch is disturbed by a frantic call from her mother, who lives in London, telling Beatrice that her younger sister Tess has gone missing. Beatrice catches the next plane home and immediately starts working with the police to try and find her sister.

The search is incredibly hard for Beatrice, as she and Tess were very close, drawn together by the childhood death of their brother, Leo, from cystic fibrosis. The story is told as a letter, written from Beatrice to Tess, and as Beatrice "tells" Tess about the events following that fateful phone call, layers of truth are peeled back. As the narrative progresses, different layers are revealed: Tess is pregnant to her married lover, which she has not told her mother; Tess gave birth prematurely, which she did not tell Beatrice; and that her baby died, which she did not tell anyone in her family. Behind these events is an undercurrent of sadness and loss, as Tess's unborn child was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis, the disease that killed her brother, who is still missed 20 years later.

I really enjoyed this book. I picked it up on a whim because I am really into female-driven thriller narratives at the moment and I saw a good review of it somewhere (that I can't remember, of course!). Beatrice is initially a difficult narrator - she's uptight, unbending and unsympathetic. But over the course of the story, she opens up and loosens up as the extent of her loss becomes evident. There is a twist (of course!) but I didn't guess it, which was great. To give you an idea of how much I was gripped by this book, I had a dinner reservation at 7pm and I had the book open on the last five pages while I was putting on my make-up. I give it four stars.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

The Lady from Zagreb by Philip Kerr (2015)

Bernie Gunther has had a tough 20th century. A born-and-bred Berliner, he fought in the trenches in the first world war. Now, in the midst of World War II, he is trying to navigate life in Hitler's Germany - between avoiding joining the Nazi Party and committing crimes for which he could not live with himself, he's not doing too well. Combine that with the food and booze shortages and the horrors he knows are occurring in various parts of Germany, Bernie's life is frankly not very fun. One day his old boss, Arthur Nebe, invites him for lunch. Nebe is a high-ranking Nazi official and, in the summer before meeting Bernie, had singlehandedly murdered 45,000 Jews. Yet, in another example of the moral ambiguity that characterises the Bernie Gunther series, Bernie still enjoys Arthur's company and is prepared to let Arthur buy him a nice lunch. Arthur enlists Bernie to present at an international policing conference being held in Germany (this is no joke - Nazi Germany held an international policing conference in the middle of WW2 which was attended by police from all over the world. If that were a plot point in a movie it would be dismissed for being unrealistic.). Bernie's speech leads to unexpected events, including the murder of a lawyer who wants to challenge the legality of some of the actions of the Nazi government, a liaison with a movie star and a trip into the very dark and very disturbing region of Bosnia and Croatia.

The Lady of Zagreb is the tenth Bernie Gunther novel. Chances are, if you're planning to read it you've read at least one or two of the previous nine (no-one seriously enters a series on the tenth book). Therefore, I think you will agree with me when I say that Bernie is an awesome character. In The Lady of Zagreb, Bernie is as hardboiled as ever, quipping non-stop and conducting himself with the moral code we've come to expect. This book is incredibly well written and well researched, and as with every other Bernie novel, I learned new and horrific things about what happened in Europe between 1939 and 1944. I heart Bernie Gunther, and The Lady of Zagreb did nothing to dampen my enthusiasm for him.

However, this book required just a little bit more of me than the other titles in this series have. To be honest, I skimmed over chapters of the description of the horrors that occurred in Yugoslavia. Perhaps I could be accused of putting my head in the sand, but there is only so much evil I can take in one 400-page novel I am reading for enjoyment. Those scenes, while I'm sure perfectly accurately recounted, were really awful. Also, I did find it just a little hard to believe that Bernie would have got away with quite as much sass as he did. He said stuff to some of the most evil men in history that made me blink (and I'm not even a murdering dictator). Finally, Kerr really needs to lift his game in his depiction of women. The two here are complete cardboard cut-outs. One is literally just a plot point (I don't think she even has any lines) and the other sounds like a robot. I would totally sleep with Bernie (phwarrr!) so I get that so many beautiful women want him but even beautiful women can have more than one dimension.

That said, even a not-perfect Bernie Gunther novel is still better than most of the detective novels out there. Three and a half stars (and if you haven't read any Bernie books, start with Berlin Noir. They're really great).

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

The Book of Speculation by Erika Swyler (2015)

The Book of Speculation opens with Simon surveying his family home on the Long Island Sound. The house sits right the end of the cliff and, following years of neglect, if it does not receive serious investment, it will fall into the sea. Simon, like the house, seems beaten down and neglected - working as a librarian, he does not have the money to fix the house properly so spends what little he has plugging up the gaps. His neighbour, Frank, constantly and needlessly reminds him about the damage occurring to the house, but there seems to be little Simon is able or willing to do.

Simon does have a skill he does exceptionally well - he is a water breather. His mother, who was a circus performer, taught him to hold his breath underwater for amazing lengths of time. When he was seven years old, she walked into the water and drowned, leaving Simon to care for his sister Enola and Simon and Enola's father to slowly die of grief. Simon's thoughts circle around these two poles: his mother's death and the decay of his house. They trap him, like a hamster running around a cage.

One day Simon arrives home to find a package waiting for him on the doorstep. It is a very old book that would be very valuable except that it has been severely damaged by water. The book is accompanied by a note:

Dear Mr. Watson,
I came across this book at auction as part of a larger lot I purchased on speculation. The damage renders it useless to me, but a name inside it—Verona Bonn—led me to believe it might be of interest to you or your family. It's a lovely book, and I hope that it fins a good home with you. Please don't hesitate to contact me if you have any questions that you feel I might be able to answer.

Mr. Martin Churchwarry of Churchwarry & Sons

The name that led Mr Churchwarry to Simon is that of his grandmother, who also drowned. What is her name doing in this book and how did it end up on Simon's door in such a state? Is his sister due to experience the same fate that befell his mother and grandmother? Can she be saved?

However, The Book of Speculation is not just Simon's story. In what is clearly the storytelling fashion du jour (this is the fifth book I've read this year with this structure!), every second chapter takes us back in time to the historical past. A mute boy born out of wedlock is abandoned by his family in the woods. Miraculously, he survives by scavenging food and shelter and develops the remarkable talent of making himself vanish. After years of living alone, he stumbles on a circus. Filled with freaks and oddities, he feels at home there and starts to appear in the circus as a Wild Boy. In the present day, Simon reads about the Wild Boy in his book, so we know the two storylines are connected, but how and what joins them?

This book reminded me a lot of The Night Circus. Obviously the circus settings are the same but also the magic undercurrent that implies that within a circus, the performances do contain a touch of the supernatural. Honestly, Simon is a bit of a wet blanket, but the people around hime - his lover Alice, his sister Enola and his neighbour Frank - are interesting enough so the narrative is engaging. The story of how the Wild Boy becomes a fortune teller and falls in lovely is really lovely and the two halves of the book work really well together. I enjoyed this book a lot - four stars.


Sunday, June 14, 2015

The Mirror Crack'd from Side to Side by Agatha Christie (1962)

One of the reasons I started this blog was because I had a lot of things to say about books and no-one in real life to say them too! My cat, while patient and prepared to listen, did not provide me with any sort of useful feedback (although obviously the purring was very much appreciated). So, in response to that need, HereIRead was started. After a few months of posting whenever I felt like it, I realised that this blog provided me with a great opportunity to practise my writing discipline. I could use my new outlet to help me be a better writer! So I set myself the goal of publishing one review every week at 9am on a Wednesday every week, rain, hail or shine. 500 words once a week couldn't be that hard, right?

Wrong. Writing about books is hard! It takes hours to read a book and not every book is interesting enough to write about. Some weeks I have loads of time for reading and some weeks hardly at all, a clear factor that affects the volume of books I can get through. A long, dense book - the kind of book, honestly, that I really love! - can take weeks to get through and then a few more days to mull over. Hence, fewer reviews. It turns out I'm just as bad at writing on deadline for a blog where I get to talk about something I really love as I am every other writing deadline I set for myself in every other part of my live.

So, here I am, two weeks and five days over my self-imposed deadline, reviewing one of my favourite authors ever: Agatha Christie. My pathway to this book, The Mirror Crack'd from Side to Side was circuitous. Last Monday, I read Beyond the Looking Glass: Narcissism and Female Stardom in Studio-Era Hollywood by Ana Salzburg (see what I mean? I read a whole book but it's no good for the blog because it's an academic text so only of interest to film scholars. I give it four stars.) and there was a chapter on Gene Tierney. Salzburg notes that nowadays Tierney is mainly remembered for her tragic story - while pregnant, she contracted German measles and gave birth to a child with severe disabilities, following which Tierney experienced a series of nervous breakdowns. Years later, she met a fan who recounted how she broke quarantine for German measles to meet Gene, possibly thus infecting her at the same time. Salzburg argues that part of the reason that this story is so prominent in Tierney's story is its fictionalisation by Dame Agatha in The Mirror Crack'd. I love Christie novels, the book's tangential relationship with Hollywood means reading it would not be procrastination but study for my thesis, and it was available on Open Library. Done!

The Mirror Crack'd is a Miss Marple novel and much of the story takes place in her small house in the village of St Mary's Mead. St Mary's Mead, once a quiet town where everyone knew everyone, is changing, for example with the building of a new estate (called "the Development" by Miss Marple and her elderly friends). Miss Marple's friend Mrs Bantry complains about the local supermarket, which is full of giant boxes of cereal and where it can take fifteen minutes to find everything you need (!!!). Christie is a keen documenter of the changes in middle-class England in the twentieth century, and the book is full of pithy observations about changes in women's roles, skills and ambitions. What I like best about the way Christie does it is that there a faint scent of nostalgia for the way things were, with dedicated servants devoting themselves to their masters, but in the main part she recognises that times change and in fact modern times provide all sorts of benefits (especially for women), although she does seem to find it hard not to snark on how much sex the youngs have, which is quite hilarious from a modern perspective.

The drama in Mirror occurs when a film star Marina Gregg and her producer husband buy the local country house. They remodel it and then open in to host a local fête. At a small private reception given by the famous pair, one of the organisers of the event, a Mrs Badcock, is slipped a fatal dose of a drug in her drink and quietly expires. Without any real enemies (Mrs Badcock's greatest sin was being a slightly annoying busy body, a characteristic that is almost always proves fatal in cosy murder mysteries), suspicion falls first on her husband because, as Miss Marple sagely observes, "It so often is the husband." When he is cleared (temporarily, of course), the police start to question whether the intended victim was in fact Marina. Was it her husband? Her abandoned adopted children? A jealous ex-lover?

Because this is an Agatha Christie novel, the plot is full of twists and turns, red herrings and dead ends. The bodies pile up in a somewhat alarming (but entertaining) fashion, but the focus is always on Miss Marple's parlour and the vague thoughts that, as soon as they crystallise, will help her solve
the murder. I don't if it's because I knew the true story the novel was based on (i.e., the big twist) or because deep down I knew that reading this novel didn't really count as studying, but I didn't enjoy this book as much as I usually do the work of Dame Agatha. That said, it was still a cracking read, both entertaining as a mystery and as a social commentary on the passing of time. Three stars.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

The Wonder Lover by Malcolm Knox (2015)

John Wonder lives an unusual life. He has three families, each living in a different country, separated from each other by oceans. In each family, he has a wife and two children. Each pair of children is made up of a boy and a girl, with the son (Adam) older than the daughter (Evie). John spends one week in three with each family, living a carefully delineated life. This unusual life is possible because John Wonder is an unusual man. John works as an Authenticator, travelling the globe authenticating the type of feats that are recorded in the Guinness World Book of Records. Born without a scent, he makes himself innocuous, unnoticeable and unseen.

The Wonder Lover opens strongly, with the unusual (that word again!) literary device of being narrated collectively by all six children. In full disclosure, I borrowed this from the library thinking it was Marion Halligan's Goodbye Sweetheart, so I had a completely different idea of what the book was going to be about. That said, once I realised I what I had done, I went with it. The first half of the book is very well written and I was fascinated by the story of the determinately non-interesting man who had built up such an interesting life. But then, halfway through the novel, the author commits an unforgivable sin: John's world starts to fall apart because he meets Cucina, whp is thirty years his junior and the world's most beautiful woman.

It's time for some ranting. The year is 2015. Lolita was published in 1955. Since then, there have been many books, so so so many books, where the plot resolves around an old man lusting after a younger woman. This plot line needs to stop. It needs to die. It has been done to death and it's disgusting, creepy, always sexist and often downright misogynist. Worse still, it's boring. I want books to entertain me, engage my mind, make me think, make me care about characters and events and be interesting. THERE SHOULD BE NO MORE BOOKS WHERE OLD MEN LUST AFTER YOUNG BEAUTIFUL WOMEN. The quota of books containing that storyline has been reached. There are enough tales telling that particular story. There is literally no way this story can be retold in a new and interesting way. Please, let no author ever write about it ever again. It's time has come.

I did finish the book because I wanted to see what happened. Unfortunately, the end of the book is quite stupid. The women characters who appeared so intriguing at the start of the story end up as caricatures and it was all strangely unsatisfactory. The Wonder Lovers gets two stars and a time-out in the naughty corner.


Tuesday, May 26, 2015

The Truth and Other Lies by Sascha Arango (2014, translated by Imogen Taylor)

The Truth and other Lies opens in cracking fashion. Henry Hayden is sitting in a car, on a cliff. His mistress, Betty, has just handed him an ultrasound picture of their baby. He knows the baby is his and he must go home and tell his wife, Martha, that he is leaving her for a life of domesticity he does not want. He is trapped. The situation is even more complicated because Henry is a bestselling award-winning author of international fame and reknown. It was Betty from Moreany Publishing who discovered him when, on a day that she was fed up with her normal boring job, she decided to attack the slush pile and read and loved his first novel, Frank Ellis. Frank Ellis was a huge success and saved Moreany Publishing from folding. But, Henry has not written a single word of any of his successful books. Every word of every novel was written by Martha, whose heart he is about to break.

I know that seems like a lot of information and a bit spoiler-y, but all of that is told to us in the first seven pages. It is one of the best opening chapters I have ever read and it hooked me instantly. I was intending on reading just a little bit while eating my lunch but instead spent an hour zooming through the first 100 pages. After that, it slows down a little bit (which is good or I wouldn't have been able to stop!) but it remains engaging right up until the very end,

The Truth and other Lies reminds me a lot of Herman Koch's The Dinner, where the goalposts are constantly being shifted in directions you don't expect and (truthfully) kind of hope they don't go. The characters are unpleasant and act in ways that you don't understand but, like a car crash (of which there are several in this book) it's just impossible to look away. Like many others, I did find the end of the book a little bit unsatisfactory. That said, at just over 200 pages long, it is a good fast-moving read. 3.5 stars.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen by Mary Norris (2015)

In my other non-blogging life, I am an editor. I recently upgraded all of my hardware and, when surveying my desk, realised my reference library was a bit bare. So, with the blessings of my accountant, I went a little bit grammar-book wild. Let's just say ... I bought a lot of books! The first of these to arrive (along with a very useful Text Classic tote bag) is Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen by Mary Norris.

Mary Norris is a copy editor at The New Yorker. As an Australian, The New Yorker has not really been on my radar. I knew F Scott Fitzgerald (my literary boyfriend) published short stories in it and that it was well known enough to be riffed on in an episode of Seinfeld, but other than that, it was just another literary mag to me. Well, I now know that it is not just another literary mag but an esteemed American cultural institution, known in part for its excellent editorial quality, of which copy editors are a vital part. Between You & Me is a collection of essays about Norris' time at The New Yorker, moving between moments in her personal history, events at the magazine and reflections on grammar. In some places, this is done very well. For example, in "The Problem of Heesh", Norris reflects on the lack of a generally accepted gender-neutral pronoun. Of the option suggested by EB White, "heesh," she writes: "Heesh has the lovely property of looking as if it had been formed when "she" backed into "he" and spun around." I agree! (But I am also a proponent of using "their" as a third person pronoun, so not in agreement with Norris there). The abstract discussion of gender and pronoun becomes personal when Norris' brother reveals he is trangender and it is the changing of pronouns that trips Norris up the most. It's an excellent chapter.

I learned a lot in this book. For example, in the study and teaching of language, orescriptives are those who tell you what to do, and descriptives are those who describe what people say without judging it (I think I sit somewhere in the middle of those two - I understand that language is a dynamic ever-changing tool of communication but I also think it's very important that the distinction between less and fewer is maintained). I also found out that "emend" means to correct errors in something written. It was Noah Webster, of Webster's Dictionary fame, who is responsible for the differences between American and English spellings. He hated unnecessary letters (as Norris says, wanted to make the othography match the pronunciation) so took out the "u", switched the "re" with 'er" and tried to drop the "e" at the end of words like "axe" and"medicine" (thank God that didn't catch on!). As someone who works with clients from around the world, I now know who to blame for all of the unnecessary hassle I go through figuring out where an item will be published hence which style to use. Noah Webster was instantly moved to my No.1 most hated list, and for that alone it was worth reading this book.

Between You & Me is charming. It contains actual interesting discussions of grammar, which is a remarkable feat of its own. There is a chapter on pencils which is #onlyforthefans but, as a knitting enthusiast, I love hearing about other people's particular fascinations. Be warned, though, like the institution in which Mary is based, this book is very pleased with itself. There's a bit of humblebragging (like the time Mary picked up an error in a Philip Roth book and he wrote a note to her saying "Who is this woman? And will she come live with me?" (FN1)) and name-dropping, but then since if I knew and had worked with famous people I would be dropping it in conversation all the time, so that is forgivable. Mary pokes gentle fun at the stuffy ways of the magazine while at the same time being very convinced of the rightness of the way they do things there. This is completely understandable but at the same time somewhat amusing to read. It is a small flaw, though, and easily forgiven.

I enjoyed this book a lot. I learned many things while reading it and finished it with a smile on my face. 4.5 stars.

(I probably shouldn't say this but if you are interested in this book, I point you to Alice Mattison's excellent review at the LA Review of Books)

FN1: Based on Mary's compliments of Noth's prose, I borrowed I Married a Communist, after having previously tried but failed to finish Portnoy's Complaint. Again, I got 20 pages in and gave up. I don't understand the appeal of his books! But at least I tried).




Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Wishful Drinking by Carrie Fisher (2008)

My name is Belinda, and I am an addict. Fortunately for me, my addiction is somewhat benign: I cannot stop reading memoirs about drinking. On this site alone I have reviewed High Sobriety and Drink: The Intimate Relationship Between Women and Alcohol. I also recently read by did not review Drinking: A Love Story (I rated it 3.5 stars). I don't know why this type of story appeals to me more than any other type of memoir but it does! So when I read a review of Last Drink to LA on Desperate Reader, I knew it was time to scratch that itch again. Last Drink to LA wasn't available at any of my libraries but the Carrie Fisher's excellently titled Wishful Drinking was. I have read and very much enjoyed her novels in the past, so I was more than happy to pick this as my substitute.

For those who do not know, Carrie Fisher is the daughter of the divine Debbie Reynolds of Singing in the Rain fame and the not-so-divine Eddie Fisher of the leaving-his-wife-and-family-for-Elizabeth-Taylor fame. In addition to her own unusual Hollywood upbringing, Carrie Fisher became famous in her own right, firstly as an actor and now as a performer and writer. Wishful Drinking is a short book based on a one-woman show she did of the same name. Because of this, the tone is quite casual and chatty - she is addressing you, the reader, directly. It feels like a really personal narrative; like Fisher is telling us a story. And, with the life she has lived, her stories are really something.

Take, for example, the story about how her father and Elizabeth Taylor first hooked up after her husband Mike Todd died in a plane crash:

"Well, naturally, my father flew to Elizabeth's side, gradually making his way slowly to her front. He first dried her eyes with his handkerchief, then he consoled her with flowers, and ultimately consoled her with his penis. Now this made marriage to my mother awkward, so he was gone within the week."

Fisher doesn't hold back - she's honest about her struggles with drugs, marrying a gay man and being bipolar - but she also is able to make what must have been some really tough times engaging and heart-warming. Plus she has had some amazing stuff happen to her - like when Cary Grant rang her up twice to encourage her to stop taking drugs. TWICE! Be still, my heart! (and she smoked pot with Harrison Ford on the set of Star Wars. I knew he was a stoner).

This is quite a slight volume so don't take it on a long-haul flight but if you like Hollywood gossip, definitely take it. Four stars.


Sunday, May 10, 2015

Michael Pearson's Tradition Knitting by Michael Pearson (2014)


Michael Pearson's Traditional Knitting is an new and expanded edition of a book that was first released in 1984. In this book, Michael Pearson travels through the knitting communities of the British Isles, investigating the knitting traditions of each community. Here is a map of the places he travelled.



Pearson recounts how his method for finding out about the local knitting tradition changed in the researching for this book. Originally, he would arrive at the local tavern, order a pint and then strike up a conversation with a man who was wearing a handknit jumper. He says:

"On spotting a likely candidate, past experience even in those early days had taught me not to blast my way in, tap my chosen target on the shoulder and, by way of introducing myself, explain that I found the pattern on his gansey most intriguing. I also learned never to interrupt that most serious of games—dominoes. Apart from causing the poor fellow to splutter his pint over those dominoes, looking desperately for a way out, this approach somehow reduced the possibility of meeting the knitter, who, of course, was usually his wife. By then, having politely answered my questions (we were, after all, talking about a subject of common interest) it was usually too much for him to continue."

Seriously, what an adorable story! After a few towns, he started phoning ahead to introduce himself to the pub owner, who alerted the gansey-wearing men to Pearson's arrival and created a much more information-sharing friendly environment. And he certainly got a lot of information! Now I know that an entire cottage knitting industry existed, where women and children pumped out incredible amounts of handknitting for sale, and that this knitting industry largely collapsed when knitting machines were invented. I also now know that ganseys were invented because the gansey patterns, which combine knit and purl stitches, used extra wool, hence captured more warmth, which was vitally important for me who were out on a fishing boat all day. These patterns or combinations of stitches were usually family or village specific. Ganseys were knitted in the round on six or eight very long DPNs (which, incidentally, I tried after reading about in this book. I could not do it! I kept stabbing myself with all and could not get into a knitting rhythm.) Sizes were described in terms of how many repeats it would take to go around the torso - so a man might be a "sixteener" or "eighteener" (sixteen or eighteen repeats respectively).

Where possible, Pearson spoke to the knitter or knitter's descendants directly. However, even in the 1980s when this research was conducted, social and cultural changes in these towns meant that the rich local cultures that had previously existed were slowly disintegrating. Houses were being bought by weekenders, who only lived in the towns on the weekends, reducing the vitality of the towns. Additionally, fishing practices had changed, and the hard fishing lifestyle lived by the men and women in these town was often no longer viable. Where there were no knitters remaining, Pearson used archival resources such as local museums and photographs. The photographs of knitters and knitting throughout the book are really fascinating (although only the section on fair isle is in colour).


I like to knit and I like to read but I rarely read books about knitting other than pattern books. Although this book does contain some gansey and fair isle patterns, it is primarily a history rather than a pattern book. Traditional Knitting a fascinating insight into knitting and its history. It was not what I thought it would be when I picked up but I am so pleased to have read it. I know I said I would never knit another jumper but, after finishing this book, I kind of want to knit a gansey... (on a circular needle. I am not completely crazy!)

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

The Other Daughter by Lauren Willig (2015)

Rachel is an English governess looking after the children of the wealthy in France. She is situated in an uncomfortable position in the household: betwixt and between, she is neither upstairs nor downstairs. One day she receives a telegram informing her her mother is very sick and urging her to return to England. When her employer refuses to give her time off she quits and leaves immediately, only to arrive home to find out her mother has died of influenza and already been buried. Rachel is heartbroken; her father died when she was a small child and her mother was the only family she had. Even worse, her mother's landlord is evicting her, leaving Rachel unemployed, homeless and with only four days to pack up the house and leave with the few mementos of her parents she has: her mother's piano and her father's chess set.

Exhausted from her travels and devastated by the news, Rachel curls up on her mother's bed, taking comfort from a ritual from her childhood where she would climb into bed with her mother for reassurance. While in bed, something crinkled beneath her fingers. It was a page torn from an expensive magazine, the type her mother never read. On the page, her father's face stared up at her, much older than she remembered, next to a young woman. The caption underneath the photo read "Lady Olivia Standish, escorted by her father, the Earl of Ardmore". Rachel's father was alive, and not who she thought he was.

Rachel dashes to Oxford, to see her only remaining relative, a distant cousin David. She confronts him with the article and he confesses that he and her mother have known the truth all along. Distraught, she flees David's office. David sends one of his former students, Simon Montford, to follow her. Simon, like Rachel's father, is part of the aristocracy, and he knows Rachel's father and his other family well. Between them, they hatch a plan: Rachel will pose as a distant cousin to Simon. Through his connections, she will gain entry into London society and, somehow and somewhere, meet her father again.

The Other Daughter is set in the 1920s in England. It was a time of great change for the country: the Bright Young Things were breaking down conventions and scandalising conservatives while England has a whole was dealing with the aftermath of the Great War and the devastating effect it had on all social classes. I loved the '20s moments, like the two Evelyns canoodling in the corner of a nightclub and the too laugh-provoking language. The tales of fun and champagne were interpersed with moments of genuine pathos and, underlying it all, the search for Rachel's history and truth about her past. I enjoyed this book from start to finish and would readily recommend it for anyone who wants a good historical romantic read. Four stars.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Slush Pile by Ian Shadwell (2015)

15 years ago, Michael Ardenne won the Booker Prize. The years following the Booker Prize were a blur of literary festivals, women and booze. Now, married and living in the countryside near Sydney, he is a drunk, in debt and unable to write a word. Given an ultimatum by his long-suffering wife Tanya to work or get a job, Ardenne starts to read a slush pile - the unpublished novels sent to his publisher. He finds one with some promise and then starts to rewrite it as his own. The book is a huge hit, catapulting Ardenne to the heights of literary stardom once again. But soon, the original writer of the novel makes themselves known...

This is a really strange book. It starts off as a biting satire of the literary novel and the typical literary "hero" (white, male, trying to find himself and obsessed with touching his own penis) before veering into domestic melodrama, crime thriller and Lolita fantasies. It was incredibly readable but the tonal shifts were really disruptive of my reading experience. It's a first novel and Shadwell has a lot of writing skill, so there is some good stuff here but I am hesitant to recommend it. It's just an odd book.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Scandals of Classic Hollywood by Anne Helen Peterson (2014)

In my other life, I am a film scholar in the making. I am (slowly!) writing a postgraduate thesis on stardom and classical Hollywood. I was familiar with Anne Helen Petersen from her column Scandals of Classic Hollywood on the Hairpin and her blog Celebrity Gossip Academic Style (which now appears to be defunct), so when I saw this book on Netgalley I could not request it fast enough. Gossip! Scandal! Stardom! Hollywood! All of my favourite things. I was super chuffed to receive an ARC and started it straight away. And, then... Well, let's just say there's a reason it's taken me six months to write this review.

Scandals of Classic Hollywood is about the scandals that occurred during Hollywood's classical era (about 1910-1960). Petersen argues that scandals occur when actions of a star violate the status quo. Using an understanding of the star as an embodiment a particular way of life that resonates with the public, scandals occur when this embodiment is in some way disrupted - for example, when "Saint Ingrid" Bergman had an affair with a married director and got pregnant out of wedlock, the scandal was not so much her actions but how her actions violated her star image. All good so far. I agree with that completely and there are some good things about this book. The scandals that Petersen discusses are well selected and very interesting. All of them are entertaining to read about and were very scandalous at the time. She also brings light to some really important events in film history that shaped the film industry and how movies were made but are very little known about outside film studies, like the Fatty Arbuckle scandal. This is a good thing.

But (there's always a but!) this book has some really big negatives as well. Basically, Petersen is a really sloppy writer. Focusing on the Arbuckle scandal, Petersen describes his off-screen life as "a page straight out of a Dickens novel" before using examples that demonstrate that she has in fact never read a Dickens novel and doesn't understand what she is referring to. She says "Arbuckle was the star-director-producer powerhouse long before the age of Clooney and Affleck, which is part of the reason the studios were so threatened by him." What studios? How were they threatened, since you've just told us that studio Paramount gave him an awesome deal and "championed him as a master director, with an artistic touch." What about Charlie Chaplin, Arbuckle's contemporary who was also a star-director-producer powerhouse long before the age of Clooney and Affleck? Also, "age of Clooney and Affleck"? What does that even mean? What about Clint Eastwood, Warren Beatty, all of the other ones before Clooney and Affleck? Petersen is implying that Arbuckle was the kind of star that wouldn't be seen again for eighty years but, although this makes the story sound better and more scandalous, it's just not correct. Statements like that abound throughout the whole book and are very frustrating for a knowledgeable reader who knows that the truth is being manipulated for to make the story sound better (which, in all fairness, it does).

The thing is, Anne Helen Petersen has a PhD in film studies. One of her supervisors was the famous film scholar Janet Staiger. This kind of academic sloppiness is either plain laziness or domenstrates a complete lack of respect for her readers. Petersen has said that her book was not "legit" in academia because she got paid to write it. I suspect it was more that it demonstrates really poor scholarship. It's absolutely entertaining and a ripping read but so was Kenneth Anger's Hollywood Babylon. It would be perfect to read by the beach on a holiday but read with a grain of salt. Two and a half stars.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Inside the O'Briens by Lisa Genova (2015)

Joe O'Brien is a cop. He lives in Boston in a house with his wife Rosie, his four children and his eldest son's wife. Lately, Joe hasn't been feeling well. His balance is off and his memory is not what it used to be. He has started to twitch in ways that make him feel uncomfortable and the whole family is made uncomfortable by the uncontrollable rage that bursts out of him at unexpected times. After avoiding the issue for too long, he goes to see his doctor, who refers him to a neurologist. The neurologist runs some tests and delivers Joe some awful, awful news - he has Huntingdon's disease, a terminal neurological condition that "is characterized by a progressive loss of voluntary motor control and an increase in involuntary movements."

While that news is genuinely terrible, the neurologist follows it up with even worse information. Because Huntingdon's is an inherited condition, there is a 50% chance that each of Joe and Rosie's children will also have the disease. The book follows the O'Briens as they grapple with this news. Joe needs to get used to the idea that he has to stop work and will gradually lose control of his own body. Additionally, he realises that his mother, who was sent to an institution for a condition that noone every named, also died of Huntingdon's and no-one told him. Each of the children have to decide whether they want to take the test and find out whether or not they have the disease. Each of them has something at stake: JJ's wife is pregnant with their first child; Meghan is a ballet dancer; Katie is a yoga teacher and Patrick is still finding his place in the world.

This book is meticulously researched and it is one of Lisa Genova's greatest writing skills to be able to personalise debilitating neurological conditions. I learnt a lot about Huntingdon's while reading this book. However, unlike the previous Genova novel I read and really enjoyed, Still Alice, I always felt like the O'Brians were kept at a clinical distance from me. I don't know if it's the novel's Boston setting or that I thought the children should stop dilly-dallying and just make a decision (I'd take the test right away - knowledge is power) but I felt as if I was watching a story play out rather than being emotionally involved. It's a good book, just not as good as Still Alice. Three stars.