Tag Archives: Marieke Hardy

My Top 12 Australian Books

Today the lovely Kim of Reading Matters posted a list of ten books written by Australian authors she loves in honour of Australia Day. So I asked if I could copy her. Here I have to say, before I share my list with you, that Kim’s is bound to be much better so you must check it out. Kim is also only reading Australian books this year which I am going to be following with much interest. My knowledge and Australian reading might not be as good as Kim’s however I have loved many a book by an Australian author and so here are twelve books I would highly, highly recommend you give a whirl. You can find the full review, bar one, by clicking on the books title if you want to find out more.

12. Burial Rites – Hannah Kent

16122081

Burial Rites was one of those books, based on a true story, that blew me way. It is the late 1820’s in Iceland and the lives of District Officer Jon Jonsson, his wife Margret and daughters Lauga and Steina, are changed on their farm of Kornsá when the news that they will be housing a criminal in the lead up to her execution, for we are in times when prisons do not exist. The criminal in question is Agnes Magnusdottir who, many believe, killed ‘healer’ Natan Ketilsson and his neighbour along with Sigridur and Fredrik who are to be housed elsewhere for fear they will concoct some tale or escape. What I thought was particularly great about this novel was that first we ask ourselves if we think Agnes is a killer and then suddenly start to ponder why on earth this family have been chosen to house someone who could be incredibly dangerous. Stunningly written, utterly compelling.

11. Bitter Greens – Kate Forsyth

9780749013233

As many of you will well know I love fairytales and my very favourite above all the others is that of Rapunzel. In Kate Forsyth’s brilliant Bitter Greens we are sent into the lives of three women. First is Charlotte-Rose de la Force, who has been exiled from the court of the Sun King Louis XIV after a fall from grace too far (which in those times was saying something) and is banished to live in an Abbey with nuns. Second is Selena Leonelli, once one of the most beautiful women in Italy and even the muse of the Venetian artist Titian. Depicted forever in his paintings she has one fear, time, and how it will take her beauty something she will do anything to keep. Thirdly we have Margherita, a young girl trapped in a tower forever unless she finds a way to escape. Yes, you have guessed it all three of these women have the story of Rapunzel in their life somewhere be they the one who retells the tale, mirrors the tale or indeed is part of the tale. Through these three women we learn the magic of storytelling, the hardship of women through the years and how they have had to struggle (in good and bad ways) in order to survive. It is utterly marvellous.

10. You’ll Be Sorry When I’m Dead – Marieke Hardy

9781742377261

Those of you who have followed this blog for sometime will know that I am something of a Marieke Hardy fanboy. I think she is ace and love her thoughts, even when I don’t agree with them, whatever they are when she discussed books on my favourite book TV show here. You’ll Be Sorry When I’m Dead  is a collection of frank, funny and filthy memoir essays about various points in Marieke’s life so far. It is one of those books which manages to make you laugh out loud, feel ever so uncomfortable at its honesty, possibly makes you want to cry and then makes you laugh all over again. When someone writes their memoirs it isn’t necessarily that the full truth doesn’t come out, just that the author tends to look at things in a rose tinted way, highlighting their best bits – not so in the case of Marieke, she is quite open to showing some of her worst/most cringe worthy and I love her all the more for it, in a non stalker kind of way.

9. Mateship With Birds – Carrie Tiffany

9780330544467

I have just noticed that the cover of this book is very like my new wallpaper, anyway… On the outskirts of a town somewhere in Australia in the early 1950’s we join two neighbours. Harry owns a dairy farm and spends his days between milking his herd and watching the local wildlife, mainly a family of kookaburra’s, and looking over his past seemingly happy with and yet questioning his lot in life. Betty rents the house next door with her two children Michael and Little Hazel, often wondering what has become of her life and often wondering about Harry. We follow these two characters, Betty’s children, and their weird neighbour Mues over what I thought was a season – though it could be much longer or indeed shorter as Mateship with Birds has a sense of nothing and everything happening all at once, all in the grubby wilds of the countryside. I loved this, it has the earthy countryside wilds elements which I love, it has a deep sense of unease at times and is a book which just holds you from start to finish. It is hard to say more than that.

8. The Spare Room – Helen Garner

9781847672650

When Helen says that her old friend Nicola to come and stay in her spare room she has a limited idea of what she is taking on. It is not simply a friend coming to stay for a short holiday; Nicola has terminal cancer and could possibly have come to stay with Helen to die. Helen becomes more than just Nicola’s friend she becomes her nurse, maid and the one who stand up to her no matter how unpopular that might prove. What follows is an emotionally gut wrenching and heartbreaking account of friendship at its most potent and at its most tested. Having been a carer once before I read this the honesty of the novel was both shocking yet also deeply consoling.

7. All The Birds, Singing – Evie Wyld

“Another sheep, mangled and bled our, her innards not yet crusting and the vapours rising from her like a steamed pudding.” And so starts ‘All The Birds, Singing’ and so we find our heroine Jake as she takes in the sight before her, another of her sheep has been mutilated, killed by some ‘thing’. Yet what is the ‘thing’ that could be killing her flock one by one? Could it be the local kids who think she is some out of town witch? Could it be the neighbours’ crazy son? Could it be a monster, be it real, imagined or from Jake’s hidden past? Could it be linked to the sudden appearance of a new ‘incomer’ in the area? Evie Wyld keeps us guessing as the story goes back in time whilst also going forward, we glimpse moments in Jake’s past not from the point where something awful happened that she fled but slowly back to that moment, which is a treat to read whilst being both highly accomplished and very original. It is another of those wonderful books that keeps you guessing without you (quite) tearing your hair out.

6. Loaded – Christos Tsiolkas

9780099757719

I am a huge fan of The Slap, I am a huge fan of Barracuda yet it is Christos’ earlier and slighter novel Loaded that I think has stayed with me the longest after I have read it and I think it is because of the voice. he narrator of ‘Loaded’ is quite a fascinating one. Nineteen year old Ari lives in the city of Melbourne in Australia, he is Greek, he has no job, he is gay but secretly, he loves nothing more than going on massive drink and drug fuelled binges preferably with lots of random anonymous sex along the way. In fact from the first page where the novel opens with Ari masturbating with a massive hangover you pretty much know the story that you are getting here, well you think you do at least, as we follow him for the next twenty four hours. As we read on between all the drug taking, drinking, etc there is a lot that this book is looking at and saying. One of the main senses you get is a sense of needing to belong, to be a part of something and yet rejecting that very thing at the same time. The other is just what it means to be an Australian man.

5. Under The Skin – Michel Faber

829662

There is no link to this book because as I have discovered several times now Michel Faber is an author who I simply cannot write reviews of the books of. I can devour the books happily, I can sit and interview him fine and dandy yet when I come to write a review of his work it’s like a block. In Under the Skin Isserley, an unusual-looking woman with strangely scarred skin, drives through the Scottish Highlands both day and night, looking for just the right male hitchhikers. She picks them up, makes enough small talk to determine she’s made a safe choice, then hits a toggle switch on her car, releasing a drug that knocks her victims out. But why? Well you will have to read the book to find out and it is so worth doing.

4. The Natural Way of Things – Charlotte Wood

25876358

I only read this last year however I know it is a book that will stay with me for quite some time as it has a force of nature about it. When Verla and Yolanda find themselves waking up in a strange unknown room, both strangers to each other, dressed in old fashioned uniforms their first instinct is that they are dreaming, then when the realise they are not they panic. Well, as much as anyone can panic when they are groggy from clearly having been drugged. Soon they are taken to another room, where they initially think they will be raped or killed, to have their heads shaved and join a further eight women, all dressed the same and shaven, who too have become captives to a pair of men. Why and for what they do not know, yet. We follow them as the shocking truth is revealed and these two women’s lives are changed forever. A dystopian thriller, a feminist text and a love story to nature.

3. On The Beach – Nevil Shute

9780099530251

In an alternative 1963, bear in mind this book was originally published in 1957, a nuclear war has left nothing much of the northern hemisphere and the radiation fall out is heading south to Australia where ‘On The Beach’ is set and where the last of earths survivors are living in a mixture of denial and hope. To say all this is not to spoil the story as its pretty much spelt out to you in the first 40 pages (and of course in the blurb), in fact really you could say this story is the tale of the end of humanity, unless of course there is some major miracle – which of course I wont tell you if there is or not as you need to read this book if you haven’t. It is one of the most emotionally draining, terrifying and yet life affirming novels I have read set at the potential end of the world.

2. The Secret River – Kate Grenville

9780857860842

One of Australian’s contemporary classics, which also caused much controversy when it came out, is The Secret River which initially looks like a tale about one of the first convicts to Australia trying to make a life for themselves, yet soon reveals itself to be superbly brutal and shocking novel about racism and a rather dark time in Australia’s history. As men try and stake their claims on the continent and in doing so tragic and horrific events unfold. I don’t want to say anymore than that for fear of ruining the impact this book will have on you if you are yet to read it.

1. The Narrow Road to the Deep North – Richard Flanagan

18803672

This book left me speechless and almost unable to review it because of how moving and brilliant it is. Alwyn ‘Dorrigo’ Evans, based somewhat on Flanagan’s own father, is one of the survivors of the Death Railway in Burma where he was a prisoner of war. We follow his life before, during and after it and look at the man before and the man forever changed afterwards. The Narrow Road to the Dark North is a book that you experience, one of those books which makes you feel every paragraph emotionally and in your very core. Not only did it introduce me to a period in history, and indeed a place, that I knew almost nothing about; it also made me want to be kinder than I am, note how lucky I am, tell my loved ones I love them more often than I do and reminded me that not a second of life should be wasted because you never know what may come around the next corner. It is a book about war, peace, love, hate, death and life. Yes, it really is one of those life changing and life affirming books, an incredibly written modern masterpiece. I think it is one of my books of all time.

There is my list. Going of and trying to scout if I had missed any authors (and yes I know some of my list are anglo-Australian) I found a whole selection of authors I must read; Peter Carey, Thomas Keneally, Shirley Hazzard, Gail Jones, David Malouf, Christina Stead, Patrick White, etc. I must also read some more of the authors above and more form authors such as Tim Winton. Oh and get to some more of the classics too. I really want to read Picnic at Hanging Rock quite badly. Anyway, I would love to know which books you have read on the list and also which are your favourite books by Australian authors, I am always ready for more recommendations. Happy Australia Day everyone, though if you are in Australia it is probably the day after – oops. Now over to you…

32 Comments

Filed under Random Savidgeness

Deep Water – Patricia Highsmith

Patricia Highsmith is one of those authors who I have been meaning to read for years and years. (I think I said I would write a list of such authors I have meant to get to a while back, oops maybe in the next week or so.) Recently Virago sent me a set of some of her reissued novels and so I was left with the delightful choice of which one to read first. I settled on Deep Water as my first choice after authors Stella Duffy, Sarah Hilary and Jill Dawson all waxed lyrical on how marvellous they both thought it was, and goodness me were they right.

9780349006260

Virago Modern Classics, paperback, 1957 (2015 edition), fiction, 340 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

“Vic didn’t dance, but not for the reasons that most men who don’t dance give to themselves. He didn’t dance simply because his wife liked to dance.” As Deep Water opens we are thrown straight into a very middle class evening of wine dancing and merriment at a house in the suburbs of Little Wesley. Vic Van Allen is observing the merriment rather than joining in with it, specifically watching over his wife Melinda who spends most of the evening dancing, rather indiscreetly, with her latest male admirer Ralph. We soon learn that this has become a bit of a regular, rather annoying, aspect to the marriage of Vic and Melinda, whilst for a while now Vic has let Melinda have small infatuations they have started to become too public.

In a rash moment of annoyance, the otherwise well liked and thought of Vic manages to whisper in Ralph’s ear ‘If I really don’t like somebody, I kill him …You remember Malcolm McRae, don’t you?’ It transpires Ralph does, and Vic’s ruse, which is of course untrue, works as Ralph backs off, even though the whole town soon starts talking about it. Yet within weeks Melinda has become very close with pianist Charley, new to town, someone who doesn’t seem to scare of so easily and within days Vic’s fiction becomes much more of a reality.

It was astonishing to Vic how quickly the story travelled, how interested everybody was in it – especially people who didn’t know him well – and how nobody lofted a finger or a telephone to tell the police about it. There were, of course, the people who knew him and Melinda very well, or fairly well, knew why he had told the story, and found it simply amusing. But there were people who didn’t know him or Melinda, didn’t know anything about them except by hearsay, who had probably pulled long faces on being told the story, and who seemed to take the attitude that he deserved to be hauled in by the police, whether it was true or not. Vic deduced that from some of the looks he got when he walked down the main street of the town.

It is very difficult to write about Deep Water without giving too much away. I think it is fair to say we know from the off that things are not going to go well for Vic and Melinda and that there is going to be a murder (or maybe more) ahead. This would frankly be well trodden ground if it wasn’t for two things, Vic himself and Vic and Melinda’s marriage, which I think compel this into being a thriller rather unlike any that I have read before.

Firstly we have Vic’s character which is possibly one of the most interesting insights into someone as they go down a dark road to disastrous actions. From the start we are made to sympathise with Vic. He is a man who leads a decent harmless life. He has wealth via an allowance (which admittedly we never know much about) and so has set up his own small press publishing lesser known works which he goes in as and when he feels like, yet employing one of the locals full time. Outside the hobby of his business he likes to spend the day reading, contemplating, oh and breeding snails and letting bed bugs use his blood while he learns about them. Yes, a slight oddness lies within Vic but as we watch the way his wife carries on around him, we forgive him, forget it or just think it’s adorably geeky.

How many of us would allow their partner/husband/wife bring back different beau’s every few months, they are clearly having sex with, and invite them for dinner and indeed let them stay till the small hours dancing together in front of you willing you to go to bed in the former spare room which is now yours? No, me neither. Yet Vic doesn’t seem bothered, despite their having one child he remains asexual in many ways not responding to other local wives flirtations, if anything it seems some kind of penance or game he just deals with. Well, until he reaches his limits, which to be fair we all would. (Note – if you think I have given everything away, not a chance, we aren’t past page 50 yet!)

Vic said in a light, joking tone, ‘It’s too bad I’m married to you, isn’t it? I might have a chance with you if I were a total stranger and met you out of the blue. I’d have money, not be too bad looking, with lots of interesting things to talk about -’
‘Like what? Snails and bed bugs?’ She was dressing to go out with Charly that afternoon, fastening around her waist a belt that Vic had given her, tying round her neck a purple and yellow scarf that Vic had chosen carefully and bought for her.
‘You used to think snails were interesting and that a lot of other things were interesting, until your brain went to atrophy.’
‘Thanks. I like my brain fine and you can have yours.’

The other mystery, aside from the murders of the past and any that may follow, that we become fascinated is how on earth Vic and Melinda’s marriage ended up in such a horrific state. Unlike War of the Roses (one of my favourite films) or Gone Girl (Gillian Flynn is a huge Highsmith fan and discusses Deep Water in this edition) this is not a case of marital misunderstandings turning to malice or two deeply unlikeable people marrying each other and causing the other hell, this is the case of one woman flaunting her affairs, toying with her husband and getting away with it. Melinda is all the more fascinating as whilst we never get inside her head, which I admit I would have liked to, we watch spiral out of control as she loses control of the situation she has created. It is fascinating as we watch these two characters unfold and even more fascinating as we start to side with one of them. I will leave it at that.

I loved, if that is the right word, my first foray into Highsmith so much. Deep Water is one of the most entertaining, snarky, camply dark, vicious and twisted psychological thrillers I have read. It is also one of the most unusual as the reader watches a sociopath come to the fore from their normally meek mild mannered self… and we egg him on and like him, even understanding him oddly, the whole time. It is a fascinating insight into the mind of a killer, if this is a prime example of what Highsmith fondly described as “my psychopath heroes”, I can’t wait to meet the rest. If you haven’t read Deep Water then honestly, erm, dive in – you are in for an absolute treat.

Who else has read Deep Water and what did you make of it? Which other Highsmith novels have you read and would you recommend? I have already got my next Highsmith lined up and ready to read. I was going to read The Talented Mr Ripley next but the film, which is brilliant, is still rooted in my head so I am going to save that a while. I cannot wait for This Sweet Sickeness to come out next year in print, as Marieke Hardy brought it to ABC’s The Book Club and it sounded brilliant. I have decided that I am going to give Carol/The Price of Salt a whirl next, especially as the film with (the always brilliant) Cate Blanchet is coming out soon. I genuinely can’t wait.

6 Comments

Filed under Books of 2015, Patricia Highsmith, Review, Virago Modern Classics

Books That I’ve Bought of Late; The London Edition

I spent most of last week down in London having a lovely time catching up with lots of friends and getting very nervous before getting rather tipsy at the Green Carnation Prize winner event. This all naturally included rather a lot of falling to bookshops and buying quite a lot of books, which I thought I would share with you all as we all like a bit of book porn don’t we?

First up were four books that I have been meaning to get my hands on for ages and ages after lots and lots of people were talking about them around Halloween…

Galley Ghosts

These four gorgeous mini paperbacks are ghostly short stories by E. L Barker, Robert Louis Stevenson, Edith Wharton and P.G. Wodehouse. Don’t they look great as a little collection? As usual I am rather slow to the party and indeed have been meaning to buy them via Galley Beggar Press’ website online, however they were on prominent display at the gorgeous new Foyles store (they haven’t paid me to say that you wait till I share it with you on Thursday) and so they were whipped off the shelves and run to the tills.

Next up was a find when I fell into Hatchard’s which is one of my favourite bookshops because of its oldy-worldy-ness. You feel like you have fallen back in time in some way, which was apt as I was after a classic crime novel by members of The Detection Club…

IMG_6664

Gavin has chosen The Floating Admiral (yes a book on a bloody boat) as his classic choice on the next episode of Hear Read This. I don’t know masses about The Detection Club, just that they were a select group of crime novels, including Agatha Christie, who would wrote a chapter of a book each – one of which was this one. I am really looking forward to this one as it is from the golden age of crime, which links in with the next two random purchases…

British library editions

The British Library have started publishing books, these are not any old books (though they are old books) but recovered crime classics that have gone out of print. My eye was caught by J. Jefferson Farjeon’s (who wrote more than sixty books, who knew?) Mystery in White, in part as it was in prime position in Waterstones Islington, as it had the subtitle A Christmas Crime Story and regular visitors to this blog will know I like a Christmas story over, erm, Christmas. This seemed perfect, a broken down train in the snow and a deserted country house, what more could you want. As I looked around Murder Undergound by Mavis Doriel Hay which couldn’t have been a better present to myself from London could it?

Just as I was leaving the store I then spotted a book that I had to buy because of the title alone…

IMG_6663

How could you not want a book by Murakami with the title The Strange Library. This was a no brainer and at the till the bookseller was super duper effusive about it saying it was a marvellous dark little fairy tale, so it should be just my sort of read.

Finally I should add another three books though admittedly I didn’t buy them, though I think I did quite well on the buying front frankly.

IMG_6660

On the Thursday night I attended the Penguin Annual Bloggers Night at Foyles (yes them again) where I was lucky enough to meet three authors who have books out in 2015; Emma Hooper, Claire Fuller and Julia Rochester, so I grabbed their books. I also spoke to and shook the hand of William Gibson which was nice, though his books went like gold dust. I hear Marieke Hardy is a fan. It was also lovely to see Annabel, Simon, Sakura and Kim (the latter two also very nicely showed up at the Green Carnation Party) and we had a lovely catch up and natter, including the idea of having bloggers meet ups, as we did it once and it was lovely.

All in all a rather wonderful trip and a rather good book haul don’t you think? Which of these have you read and what did you make of them? Which of them do you fancy reading? What have you bought of late?

11 Comments

Filed under Books That I've Bought of Late

Man Booker 2014 Musings

Unless you were like me, in which case you were far too busy moving furniture, walls and the like, then you all probably saw the longlist for the Man Booker Prize 2014. With its rule changes last year, becoming open to any book written in English anywhere in the world published for the first time between October 2013 and September 2014, the long list was one which many felt would now be an American full house. It doesn’t seem to be the case, yet weirdly it doesn’t seem to be a longlist that is doing very much for me.

Here it is in full in case you too were otherwise engaged and have been since…

To Rise Again at a Decent Hour – Joshua Ferris (Viking)
The Narrow Road to the Deep North – Richard Flanagan (Chatto & Windus)
We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves – Karen Joy Fowler (Serpent’s Tail)
The Blazing World – Siri Hustvedt (Sceptre)
J –  Howard Jacobson (Jonathan Cape)
The Wake – Paul Kingsnorth (Unbound)
The Bone Clocks – David Mitchell (Sceptre)
The Lives of Others – Neel Mukherjee (Chatto & Windus)
Us – David Nicholls (Hodder & Stoughton)
The Dog – Joseph O’Neill (Fourth Estate)
Orfeo – Richard Powers (Atlantic Books)
How to be Both –  Ali Smith (Hamish Hamilton)
History of the Rain – Niall Williams (Bloomsbury)

Man Booker Five

I have only actually got five of them, I would have had six but I found the Niall Williams gratingly pretentious when I tried to read it a while back, and have read not a one so I can’t judge them on what’s inside yet very little really excites me here. Actually that is not 100% true or fair. I am excited by the Karen Joy Fowler because that is a book I have been wanting to read ever since I saw it on the sadly (and criminally) now defunct Review Show. I have also heard amazing things about the Flanagan in all the right places, from Marieke Hardy to  Kim of Reading Matters. I have also read Mukherjee, Nicholls and Smith before and really, really liked their work. I am also intrigued by the Kingsmith, which would be a marvellous winner as it is a debut and Unbound, who publish it, are a crowd sourced publishers, exciting. Yet I am still not really that excited and really with a prize like the Man Booker I should be.

The Williams-effect might be part of it, I may be judging the books on that. I may also be feeling indifferent to it because a) I am knackered post festival b) Ferris and Mitchell are two authors many people love yet I just simply do not get. It could be that it just all feels terribly white middle classed male (with the exceptions of the women and Mukherjee) and not the exciting, vibrant, diverse list I always hope it is going to be. I also think it is really strange that at present so many (5) of the books aren’t even out, Jacobson not coming out until the 25th of September, it doesn’t seem a list that can yet excite the public does it? And does it mean if the dates don’t change then the publishers are breaking this rule – Each publisher of a title appearing on the longlist will be required to have no fewer than 1,000 copies of that title available in stock within 10 days of the announcement of the longlist. Will they be withdrawn/disqualified? Today it seems about the only exciting thing that might happen from this list.

It makes me wonder if the Man Booker is really the prize for me anymore. Maybe I should just stick to the Women’s Prize (which I find very difficult to call the Bailey’s, and I love that tipple) and Fiction Uncovered as it seems that is where the well written AND diverse voices most seem to be found with very similar prize remits. Maybe I should read a few and reserve judgement? What do you all think?

17 Comments

Filed under Man Booker

Book Notebooks, Keeping Up With Tradition

Isn’t it weird how sometimes things seem to crop up at just the right time, or a memory pops into your head unbidden that then means a lot at a later point? I had a serious case of this over the weekend, which in its own way has rather a bookish twist.

I was just off to the post office to finally send Marieke Hardy a Chris Ware inspired pen pal parcel (if you are reading this – unlikely – Marieke I am sorry it has taken so long, I have written loads of excuses in my parcel) to Australia. As I waited in the never ending queue, and mourned the days of the post office being in the now closed local bookshop, I spotted some notebooks which instantly sent me off into the past. Bright red Silvine notebooks.

I can vividly remember Gran having these notebooks in which she kept all sorts of notes. Be they shopping lists, random things to remember or of course notes on what she was reading, in to these books they would go – those or some weird notebooks she inherited or possibly stole when she left her job. Initially I thought nothing of it, though it seemed apt I spotted them as I had really been missing her that morning, weird how random days can just get you the little buggers. But I bought one, popping a note about the memory of them in it, and included it in my parcel bound for Oz.

Anyway, as I said I didn’t think much of it after that. Until after having taken my old iPhone off to be sold, I went to catch up with my varying impending reviews and realised all my ‘bookish notes’ had failed to transfer from phone to phone. I was distraught, weeping almost happened, vexation hit. Awful.

Well after an hour blethering about it, moaning about it on twitter and then remembering I backed those notes up to Gmail – goodness only knows how, I can’t blinking remember. I came up with the idea that really I need to have hard copies of these notes, somewhere reliable and so I made a special trip up the road and came home with these…

005

Yes, four of the notebooks that Gran used to use. Four may seem excessive but at 59p a go you can’t go wrong can you, so how could I not? I have a wanton craving for stationery at all times and this sated it in the lead up to pay day. Most importantly though I liked the idea that a tradition of bookish sorts has been passed down the family line and now when I write my bookish notes I can think of Gran as I do so, not that she wouldn’t flit through my mind anyway, as it’s almost like I can write the notes to her as she’s not on the end of the phone.

Do you have fate filled moments like this? Have you gained any bookish hand me down traditions? Where do you keep your book notes? And one of the biggest mysteries of all (ha, how to hype a question) why is it people who love books also really love stationery?

13 Comments

Filed under Random Savidgeness

Beautiful Ruins – Jess Walter

Each and every summer the press always give us lists of the books that will be the perfect beach read. One which kept coming up time and time again, and had the most striking cover, was Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter, deemed as this summer’s ‘literary’ beach read. This put it on my list of books I must read along with all the acclaim it had received in America. It was however ABC’s The Book Club over in Australia that finally gave me the push to read it when they announced it as one of their titles for October and so I decided I would read it whilst having some delusions of grandeur that I was technically reading along with Jason Steger, Jennifer Byrne and Marieke Hardy.

Penguin Books, 2013, paperback, fiction, 337 pages, kindly sent by publisher

It is initially another quiet summer in the life of Pasquale Tursi, the owner of a floundering Italian coastal hotel with big dreams called The Hotel Adequate View, until the arrival of an actress as his latest guest. This actress Dee Moray has been sent away from the set of Cleopatra, which is filming over the waters, by one of its producers and is under the impression she is terminally ill. Her arrival changes things for Pasquale who has been too long stuck with his widowed mother and batty battle axe of an aunt.

We then switch to the (roughly) present day and Hollywood, where life is fast, furious and pretty materialistic and forgetful. Claire Silver is assistant to one of LA’s biggest producers, Michael Dean, having always wanted to produce her own shows this should be a dream but she is bored and stuck in a rut both work wise and personally. However on what looks to be another dull day of dreadful pitches, with the likes of struggling writer Shane, when an Italian elderly man called Pasquale turns up looking for her boss. As we find out why, Walter strings all the stories together and unfinished events unfold.

Beautiful Ruins is an interesting book in part because it has so much to say, almost too much. If the setting of filming Cleopatra and all the gossip and commotion from the set, possible love story at the hotel and how it all links into modern day, we also end up following many, many, many sub characters and plots that take us as far as a community theatre in Idaho to Edinburgh festival.

Unfortunately this subsequently stretches the book and its main story to capacity and the tale of Pasquale and Dee is the heart of the book and yet I didn’t feel the book concentrated them enough. For example I could easily have done away with the link to modern Hollywood where Michael Deane might initially create a few laughs (his amazing show ‘Hookbook’ for one) but soon a much darker side appears that I really disliked, and not in a good way. Also any laughter from/at Michael is swiftly killed every time Claire appears. Her misery with her pretty fantastic job and gorgeous boyfriend mixed with her one dimensional character make her feel like a part of the set used just for the sake of adding an occasional twist (Shane is also equally one dimensional) which is a shame as Walter’s can write characters brilliantly.

The first impression one gets of Michael Deane is of a man constructed of wax, or perhaps prematurely embalmed. After all these years, it may be impossible to trace the sequence of facials, spa treatments, mud baths, cosmetic procedures, lifts and staples, collagen implants, outpatient touch ups, tannings, Botox injections, cyst and growth removals, and stem-cell injections that have caused a seventy-two-year-old man to have the face of a nine-year-old Filipino girl.

It is in Italy where the book really comes alive with all the heady atmosphere of a summer on the coast, the almost deserted villages wonderful quirky inhabitants and the glamour and fascination of everything on the set of Cleopatra, I adored all of it. This sadly meant that when we switched to the modern section I would find myself inwardly groaning and looking at how many pages I had to read through before I got to the good bit again. If we had stayed in Italy for most of the book and switched to America in the final quarter (or maybe less) for the purposes of the storyline I would have been so much happier and enjoyed the book so much more.

“Leave before this place kills you like it killed your father.”
“I would never leave you.”
“Don’t worry about me. I will die soon enough and go to your father and poor brothers.”
“You’re not dying,” Pasquale said.
“I am already dead inside,” she said. “You should push me out into the sea and drown me like that old sick cat of yours.”
Pasquale straightened. “You said my cat ran away. While I was at University.”
She shot him a glance from the corner of her eye. “It is a saying.”
“No. It’s not a saying. There is no such saying such as that. Did you and Papa drown my cat while I was in Florence?.”
“I’m sick, Pasqo! Why do you torment me?”

There are some fabulous set pieces in Beautiful Ruins along with some truly wonderful characters. Walter does some very interesting things in terms of the text too. We have the two stories in the different times coming together yet we also get snippets of Shanes film pitch, an unpublished chapter of Michael’s autobiography and the first chapter of a book written by a guest whilst at Pasquale’s hotel. Sadly, for me, these additional ‘forms of media’, whilst interesting like all the additional storylines, detracted from the main heart and soul of the book. I also didn’t really like how everything finished up, though I will say the last chapter of the book is one of the best, and most clever, pieces of writing and executed stunningly. Which made it all the more frustrating because when Walter is good he is amazing. I just wish all the book had been like that, oh and that it had all been about the Italy storyline really, that could have been one of my reads of the year.

19 Comments

Filed under Jess Walter, Penguin Books, Review

The Woman Upstairs – Claire Messud

As of next week on Monday’s something slightly different is coming to Savidge Reads. I had planned to start it today however I wanted to get my thoughts on Clare Messud’s ‘The Woman Upstairs’ out into the ether before it is talked about on my favourite book show, Australia’s ‘The Book Club’, tomorrow. It is a book I am somewhat confused about, so I really can’t wait for the show.

Virago Books, 2013, hardback, 301 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

From the very first line of ‘The Woman Upstairs’ we are taken into the head of Nora Eldridge. From the outside she is one of life’s good people who everyone thinks is lovely, she is a teacher after all and she cared for her mother through her terminal illness, yet no one really takes the time to actually befriend her. Once we are inside her head, as the reader is, it becomes clear that still waters run deep and Nora is a woman who has been good but had also spent years of her life getting very, very angry.

“How angry am I? You don’t want to know. Nobody wants to know about that.”

Why is Nora so angry? Well to tell you that would give quite a lot away, but I will say that in part it is because she is aware she has naturally become one of life’s wallflowers but also when the Shadid family come into her life, when Reza becomes one of her students, Nora experiences a side of life she gas never seen before, she becomes useful and a trusted friend to both his father, Skandar, and also his mother, Sirena, who is an artist something Nora only ever got to the point she teaches it rather than exhibits it. It is through this friendship that Nora at once flowers and strangely starts to unravel.

Yet like with Nora and her complexities and the fact she is really at odds with herself and those around her, becoming something of a contradiction, so is ‘The Woman Upstairs’ as a book itself. It is one that I found utterly compelling and fascinating, then rather timid and (I hate to say it) a bit dull and boring in parts. In fact very like Nora all over, so maybe that was the point and I missed it, which could easily be the case.

“Don’t all women feel the same? The only difference is how much we know we feel it, how in touch we are with our fury. We’re all furies, except the ones that are too damn foolish, and my worry now is that we’re brainwashing them from the cradle, and in the end the ones who are smart will be too damned foolish. What do I mean? I mean the second graders at Appleton Elementary, sometimes the first graders even, and by the time they get too my classroom, to the third grade, they’re well and truly gone – they’re full of Lady Gaga and Katy Perry and French manicures and how their hair looks! In the third grade. The care more about their hair or their shoes than about galaxies or caterpillars or hieroglyphics.”

The rage and anger that Nora expresses in the first chapter made the book utterly compelling and I thought ‘ooh this is going to be a great dark outpouring here’, yet every great first chapter really needs the rest of the book to live up to it and keep the momentum and as I read on the book held its own for the first third and then I just found the middle section really, really monotonous. I felt like Messud had lost the fire of Nora and the passion she had to put this voice out there and so started to use Nora and Sirena to talk about art and what it means to the individual and the masses. None of which I could really have given a toss about, and with the right voice I should have, I just found myself wanting Nora to get bloody furious again and do something with all that fury.

“You’re thinking, how would I know whether I was romantically in love, I whose apparently nonexistent love life would suggest a prudish vacancy, uterus shrivelled like a corn husk and withered dugs for breasts? You’re thinking that whatever else she does, the Woman Upstairs with her cats and her pots of tea and her Sex and the City reruns and her goddamn Garnet Hill catalog, the woman with her class of third graders and her carefully pearly smile – whatever else she manages, she doesn’t have a love life to speak of.”  

Instead what happened seemed to be a concoction of what I had read before. Nora is very, very like Barbara from ‘Notes on a Scandal’ and I have read the ‘lonely spinster befriends the family’ routine before, Messud even throws in a clichéd twist that you might spot from the start yet hope the author won’t use and then does. Yet then oddly in the final third of the book things start to pick up again as the menace that brims through the first third looks like it might come to fruition. Only it doesn’t and whilst I sort of liked the twist at the end I felt like really it was how we left Nora and what she might do next that would have made an even better story, if that makes sense?

It felt a bit like all the promise, in the form of the anger, that had been in the beginning of the book sort of died out in the explanation of it and yet the anger that I found so utterly refreshing only came back at the end and then… well, who knows. I guess I was a bit disappointed. I also wonder if I simply expected more drama or something darker because that is what most authors do and that, like many reviews I have since read, I should actually embrace the fact the book encapsulated the reality of the situation instead.

Either way, as you can probably tell, there are lots of elements that make ‘The Woman Upstairs’ a really interesting read. You may find yourself like me, someone who loved the rage and got a bit bogged down in the middle, or be someone who marvels at the realities the book gives you. It is one book that I am almost 100% certain would make a brilliant book club choice, hence why I am so excited about seeing tomorrows ‘The Book Club’ and particularly what Marieke Hardy makes of it, and one that will cause much debate which is always a good thing.

10 Comments

Filed under Claire Messud, Review, Virago Books