Archives: Books

For the reading list

A visit to the local secondhand bookstore over the holidays wasn’t enough (bagging Malouf, Lessing, Armanno, Lewycka, Modjeska, Murakami, Astley); we fell into the Lifeline Bookfest on the weekend.

Some goodies

Some goodies

I think we came home with about 100 books. The joy was in stumbling into titles that have always been on the “to-read” list: Silent Spring. Cry, The Beloved Country. Slaughterhouse 5. Rabbit, Run. Tender is the Night. My Brother Jack. Gathering some more of latest lit-obsession, Doris Lessing. And Atwood, Steinbeck, Proulx, Scott Fitzgerald, Frame, Waugh, Somerset Maugham, Irving. Replacing my lost copy of Bonjour Tristesse.

Now, for some time to read, perhaps?

Old Filth, and all that.

This post is seven years too late.

A perverse and quite irrational sense of anti-nepotism, for want of a better term, has prevented me from becoming acquainted with Jane Gardam‘s beautiful writing before this year. We are not related (sadly!); even if we were, since Gardam is Jane’s husband’s surname, I couldn’t even claim shared genetic matter. Strange, I know, but I’ve never wanted to be seen reading someone with whom I have no other connection apart from sharing a surname.

What ridiculous vanity.

Fortunately my mother-in-law picked up Gardam’s Old Filth at a second-hand book sale recently, and passed it on. I’d read Gardam’s A Few Fair Days, a young adult novel, last year, and loved it, so was more than ready to chuck out my irrational prejudices.

Old Filth was shortlisted for the Orange Prize in 2005. It should have won the Booker.

Jane Gardam, Old Filth

Which brings us to Julian Barnes, and a comparison I am about to make that will pain my inner 20-year-old.

I discovered Barnes’s Staring At The Sun when I was an impressionable, and energetic, reader, gobbled it down – it made me gulp with understanding –  and proceeded to consume all he’d written for most of my twenties. Julian Barnes followed my years spent as a teenage existentialist (Camus, Sartre, Dostoyevsky, Nietsche, Kierkegaard, the whole undergraduate bookshelf) neatly, and I read him obsessively right up until he published The Porcupine, at which point I fell out of love. (Growing up as a reader is a whole essay in itself, isn’t it?)

I rediscovered Barnes via a second-hand bookstore, of course, and a copy of The Lemon Table. Delight. (I will keep those stories forever, for I know I will enjoy re-reading them much later.) Discovered that Pulse was about to be published, and devoured that, too. Joy.

Then, in an arguably limpid field, The Sense of an Ending was nominated for, and then won, the Booker Prize. And no, it’s not his greatest work, not my favourite, but still an exercise in master craftsmanship of a tight tale.

Julian Barnes, The Sense of an Ending

Where were we? Oh yes, Jane Gardam. So I came to Gardam’s novel Old Filth post-Barnes, and I’m positive someone else MUST have made this connection but I’m too lazy to google-research it: Old Filth is similar to The Sense of an Ending, but it’s superior. The themes of reconstructing one’s life in memory from the vantage point of dotage are virtually parallel. But she does it better.

I’m glad that Barnes won a Booker, but to be fair, Gardam should have, too, seven years earlier.


Three new reviews

After an absence whose days were full but not fertile, here are Kate Forsyth’s Bitter Greens, Playing House by Amy Choi, and the wonderful Adam Johnson’s The Orphan Master’s Son.

Astute (one may say time-fortunate) readers may note the newish and natty little quote hanging around recently added reviews. This quaint folly is my editor’s request: a word or three above “thumbs up/thumbs down”, and retained here.

Gently amusing fact: This review quote in the Orphan Master’s Son review should read “Brave New World meets 1984 in the DPRK”.*

However, when I saw it in print, it read “Brave New World meets 1984 in the dark.”

Obtuse, no?


(*Yes, yes, more than a little pretentious, I agree.)


I’m all in a dither over this latest review. Already, it’s taken much longer to write than usual. It has been written, deleted, rewritten a few times. The book was poor. I disliked it on a number of levels: starting with the macro, I think the genre of “memoir” can do without half-life scratches from less-than-fabulous nobodies. I didn’t like the writer as she placed herself on the page. I wasn’t interested in much of her life, and the bits that could have been interesting were written from an uninformed place with little apparent self-awareness. Oh, she could write a sentence. But the subject matter wasn’t there, and the promised insight into a different culture went missing, too.

But it’s a first book. And if I write what I think, I will be cruel. I don’t want to be nasty; I don’t want to hurt someone I’ve never met. However, as a reviewer, I owe my readers honesty. It’s the usual review paradox. I could go all Dorothy Parker. But what would that get us all, except for smug? But then, why should I sweeten this stranger’s pill? Because I don’t want her five enormous brothers standing outside my front door with polished fists*?

It’s actually made me a little miffed, which I know is immature, at the publishing house responsible. By publishing something so meh, something potentially glorious has missed out.

Everyone’s a critic; nobody likes a critic.




Biting my tongue.

After an amazing read, thank you Mr Johnson, I am now reviewing something so banal that I have to put my work aside so that I do not write something cruel*. But I am so puzzled. I understand marketing (although at times I wish I didn’t). I understand the fact that I can not get inside the heads of all potential readership markets. I even understand that publishers may take a gamble, even on the soporific. Given that, I still have no idea how some things get published. Sheesh.

*actually, I have written something cruel — quite a bit, but that’s the first, soon-to-be-deleted draft that we shall call therapy.

Two, new reviews.

I’ve been a little slow in getting these up, but here are a couple more reviews. Today I added a review of Panic, by David Marr, which (being the diligent lefty urbanite that I am) I enjoyed, in the main. The other review is of a book called Lady Almina and the Story of the Real Downton Abbey, by a real chatelaine, Lady Fiona Carnavon, and was not nearly as torturous as the cover would suggest. Not that anyone really judges that way, do they?

Much more exciting news in the review department. THIS:

The latest job at hand

How excellent. I had a taste of this at the beginning of the year. I was given a book of short stories, mostly grim, some not, based around the concept of climate change. (I’ve put the blasted thing down somewhere; when it appears again, I’ll let you know what it’s called.) It was in aid of the organisation, a very worthy org indeed. Adam Johnson was in fine company, alongside David Mitchell (literary crush alert!), Margaret Atwood, and others. Johnson donated an excerpt from this very novel, and it was mighty fine.

And that’s all I’ll say about The Orphan Master’s Son, save a confession:

I get so bloody excited when I start an obviously excellent review book, that I have to slow down my usual reading pace. And enjoy it.

I felt like this with Salvage the Bones, and with The Lonely Polygamist. That last one is a gem I reviewed a few years ago. I am yet to put all those older reviews up here. One day… Until then, get thee to a bookstore and say in your most loud and proud book buying voice,

“I’m here to buy The Lonely Polygamist, by that über-talented Mormon writer, Brady Udall.”

Make it an independent bookstore. They order stuff in and all.

Work in hand

The latest review copy arrived yesterday. A novel for young adults. A teenage girl’s dying mother reveals that her father is not really a deceased war hero; rather, he’s a Hollywood action hero. And she has a bitchy half-sister.
Kill me now.

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