Tuesday, 19 January 2021

The Talented Ms Highsmith

The nineteenth of January 2021 marks the centenary of author Patricia Highsmith's birth. During her fifty year career she wrote 22 novels and numerous collections of short stories. Best known for her 'Ripliad' - the five psychological thrillers featuring her compelling protagonist Tom Ripley - and her debut novel Strangers on a Train, Highsmith's work have been adapted many times, increasing her popularity.   

As a person, Highsmith was a miserable, depressive, alcoholic, eccentric. She hated most people, including herself. She was openly racist, misogynist and homophobic. Unwanted and abandoned as a child, Highsmith preferred animals to people, and engaged in multiple affairs with married women, often ending due to her infidelity. 

Perhaps it was this well of darkness within her that enabled Highsmith to create such captivating noir stories about unlikable people in desperate situations. In his forward to Highsmith's short story collection Eleven, author Graham Greene writes: 

Miss Highsmith is a poet of apprehension rather than fear. Fear after a time, as we all learned in the blitz, is narcotic, it can lull one by fatigue into sleep, but apprehension nags at the nerves gently and inescapably. We have to learn to live with it.

Greene absolutely nails Highsmith's abilities. She lures readers in to an uncomfortable place with characters who make morally ambiguous choices. Her writing is tight and simple, yet the stories are often complex and multilayered. Her novels creep up on you and you cannot put them down. 

To commemorate the centenary of Highsmith's birth a new collection of short stories has been published. Under a Dark Angel's Eye (2021) features an introduction by author Carmen Maria Machado in which she describes her as a 'genius, a bonafide eccentric' and 'famous for her wit and wicked sense of humour'. Machado notes that readers have to grapple with Highsmith's darkness, and asks 'what does it mean to love the work of Patricia Highsmith'? She answers:

Perhaps they recognise that you don't come to Patricia Highsmith for goodness or light or comfort. You come to her for uncanny observations about human depravity; you come to her because you've forgotten the sour taste of fear.

My reviews of several Highsmith books can be found on this blog, including:

If you haven't already had the pleasure of being lured into a Highsmith novel or short story, I encourage you to explore her work. 

Friday, 1 January 2021

Planning for 2021

It is the first of January 2021 and as the new year begins I spend time reflecting on my past reading habits, and forward planning for the year ahead. 

As someone who always plans ahead, I even develop a plan for my reading. But if I learned anything from 2020 it is how agile one needs to be to respond to whatever happens on a daily basis. While I have pre-ordered some new releases from the library (like Joan Didion and Joyce Carol Oates), and have acquired a bunch of new books I am keen to sink my teeth in, my plan is not to plan and just see where my moods and interests take me.

I seem to consistently be able to read 30 books each year, but given the uncertainty this pandemic brings, I do not want to increase the volume. Instead I will continue to explore new authors, genres and subject matters. To diversify my reading and to challenge myself to read more fiction, I have created a new Bingo board to add some fun to the challenge.

Set during
Retelling of 
another story*
 Novel in 
Women's Prize 
Lesser known book 
by a Famous Author
Set in the
Booker Prize 
About a non-Western 
world leader* 
19th Century
in 2021 
or Memoir
Set in Space
or at Sea
Short Story
Australian Literary
Prize Longlister
Current Affairs
/ Politics 
is over 50*
Coming of 
Age Story* 
Pre-19th Century
First Novel
in a Series
Book on the
1001 List
Fiction Based
on a True Story
Written by a 
male author*

Bingo rules: Books can only be used once, even if they fall into multiple categories. 
Bingo can be achieved horizontally, vertically or diagonally.
*New categories 2021

My cousin Graham and I have been joking about how I only read books by women in 2020. He suggested that 2021 could be my year of reading books by men. That ain't gonna happen, but to overcome the gender bias in my reading, I have added a new category this year: Written by a male author. I do have a few books that I have put aside for 2021 so will just have to decide which one it will be - perhaps Richard Flanagan's Living Sea of Waking Dreams, Philip Pullman's The Secret Commonwealth, Douglas Stuart's Shuggie Bain or Barack Obama's A Promised Land

Happy reading everyone!

Thursday, 31 December 2020

My Reading Year - 2020

2020 was my year of reading women. All the books I read this year were written by women, and while my commitment to reading female authors this year meant some of the male authors I would normally have read were pushed to the sidelines, I took comfort and inspiration in the female voice during this most challenging year.

The pandemic impacted my reading. I was not completely locked in like some of my family and friends - there were no sourdough starters and home DIY projects for me. But my work was all consuming, creating an emotional drain and perpetual anxiety that at times would prevent me from taking my usual pleasure in reading. Once I got my mojo back, I found that reading allowed me the escape I desperately needed, taking me to new worlds and new experiences.

My reading goal for 2020 was 30 books with a focus on fiction, which I achieved by reading 31 titles this year. When planning for 2020 at the start of the year, I did not really name any specific titles, which served me well as I went wherever my interests took me.  Instead I used the reading bingo card I created to help me diversify my reading and my achievements are highlighted below. 

19th Century
First Novel
in a Series
Lesser known Book 
by a Famous Author
Features Strong 
Female Protagonist
Short Story
Pre-19th Century
Banned Book
Fiction Based
on a True Story
Australian Literary
 Prize Longlister
Book on the
1001 List  
Women's Prize 
20th Century
Set in the
New York Times
Set in Space
or at Sea
Mystery or
Crime Novel
Booker Prize
in 2020
Book with a 
colour in title
Current Affairs
/ Politics
or Memoir
Set during
Adapted into a
Film/TV Show

So here's what I read in 2020:

This year I was determined to read some old paperbacks that have been gathering dust on my bookshelves for a long time. Long-neglected titles I read included Muriel Spark's The Driver's Seat (1970), Edith Wharton's Bunner Sisters (1916) and Daphne Du Maurier's Jamaica Inn (1936). While I enjoyed some more than others, I was pleased to have explored these titles and finally read them.

I continued my discovery of Patricia Highsmith's novels and read three in rapid succession. The Tremor of Forgery (1969), This Sweet Sickness (1960) and The Two Faces of January were great fun and these page-turning novels helped me to get my reading mojo back by allowing me to travel in my mind to far-flung locales. I could have easily continued on to read many more Highsmith novels from her extensive works, but decided to pursue other titles instead lest it become the Year of Reading Highsmith!

The Stella Prize 
Longlist provided me with many hours of reading pleasure. From this list I read two collection of short stories - Josephine Rowe's Here Until August (2019) and Joey Bui's Lucky Ticket (2019) - from authors I would never have otherwise read. I also loved Charlotte Wood's The Weekend (2019), about four older women who have been lifelong friends despite having very little in common. I am disappointed that I did not get to read Tara June Winch's The Yield (2019) but it lies on my bedside table waiting!

Recommendations from friends introduced me to some wonderful titles. 
I absolutely loved Madeline Miller's Circe (2019). This feminist retelling of this ancient myth from the perspective of Circe, made me long to travel to Greece and reignited my interest in classics. Curtis Sittenfeld's Rodham (2020) was a fascinating alternative history of the Clintons with Hillary dumping Bill and forging a new path on her own. Another alternative perspective on a real person, Kate Grenville's novel A Room Made of Leaves (2020) about Elizabeth Macarthur was simply wonderful. 

I love a good crime thriller and this year I read a few that I would recommend (in addition to the Highsmith novels above).  Jane Harper is always fantastic and her latest novel The Survivors (2020) is excellent. Set in Tasmania, Harper creates an incredible sense of place which provides a backdrop to the twisty-turny crime drama. The newly released Robert Galbraith (JK Rowling) novel, Troubled Blood (2020), continues the Cormoran Strike/Robin Ellacott adventures and is a gripping novel. Sarah Bailey's debut The Dark Lake (2017) is great and I look forward to getting to know Detective Sergeant Gemma Woodstock better in Bailey's subsequent novels. 

I know a book has made a real impact on me when I think about it for days/weeks/months after and long to discuss it with others. This year there were a handful of incredible novels that made a lasting impact.  I read My Dark Vanessa (2020) by Kate Elizabeth Russell and immediately passed it on to two of my friends and we engaged in a lot of discussion about the way in which young people are groomed, shamed and traumatised. Emily St John Mandel's Station Eleven (2014) had me gripped from the first page with its story about the aftermath of a global pandemic. Finally, Maggie O'Farrell's masterpiece, Hamnet (2020) - winner of the Women's Prize for Fiction - is undoubtedly my favourite novel of the year and the one I have most often recommended to others. 

Investigative journalists wrote most of the non-fiction I consumed this year.

I began the year reading a fascinating work of non-fiction by Lisa Taddeo. Three Women explores the sexual lives of three young Americans over a decade.  My friends and I discussed this book a lot (along with My Dark Vanessa) as it was such a strangely compelling work. Another book that got me talking was 
Michelle McNamara's I'll Be Gone in the Dark (2018) a true crime story about McNamara's quest to solve the decades-old mystery of California's Golden State Killer. 

Julia Baird's Phosphorescence (2020) was just what I needed mid-pandemic when my resilience was wearing thin. Baird is such an excellent writer and in this book she encourages readers to slow down and pay attention to the world around us. It is a magical read and one I have recommended and/or gifted to many people this year. 
The Stella Prize Longlist can also take credit for two non-fiction books I read this year. Mandy Ord's memoir When One Person Dies the World is Over (2019) is a remarkable year-long diary in four panel comic form. While I have read many graphic novels, this is the first graphic non-fiction work I have read. Winner of this year's Stella Prize is Jess Hill's See What You Made Me Do (2019), an incredible investigation into the causes and impacts of domestic abuse. 

Other works I really enjoyed include Amy Goldstein's Janesville - an American Story (2017) about the demise of the auto industry in Wisconsin and its impact on society, Helen Garner's diaries One Day I'll Remember This (2020) and Katherine Murphy's Quarterly Essay - The End of Certainty (2020).

While I really enjoyed all the non-fiction I read this year, if I had to choose one favourite, without hesitation I would select 
Jess Hill's See What You Made Me Do (2019). I am so thrilled that Jess Hill has been lauded for this important work and I hope that as the book is released in the UK and America it will turn the spotlight on this issue in those countries as well. Despite the heavy subject matter, it is an essential read.

Best of 2020

I read so many great books this year. I loved and highly recommend:
If I had to choose my absolute favourites, I would pick Maggie O'Farrell's Hamnet (2020) and Jess Hill's See What You Made Me Do.

Wednesday, 30 December 2020

Postcards from Sydney

The second volume of Helen Garner's diaries, One Day I'll Remember This (2020), focusses on the period 1987-1995. It is time of transition for Garner as she has moved to Sydney after the end of her marriage to F.  She begins an affair with V, another writer, who is married when they meet. Now in her late forties, she is experiencing the onset of menopause and the invisibility of women as they age. 

During this period, Garner is busily working on a screenplay (The Last Days of Chez Nous), a novel (Cosmo Cosmolino), a work of non-fiction (The First Stone) and writing film reviews. She is invited to literary festivals and takes up a residency in New York City. These are years of great professional output, and her diaries give insight to her process and her insecurities as a writer. She writes

'I will probably never write anything large, lasting, solid or influential. Is this a proper life I am leading?' (p134)

We know now that nothing could be further from the truth, but I wonder how much of her insecurity might have come from her relationship with V.  Eventually V will leave his wife, Helen will move in with him, and in 1992 they will marry. V is Murray Bail, author of award-winning novels Homesickness (1980) and Eucalyptus (1998) among others. The two have completely different approaches as writers, and throughout the diaries it is clear that Bail put his own needs above Garner's. 

Garner's relationship with Bail is a mystery to me. As seen through her eyes, Bail is arrogant, privileged and uncompromising. He may have been inspiring to her as an intellectual and creative, but he is no real partner to her. She describes their interactions and there were many times where I was angered on her behalf for his behaviour.

Like her previous volume of diaries, Yellow Notebook: Diaries Volume 1 - 1978-1987 (2019) Garner is at her unfiltered best when writing about the world around her. She is vulnerable, witty and curious. Her relationships with friends are fascinating, particularly where they intersect with her work - as they do when she publishes Cosmo Cosmolino which alienates certain friends. Her family too is interesting - particularly the interactions between Helen's father and her partner. 

What comes across strongly in One Day I'll Remember This is Helen's longing to find a home. She writes about her displacement, of not being settled in Sydney, and her desire to have place she feels at home in. There is a tinge of sadness throughout these diaries, despite the professional success. 

The publication of these diaries is a huge gift to Garner fans but may also appeal to aspiring writers. I look forward to the next instalment. 

Saturday, 19 December 2020

Cold Case

Forty years ago Dr Margot Bamborough left her GP clinic after working late, rushing to meet a girlfriend at a local pub in Clerkenwell, London. She never arrived, disappearing without a trace. Her daughter Anna, an infant at the time of Margot's disappearance, needs closure and engages London's most famous detective, Cormoran Strike, to find the truth of what happened.

Troubled Blood
(2020) is the fifth instalment of the Cormoran Strike series by Robert Galbraith (JK Rowling). It is a whopper of a novel (at 900 pages it is almost double the length of the first Strike book - The Cuckoo's Calling) with so many twists, subplots, red herrings and intrigue that it can be a challenge to keep all the threads of the story together in the reader's mind. But for fans of the series there is a lot on offer as we see the lead characters of Strike and his business partner Robin Ellacott develop and their relationship mature. Plus there is a cracker of a mystery to solve.

What I love about this series is how the main characters are depicted as complex, whole people. Often in crime novels the protagonists are all about the job and you don't get to see the impact of their personal lives on their work. In Troubled Blood, both Strike and Ellacott are juggling the pressures of work and family. Strike's beloved aunt is battling terminal illness, his father is trying to reconnect, and various step/half siblings and his former flame Charlotte are vying for his attention. Meanwhile Robin is divorcing her husband, fending off unwanted attention from a work colleague, and figuring out that the unconventional lifestyle of a private detective is what she wants from her career. Rowling has created well-rounded, fallible and endearing characters, especially for her two leads.

There is so much controversy around this novel that it cannot go unmentioned. Even before the book was published there were calls for it to be banned by people who consider JK Rowling transphobic from her comments about gender identity, which she revealed on Twitter and in an essay. I do not agree with or condone her views in any way, but I also do not believe she should be cancelled. 

That is not to say that gender is not explored in this novel, it most definitely is: abortion, pornography, sexual harassment, sexuality, reproductive rights, motherhood, rape, domestic violence and more permeate Troubled Blood.  Plus, as the plot revolves around a cold case, many of these issue are explored in two time horizons from the 1970s and 2016 which makes for a more nuanced read. 

I have previously read and enjoyed Robin and Strike's adventures in The Cuckoo's Calling (2013), The Silkworm (2014), Career of Evil (2016) and Lethal White (2018). For the first time I listened to the audiobook of Troubled Blood, performed by Robert Glenister while reading the text alongside and greatly enjoyed his characterisation. Highly recommended.

Sunday, 29 November 2020


Margaret Atwood has just published her first collection of poetry in over a decade. Dearly (2020) covers a range of topics - love and loss, climate change, language, memory - in an overall sombre tone but with Atwood's wry humour. Ever a keen observer, Atwood writes of the natural world - birds, wolves, leaves, flowers - with admiration and marvel.

Grief is a theme throughout Dearly. Dedicated to her partner, Graeme Gibson, who died in 2019 after more than four decades together, Atwood is now an octogenarian and has lost many people close to her.  She writes of loss of memory, ageing and dying.  

The title poem is magnificent. The author shuffles through old photographs and remembers the time spent with her beloved partner. It is a heartbreaking tale of loss and remembrance of things past. She writes

Dearly beloved, we gather here together

in this closed drawer,

fading now, I miss you.

I miss the missing, those who left earlier.

I miss even those who are still here.

I miss you all dearly.

Dearly do I sorrow for you.

In the poem 'Oh Children' she laments the future world in which climate change has ravaged the world. She wonders what the world will be like without crickets, birds, mice and moss. 

But not all the poems are so sorrowful. In 'Frida Kahlo, San Miguel, Ash Wednesday' Atwood writes of memes and souvenirs bearing images of the artist. In 'Sad Utensils' she describes the absence of the word 'reft' which has fallen out of favour.  

Atwood's poem 'Princess Clothing', reminded me of one of my favourite poems, Dorothy Parker's 'The Satin Dress'. She canvasses what a woman should wear - wool? cotton? silk? - to avoid the judgement of others. Ever the feminist, Atwood takes aim at the fickleness of trendsetters and the need to please others, she writes

Oh beware,

uncover your hair

or else they will burn down your castle.

Wait a minute. Cover it!

Hair. So controversial. 

Extraterrestrials make an appearance in this collection - 'The Aliens Arrive' is a humorous take on nine late night movies, for example: 

The aliens arrive.

They are smarter than us, and carnivorous.

You know the rest.

Whether she is describing her mother asleep 'curled up like a spring fern' (in 'Blizzard'), or passport photos with 'the sullen jacket stare of a woman who's just been arrested' (in 'Passports'), Atwood has a magnificent turn of phrase. 

In any collection of poetry there are verses that appeal immediately and others which do not resonate. I often find that I return to poetry collections again and again and find meaning in different verse on each encounter. Poetry is so deeply tied to my mood as a reader that I reach for favourites to help me shift my mindset when needed. In Dearly, there are a handful of poems that will be added to my favourites list for future recitation.

I am a huge fan of Atwood's writing and reviews of her novels Alias Grace (1996), Oryx and Crake (2003), The Handmaid's Tale (1985) and The Testaments (2019) also appear on this blog.

Saturday, 21 November 2020

Booker Prize Winner 2020

The winner of the 2020 Booker Prize for fiction was announced in a wonderful online ceremony, awarding the £50,000 prize to debut novelist Douglas Stuart for Shuggie Bain. 

Set in Glasgow in the 1980s, Shuggie Bain is the story of a dysfunctional family growing up in poverty. Agnes Bain, a single mother trying to raise her children, is addicted by alcoholism. Her children leave the family home in an effort to survive, but her son Shuggie stays. This is the story of mother and child.

I am so thrilled that Douglas Stuart won this year's award. Scotland is deep in my heart and I love novels set there. I have been saving Shuggie Bain to read on my Christmas holidays so I will provide my review at that time.

In the meantime, here is a video of the Booker Prize judges talking about why they chose this novel to win this year.

Tuesday, 17 November 2020

Death Becomes Her

Septuagenarian widow Vesta Gul is walking her beloved dog Charlie in the birch woods near her home when she stumbles across a handwritten note on the path, pinned to the ground with small black stones. The obscure message sparks the action that propels this novel:

Her name was Magda. Nobody will ever know who killed her. It wasn't me. Here is her dead body.

Vesta looks around and sees no evidence of a body, no clothing, no disturbance that would indicate that Magda is or was nearby. She pockets the note and sets off determined to find out what happened to Magda.

Living the life of a hermit, Vesta has a simple existence without a phone or TV in a cabin by a lake that was once part of an old Girl Scouts camp.  She drives into town once a week to stock up on library books and groceries, but has no real social network, spending her time talking to her dog and engaging in imagined conversations with her late husband, Walter. Her efforts to solve the mystery of Magda drive Vesta to the brink of her fragile 'mindspace' as she creates a persona for the victim and a list of potential suspects.  

Ottessa Moshfegh's Death in her Hands (2020) is a strange little novel. Written in first person, the author is deep inside the head of her protagonist - an unlikable, unstable, bitter woman - and the reader is never certain what is real and what are delusions. Vesta is a heartbreaking character who has been disappointed throughout her life, and this regret manifests itself in the imagined life she creates for the people around her.

Death in her Hands is cleverly written and easy to read, but I am honestly not sure how I feel about it. My engagement with the novel ebbed and flowed over the few hours I spent reading it. Gripped at the start, about forty pages in I thought about giving up, continued on and became enthralled, and then ended flat and perplexed. While Moshfegh is a talented writer who can weave a multilayered story, I definitely feel something was missing here and wonder what it was all about.

Tuesday, 10 November 2020

Recent Reads

Here's what I have been reading lately, with links to my reviews:

Saturday, 31 October 2020

The Heart of America

With the American election only one week away, I have been engrossed in following US politics - not just the Presidential race, but down ballot contests which have the ability to influence the direction of the nation for years to come. Perhaps it is my lifelong fascination with America or my poli-sci proclivity, but my curiosity is insatiable. 

As I was watching the news about American COVID cases surging, Trump rallies and joblessness, I spotted an unread book on my shelf and knew that it was the perfect time to read it. Over the past few evenings I read Amy Goldstein's Janesville - An American Story (2017), a deep dive into America's industrial heartland and the devastating toll of the global financial crisis. 

Two days before Christmas in 2008 the General Motors plant in Janesville, Wisconsin closed its doors. The plant had opened in 1919 and for the better part of a century had churned out automobiles. Generations of families had been employed by the company, or in associated businesses that created parts for the vehicle and services for its workers. With the economy contracting and consumers turning away from larger SUVs, GM was heading towards bankruptcy and the Janesville plant was chosen for closure. 

Suddenly over 9000 people were left without work. Some took transfers to other GM plants, and became known as GM gypsies, carpooling to drive over 400 kilometres to Fort Wayne or other midwestern cities where they could work during the week before returning home to their families for brief weekend visits. Others went back to college to try to gain a new qualification in the hopes of restarting in a new career. And many waited - taking low-paid, insecure, temporary work - firmly believing that GM would reopen as it had done before. But the Janesville Assembly Plant didn't, and more business closed including the Parker Pen company (founded in Janesville). 

Amy Goldstein, Washington Post staff writer, turns her investigative lens on Janesville and follows several families over the next six years. She documents the devastating impact of the GM closure on individuals, families and the entire community. Goldstein also follows the political fortune of Janesville local Paul Ryan, former Speaker of the US House of Representatives and 2016 Vice-Presidential candidate. There are deep lessons to be learned from the failure of government interventions (auto industry bailouts and retraining programs) which divided this community and gave way to the rise of Trump.

Prior to the closure, GM paid its employees well and, in turn, GM employees were generous in their community, participating in charity drives and supporting various causes. With the loss of their incomes, and their replacement wages more than halved, many ex-GMers found themselves uninsured, their house values shrinking, losing the lifestyle they had been accustomed to. Indeed, many suffered from depression, poverty and homelessness and needed to rely on the many charities they previously supported.  One of the most fascinating insights of Goldstein's book, was the failure of programs to retrain retrenched workers, as those who did not undertake the training ended up better off.

Goldstein is a talented writer and compelling story-teller. She writes with empathy and intellect, and avoids being judgemental or preachy. Janesville is ultimately a tale of hope and endurance. 

I first heard Amy Goldstein speak at the 2018 Sydney Writers' Festival. At the time I thought her book would be a great companion read to JD Vance's Hillbilly Elegy (2016) and it absolutely is. Both are wonderful books for anyone wanting to understand what is happening in America and why midwest states like Wisconsin are battlegrounds in this election.  If you don't have time to read Janesville, PBS Newshour interviewed Goldstein and some of the families she writes about in a brief video available online which I highly recommend.

Sunday, 25 October 2020

Not My Type

Muriel Spark's The Driver's Seat (1970) is a fast-paced novella that tosses the reader around so much it causes whiplash, as we attempt to keep pace with an unpredictable woman desperate to be in control of her own destiny.

Lise is a perplexing protagonist. We know little about her: she is in her early thirties; five-foot-six; lives alone; has worked her entire career at an accountant's office; she rarely takes time off. She also has strong views and knows what is and isn't 'her type'.

We meet her at a shop where she is trying on dresses. The sales assistant advises her that the dress she is wearing is made of a new stain-resistant material. At this Lise flies into a rage, tearing off the dress and saying 'get this thing off me. Off me at once'. Lise is insulted and shouts at the sales assistant  'Do you think I spill things on my clothes?... Do I look as if I don't eat properly?' From this interaction, we learn that Lise is prone to big emotions and mood swings. We see this again when she farewells her boss that afternoon for her vacation as she laughs hysterically then erupts in tears. Something ain't right.

Lise is flying to an unnamed city in Europe for her holiday. She boards the plan in her newly purchased dress - 'lemon-yellow top with a skirt patterned in bright V's of orange, mauve and blue' of washable cotton (not stain-resistant). Lise is one for bold, contrasting colours and designs - clothes that cause double-takes of passers-by and murmured comments of other women. She takes her seat on the plane between two men and makes a quick assessment to determine which may be her 'type'. 

Just as I was beginning to wonder what this book was about, Spark shocks the reader with the opening to chapter three when we learn that Lise will be found dead the next day. Suddenly, I was hooked. What happened to her? 

Over the next 24 hours Lise meets various people, purchases odd souvenirs (a scarf, a blender), rebuffs the attentions of men ('Go away, you're not my type'), and has a number of bizarre encounters. Lise is continually trying to be in control (the driver's seat) but we never know what is going on in her mind. We just understand her to be erratic and self-destructive, making choices that will lead to her death.  

I read this book in one sitting, and have mulled it over for the past few days to try and gather my thoughts. I enjoyed many aspects of the writing - Spark's swipes at fashion trends, macrobiotics and religion; her tight turn of phrase and the foreshadowing she uses - but also found it dragged in sections (shopping with Mrs Fiedke). The final chapter where we learn of Lise's end is magnificent. 

Ultimately, I am not sure that this book was my type, as I found it a bit uneven, but I am glad I took the ride. Also, I absolutely love the cover on the Penguin Classics version (pictured) - it is perfect. 

My review of Muriel Spark's The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1961) is also available on this blog

Sunday, 18 October 2020

Smuggler's Run

Earlier this year I was supposed to go on a family holiday to Ireland and the UK. Whenever I plan vacations I compile a list of books to read to accompany and enhance my travels. When my travels were cancelled I couldn't bear to read the long list of Irish and Cornish titles as they only served to remind me of my disappointment. 

With overseas travels postponed for the foreseeable future, I revisited the list to find my next read. The historic Jamaica Inn on Bodmin Moor was one of the places we planned to visit on our travels. Writer Daphne Du Maurier had stayed there in the 1930s and it inspired her classic 1936 novel Jamaica Inn.

Mary Yellen grows up in southern Cornwall in a farming community of Helford. When her mother dies, her home is sold and she heads to Bodmin Moor to stay with her mother's sister, Aunt Patience, and her uncle Joss Merlyn, keeper at the Jamaica Inn. At 23, Mary is naive and has no idea what to expect of this remote outpost and her distant family. The coachman who drops her off at the Inn provides a stark warning that this is no place for a girl like her.

Aunt Patience is not who Mary remembered. Once young and vibrant, the ten years she has been a Merlyn has aged her and Patience trembles in fear of her mercurial husband. Uncle Joss is a big man with a fierce temper and a predilection for drink. Almost immediately Mary realises she must get away from this man and take her poor Aunt with her.

The Inn may once have been a place of merriment and sustenance for weary travellers, but now it has fallen into disrepair and disrepute. Many rooms are bare or locked. The only patrons are the rough men who arrive in the wee hours of the night, loading and unloading their wagons. Mary overhears some of their discussions and eventually comes to realise that her Uncle is involved in smuggling and pillaging from coastal shipwrecks. 

Mary confides in two men she crosses paths with - a local vicar and her Uncle's younger brother Jem. Whether she can trust either provides much of the intrigue in this novel, and I found myself chastising her for giving away too much information. The pace quickens as the danger builds. Can she and Patience flee? Will she be betrayed by the men she trusts? Will her menacing Uncle get the better of her? Will she catch her death of cold, walking miles on the wet moors?

I loved Du Maurier's depiction of the landscape in this part of the world. The moors, granite tors, rivers, pools and bogs are all described in such a way that the reader is transported and can feel the cold of the howling winds and torrential rains. Du Maurier creates a haunting, gothic atmosphere in the mists and meadows, befitting the terror of this tale.

As a heroine, Mary was plucky, determined and courageous. She comes close to being raped, beaten and killed, but manages to come through - bruised and scarred, but unafraid. I longed for Mary to find a happy independent life away from the substandard men that surround her. While I know what direction she was heading at the end of the novel, I hold out hope that she keeps this courage and determination and finds the happiness she seeks.

Jamaica Inn has been adapted into a 1939 film by Alfred Hitchcock, a television series in the 1980s with Jane Seymour as Mary, and again in 2014 with Jessica Brown Findlay in the lead role. 

My reviews of Daphne Du Maurier's My Cousin Rachel (1951) and Rebecca (1938) are also on this blog.

Saturday, 17 October 2020

Perfect Storm

I always look forward to a new Jane Harper novel and pre-ordered The Survivors (2020) so I would get my mitts on it right away. 

The main character, Kieran Elliott, grew up in a picturesque seaside town in Tasmania and now resides in Sydney. When he visits his home town with his partner and infant daughter, he is immediately reminded of why he left - Evelyn Bay is full of painful memories. Twelve years earlier, a fierce storm killed Kieran's older brother Finn and another local, and a teenage girl went missing. 

On Kieran's first night back in town, a body is discovered on the beach near his parents' home, which disrupts the tight community as it did the day of the fateful storm. While the investigation unfolds, long-held suspicions and hard truths are revealed and deeply buried past traumas bring secrets to the surface.

The novel is filled with interesting characters. Kieran coming to terms with the grief and shame of his past while looking to the future with his young child. His mother, Verity, struggling with her husband's dementia. The outsider, author GR Barlin, who keenly observes all around him. Young Liam, growing up resentful at the absence of his father. Mrs Birch, still searching for her missing daughter. 

Jane Harper is a master at portraying the Australian landscape. This new setting of a sleepy coastal town, is brilliantly described from the rugged cliffs, dank caves and sandy beach to the local shops and homes. The reader is immediately transported and immersed in the setting, which is key to this story as the place is intricately linked to those who reside there.

There is a wonderful pace to this novel. The crime happens early on and then the layers of the back story unfurl like the rolling tide. Piece-by-piece the story builds to its climax, with red herrings and diversions in the best mystery writing tradition. The Survivors is definitely an addictive page-turner, solidifying Harper's place as the Queen of Australian crime writing.

My reviews of Harper's previous novels - The Dry (2016), Force of Nature (2017) and The Lost Man (2018) are also available on this blog.

Sunday, 27 September 2020

Cold Case

In the 1970s and 1980s communities across California lived in terror. In the San Joaquin Valley there was the 'Visalia Ransacker'. Sacramento had the 'East Area Rapist', while Orange County had the 'Original Night Stalker'.  In the decades before DNA profiling and centralised crime databases, each county worked independently and there was little sharing of information. It wasn't until DNA testing in 2001, that it became clear all of these criminals were the same man. 

Crime writer Michelle McNamara gave this criminal a new name - the 'Golden State Killer'. She sought to explore this cold case in an attempt to help solve it. McNamara wanted to understand how a peeping tom who prowled the suburbs escalated from ransacking and burglary to rape and then increasingly brutal murder.  McNamara kept interest in this case alive by launching her TrueCrimeDiary website in 2006 and writing a series of articles about this killer published in Los Angeles magazine. 

McNamara's search for the killer is detailed in her book I'll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman's Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer (2018).  Part police procedural, part true crime saga, I'll Be Gone in the Dark is a fascinating exploration of the mechanics behind cold case investigations. Despite its gruesome subject matter, McNamara avoids sensationalism and is always respectful of the victims and the trauma they experienced. 

What makes it a compelling read is McNamara herself and the lengths she went to try to solve this mystery. With Nancy Drew pluck and DCI Jane Tennison's resolve, McNamara investigates thoroughly, interviewing witnesses, visiting crime scenes, combing through thousands of pages of evidence.  When she teams up with Paul Holes, Contra Costa County cold case investigator, they make quick progress on the case - ruling in and out suspects, developing a profile and zeroing in on the killer. 

McNamara died suddenly in 2016 and her book was completed by writers Paul Haynes and Billy Jensen. Her husband pushed to have the book published, and it ended up as a New York Times Bestseller. There is now also an HBO documentary series about McNamara's investigation. 

The final chapter of the book is McNamara's 'Letter to an Old Man' where she writes directly to the Golden State Killer. She tears him down and foreshadows his eventual capture, writing

'One day soon, you'll hear a car pull up to your curb, an engine cut out. You'll hear footsteps coming up your front walk...'

Two months after publication of the book, Joseph James DeAngelo (age 72) was arrested on 24 April 2018 charged with eight murders and later charged with 13 kidnapping and abduction attempts. While he is suspected of committing at least 50 rapes, the statute of limitations has expired on these crimes. To avoid the death penalty, DeAngelo plead guilty to all these crimes, including the rapes, and on 21 August 2020 he was sentenced to life without parole. 

While McNamara never managed to identify DeAngelo and died before his capture and arrest, her work undoubtedly raised awareness of his crimes, made him the Golden State Killer, and contributed to his downfall.

Wednesday, 16 September 2020

Booker Prize Shortlist 2020

The Shortlist was announced today for the 2020 Booker prize. The thirteen titles on the Longlist have been whittled down to this six:

  • Diane Cook - The New Wilderness (USA)
  • Tsitsi Dangarembga - This Mournable Body (Zimbabwe)
  • Avni Doshi - Burnt Sugar (USA)
  • Maaza Mengiste - The Shadow King (Ethiopia/USA)
  • Douglas Stuart - Shuggie Bain (Scotland/USA)
  • Brandon Taylor - Real Life (USA) 

This is an interesting shortlist. The judges have bumped Hilary Mantel (thereby denying her the trifecta for her Cromwell trilogy) and have chosen five American/US based authors. While the snubbing of Mantel is one thing, but the over abundance of Americans on the shortlist will likely be the more controversial choice given the decision to allow non-Commonwealth nationalities into the running for these awards in 2014 is still a problematic for many in the publishing industry. 

Of all these titles, the ones I am most interested in are the books by Cook and Stuart. The Winner of the £50,000 revealed in November.

Saturday, 12 September 2020

Survival is Insufficient

Famous actor Arthur Leander is staring as King Lear at Toronto's Elgin Theatre. During a crucial scene he begins to stumble. From the audience, Jeevan rushes to the stage to catch Leander as he falls. The curtin comes down while Jeevan begins CPR on the Hollywood star.  At the same time, across town, emergency rooms are becoming flooded with patients, ill with a deadly strain of flu. In the next few hours the world will change irrevocably, as a worldwide pandemic wipes out almost the entire population leaving scattered pockets of survivors.

In April I picked up Station Eleven (2014) by Emily St John Mandel. I was gripped from the moment it began but had to stop as it was all too real, too frightening, too soon. Now, six months into the COVID-19 pandemic, I felt ready to try again. Over the past few days I have been engrossed in this unforgettable novel.

Station Eleven follows the lives of Leander, his ex-wives and child, a young co-star, a friend, the paramedic who tried to save him, and various other survivors of the pandemic. Non-linear, the story is told in switching timeframes - from decades before to twenty years after the world collapsed. We learn about how people adapted to a world without electricity, the internet and modern medicine. 

There is so much I loved about this book. Parts of it were set in Cabbagetown - the area of Toronto where I grew up - so deep nostalgia crept in as Jeevan walked along Carlton Street, visited Allan Gardens and and spoke of places from my childhood. The Travelling Symphony - a ragtag troupe of musicians and actors - that roam the territories to bring culture to the survivors. To my delight, their motto - 'Survival is Insufficient' - is taken from Star Trek Voyager. The way Miranda pours her heart into creating comic books which link together so many of the characters. The 'Museum of Civilisation' Clark creates, with its defunct technology, to preserve the past.  The efforts of a librarian to record the memories of those he meets. All of these intriguing elements add to the richness of the story. 

Mandel writes beautifully. She paces the story by packaging the chapters and altering the narrative style. The characters were well crafted and, through them, Mandel raises issues like the vacuity of celebrity culture, the role of technology, the desire to leave a legacy, and the burden of memory. While in the 'After' there were post-apcocalyptic hints of The Walking Dead and Cormac McCarthy's The Road, Station Eleven presents a more hopeful view. Despite the bleakness and the devastating carnage of the virus, human empathy and morality will bring people together and the world can reinvent itself. Just the message we need at this time.

HBO has created a mini-series of Station Eleven which was filming as the pandemic began. I look forward to seeing it when it airs.

Thursday, 10 September 2020

Women's Prize Winner 2020

The winner of the 2020 Women's Prize for fiction has just been announced, and I am delighted that Maggie O'Farrell has been recognised for her incredible novel, Hamnet.

Women's Prize Winner 2020

A live online ceremony took place with Chair of Judges Martha Lane Fox announcing the winner. Fox said of Hamnet

“The euphoria of being in the same room for the final judging meeting was quickly eclipsed by the excitement we all feel about this exceptional winner. Hamnet, while set long ago, like all truly great novels expresses something profound about the human experience that seems both extraordinarily current and at the same time, enduring.”

Maggie O’Farrell received the £30,000 prize and the award - ‘Bessie’, a limited-edition bronze figurine - from judge Paula Hawkins in Edinburgh. 

I absolutely loved this novel as have the friends and family members I shared it with. I am so pleased that it won and that O'Farrell will get a wider readership as a result. Read my of Hamnet review here.

Sunday, 6 September 2020

Knowing Me, Knowing You

Many people I know and admire rave about the writing of Rachel Cusk. Each time she released one of the novels in her recent trilogy I would be asked if I had read her work yet. While I had bought the books when they came out, I never felt in the right reading mood. However, for some unknown reason, I decided that now was the time to move at least one off my towering 'To Be Read' pile.

Outline (2014) tells the story of Faye, a woman who travels from her home in London to Athens to teach a summer writing course. While it is narrated by Faye, we know very little about her, as she is only revealed through how she relays the stories of those around her. A keen observer, she entices people to share their stories and we learn about their families, lovers, dreams, careers, passions - while at the same time our narrators shares very little of herself. We learn, over time, that she is divorced and has children, but for the most part she remains elusive. 

It begins on the flight to Athens when Faye is seated next to a thrice-married man who reveals key moments from his life story. Along the way we learn about her students, writers and others she meets as she dines, sails, swims, and teaches.

This was a really intriguing book. Cusk is an intelligent writer and I cannot recall another time I have read a book with such an ever-present narrator that I know so little about. Her voice propels the book along, as she shapes the narrative, yet she so rarely gives insight into herself. 

It was not until the last section of the novel where it became clear what she was doing. Cusk writes (p240) how one can reveal themselves in the contrast to those around them:

This anti-description, for want of a better way of putting it, had made something clear to her by a reverse kind of exposition: while he talked she began to see herself as a shape, an outline, with all the detail filled in around it while the shape itself remained blank. 

Outline is an intriguing novel - smart, perceptive, ambitious and unconventional. It made me keen to learn more about Faye and desperate to travel to Greece! Cusk has followed Outline up with two more volumes: Transit (2017) and Kudos (2018), which I look forward to reading.