Sunday, 12 January 2020

Lost and Found

In my early 20s I was on a George Eliot kick, working my way through her novels. I adored Middlemarch and The Mill on the Floss. I admired Adam Bede and Daniel Deronda.  But my Eliot obsession stopped with Silas Marner (1861) when, after reading the first few pages, I tossed it aside.

At the Sydney Writers' Festival in 2016 I went to a session in which Frank Moorehouse spoke about how he was re-reading George Eliot. At the time I got excited at the prospect of re-reading her too, but felt I should tackle the ones I had never read first. I pulled Silas off the shelf, placed it on the pile beside my bed and left it there. Every time I went to reassess my to-be-read pile, Silas gazed at me longingly, and each time I put it back on the pile. Then, late last year I decided to get it off the pile for once and for all by reading this long overdue novel.

Silas is a weaver who lives a simple life in a small town. Wrongly accused of theft, he is betrayed by those closest to him and forced into exile. In Raveloe he begins again, living as a hermit, hoarding his savings under the floorboards and becoming known as a reclusive miser. Like Gollum and his precious ring, Silas regularly pulls out his stash to count and admire it.

When Silas is robbed of all his money, he faces having to start all over again. He soon discovers that money is not the key to happiness, as he finds an orphaned toddler and raises her as his own child. In doing so, he becomes part of the Raveloe community, regains his faith and reconnects with others.

Eliot has a talent for writing with strong realism - creating a sense of rural England and the people who reside there. However, I honestly did not enjoy this novel, finding it quite dull until the last quarter when Silas became a father to the girl. So, while I am glad to have finally read Silas Marner, I cannot say it was worth the wait!

Saturday, 4 January 2020

Planning for 2020

I am someone who likes to plan ahead and be purposeful in my decision making. At the end of each year I spend time reflecting on my past reading habits, and forward planning for the year ahead. Generally I gather books I want to read and stack them up in an accessible pile. I comb my bookshelves for forgotten titles, peruse lists of books that will be published in the coming year, and lodge reserve requests with my local library.

My real problem is when it comes to executing the plan. Because reading is so personal I find I am susceptible to falling off course. If I am busy at my day job with a lot of high-intensity thought work, I look for novels to escape in. I will often pick up a book and find that the time is not right to read that title. Or I may be reading something and then I head in a different direction when my library reserve becomes available, or I purchase something new.

My 'To Be Read' stack is high, and there are plenty of options there to keep me engaged. So rather than prepare a long list of books that I am going to read - only to wind up disappointed at the end of the year that I never read half of them - I am going to be free this year to follow wherever my reading takes me.

I want to remain diverse in my reading and will still focus on fiction. I have set myself an achievable target of 30 books to keep me on track. I have also set up another book Bingo board for a bit of fun.

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

As I plan my 2020 overseas travels, I will look for authors from those locations to deepen my understanding. As literary award longlists are released, I will choose from those titles the ones that most interest me. As new books become published, I will seek them out (yeah, I am talking about you Maggie O'Farrell) and have already put reserves on many. 

What I do know, is that I am looking forward to my adventures in reading this year! 

Wednesday, 1 January 2020

My Reading Year - 2019

Another delightful year of reading has come to an end. Time to reflect on the year that was.

My reading goal for 2019, as documented in my challenge was 30 books. I narrowly missed out by one, having read 29 titles this year.

My list included only a handful of books which I wrote about in my planning for 2019 post on 1 January 2019. While I had intended to read a large stack of books, many of them fell down the list of priorities as new books came into my life. I did tick a few off my list though, including Becoming by Michelle Obama and Educated by Tara Westover.

For the past few years I have created a reading bingo card in an attempt to diversify my reading (achievements highlighted below).  This worked well this year, encouraging me to read different genres and new authors, although I missed out on a lot of categories I had intended to pursue.

19th Century 
First Novel 
in a Series
Adapted into a 
Film/TV Show
Australian Literary 
Prize Longlister
Short Story
Set in Space
or at Sea
Pre-19th Century
Fiction Based
on a True Story
Current Affairs 
Book on the
1001 List
Banned Book
Features a Strong 
Female Protagonist
Set in the
New York Times
Spin Off from 
a Classic
Mystery or
Crime Novel
Booker Prize
in 2019
20th Century
Legal Thriller
or Memoir
Set during 
Book with a 
colour in title

So here's what I read in 2019:

I started the year with two compelling novels I had long wanted to read: Patricia Highsmith's Deep Water (1957) and The Children Act (2014) by Ian McEwan. Both are thin books which have hidden depths, and both involve failing marriages. Highsmith's novel is full of suspense and intrigue which had me gripped from the outset. McEwan's is multi-layered with a strong female protagonist. I loved them both.

Next, on the advice of my aunt Jeanne, I read Belinda Bauer's Snap (2018) which was an enjoyable, page-turning crime thriller. Then I read Nora Ephron's Heartburn (1983) which I didn't like at all, followed by Meg Wolitzer's The Wife (2004) which I loved.

After attending the Sydney Writers' Festival in May, I started gathering books written by authors I heard speak. Oyinkan Braithwaite's My Sister, The Serial Killer (2018) is a delightful, darkly comedic, debut novel set in Nigeria.

While travelling throughout Morocco in June I read An American Marriage (2018) by Tayari Jones, winner of the Women's Prize for Fiction. This is the book that I recommended most often to people this year. On that trip I also read The Tattooist of Auschwitz (2018) by Heather Morris which I found to be a terribly written fictionalisation of a true story.  

My reading took off in August and September when I read some terrific novels. John Lanchester's dystopian The Wall (2019) was a great cautionary tale about climate change, nationalism and isolationism.  Then I was hooked by La Belle Sauvage - the first of the new 'The Book of Dust' trilogy by Philip Pullman - which took me back twenty years to my love of Pullman's 'His Dark Materials' series. Then I returned to Gilead with the hotly anticipated sequel to The Handmaid's Tale, Margaret Atwood's The Testaments (2019) which was well worth the wait! This was followed by Brian Bilston's delightful Diary of a Somebody (2019) which had me laughing aloud. 

I also read some Australian fiction this year. Bruny (2019), a political thriller set in Tasmania by Heather Rose, was an interesting read although it didn't meet all my expectations. John Purcell's The Girl on the Page (2018) was great fun as well. Set in the London publishing world, it is a book-lovers delight.  

I finally got around to reading Mark Haddon's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time (2003) and can now see what all the fuss was about. It was great! And, on the last day of the year, I finished George Eliot's Silas Marner (1861) a classic I had been meaning to read since the last century! 

Reflecting on the novels I read over the past year there were a lot about doomed relationships. - An American Marriage, The Wife, The Children Act, Heartburn, Deep Water all had failing marriages, while My Sister, the Serial Killer and Diary of a Somebody also focussed on relationship troubles.  If anything these novels served to reinforce the importance of trust and love and made me grateful for my own marriage.  I also read a lot of dystopian or speculative fiction, which is one of my favourite genres. The Wall, The Testaments, La Belle Sauvage, and to a lesser extent Bruny, all showed a world that I do not want to live in and one that is not so far out of step with the path the world is heading today.

Of the more than a dozen novels I read this year the one I would most recommend to others is Tayari Jones' An American Marriage. The story of newlyweds suddenly separated by incarceration is a deeply rich story of race, justice, hope and love. I described it at the time as 'heartbreaking and beautiful' and, of all the great books I read this year, it is the one I think about most often. 


I read a lot of biographies and memoirs this year. I started the year with Tara Westover's fascinating Educated (2018) - the story of a girl growing up in a Mormon survivalist family and her journey to become a Cambridge-educated professional. Vicki Laveau-Harvie's award winning The Erratics (2018) is the story of another dysfunctional family and a different kind of escape. The memoir centres around the author coming home to care for elderly parents after a long absence and coming to terms with the toxicity of the family environment.

Helen Garner's Yellow Notebook - Diaries Volume 1 (1978-1987) was published this year and I really enjoyed reading this decade in a writer's life. I am not sure what drew me to read Michael Caine's latest memoir, Blowing the Bloody Doors Off (2018) but I liked it, especially as I also listened to it read by the actor himself. 

Michelle Obama's Becoming (2018) was a refreshingly candid memoir and left me feeling great admiration for the author. Likewise Gillian Trigg's Speaking Up (2018) provided great insights into her time at the Human Rights Commission and the long way we need to go to improve human rights in Australia. For something quite different, I also greatly enjoyed Emily Nussbaum's essay collection I Like to Watch (2019) which is a compilation of her television reviews, interviews and though pieces.
In terms of politics and current affairs, I enjoyed Niki Savva's Plots and Prayers (2019) about the downfall of Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, a follow up to her 2016 book The Road to Ruin about Tony Abbott.  Michael Lewis' The Fifth Risk (2018) was recommended to me by my cousin Graham and I found it fascinating. Lewis focussed on the transition of government from Obama to Trump and the way in which three key federal agencies were impacted by the ignorance and arrogance of the incoming regime. I also read Annabel Crabb's Quarterly Essay Men at Work (2019) about the barriers men face in relation to parenthood. 

While I liked all the non-fiction I read this year, if I had to choose one favourite I would pick Michelle Obama's Becoming

Poetry was a bit hit and miss for me this year. Early in the year I borrowed Kate Lilley's Ladylike from the library and I could not get in to it. While I managed to read the whole collection, I never managed to write a post about it. 

In the year the world lost Clive James, I read his Injury Time in March which I found most enjoyable despite the dark spectre of death hanging over it.  But my favourite book of poetry this year, was a novel about a struggling poet. Brian Bilston's Diary of a Somebody was absolutely delightful and one of my favourite books of the year. 


This year I took out a subscription to Audible and over the course of the year I have enhanced my physical reading with listening to audiobooks. It helps me on my commute to listen to the book while walking and taking the train, as I read along with it. My cousin Graham calls this 'power reading' and I have found it to be a great way to read, especially books I have struggled to read or where the narrator's voice adds to the storytelling.  

This year I listened to Michael Caine read his memoir Blowing the Bloody Doors Off, Andrew Sachs (Manuel!) read Silas Marner, Michael Sheen read La Belle Sauvage, and Gillian Triggs read her memoir Speaking Up. Plus, after I finished reading Atwood's The Testaments, I then listened to the audiobook and got to relive it again. 

Best of 2019

Of all the books I read this year the ones I regard most highly are Tayari Jones' An American Marriage, Michelle Obama's Becoming and Brian Bilston's Diary of a Somebody Honourable mentions would extend to Margaret Atwood's The TestamentsMeg Wolitzer's The WifeIan McEwan's The Children Act and Patricia Highsmith's Deep Water.

The worst books I read this year were Jim Broadbent's graphic novel Dull Margaret (2018), Morris' The Tattooist of Auschwitz and Nora Ephron's Heartburn.

Saturday, 21 December 2019

Fragments of Life

Readers of this blog will know I am more than a little bit obsessed with Australian writer Helen Garner. While I admire her fiction, it is her non-fiction works which I really love. I have often said I would read anything she writes - shopping lists, post-it notes, anything...  As luck would have it, she has now published the first volume of her diaries. 

Helen Garner's Yellow Notebook - Diaries Volume 1 (1978-1987) covers an interesting period in her life. She has just published her debut novel Monkey Grip (1977) and is on the cusp of success. But she is also riddled with self-doubt, fuelled by any whiff of a negative critique. She is a hard working author who writes frankly about her successes and failures - her inability to create and when the words flow easily - providing insight to the feast-or-famine life of a writer.

The diary isn't written in a daily format, rather it is comprised of snippets, observations, sentiments and glimpses. In one entry she will describe her anxiety as an author, the next she will write about her blossoming Christianity. Then she will insert a scathing critique like 'Siouxsie and the Banshees at l'Empire. They were revolting' (1978, p6).  She writes with such clarity and conciseness, wit and immediacy, that readers can't help but become engrossed.

Throughout the ten years of this notebook, we meet a range of fascinating people and gain some understanding of Helen's character.  Her daughter, M, is growing and becoming more independent. Helen's fierce maternal love and admiration for her child seeps through the pages.

Her marriage to second husband F is fading and she contemplates their future in the pages of her notebook. One diary entry that particularly struck me was when Helen writes 'F offered to pay some of my expenses so I could stop doing journalism and concentrate on my own work. I felt a stab of panic at the thought of being dependent' (1982, p31). Having experienced a similar sensation at one point in my life, I could completely relate.

It is this relatability which makes reading her diaries so enjoyable. Helen's vulnerability and self-deprecation is on full display. She can be cranky, mean-spirited, loving and kind. She is wholly present and human.  My favourite sentence in the whole book is this:  'I made some curtains for my room and they are a disaster' (1985, p137). There is something about the simplicity and frankness of her critique that made me roar with laughter. 

While not a book for every reader, I found such pleasure in reading the Yellow Notebook. I look forward to the next volume.

My reviews of some of Garner's other works appears on this blog:

Tuesday, 10 December 2019

Couch Potato

If I'd have known that I could make a living as television critic, I reckon I would have made different choices about my studies and career. Emily Nussbaum, television critic for the New Yorker, has my dream job as a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist, insightfully analysing popular culture. Nussbaum has compiled a collection of her articles in I Like to Watch - Arguing my way through the TV Revolution (2019).

'Buffy the Vampire Slayer' is the show that started Nussbaum's career. Often dismissed as a superficial program for young people, Nussbaum argues, in the first essay in this collection, that 'Buffy' is multilayered and more complex that it appears. 

Throughout I Like to Watch, Nussbaum writes intelligently about many of the shows I have watched over the past twenty years - 'The Sopranos', 'Sex and the City', 'Girls', 'Marvellous Mrs Maisel', 'The Good Wife', 'The Americans', 'True Detective' and more. Her essays allowed me reminisce fondly about some of these shows and made me want to rewatch others to consider some of the contextual angles she observed. There are also essays about shows I haven't seen (like 'Jane the Virgin', 'Blackish', 'The Comeback') which, while still interesting, are less engaging. Nussbaum includes profiles of Joan Rivers, Ryan Murphy and Jenji Kohan in this collection, observing how their lives are reflected in their art. 
One of the most powerful pieces is 'Confessions of a Human Shield', a long essay in which she explores Woody Allen, Louis CK and the #MeToo movement. Nussbaum writes about her views on Allen changed over time, having been an avid fan from her teenage years, and now seeing him and his films in a different light.  She is uncomfortably torn and asks whether you can seperate the art from the artist.

Nussbaum's sharp observations have a distinctly feminist lens and it is great to read a collection that praises art aimed at women, people of colour and other marginalised groups. In her essay on 'Sex and the City', Nussbaum pushes back against 'the assumption that anything stylised (or formulaic, or pleasurable, or funny, or feminine, or explicit about sex rather than about violence, or made collaboratively) must be inferior'. She elevates content targeted to women and dismissed the notion that TV is a 'guilty pleasure'. 

Television is often seen as a lesser art form, although that is changing with recent 'must see' event television and the arrival of streaming services which has seen top cinema directors, writers and actors drawn to the small screen. As an avid viewer myself, I appreciate Nussbaum's validation of this particular art form.

Saturday, 30 November 2019

Call for Compassion

Gillian Triggs is a woman I have tremendous admiration for.  Having heard her speak on a number of occasions, during her time as President of the Australian Human Rights Commission, and since she left her post, I have always been impressed by her intellect and her boundless empathy and compassion. My most recent encounter with Gillian Triggs took place at the 2019 Sydney Writers' Festival where she spoke in conversation with Dr Clare Wright about her memoir/call to action Speaking Up (2018).

Her book begins with a brief backstory - Triggs' early childhood,  love of ballet, her student days, the start of her law career, marriage and motherhood. Triggs studied law in Melbourne, spent some time in Texas advising the police department, and earned a Doctorate. A well regarded lawyer and academic, I recall reading Triggs' work when I studied public international law as part of my law degree.

During her five years at the Commission (2012-2017) Triggs was vilified and misrepresented, particularly by the Coalition (Abbott, Brandis, Dutton, Morrison), media and talk back radio hosts (Bolt, Jones, Hadley), as they attempted to grind her down and undermine her integrity. But she remained resilient and continued to shine a light in dark corners, pointing out Australia's own human rights concerns: indigenous deaths in custody, children on Nauru, prolonged detention of asylum seekers, gender inequality and so on. Triggs demonstrates how the government has passed legislation masked as anti-terror protections which erode human rights and violate many international treaties to which Australia is a signatory.

Triggs devotes chapters to key areas where human rights need to be protected - Aboriginal rights, the asylum seekers on Manus and Nauru, gender equality and so on. She eloquently and evenly writes about freedom of speech and the controversy surrounding section 18C of the Constitution. She also argues that equal marriage and freedom of religion are not incompatible. In doing so she describes her efforts to raise issues of concern with a government intent on silencing her.

But Triggs refuses to be silenced and is committed to pursuing a Bill of Rights for Australia. She sees this as the only way to guarantee rights for all Australians and she makes an eloquent argument that should be persuasive to everyone, regardless of their politics.

I greatly enjoyed Speaking Up and as I read I also listened to the audiobook version which Triggs herself read. Throughout this book I felt frustrated and ashamed by Australia's failed record on human rights, but also optimistic that there may be a way forward. Professor Triggs has a lot to say and deserves to be listened to.

Finally, Speaking Up is an example of the important works published by Melbourne University Publishing (MUP) under CEO Louise Adler's tenure, and one of the last before MUP decided to shift direction to only publish academic works.

Sunday, 17 November 2019

Literary Worlds

In May this year I attended a session at the Sydney Writers' Festival featuring three authors I had not read and knew nothing about. The session was called 'Literary Worlds' and one of the panelists was John Purcell, author of The Girl on the Page (2018). As I listened to Purcell speak, about his [previous] job at Booktopia and his inside knowledge of the publishing industry, I became intrigued about his novel and have recently read it.

Set in contemporary London, the protagonist Amy is an impossibly beautiful young editor who drinks too much, sleeps around and spends wildly. She is known in the industry for making miracles - turning any book into a bestseller. Amy has already worked her wonders on Liam by ghostwriting his Lee-Childesque series of thrillers, but now faces a tremendous professional challenge.

Septuagenarian Helen Owen is a literary author who was given a hefty advance for her next novel. Her writer husband of fifty years, Malcolm Taylor, feels Helen has sold out. Amy is sent by the publisher to help Helen finish the novel, but pairing these two completely opposite women could end in disaster. Will Amy turn Helen's novel into a blockbuster, or will she honour Helen's reputation as a literary giant that no one reads?

The Girl on the Page is an addictive, accessible read and it held some genuine surprises. Purcell injects poignant moments of sadness and darkness among the humour and levity. He satirises the publishing industry and literary awards, and name-drops pretty much every author imaginable.

As an avid reader, I delighted in this birds-eye-view inside the publishing industry. Purcell knocks down the notion that readers need to choose between literary and commercial fiction. In doing so, Purcell has written a love letter to books of all kinds. I particularly enjoyed the curated favourite book lists from all the main characters in the novel which feature some genuine gems to inspire future reading.

Burning Bridges

Astrid Coleman takes a break from her job at the UN when her brother, Tasmanian Premier JC Coleman, asks for help. He is heading towards re-election and there has just been a major incident in Tasmania that is likely a terrorist attack. A controversial bridge is being built from the mainland to Bruny Island - a peaceful oasis which is home to about 600 people and a key tourist destination - and one night, close to completion, the bridge has been blown up. This $2 billion dollar infrastructure project, will change Tasmania irrevocably, but now the race is on to rebuild before election day and find out what happened.

Coming home is never easy. Astrid left Tasmania when she was a young woman and now needs to adjust to her complex family. Her difficult mother Hyacinth is battling cancer. Her father Angus, former political leader, only speaks in Shakespeare quotes. Her twin brother JC is harbouring deep secrets, and her sister Max is opposition leader in the Coleman political dynasty. Family love and loyalty runs deep.

When I first heard about Bruny I was really excited. Heather Rose's previous novel, the Stella Prize winning The Museum of Modern Love (2016) was brilliant and was my top pick for fiction in 2017. I knew this novel would be different as it was touted as a geopolitical thriller, and given my love of global politics I was keen to get my hands on this book.

For all the political intrigue of Bruny - foreign investment, secret deals, migrant workers, complex infrastructure projects, racism, being caught between China and America - there was something missing. The pacing of the novel was problematic - the first two-thirds of the book was so slow that I contemplated giving up. I persevered and became suddenly gripped in the last third when Bruny became a page-turner.

Heather Rose is a gifted writer and she creates a strong sense of place to the Tasmania she loves. Some of the prose in this novel I found clunky and cringey - such as when Rose would describe characters as looking like Gene Hackman, Chris Hemsworth or other celebrities. But her evocative descriptions of Tasmania - the flora, fauna and people - made me want to pack my bags and jump on the Bruny ferry. It was also refreshing to read a book where the protagonist is a fully formed woman nearing 60 years of age.

Friday, 8 November 2019

Tsundoku confession

Last weekend I went to a bookstore and walked away with more titles to add to my ever-growing pile. On returning home I sat down with a cup of tea and cracked the spine on a new novel. After a few pages I looked over at a towering pile of books I have prioritised to read, have started but not yet finished, or have borrowed from my local library and need to complete before a rapidly approaching return date. I immediately put down my new novel to reflect on my circumstances.

Clearly I am suffering from a bad case of Tsunduko - the Japanese term for acquiring books without reading them. To be honest, this is a lifelong condition. My home is a hoarder's delight when it comes to books - bookshelves overflow and the excess are stacked in tidy piles in every nook and cranny. I used to reorder the books on a regular basis - alphabetically, Dewey decimal, thematically - but once my shelves became layers deep they have ended up orderless. Despite the seemingly random display, I know where to find everything...

I usually have at least two books on the go - an at-home read (physical) and a commute read (electronic). Generally I read one fiction and one non-fiction concurrently. But ever since I dropped everything in September to read Atwood's The Testaments, I am at varying stages of:
  • Speaking Up by Gillian Triggs (update: read review)
  • Bruny by Heather Rose (update: read review)
  • I Like to Watch by Emily Nussbaum (update: read review)
  • Talking to Strangers by Malcolm Gladwell
  • The Library Book by Susan Orlean
  • David Copperfield by Charles Dickens
  • The Secret Commonwealth by Philip Pullman
  • Everything Under by Daisy Johnson 
Plus I have a stack of books I am keen to get in to and I am several blog posts behind in books I have actually finished. So, I need to stop pretending I can multitask and focus. I am going to put aside Pullman and Gladwell until 2020, and concentrate on finishing the others. Watch this space!

Thursday, 7 November 2019

Bringing Up Baby

Why is it that over the past 50 years women have changed the way they work and parent, but men have hardly changed at all? Annabel Crabb seeks to understand the reasons why women are still left holding the baby in her Quarterly Essay (QE75 2019) Men at Work: Australia's Parenthood Trap.

Australian men face cultural barriers which often prevent them from stepping back from work to care for children. Taking part-time roles, flexible work or opting to be the stay-at-home parent still carries a stigma in some quarters - for both men and women. The gender pay gap often means it makes more financial sense for the mother to give up her career to take on the bulk of the domestic duties. In many instances, she will never recover from this in terms of career advancement, lost earnings and diminished superannuation.

Crabb highlights the gender inequities by looking at politics. When Jacinda Ardern, New Zealand Prime Minister, became pregnant while in office, she was questioned repeatedly about her parental choices and the logistics of her work/life balance. Conversely, Scott Morrison, Australian Prime Minister, is never queried about how he will be a father to his young daughters while holding such a demanding role. Crabb contacted Morrison and Treasurer Josh Frydenberg to ask them about their work-family balance. Both spoke about how they make up for their absence through communication, but hand most of the day-to-day responsibilities to their partners. Crabb questions how this is seen to be socially acceptable, but if women with young children held these roles the scrutiny would be relentless.

Of course it doesn't have to be this way. Crabb explores how other countries provide paid parental leave which requires the father to participate in order to gain maximum benefit. She also provides examples of how countries can change culture over time and how many companies are taking the lead to bring about change by incentivising staff and removing barriers. Throughout the essay she never criticises men for their choices, but does point out how much they and their children gain from being more active parents.

Crabb's writing style and tone make this essay an easy, digestible read. Her charm and wit comes through, although sometimes I felt the author was a bit too present. Her arguments are clear and she is balanced in her approach. My main frustration with this essay is that we are still having to have this conversation!

Tuesday, 15 October 2019

Booker Prize Winner 2019

From a Longlist of 13 titles and a Shortlist of five, the winner of the Booker Prize for fiction was announced on 14 October 2019. Controversially, the judges decided to split the 50,000GBP prize in two and announce joint winners this year.

The prize is shared between Margaret Atwood's The Testaments and Bernardine Evaristo's Girl, Woman, Other. 

Atwood has been my pick for the prize ever since the longlist came out. Having read The Testaments, I think it is a worthy recipient. Extremely well written, it covers urgent, contemporary themes in a compelling way. Atwood previously won the Booker in 2000 for The Blind Assassin. 

Evaristo is the first black woman to win this prize in its' fifty year history. I have not yet read Evaristo's novel, but look forward to doing so. Her work weaves together the stories of 12 British women, exploring race, class, gender and sexuality.

While I think it is wonderful to give this prize to two incredible women writers, I do feel that it short changes the winner and that the judges should have been able to make a definitive decision. The judges released a video right after the announcement attempting to explain why they 'flouted the rules' and crowned two authors.

Atwood needs no assistance in selling her book - it has been a bestseller since before it was published. But I am pleased to see Evaristo's work getting the attention it deserves and expect it will increase in sales following this award.

Sunday, 29 September 2019

The Life of Brian

How to express my deep affection
for verse which blends depth and confection?
A story most mysterious, dramatic and witty,
with seances, bins, custard cremes and a kitty.
Bilston's diary has made me so happy,
I'm inspired to write poems, however crappy.

I have admired Brian Bilston since I stumbled upon his Twitter account where he posts poems about all sorts of things - from Brexit to biscuits and everything in-between*. His witty wordplay and punchy verse is delightful and always brightens my day.

Bilston's new book Diary of a Somebody (2019) is a fictional diary which follows a year in the life of Brian. Now in his mid-forties, Brian's New Year's resolution is to write a poem a day in an effort to get himself out of the rut he is in. He has a soulless office job, his teenage son is growing distant, his ex-wife has moved in with a motivational speaker, and, his book club dislikes him as he never finishes their monthly read. To make matters worse, his poetic nemesis Toby Salt, is constantly being published. 

Things are looking up... sort of. He has a crisp new diary to begin his writing career, Liz has joined his poetry group, and his ability to string together management jargon makes his boss think he is a genius. But Brian often misreads cues, avoids taking risks, and regularly retreats to places of comfort. The humdrum of his daily life is interrupted when Toby Salt disappears and Brian becomes a suspect.

The diary structure of the book works well to explore Brian's thoughts about the mundanities of life. Many days begin with a verse, which set up the diary entry that follows. It also makes it easy to read in short grabs or longer sessions. I briefly toyed with the idea of reading it over the course of the year, but once I started I couldn't stop. The story ebbs and flows, as in life when days roll on with nothing happening, punctuated by some event which changes the pace. 

Diary of a Somebody is a uniquely genius comic novel. I regularly laughed aloud at both the verse ('Her name was Yoda, / A showgirl she was') and the situations Brian finds himself in.  There is so much empathy, sweetness and warmth in this book. While it won't appeal to everyone, I absolutely loved it. It reminded me of Sue Townsend's The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, Aged 13 3/4 (1982) with a tiny bit of Bridget Jones. I would heartily recommend this book to lovers of language, wordplay and witticism.

*I particularly enjoy Bilston's commemorations of overlooked events like #InternationalCatDay or #SpoonerismDay

Saturday, 28 September 2019

Return to Gilead

When Margaret Atwood announced that she would be writing a sequel to her classic novel The Handmaid's Tale (1985), I experienced a range of feelings. I was excited to be returning to Gilead, as I loved the book and always wondered what might have happened to Offred and the regime. But I was also apprehensive; worried that the sequel would not live up to the first, or it would somehow seem that Atwood was only capitalising on the popularity of the television show.

I should never have doubted. Atwood is a master. The Testaments (2019) is a brilliant novel and a worthy successor, equal to (arguably better than) the original. Praise be! I was completely engrossed in the book, and upon completion I immediately began listening to the audiobook, which heightened my admiration for Atwood's clever, intricate writing.

The Testaments was embargoed prior to release to prevent spoilers. As a reader I appreciated being able to enjoy the novel free from knowledge of what was to come. So I will not reveal too much of the plot here, other than to say what is commonly known.

Set 15 years after the events in HandmaidThe Testaments is narrated by three women: Aunt Lydia, Agnes and Daisy. Aunt Lydia, a figure who looms large in Gilead, secretly writes her memoirs and in doing so imparts not just her role in the current regime, but how she got there. She is a cunning, smart and witty woman who reveals much about the cracks in Gilead. Agnes, a young woman who has been indoctrinated into Gilead culture, tells of how she is being groomed to become the wife of a Commander. Daisy, a teenager in neighbouring Canada, protests the Gilead regime. These three seperate narratives provide different perspectives on Gilead: an insider, a follower and an outsider. How they interlink and evolve is fascinating.

Today - in the era of #MeToo and FakeNews with the rise of nationalism, increasing restriction on women's reproductive rights, erection of border walls, increasing conservatism - Handmaids have become a symbol of the oppression of women. As such, the timing of this novel could not be more perfect: returning to Gilead is a hopeful reminder that tyrannical regimes face resistance and failure.

The Testaments is a well-crafted page-turner, which takes the reader on a thrilling journey. Shortlisted for the Booker Prize, this novel is definitely my pick for winner.

Saturday, 21 September 2019

After the Flood

Twenty years ago, long before I started this blog, I was engrossed in the His Dark Materials trilogy by Philip Pullman. Northern Lights (aka The Golden Compass) (1995) The Subtle Knife (1997) and The Amber Spyglass (2000) told the story of Lyra Belacqua, a smart young girl and her daemon Pantalaimon as she journeys through the multiverse. The fantasy series was clever and thrilling; exploring deep questions about morality, religion and science.

Pullman has now embarked on a new trilogy called The Book of Dust, Dust being the mysterious Rusakov particles attracted to objects formed by consciousness. The Magisterium (Church) is obsessed with Dust, seeing it as evil and corrupting, akin to the concept of Original Sin. Dust permeated the first trilogy and does so again here.

La Belle Sauvage is the first book, named after a canoe owned by young Malcolm Polstead. Set ten years before Northern Lights, here Lyra is a baby being cared for by nuns at an Oxford priory. Malcolm helps out at the inn his parents run, alongside a teenage girl named Alice. Malcolm sees and hears many things from the customers who stop by for a pint 'n pie. One day, a group of men arrive at the inn and start questioning Malcolm about Lyra. But when creepy Gerard Bonneville and his hideous hyena daemon arrive in town, Malcolm knows for sure that Lyra is in danger.

Flood waters are rising in Oxford as the Thames threatens to break her banks. Taking advantage of the inclement weather, Bonneville attempt to steal the child, but Malcolm and Alice are able to flee with Lyra in La Belle Sauvage. The three children, pursued by Bonneville and various others, undergo all sorts of ordeals as they try to find sanctuary after the flood.

I loved being back in the world of Dust, daemons and alethiometers - in fact whenever the story mentioned anything related to His Dark Materials (like Lord Asriel, Mrs Coulter, gyptians or Jordan College), I immediately became nostalgic. The mysterious 'Oakley Street', extremist Magisterium, and disturbing League of St Alexander kept the story moving along. While Malcolm is a great protagonist, feisty Alice is the one who interested me most, and I liked how their relationship changed over the course of their journey.

So far, I haven't found The Book of Dust as engrossing as the first trilogy.  The flood was a drag on the story; so many pages take place in the titular boat that it became a bit dry. The tone was also considerably darker than the first trilogy - which, admittedly, I kind of liked, but made me wonder what younger readers might think. To enhance my reading, I also listened along to the audiobook with Michael Sheen narrating the story. This enlivened the tale and I particularly loved his portrayal of Bonneville's hyena.

The second volume of The Book of Dust will be released on 3 October 2019 and from what I understand the story will fast forward to Lyra as a young woman. So I will be intrigued to see where this series takes us! But what I am really excited about is the new BBC series, Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials which will air in early November with James McAvoy, Ruth Wilson and Lin-Manuel Miranda among the cast.

Saturday, 7 September 2019

Unclean hands

In 2016, journalist Niki Savva produced a riveting book about the downfall of Tony Abbott titled The Road to Ruin. Her latest, Plots and Prayers (2019), is a sequel to that tale - focusing on the incredible fall of Abbott's successor, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, and the subsequent victory of Scott Morrison.

Savva talks to all the insiders about what they were doing and thinking during that week in August 2018, when Peter Dutton attempted to oust Turnbull in an ill-advised and poorly-conceived coup. The forensic analysis of who said what, when, and to whom, paints a brutal portrait of our political leaders as a bunch of spoiled, privileged bullies who are only thinking of themselves.  Savva explores the issues plaguing the Coalition government in the months leading up to the overthrow: the National Energy Guarantee; Queensland; Abbott; Barnaby Joyce's affair and child with a staff member; and, Turnbull's inability to gain traction inside the party.

The events of that week were bizarre to those of us outside the 'Canberra bubble': Dutton gathering his forces; Turnbull urging him to put up or shut up; Abbott destabilising from the back stalls; Fifield defecting; Cormann backstabbing; and then, from seemingly nowhere, Morrison emerging victorious.

Over the past year, Morrison has repeatedly claimed that he was loyal to Turnbull, and that he stumbled into the top job once Turnbull's hopes of holding on were lost. But Savva reveals that his supporters were working the numbers and positioning Morrison to take advantage of the chaos they helped cause. It will be interesting to see what Turnbull makes of all this when his memoir is published early next year.

Plots and Prayers is a real-life political thriller - an intriguing, page-turning read. The writing is witty, wry, and intelligent. I knew I would enjoy it from the moment I read veteran journalist Laurie Oakes' endorsement on the front cover where he writes 'How good is this book!' - turning Morrison's catchphrase into wicked praise.

Wednesday, 4 September 2019

The Booker Prize Shortlist 2019

The shortlist has been announced for the 2019 Booker prize. The thirteen longlisted titles have been whittled down to six:

  • Margaret Atwood - The Testaments (Canada)
  • Lucy Ellmann - Ducks, Newburyport (USA/UK)
  • Bernardine Evaristo - Girl, Woman, Other (UK)
  • Chigozie Obioma - An Orchestra of Minorities (Nigeria)
  • Salman Rushdie - Quichotte (UK) 
  • Elif Shafak - 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in this Strange World (Turkey)

I am delighted that Atwood made the list, and I am eagerly awaiting my pre-ordered copy of The Testaments which will arrive next week on publication day. Of the shortlisted titles, she is my pick for winner.

I had only read two of the longlisted titles - My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite, and John Lanchester's The Wall - and was not surprised that they didn't make the cut. But I was disappointed that Max Porter's Lanny didn't survive. 

Here's what the Booker Prize judges had to say about the shortlist.

The Winner will be revealed on 14 October 2019.

Sunday, 1 September 2019

The Rising Tide

Our worst fears of climate change have occurred. The seas have risen. Millions of people are displaced and desperate. Young people are enraged by the inaction of older generations, effectively robbing them of their futures.

In Britain, the government has chosen isolation, building a massive sea wall around the entire island, to protect the country from waves of refugees - the 'Others' - who attempt to reach a safe haven. To defend themselves from these intruders, armed guards are conscripted and placed along the entire Wall, while the coast guard patrols at sea.

We meet Kavanagh, a new Defender, straight out of his initial training, and follow him as he navigates his new existence on the Wall. Defenders who fail, and allow the Others to traverse the Wall, will be put to sea and exiled. So the stakes are high, and Kavanagh must not let down his Captain, the Sergeant, and his fellow Defenders.

The Wall (2019) by John Lanchester has been longlisted for this year's Booker Prize. It is a quick and easy read, with the story moving at a good pace, particularly in the second part. He captures the droning boredom of the Defenders, then the sudden shift in to action. I am not sure it is Booker-worthy, as the writing is not exactly literary, but it is a compelling novel for readers who enjoy dystopian fiction.

It is a cautionary tale in many respects. There are shades of Trump's wall along the Mexican border and his racist demonisation of immigrants. There is also the isolation of Brexit, with Britain literally walling itself in to separate itself from the world. But the overriding caution is related to climate and the global failure to act to slow/reverse the effects of humans on our planet. Lanchester perfectly captures the resentment young people do and should feel towards our current political leaders for failure to act. For example, when a politician comes to speak to the Defenders, he describes the Change as follows:
'...The Change was not a single solitary event. We speak of it in that manner because here we experienced one particular shift, of sea level and weather over a period of years it is true, but it felt then and when we look back on it today still feels like an incident that happened, a defined moment in time with a before and an after. There was our parents' world, and now there is our world.' (p110)
The 'our world' Lanchester portrays is bleak and hopeless, with limited opportunities for young people. Let's hope he is wrong.

For those interested in speculative fiction, I would also recommend Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake (2003) trilogy.

Thursday, 29 August 2019

A Tiresome Tale

I was perusing the graphic novel section at my local public library when I noticed a book written by Jim Broadbent. Wait, Jim Broadbent? The Oscar winning actor? Professor Slughorn? Archmaester Ebrose? That Jim Broadbent?

Sure enough, the same Jim Broadbent has penned Dull Margaret (2018), his first graphic novel, illustrated by Dix. The story follows a woman who hunts eels to sell in the local market. She doesn't fit in to the local community, and is shunned and exiled.  Margaret concocts a potion to bring her wealth and companionship. Yet when she gets her friend, she has no ability to treat him well as she has never experienced friendship before. Margaret's desire for vengeance on a world that has wronged her sees her blur the lines between heroine and horror. 
Dix's illustrations are macabre but compelling. Many pages feature a series of images which show Margaret's actions and angst. His Margaret is pale, thin and ghostly. Dix uses a muted palette of browns and greens to illustrate Margaret's bleak existence. He is a talented artist, creating evocative and unsettling panels. 

Broadbent was inspired by Pieter Bruegel the Elder's painting Dulle Griet and crafted this story to explore Margaret's life outside the painting. While I appreciate his desire to create a story from a painting he loves, the story he created did not move me at all. I was not interested in Margaret and found the whole experience rather tiresome. Dull Margaret is indeed very dull.

Nick Drasno's Sabrina and Chris Ware's Jimmy Corrigan are much better graphic novels which explore themes of loneliness and longing.