Saturday, December 14, 2013

2013 ~ My Literary Year That Was

At the end of each year I love going back and having a look at what books I enjoyed and what I did not.  So, without further ado - what I enjoyed:

Philip Roth
Phillip Roth was a new author for me this year, and I found that I was very comfortable with his writing style.  I read several of his novels, but hands down my favourite was The Plot Against AmericaNarrated by a young Philip Roth, I completely identified with this nerdy little boy and his beloved stamp collection (yes, a little known fact about me is my love of stamps and my stamp collection!).  The novel is an alternate history which is seen through young Philip’s eyes as he tries to make sense of the affect of the isolationist Charles Lindburgh’s presidency on his local Jewish community and immediate family prior to America entering World War II.  I loved it.

Mason & Dixon by Thomas Pynchon

I haven’t finished this one yet, but I’m ¾ of the way through it and it deserves a mention here.  I read somewhere that the best way to read a Pynchon novel is just to read the words and if some of it makes sense or connects in some way then good-ho, but if it doesn't just keep reading and try to enjoy his use of language.

 I totally disagree. 
This is my first Pynchon novel, but the best way for me to enjoy Mason & Dixon has been to read it in conjunction with essays and notes on the novel.  Pynchon just gives you so much in a few words; one sentence can hold a plethora of meaning, historical fact, science, humour and innuendo.  After reading just the first chapter I realised that there was something very special about the writing and I didn't intend missing a trick.  I only read three pages a night and then I read through associated notes so that I completely understand what I have read and can research some of the historical and scientific references.
This novel is also an alternate history, as related by the Rev. Wicks Cherrycoke who claims he 'was there'.  With a bit of embellishment for the sake of the children listening to the story we follow the friendship of Mason and Dixon as they complete the famous Mason-Dixon line in America.  There are a few adventures thrown in, and a hilarious segment about a chef and a love sick mechanical duck.  I have never read anything like this before, it’s been a total challenge.
The Rime of the Ancient Mariner by Samuel Taylor Coleridge
This was the year that I discovered this awesome poem. I don't really like poetry, although my favourite childhood book was A Child's Garden of Verses by Robert Louis Stevenson, but Coleridge has a gothic bent which really appeals to my tastes.  When I read The Rime of the Ancient Mariner it totally blew me away, and I have read it and listened to it many times since.
New Authors

Each year I always try to find new authors to read.  I did try several new ones this year but the stand outs for me were William Faulkner (I read The Sound and The Fury) and Philip Roth.  On the 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die listing that I follow Don DeLillo has more books on it than that of any other author so I tried Falling Man (not on the list) and The Body Artist.  Unfortunately I found both of these novels profoundly boring, and the writing style reeked of self indulgence, so I'm very wary of trying another.

The Classic

Cervantes
My 'classic' this year was Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes.  After two or three false starts I finally got into this very funny novel and I marveled at how well the humour still worked today, although I did find the second part of the novel much easier to read than the first part.  Sancho was funnier and more endearing in the second part, and I loved his multitude of proverbs.  There were a couple of very good short stories within the novel (as well as some short stories that totally detracted from it!), one of which was the excellent The Impertinent Curiosity about two friends, Anselmo and Lothario, and an 'indecent proposal'.
 
What I Didn't Enjoy

Apart from Don Delillo, I also struggled with The Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys, The Fourth Bear by Jasper Fforde and The Invisible Man by H G Wells.  Out of over 67 books read for the year that’s not a bad failure rate.  With all these novels it was the characterisations which let them down.  Jean Rhys dared to use characters from Jane Eyre and I could not correlate the two stories at all, Jasper Fforde’s characters were just plain silly compared to his other wacky novels, and the character of The Invisible Man was a nasty piece of work through and through and I didn't enjoy reading about him.  Another set of characters I didn't enjoy reading about were those scottish drug addicts in Trainspotting.


But, I'm sorry to say (because my love of Stephen King goes way back), my most disappointing read for 2013 was Dr Sleep.  This novel was highly anticipated, especially on the back of the brilliant 11/22/63, but I have to say it – it was abysmal.  The writing style was amateur, the story just plain silly, and using Dan Torrance from the The Shining has now marred this novel for me.  If I mention that I will be shelving my copy between The Regulators (written under Richard Bachman) and Rose Madder, you will 'get' how bad I found it.

The Horror

My reading year would not be complete without a horror or two thrown in, but I'm finding it harder and harder to find a new horror to read, or should I rephrase that to 'a readable horror'.

I started the year with The Amityville Horror by Jay Anson but it's such a well known, and well worn, story that I didn't get the thrill I was looking for from it.  My next attempt was Harbour by John Ajvide Lindqvist, but I just didn't 'get it' and it wasn't scary at all. THEN, I picked up a small factual book called Zombies: A Field Guide to The Walking Dead by Dr Bob Curran and a couple of articles in it did unsettle me in the way I was looking for.  I also really enjoyed an old classic The House on the Borderland by William Hope Hodgson which was years ahead of it's time and which completely thrilled me. Cypher the cult classic by Kathe Koja wasn't too bad, but I didn't connect with any of the characters and I also finally got round to reading some once elusive Shirley Jackson novels, and mostly she did not disappoint.


So, with 2013 winding down, I'm now full of anticipation to my reading year ahead.  I hope it's a good one!


Maxine

Saturday, November 30, 2013

November Club Meeting and a Dilemma

Our club meeting this month had a 'biographical' flavour to it thanks to a very interesting talk by Stephany Steggall.

Stephany is the author of several published biographies including one based on a member of her own family titled 'Hanbury' One of the Evans Bushmen, and is a recipient of the Hazel Rowley Literary Fellowship Award.

Based in Toowoomba, Stephany's research has recently taken her and her sister Helen (proud C&C club member) all the way to beautiful Ireland where the story behind well known Australian author Thomas Kenneally is waiting to be told.

What impressed us most about the art of writing a biography is the pain staking process of meticulous research.  Stephany presented us with a working draft of the opening chapter to her book on Kenneally and, once we had read it, she explained what research had been involved paragraph by paragraph.  It was a very interesting overview.  I should think that we have all read and enjoyed something by Kenneally, and given his success this is certainly a book that is well overdue and I for one am looking forward to the finished product.

It was a lovely evening over all spent out on Helen's deck under her beautiful Poinciana tree, talking about books and writing, and enjoying the various dishes for which we are fast becoming well known for at these home-based meetings.... I am seriously considering changing our name to Caffeine and Chapters Social & Culinary Book Club?!

Our read leading up to this meeting was a sci fi novel and it was good to see that everyone gave this genre a go and hopefully, even though it took them out of their comfort zone, they found some merit in a well written sci fi.

This was our last meeting for the year and now I have a dilemma as to where we will continue to hold our meetings.  We like the cafe atmosphere but our current haunt has decided to employ a singer for some bizarre reason and it has become impossible to even hold a conversation let alone discuss books around the table. Do these cafe's not realise that people would prefer to talk rather than shout over their meals?  It's totally beyond me.  

The Helensvale Library has recently opened and has rooms for hire - but then you need to consider the bond, and the commitment to the hourly rate which would be invoiced to me - book clubs are notorious for having 12 members turn up one month and 5 the next...... meeting at members houses is an option and we do enjoy that now again but it's hard to accept new members when you are holding meetings in your own home.  Where do you and your Book Club meet?  I would be interested in your thoughts........
  

Maxine

Friday, October 25, 2013

Trainspotting ~ Irvine Welsh

Never before have I resented being immersed in the world of a novel! I did not look forward to one minute spent with the characters in Trainspotting – yet I could not put it down.

Written in the Scottish vernacular I initially found it very difficult to read, yet I soon realised that this was the only way this book could have been written.  I soon got into the swing of it though, and when I wasn't reading it I could still hear the characters in my head, and even found myself thinking in the dialect! 

Narrated by way of various short stories by the various characters, I wasn't always sure who I was reading about.  The foul language is very in your face, and the ‘Junkie Dilemma’s’ at times were excruciatingly disgusting.  The most confronting story for me was ‘Bad Blood’.  It is a revenge story, where one of the characters takes revenge on another character who is responsible for his HIV diagnosis. I found it deeply disturbing and even when the twist was revealed at the end, it had gone too far to redeem itself for me.

I can quite honestly say that I did not like this novel at all, but it is the quality of the writing itself that keeps you reading.  It’s all so very real, and it takes a talented writer to make it so. 

If you saw the movie version and liked it, it won’t guarantee that you will like the novel.  The movie shows some humanity and humour in the characters, and although there is plenty of black humour in this novel, I could barely find a hint of humanity in it.  A junkie is a junkie, nothing else matters to them except for the next hit.

What a waste of a life.

Maxine

Friday, October 4, 2013

American Pastoral ~ Philip Roth

THIS IS an amazing novel! The emotional impact of it hit me really hard.

Seymour ‘Swede’ Levov is a non practicising Jew who seemed to have it all.  He was the all American boy with blonde good looks, athletic, kind and heir to the successful family glove manufacturing business.  He was also the childhood hero of reporter Nathan Zuckerman who was friends with the ‘Swede’s’ younger brother Jerry at school.  The promise of a good life was all apparent during their school days, and when Zuckerman meets up with him after many years, he can’t believe how good the ‘Swede’ still looks; he has an attractive wife, three smart sons and his calm exterior suggests a life with no worries.  So, when Zuckerman bumps into Jerry at their school re-union soon after, he is stunned to learn that the ‘Swede’ has died from metastasised prostate cancer and that he had had a first wife (the former Miss New Jersey no less) and a daughter whom he had never mentioned at their meeting.  Jerry is not surprised that he didn’t talk about them, and Zuckerman is compelled to delve into the history of this man; piecing together what he can from Jerry, his own knowledge of him from their school days and newspaper clippings.  What he finds is that beneath the perfect exterior was a man who had been emotionally ripped apart.

The backdrop of the novel is set during the Newark riots, the Vietnam War and Watergate.  It was a very tumultuous period that had a profound impact on the Levov family.  the ‘Swede’s’ teenage daughter Meredith, swept up in the anti Vietnam war campaign, brings her protests back to her home town of Old Rimrock by blowing up the local post office, killing one man.  Merry goes on the run and when the ‘Swede’ meets his daughter again she is living in squalor under an assumed name and is virtually unrecognisable.  She had been raped many times whilst in hiding, and the plump stuttering girl is replaced by a skeletal abomination who now follows an obscure religion which denounces washing and eating – for fear of killing living things.  Despite this, she admits that whilst on the run she made (and planted) more bombs resulting in the deaths of a further three people.

The ‘Swede’s’ life is deconstructed in this novel in an attempt to find that point in time in which he began to lose his daughter.  To try and pinpoint that moment when something he did caused her to take a wrong turn in life.  The need to know who influenced this upper middle class girl, because it is inconceivable that she could have made those decisions on her own when she had been given everything in life.

This novel is so powerful, yet beautifully written.  The scenes with the ‘Swede’ and his father discussing gloves, and the manufacture of gloves, were wonderful and the scenes where the ‘Swede’ thinks about key moments with Meredith are disturbing but identifiable.   Here is a man who has it all, and when something threatens to rock his perfect boat he is unable to deal with it.  He is unable to make the right decisions and take a stand, and when he decides to tell all to Nathan Zuckerman at their last meeting, he finds that he is unable to let go of that perfect exterior because he is the ‘Swede’.  Here is a man in turmoil, wracked with cancer, and yet all he can tell Zuckerman is how great his life is and how smart his boys are.

Philip Roth is a recent discovery for me.  I love the ‘Jewishness’ of his writing, and at the right moments he is exceedingly funny.  Recently he has shocked me with Sabbath’s Theatre, The Breast and The Humbling, tickled my funny bone with Portnoy’s Complaint and The Great American Novel and I truly felt the anxiety of the protagonist in Nemesis during a polio epidemic.  But, American Pastoral will stand out for me as being a novel with so much raw emotion that I felt completely drained by the time I finished it.


Maxine

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Revenge is Sweet Indeed!



I've just read the poem The Raven.  Not the one by Edgar Allen Poe but the one by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and I really liked its irony so I thought I would share it here:

The Raven

A Christmas Tale, told by a school-boy to his little brothers and sisters.


Underneath a huge oak tree
There was of swine a huge company,
That grunted as they crunched the mast:
For that was ripe, and fell full fast.
Then they trotted away, for the wind grew high:
One acorn they left, and no more might you spy.
Next came a Raven, that liked not such folly:
He belonged, they did say, to the witch Melancholy!
Blacker was he than blackest jet,
Flew low in the rain, and his feathers not wet.
He picked up the acorn and buried it straight
By the side of a river both deep and great.



Where then did the Raven go?
He went high and low,
Over hill, over dale, did the black Raven go.
Many Autumns, many Springs
Travelled he with wandering wings:
Many Summers, many Winters --
I can't tell half his adventures.



At length he came back, and with him a She,
And the acorn was grown to a tall oak tree.
They built them a nest in the topmost bough,
And young ones they had, and were happy enow.



But soon came a woodman in leathern guise,
His brow, like a pent-house, hung over his eyes.
He'd an axe in his hand, not a word he spoke,
But with many a hem! and a sturdy stroke,
At length he brought down the poor Raven's own oak.
His young ones were killed; for they could not depart,
And their mother did die of a broken heart.



The boughs from the trunk the Woodman did sever;
And they floated it down on the course of the river.
They sawed it in planks, and its bark they did strip,
And with this tree and others they made a good ship.
The ship, it was launched; but in sight of the land
Such a storm there did rise as no ship could withstand.
It bulged on a rock, and the waves rush'd in fast:
The old Raven flew round and round, and cawed to the blast.



He heard the last shriek of the perishing souls --
See! see! o'er the topmast the mad water rolls!
Right glad was the Raven, and off he went fleet,
And Death riding home on a cloud he did meet,
And he thank'd him again and again for this treat:
They had taken his all; and REVENGE WAS SWEET!



Samuel Taylor Coleridge
1791 


Until next time J

Maxine



Monday, September 16, 2013

An Outdated Vision of the Future

I guess you would call Oryx & Crake a Post Apocalyptic novel (a genre I really enjoy) but having just read it, it is my least favourite  in this genre.  

The message of this novel are the questions “how much is too much?” and “how far is too far?” with regards to genetic engineering gone mad.  But, just Google ‘genetic engineering gone mad’ and you will read something far more alarming than any science fiction novelist can dream up – glow in the dark cats, transgender goats, even goats crossed with spiders (and that is just what we are being told about!).  Not to mention the disturbing facts on genetically modified soy and corn.  Time to invest in green houses folks and grow your own fruit and veggies!

The story of Oryx & Crake is told in flash back by post-plague survivor Jimmy AKA Snowman.  Crake was Jimmy’s best friend and Oryx, a mysterious Asian girl with a disturbing past, was the love of Jimmy’s life.  Crake is your standard issue megalomaniac and Oryx is his unwitting tool in his master plan.  Jimmy finds himself the lone survivor of a plague engineered by Crake, and guardian of the ‘Crakers’, Crake’s many coloured Adam and Eve’s genetically engineered to replace humans.

So, what did I not like about this novel?  Well, I guess I felt that it had all been done before, and a lot better.  The warnings and alarm bells have been ringing since before this novel was written, and I didn’t like its outdated vision of the future.  It read like a 1960’s image of the future – all lurid colours, bubble furniture and satirical product names.  In a word – gimmicky.

There were some interesting ideas, but it doesn't compare with say The Road or I Am Legend.


Maxine

Friday, September 13, 2013

The Rime of the Ancient Mariner ~ Samuel Taylor Coleridge

I’m not much of a poetry reader but when I came across Richard Burton reading Coledridge I couldn’t resist picking it up as I loved listening to Richard Burton as ‘first voice’ in Dylan Thomas’ Under Milk Wood.  I didn’t know much about Coleridge at all though I first came across a few lines from The Knight’s Tomb as a chapter heading in Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe ( I was really taken by them), and I’d heard of Kubla Khan via one of my favourite Aussie movies Sanctum.   But, this certainly did not prepare me for the awesome The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, and Richard Burton’s eerie recitation makes it a double treat.  I listened to it over and over again.

The poem/ballad was written between 1797 and 1798, and it opens on a wedding guest who is making his way to a wedding feast.  He is stopped by an aging sailor who proceeds to tell him of an ill fated voyage of which he was the only survivor.  At first, the guest is annoyed at being delayed, but as the story unfolds, he becomes more and more in awe of the tale……....

The mariner’s journey began well enough but his ship is blown off course and ends up in the frozen wastes of Antarctica.

          And through the drifts the snowy clifts
          Did send a dismal sheen:
          Nor shapes of men nor beasts we ken –
          The ice was all between

Through the mist and fog, an Albatross flies onto the ship and the sailors feed the bird believing that it has improved their fortunes when they are able to steer out of the ice and the wind being in their favour.

The look on the mariner’s face as he is telling this takes on a look of horror, and the wedding guest is aghast –

“God save thee, ancient Mariner!
From the fiends, that plague thee thus!
Why look’st thou so?” – with my cross-bow
I shot the ALBATROSS.


(I was chilled at those words.)

The horror of what the mariner has done begins to manifest itself.  

And I had done an hellish thing,
And it would work ’em woe:
For all averred, I had killed the bird
That made the breeze to blow.

The ship finds itself in a still sea, with no wind and a red hot sun beating down day after day.  The crew begins to run out of water –

Water, water, everywhere
Nor any drop to drink

- and as the sailors struggle on they know who they need to blame for their misfortunes –

Ah! Well a-day! What evil looks
Had I from old and young!
Instead of the cross, the Albatross
About my neck was hung.

(What a powerful verse!)

On the horizon a phantom ship is spotted, and as it nears the crew wonder if they can see ‘Death’ in female guise on her deck, as one by one they expire from the heat and thirst.

The souls did from their bodies fly, -
They fled to bliss or woe!
And every soul, it passed me by
Like the whiz of my cross-bow!

The wedding guest becomes afraid, thinking that he is in the presence of a ghoul, but the mariner assures him that he did not die with the men.  Instead he found himself totally alone on the ocean, a tortured soul, with only the bodies of the dead crew for company………………. 

No matter the heat and lack of water, the mariner cannot die. Watching the playful sea snakes one day, and feeling awed by their beauty, the mariner is moved to prayer.  It is then that he is freed from the weight of the Albatross from around his neck.  Released from his burden, the mariner slumps into a refreshing sleep, and when he awakes he finds that it has been raining and that the water buckets are full.  Although he can hear the wind, he can’t feel it, yet the ship has begun to move.  He realises something supernatural is afoot when the dead sailors begin to rise.

          They groaned, they stirred, they all uprose,
          Nor spake, nor moved their eyes;
          It had been strange, even in a dream
          To have seen those dead men rise


The dead sailors start to work the ropes, and steer the vessel, yet still no breeze reaches them.  The mariner tells the wedding guest –

We were a ghastly crew

and the wedding guest is terrified and he tells the mariner that he is frightened of him.  The mariner sets his mind at rest by telling him that they were in fact –

A troop of spirits blest

The ship sails on for a while but comes to a stop.  The sun beats down upon the crew, and suddenly the ship moves again, the sudden action causes the mariner to fall in a swoon.  He comes to at the sound of two spirit like voices –

“Is it he?” Quoth one, “Is this the man?
By him who died on cross,
With his cruel bow he laid full low,
The harmless Albatross”

A softer voice says –
“The man hath penance done
And penance more will do.”

When the mariner awakes from his swoon, the ship is moving in more favourable weather, but he finds the dead sailors are standing together fixing their stony eyes on him.  He realises that he will never be forgiven for shooting the Albatross.  Eventually the ship reaches the harbour from where they had first departed and as the dead lay down upon the deck the mariner sees seraphs rising from their bodies up towards ‘heaven’.

A rowing boat comes from the harbour, steered by a pilot accompanied by his boy and a religious hermit, and they are amazed at the dilapidated state of the ship.  As they pull up alongside she suddenly breaks apart and sinks in raging waters.  They see the mariner’s body floating by and they pull him into the boat.  The pilot suddenly has a fit, his boy goes crazy thinking the mariner is the devil, and the hermit begins feverishly praying.

Safely back on land the hermit asks the mariner –

                                             “What manner of man art thou!”

At this instance the mariner feels compelled to tell his tale.  Since that time, on a sudden, the mariner feels a strong compulsion to tell his story again. And, so, the wedding guest is only one in a long line of listeners.  The mariner leaves him with the following parting advice –

He prayeth best, who loveth best
All things both great and small;
For the dear God who loveth us
He made and loveth all.

The wedding guest no longer feels the desire to join in the wedding feast, and –

A sadder and a wiser man
He rose the morrow morn.


What an amazing poem!

I just HAD to share it J

Maxine

PS you can read the full poem here The Rime of the Ancient Mariner and enjoy the beautifully eerie illustrations by Gustav Dore who also illustrated Edgar Allan Poe’s work.


Saturday, August 24, 2013

The Captain, the Avaeste and the King ~ J M Bardsley

I wasn't going to read another indie novel this year, but how could I resist the offer from one of my book club members to read this novel by a local author, especially when she said it was in the same vein as The Chronicles of Narnia.

Ashton, the 8th son of the King of Aeloran, Mathis St Almeric, is searching the islands of the Aethermarinus for the Silvertip Sedge - a plant whose unique properties can save the life of his dying father.  Ashton's ship the Aeveste can travel beyond the ether, but it is on a different plane that he kidnaps a crew that will prove their worth and loyalty during their many adventures.

The Avaeste's First Mate Morris - a swamp monster - is one of Ashton's most loyal friends, along with the ship's Engineer (a goblin called Dew) and Santee (a tiny magical sprite).  These four friends learn much about each other and the crew, during their dangerous voyage, and learn that nothing is always what it seems.

All heroes have a nemesis lurking is the background and this comes in the guise of the evil Calegra Camba Descada.  Descada and his crew will stop at nothing to get hold of the rare Silvertip Sedge destroying everything and anyone in their path.....

I thought that this was a very imaginative story and I loved the imagery of a sailing ship traveling through the heavens. It didn't take me long to like the characters and the narrative style, and I thought that there were some great chapter headings such as the opening 'The surprising use of blackcurrant juice' and 'The taming of the crew'.  There's nothing overtly nasty in the telling of the story, even with regards to the bad guys, which gives a very pleasant feeling to the whole novel.

At over 350 pages it is fairly long for the target audience, but the story develops really well and I think that it will be enjoyed by young and old alike.

Maxine

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Son of Xanos ~ Rodney Ballenden

Son of Xanos is the first book of a four book series which tells the story of the life-journey of Rodino Xanos, with a strong autobiographical thread that runs through the novel as it relates to the author’s life experiences, and his quest to find answers to soul searching questions.

When we first meet Rodino, the Son of Xanos, he is a young boy growing up on the island of Crete during the Greek Civil War in the 1940s.  After the death of his father and an unforgivable act committed by Rodino himself, the young boy runs away from home into the mountains and begins an odyssey that will span across continents and decades.

Rodino is trying to find his place in the world but with no stable father figure to guide him he is easily led into dangerous situations and wherever he goes he finds revolution, unrest and war.  But Rodino’s experiences of growing up in Crete, surviving the civil war and travelling for a time with a band of Gypsies, give him the ability to survive with little resources.

People drift in and out of Rodino’s life, as he drifts in and out of theirs, but unfortunately he does not leave them any better for knowing him as he is at times selfish, very childlike despite all his experiences, and careless.  As Rodino grows older you like him less and less, and here the author has done his job.  Ballenden doesn’t want us to fall in love with Rodino right away; he wants to take us on a journey so that at the end of his book series we are one with the Cretan and we fully understand his life choices. 

The novel is broken up into various parts, and I thought that part one was the most beautifully written; it is poetic with an almost dreamlike quality to it.  Son of Xanos marks my final and probably favourite “indie” read for this year.

For more information on this author and Son of Xanos please visit:




Maxine

The Best of The Best of The Best, Sir!


I always laugh at Will Smith’s delivery of this line in Men In Black, but of course to have the drive to be the best of the best is not something to laugh at but something to strive for, so just lately I've been searching for the books that are considered to be the best in their genre, or literary style.

What is considered to be the best is of course subjective depending on what it is we are each looking for in what we read.  I look for use of language; characters that I will never forget (such as Owen Meany) as well as a damn good yarn that will make me think or, in the case of horror, will unsettle me.

Best Short Story

The Dead by James Joyce is widely considered to be the best short story written in the English Language.  It is the last story in the Dubliner’s collection but it also works well as a stand alone novella.  It was the title, of course, that brought it to my morbid attention when I stumbled across it on iTunes!

The story centres on an annual dance given by two elderly sisters in Ireland around Christmas time. The main character is an insecure and socially awkward man by the name of Gabriel, who attends the party with his wife. We experience some of Gabriel’s awkwardness as he makes his way through the dances, dinner and speeches.  When the party is over Gabriel and his wife return to their hotel and it is there that she reveals something shocking to him.  I was expecting some really awful revelation, but it isn’t so bad.  What it does do though is make you think about the people that you know from your past and the influence that they have had on your life.  It also highlights that no matter how much you think you know somebody, you never really know them.

This story is beautifully written and you do feel for Gabriel as he deals with his wife’s revelation.  I had never read James Joyce before and I think that this is probably a perfect introduction.

The Funniest Novel

The second book I decided to read was on a list of 100 best books and was noted as being one of the funniest books written in English.  I made one of my monthly themes at book club a humorous read so that I could try Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K Jerome.  Written in 1889 it tells of three men, and Montmorency the dog, who take a trip on the Thames.  I could imagine this being written by Clive James as the delivery is very droll and pretty funny.  As well as the dramas on the river there are plenty of funny asides.  I’m not sure if I agree that it is the funniest book ever written as I’m currently reading a Gerald Durrell which has made me laugh plenty, but it is hugely enjoyable.

Apparently the trip is easy to re-create and many fans of the book travel the route and stop in at the pubs and inns mentioned along the way.

Greatest (Living) Author

Philip Roth
There are a few authors that are listed as our greatest living writers – Phillip Roth, Don Delillo and Jose Saramago amongst others. I decided to try Phillip Roth and I've nearly finished Sabbath’s Theatre. and I sincerely hope none of my book-clubbers pick this one to read as it is extremely licentious and explicit!  Mickey Sabbath is definitely someone you would not want in your life, but the writing is excellent and despite the subject matter I am (surprisingly) enjoying it. This is because Roth makes us see Mickey Sabbath, a sad old lecher, as a man trying to make sense of death and dying and the fact that he has left nothing of value to show for his sixty odd years on earth.  He is a man baring his miserable soul as his life winds down.

Don Delillo has 10 out of 16 books on the 1001 books you must read before you die listing that I follow, which is equalled only by Charles Dickens.  Surely this would make him THE greatest author?  I have never read him so Ratner’s Star will be going on my reading list very soon.

The Best Book Ever Written

So, popular opinion has it that Don Quixote is probably the best novel ever written.  That’s an amazing achievement for a book that was published in the early 1600s and written at a time when there would not have been many actual fiction novels being produced. 

Don Quixote
I've always been interested in this character ever since I inherited Don Quixote and Sancho Panza as two large Royal Doulton toby jugs from my much loved Grandmother.  I recently watched a made-for-TV movie starring John Lithgow and Bob Hoskins based on the novel and I also got hold of Lost in La Mancha about the failed filming of The Man who Killed Don Quixote which was to star Johnny Depp (it’s a great movie about the pitfalls of movie making, especially if the director is Terry Gilliam, and well worth watching).

Having an idea about the storyline didn’t really prepare me for the amount of WORDS that there are on each page, it’s very daunting each time I pick it up.  I've gone from audio to Kindle back to audio in order to try and get through this monster-piece.  From what I have read so far (half) it has mainly been very entertaining but there are some awfully long monologues and short stories which detract from the plot. The best of these though was the story of Anselmo and Lothario titled The Impertinent Curiosity which I enjoyed very much, and I have since learned that the term Lotharian was derived from this story.

Sancho Panza
Don Quixote is an aging tall thin man who, after reading many books on chivalry, is lost in his own world of knight errantry.  He believes that everything is under enchantment so that those around him can’t see what is really going on – such as the windmills really being giants, and the wine sack at the end of the bed really being an ogre.  Sancho Panza is a poor short squat farmer who is lured into being Quixote’s long suffering squire with the promise of being given an island at the end of their adventures.  Along with Quixote’s equally thin horse Rocinante and Panza’s beloved donkey, the two make quite a visual pair as they wreak havoc throughout the Spanish countryside.

The humour that worked back in the 1600s still works today amazingly, and Cervantes is quite cheeky in some of his observations, sometimes relating comments back to his own authorship.  I confess for me it has been a bit of a trial to read (almost as painful as Melmoth the Wanderer) but the characters and the humour will help me see it through to the end.

Until next time,

Maxine      

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

My Shirley Jackson Discovery

There are some writers who you read about, and whose work is recommended over and over again, yet when you look for their books they are either unavailable or hellishly expensive.  Robert Aickman is one author who comes to mind in this regard (though thankfully his work is slowly being reprinted) and the other is Shirley Jackson. I've been trying to get a copy of her novels for quite some time and was really pleased to see a couple of titles finally arrive at my library last month and, on checking out Fishpond, I was able to pick up a few at a reasonable price.

My first read was We Have Always Lived in the Castle and I thought this was a delightful tongue in cheek study of madness and control. The story centres on the Blackwood sisters who live in their family mansion on the outskirts of a small village.  It is well known that the entire Blackwood family were poisoned during a family dinner, with Constance Blackwood being arrested for their murder.  Constance was released though, without charge, and she returned home to take care of her younger sister Merricat and their infirm Uncle Julian.

Shirley Jackson
Mary Katherine Blackwood (Merricat) is a bit of a wild child, she believes herself to have magical powers and, although she is around eighteen, she spends her spare time running and hiding in the woods and playing with her cat.  Her internal dialogues show great disdain for those around her whilst elevating herself into some kind of Supreme Being (“Bow all your heads to our adored Mary Katherine”).  She also has a strong hold over Constance who treats and humours her like a young child (“Silly Merricat”). 

The two sisters have a regular routine of housework, shopping and cooking, and this routine is very important to Merricat.  So, when a cousin drops in unexpectedly to stay for a while and threatens to upset their daily rituals (and Merricat’s hold on her sister) she takes extreme measures to get rid of him.

Whilst reading this novel I was thinking of the phrase ‘fat girls and feeders’ - Merricat isn't fat but Constance is definitely a feeder, and food is a major theme for the novel.  In fact, the ending is almost fairy-tale like with the villagers paying homage to the girls with food.  I really enjoyed reading this one.

The Haunting of Hill House is what I guess you would call a traditional haunted house story, and I found Eleanor the central character quite interesting and someone I could identify with (she’s a chronic daydreamer and so am I).  Eleanor has been invited to take part in a study of the supposed supernatural happenings at Hill House and was chosen due to her experience with poltergeist activity when she was younger.

I remember that the original movie really frightened me, however when reading the novel you are a good half way into it before things really start to happen but Jackson shows quite an art in stealthily unsettling your nerves.  My favourite scene has Eleanor clutching her friend Theodora’s hand whilst she sleeps.  It is pitch dark in the bedroom that they are sharing and there are babbling noises and shrieks coming from the adjoining room.  As things reach a climax Theodora sits up suddenly to see what is going on at which point Eleanor leaps out of bed asking in terror whose hand had she just been holding because it obviously hadn’t been Theodora’s – reading this just prior to going to sleep was a real goose-bump moment for me!  I didn’t enjoy this one as much as We Have Always Lived in the Castle, but it is still definitely worth reading, especially for the opening paragraph which you will find yourself reading several times over (the same paragraph also closes the novel).

  
The Lottery and Other Stories is a different sort of read again.  This selection of short stories are unusual to say the least and I must confess that some of them I just didn't ‘get’. The main problem I had with the collection was that most of the stories just didn't mean anything, or they didn’t have any sort of ending.  Many of the character’s are known by their title and surname only (ie Mr White, Mrs Straw) and I found this made it a little hard to read with the characters seemingly faceless and impersonal.

However there were a few gems to be found and aside from the title story I really liked Like Mother Used to Make which is about a middle aged man called David who has got his apartment just how he likes it – it is homely, the colours work well together, and everything has its place.  He is investing in silver tableware piece by piece and he is very proud of what he has bought to date. His neighbour however is slovenly, her apartment is a mess and not homely at all and this really disgusts him.  The story takes a nice twist when he is entertaining this neighbour one evening, showing off his culinary skills and silverware, when they are joined unexpectedly by a friend of the neighbour and David becomes the third wheel and a stranger in his own apartment.

The funniest story in this collection is My Life with R H Macy, and I actually laughed out loud at the ending. It was brilliantly done.

You do notice that order and obsession are the primary themes in Jackson’s writing.  Some people have made the comment that these stories are an extension of her neuroses, and she does seem to be quite an enigmatic character who had a few problems, but she is definitely a writer whose work I would like to explore more.

For further reading on Shirley Jackson visit: http://shirleyjackson.org/

Maxine 

Monday, June 24, 2013

Shantaram ~ Gregory David Roberts


Wow, Shantaram is one heck of a read. I've spent so much time with these characters that it will be hard to start a new novel.

There's so much to Shantaram, though how much is based on the author's actual experiences in Bombay is anyone's guess, but what I enjoyed most about this novel was the insight it gave me into the Indian culture such as friendship, love and the meaning of that curious Indian head wiggle. 

The story is told in the first person.  There is plenty of humour at the start of the novel but it does get darker and darker, until you wonder if there is going to be light at the end of the tunnel.  The characters range from slum dwellers to members of the Bombay Mafia, and I had to keep reminding myself that the mafia guys were criminals and violent men, yet it was so hard not to like them because we follow their developing friendships with the narrator Lin.

'Lin' is an Australian who has escaped from prison and who has arrived in Bombay on a fake New Zealand passport.  He is befriended by Prabhakar a young Indian tourist guide, and a truly wonderful character who totally enriches this novel.  Prabhakar takes Lin to his home village for six months as their friendship strengthens and finds Lin a hut in the slum where he lives in Bombay.  This hut eventually becomes the slum clinic thanks to Lin's knowledge of first aid, and the slum dwellers inability to obtain healthcare anywhere else.

Lin is eventually recruited into the Mafia and he finds himself prepared to risk his life just for the love of the mafia boss who he desperately wants to see as a father figure.  The father figure dreams are shattered towards the end of the novel and only the friendships that Lin has made over his years in Bombay will help to pull him through the hard times.

Despite its size, Shantaram is very easy to read, though I did find the constant metaphors and similes annoying and in places quite cringe worthy ("Our lips met like waves that crest and merge the whirl of storming seas."), and at times it did annoy me when 'Lin' gave the occasional sob story about his time spent in prison.  I felt like saying "so what, you committed the crime...." 

With this aside though Shantaram is a cracking read and it will probably rate up there with my favourites.


Maxine

Friday, June 14, 2013

Mystical Speed ~ Hubert Guscott

Mystical Speed is a novella that I just don't know what to make of.  When it was pitched to me via the promoter it came across as a novel set in America and Jamaica that would be an inspiration to all athletes.  The story apparently  centred around young track athletes who travel to Jamaica to find out the secret to Jamaica's running success.  What they find there threatens their lives and changes them forever.  

Quite an interesting idea isn't it?  However, what I read was a very simplistic narrative that was better suited for a children's story and whilst I could see that it was an attempt at creating a fable, I didn't really like it.  

What this novella did do though was inspire me to read about Jamaican folklore and if you are planning on reading this book then it would pay to read up about 'rolling calfs' and 'Brother Anansi' otherwise you will have no idea what is going on.

Rolling Calf
Fulls marks for the cover though, it's one of the nicest book covers I've seen, and the layout presentation is also very good.  But, given the lack of descriptive writing, and the fact that it reads like a children's book, I think that some illustrations would help to enhance it.

This book does try to give you an insight into Jamaican culture, food and language but I found the whole thing just a little unusual - the way that it was written and the actual story - and unfortunately it just wasn't for me.

I've checked other sites for reviews and find that it has been receiving 5 stars, so I do wonder if I am missing something?



For more information about this book please visit: Mystical Speed

Until next time.....

Maxine

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

The Obsessive Chronicles ~ Josh Greenfield

Told in the first person, this story chronicles the journey of Jordan Fineman from a seemingly normal American Jewish teenager to a very troubled dis-functional young man.

Jordan's journey opens on a trip to Alaska where he finds seasonal work whilst taking a break from his studies, we then follow him back to New York where he experiences a mental breakdown and spends some time in a psychiatric hospital.

Jordan is bi-polar, and an obsessive compulsive, but he also has a  major problem with rage.  His rages create a drug like induced state where he can't think coherently.  Human to human contact is unbearable and, despite his obvious intelligence, he finds himself unable to hold down a job. Behind the scenes is a very supportive father - emotionally and financially - and a psychiatric doctor who he sees three times a week for many years.  Yet, despite this support, Jordan has great difficulty in trying to make sense of his place in the world, and to unscramble the messages that it sends to his brain.

I did find this story interesting, if not a little disjointed, and as an outsider to mental illness it gave me an insight into OCD and just how debilitating it can be. But, I think the author had difficulty in fully conveying the actual problems 'Jordan' was trying to work through - ie we are told about his rages but never really shown.  We have some examples of his OCD but it is never fully expanded upon.  We are told that these would not be explained in depth, but I think the reader needs this to be able to reconcile Jordan's subsequent behaviour patterns.

This is my second read in as many months on mental illness, and I did see some parallels in both  stories - for one thing, things get much worse before they get better especially when the sufferer's go off their medication.

I thought the opening of this novel was very well written, but as the story progressed the writing seemed to suffer. I think that there would be some benefit from further editing/proof reading as, for me, there were an unacceptable amount of spelling and grammatical errors.

In you are interested in more information about this novel please visit:


Maxine


Friday, June 7, 2013

Roadrage ~ M J Johnson

After enjoying some very positive reviews for his first novel Niedermayer & Hart (my favourite ‘Indie’ read of last year) Martin has presented us with his psychological thriller Roadrage.

Forget the why’s and wherefore’s of the plot and just accept the fact that there are potentially some dangerously crazy people out there and, if they had hold of your personal information, how much damage could they do to your life?  One such person sets his sights on destroying the life of Gil Harper, an unassuming illustrator, who is learning to live again after the tragic death of his wife.  What starts out as a brief incident on the motorway one rainy Christmas night sends Gil’s life spiraling out of control.

There are some nice touches here and there; I liked the gear shift chapter headings, and dear old Spike…… what a lovely brave little character he is.  Some of the other characters I suspect are based on people Martin has known from his acting days (Sally, Gil’s love interest, is involved with the theatre).  I was suspicious of Sally from the start, and I was trying to work out how she would fit into the scheme of things, but you will need to read the novel to find out why she is so secretive.

This novel will get you thinking about the danger of being a creature of habit, and the security of your own personal information.  After all, we all live in the age of the internet where everything is accessed by passwords – and you can’t possibly remember them all, you have to write them down……….. somewhere……. don’t you?

For more info about Martin and his work visit: http://www.mj-johnson.com/


Maxine