Book Reviews


A progressive list of books I’ve read so far in 2013 with brief comments:

“Gallipoli”, Les Carlyon:  Impressive achievement, based on huge and detailed research – lots of (for me) overly technical battle strategies etc., but with the anniversary of Gallipoli coming up in 2015, very much worth reading

merry go round“The Merry Go Round in the Sea”, Randolph Stow:  an Australian “classic”, a book club selection.  Lyrical passages of description, somewhat meandering plot and not for action afficionados.  A great read and an intriguing look back at Australia in the period around the outbreak of the second World War.  To some extent a “coming of age” novel, the main character, Rob, is six at the beginning of the book and it follows the next several years of his life, growing up in a large extended family.

vivian gornick

“The Situation and the Story:  the Art of Personal Narrative”, Vivian Gornick:  brilliant, reflective study of the art of the personal narrative, with some stunning examples of the art.  Her theory is we learn to write through learning to read perceptively.

housekeeping“Housekeeping”, Marilynne Robinson:  a strange, haunting book, wonderfully evocative descriptions of water, flood, a remote, isolated landscape of place and characters lost in it

wild“Wild: A Journey from Lost to Found”, Cheryl Strayed:  riveting memoir of the author’s 1100 mile trek down the west coast of America in a quest to put herself back together again following the death of her mother and breakup of her marriage.  Inspiring reading.

inventing the truth“Inventing the Truth: The Art and Craft of Memoir”, ed. William Zinsser:  wonderful study of the craft of memoir writing – through looking at renowned memoirists, e.g. Annie Dillard, Russell Baker, Alfred Kazin, Toni Morrison – required reading for anyone who loves memoir

vanishing act“The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox”, Maggie O’Farrell:  intriguing plot, irritating characters, overall a ho-hum experience by a writer who according to one of my writing friends has produced far better novels

orchard“The Orchard”, Drusilla Modjeska:  another “category resistant” work by this wonderful Australian writer and academic.  Reflective, meditative and deeply insightful essays on the theme of women trying to find meaning for their lives, issues of mid-life, love, adultery and the struggle to find a balance with men.

on_writing_well“On Writing Well”, William Zinsser:  mandatory reading for any writer.  Probably one of the best books I’ve ever read on the craft of writing.  Focus is on non-fiction but much of his advice is equally relevant for fiction.  This should be a “bible” for all students of writing.

saturn“The Rings of Saturn”, W.G.Sebald:  a translation from the German of the author’s walking tour of Suffolk.  Beautifully written, it includes many diversions into history, literature and obscure facts.  A fascinating and compelling read.

lost thoughts of soldiers“The Lost Thoughts of Soldiers”, Delia Falconer:  this attracted glowing reviews, but it failed to excite me … described as more of a prose poem, there is no linear plot or “narrative arc” as such.  It is a fictionalised soldier’s memoir not of battle so much as his thoughts and fleeting perceptions of men he fought with.  Too many scatalogical references for me.  Besides I don’t like poetry.

zoo time“Zoo Time”, Howard Jacobson:  a big disappointment after the jacket blurb that promised Jacobson was the funniest author writing today.  Wherever he’s being funny, it isn’t in this.  I expected a disarming, self-deprecating look at the vagaries of being a writer in today’s writer challenged world.  What I got was a solipsistic, boring, misogynistic rant that failed to raise more than a couple of feeble chuckles.  Is it me?  No.  For another bad review, see

alien sonAlien Son“, Judah Waten: actually recommended to me by one of my thesis examiners as a good example of a Short Story Cycle.  Although I wouldn’t define it as such (more a memoir in my view), I loved it.  A collection of autobiographical vignettes, published in 1952 about his family’s experiences as Russian-Jewish immigrants who came to Australia in 1914.  Simply but movingly written.

boss ladies“Boss Ladies Watch Out”, Terry Castle:  I discovered Terry Castle thanks to the inclusion of one of her essays in the reading list for the Creative Non Fiction subject I studied last year, which was entitled “My Heroin Christmas” and came from her book of essays “The Professor and Other Writings”.  Stunned by her brilliant and audacious writing style, I had to buy it.  The other stories in the collection were even more riveting than MHC, especially the very long “The Professor”.

Famously called by Susan Sontag “the most expressive, most enlightening literary critic at large today,” she has taught at Stanford University since 1983 and is an eminent scholar of 18th century British fiction, the Gothic novel and Jane Austen. In a wonderful interview she did with Salon magazine ( she explains her shift from academic to more earthy writing in “The Professor …” by saying ” … maybe inside every English prof there’s a writer screaming to get out? Certainly there was in me, even when I was writing more conventionally academic books. But lately I’ve also felt increasingly estranged from the sort of jargon-ridden pseudo-writing that for the past 10 or 15 years has been emanating from so many college English departments. Much of what passes for advanced literary scholarship these days is dreadful twaddle — incoherent, emotionally empty, deeply illiterate. A lot of ideological posturing goes along with it. I’d gotten sick of it — all the p.c. preening and plumage display …”.  An enlightening view of the world of literary criticism of which I’m now an unwilling acolyte of course (see my post “Bitterly Dreary”.

“Boss Ladies Watch Out” is a collection of her essays on literary criticism and women’s writing.  Among many fascinating questions she explores are what it means to be a female critic, how women first became critics in an age when it was seen as scandalous for a women to dare pass comment on a man’s writing, and do women have the right to be literary critics.  She takes a critical and incisive look at women writers such as Jane Austen,  Sappho, the Brontes, Cather, Colette, Gertrude Stein and others.

What I love about her writing, be it her critical work or that more designed for popular consumption, is the irreverance, the art of capturing the perfect word (she is a formidable mistress of vocabulary) the exactly right, punchy line.  Reading her is like an astringent, the prose fizzes and zings.

This is an example of her writing in an essay she wrote on Patricia Highsmith:

“The great thing about vampires, after all, was that they really cared about you. They were interested in you personally! So much so in fact that they would rise up out of their coffins, wamble over long distances (all the way from Transylvania) and sneak into your very own bedroom just to suck the blood out of you. It was weird but peculiarly gratifying.”

As well as being scarily brilliant, she just sounds like someone who’d be great fun to know.

therapy“Therapy”, David Lodge

A funny, engaging and clever take on a middle-aged man’s almost terminal case of existential angst.  David Lodge’s fiction never fails to entertain and this is no exception.  You can’t help but sympathise with his character, Laurence (aka Tubby), a bald, overweight and somewhat self-obsessed man adrift on a sea of neuroses and ageing bodily betrayals as he tries to navigate a rocky course back to equilibrium.

light between oceans“The Light Between Oceans”, M.L. Stedman

Wonderfully gripping.  Easy to see what all the fuss has been about.  The plot is a real page-turner and right up until the last, the reader is kept guessing about how it’s going to turn out.  A poignant rendering of parental love and anguish, vivid story telling and wonderful scene setting.  The lighthouse, the ocean, the stark landscape are all rendered so dramatically, they appear like characters in their own right.  Amazing feat for a first time novelist.

you-aren-t-what-you-eat“You Aren’t What You Eat:  Fed Up with Gastroculture”, Steven Poole

Prepared for an amusing and irreverent romp through the pomposities of foodism, thanks to his witty presentation at Writer’s Week, the book I found was a more serious, erudite and even academic dissertation in places in protest at the whole gastroculture scene that has taken us (and our stomachs) by storm.  A thought provoking polemic, brilliantly and thoroughly researched, it very much turns the microscope on the absurdities with which today’s media is overflowing when it comes to food.  The likes of Nigella, Jamie and Heston are portrayed as opportunistic beneficiaries of the ridiculous food obsessions and fetishisms that are sadly making many of us believe we are living to eat, rather than the other way around.  A little less pretentiousness and a lot more common sense is the mantra Poole espouses and you can’t help but think he makes a lot of sense.

a natural curiosityA Natural Curiosity”, Margaret Drabble (read March 2013)

One of my favourite authors from way back, I’ve always loved but been a bit bemused by Margaret Drabble.  This one is a sequel in a way to “The Radiant Way”, in as much as some of the same characters reappear later in life.  I can’t remember if I read “The Radiant Way”, if so it was years ago and I don’t remember it well.  Set in 1980’s Margaret Thatcher Britain, this book is strangely engrossing, given that its plot is very meandering, there seem to be so many characters it’s hard to keep track of them and it’s almost impossible to get any real insight into any of them.  Nevertheless, written as it is with her characteristic fierce intelligence, wry sense of humour and wonderful prose, I couldn’t help but keep turning the pages.  There was one gut-wrenchingly awful scene about dogs in it that I had to skip over, and I couldn’t help but think why do authors do this?  Suddenly decide to stick in some gratuitous seeming violence or sick-making scene about animals or children or excreta or something … just to show us they can write just as well about the nasty as the nice?  I wish they wouldn’t.

changing places“Changing Places”, David Lodge (read March 2013)

I’ve always been a fan of David Lodge since reading his non-fiction book “The Art of Fiction” which, as an aspiring writer of fiction at the time, I found enormously helpful.  This book is a novel, the first in a trilogy often called the “Rummidge University novels”.  The others are “Small World” and “Nice Work”, both of which I plan to read.  They are all set in a fictional university in a UK city called “Rummidge”, loosely based on Birmingham and are a witty and hilarious take on the vagaries of academic life, as seen from the points of view of many eccentric characters from the English Faculty.  I enjoyed this one, perhaps not as much as “Therapy” (see above) but there were plenty of laughs and some craftily drawn caricatures of both English and American academics.  I’m now into the sequel “Small World” which is even better, and besides the humour there’s actually some interesting stuff on literary theory, very apt for me at the moment!

sweet tooth“Sweet Tooth”, Ian McEwan (read March 2013)

Ian McEwan is another of my favourite authors, although I prefer his later works to his earlier ones, i.e.  “The Comfort of Strangers” which was unputdownable but nightmarish at the end.  Absolutely loved “On Chesil Beach”, “Enduring Love”, “Atonement”, “Saturday” and “Solar”.  “Solar” contains one of the most amazing fictional scenes of a man up against the odds in the frozen wastes of the Arctic that you’re ever likely to read.  This one I felt paled a bit in comparison to his earlier books, just didn’t have the same impact for me.  Interesting and intriguing plot and very cleverly contrived piece of metafiction, perhaps too clever because I found I was more impressed by the infrastructure of the book than the book itself.  Has anyone else ever noticed how much Ian McEwan resembles Bob Carr (or vice versa)?

ian mcewan

bob carr

small world“Small World”, David Lodge (read March 2013)

The second in his Rummidge University series, this one (compared to the first “Changing Places”) is substantially more panoramic in scope, both in terms of the settings, which are global (hence the title) and the cast of characters which is vast.  Initially, I found it difficult to keep track of all the characters but this may well have been more due to my lack of focus that any lack of clarity in character depiction on the part of the author.  There is more than one way to read this book, and I discuss this at more length in my blog post of 22 April.  Whichever way you choose to however, it’s a hugely entertaining and enjoyable read.  I’m keen now to read the third in the trilogy, “Nice Work”.

“By the Book”, Ramona Koval (read April 2013)by-the-book

Described in one of the online blurbs I read as “Ramona Koval’s love letter to books and writing”, this book held such promise and appeal, that I instantly ordered it from the library.  As one of Australia’s best known literary journalists, Ramona Koval has an enviable reputation as someone who knows just about everything there is to know about books and their authors.  In her role as host from 2006 to 2011 of Radio National’s Book Show (now sadly defunct for God knows what reason) and before that of Books and Writing, she made herself well known to many bibliophiles as well as to many leading lights of the literary world.  There is no doubt that she is erudite in many subjects and discusses a number of  books with solid authority.  The problem for me was that I wasn’t particularly interested in the books she covered and I found the experience, while an eloquent dissertation on how she was first drawn to books and reading and later learned to love them, curiously disappointing.  Her writing style was not one that I was drawn to and I felt she tended to skate over the surface somewhat.  I didn’t get any sense of real literary passion unfortunately and reading the book did nothing to spark my own passion about either Ramona as a writer or the particular books she professed to love.  For anyone who loves books and reading, this won’t be a waste of time – quite the contrary – but it won’t enrich your literary life a whole lot either … or at least it didn’t mine.

“The Uncommon Reader”, Alan Bennett (read April 2013)uncommon reader

Described in the Guardian book review as “the one good thing to come out of the Jubilee”, this is one delicious little book you owe it to  yourself to read,  If you can picture the Queen (the eponymous “reader”) popping into a mobile library fortuitously parked outside the back door of Buck Palace and suddenly discovering books and the world of reading, you’ll happily submit to the the comic ride Alan Bennett takes you on.  It’s a marvelous spoof of Her Maj that, should she have read it, I’m sure she would have adored.  Lots of deeper meanings if you want to bother with them, beneath the farce, in terms of the sustainability of the monarchy, whether the monarch herself does in fact have a “common” face, and the extent to which the whole edifice is so reliant on the questionable integrity of the multitudes who wait upon the lady in every aspect of her life.  But there is no compulsion to read anything into this at all.  The only mental activity asked of you is to ride along with the reading journey of the Queen, which takes her on an upwardly mobile trajectory, from Nancy Mitford to Proust and finally gets her into very hot water with those who want her to get her head out of the bloody books and attend to the affairs of state.  As the Guardian also noted, in times of yore Alan Bennett would no doubt have been summarily dismissed to the Tower for his cheek, but these days of course, anything goes.  Do yourself a favour, as some cowboy hatted celebrity once said, and spend a couple of hours with this little gem.

“The Year of Henry James”, David Lodgeyear of henry james

Subtitled, “The Story of a Novel”, this is a book you’ll find fascinating if you’ve read David Lodge’s “Author Author”, which I’m currently listening to as an audiobook.  I seem to be having rather a reading affair with Lodge at present, but as I often find, when you really enjoy an author, reading one of their books inevitably attracts you to carry on with another of theirs, and so on.  “Author Author” is a fascinating book in its own right, and I’ll be adding it to this list when I get to the end of it.  It’s based on the life of Henry James and  is an extraordinarily skilful work of historical fiction, probably deserving of far greater success than it in fact had.  The reason it fell a little flat was the unfortunate (read sickening for Lodge) coincidence that its publication coincided with the publication of Colm Toibin’s “The Master” and a couple of other books, all of which also dealt in various ways with the life of Henry James.  The most significant stealer of the limelight as far as David Lodge was concerned, was Toibin’s book which was nominated for the Booker, while Lodge’s book was not.  “The Year of Henry James” is Lodge’s engaging account of the strange Henry James phenomenon, but also a writer’s account of producing a book, from first conception, through the various phases of gestation to its eventual entry into and reception by the world.  For anyone who has ever toyed with the idea of writing a novel, this is illuminating reading.  Henry James himself of course was a pretty intriguing character with a personal history that has been the subject of considerable conjecture.  He also suffered an episode of acute professional rivalry when his friend George Du Maurier, who only turned his hand to writing in the later part of his life, (and in fact relied on James as a kind of mentor in this venture) produced a sudden and unexpected bestseller that outdid in popularity anything James himself had done up to that point in his life.  A bitter pill no doubt for James to have been forced to swallow, but such are the injustices of the artistic life.  The second half of this book turns to other books and writers, with essays that explore works by H.G. Wells, Nabokov, Eco and Coetzee.  As an eminent literary critic, Lodge is clearly in strong control of his material here and not influenced by the emotional ups and downs provoked by his “Year of Henry James”.


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