Sunday, August 11, 2013

Have just finished the last sentence of Robert Galbraith's The Cuckoo's Calling, and it's a disappointing conclusion to an otherwise satisfying read. I don't want to spoil the ending for those of you who haven't yet picked it up, but ... honestly... the final denouement is all rather convoluted and far-fetched, if you ask me. But, never mind. It's obvious J K Rowling (now writing under her not-very-secret pseudonym) has got a whole lot more of these whodunits up her inkwell-stained sleeve, and I'm not complaining.

I read her debut crime novel in under a week, and most books I can't even finish. So there.

   Importantly, her chief protagonist, private detective Cormorant Strike, is utterly likeable despite his grumpy, dishevelled and mildly insecure moments. His sidekick, Robyn, is efficient, humble and charming. Phew, what a relief. And for the novel's setting, JK Rowling has chosen today's world of fashion, film and paparazzi predators and that adds to the colour and fun. My word, JKR is  a cracker at dialogue!!! I could hear a lot of the characters' conversations as if they were happening right in front of me...
    So if you like a lazy, fun, intelligent read, you could do worse than this Agatha Christie-like crime thriller. Looks to me like Ms Rowling is going to get even richer!!!!

Friday, June 28, 2013


Hi! Was thinking the other day how tired I am of people telling me I MUST go see this film, and I MUST read this fantastic book, and I really SHOULD go see this magnificent piece of theatre.
   Often, the recommended film is trash; the book boring; the play so-so. "One man's meat is another man's poison" etc. etc. So, enough about what I have been reading and what I think, here is a list of 5 books you can miss if you like - it's entirely up to you!
1. Kahlil Gibran, The Prophet. My father gave this to me when I was about 20 and I treasure it. It's not merely sentimental, when it comes to wisdom, this tome is gold. People ask "the Prophet" his views on marriage, love, fidelity, friendship, giving and the Prophet's response on each topic is profound. Pick it up next time you're in a bookstore - it's a classic.
2. Nora Ephron, I Feel Bad About My Neck. Nora Ephron is dead now (RIP, funny lady) but she has bequeathed humankind some memorable zeitgeist moments - like the classic line from her When Harry Met Sally screenplay: "I want what she's got...!" If you want to have a laugh at life, pick up any Ephron collection of essays. They're all top-class offerings - funny, poignant and touching all in the same remarkable package.
3. Rob Lowe: Stories I Only Tell my Friends. This is one of the loveliest, easiest Hollywood bios I've read. It isn't full of pap - there actually beats the heart of a decent, intelligent human being behind that handsome facade. If you're seeking affirmation that the love of family and good friends beats fame and fortune any time, you'll love this.

4. M Scott Peck, The Road Less Travelled. This book starts with the line "Life is difficult" and it just keeps on telling it like it, never bending the truth for a second. If you want some reassurance that you're okay, even when life is feeling incredibly rocky, then read this. It's hot chocolate and marshmallows for the soul, and you can dip in, one chapter at a time, whenever you need solace.

5. Stieg Larsson, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. This is the ultimate psychological thriller with a fantastic heroine who is deeply scarred and flawed, and all the more fascinating for it. Not
for nothing was this made into a blockbusting celluloid
trilogy - the narrative is dense, evocative and deeply
believable. A true page turner!

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

The inner machinations of an almost invisible life

Claire Messud
Writer Claire Messud, who has won acclaim for her books including the
best-selling The Emperor's Children, made the closing address at the Sydney Writers' Festival this year.

     Her husband, James Wood, the New Yorker book critic, also made several guest appearances at the festival. We were lucky to host them. In the U.S, the duo are feted as "the first couple of American fiction".
     Perhaps that's why some critics - rivals possibly in the rarified world of book reviews and awards - have been damning of Messud's latest novel, The Woman Upstairs, the story of a lonely spinster who looks back on her friendship with a glamorous couple and their adorable child with anger and a strong sense of betrayal. While one critic has described Messud's latest work as "dazzling", another has described it as depressing and "awful".

I lean more to the "dazzling" as opposed to the "awful" viewpoint, swayed by the quality of Messud's writing.
Messud is not a creative writing teacher by profession for nothing; au contraire, she describes totally believably her somewhat charmless heroine, Nora, a 42-year-old spinster who has all but 'disappeared' from human view.

One critic suggested she would find it hard to befriend Nora Eldridge if she materialised in real life to which Messud responded, understandably, with disbelief. Who ever said we had to like the heroes or heroines of our non-fiction, asked Messud, and the answer is: we don't.
In fact, you would have to be part-zombie not to realise that countless people like Nora exist and that she would indeed, in all likelihood, become galvanized out of her shadowy existence once she came into the orbit of beautiful, glamorous folk like the Shahids from Paris.
Messud weaves a tender, touching, tragic tale that unravels masterfully as we witness the interactions of the lonely teacher and the parents of her eight-year-old pupil. I'd be surprised if readers who like minutely detailed psychological portraits, like me, don't lap up this revelatory account of friendship gone awry.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

The oral tradition of storytelling

Storyteller extraordinaire, Daniel Morden
We live in a country where the indigenous people of our land tell the story of their culture through word of mouth, music, art and performance. There are less books written by Aboriginal folk than, say, there are books written by the Spanish, the Italian or the Chinese... but that doesn't make the stories less compelling.  Stories don't have to be documented to nevertheless capture the imagination.
     Listening to Daniel Morden at the Sydney Writers' Festival this week, the importance of story-telling as a way of engaging people and creating myth was indelibly hit home.
As Morden pointed out, "No one is forgotten when they die; they're only forgotten when they are no longer remembered." 
      Morden then went on to put on a spell-binding performance illustrating the potency of story-telling. I was mesmerised as he recounted the story of a man who was banished by his clan because he was unable to tell a story, any story.
      During his exile, the man hits his head on the side of a boat and turns into a woman, eventually marries, and gives birth to three sons. Many years pass and the woman falls and hits her head again and comes round, only to find herself a man again, back in the same place where the original transformation took place.
       The man returns to the campfire where the original story-tellers are still sitting, and tells his story of turning into a woman, marrying and having three sons. And when he is finished, the chief of the clan points out that "to have a story, you have to go and live a life worth telling".
         What a story, what a truth! Which is another point Morden makes, namely that humankind tends to shrink from truth. That is why story-tellers thrive, capturing truths for listeners to unpackage and unveil for themselves.
        Ideas! Imagination! Performance! Morden has travelled from Haiti to Papua New Guinea in search of stories.
        Last night, he sprinkled some story-telling dust on us all. Catch him if you can during the rest of the Sydney Writers' Festival week. Visit

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

A great collection of short stories

I've never heard of Irish writer Mary Costello but I have loved her collection of short stories. Reading one every night before falling to sleep, the stories have been just the right length, just the right pace, and with just enough suspense to keep me moving inexorably to the final page of that short story.
    "Each tale resounds with the extraordinariness of everyday experience."
      One critic has written of Costello that she is masterful in what she leaves OUT of a story, and I can only agree. The stories are deceptively simple, yet profound, delicately enfusing an apparently ordinary suburban landscape with an undertow of sadness, regret or envy...
     If you feel like something light, but divine, pick up this collection, and relish that mind-massaging feeling as you sink into words crafted by a master craftsman. The atmospherics of each story are palpable... >>>

Monday, April 29, 2013

A true story about Mumbai...

Online book clubber Claudine Bakker of Gettysburg in the United States - yes, our online book club has members all over the world - has just finished reading a book that has haunted her ever since.
    Here is her review in her own words:

       Behind the Beautiful Forevers is a non-fiction account of life, death and hope in the slums of Mumbai written by Katherine Boo, an award-winning American journalist who mostly writes about the poor and disadvantaged in America. Katherine Boo spent three years in the Annawadi slums of Mumbai.
      "I quickly grew impatient with poignant snapshots of Indian squalour: the ribby children with flies in their eyes and other emblems of abjectness that one can't help but see within five minutes of walking into a slum. For me...the more important line of inquiry is something that takes longer to discern. What is the infrastructure of opportunity in this society? Whose capabilities are given wing by the market and a government's economic and social policy?"
Their dreams are only realised as long as they coincide with the goodwill of the powerful
      The central characters in this book are a family of Muslim scavengers in the Annawadi slum, the Husains. Annawadians live in constant fear of having their unsightly little slum in the shadow of Bombay's new airport demolished. Young Abdul Husain works in the garbage recycling business
and the story details the plight and dangerous scavenging of Husain and his friends.
       Abdul's impetuous mother Zehrunnisa gets into a fight with the lame Fatima, a neighbouring prostitute, who ends up killing herself. This entangles the Husains in the judicial system, out of which, according to the author, there is little hope of coming out in one piece.  India's judicial system is corrupt and personifies injustice... a sad state of affairs for a country desiring to join the economic superpowers.
      While some slum dwellers may achieve moderately peaceful lifestyles if they are lucky, their lives appear superfluous overall while their dreams are only realised as long as they coincide with the goodwill of the powerful who have arbitrary and overwhelming control over them. It was hard to finish this powerful book as it deeply saddened me to know that there that many people who suffer daily on this Earth. I rate this book 4 out of a possible 5 stars.




Sunday, April 28, 2013

The pleasure of reading

I don't read blogs as a general rule so it's ironic that I am now writing one, but I'm doing so because I can see a benefit for me. And no, I'm not going to apologise for my 'selfishness'; too many people live their life for others, and have lost sight of how to make themselves happy. That's not me.
London-born to Jamaican parents,
Zadie Smith wrote the best-selling
White Teeth at the age of 22
The pursuit of happiness is, in any case, a cliched, trite exercise that typically ends up making you feel worse rather than better. Far better to cultivate small everyday pleasures, as Zadie Smith (right) puts it in an exquisite piece of writing I read recently in the New York Review of Books.
       In her essay, Smith makes the distinction between pleasure and joy. Joy, she points out, is often more trouble than its worth and exacts its pound of flesh. Pleasure, on the other hand, is subtler and sweeter... an infinite source of unspeakable delights. Smith goes on to mention myriad sources of pleasure like food (ditto); canine companionship (ditto); or the company of a life partner that is as reassuring as a pair of well-worn slippers (ditto). She also mentions music. Ditto, again.
Ubertalented Ed Sheeran was nominated
for Song of the Year at the 2013 Grammys
Take this morning, for example. I was listening to singer/songwriter and guitarist Ed Sheeran on my iPhone when I was suddenly inspired by his lyrics and riffs to boogie right then and there in Centennial Park. My friend Merle, there to meet me for our weekly exercise a deux, caught me mid-rapture and grinned in recognition. The sheer pleasure of the moment barely lasted a couple of minutes, but oh man, I felt GREAT.
      Autumn days. A leafy park. A kind, wise friend. My dog, a water bottle and my fluorescent, super-cushioning Nikes. They're life's simple pleasures and in these following posts, I look forward to sharing more with you, not least on the subject of one of my great passions, books. >>>

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

A book to make you laugh...

If you chuckled at the recent publishing sensation, The Rosie Project, you may enjoy this charming and disarming novel, reviewed for the online book club by avid reader Claudine Bakker who lives in the USA.

   Jonas Jonasson is a former Swedish journalist and media consultant who wrote his first novel, The 100 Year Old Man Who Climbed out of the Window and Disappeared, and saw it runaway as an instant success.   

This is a silly and wonderful novel  that will chase away the blues

    After a long and eventful life, Allan Karlsson ends up in a nursing home. He decides to escape the celebration of his 100th birthday party and climbs out of the window and embarks on a hilarious and eventful journey, involving a suitcase filled with money and some unpleasant criminals.
     Karlsson started out in munitions as a boy and somehow becomes witness to some of the most important events of the 20th century as he travels the world.
     Jonas Jonasson is presently working on his 2nd book about a South African in Soweto who turns the World upside down and Jonas claims is very funny. I will be looking out for this book as I hope it will be as charming and disarming as his first novel. Meanwhile, why not discover this new talent... the Scandinavians are proving brilliant at writing worldwide best-sellers! >>>


Friday, April 19, 2013

Jeffrey Archer and more...

The 3rd in the Clifton Chronicles
At the bridge club the other day I was talking books as usual. One of the players there mentioned that she was reading Geoffrey Archer and I blanched inwardly.  Goodness knows why I felt so snobbish; I've never read a Geoffrey Archer book in my life and he could be an amazing writer or storyteller....
    "I know Archer's done some terrible things in life, but he knows how to tell a story, that bloke. By the bottom of the first page, I'm hooked.   No one hooks me in as quickly, or as often, as he does.
   "If a writer doesn't get me in quickly, I probably won't finish the book," my card-playing compatriot continued.

                                                                                          "Life's too short
                                                                                        to read bad books!"

This woman wasn't the first to mention how much she loved Archer; I've bumped a lot of women recently who read him, and who are lapping up the Clifton trilogy. So much so, my curiosity is piqued and I downloaded the first of the trilogy this morning. I'm hoping to be hooked in, quick smart, and to bury my prejudices just as swiftly. (I love John Grisham, so why not Britain's version of Grisham, huh?)
    Bottom-line is I'm grateful to hear other people's points of view, and to keep my mind open to what's out there, so do keep me informed, fellow book clubbers. Of course, we all have different tastes, and I may chuck in the bin what you love ... and vice versa.
    Still, let's share and compare, and enjoy the argy-bargy that only book-lovers and avid readers can truly comprehend!

Monday, April 15, 2013

Sydney Writers' Festival, May 2013

Robert Greene

Robert Greene on creativity, Anita Desai on what makes writing, humans and the worlds tick; Daniel Modern on storytelling; Sylvia Nasar on the state of the world's economies... OMG, what a treat! 
Sylvia Nasar

    Don't you just love it when you can pop along for an hour or so, dip in and hear someone thoughtful and erudite speak on a subject about which they are passionate, learn something, and go home, enriched? I do!

"Hear someone erudite speak about what they find fascinating."

Anita Desai

My SWF 2013 picks are Robert Greene on creativity, Sylvia Nasar on the world of economics, and the Friday night Festival Club for an evening of poets and rappers... just for something different.
  See you there folks!  And if you're interested in finding out more, here's a link to the Sydney Writers' Festival 2013 >>>

Sunday, April 14, 2013

A dazzling tale of survival....

I'm no fan of magical realism, but this work of fiction - imaginatively telling the story of the last remaining survivor of a remote Siberian tribe - is as eerily haunting as the landscape it vividly describes. Diego Marani writes masterfully, his prose like pounding surf transporting you on a thrilling ride of furious giant waves.

"Magic, despair, Siberian tigers, jealousy, rivalry, a murder mystery and even a dash of humour are all intermingled in this fantastical but completely believable story of a former Gulag inmate"

The Last of the Vostyachs won Diego Morani two of Italy's most prestigious  literary awards. No wonder. While the tale is primarily about survival, themes of isolation, communication, academic rivalry and innocence are woven tightly together to tell the story of an innocent, wordless man who, ultimately, finds a happy ending. 
   "They came out silently, without exchanging a glance; unhurriedly, expecting to be shot at any moment, to crumple on the spot, on to that mud they'd traipsed over so often. But now the camp was empty. The guards had all gone off during the night. The storeroom doors lay open, the chimneys of the barracks had ceased smoking. They fanned out from along the track dug out by the great wheels of the lorries, into the still dark forest, each in their own direction, without a word, as though in all those years psent locked up in there together they had never known each other."

A novel about ordinary people to whom
extraordinary things happen
    Who would imagine that from the "still dark forest" would emerge the tale of spritely linguist Olga, sleazy academic Autorva and his oft-cuckolded wife, Margareeta, and not least of all, the brave and stoic Ivan?
     Whisking the reader alternatively through zones of darkness, tenderness and the near-lascivious, there's something here for almost everyone. Get yourself a copy - and prepare yourself for an absorbing treat. >>>

Upcoming reviews: Mary Costello's The China Factory and Cory Taylor's My Beautiful Enemy.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

NY Review of Books gift idea...

If, like me. you are continually blogging or browsing the Internet on your laptop or iPad, you may find this nifty old-fashioned wooden 'desk' a perfect gift for a friend, loved one or yourself.

"Something to make computer browsing and blogging more efficient and pleasurable"

 Instead of making your lap hot, and possibly harming your nether regions, or otherwise balancing your mobile device on a random piece of board or cushion, this could make the entire IT experience more pleasurable... for $69.95 ordered online from The New York Review of Books, you get a portable 'desk' that doubles up as a base on which to perch your laptop or iPad as you work, think, play. Click on this link for a couple of other even more inexpensive options, if the idea appeals.  I'm sorely tempted... and thought I'd share! >>>

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Liberian Nobel Peace prizewinner autobiography

Online Book Clubber Ilana Rabinowitz of Vaucluse, NSW, went to hear Liberian peace activist Lemah Gbowee speak at the Sydney Opera House this past weekend (April 5, 2013) and  was moved to buy the Nobel Peace prizewinner's book, Mighty Be Our Powers: How Sisterhood, Prayer, and Sex Changed a Nation at War (easily available from online book retailers).

     "What a story of sisterhood, courage and the power of positive action!" 

   Gbowee is responsible for leading a women's peace movement that helped bring an end to the Second Liberian Civil War in 2003. According to Wikipedia, her efforts to end the war, along with her collaborator Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, helped usher in a period of peace and enabled a free election in 2005 that Sirleaf won. This made Liberia the first African nation to have a female president.
Nobel Peace prizewinner &
     She, along with Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and Tawakkul Karman, were awarded the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize "for their non-violent struggle for the safety of women and for women's rights to full participation in peace-building work." 
      After reading this book, will any of we First Worlders complain and whinge about petty domestic dramas again? Let's pray not! >>>

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

The Rosie Project is a must-read

Melburnian Graeme Simsion’s first novel, The Rosie Project, was sold to 30 countries for a collective sum of $2 million before it surfaced in Australian bookshops in early 2013, netting the 2012 Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for an unpublished manuscript en route.
     Both these achievements suggest the book is exceptional and it is, in the best possible sense of the word. From the minute you start leafing through the pages of the first chapter, chief protagonist, Don, hooks you in with his disarming, eccentric personality.
       It doesn’t take long to figure out that Don is to Asperger’s syndrome what George Clooney is to Hollywood, viz. poster-boy pin-up of gentlemanlike charm with foibles and tics of behaviour he tries his best to control… especially when he’s around Rosie.

“The insights into human behaviour, and the condition of Asperger’s, are profound.”

You could describe The Rosie Project as “just another love story”, but to do so would do this touching, amusing novel a disservice. Don may be outside the square, but he is not any the less lovable for it and his quest to achieve a semblance of “normality” is touching.      
      As one critic fittingly put it, this marvellous novel may be full of laughs, but it is also “a serious reflection on our need for companionship and identity.”
       Unsurprisingly, this book’s literary success was not “overnight”; rather, it had a long gestation and a great deal of refinement before coming to light in its present form.
        The result, I suspect, is that readers will be clamouring for more of Simsion’s light, deft touch as he interprets for us the human condition. ***

Upcoming review:
A lyrical, magical novel (see right) about identity, loss
and one's place in the world... set in freezing Siberia!

Friday, March 29, 2013

Madeleine bores the pants off me

In real life I ruthlessly avoid people who wear their victim status like a badge of honour. In books, as in life, I wish to meet people who are, above all, interesting; who teach me things; and who, in spite of their personal weaknesses, manage to carve a triumphant course through life.
         No surprise, then, that I did not enjoy Helen Trinca's biography, Madeleine: A Life of Madeleine St. John, with a blurb on the cover by fellow Sydney University alumnus, celebrity raconteur Clive James.  [James's blurb, I noticed, fails to discuss the contents of the St John biography - funny, that - but alludes instead to having once known St. John who died in 2006 of emphysema in her mid-60s.]
          Brilliant biographies, in my opinion, need three things: a fascinating subject, excellent research, and the author's passion for the subject that emanates in his or her telling.
          In the case of Madeleine, Trinca's research cannot be faulted, but isn't it interesting that everyone to whom the author spoke about St John struggled to find anything positive to say?  That's because Madeleine was - as becomes obvious as the story unfolds - chronically addicted to a "poor me" attitude triggered by her parents' disastrous marriage, her mother's premature death, and her father's subsequent detachment.
        Madeleine never got over her childhood traumas and as a result struggled to live comfortably in her skin among the human race. In the end, she fled to London where she lived alone in her snobbish, prickly way and ultimately - good for her - turned out four half-decent books. I've only read The Women in Black which I found dreary and hard to finish; James, however, describes is as "a minor masterpiece" or similar, so I guess we'll have to disagree.
       St John went on to become shortlisted for the Booker Prize for her fourth novel, The Essence of the Thing, but her accomplishments notwithstanding, she remains a difficult, uninspiring person to know. I suspect biographer Trinca, after all the research and writing on her subject, felt the same way, because ultimately there's no passion, telling insight or humour in this biography, just a litany of relentlessly suck-the-life-out-of-you facts. >>> 

Thursday, March 28, 2013

A childhood memoir of the 1930s

Let me confess from the outset that the memoir, Letters to my Father, was written by a dear friend, Rina Huber.
     Rina today is 84 years old - light years removed from the cranky street urchin we see on the book cover at left - and at the tail end of a rich and satisfying life.
      She's already penned the lyrical Nine Summers, about nine seasons on a yacht sailing around the Mediterranean with her now deceased husband, a book that garnered consistently positive critical reviews.
     Now the Sydney Jewish Museum is publishing this latest offering from Rina who looks back on a tumultuous childhood.

"Rina's book has been snapped up by Sydney's most discerning book-seller and owner of one of the city's finest book emporia, Lesley Mackay."
     Simply told through the eyes of a child, Huber describes living with her family in Palestine in the early 1930s where everyone there set about building a new life from the rocky, dry ground up.
        This was a time when Palestinians and Jews still lived relatively peacefully as neighbours. Money was scarce, everyone lived in cramped dwellings and children played barefoot in dusty, treeless streets, but life was innocent and happy.

      When Rina's mother dies prematurely however, life begins to unravel for seven-year-old Rina who sets sail to Mussolini-led Italy to live with little-known relatives with whom she has no common language.
      It would spoil the reading to reveal anything more, except to say that Letters to my Father has been snapped up by Sydney's most discerning book-seller, Lesley Mackay.
      There Rina's memoir is already selling strongly before its  official launch on April 21, and that comes as no surprise to me.  Buy yourself a copy now! >>>

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Richard Ford is a beautiful writer

Some books are so boring or banal that I am wont to hurl them across a room in disgust. How did this get published? I ask myself as I realise I have reached a literary cul de sac. Occasionally, blissfully  however, I begin reading a book and I... just KNOW. Aha, methinks, let me make myself a cuppa, and settle in...
    And then there are books so good that they humble me. Before their brilliant prose I feel mind-numbingly average. I cannot imagine having such imagination; and can only dream of taking readers on an endless, don't-put-me-down journey page after page after page.
    This week's read, Canada, by Richard Ford, is one of those rare books of brilliance. From the opening sentence - "First, I'll tell you about the robbery our parents committed" - you are lured, like a fish on a hook, as Ford describes (in 600 pages, mind you) the milieu, the motivations, the conversations, rhythms and cadences of a tight, strange cast of characters.
You may not know people like this, nor have lived in such places, but nevertheless there you lurk, inside the minds and hearts of 15-year-old Dell Parsons and his crazy, luckless family.
      What a pity then that the second half of the book isn't half as interesting as the first half. Unexpectedly, all the minutaie that Ford embroiders into the telling of the book's front half is relentlessly bleak to the point of unbearable in the back end. 
       Frank McCourt managed to make a life of misery palatable for the entire duration of his autobiography, Angela's Ashes, but I reckon his literary coup is a rarity. As is the case with films, readers turns to books to escape into another world and ideally, this place of fiction offers rays of hope, light, humour and redemption.
       I haven't finished Canada yet, but after a luminous opening and a glorious couple of hundred pages, I am now flicking through the second half impatiently, waiting for something uplifting to cut through the depressing bleakness. There's no doubt  that Ford's a masterful writer, but he's got to give me more happy than sad if he wants to keep me enthralled. >>>