Category Archives: READING

LAST DAY IN THE DYNAMITE FACTORY

By Annah Faulkner

Published by Picador, 2015

The title of this book is portentous and I began reading with an expectation that something explosive would happen. It did, and sooner than I thought. On the first page a stick of dynamite is wedged into the stubborn roots of a camphor laurel tree, because despite its hacking it would not die, ‘a tiny green shoot had sprung from its stump’. A metaphor surely, of hope perhaps, or the persistence of truth. By the end of page two the green shoot is gone for good, but the memory of it lives long in the boy who ran from the blast, and it lies like a foundation stone beneath the architecture of this lovely book. The story starts, in earnest, more than thirty years later. Chris is now in his forties and he’s mourning the death of his aunt, and adoptive mother, Jo. Her passing ignites the fuse that drives the narrative of this book. Jo was his mother’s sister, but about her, she spoke very little. She was the keeper of knowledge and the hoarder of secrets. Her death magnifies Chris’s feeling that he doesn’t really know who he is, and … Continue Reading ››

THE STRAYS

By Emily Bitto

Published by Affirm Press, 2014

Who hasn’t imagined themselves part of a world more exiting, more colourful, more sensual, or perhaps, more dangerous than their own? 1930s Australia is a bland and conservative place, subdued by economic depression, isolation and censorship. For an adolescent Lilly, becoming friends with Eva is like glimpsing the colourful spectrum of ordinary light as it passes through a shard of broken glass. Eva is the middle daughter of Helena and Evan Trentham. He is a well-known avant-garde painter; she has a glamour that rebels against the restraint of the times and separates her from the other mothers, who dote earnestly on their children and keep tidy hours and tidy homes. The Trentham home is old and expansive; the architecture of the house, and the people within it, is ramshackle. But inside and out Helena cultivates a kind of unrestrained beauty; bringing artists together with the same eye that nurtures wild growth in her garden. Lilly is drawn into the life of the Trentham’s like a stray is drawn towards food. She skulks on the edge of that life, observing, but unobserved. She collects the crumbs of hedonistic abandon: moments of attention; fragments of … Continue Reading ››

THE ILLUMINATIONS

By Andrew O’Hagan Published by Faber & Faber, 2015

The recurring motif in this book is light, which isn’t surprising given the title. But it is not immediately clear what is being illuminated. Early on we are introduced to the Blackpool Illuminations, a festival of light that has been drawing people to that English seaside town since 1879. But we don’t return to Blackpool until much later. In between lays the story, and it is a good one, with two interweaving narratives that initially could not be further apart, but which come together gracefully. At the heart of this book is Anne Quirk, a woman in her eighties living in a retirement home in Saltcoats on the west coast of Scotland. The electricity sockets in her kitchen have been taped over with Elastoplast, and the rings of her stove are covered up to prevent her from cooking. Anne’s neighbour, Maureen, pops in frequently to sort out small confusions, and to hear Anne talk about her past; about living in New York, about taking photographs and about the love of her life, Harry Blake. There is a sense of time running out for Anne, of days darkening and memories falling like … Continue Reading ››

THE FIRST BAD MAN

A Novel by Miranda July Published by Canongate Books, 2015

I’m going to start this review by saying things that may turn prospective readers away from The First Bad Man, but that is not my intention, so please bear with me. Reading The First Bad Man felt a little like cleaning out my fridge. I was frequently disgusted, surprised by some of the content, but compelled by each disturbing discovery to keep going. Just like I can’t help lifting the lid on some mouldy mass in the bottom of my crisper to try and figure out what it is, I couldn’t help turning the pages of this book. A few chapters in I started to appreciate the deliciousness of what I was reading. If this book had a flavour it would be umami, that trendy new taste that Wikipedia says induces salivation and a sensation of furriness on the tongue, stimulating the throat and resulting in a lasting aftertaste that is difficult to describe. The first chapter introduces the reader to Cheryl and her globus hystericus, an uncomfortable swelling in the throat that, at its worst, causes saliva to pool and requires frequent spitting because of an inability to swallow. I … Continue Reading ››

THE DISCREET HERO

by Mario Vargas Llosa Published by Faber & Faber, 2015

Oh, where to start with this review? Perhaps with the author: Mario Vargas Llosa was born in Peru in 1936 and is one of the most significant Latin American writers of his generation. So significant, in fact, that in 2010 he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. Now to the reader: I was born much later, on the other side of the world, and while I had a love affair with the magical realism of Latin American writers such as Gabriel Garcia Marques and Isabelle Allende in the 1990’s, I have never written a novel, and the Nobel Foundation will never, ever, ever, bestow a prize on me. I tell you this so that you can ignore all the critical things I am about to say, because, let’s face it, what would I know. So, to the story: The Discreet Hero is set in modern day Peru and tells two tales that intersect late in the book. The first is of a self-made man who refuses to give in to extortionists – even in the face of arson and kidnap – because he lives by the advice of his … Continue Reading ››

LOST & FOUND

by Brooke Davis Published by Hachette, 2014

I loved this book. Like many people who’ve read it, I found it warmed my heart, tickled my funny bone and made me think, deeply. Lost & Found is the story of seven year old Millie Bird, Eighty-seven year old Karl the touch-typist and Eighty-two year old Agatha Pantha. They are an unlikely trio, with unlikely names who get into all sorts of unlikely situations during a road trip in search of Millie’s mother. Everyone in this story has been left behind, even the minor characters, but the texture of each person’s grief is unique. Sometimes it is smooth and reflective and you can feel their grief because it would be your own. Other times it is like the nap of velvet; look at it one way and you see a woman who has lost her husband, look at it another and you see a woman who has lost her self. Lost & Found is a funny book about grief and loneliness, and, as unlikely as it all is, it worked for me. The poignancy of loss, experienced by each character at the start of the story, is not dulled by the playfulness of … Continue Reading ››

DOG BOY

By Eva Hornung Published by Text Publishing, 2009

Yann Martel – he who wrote The Life of Pi, one of my favourite books of all time – describes Dog Boy as ‘Extraordinary’. This word is printed in quotation marks on the cover of the book, and it is the reason I picked it up from the pile of pre-loved tomes at my local second-hand book store. Of course I doubted it would be ‘Extraordinary’ – these superlatives are often found on the front of books I pick up and I am too often disappointed – but not this time. Like The Life of Pi, Dog Boy is a story that uses animals to explore humanity. It is fascinating and shocking and heart wrenching, but it is compelling, and written with such insight into human and canine behaviour, that the events of the book are completely believable. It is about a Russian boy, called Romochka, who is abandoned by his human carer and adopted by the matriarch of a family of feral dogs. It is an ancient story, but unique in its telling. From Romulus and Remus, to Tarzan, to Mowgli, myth and literature have placed helpless children in the care of … Continue Reading ››

HISTORY OF THE RAIN

BY NIALL WILLIAMS
Published by Bloomsbury, 2014
Review by Pip Williams

The words of Jane Austen, Robert Lewis Stevenson, Charles Dickens and so many others, are woven like snail trails across the cover of this book. They are only visible when light strikes them in just the right way, so I didn’t notice them until I was about a hundred pages in and had found a sunny spot Continue reading

WHAT DAYS ARE FOR

By Robert Dessaix
Published by Knopf, 2014
Review by Pip Williams

I need to preface this review with a bit of context. I recently sat among the greying crowd of Adelaide Writers’ Week enthralled, amused and occasionally titillated (in that delightful way heterosexual women can be when gay men tease them with sexual innuendo). Robert Dessaix was being interviewed, and he was in fine form. He had just Continue reading

DEPT. OF SPECULATION

By Jenny Offill
Published by Granta, 2014
Review by Pip Williams
Speculators on the universe … are no better than madmen.
This quote, from Socrates, begins a story of an ordinary marriage within an ordinary life. But it is told in such an extraordinary way that it demands to be read to the end in one sitting. Of course, I have kids and I work and there are Continue reading