The Spare Room by Helen Garner

I had no interest in picking up Helen Garner’s latest novel The Spare Room. Helen has always seemed a little worthy, a little hard core for me.

I based this assessment on what I’d seen of her in the media and some vague memory of her writing something on sexual harassment… I haven’t actually read anything of hers before.

Such is the way opinions are made and held.

The cover didn’t inspire me either. It was hard cover. A quiet, worthy looking design.

However my boss offered me the book and I find it hard to say no, so I said yes and dutifully put it in the pile of books on my bedside table for later.

Later happened.

I picked it up preparing to read the first few pages and put it down again, distracted by the next shiny covered airport novel to catch my attention – within the first page I was hooked.

The Spare Room has been described as exquisite. I agree.

It’s been described as blunt, bold and evocative. Yep, I’m right there with you.

It’s the story of a dying woman, Nicola, who goes to stay at her friend Helen’s house in another city to fight her cancer at a dodgy clinic. She doesn’t want to admit defeat. She also remains defiantly cheerful in the face of death – which she in fact, doesn’t face.

It’s the story Helen who takes on her Nicola’s anger, absorbs it. Who is desperately caught between the role of supporting Nicola in her pathetic endless quest for a cure and wanting to shake her and stop the farce… and then of course feels guilty… and angry.

The mirror that shatters in the first pages symbolises the struggle. How can you face death if you can’t see it… and you have to walk pretty carefully if there is broken glass on the floor…

Nicola doesn’t want anyone to reflect her truth, but by denying it, she keeps Helen at arms length.

I really enjoyed the read. Couldn’t put it down.

It’s not a long book – 2-3 hours – but it stays with you.

Interview with Helen Garner

The Grave Tattoo by Val McDermid

I like Val McDermid’s writing. I always have.  From Wire in the Blood to her lighter novels, they never fail to entertain.  Highly descriptive, great character profiles, a page-turning plot.

In The Grave Tattoo the action centres around the discovery of a 200 year old body in the peat of the Lakes District.  The body has South Sea tattoos, which gives our heroine new impetus to follow her theory that Fletcher Christian – chief mutineer on Bligh’s ship – you know, the mutiny on the Bounty – came back to the UK and told his story to his schoolmate – none other than William Wordsworth – the poet.

As our heroine Jane Greshem starts to interview descendents of Wordsworth’s maid, they mysteriously start dying.

This novel is part historical, part literature review, part forensic pathologist and 100% Val McDermid.

I’m not sure it’s her best novel though.  Perhaps a little far fetched, even for her.  And the end seemed to just peter out.

That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy it.  I even caught the train to work to sneak a few extra minutes to read it.  OMG – yes I was that hooked.

I liked the historical element – and although I started off skimming the supposed Wordsworth bits, I found myself going back and rereading them.

This novel has something for everyone and is not gory – well, not compared to Wire in the Blood!

Rhett Butler’s People by Donald McCaig

First of all, I LOVED Gone With the Wind. The sweeping saga, the feisty heroine, the dashing, rich, and rather butch hero… with a soft side. *Swoon*

And I’ve not loved sequels written by random authors.

It was there on the “new” table at the library and well, what was a girl to do?

I picked it up.

It sat on my beside table for four weeks, until the library asked for it back.

I renewed it.

I picked up Fierce Conversations and nearly finished it.

I picked it up again and started reading.

It’s not bad. I liked it. It was cleverly done. I believed it.

The book runs in parallel to Gone with the Wind for the most part – starting with Rhett as a young man, flashbacking his childhood and introducing us to his sister who is the glue in this story weaving the two together.

We find out more about the Civil War – from the blokes’ side.

We discover some of Rhett’s motivation.

And yes, we find out what happens after those immortal words “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn”.

So yeah, if you like Gone with the Wind – read Rhett Butler’s People. If you didn’t, I’m not sure you’ll like this 500 page novel. And… I’m not sure it would work if you weren’t familiar with the story… but maybe I’m wrong… if you’ve read it and not the original – let me know.

NY Times Review
The Guardian

Mansfield Park by Jane Austen

This Jane Austen novel has at it’s heart an anti-heroine. Miss Fanny Price is invited to live with her rich uncle, aunt and cousins as an act of charity and is treated perhaps a little unfairly, a little more strictly. Made to feel her inferiority.

She is a prim and proper miss. Timid and shy. Never puts herself forward or stands up for herself. A mouse.

Frankly, I wanted to slap her! She is so wet.

Not like other Austen heroines like Emma and Elisabeth Bennett.

In the end I didn’t really care what happened to her, and maybe Austen didn’t either as she wraps up the story – which drags in parts – with haste.

The version I read had loads of footnotes which irritated me for the most part as they referred to pages at the back of the book. I’d much prefer the notes to be at the bottom of the page – if there at all.

Of course this is the Austen novel with the notorious Mrs Norris – now famous as the caretaker at Hogwarts Argus Filch’s cat – and she is a piece of work. In fact it is only Mrs Norris’s attitude to Fanny that gave me some sympathy for our heroine.

Austen is pretty sarcastic in this novel… more than I’ve noticed in others… particularly in the first half. She is less scathing, or so it seemed to me, as the novel wore on.

This is not my favourite Jane Austen novel. I like to like my heroines. However it’s still worth the read.

Nabou review


Motor Mouth by Janet Evanovich

So from Disgrace to Motormouth… well I needed a little light relief, a little escapism.

You know what I’m talking about?

Well that’s what I got people! [whoops… watching a little too much So You Think You Can Dance]

It’s about a feisty sassy young female mechanic and her NASCAR racing ex-boyfriend and how they get mixed up in Florida gangstas and racing technology. It’s bodies wrapped in plastic in unlikely places. It’s hijacking trucks. It’s danger. It’s funny.

This review talks about Carl Hiasson meeting NASCAR and you know what? It does have the feel of a Carl Hiasson novel. The Florida set, the high heels and gloss. The surprising quirky characters that you come across in that state.

I enjoyed it too because of course we’ve recently travelled between North Carolina and Florida so most of the locations seemed familiar to me.

Look it’s a romp, it’s fun, it’s highly unbelievable plot-wise but the characters are (if slightly caricature-ish) still engaging. Fun.

Disgrace by JM Coetzee

Booker prize winner 1999, Nobel Prize for Literature winner 2003.

Okay prizes don’t usually attract me to a book. I was burned by reading Voss by Patrick White (Nobel Prize for Literature 1973) – oh it was interminable.

However, after reading To Kill A Mockingbird (finally) I’ve been encouraged to give prize winning authors* another chance…

The other thing that put me off was the cover frankly. It looked miserable. Some moth-eaten bitser in a dusty yard.

And lets face it the back is hardly inspiring – some toe-rag professor does the funky wild thing with a student and is forced to leave (and so he should be) – I mean – how am I supposed to sympathise with my “hero”? Anyway, he lands on his lesbian daughter’s doorstep and she takes him in. The story continues.

On the plus side, I had heard it was good. And Groover liked it, but found it confronting.

So when I saw it on the returns trolley I thought – what the hey – one can’t only take Janet Evanovich books home – it’s not a good look. I needs me some kulcha.

It’s surprisingly easy to get into. It starts with the professor’s relationship with a prostitute and despite myself I was drawn into his story. Then the relationship with the student starts and I just wanted to slap him – what a pathetic nob. And I guess that my reaction means that the writing works – no?

So he’s kicked out (this is all on the back cover so not giving away any secrets yet) and so he should be and disappears to this farm that his daughter runs – living alone.

I found this book to be yes – confronting – especially about the dangers of being a white woman living in South Africa and the attitudes to the ongoing rape and violence. The comparison with his sexual transgressions with what happens to him and his daughter are interesting. Her reaction in particular confounded me.

It’s not a pleasant journey – but it is one that you will carry with you, and every time you see South Africa mentioned you will think of his daughter, alone on the farm, and her relationships with her neighbours. I’m not sure you will think of Professor David Laurie though.

If I was to note one annoyance – I didn’t like “high literature” parts about his operetta – I couldn’t quite get a handle on that and felt it distracted from the story. Yes, yes, I know he is supposed to be a literature professor – to me it felt like showing off. Then again, maybe that’s all he had left in the end?

Book Salon
Bangalore Book Club
Mostly Fiction

*Oh and I hate to be the radical feminist – but only 11/104 literature Nobel laureates have been women.

Last Horse Standing by Mike Keenan

Last Horse Standing by Mike Keenan tells the story of Jack Camp, a Kimberley stockman who went on a near fatal mustering expedition to Walcott Inlet in 1971. Based on a true story as told to Mike by Jack’s young jackeroo Peter Wann, the story tells of how Jack crossed the King Leopold Ranges and then the Isdell River to muster cattle grazing on the Walcott Inlet flats.

Things went wrong.

I was fascinated by the yarn. First of all it’s told well, but it also has special resonance for me because I rafted down the Isdell River when I was 16 as part of an Australian and New Zealand Scientific Exploration Society (ANZSES) expedition in 1983.

1971 was the year after a ban on shooting saltwater crocodiles was put in place. The salties had been hunted to quite low levels – although I suspect the remoteness of Walcott Inlet meant they were in reasonable numbers there. In the book Mike describes how dangerous the waters were because of the salties, how the Aboriginal people in the area called it Devil Devil.

In 1983 – some 13 years after the ban was put in place – you’d expect the numbers to have increased.

When we went on the expedition we knew saltwater crocs were to be avoided but we really didn’t know much about them or what signs to look for.

We thought they stayed in freshwater. We didn’t think about how far they might travel on land. We thought we’d be safe in our rubberised nylon yellow rafts.

Recently I transcribed my diary of that expedition 25 years ago. Here’s an excerpt. And be kind – I was only 16 at the time. 🙂

Around midday after a particularly large rapid with many of us feeling a bit annoyed with life – I was in front powering away and then K came up to talk to me. D went past and zoomed in front and W passed us as well and was between us and D.

Suddenly there was a loud cry of “BULLSHIT!” and I turned to see a large croc tearing into D’s raft – it narrowly missed his leg – it was just like JAWS and we were sure that if P had been there he would have made him rehearse it twice before shooting it.

D, after seeing that his raft was not an especially safe place to be anymore, decided to swim for a nearby rock. If it had been timed I doubt anyone could have beaten that 5 yard dash!! K and I meanwhile had made our own dash to a rock and sat there thinking that WE were next on the menu…

After we left the Isdell – clambering up a muddy bank with the odd crocodile slide evident – we followed the inlet on foot until we got to a skinny part – the ankle.

The sight of a large salty was enough to put K and me off and we decided to cross at an ankle deep ford. HOWEVER to get there we had to cross a muddy bank. It is hard enough without packs, with them it’s impossible.

Well after struggling down the bank and across the ford we looked ahead to find a mammoth task yet ahead of us. We staggered over soggy semi-firm sand towards the rest of the party. After much complaining and frustration we made it only to have to continue – we had barely gone a quarter of the way. My feet and legs were just so tired.

We had two more stream ford channels to cross (thigh deep!) and three soggy stretches as well as a slippery bank – all with heavy packs and leaden feet. I figured I might get a bit of a rest in between but no, it was push on.

It was later realised that had we reached the inlet half an hour later we would have either been trapped in the middle of the river by the incoming tide or have missed low tide altogether.

Because of course a saltwater crocodile would find it a real bother to swim the 2-300 metres to snack on us… not. We were very lucky.

But back to the book – Last Horse Standing – it’s worth a read – especially if you are interested in the outback and Australiana. The region Mike describes is wild and untamed – possibly even more so today than when I was there 25 years ago – and absolutely beautiful.

The Little Friend by Donna Tartt

The Little Friend by Donna TarttDonna Tartt doesn’t write many books. It was at least ten years between The Secret History – which I loved – and this new novel The Little Friend.

Donna Tartt’s books are dense novels. Rich novels. Long novels. At the end you feel intimately connected with her characters (possibly because it has taken so long to read about them), but it is ultimately a satisfying experience.

In The Little Friend we meet Harriet, aged 12. Our heroine grew up with an absent father, a mother whose grief made her practically absent, a sister, three elderly aunts and a grandmother, a housekeeper and a dead brother.

She was only 6 months old when he died but his death overshadows her life, both because of the legend he becomes but also because she wants to avenge his death.

So Harriet with her mate Hely come up with a scheme to get back at the man she reckons killed her brother, then a boy himself.

The action takes place over one hot, drowsy summer in Mississippi.

I felt drawn into the novel. It takes perseverance and a bit of ploughing through, Donna Tartt takes her time, but her descriptions and characters are so well drawn you feel as if you are merely remembering a time from your own past.

And yes there are some problems with the novel, sometimes I lost track of where I was, and the central mystery remains unresolved – which is a bit annoying especially if you’ve grown up with a collection of Agatha Christie novels – but then, maybe real life is unresolved?

If you’re looking for light, holiday reading – this is not your best choice, but if you have time to sink into Donna Tartts world – then I think you will enjoy the journey. I did.

Make sure you have a big handbag if you are travelling with it though… 🙂


The Telegraph
January Magazine (didn’t like it much)

Vanishing Acts by Jodi Picoult

Vanishing ActsIn this novel by Jodi Picoult our heroine Delia – a search and rescue person with a bloodhound – discovers that she herself is lost. To find herself she travels across the country and piece by piece her memory comes back.

Sometimes coming back is hard.

I find Jodi’s writing easy to read. You are immediately sucked into the story. Her writing is emotional in that it does bring up your emotions.

At one point her descriptions inside a correctional facility seem too real to be true – how did she do that research?

You do have to suspend disbelief a bit in this novel, which is nevertheless a compelling read and while you might guess the end it won’t stop you reading to find out if you’re right. 🙂

See a multimedia presentation on Jodi’s website
Discussion questions
Other reviews

Snobs by Julian Fellowes

snobs by julian fellowesJulian Fellowes you might remember wrote the screenplay for Gosford Park – and won an Oscar for it.. In this novel of manners he tells the story of a social climbing young lady who manages to capture the heart of a young heir. Once ensconced in the aristocracy she puts it in jeopardy.

The story is told through the eyes of an actor who is himself “part of the establishment” and is an easy read. It’s a bit Jane Austenish in its portrayal of the upper classes but reads in fact as a bit of a manual. Fellowes observations seem incisive and accurate (how would I know that they are?) and because the narrator is one of the fold so to speak, you are able to both laugh at their foibles and sympathise.

I enjoyed the read.

A couple of observations in particular made me smile:

“To an Englishman or woman of a certain background the answer, ‘Well, I’ve met them but they wouldn’t remember me’ means ‘I have not met them.’ “

And this one:

“The normal manner one has come to expect from hosts and fellow guests alike in an English country house is a state of moderately amiable lack of interest, The guests loaf about, reading magazines, going for walks, having baths, writing letters, without making any great social demands of each other. Only when eating – and even then only really at dinner – are they expected to ‘perform’. This lack of effort, this business of people barely raising their heads from their books to acknowledge one’s entry into a room, may seem rude to a foreigner (indeed it is rude), but I must confess it brings with it a certain relaxation.”

This last especially resonates with me. This is the perfect kind of house guest. One who just “does their own thing”. Who doesn’t expect you to entertain them or to entertain you! Those kinds of visitors are exhausting.

Maybe there’s a thread of blue blood under the polo fleece and ugg boots after all.


Other reviews:
NY Times
Metacritic Reviews