Monday, January 26, 2009


I read William Boyd's novel Restless in a day and a bit (give or take a few hours for necessities like eating and sleeping). It was a perfect book for the moment (that being mid-way through my long summer holidays, in the middle of a heat wave and with plenty of time on my hands). Please forgive my review though, which might be rather shallow- I read this book quickly and it was a few weeks (and a couple of books) ago, and I'm embarrassed to admit that it has already faded a bit from my memory.

alternates between a hot summer in England in the 1970's and pre-WWII Europe, London and America. In the 70's we follow Ruth who is a single mother and English language tutor to non-English speakers. She has been given a document by her mother, Sally, which reveals that Sally is, in fact, Eva Delectorskaya, who was recruited to the English Secret Service in the years before WWII after the murder of her brother Kolia. Eva/ Sally's memories are revealed slowly as alternate chapters in the book and it is these chapters that I found most exciting. It describes Eva's training, and her first real mission in Belgium, all under the watchful eye of Lucas Rohmer, the mysterious agent responsible for her recruitment. This half of the novel reads much like a traditional spy novel, or rather, what I imagine a traditional spy novel would be like, given that it's not a genre that I've read much. Eva's story is exciting and mysterious and full of the kind of cloak and dagger stuff totally sucks in the reader.

Back in the 1970's, Eva/ Sally, who has been living a fairly staid rural life in a quiet English village for many years, has begun to believe that she is in danger once more. Her daughter Ruth is enlisted to help Eva investigate some of the details of her past and to help her uncover current dangers. Ruth is, understandably, stunned to find out about her mother's past and curious enough to help her with her current situation. Ruth also has to navigate some of her own personal problems, from the unwanted house guests that won't leave her flat, to her unsatisfying romantic life.

It's hard to say much more about the plot without giving away some rather fun twists in the story. This is a gripping and entertaining novel with a quite haunting message about the long term consequences of a life steeped in suspicion and betrayal. The title refers to the restlessness of the spy who can never really trust anyone, never really relax again.

My only complaint about Restless might be that I found the parts set in the 1970's slightly less interesting that the flashbacks to Eva's spy years. I also felt that at times Boyd didn't quite capture the voice of Ruth Gilmartin who narrates this part of the book. Interestingly enough, both my husband (who read the book after me) and I thought the narrator was male before she was specifically referred to as a woman. This might be because the author is male, but I do feel that she had a more 'male' voice at times, that the character wasn't quite well-realised enough.

Overall, I found Restless a really enjoyable, un-put-downable read. I was totally swept up in the world of espionage and was genuinely surprised by some of the twists and turns in the plot. The hot English summer described in the book was a perfect match for the long, hot summer days we have been having here.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

The Scandal of the Season

While on holidays over Christmas I was looking for a light, fun read. Something not too challenging. And I hoped that Sophie Gee's historical novel The Scandal of the Season would fulfil my requirements. I had heard about Gee's novel on an ABC TV special on the genre of romance- one of the series hosted by Jennifer Byrne. Sophie Gee appeared on the panel and came across as clever and interesting so I figured I should give her book a go.

My copy of The Scandal of the Season has a big gold sticker on the front proclaiming 'Women's Weekly Great Read' (for those of you overseas, Women's Weekly is a magazine aimed at middle aged housewives- recipes, celebrity interviews, that sort of thing). While I like to think of myself as egalitarian and certainly not a snob, I have to admit, I'm not that comfortable walking around with a big sticker on my book proclaiming that I have the same reading tastes as Women's Weekly readers. It doesn't sit well with my image of myself as an urban sophisticate :-)

Having revealed to you all that I'm a hopeless elitist, hopefully I can redeem myself somewhat by saying that none of this stopped me from actually reading The Scandal of the Season. The premise of the book is interesting. It is set in the eighteenth century and gives us a back story to Alexander Pope's famous poem, 'The Rape of the Lock'. I had studied the poem at university but that was a while ago and my memory of the poem is pretty sketchy, not that this mattered much, as Gee fills the reader in on the details.

The story involves the real life seduction of glamourous socialite Arabella Fermor by the dashing Lord Petre. The seduction is seen through the lens of Pope, who features as a main character in the novel, and his friends (cousins to Arabella) Martha and Teresa Blount. Gee has researched the period carefully and it is the historical details that I enjoyed most about the novel. She gives an interesting insight into the sexual lives of women at the time, and the enormous role that money and social status play in romance and marriage. Arabella and Lord Petre fall in love but cannot hope to marry as they are not social equals. Gee portrays the dangers facing young unmarried women who must preserve their virginity at all costs if they wish to marry well. Married women of aristocratic background seem to be able to indulge in affairs if they wish, an aspect of the society that I found fascinating. Men, as usual, seem to be able to get away with romantic indiscretions at any stage.

Another really interesting plot line involves a Jacobite plot to assassinate Queen Anne. Most of the major characters in the story, including Pope himself, are Catholics and therefore part of a persecuted minority (and possible suspects in any Jacobite plot). Many characters have memories of Catholics being burnt at the stake in the streets of London and there is a general fear that such violence will return. The novel starts with the murder of a Catholic priest and this theme continues throughout. I had known a little about the religious conflicts in England at the time, but Gee really brought this aspect of eighteenth century London to life for me.

Unfortunately, however, I didn't feel that The Scandal of the Season ultimately lived up to its potential, even as a light summer read. For a start, I think Gee has a problem writing realistic dialogue. The witty exchanges between characters just didn't really work a lot of the time. Also, a lot of the character exposition felt laboured. Gee describes the feelings of characters in enormous detail where I think she could have revealed this information more effectively through their actions. Finally, the plot, which is strong for most of the novel, just kind of peters out at the end. A stronger finish would have made me enjoy this book a lot more, although I guess that is the constraint of working with material based on actual historical events.

Gee's novel is a literate and well-researched book but with some major limitations. In the end, I found it interesting but have to disagree with the Women's Weekly 'Great Read' label. Not that I'm a snob or anything...

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

When You Are Engulfed in Flames

When I bought David Sedaris' collection of essays, When You are Engulfed in Flames, as a Christmas present for my husband, I hadn't read anything by Sedaris but the reviews of this book had been fantastic and somehow I knew it would be his kind of thing. Happily, I was right. My husband raced through it in a day or so and then I got my greedy mits on the book.

Sedaris seems to be pretty well known to Americans but less so here in Australia (or maybe I'm betraying my ignorance?). All I can say is that I wish I had discovered him for myself sooner. Sedaris writes an almost perfect personal essay. It's a genre that doesn't seem that common these days and more's the pity.

Many of these essays made me laugh out loud. Sedaris has a lovely self-deprecating sense of humour that allows him to share his personal humiliations with the reader in a way that only makes him more likeable. He is particualrly funny when writing about the gaps in understanding when he is in non-English speaking countries. For example, his struggles with the French language (Sedaris lives in France) reach a particularly funny peak when he describes how he answers all questions with 'd'accord' (meaning 'okay'). Using d'accord as a catch-all response to questions that he can't understand leads him into some very strange situations, one of which involves ending up in a doctor's waiting room full of well-dressed French people wearing only his underpants.

Sedaris is just as good at depicting other characters that he encounters. One of my favourites is his abrasive, outspoken New York neighbour, Helen, who has lived in her apartment for 50 years and reserves her right to say whatever she likes about anyone ("Stick it up your ass," she tells Sedaris, "I'm not your goddamn mother." When he points out a friend of his on Oprah).

Sedaris and his partner Hugh are listening one of Sedaris' first appearances on NPR when Helen knocks on their door:
"Listen," [Hugh] whispered. "David is on the radio."

"So what?" Helen said. "A lot of people are on the radio." Then she handed him an envelope and asked if we'd mail in her stool sample. "It's not the whole thing, just a smear," she told him.

His portrait of the foul-mouthed, angry, opinionated Helen could have been played for laughs at Helen's expense, however like in many of these essays, Sedaris ultimately reveals the humanity and vulnerability of his subject, as well as his affection for her.

It's this more serious side to the essays that makes them really outstanding. They are not just descriptions of funny incidences. Each essay comes back at the end to close with a thoughtful point, a kind of 'a ha!' moment that brings the whole essay together and makes us realise that we are not, for example, just reading an essay about a taxi driver who quizzes Sedaris on his sex life, but actually considering how easy it is to feel superior to others. Sedaris makes his writing seem utterly effortless and yet anyone who has tried to write this sort of thing knows how hard it is to achieve such an understated style. This is elegant, funny, intelligent writing, and, really, what more could you want?

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Thoughts on Reading in 2008

We're a good way into the first month of 2009 and finally I get around to writing my post on reading in 2008. Oh well, diligent posting does not seem to be the way for me...

2008 was a great year for reading at this delicious solitude. I read 39 books, which is ok for me, but I'd love to read more this year (and I really think I should be able to count Jonathon Strange and Mr Norrell as more than one book!). There was lots of contemporary fiction on the list and not many classics. As usual, then, I'll vow to read more classics this year. It's just that I get swept up in those shiny new books!

The discovery of the year for me was Michael Chabon. I read and loved The Yiddish Policemens Union and went on to read The Wonder Boys and Maps and Legends. The Wonder Boys is the book I now count as my favourite novel and I heartily recommend it. My newfound love of all things Chabon is strange because I read The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay a couple of years back and was not overly impressed. Was it a matter of the other books being better? Or had I changed? Ah, the eternal mysteries of reading!

My other great discovery of 2008 was Australian crime writer Peter Temple. I have given copies of his excellent novel The Broken Shore to so many people now, that I keep forgetting who has and hasn't received a copy from me. I went on to read another Temple crime novel, Black Tide, which I am yet to review in these pages but which was also outstanding. Temple is brilliant at evoking a sense of place and the rhythms of Australian speech. He also writes a bloody good story.

In brief, I also loved reading Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke, a great big crazy Dickensian fantasy of a novel, and I loved Graham Greene's The Quiet American for its contemporary resonances. My favourite young adult novel of the year was Scott Westerfeld's Peeps which is the vampire novel that should be selling more than Twilight. I'll take cool New York vampires and sassy, tough female characters over the vapid Bella and vacant Edward any day. Still, the 14 year old girls that I teach would beg to differ...

So overall 2008 was a another great year for reading. It looks like 2009 is also shaping up well if William Boyd's excellent novel Restless which I've just finished is anything to go by.