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Tuesday, December 28, 2010

The Wolves of Willoughby Chase by Joan Aiken

I feel I need to apologise to this blog for neglecting it.

It’s not that I don’t love it, I do, but I’ve been rather tied up with the new one for my Style Notes column (see link above).

Then of course there has been Christmas, not a small distraction, but the main reason was that I’ve had the most peculiar run of fails.

I was about three chapters into the marvellous Freedom by Jonathan Frantzen when my Kindle, containing it, was stolen on an Emirates flight.

When I got home I started The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas in old-style physical book form, but when I was a few pages into the second chapter I lost it, somewhere in the house. I don’t know how it happened but I just can’t find it.

Bloody annoying, as those are two very interesting books.

Next I picked up a volume so grippingly interesting I can’t read it at night. The ideas are so stimulating it keeps me awake. And during this crazy time of year, I just haven’t had any reading time in the day.

It was in the small hours of one of the sleepless nights caused by Book X (I don’t want to reveal what it is until I’ve finished it…) when I had moved to my daughter’s bedroom and put her in with dad, so I could toss and turn without keeping them awake, that I picked up The Wolves of Willoughby Chase.

The idea was that reading one my daughter’s books would quickly put me to sleep. Well, I picked the wrong one. I found this tale of plucky little girls pitted against nasty grown ups, in a fictional period of English history (the reign of ‘James III’ when wild wolves roamed Yorkshire), as gripping and exciting as I had when I first read it, aged nine.

The wonderfully vivid atmosphere – be it delicious cosiness, or nail-biting tension – and intensely evocative descriptions of place, gave me exactly the same pleasure as they had on my first reading.

Now I’m going to re-read the sequel.

Reading satisfaction: 7
Un-put-downable-ness: 8
Recommend to best girlfriend: 8
Recommend to mother: 10
Recommend to niece: 9
Recommend to gay best friend: 1
Recommend to man pal: 5
Recommend to Helen Razer: 0
Read on public transport: 3
Unpleasantness: 0

Monday, December 6, 2010

Comfort and Joy by India Knight

First of all, a small disclaimer. The wonderful India Knight is not a stranger to me.

We inhabit the same milieu, have a million mutual pals and have come to be, largely over the marvel that is Twitter, friends.

We haven’t been to each other’s houses, which is my definition of a proper friend, but I’m sure we will.

Meanwhile, we would hack our way across a cocktail party to greet each other and I was invited to the glorious launch of this book.

But let’s be quite clear, none of the matey matey stuff has any impact on what I say here. I love this book quite separately from liking its author.

In fact, I have such a girl crush on India’s writing, they are pretty much divided into two people in my head, or I would be too shy to speak to her. India my hilarious Twitter pal and India the amazing writer.

So, to the book. It’s not like her first two novels at all. I loved them both – hilarious romps – this is much more measured. I’m sure India wouldn’t mind me saying it doesn’t have a gasp-making cliff hanger plot. It hardly has a plot at all, but it is an immensely satisfying read.

I’d say it is more in the style of my favourite of her books until this one, The Shops, than the novels. That was an immensely elegant book about that art of shopping, this is a novel about the complex emotional landscape of a modern family, told over three Christmases, but the tone is similar. Sophisticated, yet earthy and real.

You live every emotional moment of it with the main character, Clara, as she observes and analyses the patchwork of ex-husbands and inlaws, half sisters, immediate family, friends, waifs and strays, who make up her Christmas landscape. And at the end, you shed a poignant tear.

It is, with great humour and style, an uncompromising appraisal of the ongoing emotional cost of modern marriage – and breaks up – to all involved.

But in the end it is a glorious Christmas carol to the wonderful gift that is family, be they ever so dysfunctional.

A comfort and joy, indeed.

Reading satisfaction: 8
Un-put-downable-ness: 8
Recommend to best girlfriend: 10
Recommend to mother: 10
Recommend to niece: 10
Recommend to gay best friend: 10
Recommend to man pal: 9
Recommend to Helen Razer: 9
Read on public transport: 10
Unpleasantness: 0

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Parrot and Olivier in America by Peter Carey

Gosh, so sorry I’ve left this blog alone for so long.

Between my book tour and all the hoo ha over the end of my column and then starting my new Style Notes blog, I just haven’t had time.

Ah yes, the new blog. If you haven’t seen it yet, please do have a look. It’s at

The idea is that I will post a Style Notes to it each week and if you subscribe (the little button is right at the bottom of the blog), it will land in your in tray each Saturday morning, just like a newspaper plopping through your letterbox.

But obviously better, because it’s free and doesn’t use paper.

Although if you do have any elderly rels or neighbours who used to enjoy my column in that magazine, whatever it was called, and who aren’t on line, do please print out the new online version and give it to them.

I’m also doing an added extra post from the archives mid-week as well, and if you subscribe, that will also just turn up. The miracles of the interweb. I love it more each day.

Especially as I already have subscribers from America, Singapore, Switzerland, Qatar, UK and other farflung spots and none of them could get my column before.

It’s all good.

Now, back to books. The other reason I haven’t blogged on here for ages was that I couldn’t write about the last two books I read because the lovely Jennifer Byrnes invited me to appear on the Christmas special of First Tuesday Book Club, while I was in Sydney last month, and I didn’t want to spoil the show by revealing my thoughts on here.

It has now aired (rather cheekily, considering the first Tuesday of its title isn’t until next week, but whatever…) so for those who didn’t see it here’s what I thought of Carey’s latest.


I love, respect and worship Peter Carey’s writing with an unhealthy fervour (except for the one set in Singapore which I just didn’t get at all). True History of the Kelly Gang is one of my top ten books of all time. Possibly top five actually.

And I can now reveal that I wrote the voice of Theo in my latest book without using any commas, as an homage to the master. There isn’t a single comma in the whole of the Kelly Gang and I wanted to see if I could do it and have it still make sense. I hope I pulled it off.

This book charts the lives of two 18th century men – Parrot, the son of an English printer and Oliver, a French artistocrat – as they career around the world (there are journeys to Australia, as well as the America of the title). The chapters alternate the two voices.

It’s fast-paced, ridiculously broad in its scope and very funny. It’s really a study of the rise of democracy, via a compare and contrast of post-revolutionary France and early independent America, but it’s also a marvellous romp. There’s also some very sexy sex in it. Beautifully done.

But what I really loved about it was its flaws. It’s incredibly flawed. The plot hinges on the most outrageous coincidences – I counted five – and the side trip to Australia, with Joseph Banks, was completely unnecessary, but all of that just made me like it more.

I felt about it, just as I did with Martin Amis’s The Pregnant Widow: the flaws make it all the more alive and interesting. They make you feel somehow very connected to the great artist at work. And I do believe Peter Cary is a great artist. There are sentences in this book, of such glorious perfection they made me squeal with delight.

It was also the first book I read on my tragically lost Kindle *sobs*. About which more, next time.

PS If you live in Australia I think you can watch the First Tuesday Book Club Christmas special on the ABC iPlayer thingo.

Reading satisfaction: 9.5
Un-put-downable-ness: 8.5
Recommend to best girlfriend: 9
Recommend to mother: 8
Recommend to niece: 9
Recommend to gay best friend: 9
Recommend to man pal: 10
Recommend to Helen Razer: 10
Read on public transport: on a Kindle 10, in hardback 0, in paperback 10
Unpleasantness: 0