Saturday 30 December 2023

Best and worst of the Year - 2023


This will be quick, due to laziness and the fact that I've already posted five times in December, probably a record for this blog.

Best book of 2023: The Goldfinch - Donna Tartt (2013)

Genius level modern realism.

Worst book of 2023: The Siren's Sing - Kristel Thornell (2022)

Narrative structure did not work, but had some redeeming features.

The year of non-fiction: a good year! Six read overall, the best being Helgoland by Carlo Rovelli (2020)

The year was notable due to the fact that the overall quality of books was high - there were no mediocre ratings given. Also the library based book clubs I facilitate went on hiatus in September due to me going on long service leave and the external renovation of the library, which will not be complete till perhaps April 2024. It's freed up more time to read my own books, but I do miss the book club members and reading for a specific purpose.

All that's left to say is: Happy New Year!

Friday 29 December 2023

Falling Man - Don DeLillo (2017)


Rating: Admirable

The attack by terrorists on the Twin Towers in New York in 2001 was a momentous event in the history of the clash between civilisations. Like most people I was shaken to the core by the scenes of the attacks. I was called by a friend and was told to turn on the TV, just in time to witness the plane hit the second tower and then both towers eventually collapsing. It was incredible, disturbing and historically momentous. Then later I remember reading about the photo of the falling man, an image initially used in the media, but then suppressed due to various moral concerns. Seeing the image is certainly powerful and it makes sense that America's pre-eminent novelist would both write about 9/11 and use that image as an inspiration for its title (although apparently he refutes that notion). Being DeLillo nothing is that simple, of course, with the image being used as a metaphor for the life trajectory of Keith Neudecker, both before and after the event. Another very typical DeLillo trope is the performance artist who falls from buildings dressed in a suit, with just a simple harness for support. This falling man appears at various times during the novel, including a scene in which Keith's wife, Lianne, observes him setting up and waiting to 'perform' for an oncoming train of passengers, a scene imbued with gnostic symbolism open to interpretation. Falling Man is mostly set in the aftermath of 9/11, and the performing falling man acts as a ghostly reverberation of that day, a day that completely changed everything for New Yorkers. Keith goes back to his estranged wife, having survived the attack in the south tower, their son spends the days with other children looking for more planes with binoculars, talking in hushed tones about Bill Lawton, the misheard name they give Bin Laden. Typically for DeLillo this comes across as both a dark, ironic joke, but also imbued with nebulous meaning.

The infamous falling man photo

Falling Man has been criticised for not being as monumental as the 9/11 event itself, however DeLillo had already produced 'monumental' work about America and its citizens, such as Mao II (1991), Underworld (1997) and White Noise (1985), which reads like a guide to postmodernism filtered though the American sensibility. Falling Man's focus is more about the human psychological response to the terrorist attacks, both overt and subtle, in particular during the aftermath. Like the slowly fading circular waves in water after a stone is dropped, DeLillo shows how the characters go on living after the shocking event, eventually being reabsorbed into themselves and their quite ordinary and unimportant lives that were revealed, for a while, in stark relief. There are also sections focussing on one of the terrorists, his drift towards jihad; and then at the very end, a depiction of the attack itself, which is as visceral as the novel gets. As usual DeLillo's prose is minimal and exacting, with dialogue that makes the characters seem like they are revealing insights into the very nature of humanity, our very essence; or, conversely, about nothing at all, merely the minutia of human obsessions in the twenty-first century. Although, as DeLillo novels go, Falling Man is fairly satisfying, there's some extra level of DeLillo frisson that is absent. It's certainly not up there with his best novels, but it is, after all, a DeLillo novel, and therefore worth reading for that reason alone.

Sunday 17 December 2023

Perihelion Summer - Greg Egan (2019)


Rating: Admirable

Greg Egan is Australia's preeminent science-fiction writer and is a mysterious character, never having attended science-fiction conventions, nor ever having a picture of him on the internet or anywhere else. Perihelion Summer is not listed with his novels on his own website, or on Wikipedia, instead it's listed under 'other short fiction', which makes it a novella. Perihelion Summer certainly reads like a novella, with  minimal, yet just enough character development to keep the reader engaged and a plot and exposition that is straight to the point. Set in Western Australia (Egan actually lives in Perth) in what appearers to be the present or near future, humanity is preparing for the arrival in the solar-system of a micro black hole called Taraxippus, that may cause calamitous floods as it passes through. Matt and some friends have created a floating habitat that creates its own power and food, including a large metal net with thousands of fish. They intend to wait out the effects of Taraxippus (a Greek word pertaining to mythology around dangerous presences) out to sea and try to convince their various loved ones to go with them, or to at least head inland, well away from any potential tsunamis. Of course, most choose to stay where they are, in Perth, which is right on the coast, thinking that living some kilometres away from the sea will keep them safe, mimicking the kind of wishful or naive thinking that most have regarding climate change (which is what this book is really about), that it will not really effect them personally.

Perihelion Summer is quite different to other works I've read by Egan, it is not mind-bendingly weird and contains a minor amount of speculative science, although it is quite well written. Essentially the novella is a very clever approach to exploring climate change without actually addressing human caused climate change, instead Taraxippus actually doesn't behave as predicted and causes irreversible climate extremes. Egan uses this parallel to examine human responses and behaviour toward climate change, both positive and negative. Matt and his friends aboard their ship, the Mandjet, respond as best they can, helping as many people as they can, despite the odds against them. It made for very fascinating, compelling and sober reading, in particular because the novella is set partly in my home city of Perth. Reading about familiar landmarks and environs depicted as being freezing, with ice and snow in winter (it never snows in Perth) and then during summer as being so hot that it is basically uninhabitable was alarming. Perihelion Summer has been criticised online for being underdeveloped and anticlimactic, but what critics have missed are the insightful ways in which Egan reveals the generational divide and woolly thinking around climate change. The pivotal scene in this sense is when Matt's sister informs him that their mother blames him for the calamity Taraxippus brings, because he would never "shut up about it." Climate change deniers just keep shooting the messengers, wishing they'd just go away and take any evidence of human induced climate change with them, but it is increasingly possible Earth will be something like it is depicted in Perihelion Summer and no doubt any deniers still around will be laying the blame elsewhere, just like they always have done.

Wednesday 13 December 2023

Novacene: The Coming Age of Hyperintelligence - James Lovelock and Brian Appleyard (2019)


Rating: Excellent

James Lovelock was an important scientist who, among many achievements, saved humanity with his discovery (using one of his inventions) that CFCs were building up in the atmosphere and damaging the ozone layer. Lovelock also posited the Gaia Theory, that Earth is a self-regulating, synergistic system in which life maintains a habitable environment for itself, co-evolving with the inorganic environment in order to keep the planet cool, despite Sol's efforts to the contrary. The ideas behind Novacene go beyond organic life on Gaia toward the claim that the ultimate evolutionary endpoint for Earth will be cybernetic life based on information, which does seem to be the universe's universal currency. Lovelock refers to this soon to arrive era as the Novacene, despite the proposed current era of the Anthropocene not having been fully accepted as yet. Despite the small page count, Lovelock takes his time to explain his background reasoning, moving through his thoughts regarding life in the universe (he feels Earth contains the only existing life - I disagree), the meaning of our existence (we are are universe knowing itself - an idea I've always have been attracted to) and Earth's battle to contain the heat threat via its Gaian systems, something humanity is fast despoiling, which could be the end point of the Anthropocene I feel, although Lovelock begs to differ. According to Lovelock cybernetic life will, rather than destroying us, want to work with us in order to keep Gaia from overheating, an outcome he reasons would be just as bad for them as it would be for us.

Lovelock's thought processes and theories are fascinating and logically extrapolated. Lovelock genuinely believes that humanity will be the creators and midwives of cybernetic life which will exist on such a superior plane to us that we will be regarded in the same way that we regard house-plants. Such notions have been well explored by others, that AI's processes will take place at such accelerated levels that we will be more than redundant, however Lovelock's assertion that cybernetic AIs will want to keep us around goes against many accepted (pessimistic) theories on the subject, but his reasoning on this subject appears fairly sound and persuasive, although I don't agree with everything. Since Novacene was published we've seen the emergence of ChatGP and other such (for the moment) primitive AI systems. They are crunching information at frightening rates and interacting with humans in a sophisticated manner, however they are still not real AI, not conscious, self aware entities (that Lovelock pictures as spheres). Within this current context Novacene is a fascinating book and should be read by anyone interested in AI or the future of humanity. Along the way we also learn that Lovelock inadvertently held Stephen Hawking in his arms as a baby, was an advocate for nuclear power, but also that he was an extremely moral human, whose contribution to humanity was profoundly significant. Lovelock lived to be 103, but not long enough to see his Gaian Theory become accepted, nor to see humanity come to grips with human-caused climate change, but I hope he is correct about AI needing us around. Perhaps among the intractable problems that AI could help solve is the best and fastest way to terraform Mars, a planet Lovelock describes are totally inhospitable to life and a pipe dream for humanity. Then we would have the insurance of two homes. Although I hold no optimistic hope for humanity, you never know, maybe our future spherical AI overlords will really help us out.

This review is dedicated to my friend Eileen Bogart, who enthusiastically attended my library based book clubs and engaged with me with genuine warmth. Novacene was one of the many books she gifted to me before she passed a few months ago. I'll always remember you fondly Eileen, you were both interesting and interested, a quality not always found that readily among humans.

Tuesday 5 December 2023

Other People: A Mystery Story - Martin Amis (1981)


Rating: Excellent

Other People is the fourth novel published by Martin Amis and was the first after he had quit journalism to become a full time writer. It certainly shows, as the novel is a significant step up from the prior three, as good as they were. This is serious literary fiction, featuring particuarly dark themes, a unique narrative structure and surreal perspective that tests the readers' abilities. J.G.Ballard described the novel as a metaphysical thriller, which is an apt description. The narrative's main protagonist is Mary Lamb, an amnesiac whose memory is so far gone that she doesn't even know what people, clouds, cars and other such ordinary phenomena are. We are given the impression that she's received some sort of medical treatment and has been released back into the community without much thought of the consequences. Mary's subsequent adventures involve becoming mixed up some with dubious individuals, such as alcoholics and criminals. The quality of character building is such that you feel genuinely concerned about what might happen to Mary, a concern that becomes wrapped up in the mystery of what has happened to her and why. There is also a second narrator who seems to know the answers to these questions, but is not letting on. This narrator interjects every so often to comment on what's happening to Mary, who as the novel progresses manages to attract misogynistic trouble wherever she goes, including being sexually harassed and obsessed over by various men. Mary is very attractive, and she slowly realises the power of this fact as she finds out more about who she really is, encouraged by the mysterious character of a policeman named Prince, who turns out to be an important character with nebulous motivations.

I say, old chap, what the fuck is Other People about?

Other People reads like a David Lynch narrative, with a disturbing dark mystery at its heart and a plot that seems to twist in on itself with little regard for the reader. I had to think long and hard about just what was going on and ended up looking online for answers; if you really want to know, here's a great cogent synopsis. The writing is absolutely superb, featuring a narrative voice that could only be that of Amis. His turn of phrase is uniquely suffused with irony and dark amusement. Within a plot that is like a möbius strip, Mary's amnesia becomes a great device for Amis to render the world as bizarre and alien. Via this device the world is revealed be a darkly surreal realm inhabited by deeply flawed, dysfunctional and, on the whole, dangerous humans. Mary, like Little Red Riding Hood, ventures forth into danger with apparent innocence, until she discovers the power of who she really is. The ending is mysterious, intense and ultimately satisfying, even though it is difficult to fully understand. A deep think about what has gone on in the novel and the nature of Mary's predicament is called for, but even then, like David Lynch's best films, it is a slippery thing to contend with. Other People is a strange little beast of a novel, it's both realism in terms of its social satire, but also surreal in its metaphysical themes and overall structure. It's an easy novel to admire and as various critics have duly noted over the years, it is undoubtably where Amis really hit his straps. Now, onto Money (1984), eventually, that is... 

Friday 1 December 2023

God is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything - Christopher Hitchens (2007)


Rating: Admirable

For a long time I avoided reading any of the works published by well known atheists (personally I'm in a position beyond atheism, but more on that later), such as Richard Dawkins, but having never read any of Hitchen's work, and knowing that he copped a great deal of heat for his atheistic views over the years, I thought I would find out just how against the notion of god he was. Turns out he was quite extreme in his atheistic views and God is not Great is an all out attack on organised monotheistic religion (eastern religions also come in for some flack as well). Some of the chapter headings certainly make his position clear, such as 'Religion Kills', 'The Metaphysical Claims of Religion are False' and 'Is Religion Child Abuse?' His argument style is forceful, compelling, but not always to the point. Hitchens frequently labours his arguments, but on the whole he hits home with quite devastating critiques of core religious notions, such as that humans need religion in order to lead moral lives. His takedown of the ten commandments is something to behold, arguing that some of the commandments actually existed to encourage bloodletting and racist behaviour (in particular within the context of the historical tribal origin of said commandments). Hitchens explores many of the inherent contradictions and problems found within religious belief - bigotry, homophobia, hostility toward scientific progress, misogyny, coercion, in particular toward children, and its righteousness and intolerance toward other modes of thought and ways of living. At one point he argues at length that monotheistic religion has a close affinity with totalitarianism, making some salient points to support his controversial thesis. If I were religious I'd find the book to be a direct attack on my very being, fortunately I'm not, so I quite enjoyed it.

Proof that god does not exist.

God is not Great is not without its flaws however. Although Hitchens does, at times, show some levity toward the more reasonable aspects of religion, he does, on the whole, focus on its extremes; righteous evangelism, war in the name of god, targeting of homosexuals and so on. Although I'm a long time atheist I can see that religion has done some good for humanity (the bad far outweighs the good however). Hitchens also comes across as a true essayist, rather than an academic, blending opinion and facts (some of which are potentially incorrect - although many of the critics pointing this out wrote for religious journals it seems); he very much writes with his own voice, for better or worse. This sometimes involves coming across as arrogant or pompous, in particular when he uses overly emotive insults when describing certain people, referring to them as 'ludicrous mammals', 'pathetic' or 'absurd'. Hitchens is unrestrained in his distain, which is understandable, but it can come across as unnecessarily strident at times. Still, these are minor quibbles, and God is not Great stands as a decisive lancing of the purulent boil of monotheism, done in the most painful way imaginable. As for me? Well, about four years ago I went from being an atheist to embracing existential nihilism and have been much happier ever since. Essentially not only do I believe that humanity has no viable future, but also that humans have no inherent worth, if we became totally extinct it just wouldn't matter at all, the universe would not care. It's very freeing and I advise it for any free-thinking individual. It doesn't mean that you don't care about people, life, or being fulfilled, it just means that if it all ends, then what of it? I'm sure Hitchens would have approved had he lived, however both he and his close friend, Martin Amis, have died, two of the greatest godless literary buddies in history. RIP, but not in heaven or hell...

Proof that god does exist?

Sunday 26 November 2023

The Goldfinch - Donna Tartt (2013)


Rating: Sublime

Donna Tartt is due to publish another novel, there's been ten years between each of them, her time well spent meticulously constructing each one. I hope she follows her modus operandi now I've finally read The Goldfinch, I'm all out of literary masterpieces to read and she owes us another. Is the novel really that good however? After some initial doubts, that dissipated after about one hundred pages in, I looked on the net for how it had been received initially to find that opinions were split between the novel being lauded and awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 2014 and demonised as a glorified YA novel, with one critic from The New Yorker regarding it as representing the "infantilisation of our literary culture." He goes on to reference the horror of adults reading Harry Potter novels, which is an interesting critical barb considering that the novel's main protagonist, Theo Decker, is referred to as 'Potter' by his friend Boris, a Ukrainian juvenile-delinquent who is bursting with dark energy. I find such criticism curious, did the critic forget about, for example, American canonical novels such as J. D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye (1951), with its dysfunctional teenage protagonist, Holden Caulfield, and going back further in literary time, Mark Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884). Both novels used youthful viewpoints to critique the adult world. Often significant novels need some time to be truly recognised for what they are. Regardless of what some critics thought, The Goldfinch is brilliant modern realism, vivid and exquisitely detailed, Tartt's descriptive abilities are superb, her prose beautiful, her turn of phrase breathtaking.  The world she builds is one to get completely lost in. Although the novel is long (864 pages), it appears, like a Tardis, even larger on the inside, it's a total literary marvel. 

The Goldfinch - Carel Fabritius (1654)

The Goldfinch begins with a thirteen-year-old Decker losing his mother in a terrorist attack that targets the art gallery they have visited in New York. Decker leaves the resultant wreckage with his life and the Goldfinch painting in his backpack. It becomes both a treasure beyond its artistic value and a burden. The novel follows Decker's life in the aftermath of the attack. Such is the brilliance of Tartt's prose you are right there with him through it all. One of the novel's strengths is the utter believability of the characters lives, you get to know them as if they are people you have personally met. This is why, despite the novel's obsession with detail and sometimes slow pace, the narrative has such a powerful pull. At one point, long after Decker had been taken to suburban Vegas by his dysfunctional father, where he meets Boris, I wondered when this part was going to end. There's page after page spent in the sun-blasted days and insular nights of the Vegas suburban desert, getting wasted on booze and weed and whatever else Theo and Boris can get their hands on, that it borders on tedium (this is hard-core realism after all), but then much later in the novel Decker is thinking about that time and you feel a sense of nostalgia that's profound, as if you've lived it yourself. I even began to think about that part of the narrative during times when I wasn't reading the novel, as if I'd lived it. The Goldfinch is epic, contains genius level prose, and is utterly intense and believable. You care so much about what may happen to the characters the tension becomes almost unbearable. There is, however, a feeling that The Goldfinch is not for every reader. Some will perhaps become bored, or daunted by its epic length, glacial pace and psychological intensity, but it's worth attempting and persevering with, even if there's doubt there; its one on the greatest novels I've read and I can tell you absolutely that it is well worth the ride.

Tuesday 24 October 2023

Wolf Land - Jonathan Janz (2015)


Rating: Admirable

I've been fascinated by werewolves since childhood. Despite watching most of the modern-day werewolf movies made since the 1980s I've never read any werewolf horror, in fact Wolf Land is the first horror novel I've read since I was a teenager in the 1980s. Horror is not really my thing, but in the spirit of branching out I grabbed a copy of Wolf Land when it was discarded by my library. I have to say that I was pleasantly surprised, as Wolf Land is a well written decent into gruesome and gory werewolf mayhem. The novel is nicely set up with the introduction of the principle protagonists who are on their way to a bonfire party prior to a ten-year school reunion. We meet Duane (nicknamed Short-Pump), Savannah, Glen, Mike and the loser of the group, Weezer. They all have their issues, regrets and angsts, mostly around relationships, but for Mike, the big-time baseball player who went off to the big leagues and failed, there's bigger regrets, but that all pales into insignificance when a weird guy turns up to the bonfire and transforms into a werewolf, an impressive one at that. The ensuing carnage is entertaining and ticks all of the werewolf thrill requirements.

Janz handles the balance between character development and horror action well, by the time of the first attacks you feel like you know enough about the characters to care about them before they either die or become horribly injured. The actual horror elements are intense, detailed and gory, but there is enough well played out psychological exploration of the characters in the aftermath of the initial attack to make things more interesting. Some of them, of course, are destined to become werewolves themselves and the way this plays out differently among the group of friends is engaging and satisfying. There are some intense transformation and attack scenes that would satisfy any werewolf fans and the werewolves themselves are massive creatures. Also the usual theme of werewolf origin is handled without too much cliche and enough variation to create something new. However I'm marking the novel down a bit for two reasons, firstly one of the female characters, Joyce, is a librarian, but is a bit of a cliche, she's inhibited, a bit plain and does her research, hmmm. The second is that when things really get going in the latter third of the novel the carnage is unrelenting, getting more and more extreme. No doubt horror fans love and demand this level of gory action, but after a while it becomes a bit cartoonish and loses some of its impact, there's only so many times you can cringe at another eye being gouged or scenes of slaughter with intestines and heads everywhere. Still, Wolf Land was a fun ride and great holiday reading.

Monday 23 October 2023

The Hand-Reared Boy - Brian Aldiss (1970)


Rating: Excellent

The Hand-Reared Boy was given to me by a close friend with the words - 'This is filthy, you must read it!' It is, indeed, filthy, but also a fascinating examination of what it was like to be young and sexually experimenting in the 1930's. It is also written in a readable, yet never trite style, which I'm sure helped the novel to be retrospectively nominated for the Lost Booker Prize for 1970 in 2010, although it was not short-listed. The novel follows Horatio Stubbs from childhood and into his late teens, chronicling his sexual experiences with, wait for it, himself, his brother and sister, the family maid, girls of his own age and a little older, boys of his own age and then an older woman at his boarding school just before the outbreak of WWII. It is an unrelenting cavalcade of sex, I'm not even sure that everything I just referenced is an exhaustive account. There's plenty of masturbation, both solitary and mutual (hence the novel's title), but then as Horatio gets a bit older and meets Sister Virginia Traven, who works at the boarding school he attends, he is initiated into the adult games of sexual pleasure, and then to its eventual darker aspects.

Aldiss, a very naughty boy?

The Hand-Reared Boy is certainly no Helliconia Trilogy and would come as a surprise to fans of Aldiss's fine science fiction. There's not much information to be found online, in fact there isn't even a Wikipedia entry for the novel. Apparently it is based on Aldiss's own childhood experiences, which somewhat goes against his appearance as a fairly strait-laced looking English gentleman. The novel is the first part of a trilogy, based on his experiences in the army during WWII, A Soldier Erect emerged in 1972, followed by A Rude Awakening in 1978. Despite the sexual nature of The Hand-Reared Boy, it should be taken as a serious account of growing up and exploring burgeoning desires. My only real worry is regarding the part of the novel set in Horatio's public boarding school, during which the boys basically experimented on each other sexually in the most caviler way. Was it really like that I wonder? Were English public school boys really at it most nights in each other's beds? If so there would have been a lot of visits to the nurse for RSI injuries!   

Saturday 7 October 2023

Success - Martin Amis (1978)


Rating: Excellent

As every literature lover should know, Martin Amis passed away in May of this year. It came as very bad news indeed, as Amis certainly was one of the best and most interesting writers in the English language of the last fifty years or so. Success was his third novel and is stylistically in the same vein as his first two novels, The Rachel Papers (1973) and Dead Babies (1975). Amis once described Dead Babies as a 'young persons' novel and initially Success reads as though it could fit that description as well, however it ultimately manifests as representing something more; it does not seem to be trying as hard to impress and its grotesqueries are dialled down marginally. There are some typical Amis tropes here however, men named Keith, class snobbery, grotesque sex and lots of drinking; the tone is satirical, witty and biting, featuring dozens of brilliant sentences that pop off the page, but there's also more emotional connection and character depth. Brothers Terence Service and Gregory Riding share a flat in London. They have an interesting history, as Terence was adopted by Gregory's eccentric father when he read about Terence's tragic background. Terence's adopted family are wealthy, as in old-school wealth and Gregory certainly acts the part, with the interaction between the two allowing for some satirical skewering of class conscious England. 

Success has a clever structure, covering a whole year from January to December. Each month is divided into a chapter and within each chapter there are two sections, one each from the perspective of Terence and Gregory. Gregory boasts about his successful life, his money, his cushy job, his good looks, his sex life, you name it, he's the man. Gregory comes across as insecure, a mess, poorly dressed, a loser with the ladies and only just holding on after his traumatic and weird upbringing. Amis completely nails each character, although neither of them come across as the finest of humanity, you can't help but get drawn in to their world view and the little hints they both give about what is really going on. All, of course, is not what it seems, and as the novel progresses the reality of the situation becomes clearer and the notion of success begins to shift. During the course of the novel we are also introduced to the brothers' sister, Ursula, and through their interactions with her we begin to get a real idea of just how on the nose everything is. Success is such an enjoyable novel and although the perception is that Amis's work would go on to mature in terms of thematic heft and writing quality, there's nothing wrong with his early work based on the evidence of his first three novels. Now, onto Other People (1981), a book The Guardian's John Self refers to as Amis's 'first good one,' but surely that was The Rachel Papers, a book I love and want to read again, such was its irresistible qualities.

Wednesday 4 October 2023

Old God's Time - Sebastian Barry (2023)


Rating: Admirable

There's two ways to look at Sebastian Barry's novel, Old God's Time. The first is a reaction that goes something like this: okay, so this seems like a typical Irish novel, allusive, subjective, but above all, bleak, unrelentingly bleak; however, with some humour emerging through the murk of suffering. Tom Kettle, a retired Irish policeman, is attempting to settle into a quiet old age, when two young policemen knock on his door asking him for help with a cold case about a murdered priest. By this early stage we've witnessed Kettle resist suicidal urges (in fact, one of the humorous parts) and rummage through his memories and thought processes. It's all very depressing, the weather is grey, rainy, overcast. The prose style is claustrophobic, written in close third person, which gives the reader an intimate view of proceedings via Kettle's often hazy and impressionistic point of view. And still, it's depressing, dark and grim. You ask yourself, why am I reading this? Do I really need to read something this grim? This novel is rough medicine, it's no way to feel good, this novel. I wanted to give it up, but somehow I kept on going, I don't like to give up on books. Old God's Time did not beat me, although it made me depressed for the duration.

The second way of looking at Old God's Time, meaning 'a period beyond memory,' is that it is a typical Irish novel, deeply profound, bleak, yes, but also humorous, and above all extremely well written. Barry's prose is a masterclass of both emotional depth and insight. The close third person prose style allows an intimate perspective of a broken man who has, nonetheless, endured. Although Kettle is certainly an unreliable narrator, the cold case that the young policemen come to Kettle about is a brilliant way of exploring his past, with his wife and two children living with trauma associated with institutional abuse. Ireland's dark past is laid open for tough examination and Barry presents the facts in tragic detail, giving the reader profound insight into the terrible abuses meted out by Catholic priests. Old God's Time is a quality novel and is important, as the world needs to know what went on at the hands of priests who had the trust of the community and, supposedly, acted on behalf of God. Now, where do I sit regarding Old God's Time? I fall somewhere inbetween. I didn't have the energy to read such a serious and bleak novel and it didn't draw me in like excellent novels often do. Despite my initial misgivings, objectively it really is an excellent novel, but I've marked it down to admirable. The novel really is much better than that, but it's just a matter of subjectivity really. Recommended for book clubs due to the style of the writing and the seriousness of the themes; my book club members loved it and the discussion was very satisfying.

Thursday 28 September 2023

Madouc: Lyonesse III - Jack Vance (1989)


Rating: Excellent

Madouc won the World Fantasy Award for best novel in 1990, and deservedly so, as it is, overall, a pleasing novel. The third in the Lyonesse trilogy, it has the job of resolving the multitude of narrative threads raised in the the first two - Suldren's Garden (1983) and The Green Pearl (1985). Madouc, unsurprisingly, explores what happened to Madouc, the mysterious fairy child mischievously switched for the human baby, Dhrun. Once again, the fate of the Elder Isles hangs in the balance, both in terms of the magical activities of evil wizard Tamurello, imprisoned at the end of the last novel, and King Casmir, forever plotting for control over the Elder Isles. The world building is particularly rich, and Vance's prose style is lucidly descriptive, without being too convoluted, which is also a hallmark of the trilogy and Vance's work in general. 

Jack Vance, future sailor

Despite the qualities of Madouc, there are some flaws, in particular there is too much narrative space given to Madouc while she grows up in Lyonesse Town under the watchful eye of King Casmir. The fact that she is a difficult child and disobeys her elders is shown again and again in multiple ways, some more entertaining than others, however it becomes a bit tedious after a while. Madouc does develop as a character, but far more interesting is her encounters with her fairy mother, Twisk and then the fairy realm within Tantravalles forest, where the fairy king gives another entertaining turn. Also the adventures that follow, where she seeks the holy grail, is far more entertaining than her merely being a truculent child. Shimrod, the wizard, is underused in this novel compared to the first two, however he is still an entertaining presence. Ultimately, Madouc, although excellent, suffers what most third parts of trilogies suffer from, overfamiliarity and therefore a sense that it is not quite as good and what came before. Nonetheless, Lyonesse is a quality fantasy trilogy and well worth reading for Vance's quality prose, engaging characters and vivid imagination. Jack Vance really was one of those brilliant writers who, despite churning out novels, kept to a high standard. He really should be more heralded for both his science fiction and fantasy.

Monday 7 August 2023

The Picture of Dorian Gray - Oscar Wilde (1890)


Rating: Excellent

This is the second time I've read The Picture of Dorian Gray. The first was at university for a unit called 'Ideas of Modernity', and the novel greatly impressed the twenty-three-year-old me. Reading it again after twenty years, this time for the library book club, is a different experience. Wilde's only novel is brilliant. Most people interested in culture and literature know the story, but to read it is a different thing altogether. Wilde's descriptive abilities were exceptional, one only needs to read the opening chapters, which sets the scene in the house and garden of artist Basil Hallward, with the summer garden through the open French doors redolent of flower scents and opulent foliage. It's here where Dorian meets Lord Henry Wotton and wishes that he could stay as young as his portrait Hallward is applying some finishing touches to. Lord Henry holds forth with endless epigrams of the kind that Wilde made famous during his short and tragic life. The Picture of Dorian Gray is structured beautifully, with its plot flowing along with a modern sense of economy and vim. It is still a wonder to read, to admire Wilde's beautiful writing and skilful execution of a story that dovetails towards its memorable gothic conclusion.

The reason why it was a different experience after twenty years is partly due to the fact that I do not remember being so aware of the novel's racist and misogynistic content. The description of the Jewish theatre owner that Dorian encounters when he attends a shabby theatre to witness Sybil Vane for the first time, with whom he falls in love, is outrageously racist. Lord Henry talks about his wife and women in general with disdain, in a witty manner, of course, that makes his upper-class chums chortle. A member of the library book club voiced the opinion that the novel should be, to paraphrase, left in the dustbin of history as an example of past damaging attitudes. Such thoughts are indicative of the current reactionary practice of altering or banning narratives from the past that do not fit into our culture of moralistic self awareness. Firstly, it is a mistake to ascribe words and attitude of characters to that of the author, unless the author has displayed such attitudes in interviews or autobiographical writings. As far as I can ascertain Wilde was not a racist, nor a misogynist. Wilde, however, would have been well aware of the attitudes of the upper classes and the novel reflects those attitudes. Novels like The Picture of Dorian Gray are immensely valuable in showing us what the past was like and telling us how far we've come, or, indeed, how far we've slipped back. They shouldn't be censored or wilfully misunderstood. Wilde's novel is also prescient of the extreme narcissistic culture of our times and, in Dorian, presents a forerunner of celebrity culture that has dominated for decades. Perhaps some of the multitudes of Dorian Grays who exist online in their all narcissistic glory, forever young and forever influencing, should read the novel, it may well be a mirror that reveals their tormented souls.

Sunday 16 July 2023

15 million Degrees: A Journey to the Centre of the Sun - Professor Lucie Green (2016)


Rating: Excellent

Without gravity there would be no solid matter in the universe, just energy and particles floating around, and without stars there would be nothing but hydrogen, helium and lithium, elements formed shortly after the Big Bang. Many of the heavy elements we find in the universe today are forged within stars like our sun, Sol. I've always regarded stars with some fascination, they are the alchemists of the universe and, in the case of Sol, the source of the energy that life has needed to evolve and flourish on Earth. Really, if humans really must have gods, its the creative forges that are the stars. 15 Million Degrees is a thorough overview of everything you need to know about our Sun and more, including the pioneer scientists who slowly built knowledge about Sol, not just in the core where fusion occurs, but also in the other layers of the Sun, all of which have their own characteristics and complexities. Without going into detail (it would be best to read this book), the Sun is an extremely complex object with features such as the photosphere, the corona, the heliosphere and the magnetosphere. There's convection zones, sunspots, plasma, the radiation zone, and my favourite, the flux ropes, which are magnetic field lines that have been twisted by the intense movements of the Sun's rotation, trapping the plasma and taking it on a wild ride. 

Just some of the Sun's structural features

Professor Green is an engaging writer, conveying not only her own enthusiasm and research about Sol, but also everything that is known about the Sun and what is theorised but not proven as yet. The chapter about sunspots is particularly fascinating. Sunspots can be readily observed and it turns out that they reveal a great deal about how the Sun functions, including the Sun's eleven year cycle of activity and how it behaves magnetically. There are many facts about the Sun that would astound the average person, for example, the heliosphere helps to shield the Earth from interstellar radiation, which would otherwise damage DNA and possibly make life untenable; essentially we live inside the atmosphere of the Sun. Coranal mass ejections are another incredible phenomenon, as the Sun's magnetic forces eject mass equivalent to that of Mt Everest from the surface of the Sun and into the solar system. Known as space weather, such phenomena can have profound effects on Earth and if one should directly interact with Earth at this point in history, then most of our electronic equipment would suddenly cease to function, fortunately temporarily, but with great cost to the economy. My only real criticism of 15 Million Degrees is that there could have been more photos and plates throughout, in particular a better map of the different parts of the Sun for easy reference. Otherwise this is an absorbing and illuminating read, no pun intended, but you get it anyway.

Monday 26 June 2023

Blue Mars - Kim Stanley Robinson (1996)


Rating: Excellent

Blue Mars continues the epic story of humanity colonising and terraforming the planet Mars, but in being the conclusion of the trilogy it has some inherent differences to the first two, Red Mars (1992) and Green Mars (1993). Perhaps the biggest difference is that Blue Mars features fewer singular events, rather, the focus is more evenly spread across political, scientific and geological themes as the planet has become much more dominated by water, along with a terraformed habitable climate. Blue Mars is much more of a travelogue than the first two books, taking the reader back to Earth, which is beset with environmental problems, and across most of the major areas of Mars, in particular the northern ocean, now teeming with life. On Mars the changed landscape is seen through the eyes of many of the remaining first hundred, but also some new characters, such as Zo, a young arrogant woman who embodies the hubris of new generations who are free of Earth's influence and high on the possibility of living for centuries due to further refinements to the longevity treatments invented on Mars by scientists from the first hundred. The clash between generations, between political movements and the demands of an ailing Earth drive the tensions that play out across the novel. As usual Robinson handles weighty themes and significant plot developments with aplomb. It's epic in scope, yet Robinson's detailed and highly descriptive prose style is as dense as ever, which all makes for an absorbing read.

I particularly enjoyed the sections in which the character Sax Russel features (in fact he is one of my all time favourite characters in science fiction). Sax is one of the first hundred and was behind the push to terraform Mars. His scientific perspective and philosophical musings regarding the clash between the terraforming of Mars and the 'Red Mars' movement's aim to preserve as much of Mars primal state as possible, are endlessly fascinating. Sax gives voice to Robinson's thoughts about science and philosophy, which, across all three novels, is a recurring theme. In Blue Mars this includes the notion as to whether geographical places have rights. Do rocks and geological formations have some kind of consciousness and do they have the right to remain 'unchanged', and what is 'unchanged' in any case? Sax slowly comes around to Ann Clayborne's views about keeping Mars as red as possible, although much of his terraforming work has born fruit. Also fascinating is the exploration of not just the physiological effects, but also the psychological effects of living for a very long time. As the remainder of the first hundred succumb to side effects of living so long, Sax makes up his mind to do something about it, and the resulting treatment and aftermath is one of the highlights of the novel, bringing together all of the remaining first hundred for a nostalgic send-off. Humanity is also branching out to other parts of the solar system and beyond, which is explored in a speculative, yet very convincing way by Robinson. The ending has a satisfying emotional impact and wraps up what really is one of the great trilogies in modern science fiction. Once again, perhaps stay away if you mostly enjoy space operas or soft science fiction, but for those who love hard science fiction, the Mars trilogy is highly recommended.

Friday 26 May 2023

The Sirens Sing - Kristel Thornell (2022)


Rating: Admirable

The Sirens Sing is a novel in two parts, beginning in the locality of Blackheath in the Blue Mountains, west of Sydney, between 1991-93. The second section is set in the 1960s – 1970s, in Sydney’s west. The two sections are connected by two characters, Jan and her son David. David features as a teenager in the first section and in the second section we see Jan’s life as a young adult grappling with growing up during times of generational and political change. The first section is the strongest, with well written relatable teenage characters who are on the cusp of leaving high-school and venturing into the adult world. David and Heather are two awkward teens who don’t really fit in, but they find each other and begin what could be a great friendship and romance. Heather’s friend, the troubled Robbie, is a budding artist. The three enter the orbit of an Italian language teacher, Ada, and by the end things end up going off the rails quite tragically. Thornell evokes a strong sense of place with considerable skill, which adds to the effectiveness of the first section.

Unfortunately, the second section is where things go awry. After genuinely connecting with the characters in the first section we are taken completely away from them and, apart from some hints about what happened after, the reader is left to wonder. Jan, although otherwise nicely fleshed out, is weakened as a character due to Thornell’s tendency to overemphasise her lack of confidence and self-consciousness about her upbringing. Jan gets drawn into a friendship with with a fellow student, Alicia, meeting her at university during an awkward interaction with a snobby male student. Alicia lives with her hippy poet older boyfriend and they have a polyamorous lifestyle. Jan and her partner fit awkwardly into this bohemian world and then, you guessed it, due to a series of events things end up going tragically wrong. There’s plenty of juicy themes throughout the novel – class, relationships, politics and repression, however a few key flaws weaken their effectiveness. The impact of some key scenes are weakened by nebulous descriptions, in particular during the climax of the second section, which needs to be read several times to work out exactly what’s going on. The fact that the two sections are not chronologically linked is unfortunate, as it breaks up the generational links between the characters and their circumstances. Such criticisms were shared by most of the thirty book club members who came to the sessions to discuss The Sirens Sing. They really wanted to rate the novel higher, but were frustrated by its flaws, which tended to overshadow its attributes. I've rated the novel as Admirable, but it came close to a Mediocre rating, saved by the fact that I’ve read novels far more flawed than this contemporary Australian novel.

Saturday 6 May 2023

The Flaming Cow: The Making of Pink Floyd's Atom Heart Mother - Ron Geesin (2021)


Rating: Excellent

I'm a big fan of Pink Floyd and recently I've been listening to them once again, getting my prog fix in a serious way. I replaced some of my second hand copies of their albums, including Atom Heart Mother (1970). I hadn't listened to it for quite a while, but when I did something special happened, I heard it in a new way that resonated with me deeply. Since then I dug out my Early Years: 1965-72 (2016) box set, which contains many different live and early versions of Atom Heart Mother, some of which are referenced in The Flaming Cow. As Geesin, a Scottish musician and composer, points out, when we talk about Atom Heart Mother we talk about the track itself, which takes up all of the first side of the album it is named after. Geesin was brought in by the band to help them finish and embellish an early bare-bones version and had him write and arrange new parts, which included brass and a choir. In the end there was some unhappiness about the way in which Geesin was credited, which is alluded to by Geesin in this book and also by Nick Mason, who has written a forward, mentioning how he had to contend with the notion that he and his colleagues may have behaved in "...a less than saintly way." In the years after the album was released the band ceased playing Atom Heart Mother and then both Water and Gilmour publicly disparaged the track, referring to it as an artistic low, which is a pity, because it is a unique work with qualities that become apparent the more you listen.

Geesin, back in the day

The Flaming Cow gives you some background of Geesin's life and work, a chronological overview of how the collaboration came about, the making of the track and the aftermath. Geesin's recollections are thorough and detailed, but it is a pity that, apart from Mason's forward, there are no contributions from the other band-members, despite being invited to do so. Therefore everything comes from Geesin's point of view, which is really only part of the story. This means that details about the actual making of the track, before Geesin was invited to contribute, is a bit sketchy. As I read through these sections I couldn't help but wish that Pink Floyd had contributed, but then, to be fair, this is Geesin's story and what an eccentric story it is. Geesin's writing style is witty, erudite and, at times, gnostic. I had to re-read some passages for a second time to make sure I was understanding what he was saying, although most of the rest is clearly written. Geesin is certainly a creative fellow and you can't help but admire his dedication to Atom Heart Mother, both the music and the story. There's also many fine and rare photos, most of which I've never seen before. It seems that, despite Pink Floyd's dismissive attitude, the work has enjoyed a rich afterlife, sought out by performers and listeners alike. After all, it was the band's first number one album and a significant portion of fans would hold it close to their prog-loving bosoms. People who are already fans of the album should seek out The Flaming Cow for its unique perspective from one of its creators, for others its subject matter would be esoteric and obscure, therefore if you are interested listen to the album first and really get to know it. You may or may not love it, depending on your musical bent, but I thoroughly recommend it.

Floyd at work - one of many rare photos

Sunday 23 April 2023

Far from the Madding Crowd - Thomas Hardy (1874)


Rating: Excellent

What does a Victorian era classic novel have in common with the fantasy genre? Not much really you'd think, however it occurred to me half way through Far from the Madding Crowd that trying to adapt to Hardy's Victorian era prose style, with its particular turn of phrase and anachronistic words; is like trying to adapt to all the esoteric character and place names used in fantasy novels. Hardy even sets the novel in a semi-fictional literary landscape called Wessex (which once did exist during medieval times), with lush rolling hills, sun dappled forests and dramatic coastal cliffs, which all sounds very Tolkienesque. It is an exotic novel when viewed from this point in history, as Hardy's beautiful and complex prose style was already out of fashion before his death in 1929, thanks the the generation of Modernist writers that emerged during the immediate post Victorian era. Yet once you get used to Hardy's style the novel becomes a total pleasure to read. Although some (Goodreads) reader descriptions of the novel focus on sheep, sheep, some more sheep, and some romance, there is much more on offer for the dedicated reader; the plot itself is absorbing and although the novel can be heavy-going at times, there's always something that comes along that piques your interest and keeps you reading.

Essentially, Far from the Madding Crowd is a romance involving the independent and feisty Bathsheba Everdene, the young and irrepressible (and irresponsible) Sergeant Troy, the middle-aged stick-in-the mud William Boldwood and finally the stoic and quite shepherd, Gabriel Oak. The interplay between these four characters plays out across the novel, which was originally serialised, as a slow-burn of romantic desire both actualised and repressed, but mostly the latter, this being Victorian literature. Things do get rather intense towards the end, involving a macabre scene with a coffin, some Gothic overtones, farce at a travelling circus, manslaughter and more romance, once again, both repressed and actualised. In the Victorian era this was seen as sensationalist literature, designed to both outrage and to spur the reader on; whilst there's no outrage to be had for the modern reader, there is certainly a great deal of spurring on. My library book club really loved this novel, winning the approval of about thirty people, so despite the best efforts of the Modernists, the varying literary experiments and trends of the twentieth century and beyond, Hardy can still pack a literary punch. Recommended as a gateway to classic nineteenth century literature, easier than the Russians, less prosaic than George Eliot and less gothically florid than the Brontes.

Sunday 26 March 2023

ABBA: The Official Photo Book - Jan Gradvall et al. (2014)


Rating: Excellent

"Anybody could be that guy...", and indeed, I became that guy who wasn't a fan of ABBA and then suddenly became one. About five years ago a friend's partner posted a video of the band on Japanese television from the late seventies performing If it wasn't for the Nights (1979), and for some reason, even though I did like some of their well known singles, it was this track that caused me to start listening to them more seriously, and then I was hooked. It's often the case with me that I fully explore an act's discography, purchasing all of their albums and obsessing over rare songs and all the different phases. I picked up this book very cheaply at a Dymocks pop-up store for something like $20. It's an extremely good quality coffee-table book, with thick glossy paper and a stylish layout coupled with quality photographs. ABBA wrote the forward, talking about how they loved the time they had in the band and that many of the photo's they hadn't seen before. As with everything ABBA, it's very heartfelt.

Fun in Sweden!

The band's history is laid out chronologically, from before they became ABBA, all their albums and tours and then the aftermath of the beginning of their hiatus in 1982. Due to the date of publication it does not include the totally unexpected comeback album and virtual live show of recent years. The text is relatively minimal, but is well written and contains many anecdotes and obscure facts about the band and their work. Where the book really shines is with the hundreds of fantastic photos, many of which show them in their homes and behind the scenes. If you are an ABBA fan then this book is essential just for the photographs alone (600 of them!). Looking at the photos I'm reminded of something that occurred to me as I explored their particular brand of pop music, that they didn't care at all about being cool. They were totally themselves and sometimes they looked right on, and other times they looked completely daggy. A similar thing can be said about their music, but the daggy songs are just as good as the exulted ones, simply because they were being ABBA. That's what this book is, totally ABBA.

Early on

Saturday 18 March 2023

Ubik - Philip K. Dick (1969)


Rating: Admirable

Warning: this rather lazy review contains something close to a spoiler, but if you are already familiar with Dick's work, then read on with impunity...

I've been a Dickhead for a long time, a Dickhead among many, and as we Dickheads know Ubik is one of his more revered novels. Having read most of his significant novels, such as A Scanner Darkly (1977) and Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said (1974), strangely I have long overlooked Ubik. For a newbie reader of Dick, Ubik would stand as a fine introduction to his work, but as an experienced Dick lover the novel is diminished by familiarity, for me, at least. Set in the early 1990's, the novel concerns a society in which telepaths and pre-cogs have emerged and they are both a menace and a solution. Glen Runciter oversees a company that provides protection for companies or individuals who are being targeted invasively by those with psychic abilities, using his own array of telepaths and pre-cogs in his employ to counteract the abilities of their own type. Also the dead, if attended to promptly, are able to be held in cryogenic suspension (half-life) and can be communicated with for advice and comfort. Oh, and humanity has colonised the Moon. So far, so typical of Philip K. Dick. Also typical are the characters, such as the 'everyman', Joe Chip, down on his luck financially (people have to pay doors in order for them to open for them), yet he is integral to the narrative. The other characters are a mostly crew of eccentric and suspicious characters trying to make their way inside a Philip K. Dick novel, which, ultimately, is unfortunate for them.

P. K. Dick, thinking about getting there first

I did enjoy Ubik, however, as mentioned above, over-familiarity did curtail my appreciation of its prime Dickheadian moments. Dick developed his narrative shtick early on and a great deal of his career as a novelist explored the same theme, that characters believe that they inhabit one very solid reality, only to find that another reality can be found beneath that seemingly solid surface. They work it out, especially Dick's everyman characters (Chip, in this case...), who are at the heart of most of his novels, but then, right at the end, there's another twist and they are trapped in multiple layers of reality, not knowing what the real one actually is. This pretty much sums up Ubik. As an experienced reader of Dick I grokked the clues early on, then it was just a matter of seeing if I was right, and I was pretty close. The cliche about Dick is that his narratives seem a lot like the reality we live in today, which is fair enough. Humans in this era seem to really want reality to be Dick-like, never trusting information or intention, always looking for conspiracy or duplicity, the layers below so-called reality. I wish that he had lived to at least see the beginnings of the World Wide Web era. I wonder whether he would have been disappointed or inspired? Either way, as the Terry Gilliam quote says on the cover of my edition, "Remember: Philip K. Dick got there first."

Sunday 26 February 2023

Beautiful You - Chuck Palahniuk (2014)


Rating: Admirable

Palahniuk is known as a transgressional author, one who takes on taboo or controversial themes in a manner that pushes their boundaries to the extreme. Beautiful You is undoubtably thematically extreme, featuring weird sex, hyper capitalism and male emasculation. Penny Harrigan is the kind of female protagonist, hyperconscious and awkward, just getting by in corporate culture, who would helm an American sit-com across ten seasons, only learning her lessons in the last season. Only this is a Palahniuk novel and Harrigan ends up in the clutches of the worlds richest man, C. Linus Maxwell, who proceeds to experiment on her with an array of sex toys of his own devising. Harrigan is literally driven to life threatening physical extremes by his ministrations. At the same time she's drawn into the world of the super-rich and the attentions Maxwell's former sexual muses, a famous actress and a woman who has become the first female president of America. This is, at least initially, all quite entertaining stuff, especially as you anticipate what Maxwell's plans will do to society, virtually making men and their ineffectual penises and clumsy techniques, obsolete.

This does indeed occur (male obsolescence) and once Harrigan is freed from Maxwell's ministrations after a set amount of time (136 days), she realises just what trouble society is in as Maxwell's new line of sex toys takes the female population by storm. Maxwell is a true evil protagonist flexing his capitalist muscle. a walking cliche, but that's part of the point. In this regard the implacable logic of how he goes about his business in this age is high capitalism, surveillance capitalism and downright exploitative capitalism, really rings true. Harrigan's attempts to rectify the situation are entertaining enough, but about two thirds of the way through what was quite a good novel, things start to become slightly ridiculous, as Palahniuk turns up the dial of extremity. Beautiful You never promised to be an example of sober realism, but where the novel eventually goes to is absurd, particularly the denouement, which involves women driven to homelessness by their sex toy habits, a shotgun wedding, a naked sex guru from Tibet and death by a fiery flying dildo. This novel is a wild ride that fills in some time on the train-ride to work, but it also leaves you feeling a bit empty, kind like impulse buying, followed by buyers regret. Fortunately I didn't buy this novel, nor any sex toys.

Sunday 19 February 2023

A Moveable Feast - Ernest Hemingway (1964)


Rating: Excellent

I haven't read Hemingway for thirty years! I'm pleased that the book club has forced my hand in this case, as it has proved to be a most enjoyable read (most of the book club members concurred). Hemingway visited Paris in 1956 and recovered some storage trunks from the Hotel Ritz. Inside the trunks he found his journals written while living in Paris in the Twenties. He then pieced together A Moveable Feast as a memoir of that period before he died in 1961. It's fascinating reading, giving an evocative impression of life in Paris during a time when many artists from England, America and Europe lived in France due to the favourable exchange rate and its reputation as an artistic hub. Yet to pen a novel, Hemingway is making a transition from journalism to short-story writing. He rubs shoulders with an amazing array of important historical figures, such as James Joyce (who does not feature greatly in the memoir), Ezra Pound (who does), Ford Madox Ford, Gertrude Stein, Wyndham Lewis and most significantly, Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald. The three chapters that feature the Fitzgeralds make for intriguing reading. Hemingway paints a picture of Fitzgerald that is both critical and flattering. Hemingway, on the other hand, makes it known that he despises Zelda, labelling her as mad and jealous of Scott Fitzgerald's writing.

Hemingway's life in Paris, and latterly for a brief period, Austria, is beautifully portrayed. The characters he interacts with are all rendered fully alive throughout. Interwar Paris was undoubtably a colourful time, but what really makes this book special is the quality and style of Hemingway's prose, something that he is still famous for (other than his apparent 'outdoors man ' machismo). His short, declarative sentences, pared back to the bone, are a pleasure to read. The fact that he talks about writing and trying to become a writer of fiction, rather than to continue as a journalist, makes reading A Moveable Feast all the more compelling. During the time that I haven't read any Hemingway, I've read some of his imitators, or at least those who were inspired by his style, such as Charles Bukowski. Finally reading him again makes me want to go right back to the Hemingway source and read some of his novels. A Movable Feast would make a fine introduction to his writing for those who have never read him, after all, it goes right back to a time when he was a struggling writer, swaying through the streets of Paris after a few too many wines, and associating with writers who had been published already. Now I truly know why Bukowski said that when he was on fire, Hemingway was simply untouchable.