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Still, to move to Australia…the distance, the cost, the reversal of day and night, summer and winter, left no room for compromise, no room for any semblance of a long-distance relationship.

Hmm, yes, I can relate.

Stephanie and I criss-crossed the world two or three times. That sentence carries associations of whimsy, spontaneity ‘ah sure let’s just hop on the ol’ plane there and fly to Austraaaliah’. The truth was the entire process made for a lot of heartache, a lot of planning, expenditure and of course, it is still not over. So I was delighted to receive this book in the post from author Christine Darcas, accompanied by a lovely note, which addressed the similarities between our situation and the plot of the book.

Hell that note might have led me to give the book a good review anyway! (Fortunately I enjoyed it regardless).

Ginny’s career in New York has just hit a large speed-bump. A personality clash with her boss meant that when a series of firings hit the office her head was on the chopping block. Add to that a problematic relationship with an ex-boyfriend who seems to relish complicating her life, when she calls an old friend in Australia and gets an invitation to visit, there really does not seem like anything is keeping her from going.

Except of course her many unresolved issues with her mother, all bound up in feelings of abandonment courtesy of a long-departed father that still affect both women. For Ginny her prematurely concluded dancing career, following rejection from an elite ballet academy as a teenager, is an event in her past that has crystallized her feelings of resentment towards her mother. Why was she encouraged to dance for so many years despite having the ‘wrong body type’?

Ginny’s friend Eloise is working in Melbourne on assignment from New York. Unlike Ginny, she is confident, professional and focused on her career. Except when the two meet, she finds her formerly unflappable friend devastated by a pregnancy scare. Ginny has left her own life in New York in a shambles and has travelled the world only to find herself involved in a new mess.

However, Australia is the new ‘land of opportunity’. There Ginny finds herself new friends and even a new romantic interest. What’s more she rediscovers her love of dance, this time choosing salsa over ballet. The possibility of a new life in Australia forces her to choose between leaving everything and everyone she knows behind and a fresh start in a place where she has no connections, or real support.

I was surprised by how much I enjoyed this book. For one I really enjoyed how the internal emotions of these characters are realized and many of them quite likable too. The loaded exchanges between Ginny and her mother feel very true to life. In fact that was what I enjoyed most about the book – the sense of ordinary realness.

Please do not understand what I mean by that phrase, I am not damning Darcas’ writing with faint praise. I feel Spinning Out does an excellent job of capturing moments in people’s lives. Tragedies occurs in small doses, but can stretch out across a lifetime. The decisions Ginny makes at each turning point have profound effects, even if at first they seem whimsical. Romance too, is not depicted as some cosy end of a narrative. In fact Darcas’ storyline covers material that other writers might stretch out into two, or three novels. Much like Stephanie and my adventures in yo-yoing across the globe, there are no easy endings.

Gentle humour and a sense of what is real combine to make a beautifully understated novel about finding your way in life.

With my thanks to the author for the review copy.

He recognized her despite the uproar, through his tears of unrepeatable sorrow at dying without her, and he looked at her for the last and final time with eyes more luminous, more grief-stricken, more grateful than she had ever seen them in half a century of a shared life, and he managed to say to her with his last breath:

“Only God knows how much I loved you.”

Today has been reported as the hottest day in Sydney for 85 years. I certainly felt it. When I set out this morning the air had been pleasantly cool. One quick deposit of previously reviewed book titles and the collection of this coming week’s novels and I was back outsde, stepping lightly on sizzling concrete.

Absolutely unbearable. While waiting for the bus I began reading Love in the Time of Cholera, a book I am sad to say I am mostly familiar with following its use as a prop in that Kate Beckinsale romcom Serendipity. I felt as if the heat simply dropped, so absorbed was I in the book’s fluid prose. Later when I retreated to my shady bedroom, with my wife curled up asleep beside me in bed, I felt like I was the luckiest man alive.

The story begins with the tragic suicide of a man who refused to grow any older once he had reached his sixtieth year. Though he does not figure in the rest of the story, a narrative that flashes back and forth across the lives of three individuals caught in a strange love triangle, this man’s refusal to grow old reflects the concerns of the novel itself. Whether love, that animating principle that sustains both generation and devotion, is possible in old age?

For fifty-one years, nine months and four days Florentino has remained passionately in love with Fermina. They met while they were both teenagers and conducted a secret affair of the heart through love letters. Florentino is given to over-romantic poetical outpourings of affection, gifts and persistent entreaties for Fermina’s love. For her part, she maintains a degree of reserve in her replies, although she is convinced that she loves him. Even after the affair is discovered, she persists in her shared attraction to the poet, until one day, having overcome many months of obstacles thrown in their path to be together, she sees him in a new light: as a pathetic looking figure, completely dependent on her reciprocation.

She rejects Florentino and instead finds herself courted by Dr. Urbino, sophisticated and possessing of wordly knowledge where her former lover was insular and consumed by an irrational infatuation. Urbino has returned from Europe with the sophistication of a true Parisian, a cultured interest in literature and modern medicine, having aided in the defeat of a devastating cholera epidemic. They marry and raise a family together, discovering an enduring domestic happiness.

Florentino fastidiously preserves his own body to remain in shape for his beloved and is incapable of writing anything but love letters in memory of the woman who rejected him – something of a hindrance when it comes to writing business letters for a shipping company. As the years pass he begins to take a series of lovers, generally widows, with whom he has clandestine relationships, never marrying, never accompanying any of them in public. As he rises up the corporate ladder rumours spread that he is in fact homosexual and with his studied vanity, unusual attention to his health and obsession with sex is seen as an odd character.

When Urbino finally dies, having fallen in an attempt to retrieve a parrot from a mango tree, Florentino presents himself to Fermina while she is still in mourning and presses his suit. Horrified she rejects him a second time, in disbelief that such an unnatural request be made while her husband sits in his coffin waiting for burial.

The death of Urbino occurs at the beginning of the novel, with the three lives of the spurned lover, wife and dead husband poured over for the rest of the book. There is a Proustian quality to the proceedings, with memory the fuel of the narrative. The frailty of the human body is ever-present. Florentino’s romantic obsession is symptomatic of cholera; the aging characters are betrayed by bodily effluvia. At one point someone declares that romantic love in youth is ridiculous – during old age, obscene.

This book remains passionately defiant and wickedly seductive till the last page. Delirious, amoral and bewitching.


One year, the girl who came to stay was the most extraordinarily beautiful creature who had ever been seen in the village. She was incredible. So many people, on walking into the pub and seeing her for the first time, would involuntarily exclaim, Jesus Christ! that she assumed this was a customary local greeting, and without thinking she started to use it herself. ‘Jesus Christ!’ she would cheerfully say, as people came in from the cold, ‘What can I get you?’

So there I was chuckling away on the couch to an early episode of The Mighty Boosh (the ‘Mod Wolves‘ one, if you are interested), when Stephanie leaned over and said ‘Don’t you have a review to write?’

How could I forget! Senility has obviously set in already.

Today’s story is set for the most part in and around a small seaside town pub known as The Anchor. It opens with three men who have spent years sharing a couple of drinks each evening, having the same conversations, peppered with the same jokes and catchphrases. Mr Puw, tall Mr Hughes and short Mr Hughes are the names they are popularly known by, although tall Mr Hughes is not all that tall and is in fact only an inch or so taller than small Mr Hughes. Mr Puw is the most cheerful of the three, enjoys making a point of smoking a pipe as most other people smoke cigarettes and has a habit of indiscriminately referring to all women of his acquaintance as ‘Thunderthighs’. The Anchor’s landlord, Mr Edwards, responds to most exchanges by saying only ‘Holy mackerel’, a phrase which can be employed in numerous contexts. Then there’s Septic Barry, the local sewage processing magnate,  who has lived on the same campsite since he ran away from home as a teenager and despite his frugal lifestyle is known for having a wide and varied lovelife.

Every year Miyuki Woodward returns to visit the town for a short holiday, renting a cottage for the duration of her stay, gorging herself on comfort food and beer and deigning to supply the answers to any questions relating to Japan when they come up in The Anchor’s pub quiz. In keeping with the offhand naming traditions of the town, she is commonly known as ‘Japanese Girl’.

The lives and loves of this small group of people are dwelt upon during the course of the novel, with Miyuki an outside observer who sits in The Anchor each evening with a novel and a pint, listening to the town gossip. Despite her outsider status she enjoys a strong feeling of fellowship with these odd characters. Over the years she has come to love the town, finding real beauty in its ordinariness. She decides to mount an art project of a sort, in an effort to share her vision of how perfect and golden the small community appears to her eyes with its inhabitants.

The novel proceeds at a leisurely pace, veering from the plot to explore comical digressions and histories on a whim. There is a bemused tone underlying the proceedings, but also a quiet sadness as well. A fateful encounter between Miyuki and tall Mr Hughes dances around the abyss of crippling depression, before side-stepping into confused conversation about blood diamonds and Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Then there’s the paradoxical figure of Septic Barry, serial seducer and sewer monger. He appears at first to be an entirely self-interested and miserly sort, but over the course of the book is revealed to feel tender concern to some of the other patrons of The Anchor.

Ultimately though Dan Rhodes has crafted a beautifully constructed tale about the fragility of life and love. It is a truly extraordinary book, capable of moving the reader to tears and laughter on a single page. I recommend following his blog for more pearls of wisdom from the man himself.

This is officially my favourite book of the new year, a romance about the love that can be felt for a place, as well as between people.

He was both veiled and exact. Selective, but not averse to giving a suggestive illustration. “Multiple killers have a thing, a way to kill effectively that they use over and over again. It’s like anything. We all do it. We use what works, and usually it’s the easy way. A killer learns on the job. He gets better at it. But he’ll do it the same each time. These two homicides were different. Different styles.”

I never really take the time to explain why I am a fan of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. To me it’s a shibboleth. You either know why, or you don’t and nothing I can say is going to help. But let’s pause for a moment. One of the things about the show that I enjoyed was how much it poked fun at the faux-romanticism of vampire culture, that obsession with vampirism as a metaphor for transgressive sex. The figure of the vampire symbolises the union between sex and death. It is recognizably human, but also monstrous, unclean and threatening. Yet despite its ‘Otherness’ (oh yes I have read many academic papers on vampires – they’re terribly amusing, you should investigate them for yourselves) the vampire is also seen as a romantic figure, sexually attractive because of its forbidden nature.

Along comes Buffy The Vampire Slayer the television series, which presumably attracted fans at least initially who were convinced on some level of the above and only for the show to rubbish that whole notion of vampires. I even recall the protagonist Buffy Summers dismissively stating: “See, this is what I hate about you vampires. Sex and death and love and pain — it’s all the same damn thing to you”.

This brings me to today’s novel, which even in the title marries sex and violence.  The protagonist Frannie complains at the story’s opening about her difficulties in teaching her English Lit. college class. Language fascinates her, the shifts and changes in local idioms. New York itself is a heaving metropolis of mutating language, such that she finds herself stopping and querying her own students on what they are trying to say. She has begun work on a dictionary of vernacular phrases, drawing attention to the number of slang words used to describe differences in race and gender, with a particular focus on female genitalia.

One evening in her local bar, she finds herself lost in the basement looking for a bathroom when she happens upon a couple performing a sex act in a secluded space. The man’s face is hidden to her, but she notices a distinctive tattoo on his wrist. He sees her, but does not interrupt his partner, allowing Frannie to watch. Embarrassed she retreats and goes home.

Later that week a detective visits her at home. A young woman has been murdered in Frannie’s neighbourhood. The description matches that of the woman she saw in the bar’s basement that evening. She keeps this to herself, for she has noticed the detective has the same tattoo on his wrist. Frannie rapidly becomes obsessed with the detective, an Irish-American divorcee whose vulgarity disguises a quick wit. With him she feels increasingly uninhibited, their relationship competitive both sexually and in their contest of wills. Has she fallen for a murderer?

Susanna Moore‘s novel prides itself on its uncensored use of language. The dialogue has the same uncaring regard to political correctness as the aggressive sex scenes. This points to the disinterested stance of the academic, seeing the substance of life as simply another stylistic quirk. Frannie is unable to separate her own circumstances from the literary experiments she sets her students. Her growing sense of fear and suspicion regarding Molloy only serves to heighten her attraction to him.

I reviewed a book with similar themes back in August, Dorothy Parker’s The Monkey’s Mask. That book also satirised the disaffected lives of academic theorists by introducing murder to the proceedings, but far more successfully than here. Another point of comparison for me was Anthony Burgess’ The Clockwork Testament, which also treated of idiomatic language overcoming the civilised veneer of collegiate discourse. Burgess was quite funny in his observations though, whereas Moore seems happy to merely present lists of offensive phrases. Parker’s writing was far more comfortable with its eroticism. Moore again seems to be trying to shock. The ‘loving submission’, of Frannie to her lover/potential murderer just removes any interest for me in her eventual fate.

Tiresome, pretentious and nonsensical.

Meredith nodded as she thought. ‘You know, I often wonder whether this place – the villages, the moors – has a certain mystical quality that draws people back – or which won’t let them go.’

There has been an interesting attempt to revive interest in classic novels lately. Not only do we have the fitfully amusing mash-ups of Jane Austen and Leo Tolstoy with fantasy, or horror staples, but there was also a recent marketing push to design the covers of the likes of Wuthering Heights to appeal to fans of Twilight.

Today’s book not only carries an opening quote from Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, it refers to the book itself frequently within the text. The contrast between the metropolitan lifestyle of protagonist Grace in London and her feelings of  isolation on the Yorkshire moors indicate that there are places in this world where the clock can be turned back to the periods described by these classic novels referred to in Beneath The Shadows.

Grace and her husband Adam left behind their hectic lives in London to raise their newborn child Millie in a cottage inherited after the recent deaths of his grandparents. Hawthorn Cottage is an opportunity to escape from the pressures of paying exorbitant rents and nights of blaring traffic, as well as give Millie a proper childhood in the fresh air of the countryside. If the change is too drastic, Adam promises that after six months they can leave.

Then one night Grace returns to an empty home, finding only a cryptic note from Adam telling her he has something important to tell her. Hours pass without any sign of him and then she discovers Millie safe in her pram outside the house, but no sign of her husband.

Adam’s disappearance is treated by the police as an apparently intentional abandonment of his young family. Grace is unable to accept this and returns to the cottage a year later secretly looking for clues as to her husband’s vanishing. Grace’s parents are unhappy with their daughter’s decision to return and her sister Annabel agrees to visit to make sure she is not slipping back into despondency. Once back in the Yorkshire village of Roseby, Grace sets about trying to renovate the old cottage to make it more attractive to a buyer. She is determined to provide her daughter with a proper inheritance. She meets a stoic man named Ben, a one-time native who has only recently returned to Roseby after years overseas who agrees to help with the renovations.

Local woman Meredith acted as caretaker for the cottage in Grace’s absence. Through her she learns more about Adam’s family, the history of the area itself, as well as much of the local folklore about spirits and ghosts. Grace becomes disturbed by a recurring nightmares involving Adam and supernatural creatures inspired by Meredith’s stories. When Annabel arrives and takes a fancy to the kindly yet mysterious Ben, she also cannot help but feel disturbed by how her sister’s flirtation affects her.

Then winter comes to North Yorkshire, covering the vast landscape outside the cottage with a blanket of snow, but also completely isolating Grace and her child, with no company save for the buried secrets of Roseby. The more she learns, the more she begins to question what she knows about Adam. She becomes convinced there is someone close to her, someone living in Roseby, who knows what really happened to her husband.

Sara Foster has followed up her debut Come Back to Me with a winning evocation of novels such as Wuthering Heights, The Turn of the Screw, Jane Eyre, Great Expectations, – each namechecked along with Rebecca in the story – as well as the natural sights and sounds of the Yorkshire landscape. Ben makes for an entertaining reincarnation of Heathcliff, whose past is indelibly linked to Grace’s. I enjoyed how Foster updates the themes of these classic novels to a contemporary setting. The hints of supernatural forces dropped throughout the texts, with copious mentions of ghosts and barghests, add to the prevailing mood of menace. Grace and her sister’s relationship is also well established, comic sibling rivalry a more contemporary concern than classic naturalism.

All this is combined with the literary trope of a family with too many buried secrets to produce a work that casually merges classicism and contemporary to winning effect.

With thanks to Random House for my review copy.

I took the book from her, and the pen, and opened Silent Riots to the title page. I signed my name, trying to remember the last time I’d signed one of my books, trying hard to recall how long it had been.

“Not the sort of thing I usually read,” she admitted, “I mean, it is rather explicit. A bit grim for my tastes. But, even so, I thought it was quite well written. Poetic, even.”

Horror fiction has enjoyed any number of stories involving a discovered text, or diary hinting at the horrible fate that befell the writer of the tale we are about to read. The House on the Borderland by William Hope Hodgson is one of my favourites. Not only is it set in the west of Ireland, but Hodgson’s story manages to describe its narrator’s increasing desperation convincingly, before throwing the equivalent of everything and the kitchen’s sink in terms of mythical eschatology right at the reader. It is intimately written (poor Pepper), while also managing to be ambitious in its scope. Cut to a hundred years later and Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves managed to repeat the feat, introducing us to three distinct narrators, with their individual texts interwoven on the printed page.

Caitlín R. Kiernan’s novel opens with yet another ‘editor’s note’, revealing that we are about to read a manuscript by author Sarah Crowe, a genre writer who committed suicide following the events described.

With that established, Sarah’s arrival at the Wight Farm, located near a large and distinctive red oak tree is described in diary form. She has travelled from the south all the way to Rhode Island to get away from her past and maybe, just maybe, actually write a book that will get her publisher off her back. Unfortunately she has been suffering from writer’s block, is still traumatized by what happened to her lover Amanda and is starting to suspect that she has nothing left to write. Instead of working on a new novel, Sarah begins to explore the history of the Wight Farm, discovering that the previous tenant an academic named Charles Harvey, hung himself from the oak tree outside. He had been working on a history of the farm and its eerie history, with a number of mysterious happenings over the years seemingly connected to the area.

Sarah’s isolation is rudely interrupted by the arrival of Constance, a local-born artist who has returned home from L.A. It appears the landlord is hoping to squeeze as much rent out of the property as possible. Constance actually knew Charles Harvey and happens to believe in all sorts of occult phenomena, explaining to Sarah that she believes ghosts are phantom projections through time of past, or future events. Initially exasperated at having to share her new home with a stranger, the two women grow closer even as the red tree sitting outside their home inexplicably becomes more menacing. Over time they both witness a series of strange phenomena, including missing time, sudden nausea, dislocation, vivid dreams and yet neither can bring themselves to leave the Wight Farm. As Sarah continues to study the increasingly erratic writings of Charles Harvey, she finds herself following in his footsteps into madness.

I chose this book as it was mentioned in the King of Nerds article that inspired this horror novel glut I have embarked upon. As it happens I have read Caitlín R. Kiernan’s writing before. Some years ago a friend gave me a lend of her debut novel Silk. I was not a fan. The Red Tree was nominated for this year’s World Fantasy Award so I wondered whether I would enjoy this more.

This has to be one of the most defensive books I have ever read. It reminded me of Woody Allen’s Stardust Memories, particularly the sequence where he attacks the critics of his films. Sarah Crowe rails against her own critics, both in the media and on amazon.com comment threads, while despairing that maybe she is just a hack. She peppers her conversation with literary quotes and references, the book quoting liberally from Lewis Carroll’s Alice novels and Edgar Allan Poe’s The Narrative Arthur Gordon Pym. The absolute low-point for me was when she repeated a memorized passage on Francis Bacon that she read on Wikipedia (Irony!).

It is the humourlessness of Kiernan’s writing that I find most disagreeable though. Chalk this one up as another negative review.

When Ernest leans forward, his breath is warm and sticky on Barbara’s neck. She can feel her hairs stiffen in response, and a queer vibration passes down her spine, as though a part of that knotted bone had become, momentarily, gelatinous.

It has been a lousy day. Originally I intended to review Hilary Mantel’s Beyond Black, a book I have kept on the back-burner for months now. Unfortunately our family dog fell ill, so it’s been a day filled with trips back and forth from vet surgeries and drives out to a pet hospital.

We’re a bit weary now. So I chose a slimmer volume to review for today’s entry. Tomorrow I will return to Mantel’s larger novel and give it its due.

Inventing the Abbots and Other Stories contains several shorts, each a commentary on contemporary sexual mores. The title story is the first within the collection, concerning a family of three daughters and the passions they inspire in two brothers.

The younger sibling, Doug, is our narrator and he describes how his brother Jacey falls in and out of love with each of the Abbot sisters. The titular family rule the social set of the small town of Haley. An invitation to one of their many birthday or coming out parties is considered an entry to the social upper crust.

The title is arrived at courtesy of Jacey and Doug’s mother, a war widow who recognizes that her eldest son’s affairs are evidence of a need for affection and security which she cannot provide. Doug’s incredulous narration reveals how innocently he viewed each of the social gatherings he attended at the Abbots, little realizing how little regard they had for his own family. Jacey’s attraction to the daughters seems born out of some compulsion relating to his feelings of resentment due to being ‘from the wrong side of the tracks’.

By choosing to tell the story from the Doug’s point of view, Miller disguises the real purpose of her tale. For the three girls within the Abbot house-hold are described as objects, signs of social status and a lifestyle that they find themselves trapped within. They are afforded no independence from the wishes of their family, from the high regard with which they are held by the community at large and so the romantic interest that Jacey shows in them is in fact entirely removed from their selves.

My favourite story within the collection is Appropriate Affect where an elderly grandmother seizes the opportunity of a stay in hospital to let her husband and family know exactly what she thinks of them. It’s a brilliant little satire on the lies families tell themselves to maintain their orderly worlds. Slides examines the dilemma of naked photos outlasting a relationship, a somewhat familiar problem in today’s world of youtube, facebook and camera phones.

Each story concerns issues of sexuality. Each description of a failing marriage, or relationships strained by infidelity and deception, is infused with a delicate sense of poignancy.

This is a series of well-told tales of love and lust that recognize the frailties of the human heart. Perfectly poised and delicate.

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