This book caught my eye at the winter Canberra Lifeline Bookfair this year glinting like a bright blue treasure. One of the great things about Scarlett Thomas’ earlier books like “The End of Mr Y” and “Our Tragic Universe” is that they were published in these beautiful editions with metallic detail and tinted edges. This one is adorned with silver digits and the most incredible navy blue page edges. I’d been keeping an eye out for this edition for ages and finally it was mine.
“PopCo” by Scarlett Thomas is about Alice Butler, a woman in her late twenties who works for one of the world’s biggest toy companies. While she’s working on a new project to go with her kids’ code cracking kits, Alice is invited to a company conference that ends up being a lot more involved than she was expected. Even more unexpected are the mysterious coded messages that she starts to receive. Among all the new colleagues she’s been meeting, and all the seminars she’s been attending. Alice isn’t sure who the messages could be from. What she does know is that they’re dredging up memories of what it was like growing up with a cryptoanalyst as a grandfather and the significance of the necklace she wears around her neck.
The beauty of Thomas’ writing is that she’s incredibly clever, and writes about incredibly clever concepts, but does so in such a way that she never makes her audience feel stupid and never makes herself seem snobbish. Every book of hers I read, I learn something completely new and, having always enjoyed puzzles and maths as a kid, in this book I got to learn about the fascinating arts of cryptography and cryptoanalysis: making and breaking codes. Then there is all the fascinating stuff on marketing. Thomas is a considered and evocative writer and I always enjoy her slightly off-kilter, very brilliant and quite subversive protagonists. The first two thirds of this story are absolutely engrossing and almost unputdownable (I’m making this a word). While still incredibly interesting, the story does morph into something a little more moralistic in the last third which takes a little of the steam out of the mystery.
I’d been anticipating this book for a long time and I wasn’t disappointed. As captivating on the inside as it is on the outside, if you’re looking to read something a bit different and a bit enlightening, see if you can find a copy of this one.
Every year I make an effort to dedicate some of my reading to classics. Last year I managed to read three: “20 Thousand Leagues Under the Sea”, “The Picture of Dorian Gray” and “The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes”. One of the great things about classic books is that because their copyright has usually long since expired, publishers are always competing with each other and coming up with gorgeous, eye-catching editions and sets. I came across this super cool edition of “Frankenstein” by Mary Shelley at Harry Hartog’s, and it’s so kitsch and ridiculous with its bright blue page edges and the Monster in a leather jacket on the front, I had to have it.
Mary Shelley is often considered to be the mother of science fiction. First published in 1818, “Frankenstein” is an account of a fervent young scientist of the same name who discovers the secret to creating life. Using the macabre technique of digging up bodies from a graveyard, Frankenstein builds an enormous man from the parts and brings him to life. Showing exactly the lack of foresight, responsibility and common sense that becomes characteristic of Frankenstein throughout the book, he is struck with horror at his actions and abandons his new creation. The Monster is left to fend for himself, and without guidance or love, the results are catastrophic – especially for Frankenstein.
This book is really two stories: the story of Frankenstein, and the story of the Monster. Frankenstein as a character is completely insufferable. When he’s not energetically digging up corpses, he’s extremely fragile and histrionic, and spends a great deal of the book in an absolutely pathetic state be it fainting, spasming or gnashing his teeth. Frankenstein has no character development whatsoever, and even when he’s given an opportunity to make amends, he just reverts back to his own hysterical self and once again completely fails to clean up his own mess. Every time I read the parts of the book from Frankenstein’s point of view, I found myself groaning and rolling my eyes.
The Monster, however, is extremely interesting. Shelley does a fantastic job of getting the reader to sympathise with the brutal yet sensitive Monster. The Monster undergoes an extreme amount of character development, and the chapters from his point of view are both compelling and touching.
I found “Frankenstein” to be a slow read, over all. It’s interesting, and certainly was groundbreaking in terms of exploring life, nature v nurture and identity, but it drags on. I’m glad I read it, but I don’t think I’ll need to read it again.
This book first caught my eye in Dymocks with its almost garish red page edges and its rather steampunk front cover. “The Mechanical” by Ian Tregillis is part alternative history, part steampunk, and all action.
The premise of this book is that the Netherlands, through a mixture of sorcery and science, was able to create a race of mechanical people known pejoratively as “Clakkers”. Through their mechanical slaves, the Netherlands has become a world power. This fact is resented in particular by the French government which has in effect been exiled to Canada. However a spanner gets thrown into the proverbial works when Jax, himself a Clakker, agrees to do a favour for Catholic priest Visser and sets the gears of change in motion. Meanwhile, in Canada, clever spymaster Berenice is trying to unlock the secrets of the Clakkers and with them, the secrets of the Dutch empire.
“The Mechanical” is a great read, there’s no doubt. The concept is original, the way history is woven with speculation is fantastic and the investigation into the concept of free will is brilliant. There is a lot going on in this book and it is quite fast paced (though there are some areas that drag a little).
However, there was one thing that I just couldn’t get past: the violence. It doesn’t seem like an accident that this book is blood-red with blood-red pages; it is extremely an extremely violent book. I think I was a little shocked because it is incredibly rare for the books I read to be so graphic in their depictions of fights, battles and war. In addition to that, some of the lengths that characters go to in order to explore the idea of free will are also quite disturbing. Even though I could recognise that this book was clever, I could not ignore how uncomfortable it made me feel at times.
If you’re looking for an original, steampunk, sci-fi/fantasy action novel: look no further, this is the one for you. However, if you’re a bit squeamish, maybe consider giving this one a miss.
I didn’t have high expectations for this book. Yet another immigration-themed novel, but this time set in Australia, “The Harp in the South” by Ruth Park is one of the Penguin Australia Classics and is a gorgeous-looking hardcover with bright red pages.
“The Harp in the South” is about Irish immigrant family, the Darcys. In the poverty-stricken area of Sydney known as Shanty Town (Surry Hills), pious Mumma, drunk Hughie and their daughters Roie and Dolour live at number Twelve-and-a-Half Plymouth Street. They share their rather squalid home with tenants, but things get even more crowded when Grandma moves in.
When I first started reading this book, it was with the critical eye of someone living in 2015 and I found myself cringing often, particularly at some of the racial descriptions of the characters such as Lick Jimmy. However, if you take into account that it was originally published in 1948, “The Harp in the South” is actually a pioneer of social justice for its time. It shows multiculturalism in a positive light while the White Australia Policy was still in full swing. It contains positive depictions of an Aboriginal character when Aboriginal people were largely absent from mainstream literature. There are progressive and honest attitudes about sex including suggestions about the importance of consent and that sex work (and the people in the industry) is not necessarily immoral.
There is no question that Park, a professional journalist, had a keen eye for observation. Through her writing, she encourages the reader to look past poverty and see humanity; see exactly the same trials and tribulations we all face as people, regardless of our background. However she also makes it impossible to dismiss the characters because of their socio-economic status, and forces the reader to acknowledge the complexity of factors that cause and maintain poverty.
While an impressive novel for its time, this book isn’t perfect. Although complex, the characters at times do seem a bit like caricatures. Although progressive, there are still some things in there that are pretty cringeworthy by today’s standards. Finally, while it is a fantastic insight into poor Australian life in the 1940s, the attention to detail and day-to-day conversation does sometimes get a bit monotonous. Nevertheless, “The Harp in the South” is a great piece of Australian literature and a fantastic insight into the post-war immigration boom.
I had never heard of “The Road Home” by Rose Tremain before I started collecting books in the Vintage 21 Rainbow set. It quickly became apparent that it was another immigration-themed novel, but unlike my last experience, this one is actually rather brilliant.
The story follows Lev, a recently widowed man who has left his mother and daughter behind in his home country (never specified, but suggested to be Eastern European) in search of work and a new life in London. While he’s there, he struggles with grief, homesickness, finding work, meeting people and envisioning a future for himself without his wife.
“The Road Home” is a great novel. There’s no question. Tremain has a real knack for observation, and weaves together all the pieces of her knowledge of people and places to create a work that is striking in its realism. Lev is a real antihero. He’s dreamy, he’s often inconsiderate, he’s aimless and he’s completely relatable. Every thought, every mistake, every little piece of humanity that he notices makes this book feel like it really is something that could have actually happened. The people that Lev meets are just as interesting, complex and human as he is with their own flaws and their own dreams.
Not a huge amount happens in this book, so if you’re looking for something fast-paced and action-packed, you won’t find it here. What you will find is an intricate, thoughtful book about identity, discovery and direction. It’s a book about being an adult and becoming an adult, which for some people can take a couple of decades longer than others. “The Road Home” was a real surprise, and would make a great holiday read or a great weekend book where you can give it a bit of time, savour it and step into someone else’s world for a while.
When I saw this book in one of Canberra’s local bookstores, I knew I had to have it. With a flamboyant purple cover, vibrant yellow pages and new illustrations by Sophia Martinek, I leaped at the opportunity to read a classic collection I’ve never read before: “The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes” by Arthur Conan Doyle.
This book is the quintissential crime novel. Narrated by his faithful sidekick Dr Watson, we follow the duo as they are faced with and solve the unlikeliest of mysteries. There is no question that Doyle was extremely knowledgeable during his time and his stories showcase his understanding of people, society and the observable world. I very much appreciate his belief that behind every single mystery there is a rational (if often wildly unusual) explanation.
Holmes demonstrates his own favourite kind of inductive reasoning again and again throughout each of these twelve short stories. Drawing on his extremely thorough mental database of the most banal forms of information (e.g. soil composition in various areas around London), Holmes uses his keen sense of observation to match what he sees with what he knows. Although somewhat formulaic, the stories are very novel and very quick. While perhaps not particularly creative when it comes to character development or overarching plot, Doyle was extremely creative when it came to mysterious and often action-packed plots. Little wonder that Sherlock Holmes stories have been retold again and again, they’re a great romp and if you love crime, you’ll love these.
I wasn’t quite sure what to make of the illustrations in this edition. Martinek has a curious style that certainly captures the both the era of the stories as well as the ambiance. However, her naive art disregard for proportion and perspective coupled with her rather two dimensional characters fall a little flat for a series of stories that concern themselves so on accuracy and detail. I also found it a bit distracting when the illustrations didn’t match the text (e.g. the colour of a snake in one of the stories).
All in all, I quite enjoyed this book. I think however I probably would have been satisfied with four rather than twelve stories. While I am still undecided about the illustrations there is no question that this is a beautiful edition and it looks gorgeous on my bookshelf.
“Possession” by A. S. Byatt is another of the Vintage 21 series and this edition is striking with its purple cover and page edges. Its genre has been described as “historiographic metafiction“, which is a fancy term for a postmodern fusion of historical fiction and alternative history. When aspirational literary academic Roland Michell discovers the suggestion of correspondence between renowned (fictional) Victorian poet Randolf Henry Ash and acclaimed pre-feminist poet Christabel LaMotte, he embarks on a secret treasure hunt with LaMotte expert Maud Bailey to find out the true nature of their relationship. This novel fulfils a sort of historian’s fantasy by uncovering the suggestion of an illicit tryst between two famous poets over 100 years after the fact.
This book is a slow burn. At first I found it hard to see why on earth I should care about the lives of literary figures who have never existed, however the story soon becomes engrossing. “Possession” is both intricate and fussy with a very English infatuation with collected objects, quiet trips, countryside rambles and Roland and Maud’s shared dream about being alone in a bed with clean white sheets.
In typical Booker Prize winner fasion, “Possession” has rather an unconventional structure with the escapades of Roland and Maud in their modern setting interspersed with letter excerpts, poems and documents from Ash and LaMotte. Byatt is clearly very clever and her writing is beautiful if somewhat stilted. She manages to bring each character to life and give them their own unique voice, particularly when comparing Ash’s poetry to LaMotte’s.
“Possession” did seem a little heavy on the plot devices and it is just a little too convenient that each piece of the puzzle is found in perfect chronology. However, the reader’s efforts are rewarded with a supremely satisfying ending where absolutely everything is tidily resolved.
Nevertheless, this is not a book for everyone. I think opinions about it would largely be divided between “this is boring, I can’t be bothered” and “this is both exquisite and captivating”. To really enjoy Byatt’s novel you need to have a sense of perserverence and a real love for the English language, and if you do, it is well worth the read.