July 2023

Blog Archive - August 2023

1 August 2023

A New Project: Michael Duffy Interviews the Great Writers

The last few weeks have been busy even if none of us have been posting much to this website. Last month Michael Duffy, a local Blue Mountains author, agreed to contribute a project to this website which, along with things in life, has had me busy.

This afternoon I’ve finally been able to make Michael’s contribution public. The project is called Michael Duffy Interviews the Great Writers. The premise is a series of fictional interviews with famous writers from the last few centuries, based upon things they are known to have said or written. Along with the element of an interview is the chance to profile these famous authors.

Click on the project banner below to be taken to the new Project Page:

You can check out Michael’s contributor’s profile on the left of this page along with the covers of his books. Three of his books, The Problem with Murder, The Strange Death of Paul Ruel and Tall Stories are reviewed on this website.

I hope you enjoy this new addition to the website!

- bikerbuddy

2 August 2023

The Booker Prize Longlist for 2023 Announced

I’ve been so caught up in the business of life as well as major changes to this website, and the preparation leading up to the launch of our new project with Michael Duffy yesterday, that I totally forgot that the announcement of the Booker Prize Longlist for this year was imminent. It was published yesterday while I had my head in other things. Looking at it this morning I see that only one title, In Ascension by Martin MacInnes has previously caught my eye. We have an ongoing project on this website to eventually read and review all the Booker Prize Winners (which means there’s always two more (at least) books added to the list each year. You can find our Booker Project page here.

Below are the thirteen books that comprise the Booker Prize’s ‘dozen’ for this year. I’ve provided a synopsis for each book taken from the Booker Prize website. If you’re interested, I suggest you also visit the Booker Website which has more information about the books, the authors and judges for this year. The Booker Website can be accessed by clicking here.

All the Little Bird-Hearts by Viktori Lloyd Barlow

Sunday Forrester does things more carefully than most people. On quiet days, she must eat only white foods. Her etiquette handbook guides her through confusing social situations, and to escape, she turns to her treasury of Sicilian folklore. The one thing very much out of her control is Dolly - her clever, headstrong daughter, now on the cusp of leaving home.

Into this carefully ordered world step Vita and Rollo, a charming couple who move in next door and proceed to deliciously break just about every rule in Sunday’s book. Soon they are in and out of each other’s homes, and Sunday feels loved and accepted as never before. But beneath Vita and Rollo’s polish lies something else, something darker. For Sunday has precisely what Vita has always wanted for herself: a daughter of her own.

A Spell of Good Things by Ayọ̀bámi Adébáyo

Eniola is tall for his age, a boy who looks like a man. His father has lost his job, so Eniola spends his days running errands, collecting newspapers and begging - dreaming of a big future. Wuraola is a golden girl, the perfect child of a wealthy family, and now an exhausted young doctor in her first year of practice. But when sudden violence shatters a family party, Wuraola and Eniola’s lives become inextricably intertwined…

How to Build a Boat by Elaine Feeney

Jamie O’Neill loves the colour red. He also loves tall trees, patterns, rain that comes with wind, the curvature of many objects, books with dust jackets, cats, rivers and Edgar Allan Poe. At the age of 13, there are two things he especially wants in life: to build a Perpetual Motion Machine, and to connect with his mother Noelle, who died when he was born. In his mind, these things are intimately linked.

And at his new school, where all else is disorientating and overwhelming, he finds two people who might just be able to help him.

If I Survive You by Jonathan Escoffrey

In 1979, as political violence consumes their native Kingston, Topper and Sanya flee to Miami. But they soon learn that the welcome in America will be far from warm. Trelawny, their youngest son, comes of age in a society that regards him with suspicion and confusion. Their eldest son Delano’s longing for a better future for his own children is equalled only by his recklessness in trying to secure it.

As both brothers navigate the obstacles littered in their path – an unreliable father, racism, a financial crisis and Hurricane Andrew – they find themselves pitted against one another. Will their rivalry be the thing that finally tears their family apart?

In Ascension by Martin MacInnes

Leigh grew up in Rotterdam, drawn to the waterfront as an escape from her unhappy home life. Enchanted by the undersea world of her childhood, she excels in marine biology, travelling the globe to study ancient organisms.

When a trench is discovered in the Atlantic Ocean, Leigh joins the exploration team, hoping to find evidence of Earth’s first life forms. What she instead finds calls into question everything we know about our own beginnings, and leaves her facing an impossible choice: to remain with her family, or to embark on a journey across the breadth of the cosmos.

Old God’s Time by Sebastian Barry

Recently retired policeman Tom Kettle is settling into the quiet of his new home, a lean-to annexed to a Victorian Castle overlooking the Irish Sea. For months he has barely seen a soul, catching only glimpses of his eccentric landlord and a nervous young mother who has moved in next door.

Occasionally, fond memories of the past return - of his family, his beloved wife June and their two children. But when two former colleagues turn up at his door with questions about a decades-old case, one which Tom never quite came to terms with, he finds himself pulled into the darkest currents of his past.

Pearl by Sian Hughes

Marianne is eight years old when her mother goes missing. Left behind with her baby brother and grieving father in a ramshackle house on the edge of a small village, she clings to the fragmented memories of her mother’s love; the smell of fresh herbs, the games they played, and the songs and stories of her childhood.

As time passes, Marianne struggles to adjust, fixated on her mother’s disappearance and the secrets she’s sure her father is keeping from her. Discovering a medieval poem called Pearl - and trusting in its promise of consolation - Marianne sets out to make a visual illustration of it, a task that she returns to over and over but somehow never manages to complete.

Tormented by an unmarked gravestone in an abandoned chapel and the tidal pull of the river, her childhood home begins to crumble as the past leads her down a path of self-destruction. But can art heal Marianne? And will her own future as a mother help her find peace?

Prophet Song by Paul Lynch

On a dark, wet evening in Dublin, scientist and mother-of-four Eilish Stack answers her front door to find the GNSB on her doorstep. Two officers from Ireland’s newly formed secret police want to speak with her husband.

Things are falling apart. Ireland is in the grip of a government that is taking a turn towards tyranny. And as the blood-dimmed tide is loosed, Eilish finds herself caught within the nightmare logic of a collapsing society – assailed by unpredictable forces beyond her control and forced to do whatever it takes to keep her family together.

Study for Obedience by Sarah Bernstein

A woman moves from the place of her birth to a ‘remote northern country’ to be housekeeper to her brother, whose wife has just left him. Soon after she arrives, a series of unfortunate events occurs: collective bovine hysteria; the death of a ewe and her nearly-born lamb; a local dog’s phantom pregnancy; a potato blight.

She notices that the community’s suspicion about incomers in general seems to be directed particularly in her case. She feels their hostility growing, pressing at the edges of her brother’s property. Inside the house, although she tends to her brother and his home with the utmost care and attention, he too begins to fall ill…

The Bee Sting by Paul Murray

Dickie’s once-lucrative car business is going under - but rather than face the music, he’s spending his days in the woods, building an apocalypse-proof bunker. His exasperated wife Imelda is selling off her jewellery on eBay while half-heartedly dodging the attentions of fast-talking cattle farmer Big Mike. Meanwhile, teenage daughter Cass, formerly top of her class, seems determined to binge-drink her way to her final exams. And 12-year-old PJ, in debt to local sociopath ‘Ears’ Moran, is putting the final touches to his grand plan to run away.

Yes, in Paul Murray’s brilliant tragicomic saga, the Barnes family is definitely in trouble. So where did it all go wrong? And if the story has already been written – is there still time to find a happy ending?

The House of Doors by Tan Twan Eng

It is 1921 and at Cassowary House in the Straits Settlements of Penang, Robert Hamlyn is a well-to-do lawyer, his steely wife Lesley a society hostess. Their lives are invigorated when Willie, an old friend of Robert’s, comes to stay. Willie Somerset Maugham is one of the greatest writers of his day. But he is beleaguered by an unhappy marriage, ill-health and business interests that have gone badly awry. He is also struggling to write. The more Lesley’s friendship with Willie grows, the more clearly she see him as he is – a man who has no choice but to mask his true self.

As Willie prepares to face his demons, Lesley confides secrets of her own, including her connection to the case of an Englishwoman charged with murder in the Kuala Lumpur courts – a tragedy drawn from fact, and worthy of fiction.

This Other Eden by Paul Harding

Inspired by historical events, This Other Eden tells the story of Apple Island: an enclave off the coast of the United States where castaways - in flight from society and its judgment - have landed and built a home. In 1792, formerly enslaved Benjamin Honey arrives on the island with his Irish wife, Patience, to make a life together there. More than a century later, the Honeys’ descendants remain, alongside an eccentric, diverse band of neighbours.

Then comes the intrusion of ‘civilization’: officials determine to ‘cleanse’ the island. A missionary schoolteacher selects one light-skinned boy to save. The rest will succumb to the authorities’ institutions - or cast themselves on the waters in a new Noah’s Ark…

Western Lane by Chetna Maroo

Eleven-year-old Gopi has been playing squash since she was old enough to hold a racket. When her mother dies, her father enlists her in a quietly brutal training regimen, and the game becomes her world.

Slowly, she grows apart from her sisters. Her life is reduced to the sport, guided by its rhythms: the serve, the volley, the drive, the shot and its echo. But on the court, she is not alone. She is with her pa. She is with Ged, a 13-year-old boy with his own formidable talent. She is with the players who have come before her. She is in awe.

- bikerbuddy

9 August 2023

New books and the Miles Franklin Award

Despite my standing resolution – no new books – there’s always something new to take my interest. Recently there has been two books which have caught my attention for different reasons.

The first is R.F. Kuang’s Babel, a fantasy set in nineteenth century Britain. I recently reviewed this author’s latest novel, Yellowface, and enjoyed it. Apart from that, I had also heard some good things about Babel: things that made me think this was a book a might enjoy. For a start, it sounds like it is an alternative history with fantasy elements (I might be wrong about that, but that is my impression). This reminds me of Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, which had me immersed in its alternative history of the Napoleonic Wars and its believable history of magic and the realm of faerie.

Babel by R.F.Kuang Chai Time at Cinnamon Gardens by Shankari Chandran

The second book is this year’s winner of the Miles Franklin award, Chai Thai at Cinnamon Gardens. The Miles Franklin Award is Australia’s most prestigious literary award. Since starting this website we have never reviewed a current Miles Franklin winner, although I have reviewed the first recipient of the award from 1957, Patrick White’s Voss. There are a few factors for my neglect of Miles Franklin winners. Sometimes, the winning books haven’t interested me. Sometimes it’s that I just want to read about something other than the familiar. Also, I have read a few winners I didn’t like (I found Alex Miller’s Journey to the Stone Country tedious). I know that is a nonsensical reason since there are also Miles Franklin winners I have loved, while there have been some Booker Prize winners (there is a project to read them all for this site) which I have disliked. I particularly didn’t like The Sea by John Banville and I thought Penelope Fitzgerald’s Offshore was poor.

As for Chai Time at Cinnamon Gardens, the title and look of the book make it look like light weight popular fiction to me, but from what I have heard it is much more interesting than that. Like all books I buy, I will get around to reading it eventually.

- bikerbuddy

21 August 2023

A visit to Harry Hartog

Yesterday we went to the Harry Hartog bookstore in Penrith and I used the last of the gift vouchers I received a few months ago for my birthday. I bought four books. I thought I’d make this blog post about my thinking behind why I chose each book.

First of all, since my intention is to keep up to date with the Booker Prize as part of a project for this site, I thought I’d get one of the books in this year’s longlist. I don’t have time to read them all, so I decided to pick the book that sounded most appealing to me. Paul Muray’s The Bee Sting seems to capture a sense of the pressures of modernity and what it feels like to wonder how life might have been different. I’d heard good things about the book and Neel Mukherjee recommends it on the back cover. Mukherjee was shortlisted for the Booker in 2014 for his novel, The Lives of Others. I had actually read the entire shortlist that year and it had been my pick to win. This really wasn’t a deciding factor, though, since I only knew of the recommendation when I picked the book up in the shop.

I hadn’t planned to buy another longlisted book, but I was curious to see which books from the longlist were being stocked by Harry Hartog. So I checked and found the following were on the shelves: A Spell of Good Things by Ayọ̀bámi Adébáyo, Old God’s Time by Sebastian Barry, Prophet Song by Paul Lynch, The House of Doors by Tan Twan Eng and This Other Eden by Paul Harding. Looking only tempted me, and in the end I decided to buy This Other Eden. A few things influenced my decision there in the shop. First, the story sounded gripping and I have long been drawn to stories of people who withdraw from society. Second, the book is recommended by Esi Edugyan on the front cover. Esi Edugyan is a judge for this year’s Booker award, so the idea that I might choose to read the eventual winner from the longlist is enticing. Also, the copy I bought is hardback and was priced the same as the trade paperbacks for the other titles. We don’t get a lot of hardbacks in Australia, so I always like getting them when I can.

My final two purchases started with Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar. I’ve never read it but I have long had it in my mind that I would like to. Apart from the The Bee Sting, I went to Penrith with the intention of buying this book: in fact, for this specific edition. I’ve seen quite a number of quality editions over the last few years, but none of them appealed to me quite the way this one does. It’s a hardcover and I like the cover art. It also has beautiful endpapers and the edition is illustrated.

Finally, I bought George Orwell’s Coming Up for Air. Until last week I had only ever read Nineteen Eighty-Four, Animal Farm and Orwell’s Essays. Last week I reviewed The Road to Wigan Pier, which I personally found fascinating. When I bought that copy I also purchased Burmese Days and Keep the Aspidistra Flying. That had been all that was available then. I thought it would be good to get around to eventually reading the bulk of Orwell’s novels, beside the two most famous. So yesterday when I saw a cheap Penguin edition of Coming Up for Air it seemed to make sense to include it in my purchase.

This week I will be continuing to read R.F. Kuang’s Babel, a fantasy set in nineteenth century Oxford University. I’m really enjoying it. It’s entertaining and intelligent. I will also be working to complete a page for Michael Duffy’s next instalment of Michael Duffy Interviews the Great Writers, which is due out at the beginning of next month. This time around he ‘interviews’ Gertrude Stein, a writer I’ve never read. She sounds like a fascinating character.

- bikerbuddy

23 August 2023

Upgrading searches

I started working on upgrading our Reviews page where all the material on this website can be searched in June. I thought I’d finished. I was pretty happy with the results. Then a few days ago I realised that authors with foreign accents in their names (eg. Brontë) were not searchable with a standard English rendition of the name on a regular keyboard (eg Bronte). I found a solution to that and as I implemented it I began to think about the way people do searches. The reviews list lists authors with last names first for sorting purposes, but I think many people would enter an author in the search bar with their first names first (eg Emily Bronte). If they did that, it would not match the name in the list and no result would be given. It turned out that the solution for foreign accents was the same solution needed for this.

In short, searches for author names can now be entered first or last names first, without their foreign accents. I’ve also made book titles with apostrophes searchable without the apostrophe, because apostrophes are often left out in searches. This may have just solved a problem that no one has had, but I’m happier with it this way.

September 2023