Books that fail to sizzle

Some summers ago while at our local village swimming pool a lady, unknown to me at the time, came up and said, ‘That book changed my life!’

‘That book’, the one that I was reading at the pool edge, was The White Earth by Andrew McGahan and I was about half-way through.

I looked up at this lady, who has since become a good friend, and replied, ‘I’m delighted to hear that because while I’m enjoying many aspects of it, I’m still waiting for the climax to occur and for something to really pull me into this story.

Following this exchange, I anticipated finding the essential and powerful message of this text. So, if I had been dawdling to this midway point, I was now motivated to pick up the pace, find the climax and enjoy the denouement and resolution.

It didn’t happen…

What went wrong?

This book, published in 2004 was a winner:

  • Festival Awards for Literature (SA), Dymocks Booksellers Award for Fiction, 2006: shortlisted
  • International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, 2006: longlisted
  • Commonwealth Writers Prize, South East Asia and South Pacific Region, Best Book, 2005: winner
  • Miles Franklin Literary Award, 2005: winner
  • The Age Book of the Year Award, Fiction Prize, 2004: winner
  • Queensland Premier’s Literary Awards, Best Fiction Boo, 2004: shortlisted
  • The Courier-Mail Book of the Year Award, 2004: winner

How could I NOT find the satisfactory experience of this book that others had?

From the outset, I was captivated by the depiction of the quintessential Australian landscape. The very title of the book and the unfolding story-line in the first chapter created great expectations! I loved the oxymoron created by the image of the title, The White Earth and the raging fire that had such tragic consequences in the very opening pages.

Also talking about great expectations, moving on in to the story there was a Dickensian quality with the old dilapidated house at the centre of this tale with its mysteries and flash backs, you could almost sense the shadowy presence of Pip, Estella and Miss Haversham (another book and author I admire).

There were all the ingredients of epic storytelling including evocative descriptions of the landscape, such iconic figures as a doomed explorer searching for an inland sea, shepherds driven mad by isolation, a damaged survivor of Changi, mission Aborigines and even a bunyip.

I have often been charmed by this genre of prose and would name Voss by Patrick White, The Secret River by Kate Grenville and Landscape of Farewell by Alex Miller as examples of books around this subject that I have been captivated by.

Each of these books explore aspects of the unsettling period that denotes white settlement and colonisation in Australia and share similarities with The White Earth.

The supernatural aspect of McGahan’s tale where the ghosts of black and white haunt the landscape is echoed in Landscape of Farewell. The past haunts the characters in Miller’s book and his prose puzzles out the mystery of that haunting. Memories of Max’s childhood take over his dreams, and he gives these dreams an equal place in the narrative.

As a consequence, as the story moves forward it goes further into the past.  Its narrative structure carries Miller’s argument that history works by a strange interweaving of the present with the past. Likewise in McGahan’s book, the story switches back and forth between John’s past and William’s present. All the characters, including the house and the land, are harbouring secrets that will eventually be uncovered.

Similarly, White’s tale about Voss (based on the life of Ludwig Leichhardt) explores metaphysical aspects of relationship and communication. Interestingly both McGahan and White have the Darling Downs as a central location in their stories.

Kate Grenville’s novel The Secret River is “dedicated to the Aboriginal people of Australia: past, present and future” and its genesis came from research regarding one of her ancestors, Solomon Wiseman and when he arrived on the Hawkesbury and started the business of ‘settling’. Initially intended to be a work of non-fiction about Wiseman, the book eventually became a fictional work based on her research into her ancestor but not specifically about him.

So I come to accept that reading and learning about the tragedy of the confrontation between aborigine and white settlers is a topic that I don’t shy away from. Although unsettled about the reality of this brutal epoch in our history, I am happy to engage with a book that captures with a language and storytelling that resonate with me.

McGahan maintains a sense of menace throughout his book and I felt like I was existing on the edge of a precipice, wondering whether I would plunge to the depths but find the awakening of enlightenment that would result. This would have be the defining moment for me to acknowledge that this book has been a great read. I was left teetering…

So, unlike my friend and many others, as I confessed at the beginning of this blog, this book did not provide me with a reading experience that I found powerful, unforgettable, and deeply engaging.

Books started but not finished

‘A masterpiece’ The Age

‘An unputdownable page turner by a master storyteller’ The Weekly Times

This book is almost 6 cm (2.5 inches) thick, has 933 pages and is printed in the teeniest type. You would have to put it down, often, to rest your aching arms!

Described as:

This remarkable book can be read as a vast, extended thriller, as well as a superbly written meditation on the nature of good and evil. It is a compelling tale of a hunted man who had lost everything — his home, his family, and his soul — and came to find his humanity while living at the wildest edge of experience.

Have you guessed the book yet?

Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts.

Have you started to read it?

Have you finished it?

Forgive me Shantaram Stalwarts!

I would count myself as an Indiaphile when it comes to books, I’ve read and loved among others The Far Pavillions by M.M. Kaye, Passage to India by E.M. Foster, The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy, The Hundred-Foot Journey by Richard C. Morais, the writings of Vikram Seth. So how could I not want to read this epic tome that splashes the spicy colour and mystique of India across its pages?

Gifted to me in 2005 by friends, I knew nothing of the book apart from the fact that they had attended a Roberts event and that the sentiments imparted in person and through his writings were soothing to their souls.

I started reading immediately.

Now, seven years on, the gift card still in place as a book mark, I find that I had reached page…wait for it, 48. Impressive? NOT! I was only one-third of the way through Part 1. Then there was Part 2, Part 3, Part 4 and finally Part 5.

Hello-oh!

Should I feel less than a capable reader because I failed to even make a dent on this book?

Here’s another confession. This time seeking forgiveness from Stieg Larsson devotees.

Another epic tome, 672 pages, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.

My dismal effort to enmesh this novel in my reading repertoire, a scant 30 pages.

The Prologue set up a premise that intrigued me: an 82 year old receiving an exotic framed flower on his birthday. Not just this birthday, but every birthday for the past 30 years. I fully empathise with the aged detective – the ‘Case of the Pressed Flowers’ had been nagging at him for years, the one case he couldn’t solve.

I would not have been so patient with not knowing for all that time, the source of these flowers and what they meant. But how contrarian am I? I could find all the available answers to this premised conundrum if only I had persevered.

So, do you have to finish a book that you don’t find engaging?

I guess it really depends on the outcome you want to achieve. If the book is selected for your book group, you should give it an attempt. I’m sure that you would like all group members to trust you and give any book you selected a reasonable crack.

But I would qualify this by saying, we are privileged to have stacks of books to choose from across the genres and the ages. If you find that a book does not satiate your literary juices, leave it and go on to the next one on your short-stack.

Life is too short to read books that don’t embellish your existence or soothe your soul.

What makes a book good

“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.

However little known the feelings or views of such a man may be on his first entering a neighborhood, this truth is so well fixed in the minds of the surrounding families, that he is considered the rightful property of some one or other of their daughters.

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen, published 1813

Pride and Prejudice would have to be in the Top 10 of my all time favourite books.

Now I know that Jane Austen is not everyone’s ‘cup of tea’, in fact, some would argue that the premise in her books is like a ‘storm in a tea cup’. Compared to the bigger external issues that can be dealt with in literature, that may be so. We mustn’t ever forget though, that if you are IN that ‘tea cup’ the storm can be frighteningly real!

If you are not familiar with this classic, it examines both internal and external conflicts: the negative societal pressures and our internal biases that lead us to make mistakes. Elizabeth and Darcy have to overcome these before they can allow themselves to fall in love and marry.

Although written to depict life in the early 19th century, modern interest in the book has resulted in a number of adaptations and an abundance of novels and stories chaneling Austen’s memorable characters or themes.

This brings me to a book we recently read for book group.

(Honestly, it should have been one of those night’s that I had another engagement!)

A little bit of background first though.

Some books our group had covered prior to this were: Bereft by Chris Womersley, Snowflower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See, Jasper Jones by Craig Silvey.

I’ve read and enjoyed gentle novels such as 84, Charring Cross Road by Helen Hanff and The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows. I quite like though, what I call ‘gritty’ or ‘edgey’ books but the consensus was that a ‘softer’ book was required for the upcoming book group meeting.

The book chosen was The Girl in the Steel-Capped Boots by Loretta Hill, published in 2012.

I could almost feel Jane Austen turning in her grave as this new author tried to ‘channel’ Austen’s Pride and Prejudice premise.

Firstly, there are plenty of references throughout the book to places and names that invoke Jane Austen, e.g. Wickham, Bath.

The protagonists Lena and Dan are poor facsimiles of Elizabeth and Darcy.

This is how Lena describes Dan at first acquaintance:

‘…if only tall, dark and obnoxious…That’s what Barnes Inc staff called Dan Hullog – Bulldog. Apparently, once he got it between his teeth, he didn’t let go – a perfectionist with impossible standards. Apparently, he had an overly critical eye and a penchant for finding the tiniest flaw in anything.’

Sound familiar with how Mr Darcy is considered a:

‘…fine, tall person, handsome features, noble mien” but then ‘…he was discovered to be proud, to be above his company, and above being pleased…having a most forbiding, disagreeable countenance, and being unworthy to be compared with his friend.’

And then the similarities with the initial interactions between Lena and Dan:

‘She walked over to the bicep-building machine and perched on its worn vinyl seat. Dan went back to ignoring her.

Can you conjure up the ball scene in Pride and Prejudice where Darcy chooses to ignore Elizabeth as a dance partner.

Lena is portrayed as an educated (but with question marks over her qualification) city girl sent to outback Australia to prove her worth. As a female engineer in this environment, she is considered second class. Much the same as The Bennett’s social standing in their community, not quite good enough.

Both books develop the internal and external conflict to arrive at the same conclusion, both sets of protagonists are able to move beyond their pride and prejudice.

Elizabeth is accepted by Darcy and others (except Lady de Burgh) as someone worthy to share his life.

Lena is accepted as a qualified and capable engineer by Dan and others and is able to feel comfortable that she has fairly earned her degree.

Ahhh, isn’t that lovely.

I could make other comparisons between the characters and events in each book, but I think you get my point.

Both authors, using the same premise have resulted in books that to my reading pleasure are vastly different.

Jane Austen, using the society mores in which she has grown up in, uses rich and witty language to create a text that engages me as a reader.

Loretta Hill, using her own experience as an engineer in the Pilbara, failed to excite me with her language and scene depictions.

I do consider Pride and Prejudice to be a good book.

I do NOT consider The Girl in Steel-Capped Boots to be a good book.

Opinions and reading pleasures are personal.

What makes a book good? What do you think?

Nb.A quick search of reviews for the latter book will show you that there are plenty of others who loved the book. Just not me.

What books to read

There have been lots of lists compiled over the years declaring the Best 100 books you should read before you know what…

When I check my completed reading list against these, I find that I have read over 50 on some lists, only about 30 on others and so on it goes.

Some of the lists are compiled purely by numbers of books sold, some by their literary value, but the truth is they are all some one else’s opinion.

Look for a moment at this list of the best 100 novels compiled by the BBC. It can be intimidating to compare your reading efforts! I, for example have read 48 of the books on this list.

1. The Lord of the Rings, JRR Tolkien
2. Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen Yes
3. His Dark Materials, Philip Pullman
4. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams
5. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, JK Rowling
6. To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee Yes
7. Winnie the Pooh, AA Milne Yes
8. Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell Yes
9. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, CS Lewis Yes
10. Jane Eyre, Charlotte Brontë Yes
11. Catch-22, Joseph Heller Yes
12. Wuthering Heights, Emily Brontë Yes
13. Birdsong, Sebastian Faulks
14. Rebecca, Daphne du Maurier Yes
15. The Catcher in the Rye, JD Salinger
16. The Wind in the Willows, Kenneth Grahame Yes
17. Great Expectations, Charles Dickens Yes
18. Little Women, Louisa May Alcott Yes
19. Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, Louis de Bernieres Yes
20. War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy Yes
21. Gone with the Wind, Margaret Mitchell Yes
22. Harry Potter And The Philosopher’s Stone, JK Rowling
23. Harry Potter And The Chamber Of Secrets, JK Rowling
24. Harry Potter And The Prisoner Of Azkaban, JK Rowling
25. The Hobbit, JRR Tolkien Yes
26. Tess Of The D’Urbervilles, Thomas Hardy Yes
27. Middlemarch, George Eliot Yes
28. A Prayer For Owen Meany, John Irving
29. The Grapes Of Wrath, John Steinbeck Yes
30. Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland, Lewis Carroll Yes
31. The Story Of Tracy Beaker, Jacqueline Wilson
32. One Hundred Years Of Solitude, Gabriel García Márquez
33. The Pillars Of The Earth, Ken Follett
34. David Copperfield, Charles Dickens
35. Charlie And The Chocolate Factory, Roald Dahl Yes
36. Treasure Island, Robert Louis Stevenson Yes
37. A Town Like Alice, Nevil Shute Yes
38. Persuasion, Jane Austen Yes
39. Dune, Frank Herbert
40. Emma, Jane Austen Yes
41. Anne Of Green Gables, LM Montgomery Yes
42. Watership Down, Richard Adams
43. The Great Gatsby, F Scott Fitzgerald Yes
44. The Count Of Monte Cristo, Alexandre Dumas
45. Brideshead Revisited, Evelyn Waugh
46. Animal Farm, George Orwell Yes
47. A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens Yes
48. Far From The Madding Crowd, Thomas Hardy Yes
49. Goodnight Mister Tom, Michelle Magorian
50. The Shell Seekers, Rosamunde Pilcher
51. The Secret Garden, Frances Hodgson Burnett Yes
52. Of Mice And Men, John Steinbeck Yes
53. The Stand, Stephen King
54. Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy Yes
55. A Suitable Boy, Vikram Seth
56. The BFG, Roald Dahl Yes
57. Swallows And Amazons, Arthur Ransome
58. Black Beauty, Anna Sewell Yes
59. Artemis Fowl, Eoin Colfer
60. Crime And Punishment, Fyodor Dostoyevsky Yes
61. Noughts And Crosses, Malorie Blackman
62. Memoirs Of A Geisha, Arthur Golden
63. A Tale Of Two Cities, Charles Dickens Yes
64. The Thorn Birds, Colleen McCollough Yes
65. Mort, Terry Pratchett
66. The Magic Faraway Tree, Enid Blyton Yes
67. The Magus, John Fowles
68. Good Omens, Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman
69. Guards! Guards!, Terry Pratchett
70. Lord Of The Flies, William Golding Yes
71. Perfume, Patrick Süskind
72. The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, Robert Tressell
73. Night Watch, Terry Pratchett
74. Matilda, Roald Dahl Yes
75. Bridget Jones’s Diary, Helen Fielding
76. The Secret History, Donna Tartt
77. The Woman In White, Wilkie Collins
78. Ulysses, James Joyce
79. Bleak House, Charles Dickens Yes
80. Double Act, Jacqueline Wilson
81. The Twits, Roald Dahl Yes
82. I Capture The Castle, Dodie Smith
83. Holes, Louis Sachar
84. Gormenghast, Mervyn Peake
85. The God Of Small Things, Arundhati Roy Yes
86. Vicky Angel, Jacqueline Wilson
87. Brave New World, Aldous Huxley
88. Cold Comfort Farm, Stella Gibbons
89. Magician, Raymond E Feist
90. On The Road, Jack Kerouac
91. The Godfather, Mario Puzo
92. The Clan Of The Cave Bear, Jean M Auel Yes
93. The Colour Of Magic, Terry Pratchett
94. The Alchemist, Paulo Coelho Yes
95. Katherine, Anya Seton
96. Kane And Abel, Jeffrey Archer Yes
97. Love In The Time Of Cholera, Gabriel García Márquez Yes
98. Girls In Love, Jacqueline Wilson
99. The Princess Diaries, Meg Cabot
100. Midnight’s Children, Salman Rushdie

But here’s the thing: towards the end of this list, there are 5 books by Terry Pratchett.

Who exactly is Terry Pratchett? I’ve never heard of him.

Wiki reveals: Sir Terence David John “Terry” Pratchett, OBE (born 28 April 1948) is an English novelist, known for his frequently comical work in the fantasy genre.

Oh, that makes sense. The fantasy genre is not one I enjoy. You’ll notice that I haven’t ticked off The Lord of the Rings, or the Harry Potter series (although I did enjoy the movies). My almost 12 year old loves this genre, but not me.

I struggled to read The Hobbit while at school but have never even been tempted to pick up The Lord of the Rings Trilogy.

What about all those other fabulous books that are not on the list:

The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

Cloudstreet by Tim Winton

The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini

The Great World by David Malouf

Villette by Charlotte Bronte

The Tree of Man by Patrick White

…and the list goes on.

Reading is about the individual, you and me, because we all bring different knowledge and experiences to the process.

But here’s the absolutely BEST thing about Book Groups, we are encouraged to read books we may not have chosen on our own. This can help broaden our own appreciation and actually contribute in a meaningful way to our overall reading pleasure.

So what is the ultimate Best Book List? It is an amorphous entity.

You need to find the ultimate Best Book List for YOU.

It’s going to be fun to construct my list and I’d love to hear about the books on yours.

There are still so many aspects of reading books to discover.

What makes a book good?

Why do I like one book over another?

Should I read all books by an author I like?

The journey continues.

P.s. By the way, I think it’s perfectly fine for you to have another ‘engagement’ on the meeting night if your Book Group is reading a book that is just not you.

Book groups

Over the last decade or so, I’ve been a member of two book groups.

The first, where I was the youngest participant of a collection of wise souls with a pointy end of members well past their 8th decade of gathering life knowledge and experiences.

It was a privilege to sit with all these ladies, especially Betty and Lyn (both RIP) and share their insights. It was an added delight to learn of authors such as Patrick White and his love of ravani cake, but more about this another time.

My second book group, which currently satisfies my desire to read and ruminate is a much different combination. This is another fabulous bunch of women collected around our children’s school experience.

I have only recently learned though, that there is a loose adoption of a title for our group, B.A.B.E.S. My initial look of horror was fleeting as the acronym was expanded: Books And Bubbles Every Session.

Well, I can cope with that!

B.A.B.E.S. is a ‘revolving-door’ style of group where there is a rounded-out number of 12-14 lovely ladies. Given our busy calendars and sometimes complicated attachments to other life factors, our monthly meeting will consist of 8-10 eclectic views shared around that month’s book.

So, here’s how our evenings seem to take shape.

Arrival can occur anytime within about a 30-40 minute window. Now, to be fair to all, we wouldn’t even contemplate starting our much anticipated discussion until everyone has arrived. So, we open the bubbles and debrief about the happenings of the week or previous month, in some instances.

We solve the issues surrounding our children and school, sport or any other associated activity that crosses over this group. Naturally we move on to the greater local community and then of course, we put in our best efforts at solving the global condition and the seemingly unattainable attributes of world peace and putting a stop to world hunger.

Eventually, we turn our attention to the book in question. Some have read it, some have not – but all contribute to our feisty, often funny and sometimes sad discourse.

Departure from the evening’s gathering means an enlightenment for all, whether that comes from sharing the company of good friends or whether a salient point about the book or author has been uncovered.

Our book group – we love it!

Feel free to copy this successful formula for the structure of your book group. Alternatively, give me some hints on how yours works and together we could create the formula for a ‘Super Book Group’. Imagine the franchise opportunities!

What to read though.

Another question entirely.

Join me tomorrow as we try to discover the ultimate reading list.