Life of Pi by Yann Martel (Canongate)


“My suffering left me sad and gloomy”

THE problem with coming to this book after the film event is that the image of the boy and the tiger marooned on a boat has already passed into popular culture, an indelible, all knowing fact. The punchline has been given away. If you had read the first part of this book you could not imagine what was going to happen in part two. It made me wish for schooldays where someone else (not Hollywood) chose my reading as part of a greater coursework. The cover, the publicity,  the chat all do this novel no service whatsoever. They may persuade you to read it but they do not in any way enhance your enjoyment. To set off on a totally different course, it reminded me of Robinson Crusoe or Gulliver’s travels, the era when a novel could put forward ideas. Also reading a book where I know the pay-off line just as surely as I know about Lilliput invites that comparison. I am jealous of anyone who read this without such prior knowledge. In fact it is a book about philosophy. It pipped Tim Winton’s Dirt Music to the Booker prize in 2002, more chamber music, word and note perfect, to Winton’s bluegrass, more intellectual, less emotional. In fact was there an emotion there?

We have the schoolyard bullying where Pi wants to be known obviously as the mathematical Pi not the playground Pee, we have growing up in a zoo where he can humanise the animals inner thoughts. Later he will use 27 lines to describe his tiger’s looks including:

“His head was large and round, displaying formidable sideburns, a stylish goatee and some of the finest whiskers of the cat world, thick, long, white.”

And another 24 on the noises tigers make. He knows his animals. And his religion. This boy is on the cusp of three religions no less. And Martel uses all this Dali-Magritte style cabaret fantasy to test his own thinkings. Pi is the inquisitor. And Pi shall be tested. And it is not just by tiger because there is a singularly brutal – if anything in a fantasy nightmare can be called brutal – scene of hyena and zebra.

I presumed Martel was Indian and this was semi autobiographical in that Martel like his hero had majored in religious studies and zoology but far from it Martell was born in Spain to French Canadian parents, and his degree was philosophy.

It is a very clever book, almost too clever, he is like his Pi, top of the class, A+ material, he barely crosses into the reality, so it is a mind game which he relates with a straight face: “My brief experience with the relations of unconfined wild animals in lifeboats had me expect…” Later…”My options were limited to perching above a tiger or hovering over sharks.” Very metaphysical. He captures the Indian vernacular very well.

Quite early on he is warning you where all this is going. “I wish I could convey the perfection of a seal slipping into the water…or a lion merely turning its head. But the language founders in such seas. Better to picture it in your head if you want to feel it”.It is down to you to supply the feelings, if you want. The faith.

What is really astonishing is the immense detail. He knows the difference between a blue shark and a mako and a whitetip. He reports on the best way to butcher a turtle and which are the best bits to eat. It is hard to believe that he has not actually been a castaway, that he has not actually encountered these fantastical events, the contrast between allegory and realism is arresting.

I am also struck how the original cover – from Knopf Canada, after it was turned down by a number of UK houses – does not give the game away…Life_of_Pi_cover



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Dirt Music by Tim Winton (Penguin)

dirt music

“One night in November, another that had somehow become morning while she sat there, Georgie Jutland looked up to see her pale and furious face reflected in the window.”

THE best place to read this might be on the new BA direct flight to Perth from London. Seventeen hours sounds about right to cover the 469 pages that delve deep into the psyche of the Australian wilds. You need a bit of head space. This is a novel in the grand tradition. The poet of Perth, soothsayer of the surf and the shanty, outrider in the outback, Winton’s economy with words is deceptive. He moves his narrative along with great long strides. It can be a bit of head turner going back to your own everyday. Western Austalia’s rough hewn coast broods almost as much as the miscreants of White Point. And it gets fiercer as we travel north.

Winton is as rooted in the territory as some of the better known Irish writers are fond of their home towns in western Ireland. A clue:

“A moment of unscripted action in White Point. You had to go and see.”

The local fishermen are riding the crest of the rock lobster boom. The language is as craggy as you imagine them to be, as rough as guts, there was something shonky about it. The town was a personality junkyard. Descriptions are fast and vivid:

“Yogi Behr came out wrapped in a Simpsons towel. He was small and round and, so dressed, he was a potato burst from its jacket”.

Winton’s style is to have the effect first and the cause filled in later by way of conversation or flashback, like a painter working backwards. From the breaking waves of the town rises up a relationship of troubled partners, each with pasts. Each also trying to fit into this rough, untamed country which rises up from the pages as much a personality itself:

“These ranges look to him like some dormant creature whose stillness is only momentary, as though the sunblasted, dusty hide of the palce might shudder and shake itself off, rise to its bowed and saurian feet and stalk away at any moment”.

White Point town politics seethe, molten lava beneath the surface.

This book lost out to the easier cartoon conceit in the Life of Pi by Yann Martel in the 2002 Man Booker prize, but there are similarities in feel. The tiger in a boat is replaced by Georgie Jutland. Here also are journeys at sea.  Pi says: “My suffering left me sad and gloomy”, well here are other sufferings in the dirt and shoreline mud. This has the social grounding, retarded realism, edge, rather than Yann’s metaphysical madness.

At heart we have an emotional manhunt, shades even of Mad Max, a modern western but in the background lurk current (or what would have been prophetic) themes of Trumpism, of gentrification, of mindfulness, of people on the cusp, a road crash not far away.

This is Winton’s 27th published work. It shows. His men are tossed like their own boats on tempestuos circumstance, his women, those not subsumed by the toughness of the place, like Georgie have history, backgrounds, moods suddenly defined when she becomes an obsessive cook. Emotions transmute subtley into the descriptions of the very land itself. A masterpiece really.

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The Dry by Jane Harper (Abacus)


“Even those who didn’t darken the door of the church from one Christmas to the next could tell there would be more mourners than seats.”

AS in all worthwhile whodunnits, everyone in this small dirt town comes under suspicion. We all have secrets. For non Australians you may also need to know that that an avro is afternoon, an ute is a small truck.

The end is not so much a twist but a fork in the road, a choice of outcomes, the one more terrible than the other. Harper is not Tim Winton, but she does have a plot and a story.

You can speed read this kind of writing pretty easily: just scan from the opening paragraph down to the dialogue. These people do not wear clothes, don’t think a lot, don’t eat stuff or drink anything specific. It is a bit of a surprise when the brand name of the cartridges becomes a clue. A detail. These people are clothes pegs for a film presence on which you could hang a Gregory Peck flinch, a Rod Steiger wince, a Tom Cruise frown. Tensions in the small Victoria town of Kiewarra have been stretched taut by drought.

There has been a shooting at the farm. Aaron returns after 20 years for the funeral of his once best friend. There is a reason he has been away. The plot flows quickly. The writing is the kind that would be easy to follow for students of English as a foreign language.

“Karen was a really valued member of the team. But she had become quite stressed…She was snappy, which was unusual…” The Karen sat on the mat. So in shorthand:

“The cockatoos were shrieking…he wandered along main street…he paused as he came to the hardware store…”

The acknowledgements at the end to this best selling title reveal a small saga of their own. Originally it was part of an online creative writing course hosted by the literary agents Curtis Brown. Then it won Melbourne’s Wheeler Centre literary award for unpublished fiction (well it is about a town in Victoria). From there, as Harper confesses, a thousand doors opened. That was only in 2015. When writing is successful it can happen very quickly, which is reassuring.


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Books of the year 2017

THE criteria are simply that I have read and reviewed these books in the last year. You might like a head’s up list for your Christmas stocking. There are some powerful contenders, although flicking through the bestseller lists of W.H. Smith and Amazon only a couple get a mention, which is sort of the point of this blog. I make no apology for the fact that they are not so well known nor that I did not review another Harry Potter book or another Lee Child. Any of these I feel would hold their own in any company.

The Noise of Time by Julian Barnes, political biography of Shostakovitch

Homo Deus by Yoav Noah Harari, towering examination of the future

The Third Plate by Dan Barber, the foodie and farmers book

The 7th Function of Language by Laurent Binet, the intellectual’s Dan Brown

Legacy of Spies by John Le Carre, the masterful return to etch in a sequel to the Spy Who Came In From the Cold

Winter by Ali Smith, slicker and faster than her bestselling Autumn

Of a different persuasion, I also have a recipe book out, in case you are feeling the cold of winter and might like a different take in the kitchen  – Broth to Bowl. And this is one I scouted for Modern Books if you fancy making your own bread – Sourdough

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Winter by Ali Smith (Hamish Hamilton)


“God was dead, to begin with. Romance was dead. Chivalry was dead.”

WHEN, finally, we get everyone into the same room, the intimacy starts to crackle. Ali Smith is at her best when she has people talking to each other. Each one here is carefully drawn, and then turned around a little for another perspective, usually a flash into their past.

The opening – as above – is really a poem, even a rant, which then flows into a lot of small carriages of consciousness on a railway line of Smith’s imagination wandering through the years with visits to the Greenham Common protests, to watching Elvis Presley movies.

As in the first book Autumn, much is drawn from popular culture, the charming floating head recalls the Mekon in the comic Eagle or even ET. And there is a sub theme of things literary – from starting out in the opticians to the kind of poetry you might find in the New Yorker disguised as text to Shakespeare’s ambiguous Cymbeline. The plot moves by way of small explosions.

Charlotte is both a nightmare and in another lyrical flashback adored for her “detritus of necklaces and bangles” and her “endless hurt and fury at the world” and ”taking everything personally”. Charlotte is having a major paddy. Arthur is getting it full on.

We open with a less than believable fairy story of the man who pays a girl he meets at a bus stop to come down to Cornwall for Christmas to meet his mother and pretend to be his girlfriend – the said girlfriend, Charlotte, is being difficult, but then mum is also being difficult, and the difficult, older, estranged sister has to be called in to help…we are shaping up not so much for winter but the Christmas from hell…Arthur, named for and often called, Art, is being overwhelmed.

I was worried we were not going to go anywhere, but unlike Autumn this is a fully rounded proper novel. The connection between the two books does not seem to go much deeper than topical references from news events and a style of approach. This is the better book.

Fast paced, easy reading, sometimes funny but most of all full of memorable, rather likeable, extreme women…

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Autumn by Ali Smith (Penguin)


“It was the worst of times, it was the worst of times.”

FROM the getgo this tale is populated with popular images like the variation on Charles Dickens opening to a Tale of Two Cities above, although here is the tale of two people. Themes of duality persist, of couples, of brixiteers and remainers, of life and death, of present and past, of real and remembered, of women and girls, mostly revolving around Elisabeth – with an s not a z – who has grown up to be an art history teacher.

Everyone flits past Elisabeth like so many falling autumn leaves of the title. They are not real but reflections. Her mum wakes up a bit when she appears on a TV antiques show. Daniel is lively enough, but he is dead. The reality is a sit down and watch TV familiarity. The scenes in the post office are all Monty Python, the hospital could be upstairs at Holby City, there is a middle passage that reads like Exupery’s Little Prince, her mum’s pal is from AbFab. These pastiches could hold their own against the originals albeit these are fictions which then mix up factions of real people – Christine Keeler and the forgotten pop artist Pauline Boty who provide another interesting, challenging duality.

In a novel, of which this only a part because it is often a poem, of which this only the first of presumably four parts, of which the point is not the truth, but the lie…it is going to be quite a feat to get all these guys back on to the same train for the sequel (which I have not read as yet). Or is memory playing tricks? Maybe the referendum was a TV show? It should have been. In that sense Smith is Sir Gawain on a quest and strays perilously close to fantasy. Her characters cannot be real. She is writing about a consciousness.

In essence Daniel, deceased, is trying to come back to life to tell Elisabeth…something…

He might want to warn her about the lavish, scary praise on the front cover. The great Behemoth of modern Publishing has called its minions to sound the clarion: We want a great new writer and Ali is going to be it. Ali will be our Donna Tart.  All this pisses me off. The BP lets her down.  The cover for example is a latter day Hockney, yes it says autumn but the book seems far more rooted in his earlier works by the swiming pool and the real, relevant, cover is anyway on the inside back by Pauline Boty. And then we have the most pompous of copyright credits in which Ovid gets a mention – well the Penguin translation of Ovid on page 87, should you care to look it up. Page 87 here is blank. No connection. Just a bit of literary snobbism. As if Ovid is going to sue. Or Penguin sue itself.

I like what she is trying to do. It is still so many carriages linked up into a train. I am a football fan at half time willing her to win. We are 1-O down. I have an idea this could emerge as… I hope so. Roll on Winter.

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The disappearance of Adele Bedeau by Graeme Macrae Burnet (Contraband)


“It was an evening like any other at the Restaurant de la Cloche.”

YOU are on page 88 of 244 before the character cards you hold start to reveal themselves as a full house of a plot. Here the main character Manfred is older than the protagonists in Burnet’s other books Project and Accident although he has the same disconcerting awkwardness with his own actions and a tendency to predict the worst. He is the kind of man who has the same suit hand made for himself each year. He drinks wine by the glass, a snobbish affectation although he knows it would be cheaper to buy the bottle.

My book jacket calls this a psychological thriller – as opposed to the usual and much cliche’d psychopathic one – and there a touch of the psychotic even hysterical lurking under the surfaces. Any one of the villagers in sleepy old St Louis feels like they might suddenly stand up after lunch and run screaming out of the door, so fraught are they with real, small-town tensions like tightly knotted string dolls. And drunk, of course. The only reason they don’t one suspects is that Burnet has not yet get round to picking the skeletons out of their closets and lining them up on his mantlepiece. As yet, there is time.

Inspector Gorski, we learn, was inspired to become a detective by policemen visiting his father’s pawnshop looking for stolen goods. “I have been a policeman for 23 years. In my experience people say they wish they could be of more help, they very often can be.” The only drink he ever refuses is a cup of coffee.

The French provincial cafe society lures Burnet in, the public intersections of life lived smoking cigarettes – but not in the dress shop –  and drinking carafes of wine, the daily set meals by which you can set your diary for pot au feu. The public life of an unremarkable Alsace town that still needs dressmakers and bank managers to make them presentable and settle their affairs.

And an inspector to keep them in order should things get out of hand, which most of the time they don’t, but 20 years ago…Burnet moves his plot like chess pieces, flashbacks to childhood and adolescence fill out his characters – there is a fair bit of fumbling in the bushes – which gives his main people an arc of a life, a memory, motivation, concerns, history…and paranoia.

As with his other works he top and tails everything with a literary conceit. He is not the author but the translator of a forgotten French novelist whose biography appears at the end and allows him to blurr lines, shift the plot box, like a dolls’ house moved one position to the right…



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