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Book review

“Outline” by Rachel Cusk – book review

One-sentence review: A quiet, thoughtful and seductive look into other people’s fears and relationships. 

Slightly longer review:

Outline has received rave reviews from seemingly everyone for two main reasons. Firstly, it’s beautifully written. Secondly, it is not a normal novel.

Although it’s written in the first person, the entire book is made up of stories that are told to the narrator, a female writing teacher running a course in Athens.

The cast of confidants – from an aging Greek lothario who sits next to her on the plane to Athens right through to her many varied students, friends and friends of friends – all divulge (and sometimes confess) to her stories of broken relationships, fears and preoccupations.

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Book review

“French Exit” by Patrick deWitt – book review

One-sentence review: like a PG Wodehouse comedy but with a darker edge.

Slightly longer review:

Calling a novel about a woman’s self-destruction light, funny and enjoyable sounds messed up – and yet somehow, with a surprisingly deft touch – that’s exactly what Patrick deWitt achieved with French Exit.

As with PG Wodehouse, deWitt takes aim at those so wealthy they don’t need to work – and like Wodehouse, he does so with gentle good humour. Those after a biting attack on the 1 per cent might need to find another book.

Instead, you find yourself feeling for the sharp-tongued Frances, who thrives on scandal and lives with her 32-year-old oddball son Malcolm in a swish New York suite – until she runs out of money and they have to flee to Paris with their cat, Little Frank.

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Book review

“Vernon God Little” by DBC Pierre – book review

One-sentence review: A jaw-droppingly brilliant comic novel.

Slightly longer review:

You don’t need my review to know this book is good – I mean, it did win the frickin’ Booker Prize in 2003.

And yet I somehow managed to avoid reading this until just now – and it’s so great, so unbelievably good, that I just had to write a mini review to say … wow. 

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Book review

“Hot Milk” by Deborah Levy – book review

One-sentence review: languorous, mysterious and evocative with a dark twist.

Slightly longer review:

A young woman uncertain of herself is in a coastal Spanish town so she can take her cranky hypochondriac mother to a specialist who might be a crank himself.

In some ways this is a coming-of-age novel, as Sofia falls in love with the mysterious and imperious Ingrid, has blissful love-free sex with the young man who treats jellyfish stings at the beach, and she contemplates what to do with her anthropology studies while using anthropology as a frame with which to study her confusing world.

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Book review

“The New Me” by Halle Butler – book review

One-sentence review: A caustic tale of modern life, with its alienation, bad friends and dreams of self improvement.

Slightly longer review:

As children, we often think books ought to be about larger than life characters: adventurers, royalty, vampires and magicians. 

Yet when we’re older and our dreams of becoming rock stars, professional athletes or Hollywood actors have dissolved, it’s the life-size characters that often resonate: the office worker, the lonely, the depressed and – in the case of The New Me, it’s all three.

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Book review

“Ask the Dust” by John Fante – book review

Far before J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye and John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces, there was an author writing about young misfits with flair and passion: John Fante.

In the 1930s Fante began a series of novels starring Arturo Bandini, a delusional, obnoxious, socially incompetent and penniless wannabe writer who is, I am afraid to say, someone I relate far too closely to. Fante’s first novel, The Road to Los Angeles, was rejected and unpublished until after his death in 1985. The second, Wait Until Spring, Bandini (1938), gained critical praise but it was his third – Ask the Dust (1939) – that was a work of genius.

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Book review

“A Manual for Cleaning Women” by Lucia Berlin – book review

One sentence review: the most beautifully written, moving and yet sweetly humorous collection of short stories I can remember reading.

Slightly longer review

I’ve recently read two collections of short stories by authors championed by Black Sparrow Press: A Manual for Cleaning Women by Lucia Berlin and The Bell Tolls for No One by Charles Bukowski.

On a superficial level there ought to be similarities: both authors were alcoholic underground writers who wrote about the low life with thinly-veiled versions of themselves as narrators. And yet in terms of style, heart, intelligence and maturity there is a world of difference between them.

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Book review

“Permanent Record” by Mary H.K. Choi – book review

One sentence review: Witty. Moving. Enveloped me whole. I adored this novel.

Slightly longer review:

I didn’t expect to like this.

The plot seemed cliched: a celebrity who falls for a norm. As with most celeb meets norm stories (think Notting Hill), the celeb walks into the norm’s workplace (in this case a New York bodega), the norm doesn’t recognise the celebrity, likes them anyway and sparks fly.

And then I read the first few sentences – and they were so well written that I bought the book on the off-chance I was wrong about the plot. I was, and I fell in love.

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Book review

“What Makes Sammy Run?” by Budd Schulberg – book review

My favourite description of someone writing under the influence doesn’t come from Hemingway, Bukowski or any of the usual suspects – instead, it’s from the fourth page of What Makes Sammy Run? by Budd Schulberg.

Published in 1941, this satire of success revolves around Sammy Glick, an insatiably ambitious copyboy who rapidly becomes a Hollywood mogul due to sheer shamelessness and chutzpah. Compared to him, Entourage’s Ari Gold is a mild-mannered pussy.

Sammy is an unsympathetic force of nature – but what anchors this novel is the narrator, Al Manheim, a newspaper hack who watches Sammy’s meteoric rise through whiskey-tinted lenses.