Review: Love by Roddy Doyle

9781787332287I’m a latecomer to Roddy Doyle, but was enraptured by Smile (2017) — a bleak novel about the legacy of institutional abuse in Ireland — and Charlie Savage (2019) — a collection of a year’s worth of hilarious, self-effacing and often poignant anecdotes, first published in the Irish Independent, about a middle-aged Dubliner reconciling with his own mortality. But Love is mysteriously expunged of the guffaw-inducing humour of the latter, or the shocking revelations of the former. And without either element, his latest is disappointingly bland, and by Doyle’s lofty standards, oddly prosaic.

Love shines the spotlight on two men in their late middle ages, who walk into a pub to drink and talk and reminisce. Several decades and hundreds of miles have separated Davy and Joe, but tonight they’re united, their conversation becoming increasingly drunken and sloppy, and pockmarked with revelations, the most significant (we think, until the novel’s latter stages) that Joe recently left his wife for Jessica, a woman he first met in one of the pubs he and Davy frequented in their youth.

Doyle’s the master of dialogue, and that’s showcased here, as he demonstrates the exacting nature of discourse between two emotionally stunted men, who are desperate to unveil their feelings, but burdened by the expectations of toxic masculinity. There are machinations on family and fatherhood, love and friendship, as they talk around their emotions; hide sentiment behind crude banter. Some of it is poignant, but much of it is exhausting. For a good hundred pages we are treading water, waiting for the novel to get to its point. I can’t help feeling this is a novel begging for a leaner page count.

ISBN: 9781787332287
Format: Paperback / softback
Pages: 336
Imprint: Jonathan Cape Ltd
Publisher: Vintage Publishing
Publish Date: 14-May-2020
Country of Publication: United Kingdom

The Book Ninja by Ali Berg and Michelle Kalus

book-ninja-9781925640298_hrHeartwarming, empathetic, bookish and often hilarious — a delightful read.

Romantic comedies have brought audiences to cinemas since the golden age of Hollywood, myself among them. I love watching the girl / guy chase the person they’re so bloody obviously destined to be with. I hate it when they’re not together, when things go awry, because of some dumb mistake, or because of that side-character the protagonist thought was the one finally, and the relationship you know is meant to be eternal, ends And I’m there cheering at the end when, inevitably, true love finds its way, and they’re together, presumably destined for a lifetime of happiness. And I pretend that, one day, my life will mirror that of the rom-com, that all the bad Tinder dates and awkward exchanges at bars is just the prelude to a happily ever after. So when I heard the premise of The Book Ninja by Ali Berg and Michelle Kalus — that they had penned, ostensibly, a bookish rom-com — I eagerly awaiting the arrival of a review copy. And when I got my hands on one, it immediately moved to the top of my reading stack.

I inhaled The Book Ninja in a two-hour reading binge on a flight to Hobart last weekend. Whipped through its pages like my life depended on it. Stifled guffaws of laughter, and tears that pricked my eyes. I raced through it. It’s not that Kalus and Berg’s book defies the genre’s stereotypes and ignores its tropes; it’s that it plays to them so brilliantly. This is a book that knows precisely what it wants to be — light, heartfelt, funny, and at a fundamental level, purely entertaining — and these two authors captain their ship perfectly.

Frankie Rose is desperate for love. She’s tried of online dating, and done with it. So inspired by her job at The Little Brunswick Bookshop, she decides to take fate into her own hands and embarks on the ultimate love experiment. By planting her favourite books on trains inscribed with her contact details, she hopes to lure the sophisticated, charming and well-read man of her dreams. There’s just one problem: Sunny, the stranger who has entered her life, and who seems like the perfect catch, if not for his love of the YA genre, and the hole in his heart from his past. Add in a bunch of subplots — a best friend about to give birth, Frankie’s struggles to resurrect her writing career — and there’s plenty here to keep you turning pages.

Littered with bookish references, but never too on the nose, The Book Ninja is a sheer delight from first page to last. It’s bright, funny, heartfelt, and charming — I had a blast with it, and days later, I miss its characters. Can’t ask for much more than that.

ISBN: 9781925640298
Publisher: Simon & Schuster Australia
Imprint: Simon & Schuster Australia
Publication date: June 2018

Review: Conversations With Friends by Sally Rooney

9780571334247Excitement for Sally Rooney’s debut novel spread like wildfire through Potts Point Bookshop when one of my colleagues began raving about it, calling Conversations With Friends the book for millennial women of 2017.

Honestly, it’s this close to being the book of 2017, period.

A clever, poignant, and true-to-life tale, this story about the entangled affairs of an intelligent but aloof 21-year-old woman from Dublin made me laugh and cry in equal measure. I was so enraptured in the complex relationships between Frances, Bobbi, Melissa and Nick, I read the book in a couple of sittings, and days later, I miss being in the head of Frances.

Frances, a creative-type, performs spoken-word pieces with her best friend and ex-lover, Bobbi, and have achieved a modicum of success. When acclaimed writer and photographer Melissa approaches the pair to do a profile on them, they accept. It turns out to be a defining moment of their young lives. While Bobbi is taken with Melissa, Frances becomes infatuated by her actor husband, Nick; handsome and mysterious, more than a decade older, and seemingly out of hear league. Or maybe not, because as it turns out, Nick shares her affection, and the two begin a passionate affair, complicated not only by his martial status, but stunted affection on his part, and Frances’s own self-doubt. And in the midst of this emotional turmoil — augmented by neglectful parents — Frances is forced to confront a debilitating medical problem.

Conversations With Friends is a moving, emotional masterpiece, coherently detailing the life mood and voice of a contemporary woman. This is no comforting, chocolate-box, Sunday-night TV movie; Rooney’s novel is raw and heartbreaking, punctuated with moments of great triumph and happiness. It is at once light, joyful and emotionally devastating, with a deeply affecting protagonist. A true must read, and one of the best books of the year.

ISBN: 9780571334247
Format: Paperback (216mm x 135mm x 23mm)
Pages: 336
Imprint: Faber & Faber
Publisher: Faber & Faber
Publish Date: 25-May-2017
Country of Publication: United Kingdom

Review: Almost Love by Louise O’Neill

9781784298852Louise O’Neill’s raw and powerful Almost Love follows a young woman named Sarah who falls in love fast — and hard — for a man twenty years her senior, and starts sacrificing her career, friendships, and relationships to be with him.

We have all been there, or witnessed it: a relationship destined for failure from the very start. The writing is on the wall; sometimes we’re the friend who knows this, but can’t — for the sake of the friendship — reveal our concern — and most of us have been the protagonist, invested in a romantic relationship going nowhere, certainly not the direction we want it to, but hopeful — so damn hopeful! — that our inner fears won’t be realised, that our gut instinct is wrong. We know from the very start that Sarah’s relationship with Matthew is fated to end badly, but we know what it’s like, to be in love, to think we’ve found the person who gets us, who appreciates us; or been so blinded by our own desires, our fantasy of What Could Be, that we overlook our partner’s failings. Hope overrides reality; the belief that we can change things, set a new path. Sarah is all of us, and bearing witness to her razing of everything meaningful in her life, and the erosion of her confidence, is truly agonising. There is humour throughout, certainly; but it’s the gallows kind, that only exacerbates the splintering of our hearts as Sarah’s journey unfolds.

Wry and devastating in equal measure, Almost Love is a delectable and heartbreaking tale about an all-consuming relationship gone wrong, and demonstrates how treacherous, agonising and addictive love can be; how love can be an exercise in self-sabotage, and falling for the wrong person is often akin to hitting the self-destruct button. O’Neill navigates the jagged edges of love so astutely. I loved it.

ISBN: 9781784298852
Format: Paperback (234mm x 153mm x mm)
Pages: 304
Imprint: riverrun
Publisher: Quercus Publishing
Publish Date: 8-Mar-2018
Country of Publication: United Kingdom

Review: Sisters by Lily Tuck

9781925498899With prose as sharp as broken glass, Lily Tuck’s Sisters delivers a searing psychological portrait of love in all its phases, examining marital jealousy with an unflinching, virtuosic gaze.

The unnamed narrator in Sisters is a second wife, who has inherited two teenage stepchildren she adores, and lives in the constant shadow of her husband’s former wife. The ex-wife, referred to throughout as Her and She, seems an impossible vision to live up to: seemingly intellectually superior, far more sophisticated. Could she be more promiscuous, the narrator can’t help but wonder, tallying the number of times her husband and ex-wife had sex, realising that, due to a variety of factors, it is a number she is unlikely to equal. The ex-wife is almost a completely hypothetical, spectral presence; we are provided glimpses of her personality, habits and partialities, but as Sisters is framed entirely from the narrator’s prejudiced perspective, we can’t help but wonder how many of her observations are true.

Nor is the narrator’s husband wholly realised. We get glimpses of his personality, but he ultimately comes across as incomplete and callow, which echoes her strange ambivalence towards their relationship and their marriage. So obsessed is she with the ex-wife, so skewed are her observations and understanding of the world, so incompatible is she with fitting into the role her ex-wife exited, it’s clear from the very start that things are headed for a horrible denouement.

Sisters slices straight to the heart of a marriage burdened by infidelity and obsession. It’s powerful and insightful, recounted in an elegantly wistful style that makes the sudden climax all the more impactful. Plenty of style, and despite its slimness, a lot of substance.

ISBN: 9781925498899
Format: Paperback
Pages: 180
Imprint: The Text Publishing Company
Publisher: Text Publishing Co
Publish Date: 30-Oct-2017
Country of Publication: Australia

Review: I Am, I Am, I Am: Seventeen Brushes with Death by Maggie O’Farrell

9781472240750.jpgMaggie O’Farrell’s I Am, I Am, I Am: Seventeen Brushes with Death is a love letter to life. It is a luminous, heart-wrenching, uniquely graceful and gorgeous symphony of those moments in life in which our vulnerabilities and susceptibilities come to bear. It is a testament to our perseverance against insurmountable odds, our capacity to survive, to prolong. There is an ever expanding body of literature on coming to terms with mortality, and this memoir ranks with the best. It is certainly one of the most potent.

O’Farrell frames I Am, I Am, I Am around seventeen encounters with death during her life. Some of these moments are near-escapes; many highlight the serendipity of roads not taken, of choices that might’ve been fatal; one of her most devastating evocations is her candid detailing of the difficulties her daughter faced — and will continue to face — because of a condition named anaphylaxis, and the burden this places on O’Farrell as a mother. But rather than wallowing in the inevitable hardships, O’Farrell’s piece is a testament to her daughter’s courage, and a reminder that none of us are alone, whatever our ailment or affliction. We preserve, so often by uncovering and unleashing an inner-strength we didn’t know we possessed until we reached an almost-breaking point, and  by utilising the strength of our loved ones; those who are the rocks in our lives.

I Am, I Am, I Am includes a chapter about an occasion on which O’Farrell was hospitalised, aged eight, with severe encephalitis that left her immobile and incapacitated. Doctors expected her to be permanently disabled, and there is a particular moment, when she overhears a nurse telling another patient that she is dying, that is excruciatingly hard to read. How is an eight-year-old child supposed to process this? More importantly, how is a child meant to come back from such a point, when the adults, the supreme leaders at that particular juncture of life, have given up hope? O’Farrell clearly used this memory — whether intentionally or intuitively — to shape her maternal instincts, which enabled her to better cope with her daughter’s illness. When the nurse closed the door to her room, O’Farrell was isolated, alone; forgotten. It is clear through her writing that her daughter — in fact, anybody whose life O’Farrell has touched — never will be.

I Am, I Am, I Am is a literary  milestone. Totally enthralling, masterful, and passionate, it reminds us that every minute, every second, every heartbeat is a moment to savour, to appreciate, and to enjoy. Maggie O’Farrell is such a gifted writer, and this is the kind of book you could spend hours highlighting sentences and whole paragraphs of. By the time you were done, you’d likely find more highlighted sections than non-highlighted ones. I Am, I Am, I Am is provocative, moving and essential reading. For young, for old, for everyone.

ISBN: 9781472240750
Format: Paperback (216mm x 135mm x mm)
Pages: 304
Imprint: Tinder Press
Publisher: Headline Publishing Group
Publish Date: 22-Aug-2017
Country of Publication: United Kingdom

Review: The Upside Of Unrequited by Becky Albertalli

9780141356112 (1)Becky Albertalli follows up her brilliant debut Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda with a fresh and poignant adolescent love story starring eternally lovelorn seventeen-year-old Molly Peskin-Suso. Set against the backdrop of the legalisation of gay marriage in America and the planning of her mothers’subsequent nuptials, The Upside of Unrequited is a heartfelt and bittersweet reminder of the pain and exhilaration of first love.

The Upside of Unrequited works because of its characters. There is never any doubt as to the story’s endpoint; this is a universal tale of burgeoning romance, of choosing the right guy over the obvious one, and overcoming your insecurities and being comfortable with who you are. What makes it stand out is its diverse cast, and the deftness with which this diversity is handled.  Albertalli doesn’t overemphasize her characters’ sexual orientation, ethnicity, mental health or size; they’re just elements vividly melded into her story. Every character is well-drawn and relatable.

Molly’s teen angst might prove grating for some readers — it’s tuned to the nth degree, intentionally so — but thankfully before it gets too much she finds a dose of confidence, and the plot shifts into a different gear, and instead of focusing on a possible romance, it becomes about managing newfound romance.

The Upside of Unrequited is a searingly honest book about the power and beauty of first love; and the turmoil involved in discovering it, and accepting it. It deals with some heavy themes and big issues, but never at the expense of its characters. Becky Albertalli’s second novel is another winner.

ISBN: 9780141356112
Format: Paperback (198mm x 129mm x mm)
Pages: 368
Imprint: Penguin Books Ltd
Publisher: Penguin Books Ltd
Publish Date: 11-Apr-2017
Country of Publication: United Kingdom

Oh, Valentine’s Day

Oh, Valentines Day. A day of unmet expectations. Or inappropriately exceeding expectations – guilty! – when there were none in the first place.

(Because nothing is more awkward than giving someone flowers on Valentine’s Day and getting the text message: “Thanks. That’s sweet. X.” as a response. We, uh, never spoke again).

For those in established, long-term relationships, it can feel like an obligation. Not that either partner hates showering their loved ones with affection; just, why does it have to be on this day, this corporate holiday? Grrr!

For blossoming romances, it’s a chance to go all out. To make it official: we’re boyfriend-girlfriend! Or boyfriend-boyfriend. Or girlfriend-girlfriend. Whatever! As of right now! With these flowers! We’re a thing! It’s real!

Despite it’s corporateness, I love Valentine’s Day. Few days embolden me more to stew in my own personal cocktail of insecurity, honesty, immodesty and self-deprecation. It’s designed for those in fledging relationships, or aspiring romances, to take a chance. Yeah, go on. Send those flowers! Send that card! Tell her you like her!

Oh, it’s not reciprocated? That’s OK. It’s Valentine’s Day. We’re all a little love-crazed on Valentine’s Day. It’s fine. Normalcy resumes tomorrow.

One of my ill-famed Valentine’s Day moments (of which there is a phone book) occurred just out of High School. This girl and I, we weren’t going out yet, but there was a spark, I was sure of it. Or at least, pretty sure. There was maybe a spark. Possibly. One minute I’d think, Yeah, something’s here, and the next I’d think, God, what are you thinking?! But on this Valentine’s Day I woke up thinking: this is it. Time to do something huge. Time to make my move.

It was time to send flowers.

There were problems with this plan. Firstly, I couldn’t afford flowers. Secondly, I was petrified of delivering them: what would I say when she answered the door? What would I say if a parent answered the door?! Thirdly, how would I get to her place? I didn’t drive. The answer was my mum and dad. Which added a fourth problem: telling my parents I liked a girl, and dealing with the repercussions.

Anyway, to cut it short: I borrowed money from my parents, got a lift from them, and arrived at the girl’s house… where I promptly dropped the flowers on the front veranda and dashed back to the car. I don’t think I screamed “Go! Go! Go!” at my mum, but I probably wanted to. Then I whipped out my phone and texted her something like: “Left flowers on your veranda. Hope you like them.” Or something similarly poetic. And I probably added a smiley emoticon, because when your heart is all aflutter, emoji’s work wonders. It worked out OK in the end, though. Somehow. Miraculously. Well, for a while.

I totally get that there are those who view Valentine’s Day as a day of required love, and abhor it for that reason. I guess I have this inexplicable partiality for seeing people loved-up. Not that I want to witness their public displays of affection, you understand, but there is something very unifying and heartening about seeing couples holding hands, leaning into each other, roses, or another gift, in hand.

Some days it feels like the world is full of hate and bitterness. Valentine’s Day might be infested with corporateness, and for those without that ‘special someone’ (and especially those who, quite frankly, don’t want a ‘special someone’), the whole day can feel like a gigantic Fuck You. But there are too few days that encourage humanity to showcase their love and affection for one another. I can’t help but bask in it.

Although the day we shatter status quo on marriage in this country and let any two people wed will make it absolutely pale in comparison.