Book Review: The Vegetarian by Han Kang

The VegetarianThe Vegetarian by Han Kang
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

*Spoiler alert* – describes elements of the plot of the novel.

Despite the title, this is a novel, not a cookbook, and it is not so much about a vegetarian as about a woman with severe anorexia and mental illness. The book won the Man Booker International prize 2016. The author, Han Kang is from Gwangju, South Korea. The translation from Korean is by Deborah Smith.

To me, the book is somewhat cold and dispassionate. I never really felt involved with any of the characters. The story is told in three parts. The first part tells of Yeong-hye’s loveless marriage to an autocratic, chauvinist husband, Mr. Cheong, and her decision to become vegetarian. The decision sets off a series of destructive events involving her husband, her parents, her sister and her brother-in-law. It would seem that vegetarianism has a long way to go towards being accepted in Korea. The second part takes us into the sister’s marriage, and the brother in law’s artistic obsession. This section climaxes in the full breakdown of relationships. The third section looks at Yeong-hye’s mental illness and descent into physical and mental breakdown.

Some of the coldness of the book may come from it being translated from Korean. I’m not doubting the translator’s skill, but it may be that there are more subtleties and more colour in the original. Or maybe not. The book describes a still highly paternalistic society. Yeong-hye’s anorexia is clearly a reaction to her upbringing, her oppressive marriage and the rigidity of Korean society.

This is not an enjoyable book and I am not sure I would have picked it as a major prize winner. The writing is, to me, a bit heavy-handed, and the plot, at times, stretches credulity. It does however provide interesting insights into a paternalistic society and the mind of an anorexic.

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Book Review: (Sometimes you just want an easy read) “A Clubbable Woman” by Reginald Hill


Sometimes you just want some pulp fiction, a “whodunnit”, an easy to read detective novel. That’s my excuse for spending time reading this book. I’ve given it 2 stars, but it could easily be one star. Really it’s rubbish, but I have to admit I kept reading it to see “whodunnit?”.

I’ve only occasionally caught bits of TV episodes of “Dalziel and Pascoe”, who are the detectives in this novel. I’ve heard positive reviews of it, and of the books. This book was the first in the D&P series.

It was written in 1970, and shows its age. The attitudes of the males seem almost prehistoric, though this might be exaggerated by the rugby club environment around which much of the action centres. The women are not much better, mostly being sex obsessed housewives who go to the rugby club to flirt with men.

What astounded me most was the incredibly clumsy manipulations of plot and character in order to achieve a solution to the crime. Stray characters and events are introduced at seemingly random points in order to enable an event to occur, or a piece of information to surface, or an item to be found. It really did remind me of the Cluedo game: Colonel Mustard in the library with the lead pipe. The eventual explanation of the murder was so ridiculous as to be laughable.

The book served its purpose in keeping me occupied for a few evenings, but doesn’t make me want to read any more by the author. Perhaps the sort of thing to read during a long airport stopover.

Book Review: “Beatlebone” by Kevin Barry


I heard about “Beatlebone” on a RTE (Radio Telefis Eireann) radio review of the best Irish books of 2015. It was rated in the top 10 of the year. The story sounded intriguing: a fictional recreation of John Lennon’s visit to my father’s home county of Mayo, in the west of Ireland. Lennon actually did buy a tiny island, Dorinish, off the coast of Mayo in 1967 for less than 1700 pounds. He only visited it once, but encouraged the “King of the Hippies”, Sid Rawle to establish a commune there in 1970.

In “Beatlebone”, Lennon is desperate to get to Dorinish for three days of solitude, to try to regain his sanity. In the process, he is driven around by a darkly weird Irish driver, Cornelius, who seems intent on delaying more than assisting Lennon. There are interludes in strange country pubs, in Cornelius’s house, at an Achill island hotel, the Amethyst, which is inhabited by three even weirder inhabitants and in a London recording studio, where Lennon is trying to record a new, experimental album.

During the journey, Lennon delves into his childhood, the loss of his parents, his time in an orphanage and his teenage sexual encounters. We learn about ‘scream therapy’ and ‘ranting’. Perhaps the most amusing interlude is his ‘ranting’ session with the inhabitants of the abandoned Amethyst Hotel.

Barry seems to have been influenced by my favourite Irish comic author, Flann O’Brien (I once lived in the basement of the house in Blackrock where Flann had lived), in particular by the brilliant “The Third Policeman” – the driver, Cornelius would fit well alongside the third policeman himself. But for me, Barry does not achieve the construction of a dark, bizarrely humorous world as convincingly as Flann did. The idioms used, both Liverpudlian and Irish don’t always ring true. The characters are not as well drawn. The story is not as funny. Clearly Barry is also channelling James Joyce with lengthy ‘stream of consciousness’ passages.

In the very middle of the book, Barry inserts a chapter of commentary about his own trip to Mayo, which gave him the idea for the book. On coming to this chapter, I thought I’d reached the end of the book, and that this was an author’s endnote. Why he chose to put it in the middle of the book I have no idea. Didn’t work for me.

‘Beatlebone’ held my attention until about halfway through and then I became impatient. Perhaps the mid-book author’s note was disruptive, or perhaps it’s just not that really interesting or well told a story.



Book Review: “TransAtlantic” by Colum McCann

TransAtlanticTransAtlantic by Colum McCann

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Colum McCann’s “Transatlantic” uses characters who travel between America and Ireland during major historical events: the first flight by Alcock and Brown from Newfoundland to Galway in 1919; the public speaking tour of Ireland by ex-slave Frederick Douglass in 1845; U.S. Senator George Mitchell’s brokering of the Good Friday agreement of 1998. The novel loops back and forward in time and between continents, tracking descendants of the main characters and showing how their predecessors’ actions affect their lives.

Clearly McCann has done significant research into these events. By looking at them from ‘inside the heads’ of the characters, McCann does not try to fool us into a belief in complete historical accuracy – rather he is imagining a possible perspective on the inner lives of these major figures. I found the depiction of Belfast towards the end of ‘the Troubles’, particularly convincing, maybe because I’ve spent time in Northern Ireland. He never names George Mitchell, but the portrait is a highly empathetic one.

In the acknowledgements, at the end of the book, McCann thanks George and Heather Mitchell and Tony Blair amongst others, for their help in writing the book. For a novelist to gain direct access to such major figures is remarkable.

McCann writes beautifully. Each period is conjured up convincingly: a lengthy and horrific description of Douglass’s trip across Ireland during the Famine; Alcock and Brown’s flight and eventual landing on the west coast of Ireland; Mitchell’s negotiations in Stormont – these are passages which have great authenticity.

A book well worth reading, which encourages you to dig deeper into the events on which it is based.

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Book Review: “Deloume Road” by Matthew Hooton

Deloume RoadDeloume Road by Matthew Hooton
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I met Matt Hooton at a recent Adelaide literary event, where he read some of his work. He reads very well, in an almost hypnotic, low-key way. I got talking to him briefly afterwards, and discovered he came from Vancouver Island. I cycled up Vancouver Island about 10 years ago, and rode through the area of Mill Bay where his book, “Deloume Road” is set.  I bought a copy that night which Matt signed for me.

The story focusses on the lives of a handful of characters who live on Deloume Road. The chapters are short, each centering on one character. Almost every chapter commences with an event from the previous chapter, but from a different character’s perspective. I thought this worked very well. It reminded me of a poetic form, the pantoum, where lines from a stanza repeat in the next stanza, and so a sort of connecting loop or thread is established. Each chapter is short, making the book a relatively easy read. The author builds strong images of the events of one summer on the island.

The characters are well constructed, and I found myself caring about them, which is not always the case with books I’ve read recently: two brothers, one of whom is handicapped in some way; their best friend, a clumsy lad; another boy, with abusive parents; a Korean woman who married a local man; a refugee from Europe working as the local butcher; a veteran of the Korean war; the veteran’s wife.

Towards the end I felt that the author was telegraphing the conclusion, but then it took a somewhat different turn. Even so, the ending was perhaps not as strong as the rest of the book.

Overall, a very good read, especially for what I believe is Matt’s first, and so far only, novel.

Matt’s website is: Matthew Hooton

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Book Review – “The Book of Strange New Things” by Michel Faber

The Book of Strange New ThingsThe Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I heard Michel Faber talk at Adelaide Writers Week 2015, and was very impressed. There was some discussion about this book, which encouraged me to obtain and read it.

The book had the potential to be really irritating for an atheist like me, almost to the point of giving up after a few dozen pages. It tells the story of a reformed alcoholic / drug addict, Peter, who has become a full-on evangelical Christian preacher. He wins a job with a huge corporation called USIC to be minister to a race of aliens on a distant planet. Now my logical mind was able to believe in the existence of such a planet and such an alien population. But I found it hard to believe that Peter would never find out what USIC stood for, or why they were engaged in this distant project, or what exactly happened to his predecessor.

Still, I was mostly hooked by the story, despite spells of irritation. The irritation mostly revolved around Peter’s total naivety and impracticality, which contrasted starkly with his wife left behind on earth to face an imploding western civilisation. I also found it hard to believe in the coldness and passivity of the USIC staff at the interplanetary base. Some of the technical aspects were also a touch hard to swallow. And for an atheist, reading a book where many of the characters are called “Jesus Lover”, is also a challenge.

Despite these reservations, I mostly enjoyed the book. It’s an interesting and original premise, the pacing is good, and it holds the reader’s interest right through.

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Book Review – “The Free” by Willy Vlautin

The FreeThe Free by Willy Vlautin
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I heard Willy Vlautin speak at Adelaide Writers Week 2015. A likeable, engaging, laid back man he is, as you’d expect from an alt-country singer/songwriter. He spoke passionately about the fate of brain damaged ex-servicemen in the U.S.A., mostly struggling to survive under the huge burdens of medical expenses and depression.

“The Free” is about one such ex-serviceman, but also about other working poor and marginalised people struggling to keep their heads above water in neo-con America.

It does paint a gripping picture of their lives. But I struggled at times to follow the narrative, which switches between reality and anaesthetic induced dreams. It is in the dreams that the concept of “The Free” is introduced – apparently a band of tea-party type vigilantes (I think). It didn’t quite work for me and left me dissatisfied. But an author worth following.

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Book Review – “2666” by Roberto Bolano

26662666 by Roberto Bolaño
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’ve heard this book mentioned in hushed tones in recent years; the way the people refer to “Ulysses” (James Joyce’s that is) i.e. an epic, a revolutionary book.

I sort of agree, but have some nagging doubts. Bolano was Chilean, and wrote in Spanish. So bearing in mind that this is a translation, the first thing that strikes you is the extraordinary beauty and complexity of the language. There are passages that take your breath away. There are passages (like “Ulysses”) which extend a sentence over several pages with little or no punctuation.

It is a very long book (neary 900 pages), and you often wonder where it is going. On the other hand, it is somehow very readable. Split into 5 sections (which may have originally been intended as 5 separate books), it ranges back and forth between continents and periods, with a large cast of characters, making it, at times, difficult to follow.

It primarily traces the life of a fictional obscure novelist, Archimboldi, and the efforts of three academics experts to find him. A large part of the book is set in Mexico in a city with an epidemic of feminicide (based on the real Mexican city of Ciudad Juárez).

I’m glad I read it, and can honestly say I enjoyed it. But I have a nagging doubt that maybe, just maybe, it is highly pretentious.

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Book Review: “Times Long Ruin” by Stephen Orr


Time’s Long Ruin
by Stephen Orr

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

How can you make a story “gripping” when the outcome is well known? Somehow Stephen Orr manages to achieve this. Many Australians, especially Adelaideans, know about the Beaumont children. This book is loosely based on their story, with some significant changes, the most obvious being names and exact locations. Nevertheless, the incident on which the story is based is unmistakable to most Australians over the age of 40.

Orr recasts the story, from the point of view of the next door neighbour and best friend of the children, who is now adult, looking back on his childhood. The boy’s father also happens to be a police detective, which allows Orr to provide a full picture of the police investigation.

The book beautifully re-creates a suburban community in the 1960s. This is its strength really, and you learn as much about life in that small part of Adelaide as you do about the children themselves.

There are parallel threads running through the book: the family lives of the boy, of his neighbours, of the railway crossing operator, of the local chiropractor. Orr paints their lives with great warmth and insight.

It’s a very good book indeed: both as a gripping page turner, but also as a historical perspective on what may have been a turning point in Australian society – the point at which trust and community began to disappear.

My only criticism is that perhaps the book is a bit long. Then again, I was never tempted to skip over sections.

Highly recommended

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Book Review “Not the Same Sky” by Evelyn Conlon

Not the Same Sky

Not the Same Sky by Evelyn Conlon
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is the third Wakefield Press book I’ve read within the last month. The first two ‘flowed’ – there was something about the writing style that made me want to carry on reading, something about the stories that drew me in. I did not quite have the same experience with “Not the Same Sky”. Although the story eventually captivated me, it felt somewhat disjointed.

This is maybe partly due to Conlon’s writing style and perhaps because the plot is unnecessarily layered. For me the story is about the girls who were shipped from Ireland to Australia. I wanted to know more about them, to go into their characters more deeply. Just as I thought this was happening, Conlon veered off into the life of the ship’s surgeon who cared for them on their trip. Whilst he is an interesting character, I felt deprived of information about the girls. And then wrapped around these stories is a thinner story about the current day Irish stonemason who travels to Sydney to consider a memorial for the girls. This seemed superfluous to me.

It’s an epic tale, and almost succeeds, but left me dissatisfied and feeling that the books was more of an effort than it could have been; that the story was not given full justice.

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