Various Pets Alive and Dead – Marina Lewycka

April 6, 2012

This review was originally published on the excellent LiteraryMinded.  Thanks to Angela Meyer for the opportunity, and the free book.

The title of Various Pets Alive and Dead might make you think it involves lots of cute animal stories and some kind of furry genocide. Instead, it’s a very political novel about the global financial crisis and the failure of the leftist ideals, played out through the intergenerational conflict of a family of hippy-commune escapees. This probably doesn’t sound like the most fertile ground for a comic novel, but its author, Marina Lewycka, milks the politics for as many laughs as possible, and even manages to throw in the odd ill-fated hamster or doomed family of rabbits.

Lewycka’s fourth novel, Various Pets Alive and Dead tells the story of Serge and Clara, and their mother Dora, who, along with her partner Marcus and the other quirky members of their collective, raised her children in an old country house on a healthy diet of free love, socialism and lentils. Read the rest of this entry »


Absolutely Crabb-ulous! – The political commentary of Annabel Crabb

December 17, 2011

Who she is

ABC’s chief online political writer. She is insightful, informed and frank, but her greatest asset is her wit, which makes the dry stuff of politics accessible and fun. Also brings her warmth and enthusiasm to TV on Insiders and The Drum.  Read her columns here.

What I love (feel the need to add “about her writing and commentary” before this gets creepy)

Her conversational style and bitingly funny, deadly-accurate pop-culture similes lay bare the absurdities, hypocrisies, challenges and, very occasionally, triumphs of the Australian Democratic system. On Julia Gillard:

“Where her predecessor ached to be popular, this prime minister has made unpopularity into something of a personal art form. There’s a compelling, almost cinematic quality to her determination; it’s like watching a slalom downhill skier deliberately hitting every peg.”

Tells it like it is. Keeps it real. Straight up OG (Observer of Government). Her style brings politics down a peg to a more engaging, honest level:

“that [the mining tax] did not apply to ordinary activity but only to the whoopingly, hilariously over-profitable kind, was not fully understood during the Mining Tax Massacre of 2010.”

And being such a clear communicator, one of her chief hates is obfuscation. As she puts it, “give me a clanger-dropper over a fudger any day.” Read the rest of this entry »

About a Boy – Nick Hornby

October 16, 2011

image courtesy of LibraryThing

I tore through About a Boy in a couple of days, even staying up late into the night to finish it, which I haven’t done in ages.  This isn’t to say that it’s the best book I’ve read in the past year, but it is the most readable, largely thanks to its very British sense of humour.  I haven’t read a lot of books whose priority is to be funny, but those that I have, such as The Finkler Question, seem to use the same kind of humour, full of understatement, overstatement and comically frank descriptions.  And like The Finkler Question, About A Boy isn’t just aiming to make you laugh: it also has something to say about some pretty dark themes, and late 20th Century England.

It does this by focusing on the unlikely friendship between Marcus, a socially awkward twelve year old burdened with a chronically depressed mother, and Will, a thirty-six year old man-child who lives a care-free life on the royalties of a Christmas pop-song written by his father.  The two meet at a picnic for single parents: Marcus is there with one of his mum’s friends; Will is there because he has fabricated a son to pick-up single mothers. Read the rest of this entry »

Breakfast of Champions – Kurt Vonnegut

August 19, 2011

Breakfast of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut

There are a hell of alot of interesting things going on in Breakfast of Champions: a distinctive authorial style that challenges fictional conventions, insightful social commentary, and an exploration of the relationship between fiction and determinism.  But because all these ideas are held together by a weak plot, the whole ends up being less than the parts.

The plot revolves around a science fiction writer, Kilgore Trout, who has “doodley-squat”, and a Pontiac dealer, Dwayne Hoover, who is “fabulously well-to-do”.  We are told that, in the future, the American Academy of Arts and Science will recognise Kilgore Trout as a great man for both his writing and his often hilarious insights, such as this:

“…we can build an unselfish society by devoting to unselfishness the frenzy we once devoted to gold and underpants.”

In the time period covered by the book, however, no one has heard of Kilgore trout, and his stories have only been published in porno magazines.  He’s surprised, then, when he is invited to speak at the Midlands Arts festival by someone who thinks that he’s written the greatest novel in the English language.

Meanwhile, bad chemicals in Dwayne Hoover’s head are sending him insane.   When he hears Kilgore Trout read one of his stories at the Arts Festival, it gives shape to his madness and he goes on a homicidal rampage. Read the rest of this entry »

The Finkler Question – Howard Jacobson

February 22, 2011

The Finkler Question by Howard Jacobson

The Finkler Question won the 2010 Man Booker Prize, and received glowing reviews from in The Guardian and The New York Times, but if the luke-warm response from my book club and the three star rating on is anything to go by, this book typifies the chasm between critics and the everyday literature reader.

This is not to say that Howard Jacobson’s novel is terrible.  It is funny and well written with some fantastic, witty similes.  But it also self-conscious and trying, and has a central theme which many readers will not engage with. Read the rest of this entry »