The Curing of a Bibliomaniac Part 21: The Mystery of Swordfish Reef (Arthur W. Upfield, 1943)

Books left: 5. Weeks left: 8 (In the words of Douglas Adams, DON’T PANIC)

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Oh no, this was not his natural background, this heaving water which retained nothing on its surface for long. This was 11 January, and the genesis of the case, dated 3 October, was out here far from land. Life and the elements leave their records on the bush for years; but here on the sea life and the elements left no record for even such as he to read.
In all his bush cases he had many allies: the birds and the insects; the ground which was like the pages of a huge book wherein were printed the acts of all living things; the actions of rain and sunlight and wind. And greater than all these added together was his ally Time. And now of all his former allies only Time was with him.

Here lies another author I would never have discovered without working in ye olde secondhand bookshop and being familiar with its ‘literary crime’ section.

Books of this genre are characterised by their size, being neither the new-release “trade paperback” size or the pocket “A-formats” that generally follow. Literary crime novels are usually “B-format,” the same size as your literary fiction, and as they never fit in the general and crime fiction “troughs” so were generally poked into their own sad little section underneath that no-one saw. This was a shame, because these are some of the best books: a little off the beaten track in content as well as location, they represented the best of both worlds. Arthur Upfield proves that this holds true now as ever, a classic example of this rather unlikely genre: this Australian 1940s author’s hero is detective inspector Napoleon Bonaparte, investigator extraordinaire, bush tracker unparalleled and identified as was in those days called a “half-caste” Aborigine.

Upfield’s mysteries have earned their place as classics in Australian as well as crime fiction.

In this title “Bony”, as he prefers to be called, is asked to go to sea, a little swordfishing town called Bermagui on the coast of New South Wales, He must investigate a murder that appears to have occurred on the open water, and that has baffled the local and regional police.

I wondered for the first part whether I would be bored. I am not a particular fan of things angling or any stories that smell of the ocean – for someone who pities genre snobs, I sure do avoid general thrillers and seafaring fiction.

But the passion and suspense of hunting game fish, with all accompanying bloodlust, is masterfully done in this book. I, poor innocent, soon realised that swordfish were not the two or three-foot jobs I had imagined and I quickly became fascinated. I did a lot of Google-imaging before I was sated.

What begins as a charmingly dignified old-school mystery ends in a satisfying wash of adventure.
Without having even familiarised myself with Bony’s usual stomping-ground, I am delighted by the story of his being a fish (ha!) out of water.

When I am in my native bush, gentlemen … everything I observe, except the clouds, is static. On the sea nothing is static. A ship does not leave tracks on the sea.

And oh, the mystery! I was quickly sucked into this tale, with its distinctly Agatha-Christie type premise of a fishing launch, the Do-me, that vanishes without a trace, and the discovery of the murder of one of those aboard when we know she was seaworthy and those on her trustworthy. Like Marple or Poirot, Bony adores a puzzle such as this.

And so, having read all their reports and having gone through their collection of statements, I decided that this was a meaty bone on which to try the teeth of my brain.
It is certainly an out of the way case. I have to admit that I shy clear of crimes of violence where there are fingerprints and revolvers, bodies and missing valuables, and a nark or two in a thieves’ kitchen waiting to inform for the price of a beer. I like my cases minus bodies and minus clues, if possible. Which is why this
Do-me case so attracts me.

Bony is like my beloved Poirot, too, in his immaculate turnout, grand manner and “abnormal vanity” and lack of bother about things like procedure or the chain of custody; “his custom [much like Poirot’s] being to fade away after having placed the key-stone of an investigation into position.”

A note on historical context – apart from the occasional alarming use of the word half-caste, which is to the modern reader the equivalent of throwing a grenade on to the page; and a slightly hair-raising instance of Bony’s “Aboriginal instincts” rising up in a time of extremity to allow a “primitive” rage to rise to the surface, these instances are in exception to the general tone of the book, which has minimal reference to Bony’s origins, apart from the occasional pointing out the lack of prejudice other characters greet him with once they witness his “educated” voice and elegant manners. Perhaps in the other books’ more landlocked settings the racial elements are more pronounced.

Add to Upfield’s masterful mystery and delightful hero a pretty turn of phrase, and like a swordfish, I’m hooked. (Sorry, I’ll stop.).

I have found another crime writer I love… as if I needed one.

More on The Curing of a Bibliomaniac here.

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The Curing of a Bibliomaniac Part 20: Noah’s Ark (Barbara Trapido, 1984)

Books left: 6. Weeks left: 10 (home stretch!)

IMAG0637It may well be that somewhere there is a book lover who only cares about the actual content of the books and not about how they look.

 

 

I am not that one.

Part of why I turned into this raging pathological bibliomaniac in the first place is because I love the whole package of a book. I love how the judicious choice of jacket quotes on a really attractive and striking and original and appropriate cover design can combine to scream at the susceptible bibliophile PICK ME UP AND RAVISH, I MEAN READ, ME. GO ON, DO ME UNTIL I’M IN TATTERS.

I love how the collaboration between a literary and a visual art can collide in a way that communicates something entirely new and individual about the contents of the book. And when they get shabby and crinkly and old, I love that too. I love yellowed pages and cardboard covers weathered with a series of fine lines, just like an ageing face, and ones bearing illustrations so reminiscent of their era in their designs and their fonts that they are attractive just like a fifties pin-up. Such books age beautifully, like Jessica Lang, or a nice bottle of red.

A good book with a bad cover is like an important news story without a photograph or with a boring headline. It’s a shame and a waste because ain’t nobody going to read it.

I’ve loved Barbara Trapido since I was a whippersnapper but the only reason I knew to collect her titles is because I happened to read The Travelling Hornplayer when I was aforementioned whippersnapper and the Matriarch and I both read all the same books. This stage of my life followed the stage in which all my books were about ponies and improbably fun English boarding schools.

So it’s lucky I stumbled across Trapido then through the Matriarch, because I certainly wouldn’t pick up one of these books today based on their covers. Just look at those covers. They look as though the publisher’s ten-year-old offspring thought it was a great idea and no one else in the meeting dared to disagree. The colours are ugly and clashing, the drawings unappealing, the font horrendous. The designs are eyesores, to my mind.

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Some more of my Trapido titles, still with rather bad covers.

 

 

Now I’ve eaten up half my word count with a rant I’ll make the review short and sweet.

This is essentially the story of the unlikely marriage of an odd couple – but an oddly perfect one.

But Trapido is a surprising author. One moment you think of her as like a nanny who talks a lot about gender roles and the next she reveals herself as a titillating storyteller who conjures up a superlatively immediate romance, complete with the c-word and plenty of orgasms.

Her dialogue and general prose is constantly gigglesome. You are always smiling to yourself, but it’s too hard to pick a bit to read aloud to someone to share the pleasure because you need the effect of reading the sentence before that bit and the sentence after that bit and before you know it you have read out loud a whole four pages and the Ministry has fallen asleep.

Any Trapido is a great suggestion for book club: short enough that those members who balk at a book over 200 pages will not be frightened, and so easy and fun everyone will finish it for once and you can discuss the ending without anyone saying they don’t want any spoilers because they only have a “few chapters to go”. It is intelligent and literary enough to feel like you are reading literary fiction worthy of a book club and with a few discussion points, but it is close enough to general fiction that there will be no disagreements about what something Meant, and the discussion will soon end in you all quaffing more wine and gargling more cheese (as Bridget Jones would say) and saying how great the choice was and then turning to mindless gossip.

You’d have to be made of stone not to enjoy this. It’s effortless, sexy and relentlessly funny. I dragged out the last few pages, not wanting it to end, and felt all disgruntled for at least two days that I couldn’t read it any more but had to pick something else.

Keep or kill? This one is a win for the Project. I have now read all of the titles of Trapido’s I own and have pictured (except Juggling, the one with the dreadful watercolour, or whatever it is, of clowns, or whatever they are.) So I’ll keep that one to read and get rid of the rest, because let’s face it, these are not collectable editions. It’s hardly a set of matching Ian Rankins, for instance. Hurrah! Another pile bites the dust.

The Curing of a Bibliomaniac Part 19: On Beauty (Zadie Smith, 2005); a.k.a Books on a Plane.

Books left: 7. Weeks left: 11 (every little thing is gonna be all right). 

The greatest lie ever told about love is that it sets you free.

Airport fiction at its finest.

Airport fiction at its finest.

This book and I spent eight hours stuck at Sydney airport together and we’re still friends.

With the innocence of fools and babies, the Ministry and I got on a plane bound home to Perth at the end of a nice weekend away, with no aim more ambitious than watching a better movie than Annabelle, which we had watched on the outbound flight. But the plane needed refuelling, then it needed its tyre changed or something, then the computer that looks at the tyres blew up or something, so after an hour of sitting on the plane the staff apologetically chucked us all off again and told us to await more information. For the next eight hours.

So, we went and spent $70 on lunch, because by then I was a slavering, enraged beast, and quite a bit more money on espresso martinis and beer (respectively) and then they told us we could have a $16 voucher each to spend on food, but we had to wait in line for an hour for that, and by the time we got them we were full of food and vodka and beer, and not hungry any more, but by then I was damn well going to spend every cent of those vouchers, and went to a cafe where I bought $32 worth of hedgehog slices, flavoured bagels and bottled water, which I jealously squirreled into my hand luggage.

By the time the replacement flight finally left we were bleary and greasy and our fellow passengers, who had been shouting angrily and shaking their fists at airport staff two hours before, chattered animatedly as we waited for takeoff.

A cheer actually went up when the plane finally left the ground (and again when it was announced we’d get free booze to take the edge off our suffering. Perhaps judiciously, they were very slow about delivering the free booze, with the result that the Ministry and I spent about 12-13 hours hovering on the edge of drunkenness but never quite got there).

It was out first experience of the camaraderie of the shipwrecked traveller and through our exhaustion we rather enjoyed it.

032

Oh yes, the book.

Essentially I left our holiday destination, Mullumbimby, having just begun it, read it at Gold Coast airport, then throughout the flight to Sydney, then the stopover in Sydney, then the unanticipated stopover in Sydney.

When we finally got on our replacement plane it was entirely devoid of screens, so I kept reading until the bitter end. All in all I read this novel virtually uninterrupted for about 13 hours. I finished the epic binge-read three hours into the flight to Perth at about 11pm, with bleeding eyeballs, and I didn’t regret a thing.

Most particularly I was thankful for my eleventh-hour pre-holiday decision to bring this book and not Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye. Something tells me that the Salinger, despite being one-sixth of the size, would have lasted the whole 13 hours regardless and made me want to jump out of the plane.

I had this in my collection having once read Smith’s earlier novel White Teeth. Though I couldn’t for the life of me now tell you what White Teeth was even about I do recall it being very good, hence carrying this around for what was likely a decade.

On Beauty is a story about family, marriage and the betrayal of the bonds associated with both. Set amid the perversity and irritations of university communities, it is a fitting follow to The Wife Drought in its interrogation of what people sacrifice for the sake of their unions, and for their children, and of the horror that comes with awakening to the fact that perhaps no love is unique.

All I know is that loving you is what I did with my life. And I’m terrified by what’s happened to us. This wasn’t meant to happen to us. We’re not like other people.

The book is wise but it is also funny. Smith tells stories of people and their relationships but her sentences also stand alone, delightful in themselves. Some tasters for you:

Each couple is its own vaudeville act.


He leaned forward with the clumsy loom of the natural pet-hater and child-fearer, all the time clearly hoping for an intervention before he reached the dog.


Kiki laughed her lovely big laugh in the small store. People looked up from their specialty goods and smiled abstractedly, supporting the idea of pleasure even if they weren’t certain of the cause.


These people spend so much time demanding the status of adulthood from you – even when it isn’t in your power to bestow it – and then when the real shit hits the fan, when you need them to be adults, suddenly they’re children again.


She was a woman still controlled by the traumas of her girlhood. It made more sense to put her three-year-old self in the dock. As Dr Byford explained, she was really the victim of a vicious, peculiarly female psychological disorder: she felt one thing and did another. She was a stranger to herself.


“Anybody for a lift into town?” asked Howard.                                                                    “I’m happy to drop everybody where they need to go.”                                                    Two minutes later Howard rolled down the passenger window and beeped his horn at his three half-naked children walking down the hill.  All of them gave him the finger.


Honestly, this is just fantastic. Perfect for your mum’s book club. Perfect for yours. Do it. Hell, do it in a day. It’s possible. Just load up on martinis.

Note: the Minstry and I, having arrived home at midnight rather than at 4pm as planned, were too traumatized and jetlagged the next day to leave the house, so it’s lucky we had $32 worth of hedgehog slice, bagels and Cool Ridge.

Keep or kill? Kill, with goodwill. Another of those that you pass on because you know it’ll brighten someone else’s life. 

More on The Curing of a Bibliomaniac project here.

The Curing of a Bibliomaniac Part 18: Exit Music (Ian Rankin, 2007)

Books left: 8. Weeks left: 12
027Part 18 serves as a prime example of why I have resorted to a project like this to pull my book buying, reading and keeping habits into line.

I began Ian Rankin’s series of novels about Scottish detective John Rebus years ago and loved them so much I painstakingly collected a matching set, with the exception of one rogue unmatching cover. When I heard that Rankin would be retiring Rebus and along with him the series I collected the last book, Exit Music, in trade paperback, not wanting to wait until it came out in small format.

But then I got more books… and more… and more… and never ended up reading Rebus’ last hurrah.

With all this in mind I thought it was an obvious candidate for the project. I would read that final part of the series, acknowledge that my love affair with John Rebus had reached a fitting end, then I would consign the complete collection over to the secondhand bookshop for a new reader to fall upon gleefully.

If you love something, let it go.

If you love something, let it go.

So, I read and loved Exit Music. I thought it a perfect end to a series. I took the whole pile to the bookshop.

Here, the bookseller informed me that Rankin had restarted the series a few years back. Rebus was Back. With a dawning sense of something sitting uneasily between delight and horror, I betook myself to the shelves and found the New Series.

Even its cover taunted with me, with its REBUS IS BACK tagline emblazoned upon it.

Get this: Rebus stayed retired, bugger him, for five years, then started working on cold cases.

Exit Music was published in 2007 and soon afterwards I was no longer seeing the new fiction releases, having begun work in a nonfiction bookstore. By the time Rankin published Standing in Another Man’s Grave in 2012 I was working in journalism. He has now published a second title in the new series, Saints of the Shadow Bible, 2013.

Joke’s on me.

The harsh lesson: if you buy a book you don’t have time to read and hang on to it for eight years, you run the risk of the author actually being able to retire a bestselling series, get bored, re-launch the series and put out another two books, putting you hopelessly behind again.

But now I know I have really begun to take the lesson to heart, because I put those new titles back on the shelf and Walked Away from it, not to mention from the rest of the collection.

I don’t have the time right now, especially given this project is yet to run its course.

Now for a brief note on Exit Music, which I waited, as I said, eight years to read.

Hooray! It’s one of those stories in which a crusty old copper has only ten days to go until he retires. Obviously, a big nasty murder lands in his lap. In a surprising twist, old authority-hating Rebus finally sasses a boss so badly that the boss, incensed, suspends him for the remainder of his final days in the job. Again obviously (and I mean obviously in the best kind of way) Rebus ignores that directive as he has only days left and one last chance to put his nemesis, a crime boss who has eluded capture for Rebus’ entire career, away for good.

It’s set in real time, just about, with the book divided into a chapter for each day plus a one-day epilogue, which makes for a ripper of a police procedural and a detailed and political portrait of the seedy Edinburgh underbelly Rankin has always evoked so sharply.

Had it BEEN a swan song, I say bitterly, it would have been a damned good one – it’s full of fuss, blood and mess, to borrow a phrase from Rebus himself, and its bittersweet conclusion gave me a little shock of goosebumps.

Mr Rankin, you have my undying respect. Argh, go on, write another one.

Keep or kill? Already gone, my friends.

The Curing of a Bibliomaniac Part 17: The Wife Drought – Why Women Need Lives and Men Need Wives (Annabel Crabb, 2014)

Books left: 9. Weeks left: 14 (it’s when the first number gets higher than the second that we’ll really need to start worrying. Until then, so far so good). 

the wife droughtNow, I know we’re up to Q, but I didn’t have any Q authors so thought I’d substitute this as it was a Christmas present from the Matriarch and I could actually review a contemporary, relevant title.

Just to shock you all.

I have been a hopeless Annabel Crabb fan-girl ever since I discovered her work while knee-deep in my journalism postgrad. The seasoned political columnist and host of ABC show Kitchen Cabinet is the only writer I know who can so successfully pair politics and humour, so when I heard The Wife Drought was coming out, I swallowed my characteristic queasiness about non-fiction and wrote it down on my wishlist.

I think Leigh Sales puts it rather well in this interview she did with Crabb:

LS Between your television show, newspaper columns, radio appearances, and raising your three children, you’ve now written a book, The Wife Drought. When are you going to get off your lazy bum and actually do something with your life?

My excitement to hear about Crabb’s nutso productivity was nothing to the excitement that built after I started the book. Finally someone was putting numbers and facts to my own beliefs and anxieties on the subject of women and work, and by some miracle, doing so amusingly. Central to the book is an investigation of the social construct of a ‘wife’ as not necessarily a man or a woman, but any partner who draws back on work responsibilities in order to run the couple’s household and/or family and enable the other partner to work. Crabb argues that any professional man or woman in possession of a ‘wife’ has a powerful economic and social asset backing their career. It just so happens that it’s usually the men who get wives, and women don’t get this luxury.

Crabb manages to both talk about the reasons for this without simplifying them into the two baskets she says explanations usually fall into – ‘women are hopeless’ and ‘men are awful’ –  and, moreover, says the end result is that it’s not just women who are missing out.

The book faced some criticism after its release for not adding much in the way of solutions to the debate surrounding this subject, criticism any book on this subject would probably face. But I would argue it rounds out the discussion in an unprecedented way by not only focusing on what women are losing out on, but on what men are losing out on too. Crabb illuminates a subject rarely spoken of – the barriers, both official and unspoken, that prevent men from adjusting their lives to take part more fully in family and home life. It turns out that men who would like to adjust their working lives after they have children are less likely to ask – and if they do, they’re less likely to be told it’s OK.

Crabb sets her solid base of compelling social research in the context of the unique perspective her life as a political journalist has afforded her – the revelations about some of the country’s most high-powered men and women and how they approach work-life balance, or lack thereof, are fascinating. Topping off this powerful mix are wry and frequently hilarious observations from Crabb, a mother of three in a dual-income household. Together, this combination of historical context, modern insight and personal experience makes the book a slam-dunk portrait of what the ‘wife drought’ is – and why we need to talk about it.

By writing this Crabb has cemented her place in my heart as the Terry Pratchett of Australian politics and society. I have an almost pathological fear of non-fiction (despite hoarding an entire bookcase full of the stuff) but I speed through this in days and, believe it or not, giggle out loud for much of it.

I feel I have hardly done justice to the level of insight in this book and cannot overestimate its importance. Women should read it, but men should read it too – and what’s more, they’ll like it.

More on The Curing of a Bibliomaniac project here.

The Curing of a Bibliomaniac Part 16: The Truth (Terry Pratchett, 2000)

Books left: 10. Weeks left: 15. It’s gonna be OK.

The Patrician walked across the floor, followed by Drumknott.
‘Er, yes,’ said William. ‘Are you all right, sir?’
‘Oh, yes. Busy, of course. Such a lot of reading to catch up on. But I thought I should take a moment to come and see this “free press” Commander Vimes has told me about at considerable length.’ He tapped one of the iron pillars of the press with his cane. ‘However, it appears to be firmly bolted down.’
‘Er, no, sir. I mean “free” in the sense of what is printed, sir,’ said Wiliam.
‘But surely you charge money?’
‘Yes, but –’
‘Oh, I see. You meant you should be free to print what you like?’
There was no escape. ‘Well… broadly, yes, sir.’
‘Because that’s in the, what was the other interesting term? Ah, yes… the public interest?’ Lord Vetinari picked up a piece of type and inspected it carefully.
‘I think so, sir.’
‘These stories about man-eating goldfish and people’s husbands disappearing in big silver dishes?’
‘No, sir. That’s what the public is interested in. We do the other stuff, sir.’
‘Amusingly shaped vegetables?’
‘Well, a bit of that, sir. Sacharissa calls them human interest stories.’
‘About vegetables and animals?’
‘Yes, sir. But at least they’re real vegetables and animals.’
‘So… we have what the people are interested in, and human interest stories, which is what humans are interested in, and the public interest, which no one is interested in.’
‘Except the public, sir,’ said William, trying to keep up.
‘Which isn’t the same as people and humans?’
‘I think it’s more complicated than that, sir.’

Shabby copy of The Truth by Terry Pratchett.

The Velveteen Rabbit of books.

When once I worked in ye olde secondhand bookshop for a crust, we had this thing called the rubbish box. It’s that grubby tub of books out the front that are one step above worthless, all with a big ‘$2’ scribbled on the cover with a Sharpie.

If you are a book, you can end up in the rubbish box for one or a combination of reasons. You might be in good nick, but just a terrible book. You might be an extremely old book no one has heard of and therefore no one would pay over $2 for. You might be spine-broken (the kiss of death for secondhand books). You might be The Notebook or Message in a Bottle by Nicholas Sparks. Or you might be a Really Good Book that has been read so many times its covers have been almost loved off, the literary equivalent of the Velveteen Rabbit. These are the titles someone will still hand over cash for despite being in the kind of condition that would usually see the bookseller throw them in the bin.

The rubbish box is a bit like the dog pound. Inhabitants might be there for a month. After a while, they might have their $2 dashed out and $1 written on them instead. If they are still not adopted, they will get lobbed into the bin. The rare jewel, no matter how bedraggled and forlorn it looks when it gets in there, is still instantly recognisable as Really Good and will get snatched up within hours by someone who can’t believe their luck and doesn’t care what the poor sod looks like.

Terry Pratchett is like the Holy Grail for the independent bookseller. Finding one in the bottom of a dusty pile of Nicholas Sparks is like finding the toy prize in a box of out-of-date cereal. Even if it is in awful condition, even – EVEN, my friend, if it is spine-broken… you can scrawl as much as $4 on this baby (as illustrated) and it will be out of that rubbish-box before it has so much as warmed up its seat.

Books written by Sir Terry Pratchett – knighted six years ago for his services to literature – are Really Good Books. The majority of them are part of the Discworld series, the chronicles of a world consisting of a disc balanced upon four elephants standing atop a turtle of, as Stephen King might say, enormous girth.

The Truth is the 25th of more than 40 Discworld titles and tells the story of William de Worde, who quite by accident finds himself editor of the city of Ankh-Morpork’s first newspaper. Before he has got much beyond dealing with all of the people who want him to print pictures of their amusingly shaped vegetables, he finds himself embroiled in a story full of deceit, danger and death that goes straight to the political heart of Ankh-Morpork itself.

After taking weeks to read The Famished Road, I find myself spat out the other end of this in a matter of days. It’s beyond compulsive. I read it in front of the barbecue, ruining some perfectly good Black Angus rump, in bed (I am always very strict about not reading in bed, being a reformed insomniac) and even at the park while walking the dog. A lady is at her most batty-looking when ignoring her dog at the park while reading a book, walking into bollards and giggling audibly.

As well as being madcap and marvellous, the story is bloody clever. It is not only full of wordplay but full of subtler humour and deft insight into the frequently maddening and nonsensical world of a journalist – I am unsurprised when a quick Google reveals that Pratchett began his career as a reporter.

It was as if he’d shaken a tree and all the nuts had fallen out. Several letters were complaining that there had been much colder winters than this, although no two of them could agree when it was. One said vegetables were not as funny as they used to be, especially leeks. Another asked what the Guild of Thieves was doing about unlicensed crime in the city. There was one saying that all these robberies were down to dwarfs who shouldn’t be allowed into the city to steal the work out of honest humans’ mouths.
‘Put a title like “Letters” at the top and put them all in,’ said William. ‘Except the one about the dwarfs. That sounds like Mr Windling. It sounds like my father, too, except that at least he can spell “undesirable” and wouldn’t use crayon.’
‘Why not that letter?’
‘Because it’s offensive.’
‘Some people think it’s true, though,’ said Sacharissa. ‘There’s been a lot of trouble.’
‘Yes, but we shouldn’t print it.’
William called Goodmountain over and showed him the letter. The dwarf read it.
‘Put it in,’ he said. ‘It’ll fill a few inches.’
‘But people will object,’ said William.
‘Good. Put their letters in, too.’

This is sharp humour with a soft heart. If you know a journalist, buy them this book and prepare for their howls to echo through the house.

Keep or Kill? Terry Pratchett is really one of those authors it’s a shame to hoard – they really should be in constant circulation. I’ll give this one to the local op-shop so it can warm the shelf there for an hour or two before getting snapped up.
Note: When I reviewed Neil Gaiman’s Anansi Boys oh-so-long-ago for this Project, I compared his writing to Pratchett’s a little nervously, fearing a lighting bolt would strike me any moment for being so impertinent. Reading this book I was reminded of the fact that Gaiman and Pratchett had actually collaborated on a screamingly funny novel, Good Omens, which I not only knew about but had actually read, for goodness’ sake. So there you go. Not so impertinent a comparison at all, then.

The Curing of a Bibliomaniac part 15: The Famished Road (Ben Okri, 1991)

Books left: 11. Weeks left: 16 (don’t panic; just for God’s sake, stop reading Booker winners and start on the pulp.)

I  heard the earth trembling at the fearsome approach of a demonic being.

Ben Okri - The Famished Road

Azaro is an abiku, or spirit child. Abiku are supposed to only stay briefly upon the earth as real children before returning to their real, permanent existence in the spirit world. As mortal parents mourn their passing, the spirit-children are reborn to another set of unsuspecting parents, only to break their hearts in turn.

When Azaro betrays his companions by falling in love with life and with his parents, his spirit companions are jealous. Manifesting as spectacularly malformed creatures visible only to Azaro, they strive to lure him into situations that will cause his death and therefore his return to them. But he sticks to his decision, though he sees them everywhere he goes and the temptation to go with them floats before him always.

A curious terror, like arms grabbing you from out of a trusted darkness, swept over me.

Each time these horrendous beings manage to trick Azaro and sweep him away, he escapes and returns to his parents, ordinary Nigerians beset by a poverty verging on the desperate, but passionate about each other and about their son.

Meanwhile, politics first seeps, then floods into their world. A Party for the Rich and a Party for the Poor, each with identical promises and brutal methods of persuasion and an army of thugs to prove their points, close in around this previously sleepy village as the army of monstrous spirits gathers unseen around Azaro and his family. White men appear, bringing with them the novelties of motor cars and electricity, and the forests through which Azaro is accustomed to wander begin to recede.

The world was changing and I went on wandering as if everything would always be the same. It took longer to get far into the forest. It seemed that the trees, feeling that they were losing the argument with human beings, had simply walked deeper into the forest.

Meanwhile, the spirits pursue Azaro with ever-increasing ruthlessness towards a climax that will endanger not just him, but his parents as well.

At times, this is like a collection of mad folk tales, with an exhilarating mysticism and power of invention. Each outlandish sentence is stranger than the last and they wash over you like a rapid, bubbling stream. Much of it is beautiful. But after the first quarter it begins to drag. I start to feel trapped, reading barely-varying dreamlike sequences over and over; temptation, near disaster and then new beginnings for Azaro. I begin to wonder, rather desperately, what will be the circuit-breaker.

It arrives too late. I have largely lost interest and am racing through the end, conscious of my looming deadline (which, of course, is not Okri’s fault but that of too many nights on the couch watching Agatha Christie’s Marple) and just wanting to know the outcome.

Though I appreciate the scale and poignancy of the metaphor Okri has spent the whole book crafting, by the time I get to the final pages in which it all comes together I am not appreciating it as much as I feel I should. And there is nothing to kill enjoyment of a novel like the feeling of “should”.

If you are a fan of magical realism or postcolonial narratives or creepy spirits, read this; look, many, many people absolutely loved it. It got the Booker. But for God’s sake, don’t give yourself a time limit. And note there is a sequel.

Keep or kill? I will pass this on, since I can’t say I enjoyed it anywhere near as much as the last Booker winner in the project. To me, I’m afraid it had the unmistakable flavour of a university assignment.

Note: According to Wikipedia, Radiohead’s Street Spirit (a song I have loved since my brooding teen years) is based on this novel. I haven’t the foggiest whether this is true, but if it is, that’s very cool.