Tuesday, 21 February 2017

Stella Considerations

I really enjoy the idea of the Stella Prize and love the announcement of each year's longlist. I know I will never have the time to read all the books on the list, but I do love how the list helps to push me towards books I may not have tried otherwise.


I have found some real gems thanks to the longlist nominations (Heat and Light by Ellen van Neervan being a case in point).

But there are still some books that are just not for me, no matter how many prizes or awards they get.

I thought it might be interesting to go through a few of the Stella's - longlists past and present - that haven't worked for me for one reason or another.

On this year's longlist, is Emily Maguire's An Isolated Incident.

Having the phrase 'brutal murder' on the back cover blurb is not designed to attract my interest. Normally I wouldn't have gone any further, but now that An Isolated Incident has been longlisted, I took the time to look inside.

The first few chapters track through the sister's bewilderment and grief as her missing sister, moves from being missing, to being a body in the morgue that she has to identify.
The blurb promises that this will be more about the sister's journey through the aftermath of the murder, than about the gory, brutal details, but I quickly realised that I simply couldn't go there.

Tragically our family did go through a brutal murder case about twenty years ago. It still haunts us all in different ways. Books like this don't help at all.

I knew very quickly that no matter how well written An Isolated Incident might be, it's simply wasn't going to get any of my bookish time.

I also read the first couple of stories in The High Places by Fiona McFarlane but found them too languid and slow to build for my taste. Earlier I had started McFarlane's The Night Guest when it was shortlisted for the 2014 Stella. I was enjoying it well enough, but put it down for some reason and never went back to it.

Last year, I got about a quarter of the way through Hope Farm by Peggy Frew but my enthusiasm waned and I couldn't finish it.

Aspects of it appealed to me but I found it to be very inconsistent. Some of the writing was quite lyrical but much of it was just plain flat and formulaic.

There was something about the mother-daughter relationships that bugged me too, but I didn't stick with it long enough to work out what my problem was.

It was a shame, though, because I loved the idea of it and I loved the cover!

I think I may be the only reader left in Australia that hasn't read Burial Rites by Hannah Kent.

I tried a couple of times, but it didn't draw me in at all. I found Kent's language kept me at a distance and I didn't care enough to push through.

But I did care about my friends who raved about it so much - which is why I tried to read it again a year later.

Sadly I had the same reaction.

Recently I attempted to read Kent's latest novel, The Good People, but I failed to engage with the writing in that one too.

Questions of Travel by Michelle de Kretser featured in the very first Stella longlist. It won other awards and accolades but it failed to win me over.

There was nothing in the opening page that urged me to 'read on' or 'read more'.

Perhaps this 'some books I love; some books I don't' thing is what we're actually celebrating in all the Stella longlists to date.
The amazing diversity of women writers in Australia also reflects the diversity of readers out there. Not everyone will like or love all the books, but there will be something on each list to appeal to everyone who cares to look.

It's the joy (and woe) of being an avid reader. The occasional dud only helps you to appreciate the books you love even more.

On a completely different tack, I have noticed a pattern developing with the Stella Prize. There is one word that features at least twice in the titles for each year.

In 2013 the word was Grace
2014 - Night
2015 - Golden
2016 - World
2017 - Memoir

Does it mean anything? Probably not, but birds also seem to feature strongly in Stella book titles.

What have been your favourite and least favourite Stella reads so far?

Saturday, 18 February 2017

See What I Have Done by Sarah Schmidt

Lizzie Borden is a fascinating character.

Did she or did she not kill her father and stepmother with a hatchet one summer's day in Fall River, Massachusetts in 1892?

So much has been written and said about these rather gruesome murders over the years. So much speculation and innuendo. What more is there possibly to say?

Firstly, in 2012, the journals of Lizzie's attorney, Andrew Jackson Jennings were bequeathed to the Fall River Historical Society.

Since then, the Society have had the journals transcribed by curators Michael Martins and Dennis Binette.
Snippets of information have been leaked out during this time, but apparently we are awaiting the publication of a book from the Society for the full reveal!

In the meantime, we have another book fictionalising Lizzie's story, Sarah Schmidt's See What I Have Done.

It's hard not to believe that Lizzie committed the murders. She was in the house at the time. She had the opportunity and the motive. And well, let's face it, from everything we've read ever since, she was rather unstable and most likely had a narcissistic and/or borderline personality disorder going on (not that everyone with NBPD is capable of murder, but it's just another one of the factors stacked against Lizzie in this case).

Schmidt tells her story from multiple perspective - Lizzie, Emma (the sister), Bridget (the maid) and Benjamin (a 'friend' of Uncle John's). This is where her tale diverges from some of the others.

Benjamin is a very dubious low-life thug that Uncle John meets en route to Fall River. He engages Benjamin to rough up/talk to Andrew in an attempt to dissuade Andrew from certain financial actions that John wasn't happy about.

Schmidt then uses Benjamin to 'see' things that others in the house at the time couldn't as well as using his presence to explain why the police couldn't find a murder weapon. Later on, he acts as the catalyst for the life-long estrangement of the two sisters in 1905.

This was a satisfying explanation, although somewhat frustrating at the same time. Benjamin is a fictional character in a story with real life well-known people. He provided us with some plausible possibilities, but ultimately, he's not real, so therefore his solutions are not the ones we need to solve this case once and for all.

I guess we will never know for sure, unless Jennings' journals prove to be as earth-shattering as the curators have promised.

If you'd like to read more versions of Lizzie's story you could try Angela Carter's The Fall River Axe Murders and Lizzie's Tiger, Elizabeth Engstrom's Lizzie Borden and Brandy Purdy's The Secrets of Lizzie Borden.

The murders and trial of Lizzie have also attracted a number of movie adaptations over the years. Actresses who have portrayed Lizzie include Elizabeth Montgomery, Christina Ricci, Alison Fraser and Chloe Sevigny.

See What I Have Done is a debut novel by Australian writer, Sarah Schmidt. She has a blog that details her writing journey.

Hachette Australia will publish See What I Have Done in April 2017.

Thursday, 16 February 2017

Avalanche by Julia Leigh

Writing a book about your experience with the IVF program comes with many emotional pitfalls and landmines. It crashes into the brick wall of other people's preconceived and often strongly held opinions.

The trick, obviously, is to connect emotionally to your reader very early on.

I find that books like this, about topics like this, are a lot like friendships.

There are those friends that you meet that you click with straight away - you feel like kindred spirits. It can be quite intense and full-on, but as you get to know each other better, you realise that there are some stark differences. Some friends survive this phase; some don't.

Other friendships start off cautiously. They seem okay, but the timing is never quite right to jump into a deeper conversation. You regard them fondly, kindly, but don't them very well...until something happens that forces you to get to know each other. Some friendships surge forward after this and a closer bond is formed that lasts forever; but others just drift away once the crisis is resolved.

Then there are the friends who you dislike at the start. They say or do something that puts you off or they see at your worst and so you avoid each other, wondering what other people see in them. Then one day you get invited to the same BBQ, or you end up sitting next to each other at a school event, or you run into each at the doctor's surgery and you start chatting. Suddenly you're having coffee together and laughing about those crazy first impressions.

There are some people who you can never get beyond that dislike phase. Every encounter simply confirms your bad opinion or brings out the worst in you.

But most people, that vast mass of humanity on the periphery of your life, are benign, potentially sympathetic souls, willing to leave you be to live your own life as best as you see fit just as you leave them to be happy in their own way. You might connect at a work thing one day, have a friendly chat, but never think of each again.

I suspect that page one of Julia Leigh's Avalanche: A Love Story will cause most readers to dive into the intense kindred spirit type friendship or leave them feeling dislike at first sight.

For me, it was the first friendship.
I connected instantly and intensely with Julia's beginning.
The rekindling of a love affair in her late 30's with the man she loved at uni is my story too. However, at this point, our paths diverged.

That initial burst of fellowship that engaged me and drew me into her story, began to feel too fierce. I began to judge her actions by what I feel I would have done or did do in similar circumstances. I recalled the many, many discussions with friends during my twenties, thirties and forties about babies and motherhood. The choices people made - all that heartbreak, joy and hard work. The expectations about relationships and parenting that everyone contends with - from their families, society, but ultimately, themselves.

I read Leigh's story through in two very quick, vivid reading sessions. I marvelled at her gutsy approach - laying it all on the line for us to comment on. I respected her attempts to take other people's perspective into account and to analyse some of her own behaviours and actions thoughtfully.

No-one is perfect. We are all flawed individuals, often blindsided by our own desires. Leigh attempts to bring some of these to light,
There is comfort in purpose. Part of me wanted to have a child just so I could have an inviolable reason for being. Sweet purpose. Sweet dark purpose, secret of secrets: a child would save my life.

By the end of Avalanche, I had swung back around to feeling friendly and sympathetic. This is one woman's journey; it's not one I would choose for myself, but this is not my story. Leigh is giving us a chance to see inside the heart and mind of someone who makes a certain choice. As Atticus Finch said in To Kill A Mockingbird,
You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view … until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.
Leigh gives us this opportunity.

I'm not sure if she also fully appreciates the searing indictment on the IVF industry that emerges through her story. Perhaps that is my particular lens kicking in though.
The money being made off older women and couples emotionally desperate to clutch at any baby making straw was truly startling. The odds were never in their favour. Yet still they try.

Leigh's book helps us to understand why.

Avalanche has been longlisted for this year's Stella Prize.

Tuesday, 14 February 2017

Brona's Salon

Horrific crimes, where the main suspects are acquitted, are perfect fodder for the true crime/fictionalised history/based on a true story genre. 
Especially when that crime involves a dysfunctional family, a hot sultry summers day and conflicting, circumstantial evidence. 
Bungled police procedure simply adds to the intrigue.

The gruesome murder of Andrew and Abby Borden in 1892, rocked the small community of Fall River, Massachusetts. 

The local paper, the Fall River Herald, at the time featured the screaming headline,
"Shocking Crime: A Venerable Citizen and his Aged Wife Hacked to Pieces in their Home"

The entire court case became one of the first mass media events and Lizzie Borden became a celebrity granting interviews to give her version of events. 
To this day the murders are unsolved mysteries.

The crime became mythologised - with a skipping rope chant and an appearance on The Simpsons by Lizzie Borden

Lizzie Borden took an axe,
Gave her mother forty whacks.
When she saw what she had done,
She gave her father forty-one.

Endless speculation about possibly sexual abuse, lesbianism, an illegitimate son and financial disputes all added fuel to the fire.

Can we learn anything new from recent interpretations?
Will new technology and testing reveal the secrets kept for so long?
Can modern thinking really shed light on old events?


Brona's Salon is a newish meme which aims to gather a group of like-minded bookish people 'under the roof of an inspiring host, held partly to amuse one another and partly to refine the taste and increase the knowledge of the participants through conversation.'
(wikipedia)

I will provide a bookish prompt or two to inspire our conversation.
However please feel free to discuss your current read or join in the conversation in any way that you see fit.
Amusement, refinement and knowledge will surely follow!

What are you currently reading?

See What I Have Done by Sarah Schmidt


Haunting, gripping and gorgeously written, SEE WHAT I HAVE DONE by Sarah Schmidt is a re-imagining of the unsolved American true crime case of the Lizzie Borden murders, for fans of BURIAL RITES and MAKING A MURDERER.

When her father and step-mother are found brutally murdered on a summer morning in 1892, Lizzie Borden - thirty two years old and still living at home - immediately becomes a suspect. But after a notorious trial, she is found innocent, and no one is ever convicted of the crime.

Meanwhile, others in the claustrophobic Borden household have their own motives and their own stories to tell: Lizzie's unmarried older sister, a put-upon Irish housemaid, and a boy hired by Lizzie's uncle to take care of a problem.

This unforgettable debut makes you question the truth behind one of the great unsolved mysteries, as well as exploring power, violence and the harsh realities of being a woman in late nineteenth century America.

How did you find out about this book?

I was given an ARC from Hachette Australia.

Why are you reading it now? 

See What I Have Done is due to be published in April.
I want to finish it before then!

First impressions? 

I'm loving the language - the feel of the hot, hot summer, the different perspectives, the doubts and suspicions. Wondering who Schmidt suspects of committing the murders - she's playing a close hand right now.

Which character do you relate to so far?

Hmmm not sure if I want to relate to anyone in this story so far!
Although I do feel for poor Bridget, the Irish maid, who got stuck working for this ghastly dysfunctional family.

Are you happy to continue?

Most definitely - I can't wait to see what Schmidt reveals.
I read Angela Carter's, The Fall River Axe Murders a few years ago and found her interpretation of what happened and why to be utterly fascinating.

Where do you think the story will go? 

Being based on a true story, certain facts are a given. but Schmidt is obviously open to seeing multiple perspectives. I'm very curious to see if she comes down on the same side as the jury did or if she interprets events differently.

I'm not normally into true crime or gruesome crime stories, but this one appeals to me for the psychology behind it all. The family was so dysfunctional but thanks to the times and the lack of modern police procedures and counselling, so much was left unexplored, unasked and assumed. Fertile ground for speculation and imagination.


What are you reading now?
Do you read true crime stories?

Monday, 13 February 2017

The Hobbit - Chapters XI to XV

We are now at the half way point of February - how is your journey through Middle Earth going?

Have you past the Last Homely House? Maybe you're creeping your way through Mirkwood Forest? Or perhaps, like Bilbo, you've had your first sight of the Lonely Mountain?

Wherever you are, I hope you can take the time to rest up and let us know your thoughts so far.

A Dutch cover of The Hobbit

Chapter XI - On the Doorstep

This chapter has Bilbo and the dwarves on the march again - all the way to the foot of the Lonely Mountain.
They spend a ridiculous amount of time trying to find the secret door and curiously seem to have forgotten all the stuff about moon runes and secret writing, especially when the thrush turns up.

Stand by the grey stone when the thrush knocks, and the setting sun with the last light will shine on Durin's Day will shine upon the key-hole.

I was disappointed that Tolkien went to all the trouble to set up this delicious moon rune code, only to ignore it when it was actually needed. It was pure chance that Bilbo and the dwarves were at the door at the right time. They didn't work anything out for themselves - it all felt too easy and too convenient. But not as big a cop out as what happens with Smaug in the next few of chapters.

I loved the final sentence in this chapter as they opened the secret door for the first time in a hundred years or so,
It seemed as if darkness flowed out like a vapour from the hole in the mountain-side, and deep darkness in which nothing could be seen lay before their eyes, a yawning mouth leading in and down.
It would have been the obvious thing to talk about the light piercing the darkness of the tunnel for the first time, instead Tolkien animates the darkness and gives it substance. I could feel the coldness ooze out and smell the old, musty, bad air just with this one sentence.

Chapter XII - Inside Information

The dwarves send Bilbo down the secret passage by himself to check out where Smaug is and what he is doing.

They are definitely not the heroes of this story - they do not seem to have grown personally or morally. They lack initiative and are not very well prepared or organised. And the closer to the treasure they get, the greedier they appear.

I have come across some discussions on antisemitism which seem to be pertinent in this chapter. It is thought that the dwarves were meant to represent Jews and that this means that Tolkien was antisemitic or racist.

I confess that I didn't think this was obvious at all as I read this chapter. So what does Tolkien say for himself?

In The Letters of J R R Tolkien edited by Humphrey Carpenter & Christopher Tolkien, Letter 176 - From a letter to Naomi Mitchison 8 December 1955, says
I do think of the 'Dwarves' like Jews: at once native and alien in their habitations, speaking the languages of the country, but with an accent due to their own private tongue.....
And in Letter 30 - To Rütten & Loening Verlag 25 July 1938, he says,
But if I am to understand that you are enquiring whether I am of Jewish origin, I can only reply that I regret that I appear to have no ancestors of that gifted people

His views expressed here would seem to fit in more with his ideas about language and homeland, than about racial stereotyping or any rascism.

I'm beginning to see that many readers are keen to find deeper meanings and underlying themes in The Hobbit above and beyond anything that Tolkien originally intended.

Chapter XIII - Not At Home

Who's not at home?
The dragon? Thorin and the dwarves? Bilbo? The men of Dale?
Clearly Smaug is not at home and his absence is felt throughout this chapter. Where is he? What is he up to? And when will he return?

Greed also rears its ugly head. Bilbo finds and conceals again, the Arkenstone. While the dwarves become bewitched by the incredible hoard of treasure.

"Let us follow Balin's path."

Chapter XIV - Fire and Water

I'm still trying to work out why I find this chapter so disappointing.
It feels anti-climatic and somehow I feel that Bilbo has been denied his chance to be the hero. I wanted it to be Bilbo to fire the fatal shot - after all he found the weak spot in Smaug's armour in the first place.

I also don't understand why the town being built on water was a hindrance for Smaug. Why could he not fly over the water to get to the town? Is the lake so large and the town so far out, that a dragon can't fly that far safely?

The whole story was about this journey to defeat Smaug, yet when the action finally does occur, it happens off-screen, so to speak. We also don't get to enjoy Smaug's death for very long as events move on very quickly. There's more to be done. There's the spoils to share out, treaties to be made and one final battle to fight.

I like that Tolkien doesn't tidy everything up with a neat bow and comforting resolutions, but somehow I still feel let down here. It feels like Tolkien has run out of steam and wants to wind this story up quickly.

Full on the town he fell.

Chapter XV - The Gathering of the Clouds

I found this a frustrating chapter full of sliding door moments. If only Thorin was less stubborn and greedy. If only Bard had spoken more eloquently. If only, if only, if only!

Bilbo, like the reader, is becoming disillusioned with this quest and the dwarves. We all thought the death of Smaug would be the end of the adventure, but still it goes on.

"Who are you, and of what would you parley?"
How and when will this quest end?

Are you still with us? Which chapter have you reached at this point in the readalong?

Don't forget to check out and comment on our fellow #HLOTRreadalong2017 participants posts when you get the chance.

Saturday, 11 February 2017

On Fairy Stories by J R R Tolkien

Thanks to my #HLOTRreadalong2017 and rereading of The Hobbit, I have been introduced to several new-to-me bloggers who have proven to be a wealth of knowledge about Middle Earth, Tolkien and high fantasy.

Early on in our discussions about The Hobbit, Nick @One Catholic Life recommended reading Tolkien's essay titled On Fairy Stories (1947) to fully appreciate and understand Tolkien's writing.

That was all the prompting I needed!

I found an online pdf from brainstorm services and began my fantastical journey (link above).

Originally presented in 1939 at the University of St Andrew, Scotland as a lecture, Tolkien eventually published On Fairy Stories, with some tweeking, in 1947.

I propose to speak about fairy-stories, though I am aware that this is a rash adventure. Faerie is a perilous land, and in it are pitfalls for the unwary and dungeons for the overbold. And overbold I may be accounted, for though I have been a lover of fairy-stories since I learned to read, and have at times thought about them, I have not studied them professionally. I have been hardly more than a wandering explorer (or trespasser) in the land, full of wonder but not of information. 
The realm of fairy-story is wide and deep and high and filled with many things: all manner of beasts and birds are found there; shoreless seas and stars uncounted; beauty that is an enchantment, and an ever-present peril; both joy and sorrow as sharp as swords. In that realm a man may, perhaps, count himself fortunate to have wandered, but its very richness and strangeness tie the tongue of a traveller who would report them. And while he is there it is dangerous for him to ask too many questions, lest the gates should be shut and the keys be lost.

What a beautiful, inspiring beginning!

You don't need to study the meaning and purpose of fairy tales professionally to know that they have been important throughout history in telling us 'important things about reality'. The reason they resonate so strongly with us (as children and as adults) is because of the inherent truths behind the fantastic. Fairy tales speak to our deepest fears and ugliest emotions. They provide road maps for our inner lives and they give us hope for a way forward.

Just like Bilbo's and Frodo's quests, the journey through a fairy tale is not just a physical one.

Tolkien goes on to tell us that there are many things that are NOT fairy stories - travellers' tales (Gulliver's Travels, The Time Machine), dream stories (Alice in Wonderland) and beast fables (Brer Rabbit, Peter Rabbit, The Three Little Pigs) are all interesting tales, but they are not part of the faerie world.

A “fairy-story” is one which touches on or uses Faerie, whatever its own main purpose may be: satire, adventure, morality, fantasy. Faerie itself may perhaps most nearly be translated by Magic — but it is magic of a peculiar mood and power, at the furthest pole from the vulgar devices of the laborious, scientific, magician. There is one proviso: if there is any satire present in the tale, one thing must not be made fun of, the magic itself. That must in that story be taken seriously, neither laughed at nor explained away.

A genuine fairy story is also innately 'true'. Not all the characters are 'beautiful or even wholesome', they deal in the 'terrors of the world'. They also give us hope and the joy of a happy ending.


I think it's fair to say that although Tolkien is using the phrase 'faerie' in his essay, we would now use the words high fantasy to more accurately describe what he is talking about here.

The phrase 'high fantasy' was coined in 1971 by Lloyd Alexander. Its definition according to wikipedia is a
 fantasy set in an alternative, fictional ("secondary") world, rather than "the real", or "primary" world. The secondary world is usually internally consistent, but its rules differ from those of the primary world. By contrast, low fantasy is characterized by being set in the primary, or "real" world, or a rational and familiar fictional world, with the inclusion of magical elements.

Therefore, The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings are high fantasy (as is The Game of Thrones series) while Harry Potter and The Chronicles of Narnia are low fantasy.


I got rather tangled up by Tolkien's attempt to describe the relationship between fairy stories and mythology and religion. He referred to it at one point as a 'pot of soup' where 'dainty and undainty' bits have been added in throughout time. King Arthur was his prime example, of a once historical figure, who got added to the pot to later emerge completely mythologised with magical qualities.

Tolkien also spends a lot of time discussing what a writer needs to do to create a successful fantasy story. In some ways, this is the crux of the essay. As the father of high fantasy, Tolkien's thoughts on how to build a believable secondary world with an 'inner consistency of reality' were ground-breaking and insightful.

What really happens is that the story-maker proves a successful “sub-creator.” He makes a Secondary World which your mind can enter. Inside it, what he relates is “true”: it accords with the laws of that world. You therefore believe it, while you are, as it were, inside. The moment disbelief arises, the spell is broken; the magic, or rather art, has failed. You are then out in the Primary World again, looking at the little abortive Secondary World from outside.



Fantasy is a natural human activity. It certainly does not destroy or even insult Reason; and it does not either blunt the appetite for, nor obscure the perception of, scientific verity. On the contrary. The keener and the clearer is the reason, the better fantasy will it make.

Fairy stories offer the adult reader 'fantasy, recovery, escape, consolation'. They also offer desire, aspiration, solace, enchantment and the consolation of a happy ending - the eucatastrophic. Tolkien actually made up a word to describe that wonderful feeling we all get when a truly satisfying happy ending is presented to us in literature. How cool is that! Although, I confess, it's a word I had never heard of until this week. The joy comes when the reader gets that 'sudden glimpse of the underlying reality or truth' within the story.

The consolation of fairy-stories, the joy of the happy ending: or more correctly of the good catastrophe, the sudden joyous “turn” (for there is no true end to any fairy-tale): this joy, which is one of the things which fairy-stories can produce supremely well, is not essentially “escapist,” nor “fugitive.” In its fairy-tale—or otherworld—setting, it is a sudden and miraculous grace: never to be counted on to recur. It does not deny the existence of dyscatastrophe, of sorrow and failure: the possibility of these is necessary to the joy of deliverance; it denies (in the face of much evidence, if you will) universal final defeat and in so far is evangelium, giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.

This is clearly the case with The Hobbit.

We're all thrilled by Smaug's dramatic death, but it is not the end of the story or the drama. Another battle still has to be fought and won. Not everyone we have come to care about survives. The spoils have to be divvied up and Bilbo has to get home again. And, of course, home has not been waiting, unchanged, for Bilbo to return to. Time has changed The Shire too - so that Bilbo's anticipated joy of homecoming is tinged with frustration and regret.

Eucatastrophe and dyscatastrophe.
That's life.


Fantasy is also tinged with the possibility of wish fulfilment. Imagine if we were to discover that the world of Harry Potter and Hogwarts was really real?
That's the hope that a truly good fantasy gives its readers - it could be true, if only it were true, oh what if it were really true!? What if I too could get a letter of admittance into this world, or find that special wardrobe to enter or that rabbit hole to fall down.

It would seem that this element of desire to enter the magical story world was reserved for those labelled as low fantasy. Although, there are enough people out there who have learnt to speak Elvish in the hope of finding Middle Earth one day, to suggest that high fantasy has it's own group of wishful thinkers!

However, I think that Tolkien was probably referring to a different kind of consolation. A more Catholic version of joy and truth.

The peculiar quality of the ”joy” in successful Fantasy can thus be explained as a sudden glimpse of the underlying reality or truth. It is not only a “consolation” for the sorrow of this world, but a satisfaction, and an answer to that question, “Is it true?
Tolkien's On Fairy Stories is the kind of essay to keep on giving to the interested reader. He was a very thoughtful, considered man who took the craft of writing very seriously.

I strongly urge all of you who are along for the #HLOTRreadalong2017 to take the time to read this essay too. It's not too long or too wordy. It is, in fact, a fabulous insight into the mind of a great writer.

This essay is part of my #DealMeIn 2017 challenge ♠♠K♠♠ and my #HLOTRreadlong2017.


Tuesday, 7 February 2017

The Hobbit - chapters VI to X

Well, here we are at the half way mark of The Hobbit.

How are you travelling?

Does anyone need help or inspiration to keep going?

Original cover design for The Hobbit

Needless to say, I'm LOVING this reread. It's not only because of the chance to lose myself in Tolkien's world once again, but also the lovely fellowship of readers I've discovered along the way on this particular readalong.

I'm learning a lot about the nature of fantasy, Middle Earth and Tolkien, himself. It's all adding to the richness of this reread.

I'm also really enjoying my illustrated edition of The Hobbit. Alan Lee's pictures are aesthetically pleasing and fascinating - his careful reading of the text means that his use of imagery matches the story in amazing detail. The larger format book is heavy to hold at times (late at night!), but it also feels sumptuous with its shiny, glossy white pages and generous margins.

If you would like to catch up on chapters I to V of our The Hobbit readalong, click here.

He called it the Carrock, because carrock is his word for it.

******Spoiler alert******

Chapter VI - Out of the Frying-Pan into the Fire

Tolkien keeps the action buzzing along in chapter VI. Bilbo may have escaped the clutches of the goblins, but he has lost the dwarves and the goblins are preparing to give chase.

It doesn't take him long to discover Gandalf and the dwarves. He decides to keep his discovery of the ring a secret, preferring to let the dwarves think of him as being particularly resourceful, skillful and clever. Gandalf, of course, suspects there is more to the story.

Wargs and eagles also make an appearance in this chapter. We see a definite pattern beginning to develop in Tolkien's world when it comes to his many creatures. Those that have an affinity with nature and the world around them tend to be the good guys (elves, eagles, hobbits). Those that wreck havoc on their environment with poor management and machines are the bad guys (goblins, wargs, trolls).

As many of my regular readers know, I often have problems with talking animal stories. This is one of those stories, when it doesn't worry me at all. Talking wolves and eagles simply fit logically and naturally into this world.

The only time the whole talking animals thing felt a little off, though, was in the very next chapter.

Poor Bilbo was very nearly left behind again!

Chapter VII - Queer Lodgings

Chapter VII brings us to another place of refuge and safety to catch our collective breaths.
The arrival of the dwarves at Beorn's house harks back to events in the first chapter, when Gandalf (& Tolkien) had the dwarves arriving at Bilbo's house in ones and twos. Gandalf uses the same tactic on the unsuspecting, unsociable Beorn.

Like Bilbo, he ends up accepting everyone with good grace and generosity. Beorn provides the company with a lot of detailed advice about how best to proceed through Mirkwood Forest and also sets them up with much needed food and water.

I confess that I'm a little in love with Beorn & I always enjoy Bilbo's sojourn in his company.

Every time I read about him, I am reminded of my favourite childhood fairy tale - Rose Red and Snow White. My edition was a Little Golden Book with illustrations by Gustaff Tenggren. There was something about the man trapped inside a bear that worked powerful magic on my younger self. I used to pour over the illustrations and reread the book countless times.


Beorn's ability to shape shift between man and bear intrigues me. There's something about his dark, quiet presence as he watches over part of their journey to Mirkwood, that I find comforting.

I'm sure it says something deep and psychological about myself that these brooding, faithful bear men hold such appeal, but that's for another day!

Now back to those talking animals!
Talking bears are fine, but Beorn's tame animal helpers just feel wrong and seem out of place. Sheep and ponies and dogs that can lay a table, make a bed and carry chairs - really?!

Besides having a chance for some much needed R & R at Beorn's, the other important reason for this chapter is the warning - DONT LEAVE THE PATH. By the third warning, we know exactly what will happen in the next chapter!

Gandalf began his tale.


Chapter VIII - Flies and Spiders

That's right, they leave the path.

Gandalf has also left them. The dwarves and Bilbo enter Mirkwood by themselves. It is here, however, that Bilbo really comes into his own. He shows himself to be clever (with the boat), brave (with the spiders) and a leader (in Thorin's absence).

Tolkien gives a nod to the traditions of older mythologies, when Bilbo names his sword. Only bona fide heroes get to name their swords (think King Arthur).


Tolkien also engages in more world building in this chapter with an explanation about who the wood elves are and why they feel animosity towards dwarves.

Chapter IX - Barrels Out of Bond

Here we see Bilbo take charge completely. He plans their escape from the wood-elves prison. He proves himself to be resourceful and lucky once again.

The wood elves of Mirkwood are not as friendly or as gracious as Elrond at Rivendell or the LOTR elves (Tolkien explained why in the previous chapter). But they are still elves - good people - which means that the dwarves and Bilbo are in no real danger. They are simply stuck. Time is passing and they need to get on with their quest.

It is Bilbo that makes this possible.

The Lonely Mountain

Chapter X - A Warm Welcome

As they float down the Forest River towards Long Lake, Bilbo spots the Lonely Mountain for the very first time, and it strikes fear in his heart.

Tolkien introduces us to the men of Lake town and provides more history and back story for his created world.

Chapter X feels like a transitional chapter.
We have left the dangers of Mirkwood and the first part of the journey behind. The end is now in sight.

In Lake town we all pause to celebrate and recuperate.

We are also suddenly caught up in the euphoria of wishing and hoping for better days. Fantasy fulfilment is just a hair's breadth away - the return of the king is nigh - all the old glorious prophecies could finally come true! A happy ending is foretold.

Lake town

It was here that I suddenly realised that there are no women in The Hobbit.

I'm sure this has been noted elsewhere by others before me, but the only female mentioned so far, is back in chapter I, when our omniscient narrator talks about Bilbo's mother, Belladonna Took.

We get through the entire Lake town celebration without the pronoun 'she' being used once. Women don't even seem to fill any of the more traditional roles - they don't serve food, clean, nurse the sick or cry into their hankies as they wave off their brave men-folk. It's all very curious. Where are they?

Even the spiders in Mirkwood are only ever mentioned by the pronouns 'it' and 'they' - I just went back and checked!

How did this happen? What does it mean?
Does it matter?


A few women appear in LOTR, but not many. Is this simply a sign of the patriarchal times that Tolkien lived in? Or did he have problematic relationships with the women in his life? Perhaps The Hobbit is just another version of the boys' own adventure stories from that era? Some men can write the female perspective really well, and some men can't - perhaps Tolkien was one of these?

A quick internet search reveals two more possibilities. One is to do with Tolkien's early life - his parents died when he was young and he was sent off to all boys schools and college. When he completed his Oxford English language and literature degree in 1915 he enlisted. In 1916 he was sent to France and saw action at the Somme. His later working life was also spent as an Oxford don - in an almost male exclusive environment. It could, therefore, be argued that there simply were not very many women in Tolkien's life.

Tolkien met Edith Bratt, another orphan when she was 19 and he was only 16. They lived in the same boarding house. Tolkien's guardian, Father Morgan, did not approve of the romance and forbade Tolkien to keep on seeing Edith until he was 21. Apparently he followed this edict to the letter for nearly three years - only writing to Edith again on the night of his 21st birthday in 1913 to propose marriage! Edith broke off another engagement and reluctantly converted to Catholicism for him (and as we know, the Catholic religion was not usually known for its inclusion of women in any of the stuff considered truly important).

Edith and John married three years later. They had three sons and one daughter.
It could also be said that Tolkien had a tendency to put women up on a pedestal, as evidenced by his portrayal of his two main LOTR elven princesses - Galadriel and Arwen - two strong, glamorous, aloof women who remain childless. (Tolkien also apparently based the beautiful elven princess, Luthien, in LOTR on Edith).

The other internet option put forward is to do with Bilbo.
Most of The Hobbit is from his point of view. He is shy, introverted and a lifelong bachelor. He doesn't really see women therefore there are no women in the story.

What do you think?

Later: I have now found a pdf with all of The Letters of J R R Tolkien. It's a 435 page pdf so I won't go into ALL of it now...but,

Letter 43 - From a letter to Michael Tolkien 6-8 March 1941 [On the subject of marriage and relations between the sexes] provides some insight into how Tolkien viewed women, and relationships in general, through the lens of his Catholicism (if you're interested).

#HLOTRreadalong2017

Sunday, 5 February 2017

The Hobbit - the first 5 chapters

Once you start The Hobbit, it's hard to stop or go slow.

It's only the 5th of February and I'm already halfway through.


I've been thoroughly enjoying Rick and Nick's Hobbit posts. Nick put me onto Tolkien's On Fairy Tales essay in his first post here (which I have now sourced and will write more on later) as well as his summary of the first four chapters here.
While Rick's entertaining views about the first chapter and Tookishness delve into the humour of Tolkien's writing style.

So far, my reread has revealed to me just how fond I am of hobbits.

I love their cute little hairy feet, their passion for food & second breakfasts and hobbit holes. I admire their hospitality, their caution and their love of home. I enjoy Bilbo's use of language ('bewildered and bewuthered' and 'confusticate and bebother' just to name two delicious examples) and his sense of fun.

***Spoiler alert for the rest of this post***


All this came back to me in a rush as I was rereading Chapter I - An Unexpected Party.

The omniscient narrator is front and centre in this chapter. Some might find this annoying or intrusive, but I always find it rather comforting. It's like snuggling down into a comfy chair with my Pop, listening to him tell me a story. A story with hints of dangers past and dangers to come.

This is a great introductory chapter. 

We learn a lot about Bilbo and Gandalf in particular. Bilbo's feelings about the sudden arrival of all the dwarves is designed to appeal to a child's sense of justice and fairness. It's only natural to feel put upon and used in Bilbo's situation, but Bilbo rises above this childish urge and does the hospitable thing.

It was also a curious thing to see a younger, more carefree Gandalf (than I last saw in the final LOTR movies). Before all the cares and worries of the LOTR action weighs on him, this earlier Gandalf was quite a free spirit - fond of roaming the country, playing up a little, engaging in some mischief making and known for his fabulous firework displays.

The only thing that still bugs me after all this time and all these rereads, are the poems and songs. I simply find them silly and rather lame. In the past, I always skimmed over them, but this time I am making myself read them, in case, somehow they reveal something important. 

I'm still not getting it.

The arrival of the dwarves and Gandalf by Alan Lee

Chapter II - Roast Mutton

After our leisurely, rather fun beginning, chapter two suddenly introduces an element of urgency and haste. 

Bilbo thinks he has escaped the adventure of a lifetime when he awakens to find everyone departed. He realises he is actually a little disappointed and annoyed that they went without him, but focuses his ire on the messy state of things that the dwarves left behind them instead.

When Gandalf suddenly reappears and hurries him along his way, we all feel rather flustered and out of sorts along with Bilbo. He is given little choice about whether he wants to go on this adventure or not. His lack of preparation and bumbling arrival at the appointed meeting place only adds to his reluctant, unlikely hero status.

Chapter II is also our first indication that Bilbo will actually rise to the challenge presented to him. When they stumble upon the trolls, it is Gandalf that saves them from their own foolishness. But it is also the beginning of Bilbo's burglary career. It may not be an auspicious start, but we see Bilbo embracing the idea that he could really do this thing.

For just at that moment the light came over the hill...

Chapter III - A Short Rest

From danger we return to safety.

Gandalf is back, leading the way - leading them all to the safety and refuge of the Last Homely House at Rivendell.

It is a little difficult to accept that these rather silly, rude elves singing the tra-la-la song, are the same serious, elegant folk that we meet in the LOTR. We are once again reminded, that this particular time, for the most part, was one of peace and ease. A time for silly songs and tomfoolery. 

We hear mention of tales of old - the 'wars of the evil goblins and the elves and the first men in the north'. A clever device used by Tolkien to add depth, richness and believability to his created world.

One of J R R Tolkien's original illustrations for the first edition of The Hobbit.

Chapter IV - Over Hill and Under Hill

After our lovely rest cure with the elves, chapter VI drops us right back into the thick of things. Bilbo, Gandalf and the dwarves face violent storms, danger and goblins.

At this stage, Bilbo is still seen as more of a hindrance than a help. Even though it's Bilbo who alerts them to the goblins just in time for Gandalf to escape, he is continually having to be helped along by the grumbling, complaining, faster moving dwarves.

Chapter IV also gives us one of my favourite quotes.



Chapter V - Riddles in the Dark

For Tolkien and LOTR fans, this is one of the most important chapters in The Hobbit. We meet Gollum for the first time and Bilbo finds the ring - the very same ring that The Fellowship of the Ring is named for. This is also the chapter that Tolkien revised substantially when he started working on the LOTR trilogy so that it would more accurately reflect what was to come.

Having never read the original version, I am perfectly happy with this chapters place in the story. Gollum is sufficiently creepy and pathetic, the ring clearly has a long and dubious history while its magic abilities swing between benevolent helpfulness and tricky manipulation.

Luck and its habit of favouring the brave plays a big part in Chapter V - a theme that Tolkien returns to often. Bilbo's 'on we go!' attitude kicks in as he goes in search of the missing dwarves, outwits Gollum with riddles and escapes the clutches of the goblins with the help of the magic ring.

It was at this point that I was reminded of one of Beatrix Potter's Peter Rabbit stories. Poor Peter gets caught in a net in Mr McGregor's garden. It's his large, brass buttons, quite new, that are nearly his undoing. Likewise, Bilbo gets stuck by a large stone blocking the exit to the goblin's cave. His escape is only achieved when all his nice brass buttons 'burst off in all directions.'


Bilbo feels the same sense of despair at imminent capture, relief at his close escape followed by loss when he realises what he has left behind as Peter Rabbit does. And just like Peter, Bilbo is left wondering how he is going to explain what happened to the others.

I hope you're all enjoying your trip into Middle Earth as much as I am.

My thoughts on Chapters VI to X will be posted in a day or so.

Remember you can share your favourite quotes on twitter or share a picture of where in the world you are reading The Hobbit using #HLOTRreadalong2017.

Saturday, 4 February 2017

Travelers' Tales Mexico by James O'Reilly & Larry Habegger

I do like to hunt down books that are set in the country or region that I'm visiting.

Our recent trip to Tulum on the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico though proved to be a bit of a challenge. I couldn't find any fiction (in print) for this area, although I did find a Moon travel guide dedicated to Tulum.

I eventually unearthed Travelers' Tales Mexico edited by James O'Reilly and Larry Habegger and bought it hoping that some of the tales would be about the Yucatan.

Only one of the tales had an obvious reference to the Yucatan Peninsula, The Underground World of the Yucatan (1994) by Richard Bloom.  ♠♠7♠♠

He gave us a brief history about the formation of cenotes - 'sinkholes with trapped water' and their importance to the original inhabitants of the region - before introducing us to Leonardo Pacheco Cohuich, a guide at Las Grutus de Loltun, Dzitnup & Las Grutus de Balankanche. We learnt a little Mayan and Toltec history as well as touching on the meaning of some of the local cave paintings.

Sadly, we did not have time to visit this particular site ourselves, and the essay was too short to do more than tease and tantalise this particular reader! However, we did pop in for a refreshing swim at Gran Cenote near Tulum after a hot morning walking around Coba Archaeological ruins.



Crossing the Linguistic Frontera (1994) by Joel Simon promised a little more Yucatan flavour with it's subtitle, A Yucatan bus trip becomes a window into Mexican life. Simon and his wife, learnt a lot about patience, the meaning of the word 'full' and the Mexican approach to time and schedules.

Lessons we also learnt during our travels around Cuba, more so than during our brief time in Tulum. ♠♠8♠♠

One of the lengthier tales was Welcoming the Spirits on Janitzio Island  (1994) by Jeff Greenwald which described the Day of the Dead, Dia de los Muertos, ritual as celebrated in one particular community.

It was a poignant and informative piece that also highlighted some of the problems with over the top tourism. ♠♠9♠♠

Finding Frida Kahlo (1990) by Alice Adams has convinced me that I would love to return to Mexico to learn more about Kahlo and see more of her art in situ. ♠♠10♠♠

While the last two pieces that I read - The Evolution of La Frontera (1992) by Richard Rodriguez ♠♠J♠♠ & The Border (1994) by William Langewiesche ♠♠Q♠♠ were selected to help me understand the complicated relationship between Mexico and its northern neighbour. Given that we were in Mexico during Trump's inauguration, the relationship between these two countries was much in the news and on our minds.

During our travels, we also realised that despite being critical and thoughtful users of news and media services throughout most of our lives, we had still absorbed, quite unconsciously, a very North American view of Mexico. It only took a few short days, and a couple of fortuitous conversations with Mexicans to see that our preconceived ideas were based on misinformation and prejudice.

Mexico is a much bigger, more complex and nuanced country than we had been led to believe. We experienced no danger, no drugs and only one trickster. We ate delicious, fresh, locally sourced food, saw some amazing sites and learnt so much about Mayan history, that my head is still spinning!

Chichen Itza - one of the Mayan Archaeological Zones that we explored.

Travelers' Tales Mexico was a great way to get a little insight into the Mexican way of life.
The only beef I had with the layout of the book were the text boxes on the side. Although they were usually linked to the main idea of the essay, they distracted from the reading of said essay. Should one read them on the page as they appeared, or remember to come back at the end of the essay? Neither approach was very satisfactory. The first broke the rhythm of the essay, while the second was often hard to remember to do!

I didn't read all the essays this time around, but I did read all the text boxes - they covered everything from stuff to do, history, food, places, language, stories and useful tips.

Hopefully we will return to Mexico one day, to give me an excuse to read more of these essays in depth, but for now, the six tales above form the first part of my #DealMeIn short story challenge (full details here).

I'm playing with an Australian euchre pack - 32 cards - & I had a lot of fun searching out different designs on google!

Wednesday, 1 February 2017

Welcome to Book - The Hobbit

Welcome one and all to our February readalong of The Hobbit.

The 21st of September 2017 will be the 80th anniversary of the publication of  J R R Tolkien's The Hobbit or There and Back Again.

My edition for this reread of The Hobbit is the 1997 illustrated hardback produced for the 60th anniversary. The illustrator, Alan Lee went on to become one of Peter Jackson's artistic consultants for the 2001-03 movies of LOTR. His images of Middle Earth have become iconic in the Tolkien world.

Tolkien initially said that he wrote The Hobbit for an audience of children, although as Jane Chance says in her book, Tolkien's Art (2001), a more accurate description would be that The Hobbit appeals to the child in the adult. 

The Hobbit also reflected Tolkien's interest in Norse mythology and along with the LOTR trilogy, became an archetypal work of high fantasy.

The original publication of The Hobbit was amended by Tolkien after he started work on the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Gollum's character in particular, was significantly changed to conform to events in LOTR. This is now the version we all know and love.

But what is it all about?

My jacket blurb says,
Whisked away from his comfortable, unambitious life in his hobbit-hole in Bag End by Gandalf the wizard and a company of dwarves, Bilbo Baggins finds himself caught up in a plot to raid the treasure of Smaug the Magnificent, a large and very dangerous dragon.  
Although quite reluctant to take part in this quest, Bilbo surprises himself by his resourcefulness and his skill as a burglar!

Essentially, The Hobbit is a road trip book and coming-of-age story wrapped up in one. Although Bilbo is not a child at the beginning of the story, he is child-like. His quest or journey is not just a physical one.

Bilbo Baggins was standing at his door after breakfast smoking an enormous long pipe.

Whilst reading The Hobbit, watch out for examples of animism (giving inanimate objects human qualities), WWI analogies, the use of the omniscient narrator, fairy tale-like elements, examples of greed and selfishness, safety versus dangerous, heroism and humour. 

If you'd like to write your own Welcome to Book for The Hobbit, you can leave your link in the Master Post. You could tell us about your relationship with The Hobbit or share any titbits of information you may have gleaned over the years.
Please be mindful of first time readers until we get to the end of the month, where we can then assume that the book has been read by all participants.


You can read The Hobbit as quickly or as slowly as you like throughout February. You could even read it multiple times if the fancy takes you.

I will write a check-in post for the middle of February to see where everyone is up to.

But now it's time to say 'yes' to adventure and turn our eyes towards the Shire and a little hobbit hole on the side of The Hill.

The #HLOTRreadalong2017 Master Post is here.

Monday, 30 January 2017

Travels With Herodotus by Ryszard Kapuscinski

The plan was to reread Herodotus' The Histories in January/February along with Ruth @A Great Book Study.

The reality however, turned out to be a little different.

I knew I was going to be away for most of January, and as much as I wanted to take The Histories with me, I knew I wouldn't be able to do it justice on the road...or so I thought, until I read Travels with Herodotus (2004) by Ryszard Kapuscinski .

Kapuscinski's reminiscences of travelling with Herodotus throughout his extensive journalistic career was not only a great book for me to travel with, it also made me wish that I had actually packed my copy of The Histories.
I was tempted by people still unmet, roads yet untraveled, skies yet unseen.

I first heard about Kapuscinski last year, when one of our regular customers requested a copy of the book. It sounded like my kind of thing, so I ordered a copy for myself as well...and waited for the right time to dip into it.

Kapuscinski reread The Histories so many times during his lifetime, that he became an unofficial Herodotus expert. He quoted excerpts from the book and found that his experiences as a journalist often complemented those of the ancient world.
One must read Herodotus's book - and every great book - repeatedly; with each reading it will reveal another layer, previously overlooked themes, images and meanings. For within every great book there are several others.

As I read Kapuscinski and his excerpts of The Histories, I found myself making connections between what I was experiencing in Cuba and Mexico with what I was reading. I also found myself drawing parallels between the rise & decline of the Persian empire with news coming out of the States.
It seems to be easier to fool a crowd than a single person.
Xerxes is unbalanced, unpredictable, an astonishing bundle of contradictions

Travels with Herodotus is almost like a Herodotus primer - Kapuscinski discussed who Herodotus was, what his aims were, how he went about gathering his information as well as going over some of the controversies and criticisms surrounding the book and the author's technique.

Memory, perspective and time are themes that both men returned to over and again.
His book is yet another expression of man's struggle against time, against the fragility of memory.

I loved the mix of personal and historical, of current and ancient. Kapuscinski was a thoughtful and thought-provoking writer.
How often do we consider the fact that the treasures and riches of the world were created from time immemorial by slaves?

Like Herodotus, his work was journalistic, anthropological and philosophical in nature.
The present existed always, that history is merely an uninterrupted progression of presents, that what for us are ancient events were for those people who lived them immediate and present reality.

Kapuscinski was a Polish journalist and foreign correspondent post-WWII. He spent time in India, China, Africa & Latin America - and wherever he was posted, he took his copy of The Histories with him. In 1999 he was made 'journalist of the century' in Poland.

Travels with Herodotus was translated by Klara Glowczewska in 2007.

Sunday, 29 January 2017

I'll Take You There by Wally Lamb

I seriously hope there are some Wally Lamb fans out there who can tell me what all the fuss is about or at least that I'll Take You There is simply not an example of his best work.

I acknowledge that I am jet-lagged after our big trip away and now a yucky summer head cold has caught up with me too. My ability to concentrate is severely impaired, which is why I had to put down Herodotus' The Histories for a bit.

I'll Take You There seemed light enough and interesting enough for my tired brain to cope with. A bit of a ghost story with a bit of time travel sounded fun. A family drama with secrets, revelations and personal insights sounded just right.

However, no matter how hard I tried, this just ended up feeling like a baby boomer's nostalgic trip down memory lane. The ghost story felt contrived. I couldn't see the point in the time travel aspect of the story. All the characters tried too hard to be smart, sassy and hip.

My care factor plummeted by about chapter five and never really revived as a skimmed through the rest. I wanted to find out what Lamb's answers were to 'life's biggest questions' as the New York Times quote on the back jacket promised.

I didn't have a problem with his final response as such, but it was nothing new or startling or thought provoking.

What did I miss?

This was my first Wally Lamb, and at this point, my last, unless someone can convince me otherwise.

Saturday, 28 January 2017

Our Man in Havana by Graham Greene

Our Man in Havana by Graham Greene was a great choice of book to read whilst travelling around Cuba although it was also a little bizarre.
In some ways nothing had changed since Greene wrote this in 1958 but on the other hand, everything had.

The other rather eerie side to this story, is that three months after publication, Fidel and his supporters stormed the city and ousted the very corrupt Batista regime. Although Our Man in Havana is not a revolutionary story there's something about the timing of this book that gives one the shivers. There are plenty of comments and observations that the future reader can see as signs of what is about to happen in Cuba.

The primary subject for ridicule in Greene's story was the ineptly bureaucratic British intelligence network - in other words, a spy spoof. Of course, this was all made possible thanks to the fact that Havana, under Batista's dictatorship, was a place 'where every vice was permissible and every trade possible.*'

Batista's corrupt regime and the Americans role in it do come in for their fair share of Greene's ridicule, but his focus was clearly on the whole spying caper.

With a cast of crazy characters - from the accidental agent cum vacuum cleaner salesman to the slightly sinister German drunk and the very sinister head police officer at Vedado who has designs on the ingenue horse-loving daughter - they all act to confuse, confound and deceive each other at every turn. The story lurches from one miscommunication to the next.

I prefer my satire and irony to be on the subtle side (think Jane Austen, Charles Dickens & Mark Twain - when he's not being very obvious!)
This is not subtle.

There are some moments that produce wry chuckles, but unfortunately I never felt engaged with the characters. I enjoyed the mention of Cuban places and the descriptions of cities and venues that I had also seen for myself.

Tim Parks in the New York Review of Books said,

satire alludes to recognizable contemporary circumstances in a skewed and comic way so as to draw attention to their absurdity. There is mockery but with a noble motive: the desire to bring shame on some person or party behaving wrongly or ignorantly. Its raison d’ȇtre over the long term is to bring about change through ridicule; or if change is too grand an aspiration, we might say that it seeks to give us a fresh perspective on the absurdities and evils we live among, such that we are eager for change. 

Since satire has this practical and pragmatic purpose, the criteria for assessing it are fairly simple: if it doesn’t point toward positive change, or encourage people to think in a more enlightened way, it has failed.
Reading OMIH in Jose Marti Domestic Airport, Havana

Was Greene successful in bring about change through this farce? Does one feel enlightened after reading Our Man in Havana?

I was amused and entertained, but sadly, I also felt that nothing about the secret services of the world had really changed. Just like Cuba, the raison d'etre behind all secret government agencies still feels stuck in 1958.

I'm not sure I would have enjoyed reading Our Man in Havana as much as I did, if I hadn't actually been in Cuba at the time.

As the drunk in the Santiago hotel may have said on pg 65, Cuba is Cuba is Cuba. For me that was enough. I suspect it was enough for Greene too.

*Graham Greene, Ways of Escape 1980