What John Purcell did on his holidays

by |January 12, 2018

2018 holiday reading recommendations

What does someone who reads for a living do on their holidays?

I work with books because I love books. Reading is what I do and what I love to do.

I don’t know the habits of others in the book industry, but on holidays I find a nice comfortable spot and read. I don’t move much but I travel far.

So what have I been reading?

I generally play catch up in my holidays. I seek out the books I wanted to read but had no time to read because I was busy reading other things. Occupational hazard. Books like Nutshell by Ian McEwan, which for some reason I never got to. A short, fun, intelligent read. And Smile by Roddy Doyle. Not so fun, but great all the same.

And I try to get ahead, too, by reading a few advanced reading copies. I just had to read Tracy Sorensen’s The Lucky Galah because of all the pre-publication buzz and because it is narrated by a galah. Yep, a galah. You’ll want all your books narrated by a galah after this. And The Lost Flowers of Alice Hart by Holly Ringland for the same reason, a lot of buzz, that is. Sadly no galah. Both have gorgeous covers and both live up to the hype.


And then there’s Tim Winton. His new novel, The Shepherd’s Hut, is out in March and it’s something special. But you may need a stiff drink on finishing it. And a hug. Probably a shower before the hug, you’ll be stinky. In my opinion they should just give Winton the Miles now and be done with it. Read my review here.

The Shepherd's Hut by Tim Winton

Just before my holidays I read an advance copy of The Only Story by Julian Barnes, which might just win him another Man Booker Prize. I don’t have the words to describe how intelligent and wise this novel is. I’ll have to read it again before I even try to review it. In short, it’s better than The Sense of an Ending.

Because I was still in the thrall of The Only Story, the first book I read on holidays was an older book by Julian Barnes, Flaubert’s Parrot. I’d read it before, ten or so years ago, but back then, I didn’t think much of it. Present John is mortified by Past John’s failure to appreciate the book. It is sublime. But then, according to one interview I read, Past Julian Barnes failed to recognise the brilliance of E.M. Forster. We live, we learn. As to Flaubert’s Parrot, anyone interested in writing, reading, parrots and/or Flaubert should read it now. Today. This instant. My brain automatically associates it with The French Lieutenant’s Woman, another sublime book.

A book that everyone who loves books, reading, bookshops and hope should avoid reading is The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald. This book nearly killed me and I take a lot of killing. I should have heeded the warnings. It starts bleak. The middle is bleak. I should have guessed the ending, but there is something stupidly optimistic about me and I read on. Why did I read on? Be warned, a little novel called The Bookshop is bound to be as attractive to you as it was to me. It’s a Venus flytrap for book romantics. Snap!

Thankfully I picked up How to Stop Time by Matt Haig soon after. It is only pretendy bleak. Much nicer. And very enjoyable, too. Because the main character lives for a very long time we get to see human life from a different perspective – the long view – and the conclusion is – we aren’t that shit, really. Which is nice.

How to Stop Time by Matt Haig

You know when you start a book and you aren’t really that interested but you read it to the bitter end anyway? That’s what I did with House of Names by Colm Toibin. I don’t know why I kept turning pages, but I did. Then it ended. There is nothing wrong with it but I can’t recall anything right with it either. It was a nice little hardcover. I’m a sucker for a nice little hardcover.

House of Names by Colm Toibin

I ended my holiday with a gem, Judas by Amos Oz. This is a book by a grown up for grown ups, which I pretended to be for the duration. A novel of ideas. Don’t come to Judas for shits and giggles you will leave empty handed. But if you’re willing to take things slow, to enjoy the slow rhythms of the story, to notice the slow subtle changes then you will come away enriched. It’s bleak but good bleak, there’s a difference.

Judas by Amos Oz

As the curtain fell on my holiday, I reached for To Become a Whale by Ben Hobson. I always thought I’d like this debut novel but never got around to reading it. Which is a shame, because it is a beautifully written novel with a strong and consistent sense of itself. Every detail feels true and the story shows its hand slowly. An great achievement for any writer, let alone a debut author.

To Become a Whale by Ben Hobson

And that was my holiday. I travelled to Suffolk, Surrey, Ancient Greece, Ireland, South Pacific, Israel, Queensland, the coast and the interior of WA, France and NSW. I was a foetus, a galah, a very, very, very old man, a young girl, a messed up Irish man, a young boy, a slightly older boy on the run, a university student, a middle aged woman, a middle aged man, a queen, a princess and a prince.

If you’ve read this far, you’re probably a reader, too, so I’m sure you’ve found my holidays were not too different from your holidays. Just a different collection of books and a different collection of adventures, probably.

Readers read, that’s what we do.


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About the Contributor

While still in his twenties, John Purcell opened a second-hand bookshop in Mosman, Sydney, in which he sat for ten years reading, ranting and writing. Since then he has written, under a pseudonym, a series of very successful novels, interviewed hundreds of writers about their work, appeared at writers’ festivals, on TV (most bizarrely in comedian Luke McGregor’s documentary Luke Warm Sex) and has been featured in prominent newspapers and magazines. ​Now, as the Director of Books at booktopia.com.au, Australia’s largest online bookseller, he supports Australian writing in all its forms. He lives in Sydney with his wife, two children, three dogs, five cats, unnumbered gold fish and his overlarge book collection. His novel, The Girl on the Page, will be published by HarperCollins Australia in October, 2018.

Follow John: Twitter Website


  • Janet Grundy

    January 12, 2018 at 5:23 pm

    This was a brilliant treat, John. I love your enthusiasm and clever descriptions and now have lots of fresh reading ahead of me. Immediately, I wanted to share what you said about Julian Barnes with a girlfriend in England, who once came with me to the Adelaide Writers’ Festival, met him and almost swooned!

  • Priscilla Gormley

    January 12, 2018 at 9:35 pm

    Thank you for your refreshingly honest reviews. Of course, you can say what you think — they’re your books. I was delighted to read less than complimentary views on a couple. I keep winning books – beautiful books by amazing authors – and I don’t always like them. Then I have the publisher asking me to post a review, and I simply can’t – it seems ungracious to leave a less than charmed review. I can’t send it back, so I turn my back on it and let someone else do the talking. Sometimes they find wonderful writing and a marvelous story and I feel like a klutz. That happened twice recently – same publisher, popular authors – nope. Not for me. I threw one of them in the recycling bin. I’ve given up putting myself in that position. Plenty of books in the library and I do get to read them eventually. You were very gracious – well, fairly gracious anyway. I do enjoy your weekly news, so keep it up. Cheers, Priscilla

  • Neekita

    January 13, 2018 at 6:16 pm

    Hopefully, I can have such vacations- with so many great books to read! Ain’t you lucky, that way, matey! 🙂

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