Wednesday, 28 July 2021

The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 by John Godey


“Being dead is an improvement on a lot of things I can think of. Trying to sell mutual funds, for example.”

This is an old school action thriller that holds your interest. I've never seen either the original film or the recent re-make with Denzel and was interested in reading the book first. I now have two movies to catch up on (somehow lockdown makes me crave high-stakes drama - go figure).

Looking through the lens of today there's quite a lot of language that probably wouldn't fly and yet it doesn't stick out like a sore thumb. The characters are gritty criminals and hardened subway users. One of the more memorable characters was the prostitute running late for her gross John. Her inner monologue creates a sense of a real human who is just trying to survive, rather than the usual stereotype.

The premise is compelling. A one million dollar ransom for the hijacking of a subway car in New York City. Mayhem ensues.

4 out of 5 , I'm still recovering from the dark tunnels.

Monday, 12 July 2021

The Mask of Dimitrios by Eric Ambler


"The afternoon heat had set the air above the concrete quivering and Latimer began to wish that he had not come. It was not the weather for visiting corrugated-iron mortuaries."

Perhaps being stuck in Sydney’s lockdown is what is making reading a little difficult for me at the moment. The brain is on high alert for the latest information, preoccupied by statistics and the daily risk analysis that feels completely overwhelming, pared with the ultimate frustrations of conducting business via virtual means. Reading a high stakes thriller seemed to prove an even greater challenge than finishing some other less fraught tomes and yet, dear reader, I persisted, and it was worth it.

Last night, I downed my glass of red with hearty abandon and headed for doona town population 1, accompanied by this old school thriller. While reading in fits and starts had lacked any semblance of excitement, a dedicated hour of reading flung this imprisoned misery guts off into a world of adventure. Detective novelist Latimer unexpectedly finds himself on the trail of a man named Dimitrios, after making the acquaintance of the police inspector Colonel Haki in Istanbul. Haki takes Latimer to the city morgue for a taste of real-life murder mysteries, showing him the body of the mysterious, eponymous, Dimitrios and like any good author, Latimer recognises the opportunity for a great book about the shadowy figure.

Following leads from Istanbul to Sofia, Geneva and Paris, Latimer’s travels are a welcome respite for this shut-in, but chock full of impending dread. Who can be believed? What sort of people is Latimer getting himself mixed up with? White Slavery, espionage, drug trafficking – criminal activity abounds. Will our hapless author survive this adventure and who really was (or is?) Dimitrios? Strap yourself in for a wild ride and enjoy the reading journey this provides. I can’t wait to get my hands on a copy of the 1944 movie version, as the novel lends itself so fantastically to a cinematic outing – think The Man who Knew Too Much or North by Northwest.

5 out of 5 thrilling adventures can befall an unsuspecting author.

Wednesday, 30 June 2021

American Pastoral by Philip Roth


“He had learned the worst lesson that life can teach-that it makes no sense. And when that happens the happiness is never spontaneous again.”

Roth's writing is so evocative, drawing out characters from the outside in with such dexterity and skill that it is easy to understand his success. Coming in at a hefty 448 pages, I’ve been looking at this novel in my ‘to be read’ file for quite some time now.

As you may know, I prefer to read a novel before watching any movie adaptations. When I noticed the Ewan McGregor and Jennifer Connelly adaptation was available on streaming, I decided to crack the spine and get reading so that I could enjoy them both in the correct order.

The scope of the novel is both insular and expansive. It begins with a high school reunion where we’re introduced to the “Swede”, the local golden boy whose life took a turn. The narrator had attended the same school and looked up to the local sporting hero who married the beauty queen (former Miss New Jersey), but auspicious beginnings do not necessarily lead to positive outcomes.

Swede Levov’s life is blown to pieces by his young daughter, Merry. Her protest efforts against the Vietnam War culminate in a bombing with tragic results. That doesn’t even touch the sides in terms of what is going on in the novel. There’s the crushing of the American Dream, the loss of innocence of war, racism, the generational torment between teenagers and their parents, just to sprout off a few themes. There is a LOT going on and that’s why the novel is a bit of a door stop. Don’t be put off by the heft, there are many reasons why this novel has had such wide acclaim including winning the Pulitzer Prize in 1998.

Comparing this to Roth’s earlier work such as Portnoy’s Complaint, is rather interesting. This is more mature and expansive and lacks the cheekiness of the earlier novel. Guilt about the intense sexual drive of youth is replaced by guilt at failure to produce a child that complies with one’s dreams and expectations.

I did get around to watching the film also and it was a little hit and miss. Dakota Fanning as Merry seemed miscast. At her lowest ebb, she still looks too clean and sweet. McGregor is so so, but Connelly is amazing and looks fantastic. Overall it is a valiant effort to cover so much in a tight movie format.

4 out of 5 - Daddy's girl gone wrong.

The Kraken Wakes by John Wyndham


"Something had carried away three-quarters of my starboard wing, and messed up the tip of the other."

Perhaps reading an extinction-level event novel during a pandemic is not the best course of action for someone who is prone to panic at the best of times. Nevertheless, I had packed this slim volume in my backpack for a quick flight to Tasmania and was determined to finish it.

First published in 1953, there were aspects of the novel that seemed so familiar, mainly in terms of the way people react to threat. Just as today the world can't seem to agree how to tackle climate change as one world rather than a collection of separate nations, the threat of alien invasion does little to bridge the gap in the novel.

While the ramifications may be horrendous, Wyndham retains a modicum of hope for the human race, even if takes the death of millions to realise it. This isn't my favourite Wyndham novel. I'm more a fan of  The Day of the Triffids, and The Midwich Cuckoos and yet this still makes for a good read.

4 out of 5 squids taste better on the bar-be-que.

Ratking (Aurelio Zen #1) by Michael Dibdin


“Fulsome and vapid, laden with insincere warmth and hidden barbs, his speech had nevertheless left no legitimate grounds for complaint."

In a time where COVID is destroying our ability to take exciting European vacations, or let’s face it any overseas travel, the first Aurelio Zen novel is the closest thing. The world lost a great talent in 2007 when Dibdin died at the rather young age of sixty. His ability to recreate the bureaucracy and feeling of living in Italy is almost teleportational. This was definitely the closest I was getting to Italy this year.

Aurelio Zen is not your typical hero. He’s grumpy, jaded, has issues at home and his career is in the toilet. The opportunity to transfer to Perugia from his desk job at the State Police in Rome to work on a kidnapping case is one he jumps at, little suspecting he is merely a pawn in a larger game.

Corruption, intrigue and murder follow. The title refers to (according to Wikipedia)

The pictures on that link may turn your stomach (you have been warned dear reader). Weirdly, this phenomenon was reflected in another novel I’ve read recently, The Rats. In any case, I’m done with rats for the year. Here however the title refers to the interconnectedness of all the power players that Zen will have to understand in order to unravel the truth.

I’ve just discovered that the novel was made into a TV series  with the rather attractive Rufus Sewell in the titular role. I imagined someone who had eaten a lot more pasta and was a little more ‘lived in’, but I’m willing to give it a go. Apparently, there were only three episodes made and then it was cancelled, which doesn’t bode well.

As soon as I finished the last page, I ordered the next two novels in the series. I need more Zen in my life clearly and this could be the only way I experience Italy up close for quite some time.

5 out of 5 - get into Zen

Monday, 28 June 2021

Vera by Elizabeth von Arnim


"Her father had died at nine o'clock that morning, and it was now twelve."

If you're a fan of Daphne Du Maurier's Rebecca, then I suspect this might be firmly in your wheelhouse. While the introduction, as intimated above, was a little raw for me to read, having recently lost my father, I carried on regardless and was not disappointed.

The author, Elizabeth von Arnim, was born in Kirribilli, NSW in 1866, the cousin of Australian author, Katherine Mansfield and her life story is a book I really want to read!! Actually there’s a new biography coming out in July 2021, and I’m definitely going to secure a copy. 

I really enjoyed The Enchanted April by von Armin and was eager to discover her other works. I’m also currently reading her Mr Skeffington novel which formed the basis of the Bette Davis movie with the same name (it is a fabulous film that I would wholeheartedly recommend). Back to the book...

Lucy is a complete innocent, left unguarded against the machinations of a much older man. A man, Everard Wemyss, who is beholden to the fact that “public opinion was forcing him into retirement and inactivity at the very time when he most needed company and distraction”

This need to retire is based upon the recent death of his wife, the eponymous Vera, under rather suspicious circumstances. All the newspapers are a flurry with his story, except for this innocent girl he happens upon.

Lucy’s only protector is her aunt, Miss Entwhistle, and Wemyss works hard to win her confidence, leaning on the fact that everyone assumes that Wemyss is a former friend of Lucy’s father. Neither Lucy or Wemyss is prepared to counter that narrative. He worries that this ‘maiden Aunt’ will take away his companion, a young girl now thoroughly entranced with him and resolves to marry Lucy to ensure she will not go anywhere.

Miss Entwhistle takes on a sort of Miss Marple role, acting as the voice of reason, cautious about Wemyss and particularly of his finances. Things get really interesting once the pair are married.

“Marriage, Lucy found, was different from what she had supposed; Everard was different; everything was different.”

 The comparisons to Rebecca are enlivened here, young girl marries guy, guy changes immediately. Left alone after the honeymoon, Wemyss shows his true narcissistic spots, incensed that his wife dare to be ill and unable to accompany him to London. Wemyss’ expectations of marrying a young innocent is that she will bend to his every whim and not dare to have a thought of her own. Needless to say the marriage isn’t a good one

“But now, after her experiences to-day, she had a fear of him more separate, more definite, distinct from love. Strange to be afraid of him and love him at the same time. Perhaps if she didn't love him she wouldn't be afraid of him. No, she didn't think she would then, because then nothing that he said would reach her heart. Only she couldn't imagine that. He was her heart.”

Weymss is such a creepy man, brilliantly described by von Arnim, a villain who reminds me of the hideous ex (marriage to him would be horrendous). He epitomises everything I hate about self-centered chauvinist pigs and his plotting is nefarious in the extreme. That being said, he makes a great literary character and the pages will just fly by!!

5 out of 5 - needs a trigger warning.

An American Marriage by Tayari Jones


“A woman doesn't always have a choice, not in a meaningful way. Sometimes there is a debt that must be paid, a comfort that she is obliged to provide, a safe passage that must be secured. Everyone of us has lain down for a reason that was not love.”

I read this novel quite some time ago and haven’t gotten around to reviewing it until now. My recollections are overwhelmingly emotional, rather than detail focused. This was a reading experience that toyed with so many different feelings and I suspect that each reader would have a very different response to it. The overarching response that they might share would undoubtedly be a sense of marvel at how fantastic Tayari Jones is as a writer. Her prose is captivating, easy to read and extremely emotive. In case you can’t tell, I think the novel is fabulous!

Before embarking on the novel you’ll no doubt glance at the blurb and think whoa “An explosive love story about a marriage interrupted”, is this going to hold my interest? Well that was my response and it did more than hold my interest. I absolutely devoured the pages.

Newly married couple Roy and Celestial have the world at their feet until Roy is arrested for a rape that he did not participate in. Unfairly incarcerated, Roy spends twelve years in jail for a crime he didn’t commit, clinging desperately to the hope of returning to his loving wife on the outside, while dealing with other startling revelations about his family while in prison.

Outside, Celestial lives a very different existence and seeks comfort from her friend from childhood and the best man at their wedding, Andre. Circumstances conspire so that every party suffers and the sense of guilt and abandonment and betrayal ooze from the pages as pungently as the need for love and solace. Each character’s emotional journey draws you further in and things become even more complicated once Roy’s conviction is overturned after five years.

This is a novel that says so much about an unfair system, about families about feelings and about life while narrowing in on the stories of the central characters with an immediacy that makes your hairs stand on end.

5 out of 5 - Oprah and Barrack Obama were right, this is an amazing book.