Wednesday, 20 June 2018

Saturday by Ian McEwan

"Henry can't resist the urgency of his cases, or deny the egotistical joy in his own skills, or the pleasure he still takes in the relief of the relatives when he comes down from the operating room like a god, an angle with the glad tidings – life, not death."

This was one of those occasions where I made the mistake of purchasing the e-book rather than the physical variety. I wish I hadn't. This was so great that it really deserved sharing. There is so much going on here in so few pages, it is expertly rendered and almost poetic in its depth.

One of the more unexpected notes is the literary references which pepper a novel about a neurosurgeon. It is really interesting to see the interactions within a family peopled by the artistic, creative types - Hugo the musician, Daisy the poet; and the practical - Henry the surgeon and his wife , the journalist, a chronicler of facts. It was almost hand crafted for someone trying to finish the 1001 list of novels to read before you die ( hello – that's totally me!).

It is amazing how McEwan captures the heightened sensations of a post 9-11 world, coupled with much more immediate threats of violence. This book has non-stop thrills and spills that have your heart beating at a faster pace, while it also tugs at your fears about ageing and dementia.  How can so much fit within such a slim volume? It truly is a masterpiece.

I feel it would be terribly mean of me to give away the main action, other than to say it is gripping and you definitely need to get yourself a copy. Energy, suspense, depth of feeling, this one has it all.

5 out of 5 this one really spoke to me.

Sunday, 17 June 2018

The Tenth Man by Graham Greene

"Nevertheless no collaborator felt a more hunted man than Charlot, for his past was equally shameful: he could explain to no one how he had lost his money — if indeed it was not already known."

In the author's introduction to this tale, its origin story points to cinematic aspirations and I think that is very clear from the prose. I could envisage each scene in front of me on the big screen or as a play, at its heart is a character study of how people behave when their life is on the line.

In prison during the war in France, the Nazis have undertaken to execute every tenth prisoner and ten men have to decide who will be the unlucky one.When our protagonist, a wealthy lawyer, is the loser through drawing lots, he promises all his assets to the man who will take his place. Javier sees an opportunity for his family and takes the unpleasant deal.

Four years later, Chavel returns to the town he left behind and that's where things get interesting. Rather than give too much away, I mean there are only about 200 pages to read after all; I'd suggest you peruse the pages yourself. Returning back to the story's cinematic feel— I'm not sure that this has been adapted and if it hasn't it should be.

You might be wondering why I've subtracted a point and I think that is more about the timing of the novel's end. There is a lengthy build up for a rather speedy finale, which added to my perceptions of its movie-like quality. Usually you can develop more within the novel framework as there's more scope and time. This is not my favourite Greene novel by any means and yet it is still pretty darn great.

 4 out of 5 repercussions are never fun.

Thursday, 14 June 2018

McMafia: Seriously Organised Crime by Misha Glenny.

"Behind the desk an exceptionally good-looking woman in her twenties shares the look of infinite boredom which I note is as essential to whorehouses as the high heels."

After I had finished watching the intensely gripping BBC tv series with the same name, I was compelled to purchase the nonfiction source material and was not disappointed. Absent (the very easy on the eye) James Norton, an exploration of the dark side of organised crime across the planet proved to be just as interesting, possibly more so, because the stories are real.
Glenny’s journalistic skills embed the narrative with a sense of immediacy and the book is at its most powerful when it draws a connection between nefarious activities and the way they impact the everyday lives of his readers. It highlights the way people turn a blind eye towards criminal activities in order to feed our desires, be they cheap movies, illicit substances or  cheap thrills.

Weirdly, by examining the growth of organised crime across the globe, Glenny demonstrates how it doesn't matter where you come from, or your beliefs, when faced with hardship, a Machiavellian approach to attaining financial security is a pretty common human approach. Certainly it underscores the notion that the promise of an extremely well paying job, requiring no specific skills, with vague terms in a far away land is likely to end in either prostitution, drug smuggling or modern slavery of some kind. 

So while the tv series gave a glossy insight into the corrupting influence of power and money from a top down perspective, its source material delves deeper down. Combined they provide insightful entrees into what goes on  everywhere from down the back alleys, to the backrooms, up to the boardrooms across the globe . The picture they paint isn't pretty.

5 out of 5

Tuesday, 5 June 2018

Not Fade Away by Jim Dodge

"At the moment I took off in that stolen Eldorado I wasn't contemplating the exquisitely bottomless metaphysical definitions of freedom, you understand, I was feeling  the wild, crazy joy of actually cutting loose and doing it."

Are you ready to take a wild ride in a snazzy vehicle? Well fasten your seat belt sonny Jim and let's get cracking. This road trip features stolen vehicles, strange characters, wacky hats and a bizarre LSD trip. It has moments of pure brilliance that convince you of being out of control and behind the wheel. Combine that with the music of the Big Bopper and his tragic aeroplane companions - indeed the book title refers to the Buddy Holly song.

George Gastin is a kind of shonky guy, a minor criminal with a dodgy insurance scam on the go. When he has to wreck a Cadillac that was supposed to be gifted to the late Big Bopper from a fan, he takes off in the vehicle for a pilgrimage / adventure that makes for an entertaining read.

Am I 100% on board with this one? Well I felt there were a few off patches, but I'm not sure whether that was more to do with reading it piecemeal and being a little stressed with work. What a surprise I hear you say? Yes, it seems to be a thing. Conversely there were moments where I legitimately felt completely immersed in the action; behind the steering wheel, encountering crazy characters and having strange, messed up, drug-addled experiences.

4 out of 5 road trips involve long drives which can be tiring - stop, revive, survive.

Sunday, 27 May 2018

MI5 and Me, A Coronet Among the Spooks by Charlotte Bingham

"I should have liked it if my life could have returned to what nice people would call normal, but now I  was part of the inner circle that surrounded my father, I had a feeling that it was not going to be possible."

Having read the synopsis for this new release, I was totally on board and quickly secured a copy. This memoir is delightfully understated and therein lies much of its charm. Lottie bumbles about with a kind of Hugh Grant-esque britishness that doesn't seem real. Accidentally discovering communist plots after being told by her father about the real circumstances of his employment, In reality he was supposed to be the inspiration for the character of George Smiley - and you know how much I do love those novels.

I'm not sure how much of the book I can discuss without ruining it. It meanders in a delightful manner and I ate it up. Is it the kind of work that I could wax lyrical about for hours - probably not. Having said that, it is just as tasty as the many tea-cakes sprinkled within its pages.

A look back at a time when stakes were high and the world was not what it seemed. Maybe some things never change.

5 out of 5 - Don't order the lobster.

Friday, 25 May 2018

Less by Andrew Sean Greer

"A teaching post, a conference, a writing retreat, a travel article, and so on. And, like  those Sicilian nuns who, once a year, appear behind a little curtain, singing, so that their families can gaze upon them, in his study, in his little house, for Arthur Less a curtain lifted upon a singular idea."

If you are asking yourself.."hmm... should I read the latest Pulitzer Prize winner?", might I suggest the answer should be a resounding yes. This is a brilliantly rendered story that reminds me of the Peter Pan aspects of my own life. Those of us who aren't pre-occupied with progeny - the girls who've not yet "met mister right", the boys that like other boys and can't afford, or don't wish for a surrogate. Some might feel our lives are a little dull - newsflash they're not. We still feel the same struggles, we just tend to look a little less wrinkled while doing it. Arthur Less is our spirit animal.

I am madly in love with  Arthur Less - I mean we have so much in common  - failed novelist ( let's face it I'm not even at the point where I've got to the novel - its a pipe dream at this point), romantic basket case looking for a relationship's positives without the long standing negatives. Honestly, if he wasn't a gay man, and was instead a lady of a certain age - well the story would be way too personal. I might even blush.

This novel brings a delightful mix of comedy and pathos that just drew me in wholeheartedly. I felt pain, amusement, disdain - I just felt a hell of a lot and still managed to laugh with mischievous abandon. My biggest complaint in relation to the book, was the fact that it wasn't longer. Lately it seems so many books are overly lengthy like they're trying to make up for some other kind of inadequacy - this is the exact opposite.

Arthur makes the most of his past relationship with a much lauded poet, to discover an out from the wedding of his most recent lover to another party. His ex was the adopted son of his biggest enemy, and inappropriately young, who knew that the relationship ending could have such an impact.It's funny how you can fall into seemingly inappropriate and "free" situations that turn out to be the exact opposite.

Having finished the novel, I just want to fall back into the story again and spend some more quality time with Mr Less. That however, will have to wait as sleep is making far more vociferous demands.

 5 out of 5 holidays are a good way to avoid uncomfortable situations.

Thursday, 24 May 2018

In the Unlikely Event by Judy Blume

“Miri was not happy when Rusty showed up at the Osners' party. And even less happy to see she was wearing her good black dress, her dress shoes and stockings with seams. Then there was the hair. Rita Hayworth hair. To her shoulders. Heads turned when Rusty came into the living room.” 

I have had this in my ‘to be read’ pile for what seems like an eon. The reason? Well, the usual times I’d pick up a 400 plus page books for some quality reading usually involve plane travel. Generally, I don’t want to be reminded of the prospect of plane crashes when travelling. In fact, it seemed like every time I reached for this copy someone I knew and cared about (if not myself) was sitting on a plane or about to board one. 

My memories of Judy Blume novels from childhood are indelible. To this day I think of every penis I see as secretly being called Ralph and I crave peanut butter and jelly – both of these things I attribute to devouring her works as a young child. They were illicitly thrilling because they spoke to the young mind and reminded us that our thoughts had merit, that the world was scary and confusing, but that we weren’t alone in our experiences. Needless to say, diving into her novel for the adult market, I held ridiculously high expectations, that weren’t immediately met. 

The pacing and the blunt trauma of the beginning of the novel made it hard to traverse. There were so many characters and so much going on, including different time references. This was a novel that needed some dedicated time to ‘take it all in’ so to speak. Perseverance was definitely worth it, because what the author has delivered here is an amazing picture of the impact of unbelievable childhood trauma mixed in with the usual challenges of coming of age, growing older and becoming the adult, you never expected to be. 

I found myself almost in tears at times and that I’d adopted new families of characters that I really cared about. Rushed marriages, unwanted pregnancies, affairs, hearing voices, anorexia, orphans – there is a lot going on here and that’s not even the highlight reel. Perhaps the moments that shone brightest were the snatches of quick lived joy or the recognition of understanding by others. Such as when Henry says to Miri ““sweetheart—life is hard…but it’s worth the struggle.” 

When three planes fall from the sky in the one town (the story is based upon some real tragedies in the fifties), perhaps the resulting tragedy acts as a parable to go out and live our best lives, because who knows how long they will last. 

5 out of 5: stick with it and take your time

Friday, 18 May 2018

Nevermoor, The Trials of Morrigan Crow by Jessica Townsend

"Now she was being blamed for something that hadn't even happened yet."

Did you ever feel a little cursed as a child? I did. Mostly because of the neighbour that picked on me, and the kid that kicked me on the bus and the other kids that called me names. Yep, childhood was a bit of a drag. How I would have loved a heroine like Morrigan Crow in those days. She is a delight. This is so much better than Harry Potter - there I said it. Don't get me wrong, I enjoy a little Potter now and again, but this I just devoured like Messina Gelato. Could not get enough of it. Already desperate to read the next novel and find out what happens.

This is a magical world with palpable problems and the fear of real harm.  It has at its heart an emotional journey from rejection and isolation into friendship, family and acceptance. That in itself is beautiful. Then there's the action and suspense, fabulously delivered in true page turning style. I read this on the train to and from work ( with a sneaky lunch break peek) and was done in no time. The minute I finished, I just wanted to go back and read it again. Am I just an overgrown child you may well ask - quite possibly. I think this will appeal to anyone's inner child - if it is still intact that is - some people are just way too cynical.

Talking giant cats, festivities, challenges and adorable characters, go grab yourself  a copy this instant. Should you feel too embarrassed to buy what is ostensibly a book for children, find a niece or nephew to read it too. Sure its sneaky, but you'll all have fun.

5 out of 5 cursed kids everywhere are just a little bit wonderful.

The Blue Room by Georges Simenon

"She made a point of behaving as provocatively as possible as soon as she entered the room."

A steamy affair can have serious consequences and words thrown away in passion take on additional meaning after the fog of lust has lifted. Such is the central premise of this brilliantly realised novel. The words ooze with musky carnality as a mystery unfolds. 
How to discuss the novel without giving too much away. I have to admit that is a little difficult.

Almost as disturbing is how close to home the character of AndrĂ©e felt at the beginning. Just for the record, I'm not a bunny boiler. I guess I responded to the luxurious idea of the illicit affair as an escape from the everyday monotony of settling for someone that doesn't exactly set your insides alight. While most in that situation would contemplate a neater solution, say divorce for example, in this case things get decidedly murkier.

5 out of 5 - seductive noir in a small village makes for a taut, suspenseful read.

Wednesday, 16 May 2018

Winter by Ali Smith

"In the middle of the night Art wakes up from a  dream."

This one was a bit of a slow burn that paid dividends at the end. For a while I was fumbling around with the discombobulated head before it all came together in a glorious fashion. I remember enjoying Autumn more, the whole way through and I'd been chomping at the bit to get my teeth into this next instalment. 

When all the disparate threads combine it does become a beautiful tapestry and one that I implore you explore. Ali Smith is a bit of genius with words, but you don't need me to tell you that.

I love the exploration of the real versus the fake and the lies we tell between family members. These themes are fabulously fleshed out within these pages. Crack open a copy you won't be disappointed.

5 out of 5, winter is cold, and yet this novel warms my heart.

Monday, 14 May 2018

Lost Connections: Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression – and the Unexpected Solutions by Johann Hari

"Faced with a natural landscape, you have a sense that you and your concerns are very small, and the world is very big – and that sensation can shrink the ego down to a manageable size."

This was a fascinating read. I feel like everyone at some stage in their life has done through some troubles and if you're an over thinker like myself you have to wonder whether all the answers lie in tablet form. That's not to say that there is no merit in pharmaceuticals; I'm just always suspicious that the "easy answer" can often just be a tool to get you through a tough spot, without really dealing with the underlying issues. I'm no expert, however I suspect there are a lot of environmental conditions and traumatic experiences that contribute to the increasingly common issues of debilitating depression and anxiety that seems to be prevalent at the moment. Much of my thoughts were confirmed by reading this book and I did find it interesting that the author's approach is from a sociology perspective, however he does cite quite a number of experts. His writing marries the personal with his research and it makes for an engaging combination.

If you're wondering what prompted me to read this. Let's just say there are a surfeit of broken men on dating apps and I just wanted to know why everyone is so miserable and if there's hope for them, for all of us?

So what are the out-takes? Monotonous work which leaves you feeling devoid of choice and unappreciated is a contributing factor to feeling miserable. Hanging out in nature is soothing, we all need to feel part of something and a focus on materialistic success is bound to disappoint. All things which, as I get older I tend to agree with. Now I just need to find a way to pay to be permanently on holidays, at the beach, hiking around waterfalls, preferably accompanied by an equally agile and attractive mate for other smile inducing entertainment. Well the dream itself is sometimes enough to put a smile on my face – albeit briefly.

5 out of 5 people are lucky enough to experience the joy of awesome friends.

Thursday, 10 May 2018

True History of the Kelly Gang by Peter Carey

"Now you can light an adjectival fire."

Goodness I flew through this 2001 winner of the Booker Prize. The thing that struck me particularly was the sense of being drawn back into a dark and violent past. Aspects of language and phrasing that today would raise particular offence in their usage, helped to set the scene and distance this reader from the world of today. The world of the Kelly Gang's social graces are quite distinctly different from those of today. Carey mirrors this quite brilliantly with his inability to swear other than in the abstract and vocal use of racial slurs in a contrasting manner. This evokes a time more preoccupied with avoiding to cause offence to the church, rather than the land's original inhabitants. This is always an interesting conundrum to my thoughts, how do you imagine a story based on real characters and circumstances without evoking aspects which are bound to jar with modern sensibilities? 

To return to the book. It is filled with an atmosphere of suffering, dread, poor parenting and imprisonment. The outcomes of Kelly's life seem to be a continually dwindling set of options that hint at a path to nowhere. While aspects of Kelly's life may be inventions of the author, the novel has a cracking pace and a convincing sense of place. The old adage that you can choose your friends, but not your family, is at play here in the beginnings of Kelly's challenging childhood and the boyhood that shapes his future endeavours. I found the characters of his mother  and his lover, Mary, somewhat similar, in that interactions with either woman prompt Ned to actions that are not always in his best interest. His trials and tribulations instill a sense of compassion in the reader for the infamous lawbreaker, the nuanced description of his character cannot help but draw them into his world.

5 out of 5 bushrangers would have been better off with kevlar.

Wednesday, 9 May 2018

One Way by S. J. Morden

“He knew he’d swapped one cage for another, and had simply shifted his brown cardboard box between prisons.”

If anyone wonders why the heck I’m so tired today, you can blame the author of this rather riveting read! 330 pages melted away like butter in the sun. It grabbed my attention and didn’t let go. How lucky I am to have received a free pre-release copy through and how disappointed am I that they’re not doing any more of those style giveaways for the moment to Australia!

My initial impression was one of trepidation when I opened the box and uncovered the book’s cover. It reminded me considerably of that recent bestseller and Matt Damon vehicle, The Martian.  I loved both the book and the film and was worried that this might be too close for comfort. While it shares the quest for survival inherent in establishing a human colony on Mars, it strays into rather different thriller territory with a real whodunnit flavour.

I love a book that combines multiple genres. They always seem more compelling to me, the reader. Here we have a prison lifer given the ultimate opportunity to get out. Frank Kittridge is expendable. He and a group of other convicted criminals will become the initial construction team to set up a human base on Mars. It won’t be easy and yet it seems like a welcome respite from the confines of a maximum-security prison for life. Little does Frank know that his life might be in danger from more than just the brutal conditions of a foreign planet.

The atmosphere between the pages is charged with the sense of imprisonment and fear that the prospect of dying on an unfamiliar planet conjures up. I really enjoyed this one, despite the somewhat chauvinistic undertones inherent in the female characters’ fates.

5 out of 5, in space no one can watch you die.

Monday, 7 May 2018

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

"Mummy always said that brandy is good for shocks and I'd brought some, several years ago, just in case."

I started reading this book this morning on my way to work and finished it on the way home. It is eminently readable. The characters are well drawn, the plot really draws you in and its a story that will stay with you well after you close the last page.

Eleanor leads a strange existence, tormented by weekly calls with her mother. When she takes a shine to a rock musician, she begins to undertake some real changes. The visit to the waxing salon made me giggle out loud - the other commuters did look at me a little funny - I felt somewhat like the protagonist in that situation.

New friends, a cat and some startling revelations make for an engrossing read. Those pages flew buy at an alarmingly fast rate and I admit to missing Ms Eleanor Oliphant since the final page. It has been quite a time since someone has so personified the transformative powers of a good haircut and a smokey eye.

5 out of 5, no wonder Reese Witherspoon optioned this one!

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunder

"In order to occupy the greatest percentage of the gentleman's volume, I lowered myself into his lap and sat cross-legged, just as he was sitting."

Do you ever find yourself reading hyperbolic quotations on the cover of a book you've just read and think to yourself, did we read the same book? That certainly was the case last night when I finally completed the confounding winner of last year's Man Booker Prize... A dear friend of mine had warned me this was hard going, he'd given up mid way. So, as you might imagine, my appreciation of this much praised work was a little contradictory to the norm.

The form drove me batty! I found it distracting and annoying and reminiscent of bad poetry. Clearly it struck a chord with others, just not me.

In between the swollen members - seriously what was going on in parts - and sick boxes, I just felt a vague sense of disconnected dislike. The book had absolutely no emotional impact on me, other than the sense that I was ripped off by spending money on it.

I am one of those people that once they start a book, has to finish it. This was one instance where that was particularly torturous. There were a few good lines in among the weird quotations.

2 out of 5, because it had some decent lines.

Wednesday, 2 May 2018

Where the Dead Lie by C.S. Harris

"He felt himself rendered unclean simply by standing in a place once occupied by such a monster, by touching objects the killer had touched before him."

I have this one reservation about the Sebastian St Cyr novels; they are just way too readable. No longer have I cracked the cover with glee and then... goodbye sleep. My head will not be hitting the pillow until I've enjoyed every last page. Then goodbye Sebastian, until the next fantastic offering, which comes around way too slowly.

This particular mystery is filled with some rather nasty goings on. The body of a battered and sodomised boy leads Sebastian to seek out a rogue's gallery of hideous creatures with a penchant for young children and the Marquis de Sade. Always a force for good, Sebastian is hell bent on tracking down the nefarious culprit, even though as he searches for clues, he finds there is even greater evil afoot.

Even as I write this review my eyes are growing tired. That is the unfortunate result of having stayed awake way too late to find out the key to this mystery. As I perused the final notes, I did so with the usual dismay that it will be awhile before I inhabit the world of Hero and Sebastian again. Thankfully the lovely Nicki will no doubt buy the next instalment when it becomes available.

5 out of 5 time travels backwards to a different age that retains its charm.

Monday, 30 April 2018

Mythos by Stephen Fry

“The lesson of Phaeton did not stop humankind from reaching even higher, however. No lesson, no matter how grim, ever seems to deter us.”

There are two things that perpetually hold my interest, the musings of a certain Mr Stephen Fry and tales of Ancient Greek mythology. It is perhaps no great surprise then that when this book was announced I pounced gleefully on a copy. Well as surely as one can pounce on a copy of a book ordered online; in any case I was keen as mustard to crack that spine.

As you may well imagine, I had heightened expectations going in, and these were somewhat perplexed by the prose. It is all together something different to what I imagined it might be. Fear not, it remains a great read, and yet a strange genre bending telling of mythology. Verging between a non-fiction exploration and a fireside chat, peppered with entertaining anecdotes that relate to the world today. Come to think of it, I guess that is his signature style. I thought perhaps this might be more of an engrossing selection of tales a la Neil Gaiman’s Norse Mythology. It is not, and yet it is still a delight.

Once expectations were metered and I fell into the rhythm of this weighty tome, I began to appreciate it more. It is reminiscent of a good episode of QI, where facts and stories combine for a pithy or witty comment and that ultimately spells entertainment.

An easy read, I feel this would make for a great audio book, or perhaps an engrossing nightly read to someone in hospital, Scheherazade style, to keep you looking to the next instalment. The sordid goings-on of those crazy Mount Olympians retain their appeal, much like Narcissus’ reflection and the overall feel is engaging and charming, as The Guardian’s reviewer would no doubt concur.

5 out of 5 times, old tales invigorated and yet, unfortunately all too brief.

Pachinko by Min Jin Lee

“No one is clean. Living makes you dirty.”

This epic tale of a Korean family accompanied me on my holiday. In fact, much of it was enjoyed on a sundrenched beach lounger which seemed poles apart from the enormous struggles of its characters. It does seem rather wrong to be reading about starving refugees when drinking cocktails, perhaps that’s why I’ve chosen the quote above.

If you love a multi-generational historical saga this one is definitely going to keep you turning those pages. The characters are beautifully drawn, despite the breadth of time covered and the number of them. You may find your eyes dampen with emotion as you are drawn into unfamiliar worlds, only to realise how similar familial binds are no matter where you hail from. It is strange to be able to relate so palpably to characters from such foreign lands and historical periods and yet that is exactly what you get here. Much of the story reminded me of my own grandparents’ stories of crossing oceans and re-inventing their lives in a foreign place – something that countless people whether due to war, economic opportunity or choice, do every day.

There is a reason this novel was chosen as one of the New York Public Library’s (my pictures below) 10 best of 2017 and holds a place on the ALA’s 2018 Notable Books List.

I’m very excited to note that the author will be appearing at the Sydney Writer’s Festival and I’ll be attending her session on the novel next week. The opportunity to hear more about the novel’s underpinnings direct from the author has me counting the days!

5 out of 5, life is a journey of turbulent seas.