Wednesday, 31 January 2018

Theft by Finding: Diaries 1977-2002 by David Sedaris

"I returned to French class after five weeks away and the teacher kissed me."

One of my delightful friends is a massive fan of David Sedaris and has converted me. For the second year running we got to meet the author and it was a delight. A gorgeous night at the Sydney Opera House and the always amazing Mr Sedaris read some extracts from this diary and from the future volume which sounds equally exciting. I know I'm not discussing the book, per se, nevertheless, one I'm going to continue on this side path. His essay on being a 'pocket gay' was so delightful and immediately comes to mind.

This collection of diary entries is fabulous. Short sharp insights into the author's life with strange occurrences we can all relate to. He has this amazing ability to spell out the obvious in both a disarming and entrancing manner. I'm a huge fan and can't wait for the release of the next instalment. Undoubtedly you'll find me next year with tickets to his book tour and a massive big grin, enjoying the pre-show drinks and the happy shared sense of humanity that the crowd fosters. How can you not love a guy who is as obsessed as counting his steps as I am.

5 out of 5 - stay as amazing as ever David x

Monday, 29 January 2018

Man's Search For Meaning by Viktor E. Frankl

"Man's search for meaning is the primary motivation in his life and not a "secondary rationalization" of instinctual drives."

It almost seems redundant to review this book. I'm not sure that it is something one should judge, rather it seems more interesting to query what response it evokes. Here we have an educated scholar of a man trying to make sense of what seems an unfathomable experience in the parlance of his trade, as it was written by a man who was also a neurologist and psychologist. Frankl's slightly removed way of describing his experiences within concentration camps is reminiscent of the way one deals with experiences which are too horrible to deal with front on. It is reminiscent of the way I've heard people who suffer horrible illnesses recount their struggles. Survival memories are not about the full horror, they are about the small victories one finds to keep going and the monotony; and the small almost seemingly irrelevant details one recalls of horrible experiences. 

On the one hand, I can't imagine how horrible Frankl's experiences were, and yet, on the other hand, the way he recounts them are familiar in the way I've survived some unpleasant experiences in my life and some family and friend's health struggles. The essential elements are survival, hope and the desire to find some reason to make sense of those trials.
It is an interesting insight in what it means to be human and what it takes to overcome seemingly insurmountable odds. My takeaway is that you can survive anything, if there's something in your life that spurs you on; and that is a powerful message. I feel that everyone would have a different take on this book and that makes it even more impressive.

5 out of 5, I'd be interested to hear others' thoughts on this.

The Night Manager by John le Carré

"Severe bruising of the testicles following attempted castration with the toe cap of a heavy training boot"

Did you like my choice of quote? Perhaps not. Anyway, if you know me, you'll probably know my deep seeded love of spy novels and ambitions dated from Roger Moore era James Bond movies to be a man eating spy. Fear not, dear reader, these notions are pure fantasy. What I do love about Le Carré is the way he weaves gritty realism into his novels. While they might be peopled with international n'er do wells, they represent the over entitled one percenters who lack a moral compass and have the means to enact insidious evil.  That makes for fascinating reading. Roper is one such character.

Now unfortunately I made the mistake of watching the miniseries first. It was beautifully filmed and Hiddleston and Laurie make an indelible impression.I love that word, indelible. I blame Jean Jacques Goldman, Puisque tu pars,  for that. It was a song I had to study for year twelve french, clearly I digress.

Back to the book, I recommend reading it before watching the small screen adaptation as there are significant changes. Who would have thought? A screenplay that diverges from the book - yes it is rather commonplace. My aim is usually to read the source material first. That being said, I couldn't say no to Mr Hiddleston. Weirdly though, in real life I suspect he would be the exact opposite of my actual type.

Jonathan Pine, the protagonist, strikes me as rather more of a heavy than the actor who portrays him in the miniseries. There are many more changes as well, but back to the book. It is engrossing and a novel I knocked over with very limited reading time. Fabulously paced,  genuine thriller with edge and excitement. The layering of personalities which is pivotal in adopting a faux persona to ingratiate oneself and spy within the inner circle of a dangerous man is well rendered and exciting.

5 out of 5 dangerous circumstances require dangerous folk.

Sunday, 21 January 2018

Most Dangerous Game by Richard Connell

"He knew where he was now. Death Swamp and its quicksand."

What  a fantastic short story. It is such a thriller. I'm not quite sure how to describe it without giving away too much. A slender volume of less than fifty pages can be surprisingly full of excitement and danger. When the hunter becomes the hunted, a remote island can become a life threatening place. Did I mention the ending (no spoilers) is phenomenal - fantastically understated last line - loved it.

5 out of 5 - not the kind of island holiday I'd seek out.

Fire and Fury Inside the Trump White House by Michael Wolff

"He was, after all, Donald Trump, however much you shined him up"

Have you ever worked anywhere with completely incompetent management, where ridiculous decisions based on threats and emotive outbursts are par for the course?  This book reminded me of some of the toxic workplaces I've been involved in before.Wolff paints Trump's early days in the White House as reminiscent of an episode of Veep and yet not as amusing.

I guess this is one of those "must-read" tomes that garner so much attention that you don't want to be the one left out by not reading it. Yes, I fell into that predictable camp. Did I learn anything particularly new? No. Was it entertaining? Mildly? Was it a disturbing confirmation of my thoughts about Trump - of course.

There's something slightly low key about the prose given the tone of the President's tweets and the title, which are not mutually exclusive.

3 out of 5, ticked that off the to be read list.

Thursday, 18 January 2018

The Castle by Franz Kafka

"He was irresistibly drawn towards seeking out fresh acquaintanceships, yet each fresh acquaintanceship increased his weariness"

I have to say it took me quite some time to finish what is really quite a slim volume of a novel, famously unfinished by the author due to his untimely demise. Let me share with you some sage advice that I have learnt through reading the book. If you are feeling uncertain and frustrated about your current relationship, concerned that it is all give, no take and headed the usual nowhere. Don't read this book. It will be an entirely miserable experience.
When you share the same initial as the protagonist, K, that torture will somehow be amplified.
K is consistently thwarted in his attempts to take his place in The Castle in the role of land surveyor that drew him there in the first place. His struggles struck a chord as I see them reflected in my inability to enter the "promised land" of couple-dom. That heady place where you have a lover / companion that feels as equally predisposed to you, as you do to them. K is unlucky in love, Frieda and he share a strange connection, strange, empty and temporary. If Tinder was around, no doubt that would've brought them together and potentially tore them apart sooner.
If I sound despondent, fear not - I am no longer. Like K, I'll keep trying to get into the Castle and perhaps one day soon I'll make it. I wonder what would have happened in the completed novel? Perhaps that's my life's work to find out.

4 out of 5 - not what I needed this month, but torture nonetheless amazingly rendered.

Tuesday, 16 January 2018

The Burden of Lies by Richard Beasley

"Defending a racist wasn't the lowest point of Tanner's career. He'd helped worse people that Corey Wilson walk free."

What a corker of a novel. Sadly its taken me a while to get through it as I just needed a respite from the social chaos of the Christmas period and the horror of returning to work (not to mention the dramas of modern dating) to sit down and immerse myself in the seedy world of Peter Tanner. A droll criminal lawyer with an eye for the ladies, he's been through the wringer, has a chip on his shoulder, but likes to win.
What's not to like here? The action begins with a coke addled banker corruption, murder and residential construction, in fact when net galley so kindly gave me a pre-release copy, I have to admit I'd asked for it based on the synopsis "Cocaine. Construction. Corruption. The unholy trinity of Sydney." I'd like to state for the record that I do work in construction and am not privy to such goings on - nevertheless they make for a fantastic work of fiction.
The protagonist is so delightfully fleshed out, tough, yet broken - so my type.
The action is palpable with a real sense of threat that combines court procedures with the menace of stand over tactics. No person or dog is safe.
A topsy-turvy tale that draws you in and then throws you for six. Clearly I very much enjoyed this and would happily venture into Peter Tanner's chambers again.

5 out of 5 readers will love this without reasonable doubts.

Monday, 8 January 2018

Force of Nature by Jane Harper

“Later, the four remaining women could fully agree on only two things. One: No-one saw the bushland swallow up Alice Russell. And two: Alice had a mean streak so sharp it could cut you.”

I have a guilty confession to make - I might just be a little in love with the slightly damaged protagonist of The Dry and now Force of Nature, Aaron Faulk. The characters created in the latest novel elevate it from what could be a typical murder mystery, thriller. The women, in particular, are so well rendered, you feel that you might have met them. The office politics that precede the central drama and are exposed as the tale unravels are also familiar territory. Marry that with an increasingly foreboding sense of dread that kept me turning pages well after bedtime in a vain attempt to settle that awkward feeling in the pit of my stomach and you have a fantastic read. Not only did I immediately order this sequel as soon as I’d finished the first novel, I’m now anxiously anticipating further works. If I knew Jane, I’d dare say I’d be on the phone saying “hurry up and write the next one, you know I’ll buy it”.
AFP man, Aaron, has the seemingly unique ability to make sifting through financials and paperwork sexy. My only complaint was that he didn’t give into his baser urges with his colleague Carmen, whose fiancée sounds like a complete waste of space. Of course he didn’t though, because he’s such a lovely guy and still smarting from all the pain and suffering of the first book. I just want to give him a hug, after all, I am the patron saint of lost, damaged causes.

The use and abuse of mobile phones is particularly well treated here. Our reliance on them to get us out of trouble and the truly terrifying idea of being without cellular reception in a crisis. Not to mention the particularly topical aspects around sexting teens and cyber bullying.

Family drama is at the core of both novels and is something most readers can relate to in at least some degree.  There is a nuanced psychological motivation behind all the drama as it unfolds and a continued theme around how much our destiny is shaped by our parents. This serves to enrich the story and keep you engaged on multiple levels. The spectre of an Ivan Milat style killer’s son potentially on the loose, adds to the drama and further explores the notion of nature versus nurture. The scenes around the cabin invoked some white knuckle reading for me – I’m still exhausted today as I didn’t put this down until well after midnight, and then I had to read something else to settle my nerves.

Perhaps what I’m most excited about is how much fantastic writing is coming out of Australia at the moment. For a relatively small population, we produce some amazing reads and 2017 (and hopefully 2018) are proving to be stellar in that department. Force of Nature is no exception.

5 out of 5 – another tour de force.

Wednesday, 3 January 2018

Tipping the Velvet by Sarah Waters

"I had a moment of panic; but then he came and stood before me, and looked expectant"

After spending the early hours of 2018 at a drag queen's party, it seems oddly appropriate that this should be the first book I read for the year. Sarah Waters is such as amazing writer and I've thoroughly enjoyed everything I've read to date that she's written. Similar to Fingersmith,  yes I know her titles are a little obvious - this one is about a woman who is repressed by her circumstances, but boy when she finds her footing, things get loose. Initially working in the family oyster business, Nance meets actress, Kitty. Kitty performs on stage in male costume and Nance is intrigued. Becoming her dresser and after a heck of a lot of pages of unrequited love - which is so beautifully rendered that you don't mind - they eventually get together. Nance changes her name and becomes part of the act on stage and in the bedroom. The horror of being found out as a "Tom" leads Nance to life as a rent boy - dressed as a boy she is rather popular with gents in the street, before she meets the terrifying and yet educational, Diana with her special box of toys. When circumstances turn, Nance finally finds a supportive and exceptional partner and you will be on board for the whole story.
This was the author's first novel and it is amazing to think such an assured work would be the first. It is so unusual to be so completely transported into another time and I think the sense of the other really adds to that. Nance is imperfect and that makes her a beautiful protagonist.

5 out of 5 first times clearly aren't always horrid.

Down and Out in Paris and London by George Orwell

"There were tales of dope fiends, of old debauchees who frequented hotels in search of pretty page-boys, of thefts and blackmail."

Orwell's tales of artistic endeavour and economic struggles make for a heady mix of grit and grime. Things go from bad to worse. Initially making do with an ever decreasing purse, living the hospitality lifestyle ( strangely the same today) and then finally ending up as a full blown tramp. His depictions of his struggles are visceral and strangely captivating.You can almost smell the sweat and cigarette butts.There is something so reminiscent of today, despite the book being published in 1933. What does that tell you? Oh we're all going to hell in a hand basket again clearly.
Anthony Bourdain's introduction is also stellar!

5 out of 5 people smell less than fresh without a shower.

Laughing Gas by P.G.Wodehouse

"So, to avoid the distasteful encounter, I just slid noiselessly from the chair and ducked down behind it, hoping that when he came in and saw nobody in the room he would go away again."

A trip to the dentist can change your life. While this isn't quite as hilariously funny as the Jeeves stories, it certainly has its moments.This is a kind of early Freaky Friday  style body swap comedy set in crazy Hollywood, so you can image its a wild romp.Now I have to confess something here. In my desperation to finish 100 books this year.. I did finish this one on the 31st December and perhaps I'd already cracked open the champagne by say about 3pm. Living in my suburb ( that gets locked down from about 2pm) it was necessary to couch surf at my buddy's house for most of the afternoon. Therefore my review will not be an in-depth one. Apologies all.

5 out of 5 pass the anaesthesia.

A Short History of the Middle East: From Ancient Empires to Islamic State by Gordon Kerr

"It had all been so simple before the outbreak of the First World War."

I was attracted to this little book in an effort to perhaps round out the huge gaps in my historical knowledge of the region and also by the fact that it  (the book) was on sale. Having studied ancient history at high school so many moons ago, it was interesting to contemplate the many periods and rules that weren't covered in my studies. Those outside of the Egyptians and the Greeks, Romans and the Persians ( up to about the Persian war era). So much has changed and occurred since those days and this book gives a nice cheat sheet, which I found intriguing.
Even just a touch of historical context brings a better understanding of some of the conflicts that continue today. If we don't understand the past we are always doomed to repeat it and I believe the study of history is imperative. So, this is far from a comprehensive study, and yet its an interesting refresher of the snapshot variety.

4 out of 5, because I'd like to learn more.

The Hall of the Singing Caryatids by Victor Pelevin

"Lena blushed but went on singing as she raised her left leg, keeping it bent at the knee."

At a mere 96 pages, this is a rather short story and yet it is rather intriguing, despite being sold ( or perhaps because of) in a plastic wrap. Seriously there's nothing too shocking here ( or perhaps I'm hard to shock?). In any case this novella translated from its native Russian is a tale of a strange drug based upon the praying mantis. This could easily be an episode of Black Mirror  or The Twilight Zone  and also reminiscent of the adult, short stories of Roald Dahl.
Auditioning for the role of a singing geisha for privileged oligarchs, Lena can have no idea what she is really getting herself into. Services will be more than sexual and aided by a strange substance that will have unexpected side effects. Well, actually, I kind of guessed what the side effects would be, having long admired the praying mantis, not that I'd condone their violent behaviour.
However there is something satisfying about a tale where women are commodified as purely sexual objects and then are able to enact a bloody comeuppance.

4 out of 5, strike a pose. 

The Satyricon by Petronius

"We threw ourselves on our beds, and spent the rest of the night without apprehension."

This is the ancient world's Hangover. Well perhaps that is an oversimplification and yet it is certainly filed squarely under erotica on the Gutenberg website. It starts off with some nightly carousing and walking in the wrong door, queue some disturbing underage coupling and then it just gets stranger and stranger. No wonder Fellini's film of the source novel was a source of controversy - not that I've seen it... well... not yet. I'm fairly certain its on the 1001 films list and as such, I shall have to take a peek.
This edition has some missing sections which don't assist in making sense of the narrative. Needless to say there is quite a smorgasbord of debauchery on offer, proving there is nothing new under the sun.

4 out of 5, pour another glass and let's see what happens.

Wintersmith by Terry Pratchett

"It was wizard magic, showy and dangerous. Witches would prefer to cut enemies dead with a  look. There was no sense in killing your enemy. How would you know you'd won?"

Christmas time seemed like the perfect time to indulge in a little Pratchett magic. Thanks to the almost never ending lending library that exists between my adorable friend Nicki and I, this treat was easy to enjoy. This particular novel sees the return of Tiffany Aching, continuing her training as a witch, and inadvertently becoming the object of affection of the Wintersmith ( ahem... of the title for the observant). He's kind of a God and the personification of winter. Being fancied by a deity is never an easy set of circumstances and much mayhem ensues.

Some familiar faces make an appearance, including the Nac Mac Feegles and Granny Weatherwax. Front and centre are the usual chuckles that are always part of the Discworld tapestry, along with a cracking tale. What is not to love here?

5 out of 5 magic adventures are always enchanting.