Welcome to my Book Reviews!
Only my last 20 reviews show up here because in the way of all things techno-babble, every new review pushes an old one into the ether. If you’re really keen, you can see all my reviews on Goodreads here.
In case you’re wondering why I don’t include
synopsises synopses a synopsis, it’s because of how I read reviews.
First, when I’m deciding on the next book to read, I read the publisher’s blurb. They’ve put a lot of time and effort into getting that just right so if it doesn’t grab me, no-one else’s summary is likely to do any better, no matter how well written.
Next I scan a few dozen reviews. I like to know what people think about the book: what moved them, what put them off, whether they want to read more. So the last thing I want is a few dozen almost identical summaries to destroy the excitement.
I like to keep the review as short as I can, but as you can tell, sometimes I waffle a bit. Especially if it’s really good. Or
really bad not as good.
You can click on any title to be redirected to the original on Goodreads (you don’t need to be a member): then you can access other people’s reviews and the blurb and the many versions of the synopsii I left out. And if you make it through all of this, the graceful Margot likes grasses, insects and snails, but don’t feed her bread.
- Review: Ready Player One
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I do not love the eighties and I do not play video games, but I love this book!
Ok, I get that it’s a tiny bit slow to start. It initially put me off when I tried to read it on my kindle, and I had to try again from a real book.
I also get that no one person, especially as young as Wade, could ever have watched and played as much TV and video games as Wade has. But it’s fantasy, and it’s at least a little bit feasible. Move on.
From a writer’s perspective, this had one of the greatest introspection moments I’ve ever encountered. A beautiful 10-14 page detail of how down the character is feeling, what he’s doing to try and compensate, and how the story is still progressing forward (chapters 19-20). Thank you, Ernest Cline, for that if nothing else.
But more importantly, from a reader’s perspective, this was tense, gripping, and continually flowing forward. This is world-creation at its best. Cline has thought of everything. He must have spent years immersed in his own head living and breathing this to get it so right.
And I’ll go so far as to say, if you can’t find something in this that makes you say ‘You’re kidding?! Someone else remembers that too?!’ then you need to watch more tv – you’ve missed out somewhere! Here’s a writer who has an opinion on Ladyhawke, or who can make me reminisce about Galaga (and I don’t play, remember), who knows what the Kobayashi Maru is, and who quotes one of the best lines from one of the best movies ever: ‘My God. It’s full of stars.’ Even Blue Monday gets yet another remix.
Cline’s ‘red herrings’ are as brilliant as his twists. When Wade was contacted by the bad guys, I was stressing. I knew exactly where Wade was going wrong and what he shouldn’t do (how wrong was I!) but other crazier things kept intervening and that stress became so tiny in the scheme of bigger things.
The layers within layers are absolutely incredibly mastered. If you thought Inception did it well, Ready Player One will knock your socks off. Wade enters the OASIS virtual reality world, goes through a gate into another world, and another, before disappearing into an immersive video game. And still remembers to come out for dinner.
And on top of all that, the story was fun and enthralling, and the theme was important and relevant. This is one book I’m happy to have given a second go. Great read!
- Review: Skitter
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Sequels are tough. And where do you go from ‘look out everybody – it’s the end of the world’? Apparently to telling stories along the way and setting us up for Book Three, that’s where.
Don’t get me wrong. I still love the concept of this book, and if there is a third in the series (or why else did we read so much about the Prophet Bobby Higgs) I’ll probably read it. But I thought Skitter dragged. I have the suspicion we were supposed to be so excited by the couple of really good plot points in here (no spoilers) that we were supposed to turn pages hell-for-leather on trust. After all, it is the sequel to The Hatching, one of the best books I’ve read this year.
The prologue was awesome: Boone introduces us to a character, warms us up with a few key likeable points, then kills the character off in a complete, well-thought-out Boone-typical scene. But when three people sit in a castle and draw circles on a map around hotspots, only to suddenly go ‘oh look! How’d we miss it?! It’s Peru!’ – that’s a hole-filled convenience that may help meet a writer’s deadline but just doesn’t fulfil a reader’s need.
It was good to see some of the repetition that I loved so much in The Hatching:
The Interstate 80 High Times Truck Stop and Family Fun Zone Restaurant and Gas Station Taco Bell Pizza Hut Starbucks KFC Burrito Barn 42 Flavors Ice Cream Extravaganza Coast-to-Coast Emporium, Nebraska
This chapter title was repeated four times in the next five pages, with a fifth being split out into a story about how each one was added (or how the owner samples each one every day).
Skitter is worth the read, but it’s given me a spider-load of expectation for the third one that I really hope Boone can exceed.
- Review: The Rag Tag Fleet
The artillery in the theatre didn’t fly; it floated on barges brought to the front by small Australian fishing boats and schooners, captained and crewed in the main by Australian sailors.
This is a landmark book containing a wealth of facts and figures.
Australia’s small ships, akin to the little ships at Dunkirk, served a little-known but vital role in the WWII battle of Buna-Gona. Before MacArthur’s air force could put its ego aside and get itself organised, Australian and NZ small ships crewed not only by Australians and New Zealanders, but by crew as diverse as Chinese, Filipino, and Torres Strait Islanders, shipped supplies and rations to soldiers at the front.
Their role even continued beyond the Japanese surrender to include humanitarian projects for those left homeless and destitute by war.
The book brings so many stories into one place and lists plenty of resources, that it’s now only a matter of time before someone with a historical fiction bent uses it to weave together a heart-rending, warm, human tale.
There is so much emotion to work with here: the loss of good men to friendly fire. Clothing rotting in damp heat, men with nothing to sleep under at night, tired and demoralised, suffering from tropical diseases and vitamin-deficiency. The larrikin way in which one enterprising Aussie makes a deal with the Americans to supply them with cement in return for lumber (after that devastating friendly fire incident, you wouldn’t call it theft but just desserts). The fear-sweat dripping off a lone civilian, camped on the darkened night-time mud flats like a tethered goat, waiting to signal the rise of the tide, every sound amplified into man-eating crocodile attacks. The emotion experienced as the first of the US Navy fleet arrives with sonar and radar, causing the entire small ships fleet to become redundant. The heartache when formal recognition of service was denied for so long.
My favourite part to this book was the denouement. I had tears in my eyes as these civilians either returned home or were interred. Of their post-war lives, or their widows’ pain. And of the ships themselves, whether burned, destroyed, sunk, or rebranded.
This has obviously been a labour of love for Shaw.
I received a copy of this book in exchange for my honest review
- Review: The Promise
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I owe my thanks to the 2017 Reading Challenge for this serendipitous find: I picked it because I thought it fit the category of ‘set in my [adoptive] home town’, and it does – just in a different country.
I was immediately immersed in the cold and damp of smog-filled industrial England. It gave me such a solid grounding of time and place that by the time I met the main players I was already comfortable in the story.
It isn’t just the atmosphere but the level of technology – toast is made by forking it and holding it over an open fireplace. Baths are had in front of the same fire and only on Friday nights. Coal is fetched, horse manure is side-stepped, the poorer parts of town are peopled with desperates and the rich hide avarice and greed behind their prestige.
Life is harsh but Brown’s characters are warm, solid, and friendly. The story is a cross-genre mix of crime, historic fiction, and romance with Brown building up a Jack-the-Ripper-style of dread on the villainy front as superbly as she does the nervous thrill on the love side of things.
She also captures the attitudes of the time admirably: the thought that one should not seek to rise above one’s station, and the way this impacts on lives, rich and poor.
Behind this story’s simple plot lies a richness that could only have arisen out of intense, thorough research. Well worth the happy accidental discovery!
- Review: The Fireman
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Joe Hill has a way with words that evokes the senses –
Dead leaves crunched underfoot and their smell sugared the air with autumn’s perfume.
– and challenges our concept of time –
He was a big man, maybe a quarter of a century older than Harper…
He has a skill with weaving plot lines together – the way Harper remembers to ask about Harold exactly when she should, and the way she’s then given Harold’s story without forced interruptions creating a false suspense.
In fact you could say this book is epic in the true sense of the word.
You could also say it drags in parts, overflows with detail, and is twice as long as it needs to be – I just wanted the last 200 pages to be over.
After a dramatic start and an imminent end-of-the-world promise, the story slows and follows a small-town American perspective. Life there belies the promise of the blurb that ‘civilization is disappearing fast into the smoke’ with ‘a fire on every street corner’ by continuing substantially unaffected for most of a year and with zero exploration outside of a local view.
The premise for the climax felt forced, and the only drama I felt was due to excellent sentence rhythm.
I think even Hill got a bit bored in the end: when a vehicle with four of the central characters aboard goes into a chasm, but only one character is mourned, I had to force myself to re-read pages and pages of the draggiest bits trying to find where I missed the other three getting off safely. I finally found them: they never left the vehicle – they apparently didn’t warrant the same level of concern.
But what took me out of the story the most were the Stephen King references – Hill says someone’s ‘forgotten the face of his father’ – just like Roland would say in The Dark Tower. One of Hill’s main characters is deaf and dumb Nick – just like deaf and dumb Nick in The Stand. Worse, Hill’s characters repeatedly insist deaf people can’t lip read, while his father’s characters say they can. Perhaps Hill has forgotten the face of his own father.
Parts of this book made it hard to put down: it was strangely compelling, like a freeze-frame-car-crash, just before the moment of impact; but I don’t think I’ll invest the time seeing what happens in the next instalment.
- Review: Flash for Freedom (Flashman Papers #3)
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
This, the third in the series, is outstanding! Although fictional, it contains so many elements of truth, and, being written before political correctness became commonplace, is surely a valuable resource on attitudes during the Slave Trade era.
But first, be warned: it is brutal. It uses dozens of derogatory terms for the poor human ‘cargo’ so callously treated and traded, and describes those scenes in cold detail.
Colin Mace, as the narrator, is masterful. If he feels any disgust at the events of the story, he suppresses it perfectly and instead conveys the mood and emotion of every character brilliantly.
And Flashy. Well, he’s still Flashy. At one moment philosophical and learned, the next selfish and spineless, always happy to turn a blind eye to pain and suffering, or worse, to turn it into something with a Flashy-positive outcome:
It’s always amused me to listen to the psalm-smiting hypocrisy of nigger-lovers at home – and in the states – who talk about white savages raping the coast and carrying poor black innocents into bondage. Why! – without the help of the blacks themselves, we’d not have been able to lift a single slave out of Africa.
But I saw the coast with my own eyes, you see, which the holy Henriettas didn’t. And I know that this old wives’ tale of a handful of white pirates mastering the country and kidnapping as they chose, is all my eye. We couldn’t have stayed there five minutes if the nigger kings and warrior tribes hadn’t been all for it, and traded their captured enemies. Aye! – and their own folk too, for guns and booze and Brummagem rubbish.
Why my pious acquaintances won’t believe this I can’t fathom. They enslaved their own kind, in mills and factories and mines and made them live in kennels that an Alabama planter wouldn’t have dreamed of putting a black into. Aye! – and our dear, dead, Saint William Wilberforce cheered ‘em on too, weeping his pious old eyes out over niggers he had never seen and damning the soul of anyone who suggested it was a bit hard to make white infants pull coal sledges for twelve hours a day. Of course, he knew where his living came from, I don’t doubt.
My point is, if he and his kind did it to their people, why should they suppose the black rulers were any different where their kinsfolk were concerned? They make me sick with their pious humbug.
If you have the stomach for it (and you should – such truths should never be covered up. If you can’t stand reading it, maybe you’d prefer to imagine how the living descendants of the slave trade might be feeling instead) then this is a gripping, eye-opening read.
- Review: Royal Flash (Flashman Papers #2)
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
I didn’t enjoy The Royal Flash as much as the first in the series, The Flashman Papers: it sagged, bogging down in minutiae and flowery descriptions.
Nevertheless, it was an interesting story, with Flashy getting himself caught up in another fix that pulls him deeper and deeper in trouble. Ironically, Flashy even suspected a trick right in the beginning when he could still get out of it, but he admits his greed (and sex drive) got the better of him. He just can’t help his incorrigible self.
And the teasers kept me going: the series is written from the hindsight perspective of old age, so Flashy knows what comes next. He tells us up-front things are about to go from bad to worse, with the occasional ‘if I knew then what I know now’, or by listing some of the wild and dangerous things he’s done and then saying they were nothing compared to what happens next.
For the sake of completeness of the Flashy story, this book is still a must-read.
- Review: I Was Told To Come Alone: My Journey Behind the Lines of Jihad
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
This is a work filled with answers, and yet it asks even more questions. There is much to digest here, but we would all do well to try.
The world is not facing a clash of civilizations or cultures, but a clash between those who want to build bridges and those who would rather see the world in polarities, who are working hard to spread hatred and divide us.
I can’t help but draw comparisons between the current ISIS question and times past: the Romans, the Ottomans, the Spanish Inquisition, and the Europeans and their disregard for their own people, let alone for those whom they treated as cattle in the horrendous slave trade. This is not the first time ideology and personal gain have threatened the rest of the known world, although, sadly, it may be the last.
The rise of groups such as Al Qaeda and ISIS is not the problem of any one specific country or group. it is the result of many mistakes.
The incredible scope of this book, no doubt worthy of an entire degree in Political Science or Anthropology, brings together Mekhennet’s extensive first-hand experience and research and asks hard questions of all of us.
Is democracy what we really want, or do we instead seek to promote the values we hold dear: the equality of men and women, the rights of minorities to survive and thrive, the freedom to speak our minds and practice whatever faith we choose?
This is especially true when some, apparently, think “democracy means that the majority will win and has the right to rule over the minority, like in the west.” And how can we possibly disavow such thinkers of this notion? Do ‘all lives matter’ in the west? Do we treat all our citizens equally? Are we willing to perform jobs ‘beneath our station’ or are those jobs the domain of minorities?
As Mekhennet says of the 1932 democratic elections in Germany:
Why did people think a voting system was protection against totalitarianism?
Yet it is also a warm and personal story—I challenge anyone not cry or to feel at least a stab of gut-wrenching pain at the loss of at least one human life in this story, or not to feel the tension as this exceptional journalist is shipped off to an Egyptian prison.
And who can blame other nationalities for believing our papers to be ‘lying tabloids’ when we know ourselves their behaviours are questionable and questioned? As for our politicians and intelligence services, at one point, even with all the information Mekhennet unearths, even she struggles to ‘know whom to believe’.
So how can we, as armchair generals, possibly have a black and white opinion on what caused this, or how to solve this?
This is an outstanding piece of work and a comprehensive report on what ISIS is, how it came about, and why it attracts so many followers willing to die for a cause. And all the time, we come back to the burning question:
Why do they hate us so much?
And why do we keep fighting? If there are political experts in the west suggesting we stop retaliating each retaliation, and if ISIS can say “if the US hits us with flowers, we will hit them back with flowers” then why are we still fighting?
Read this, and you will be a step or two closer to understanding.
I received a copy of this book in exchange for my honest review
- Review: Patient 71
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
There is no doubt that health and emergency services workers see and hear much pain and suffering, but few would ever see the whole picture. This book provides the missing warmth, colour, and life, bringing this insidious, indiscriminate illness into a human focus.
It’s an easy read that wastes no time getting to the point: the day Julie Randall; fit, happy, and well; has a seizure. From a brain bleed. From cancer.
Nor does it bog down in medical descriptions or self-pity. Perhaps that’s due in part to Randall’s illness: an increased perception of time and priorities makes for a tightly focused book.
I did feel like a lab rat at the end of it, but that’s what I signed up for. This was research. It wasn’t all about me. I was just a number…Patient 71.
I loved the ‘monsters’ in Randall’s head. At first I thought they were the voices that most people have – a voice of reason, a voice of panic, a voice of denial – but after a while I wondered if they weren’t changes in personality caused by the pressure of her tumours.
All this lends to a compelling story, difficult to put down. Until the flight to America. Flights are flights, and this one, not remarkable enough for 15 pages, was placed right at the critical point, where reaction was changing to action (even Randall admits to becoming jaded shortly after).
Occasionally, Randall plays the victim card (although I can’t say I blame her, and how would I know how I’d react?), and even though money is an issue, there are less fortunate people out there who would think Randall is super rich – she could afford an international phone call to ask for directions to a restaurant, a two-and-a-half-month stay at the Marriott, and an America-to-Australia flight for mother’s day, all during expensive treatment – but none of this changes her story or the reality of what I can’t begin to imagine she’s going through.
Randall still sees herself as lucky despite everything, and this is raw and intrinsic throughout. It wouldn’t have been an easy job for her editors, either. Imagine having to ask ‘is this really true?’ when Randall says she played touch football in the middle of her cancer treatment!
And as for Brian the Brain Surgeon and Biology Bill – two of my favourite characters! The world could do with more Biology Bills, with his wholistic view on the human body. It’s a much more productive view than the divisive modern medicine -vs- ancient healing plants argument.
This is an emotional and private journey. One that I’m grateful to Randall for sharing with the world. I wish her and every other health-challenged person my absolute best wishes.
I received a copy from the publisher in exchange for my honest review
- Review: In Cold Blood
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Shame on me for not reading this sooner! It seems like I’ve raved forever about the effect this book had on true crime and the bravery of Truman Capote in breaking new ground, but never did I think there was anything in it for me now. After all, it’s a fifty-year-old book, and true crime has been done, well, to death.
But Capote’s retelling of the events leading up to and beyond the brutal and senseless murders of the Clutters is nothing short of brilliant. It’s simple yet effective. A warm emotive story of normal life meeting cold violence.
Capote captures mood – this, a snapshot of the cold-blooded drive across county lines to commit this gruesome crime in a part of the country known as ‘out there’:
They skirted the southern rim of the town. No one was abroad at this nearly midnight hour, and nothing was open except a string of desolately brilliant service stations.
And he encapsulates how little we know our friends and neighbours, indeed ourselves, as this quote from a cafe owner shows:
“One old man sitting here that Sunday, he put his finger right on it, the reason nobody can sleep; he said, ‘All we’ve got out here are our friends. There isn’t anything else.’ In a way, that’s the worst part of the crime. What a terrible thing when neighbours can’t look at each other without kind of wondering! Yes, it’s a hard fact to live with, but if they ever do find out who done it, I’m sure it’ll be a bigger surprise than the murders themselves.”
I found myself shaking my head in disbelief at the unlikely behaviours, reactions, and beliefs of some of the people involved, and having to remind myself this is non-fiction. These crazy things actually happened. Like the convenient stupidity of one of the murderers, in not only keeping the shoes that made the bloody footprints, but packaging them up with his name on the box. Or the depth of detail some people remembered. Or the way the townsfolk had their own suspicions (the cafe owner even suspected one of the victims; and the grieving, heart-broken, soul-destroyed boyfriend of another of the victims was an early suspect).
I laughed sardonically at what one of the murderers said when asked why he thought people accepted his bad cheques:
“The secret is: People are dumb.”
This from an idiot who did what he did, for the reasons he did.
I cried when we finally reached the recounting of the killings themselves. I felt the same as the investigator Dewey did – sympathy for Perry, but neither forgiveness nor mercy.
This is a truly incredible book, worthy of its place in history for so many reasons.
- Review: What Happened That Night
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I don’t know why? but this is a book I didn’t expect to like. Yet I was roped in from the prologue: it’s done so well I just couldn’t stop wondering about it: is she jewel thief or event host? Is the hand that touches her shoulder welcome or feared? And I had no idea how it would end until literally the very last line.
It’s a new take on an age-old problem that all too many women can probably identify with: do I love him enough? And is that really my subconscious nagging me, telling me something’s wrong? Or am I just confused and overthinking it?
For me, What Happened That Night isn’t about the realness of setting, nor about vivid surroundings or the vitality of characters. What it gets spot on is emotion. The turmoil and turbulence of the stupid self-doubts that stir our minds. And not just any character’s – it’s Bey who’s the heart and soul, the very point of this story. Everyone pales into shadows next to the intensity of her feelings and passions.
This depiction of love for example:
Being in love – even if the object of her affection was totally unaware of it – was a bewildering yet exciting sensation. Every day, whether she saw him or not, [he] was always in her thoughts. Not necessarily at the front of them – after all, she was working hard on the projects Clara had given her and they needed her concentration – but she was conscious of his existence, of the fact that he was on the planet, that even when she couldn’t see him, he was out there somewhere. She was always alert for the sound of his footsteps on the stairs, or the moment when he might push open the door and say hello. The fact that he was away more than he was in the office didn’t matter. Her happiness was inextricably linked with his presence. Every day she didn’t see him was a crushing blow, but every passing day brought her closer to one when she would.
When I read this, my body tingled. My heart raced. My brain frazzled. I knew exactly what Bey was being set up for next. Because in the instant of reading, I felt it with her, and remembered who made me feel that way and how that ended up. And that’s O’Flanagan’s power.
But it doesn’t stop there. O’Flanagan perfectly conveys the misunderstandings experienced by her characters through internalization. And there is a conversation about projecting self-confidence early in the second half of the book that every woman should read.
But it’s not just for women: this is for any man who wants to understand why women stew and hash up the past:
‘Men can compartmentalise,’ said Eilis. ‘Women are terrible at that. We keep going on and on about things, letting them take over our heads until we’re wrecked. Meanwhile the men aren’t in the slightest bit bothered.’
And I love this snippet from her characters talking about families who date back centuries:
‘All our families date back just as far…It’s just that we haven’t kept track of them…And the only reason these ancient families are so rich is that their ancestors were better at raping and pillaging than ours.’
While some of the turning points are foreseeable, the human reactions are not. In fact the only bad I have to say is that some of the earlier scenes feel contrived – the discovery of the bank statements by Adele for one.
And what I love most of all is the unashamed Irishness and Englishness of it all: none of the names have been simplified into generic names for the US market.
This is a gorgeous read, one that I wish I’d read when I was in my early twenties. My life would have been so much different!
***I received a free copy of this book from Hachette Australia for my honest review***
- Review: See What I Have Done
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Add a new name to the list of the greats, folks: Sarah Schmidt is up there with Joseph Pulitzer, Truman Capote, Tom Wolfe and all the other greats of New Journalism: Schmidt’s compelling version of the infamous Fall River axe murders in See What I Have Done has brought immersive journalism to the printed form.
Schmidt has a way of mixing delicious with foul, overwhelming my senses to the point where I held my breath, held my nose, covered my mouth, anything to stop the smells getting in:
I gave John his jacket from the cupboard, pushed the front door open nice and wide. There was fresh horse manure on the street, sweet hay mixed with boggy dirt and rotting fruit; a waft of the Quequechan River stretching across the city. I hated summer in Fall River, the death smells it brought.
Deliciously refreshing was that I never knew what Schmidt wanted me to think, who she thought may have committed the brutal crime, who was guilty and in what way. She constantly misled me, in much the same way the poor jurors must have been baffled.
Even the house: her early images put me in mind of cool, spacious, airy, light; but by the end it was vividly rotten, filthy, mildewy. Filled with the stink of unwashed bodies, stale urine, flakes of skin and nail clippings, food past its prime.
The conflict in her characters goes beyond simple guilt and innocence. The women all crave life. The men all crave control, destruction. All of them are selfish, self-centred, brimming with ulterior motives, yet too bound by their own sense of morality to enunciate their needs, desires, wants. None of them can be trusted.
The story makes me exceptionally grateful for my life, my times. For indoor plumbing, refrigeration, food quality and availability, for education, social awareness, greater equality, and crime scene control and investigation. For science in all its forms.
If you’ve ever read a book you loved so much you wanted to be inside it, live it, feel it: this is not it. But tough luck, because it will pull you in to an uncomfortable, narrow world, and make you understand motives and everyday compulsions like you never thought possible. And it’s not even particularly gory!
And of course, I can’t go past the cover art. If ever a picture painted a thousand words, it’s this one.
And I see what you have done with the font colours on the cover, Hachette: light on dark, dark on light, leaving ‘ha ha’ in the light font, like Lizzie opening the door to her father – or am I reading too much into it…
- Review: 61 Hours
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
‘Five minutes to three in the afternoon. Exactly sixty-one hours before it happened.’
What, exactly, is ‘it’? I loved the not knowing til the end! Sure, I had ideas from time to time – it was bound to be one of the fourteen crimes on the lawyer’s list. Or maybe all fourteen of them. Or maybe something else entirely. Every time we got an update on the time (which was about once every chapter) I found myself thinking about ‘it’. Such tension!
This is so well written (and yet it’s the 14th in the series) that even though I picked up on one of the major ‘whodunnit’ moments ahead of time, it didn’t spoil a thing.
The style was exceptionally well executed. Child uses a passive, telling voice, often in short sentences. The result is a perfect example of how, when and why such an impersonal style should be used. Sometimes it reflects the (il)legal aspect of the events in a ‘just the facts’ way, like in police or courtroom proceedings:
There were four interview rooms. Each was a windowless concrete cube divided exactly in half by a wall-to-wall desk-height counter with safety glass above. Caged lights burned on the ceiling above the counter. The counter was cast from concrete. The grain of the formwork lumber was still visible in it.
Sometimes his style just ramps up the tension:
Reacher pounded on. One step, and another, and another. The wind pushed back at him. Ice fragments pattered against his coat. All the feeling had gone out of his feet and his hands. The water in his eyes felt like it was freezing solid.
Dead ahead was a bank. It stood alone in a small parking lot. The edge of town. The first building. It had a sign on a tall concrete pillar. Red numbers. Time and temperature. Twenty past one in the morning. Minus thirty degrees.
And as for Reacher himself – what is it that makes him so compelling? So interesting? I guess lovers of action thrillers love the never-ending thrilling action, but some of the magic must lie in the dark and mysterious stranger routine. Who is he? Why is he? And, in a very non-romantic way, will he ever find peace, happiness, love?
I can’t believe it took me so long to discover Jack Reacher, but at least it’s not too late to make up for lost time.
- Review: The War Bride
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I love the delicious complexity of this story: in the opening scenes, Hart conveyed a crucial misunderstanding between returned soldier and war bride directly to the reader: something the characters themselves did not understand.
From there, she developed the characters, allowing my empathy for them both to grow, and rousing my sense of curiosity: when and how will they find out for themselves? How can they possibly incorporate that revelation into their lives? How could they then choose between hurting themselves and hurting others? What is the right thing to do, and for whom?
And while these lives are being lived and torn apart, just to top things off, it seems there were a thousand ways to discriminate: the shame of divorce for a woman but not a man (and worse, those ‘between the cracks’ cases where a woman is neither single nor married, widowed nor divorced: and if that doesn’t make sense, you’ll just have to read it to understand!), the threat of a woman losing her job because a man was always preferable.
But it wasn’t just women’s jobs balanced so precariously – Hart’s male characters have to face the scandal caused by a woman’s divorced status, just for being her boss; or have to accept a promotion with a lot of attached negatives or be fired.
Even child protection gets a look-in: a single man cannot possibly have the skills to look after a female child so let’s just take the child away now.
I was happy to see Hart still has her lovely way of dropping little gems of Aussie-isms (I was stoked to discover ‘Bush Week’ was a real thing!), and it was a sheer pleasure to encounter Tom McBride in a bit more depth. The pace slowed in the middle, but that only served to convey the frustration the characters were feeling, and the ending felt a bit ‘pat’ (but isn’t life often like that too?).
All in all this is a beautiful book and a pleasure to read. I can’t wait for the next one!
- Review: The Hatching
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
From the very beginning, The Hatching took hold of me and refused to let me go, all the way to the final pages.
As a ‘world-ending-disaster’ novel, it has certain rules it must obey: it has to have an ominous prologue, it has to switch from one character to the next and the next, it has to have a lone scientist with just the right links to politicians, and it has to have the classic cop-married-to-his-job-so-his-wife-left-him. Five stars for nailing the genre.
But Ezekiel Boone doesn’t just let his story rest on its ingredients: the story flows. It gets to the point well before its summer-blockbuster movie version usually does.
He breaks a lot of ‘rules’ in exactly the right way – he uses repetition to great effect, sometimes in a droll over-the-top style with a punchline at the end:
Her parents had a lot of money. A ton of money. Private jet money. A building on the American University campus named after them money. What the hell was Julie doing in a lab studying spiders money.
But sparingly – the next extravagant repetition like that was 220 pages later:
But instead of doing his job, Cody Dickinson had smoked twenty dollars’ worth of pot and fallen asleep in his seven-hundred-dollar Herman Miller Aeron chair. He had the cushy office job because he had seniority, and he had seniority because he was sixty and had been a longshoreman for forty-two years, and because he had been working as a longshoreman for forty-two years, he’d worked as a longshoreman when working as a longshoreman actually meant working, which meant his back was wrecked, which was why he had the seven-hundred-dollar Herman Miller Aeron chair, but his back still killed him, and smoking a ton of pot was the only thing that really helped. So he was asleep when the ship ran aground and the impact caused the roof to collapse and kill him where he sat.
Sometimes Boone tells instead of shows:
Delhi. Second most populous city on earth. Including surrounding towns and villages, home to twenty-five million people.
(The implication of that is up to me and my imagination!)
Other times, he doesn’t even do that – he just sets up a scene and walks away from it, lets me do the rest. After all, it’s a disaster in the making – I pretty much know what happens. He just does it in such a way that I’m on the edge of my seat, aghast, horrified, and tense.
Oh and speaking of must-have ingredients for the genre, what of the premise itself? The whole reason the world is ending? It has to have a believable base – like the dinosaur DNA reconstruction of Jurassic Park and the volcano about to blow in Dante’s Peak and, at a stretch, the Mayan calendar predictions in 2012 – and this one is no letdown! No, I’m not giving it away.
And I love that a person’s skin colour was not in the up-front description when we met them – that’s exactly as it should be.
Not once did I stumble over faults in the storyline (there were none). Not once did I roll my eyes in disbelief – in fact my suspension of disbelief was perfect. I even flinched when in real life a few days later, I heard a patient of mine had been bitten by a spider…
Thanks to the inexorable pace, the utter ramping-up of the action, the way events unfolded sooner than I expected, I was sweating, my heart racing, and I didn’t want to stop turning the pages. There is no slow build-up here, waiting for the Hollywood moment and settling into the action – the whole thing is the Hollywood moment. It never slows let alone stops, with short sharp sentences giving way to short sharp chapters.
This is the best I’ve ever read in the genre and I can’t wait to read Skitter!
- Review: The Song of Us
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I meant to pick up this book and read a couple of sample pages before settling in proper. Instead, I fell in love with Barrett’s Tale-of-Two-Cities-esq opening line. Then I found myself intrigued by the possibility that here is a woman daft enough to be caught in a love triangle, yet smart enough to know nothing’s going to change. Before I could wonder what’s holding her back, why she’s still waiting, I’m entranced by the possibility of ‘musical thanatology’ being a real thing. Before I knew it, I’d read the entire story in two sittings!
This is a personable, intimate and captivating journey of love, laughter, music, pain, loss, and joy. While Zoe plays her harp to the dying (a beautiful alternative to emergency sirens and CPR on frail old ribcages), her life changes inexorably around her. She has so many life-changing decisions to face she appears to be frozen, even though her subconscious mind has all her answers:
As I rehearse I am back in the company of June, Kip, Reg, and Clara. I’m with Dad and with Tom and Lex and Vivianne. I’m swimming in the sea. I’m flying around the vineyards. I’m making love to Ross and I am completely free.
Even her conscious mind knows it:
Oh humans, we are so feeble, aren’t we? So silly the way we tie our brain in knots to prevent us from doing the very thing that sets us free.
But as with us all, will she step outside of her comfort zone and be free? Zoe’s not just at a crossroads, she’s at a busy nineways where the traffic lights have failed.
This isn’t a story about people in another league, filled with unrealistic events; it’s about real, everyday happenings, about living life. The story is filled with complex human relationships, none of them perfect, and none with a neatly packaged perfect ending. Barrett seamlessly interweaves music (my own memories of listening to the beautiful Wings’ Let ’em In have now been replaced by Zoe’s experiences, while Beethoven’s Fifth has forever been sullied!) with saving lives and letting lives go when it’s time.
[Life] goes too quickly and the time we spend worrying is too long. I worried about Betty, about my job, about the closeness of my shave and the miles on my car. My mind now…it goes to the strangest places…Tiny little incidental moments: waiting in line at the bank, squeezing oranges, waving the kids off to school, putting my arm around Betty’s hip in the middle of the night. All those moments make up your life. I wish I’d chosen them more, enjoyed them more for what they were.
This is a truly beautiful book, much deeper and way richer than The Secret Recipe for Second Chances but still in the same, easy, companionable style (and set in the same world!). Oh and as for the scene with Sassy and Morrissey? I’m with Tom – is that actually legal?!
I won this book in a Goodreads giveaway – this is my honest review
- Review: Ares Road
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
I really like the concept of this book – a mobster with a conscience! And I was privileged enough to be given an Advance Review Copy, for which I am still grateful.
But I found it hard to enjoy.
(without giving anything away): I can see the potential in Weaver’s writing style and he has a fantastic plot: the opening paragraph to chapter 10 is brilliance and the chapter itself flows and reads beautifully. The neighbour has the right mix of caution for Jake and compassion for Logan that makes the scene believable.
The toilet scene in chapter 36 is even better – funny, natural and real.
There are some standout lines of imagery:
– the contents of an old takeout container ‘turning to the dark side’
– ‘a deep voice that made James Earl Jones sound soprano’
– ‘with the massive grace of a drunken toddler’
– ‘Bear returned to the couch and crushed whatever resiliency was left in the old cushions’
– ‘eyes so spread apart he could stand on Wednesday and see both Sundays’.
There was also one good surprise that was brilliantly timed and followed-up.
The novel was the perfect length.
All of these points and more led me to a three-star review.
But now, and I apologise in advance,
Throughout, Ares Road is filled with unnecessary repetition, confused pace, a misunderstanding of grammar and sentence structure, a whole lot of telling-not-showing, questionable motives, and a misuse of precision; all of which pulled me out of the story.
Let me explain by example:
“Well, we gotta find the briefcase now. You’re too young to have dentures.”
“Couldn’t afford them anyway.”
“Do you know what’s in the briefcase?”
“Not a clue. I was hired to get Voleski and the briefcase.”
Three sentences on condo prices followed by a long sentence describing the weather just to drip-feed some backstory is not what I expect to read in the middle of a desperate worry about a missing target, a dead guy, a screaming girl, and sirens: on page one!
Action scenes were often relegated a backseat to a paragraph-long description of a new character’s hair colour, muscle size, age, weight and accent.
Grammar and sentence structure
Sentences jarred from a missing word, often giving the impression an inanimate object was performing a task:
Devaroux’s face bathed in the yellow glow from the afternoon sun
– it’s as though someone said ‘was bathed’ sounded too much like telling, so instead of finding a different way to say it (shone? glowed?) the ‘was’ was dropped instead.
Jake dropped the gun from the kid’s jaw. Henry rubbed the red spot formed from the pistol barrel. Vials spread across the table over Henry’s shoulder.
(After Jake doing the dropping, and Henry doing the rubbing, this reads as the vials doing the spreading of their own volition.)
Commas were missing or added inappropriately, and tenses were mixed up. Subject and object were mixed up.
She marched over to the truck with blue eyes.
A thick aluminum pole set in a flowered rock garden hosted a flapping American flag that reflected from the tinted windows covering the building’s entrance.
(From the context, I think the building is the subject.)
Possibly the most jarring was a fatal misunderstanding of the word ‘conscious’:
“Doesn’t selling poison to the bad guys weigh on his conscious?”
“He’s a United States Senator,” Drabek said, tilting his form toward Jake. “He doesn’t have a conscious anymore. Speaking of conscious, where’s my do-gooder ex-wife?”
The narrative told me about characters, then had them behave at jarring odds: the supposed ice queen, married to her FBI work, who, when we meet her running late for an urgent meeting with her boss, invites a complete stranger to a warm, sit-down conversation in her office, and divulges personal and case information.
The Russian, who goes from snivelling fugitive to suddenly wielding all the power, with all the contacts and the upper hand, even though nothing instigated such an enormous behavioural change.
Logan, whose ‘casual acquaintance’ with Jake had ‘deepened over the past several months over a couple of movies and steak dinners’. It suggests they’re lovers. They behave as equals. We’re told they’re employer and employee.
Why was the screaming girl ever held captive? We’re told right at the end, but it’s an afterthought, not a solid reason.
Misuse of precision
Weaver uses some very precise descriptions of character movements and events, and ‘minutes’ and ‘seconds’ were no exception, mostly used as literally as you’d expect in a suspenseful story; except when he was generic at inappropriate moments.
We go from ‘fifteen seconds ticked off the clock…this thing wouldn’t make it in two minutes’ to:
Jake drained the last of his Pacifico and set the bottle on the table. “(spoiler deleted)”
Bear leaned back in his chair, his lips moving as he tried to get the cogs spinning in his head to line up. He stroked his beard with his massive hands and a minute later thumped his elbows on the table.
That ‘minute’ constitutes some very slow thinking from a character who is actually very bright, very quick.
And finally, the ugly:
I sound picky and anal, and I’m sorry. Everyone else has given four or five star reviews and I nearly gave this a two. But in story-telling, words are all we have, and the issues I’ve raised are constant (hundreds of them at a guess). If every one of them takes me an instant or two to figure out what the writer really meant, then no wonder I had no suspension of disbelief, no empathy for the characters, no interest in the story: I was never given the chance to be immersed.
And that’s a shame, because somewhere under here is a good story that deserves to be told.
- Review: Tex
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
This is a beautiful story told in a tone of sweet innocence, about that idyllic time in life where nothing ever happens but everything changes forever, that last summer before discovering the harshness of the adult world you’re about to fend for yourself in.
In a perfect example of showing-not-telling, S.E. Hinton uses vivid imagery to portray the world as Tex sees it, allowing us to learn its truths with him. About betrayal and hate:
“You hate a lot of people?” I asked him. The word was taking on a whole new definition for me. Like the word “water” would change for somebody drowning.
He shook his head. “Yeah, I know, I’ll understand it some day. That’s what Bob says. I know this much though, some girl isn’t going to make me forget my best friend.”
I didn’t know what to tell him. I reckon only people who have both been snake-bit can tell each other how it feels.
And about death:
“I’m goin’ for a walk and I’ll take the gun with me. I ain’t going to shoot anything, though. I ain’t going to shoot anything ever again.”
Unusually for its time, it contains a strong female character who, if she doesn’t know her own desires, at least knows what she doesn’t want: her insistence that she and Tex won’t work out reminiscent of Sybylla from Miles Franklin’s My Brilliant Career.
And of course, it’s a snapshot in time from that period just before the cities swallowed up so many of our small towns, just before they became part of the burbs, each one same as the next. Here, in Tex’s world, they’re still communities. People still ride horses, farm smallholdings, and raise chickens.
This is a gorgeous, heartwarming tale about realisations, awakenings, and awareness of others that, like the blurb on the cover says, is ‘even better than The Outsiders’.
- Review: Her Mother’s Secret
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
If you, like me, thought A Kiss From Mr Fitzgerald was an unbeatably great book, think again: Natasha Lester has beaten it!
Her Mother’s Secret is a stunning love story set in a time of class snobbery, of outright sexism where single mothers are forced to prostitute themselves for their sinful indiscretions, where men promise to resort to ‘uncivilized warfare to subjugate woman’ for having weakened the moral fibre of men through dancing, wearing lipstick, and exposing their ankles, and God forbid any woman thinks she can invent, manage, or lead.
But for all its appparently outdated notions, Her Mother’s Secret could just as easily have been set today: I imagine some muslim women, transgenders, or any other powerless and misunderstood group can relate to the barriers Leo faced all too easily.
Lester’s writing style is so ‘in the present’ that I believed I was Leo. And incredibly, when switching persepectives, I believed I was Alice, too. Sounds crazy, I know, but it was so real. I don’t know that I’ve ever been more immersed!
I shed my first tears when children, in their sweet ignorance, chanted a typically gruesome skipping-rope song:
I had a little bird
Its name was Enza
I opened the window
It made the grief and horror of one of the deadliest natural disasters in history so poignant and tangible.
I admired Lester’s courage in portraying the heavy and indiscriminate smoking of the time, even though it’s an unpopular pastime now.
I also enjoyed the way some characters did unexplainable things – Joan in particular, without giving anything away – don’t we all have friends like that, who drop in and out of our lives, whose motives are weak?
This is a fabulous read, and one I couldn’t possibly do justice to let alone oversell.
Oh and as for the secret? There were so many secrets I wonder if Everyone’s Secrets would be a more appropriate (though decidedly less catchy) title!
Thanks Natasha, for this utterly beautiful, moving and uplifting tale – you have a fan for life!
** Hachette Australia gave me a copy of this book for free – this is my honest review
- Review: My Brilliant Career
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I was astounded at how much this book had to offer and how relevant it still is – from the complexity of Sybylla’s feelings and the urge to take her own life at times, to the joy she feels when her shoulder is bruised by the too-rough touch of a man. Instead of a dry tale, filled with flowery prose and outdated concepts, I read a beautiful, mature, insightful growth into adulthood.
Franklin’s grasp on the human condition – in particular the inequities of females and peasants – is extraordinary. Yet this is not a ‘feminist’ novel, nor is it filled with the anger and self-pity I think I’d be feeling if these conditions were forced upon me: this is a gorgeously honest, darkly comedic, facetious (if not satirical) and soul-searching journey of self-acceptance.
At the time of my departure for Caddagat my father had been negotiating with beer regarding the sale of his manhood; on returning I found that he had completed the bargain, and held a stamped receipt in his miserable appearance and demeanour.
Sybylla is a girl of contradictions. Initially she seems almost as her mother describes her – wilful, stubborn and prone to idleness: so much so that when she is forced to spend some months living in a house of utter squalor, it’s almost easy to think she’s exaggerating (in today’s money though, the poverty she resents is akin to moving into the house from Trainspotting, drugs, excrement, and all), yet she has memorized countless plays, poems, and piano pieces, and is a fine singer.
She bemoans the ignorance of the squalid family – the dirty barefoot half-naked children, the pigs and fowl foraging on the packed earth kitchen floor – and yet envies them for their bliss:
Do not mistake me. I do not for an instant fancy myself above the M’Swats. Quite the reverse; they are much superior to me. Mr M’Swat was upright and clean in his morals, and in his little sphere was as sensible and kind a man as one could wish for. Mrs M’Swat was faithful to him, contented and good-natured, and bore uncomplainingly, year after year, that most cruelly agonizing of human duties – childbirth, and did more for her nation and her Maker than I will ever be noble enough to do.
And in the end, when contemplating whether to marry her sweetheart Harold, her maturity, intelligence, and presence of mind assure her she should not even though he is likely the best match she could ever make:
Under a master-hand I would be harmless; but to this man I would be as a two-edged sword in the hand of a novice – gashing his fingers at every turn, and eventually stabbing his honest heart.
Through it all, our unique Australian landscape is vividly and emotively portrayed. This was, in many ways, the most heartbreaking part of the story because much of this is gone now:
The sun has sunk behind the gum-trees, and the blue evening mists are hanging lazily in the hollows of the hills.
The fish-hole was such a shrub-hidden nook that, though the main road passed within two hundred yards, neither we nor our horses could be seen by the travelers thereon. I lay on the soft moss and leaves and drank deeply of the beauties of nature. The soft rush of the river, the scent of the shrubs, the golden sunset, occasionally the musical clatter of hoofs on the road, the gentle noises of the fishers fishing, the plop, plop of a platypus disporting itself mid stream, came to me as sweetest elixir in my ideal, dream-of-a-poet nook amongst the pink-based, grey-topped, moss-carpeted rocks.
Not to mention the Australianisms! Sayings even we Aussies hardly ever hear anymore:
‘Tame as a clucking hen’
‘It’s a blooming girls’ work’
‘Made a croker of it’
‘Fancy a cove sitting down every morning and evening pulling at a cow’s tits fit to bust himself’
In short, this is a warm, vivid story and one I happily recommend as a reminder of Australia’s lost beauty and still-present poverty. A truly timeless classic.
This book is part of my 2017 Reading Challenge – A Book Published Over 100 Years Ago
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