Thursday, September 29, 2011

Review: Holes by Louis Sacher

Holes is the quirky story of Stanley Yelnats, who is a teenager sentenced to dig holes in the Texan desert, at the truly hideous Camp Green Lake, where there is nothing green and certainly no lake, for 18 months for stealing the shoes of a famous baseball player.  Sadly, Stanley did not commit this crime, but the Yelnats have been cursed with bad luck for generations.  This is the story of how Stanley manages to, once and for all, remove that curse.

Nothing is what it seems in Holes, and instead of being a youth detention operation for young offenders, the hole digging is really the warden's quest to find treasure buried more than 100 years ago by an infamous female outlaw, Kissin' Kate Barlow.

The narrative is meticulously constructed with Stanley's struggles interspersed with flashbacks of both his ancestor's story, and the story of Kissin Kate.  The stories weave seamlessly together. 

There are so many themes in the novel, but I guess the idea of fitting in and identity, Stanley has always been teased at school by peers and teachers alike for being overweight, is a big one, and perseverance and friendship also feature.

There is plenty of enjoyable symbolism, and play on words, and I really think I might have to read this little novel again to make sure none of the cleverness escaped me.  I am not sure if this book was originally marketed as YA fiction, but I am sure both that audience, and all readers really, would find something to engage with here; it is completely original and satisfying.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Review: A Cupboard Full of Coats by Yvvette Ewards

Longlisted for this year's Man Booker Prize, A Cupboard Full of Coats is a beautifully written debut novel from British author Yvvette Edwards. From the first page I was hooked by Ewards's clear and emotive prose:

He just knocked, that was all, knocked the front door and waited, like he had just come back with the paper from the corner shop, and the fourteen years since he last stood there, the fourteen years since the night I killed my mother, hadn't really happened at all.
                                                                A Cupboard Full of Coats p. 1

The story is told by Jinx, a young woman, who over the course of a weekend attempts to heal from violent events of her childhood that culminated in the death of her mother, and have long since caused her to be emotionally shut off from the whole world including her own son.

This is a story about domestic violence and the long, inter-generational shadow it casts.  Some of the plot elements left me feeling a bit uncomfortable, I daresay that is not necessarily a bad thing.  The elements of the plot that worked best for me were the more symbolic elements. Like a number of recent novels it seems to me, the consumption of food, features here, and it is done very well.  Food, from the characters' Caribbean roots, is used as a comforting link to the past and a way of showing love.  Clothing on the other hand, in particular, the cupboard full of coats of the title, represents for Jinx, the most tragic aspects of her mother's life.

The real hero of the novel is the writing itself.  Ewards's prose shimmers with life; it is economical yet filled with warmth, which is no small feat given the subject matter of the novel.  And while elements of the story bothered me, so I couldn't say I fully enjoyed it, I will be lining up to read whatever she writes next because the writing itself is such standout joy.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

The Fix by Nick Earls

The Fix is the most recent offering by Australian author Nick Earls.  I have long loved Earls's breezy, conversational writing style and his novels are often set in Brisbane, where I grew up, which is a bonus.  The Fix is impressive and from what I have read of his earlier books, a bit of a departure from his normal, humorous, perils of being a student or relationships fare.

The Fix begins with Josh Lang returning to Brisbane after being in London for a few years where he worked as a "fixer" or a spin expert who specialised in selling the unsellable.  Back home in Brisbane, his employment prospects are not looking too bright. He has a weekly blog for a local news publication where he supplies quirky pieces.  His brother Brett, at their mother's insistence, finds an assignment for Josh with a legal firm that his own business has had dealings with.  The assignment seems straightforward enough; he is to guide one of the firm's solicitors through the publicity associated with him being awarded a bravery medal for protecting the senior partner in a hostage taking siege.  The young solicitor in question turns out to be Ben Harkin, an ex-friend of Josh's.

Josh needs the money and so decides that irrespective of the bad history between them - the good looking and successful Ben had slept with a girl friend of Josh's years before - he will do his professional best to guide him through the medal ceremony and media engagements.  And after all, it would all be over in a couple of weeks.

From the outset, the story of the siege, where Ben emerges as hero after the gunman, a disgruntled, presumed psychotic, client of the firm is shot dead, seems fishy to Josh.  Ben's reluctance to speak about the details don't entirely make sense, nor do the senior partner's instantaneous efforts to see that Ben is awarded a bravery medal.  Ben is as inscrutable to Josh as he had been in the past, when they were friends. 

The Fix is really Ben's story told from the perspective of Josh.  It is clever and engaging, and the tension builds steadily so, even though the reader knows there will be a surprise in store, the ending still delivers.

This is a Nick Earls novel in that it is filled with quirky characters and scenarios, that while offbeat, are endearing and recognisable.  Earls writes dialogue well.  He has a flair for capturing the awkwardness and insecurity of many social interactions.  He creates a wonderful sense of place by writing about unconsciously observed details in a few words. The action takes place in the central business district of Brisbane, and the surrounding suburbs, as well as the tourism extravaganza of Surfers Paradise and The Gold Coast. 

I saw Nick Earls at the recent Brisbane Writers' Festival and was impressed with his presentation and interaction with the audience.  He looked like he enjoyed talking about his book and made it look easy, but confessed when asked about this, that he has improved over the years and consciously decided a few years ago that if he did a little bit of preparation he could look forward to such events. 

Do I think non Aussie readers would enjoy reading The Fix?  I think there are added joys for those that know Brisbane and The Gold Coast, but his style is accessible and witty, he brings his settings and characters to life, and the novel struck a chord with me in exploring the mysterious and unknowable in our relationships with others.  Perception is all as they say, and our perception, as much as we might try for it not to be, is always plagued by our own stuff.  If you liked the movie The Sting, The Fix, has a similar feel, though fortunately, you don't need to read The Fix twice to understand what happened.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Review of Dune by Frank Herbert (audio book)

Breaking down the plot of Frank Herbert's science fiction epic Dune (1965) is probably more than I am capable of doing at this time of night.  I chose this audio book because I have rediscovered a love of science fiction this year and thought I should give this classic title a go.  I think the audio format worked well, as trying to read this dense volume may have defeated me.

Alright, the story takes place on the sand planet Arrakis.  The noble family of  Atreides have just taken up residence and assumed control of the planet and its lucrative spice industry, when the novel opens.   Duke Leto Atreides is assassinated early on, and the novel charts the rise of his son and heir, Paul Atreides as he attempts to avenge his father and reclaim control of the planet.

The plot is complex and has a very serious tone. There are many different interests struggling for ascendancy on the planet.  There is an overarching imperial force, which controls a number of planets, of which Arrakis is only one.  There is also a personal side to the plot, that makes it more than just a war story.  The Lady Jessica, Duke Leto's concubine and Paul's mother, plays a central role in the novel, as do a number of the late Duke's loyal retainers who are forced to scatter when the Duke is killed. 

The language of the novel is beautiful.  Herbert creates a believable arid and inhospitable desert world.  Like with so much good science fiction, it is the small details that make this alternate world seem real.  A great many words are given to describing the special suits that the desert tribes people, the Fremen, have to wear to survive.  The intricacies of the role of water and different rituals also add a richness to the narrative.  There are obviously too many aspects to the plot to go into.  Perhaps my favourite part of Arrakis, and I am sure I am not alone in this, are the giant predatory sand worms that eat every living and non livng thing in their path. It suffices to say that Paul Atreides's rise to power is fraught with challenge and difficulty.

As an aside, I feel it necessary to comment on the audio book production itself.  This audio book is the most elaborately "produced" I have listened to, and I am not sure if all the extra bells and whistles really worked for me.  There are many narrators, I think more than ten, for the different characters in the story.  This is unusual.  Often a single narrator will do the reading for an entire novel, altering their own voice for the various characters.  My real annoyance though, was with the overlay of music at certain times during the narration.   I found it distracting.  Overall these are small issues, but they are curious to me, so I have mentioned them.

This is a novel that I admire tremendously for its enormous scope and detailed execution.  I didn't fully enjoy the general tone of the novel, maybe the background music, underlining the portent and seriousness of events  was part of this problem.  The slipping in and out of religious themes, with associated fervour was a bit over the top at times for me too.

I am very glad I have experienced Dune, and would thoroughly recommended it to anyone who likes their sci-fi in grand and dramatic dallops.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Review: Frantic by Katherine Howell

I decided to read this book for two reasons: firstly, it is a crime fiction novel by an Australian author, and as a reasonably big reader of the genre I thought I ought to "read Australian" so to speak and secondly, the author was going to be speaking at an event that I was due to attend at The Brisbane Writers Festival and I was curious.  I have to take a deep breath to write this review, because unlike many of you, I am not good at reviewing a book that I really disliked.  So here goes!

The author, Katherine Howell worked as a Sydney ambulance officer for more than ten years.  Frantic is the first of her four crime novels that feature police and paramedics.  The premise for the novel is promising; Sophie a young paramedic, is married to Chris, a police officer, both work in busy inner Sydney precincts.  Sophie's world is turned upside down when her husband is shot in the head on the front doorstep of their home and their eight month old son is abducted.

The writing is generally plodding and over-explained.  There are a couple of fast paced action sequences where it flows better.  For instance, a scene near the beginning of the novel where Sophie and her paramedic  partner are fighting to save the life of a baby and mother during a difficult birth, is smooth and engaging.  For the rest, I was constantly aware of the awkward and clunky style of the prose.

I found the plot painfully predictable.  I would imagine most readers would have solved the whodunit early on in the book, and from then on, there is nothing to build or maintain any sort of tension or suspense.  I was also disappointed with not feeling like I was in Sydney when I read the book.  I know the areas where the story takes place and yet, it could have been anywhere.  There were no references that built a sense of place.

With a couple of exceptions, including Truth by Peter Temple, which I couldn't put down, I generally have not enjoyed Australian crime fiction.  Usually when I don't like a book,  I won't finish it or I certainly won't review it.  I am not sure if I am glad I have written about Frantic, it feels a bit self indulgent to be really critical about a book don't you think?  It makes me think about what I am wanting to achieve with my blog.  The writer has at least put her work out there.  Who am I to be negative?  I just didn't enjoy it.

It has been a busy weekend and I am behind in my reviews, but, on a brighter note, I have recently finished two books by Norwegian crime novelist Jo Nesbo that were mind-blowingly good.  I suspect that is part of the reason Frantic fell so flat, the comparison was a catastrophe.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Review: The Small Hand by Susan Hill

This is an interesting little ghost story by Susan Hill.  There are some aspects that work well, but overall it didn't fully take off for me.

The novel opens with Adam Snow, who is an antiquarian book dealer, getting lost on his way to an appointment, and discovering an abandoned and derelict English garden.  Curiosity causes Adam to venture into the garden and look around.  While standing there, wondering what must have been, he becomes aware that a small hand, presumably that of a child, has slipped into his own. 

There is good development of tension in the narrative, as Adam is pursued relentlessly by the owner of the small hand, and it is genuinely creepy and suspenseful.  It just doesn't deliver in terms of where the story goes.  The plotting did, at times, seem a bit random and the ending was predictable and unsatisfactory.  It seemed like a bit of a mishmash of classic ghost story ingredients, with none of the ingredients really developed or followed through.

For me, Hill's biggest mistake was making direct references in the novel to Henry James's The Turn of the Screw, a brilliant, surprising and meticulously constructed ghost story, and Miss Havisham from Great Expectations.  There is indeed an old lady, who is obsessed with times gone by in The Small Hand, but she was hardly the exquisitely drawn character of the Dickens classic.  I took a definite note to self, that if ever I was planning on writing something, the last thing I ought to do is remind the reader of the best examples of what I am trying to achieve.  It seemed so unnecessary to me.

I did however find myself turning the pages quickly, and I think that was partly due to Adam's occupation of rare book dealer.  I daresay that book themed stories always hold a bit of extra allure for me. 

So, while I can't wholeheartedly recommend this one, at less than 200 pages, it is worth a look if ghost stories are especially your thing.  I am curious to know if anyone has read other novels by Susan Hill. My understanding is that they are usually ghost themed, and have generally been well received.