An avid reader calls it as she sees it on books, publishing and the written word in general.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

BOOK REVIEW: Gone, Baby, Gone by Dennis Lehane

If I had to choose one adjective to describe Dennis Lehane’s writing, I think it would be “devastating”. His style is devastatingly good, honed until there’s not a spare word. His characters are flawed and even those who are friends and lovers damage each other in a way that is devastating to read. Most of all, his dark view of the world is devastating, because it has that ring of truth that makes it impossible to believe this is fiction. Lehane is never comfortable reading.

Gone Baby Gone  is the another in the series featuring Patrick Kenzie and Angie Gennaro, PIs whose patch is the dark side of Boston. This book doesn’t stick to the drugs, guns and gangs of earlier books, but ventures into the world of child abductions and the horrific things that people do to children. After a child vanishes and Kenzie and Gennaro are brought in, the mystery seems to be resolving itself around halfway through the book.  Then the plot does one of those mad hairpin turns and suddenly the only thing that is certain is that the original solution is no longer correct. Things gradually unravel and the results are devastating – that word again – for all involved.

 I’ve heard arguments that crime fiction is really where we, as a society, grapple with those heavy issues to which there seems to be no solution. Gone Baby Gone, like many of Lehane’s books, plays out the tension between law and justice. Kenzie and Gennaro work with the police but the temptation to mete out vigilante justice is always there, especially when crimes against children are involved. Kenzie’s anguished searching of his conscience reflects perfectly the moral fog we seem up against, when there is no right answer and everyone loses no matter what happens.

So, this is not the kind of book you might read to cheer yourself up, or to convince yourself that people are fundamentally good and kind. Lehane clearly doesn’t think they are, and the book puts a convincing case that – as Kenzie might say – we’ve screwed up our society good and proper. For all that, it’s a brilliant book and a masterclass in crime writing. Like a car crash, you almost can’t look away.

Friday, May 24, 2013

BOOK REVIEW: Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg

I’m going to acknowledge the obvious right off. Yes, the cover of this book features a large photograph of Sheryl Sandberg. Her job title (COO of Facebook) is printed almost as large as the subtitle of the book (Women, Work and the Will to Lead). Yes, she comes from a privileged background, studied at an elite university and then managed to hitch a ride on two of the brightest stars in the Silicon Valley firmament in Google and then Facebook. Yes, this looks like a book and an author who, if not actually obnoxious, is certainly going to enjoy preaching from her exalted pulpit to all the unenlightened rest of us about how women should get ahead in life. Certainly the book has drawn some rather vicious reviews.

As usual, first impressions are completely wrong.

I picked up the book on the age-old principle of not judging a book by its cover, and I haven’t been disappointed. In the first chapter, Sandberg acknowledges her privileged background and points out that family support played an important role in her success. She comes across as candid, thoughtful and genuinely trying to help women navigate a workplace that in many cases is structured to give their male peers an advantage. What’s more, the book is easy to read, even entertaining at times. How can you not like a woman who admits, “My first six months at Facebook were really hard. I know I’m supposed to say “challenging” but “really hard” is more like it.”

What I liked most about the book was Sandberg’s ability to amalgamate scientific data with her own experiences and draw lessons that are widely applicable. She talks about the guilt of taking her son to school and forgetting to dress him in a green T-shirt for St Patrick’s day – observing “Guilt management can be just as important as time management for mothers” – and goes on to discuss a Stanford study showing that setting obtainable goals is the key to happiness. She concludes “The aim is to have children who are happy and thriving. Wearing green T-shirts on St Patrick’s day is purely optional.”

It’s true that I’m squarely in Sandberg’s target audience: young, female, and (sort of) climbing the corporate ladder. Not all of her advice will be relevant to everyone, and she doesn’t pretend that it will be. But what she is clearly passionate about is encouraging women to speak out, step forward and (painful Americanism though it is) lean in. For that I think she can only be applauded.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Book Review: Amazonia by James Marcus

Amazonia purports to tell the story of five years in the life of – a biography of the company from 1996 to 2001, if you will.  Those were the years that James Marcus spent as employee number 55 during the dot-com boom. It’s also, partially and not very successfully, the tale of Marcus’ relationship with the company.

Problem is, Amazon as a company is the brainchild of Jeff Bezos. More than that – Amazon is Bezos and Bezos is Amazon, one of the only people to ride out the .com boom and bust and still be captaining the ship years later. Yet Marcus is able to throw very little light on the man behind the company. His impressions are limited to his initial interview and the occasional appearance at a company picnic or event. Without that insight into its driving force, his sketch of the company becomes little more than a narrative of its office politics, in which Marcus depicts himself as a guileless victim of others’ manoeuvrings.

The personal workplace narrative can work, as a genre – just look at The Devil Wears Prada. Unfortunately, Marcus seems to have a somewhat ambiguous relationship with his former employer. He’s not sure how he feels about the company that solved all his financial problems, but also made him question his role as a journalist. He dwells on these questions rather a lot. This may have been a better, or at least more entertaining book if he’d decided Bezos was the devil and decided to stick the boot in. Instead he seems to be hobbled by his journalistic ethics and attempts to be fair to all the people he portrays. The result reminds me why I usually prefer to read fiction.

If you’re looking for insight into how the .com boom came to pass or why it failed, don’t look here. If you are interested in how Bezos created a company from scratch that went on to dominate online retailing, there is little to learn from Amazonia. The only reason to read it is to try and understand what it was like, on a personal level, to be part of a crazy time when the world seemed to go mad. Marcus still seems puzzled by the whole episode today and most probably, readers will be left feeling the same way.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

On cliffhangers

It’s a concept more familiar from TV soapies than from the world of books. In the final minutes of the final episode of the season, there’s an explosion…the voiceover informs us someone will die…and those dreaded words, “To Be Continued” hang on the screen. The term “cliffhanger” is believed to have originated in relation to a work by Thomas Hardy, where the main character was left literally hanging from a cliff at the end of the book.
(Image courtesy of - check out the page for more on cliffhangers on TV)

But a cliffhanger is a tricky device. I’ve recently been reading Kylie Chan’s fantasy series set in Hong Kong (beginning with The White Tiger), and Chan strategically withholds quite a lot of relevant information. As a matter of fact, I’ve finished the second, related trilogy, and I’m still waiting to find out the answer to questions raised back in the first and second books. And quite honestly, it’s now becoming annoying.

Cliffhangers can work in some contexts, there’s no doubt about it. It’s not the hanging off the cliff that’s important though, it’s how the questions are resolved. That thrill of anticipation sitting down to the first TV show of the season can only exist because of the certainty that you’re going to find out who died, or whodunit, or who was the secret lovechild of whom. Otherwise, it would be quickly overtaken by frustration. We can tolerate a certain amount of deliberate obstruction, but it can easily become ridiculous, almost patronising towards the audience. Those writers who use cliffhangers successfully tend to resolve the questions in the first chapter, and move on. Rachel Caine springs to mind as an example.

And then there’s the obvious point that it would usually take more than a few months for a writer to finish and publish a book. Fans of TV soapies might be waiting months, but fans of books could be waiting years.  They’ll probably still buy the book, but it does take some of the fun out of it if you have to go and re-read the other books because you’ve forgotten what happened. And a cliffhanger that has been forgotten is a sad thing, without any purpose at all. After all, there’s only so long that someone can hang from a cliff without falling off.

Monday, February 25, 2013

BOOK REVIEW: Breakdown by Sara Paretsky

Sara Paretsky’s been writing crime novels for more than twenty years and she just keeps getting better and better. Despite this, there will be a lot of people who won’t like the latest in her V I Warshawski series, Breakdown. In fact, I’d suggest that viewers of Fox News and many readers of the Herald Sun are likely to find themselves even more apoplectic than usual if they happen to pick up this novel, which features a right-wing shock-jock of a familiar kind. No punches pulled here, and little attempt to persuade or convince – this is Paretsky letting loose a mountain of built-up frustration.
And you know what? I love that. I love that in a time when everything is workshopped and focus-grouped within an inch of its life to appeal to the broadest possible market, Paretsky was unafraid to alienate a few people and say what she really thought. I’m sure there are plenty like me who thoroughly enjoy the overdue pasting she gives the right-wing media, but I'm equally sure she has lost readers over the politics of the book. And I reckon she doesn't care.
The book is more than just a polemic, of course. It’s a cleverly-crafted thriller and Paretsky shows she’s a sharp observer of both trends and people – a twilight-esque ritual conducted by teen girls in a cemetery kicks off the action. Warshawski is well-drawn and rounded, as always, a character whose swagger masks a deeper insecurity. And the action draws you onwards, never letting up from the first page.
My one minor quibble is that the title seems to have absolutely nothing to do with the content of the book. In fact, it’s one of those one-word, crime novel titles that is so stereotypical it seems to have been generated by a computer program. Similarly, although the cemetery on the book jacket, does reflect the initial scene, it's the kind of gothic-esque scene in blue and black you’ve seen on a thousand covers before. But in the end, the substance is there, and that’s the main thing.  Breakdown is a thoroughly enjoyable read, and I highly recommend it.

Monday, January 28, 2013

BOOK REVIEW: The Little Book of Perfumes – the 100 Classics by Luca Turin and Tania Sanchez

What to read when you don’t have time to read anything? Turin and Sanchez somehow manage to pack a great deal of information and entertainment in each short paragraph of TheLittle Book of Perfumes. When you read a description of Thierry Mugler’s Angel  which notes that it has “the same relation to your average sweet floral as the ten-story-high  demonic Stay Puft Marshmallow Man from Ghostbusters has to your average fireside toasted sweet,” you know exactly what they’re talking about. Somehow, they have managed to make an esoteric world of bases and accords into an accessible and fun journey which takes in history but is not above a bit of pop culture either.

The book collects 100 favourite perfumes of the authors, the ones they consider classics. Its slim 107 pages are distilled from a longer, more exhaustive book. But credit to the publisher and designer, it is also a beautiful object in its own right, a small hardback in gold and black which perfectly reflects the elegance and refinement of its subject. This is one that I picked up in the bookstore because it looked so beautiful, and then started reading and ended up buying and taking home with me. I’m not a perfume aficionado, far from it, but I can’t wait to find a shop and find out whether Bulgari’s Black really does smell like hot rubber, or whether I can detect the tea base in Tommy Hilfinger’s Tommy Girl.

It’s a deceptively simple recipe – take two authors with an encylopaedic knowledge of and passion for their subject, who can also write (and have the all-important sense of humour), and tell them to go for it. But if it were really that simple, there would be many more books like this, and The Little Book of Perfumes wouldn’t be the rare gem that it is. Buy it, and I guarantee you’ll never look at  perfume the same way again.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

BOOK REVIEW: The Fine Colour of Rust by P.A O’Reilly (and) Southern Fried by Cathy Pickens

You’ll always find plenty of people to complain about how Americanised Australian society is coming. We know American slang better than our own, we dial 911 in an emergency instead of 000 and there was a period when, every time we heard an Australian accent on TV (apart from the news) we got a perceptible shock. It’s a similar feeling to the shock of recognition I got on reading P.A. O’Reilly’s The Fine Colour of Rust. The residents of the fictional outback town of Gunapan aren’t just recognisable archetypes, you know these people – one of them probably lives down the road, another owns the local shop, you probably have one or more in your family. O’Reilly brings them all to life with a wry humour and a rare sympathy. If this book doesn’t make you laugh out loud, it might well make you shed a quiet tear, although in the best Australian tradition it makes little and light of its occasional sentimentality.

The contrast struck me immediately with Southern Fried, the book I read immediately after. The defining characteristic of the book is its location deep in South Carolina, which is vividly portrayed when Avery Andrews returns home after losing her job as a big-city attorney. There’s a touch of the clichéd  big city-versus-small town but it’s still interesting and there’s a reasonable mystery to anchor the whole thing down. However, the thing that really provokes my curiosity is whether I really “got it” – whether, in fact, it’s possible to “get it” from as far away place as Australia. Would Southern readers feel the same instinctive understanding of Avery as I felt about Loretta Boskovic? Was it really a true portrayal, or did it veer towards cliché? I can’t answer.

To Australian readers, I highly recommend The Fine Colour of Rust – it’s as easy to read as the usual chick-lit, but with far more intelligence. P.A O’Reilly has really done a wonderful job in writing a truly original book. I can’t compare it with anything else out there at the moment, so you’ll have to read it by yourself and find out – trust me, you won’t regret it.
I can’t unhesitatingly recommend Southern Fried because my overwhelming feeling is that I’m somehow not qualified to judge. But if you have an interest in the area, or are looking for a decent, readable mystery that’s not too taxing, you should give it a go. And if there is anyone who comes from South Carolina who wants to give me their view on its accuracy or otherwise, feel free to post it in the comments!