Tag Archives: Books

The Dry

The Dry

The dramatic cover of this book caught my eye several times over a few weeks, online and in the real world.

Eventually it seemed that it was virtually stalking me, so I gave in and acquired a copy. I’m glad to say that in this case at least nothing is lost by judging a book by its cover.

The Dry is set in Kiewarra, a tiny South Australian farming community beset by drought. Rain has been absent for years, the countryside is parched, times are hard, tempers are frayed and tensions are high all round.

Aaron Falk is a Federal Police detective based in Melbourne, specialising in financial crime. Originally from Kiewarra, one day he gets a phone call telling him his best friend  from his school days in the town, Luke Hadler, is dead – along with his wife and young son. All of them shot with the family’s own shotgun, apparently by Luke.

However, Falk’s own past ties to Kiewarra are far from straightforward – as is the reason why he left the town so many years before.

When he returns ‘home’ for the funeral, his own unfinished business comes back to haunt him in unexpected ways.

Can Falk unravel the intensely personal and intricately intertwined mysteries of the past and the present?

And stay alive while he does it?

 

 

A Man Called Ove

image

I heard a lot about this book and have to confess I was a bit skeptical.

How wrong is it possible to be be?

If you’ve read The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out A Window And Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson you’ll love this too – it has a very similar style.

Not a word is wasted. There’s very little flowery exposition, just lean spare evocative writing that shows much much more than it tells – the author respects his readers and relies on their intelligence to pick up the nuances and commonalties of human experience and feeling.

Without being in the least saccharin or mawkish, it’s both funny and positive – and surprisingly affecting.

You’ll be sorry to reach the end but exceedingly glad you read it!

Book Challenges – Yay or Nay?

Last year I read 103 books.

I know because Goodreads tells me so. Or at least Goodreads tells me that I told it that was the number.

Actually it was the number, I didn’t game the system though of course it is possible. It was the first time I had ever consciously kept track of how many books I read over a year.

Thoughts on the experience?

It definitely made me much more aware of how many books I had read, and was reading. How often do you realise that days have gone by and very few or maybe no pages have been read? It’s easy as we all discover to lose time, to get lost in other things, to be the fly in molasses. The Goodreads counter knocked lassitude on the head – ‘You’re on track!’ or ‘You’re 2 books behind’. It never went beyond two, the kick in the pants worked wonders ever time.

Added to the impetus was the % read tracker on my Kindle. Between the two, there was a steady drumbeat of recognition of progress made, or not, and encouragement to stay on track, or catch up.

Over time this did though grow to be a little disconcerting. Only 15% through a book? 1 book behind? Time to up the pace…..maybe speed up? Skip a little even? There were targets to be met after all!!

This was the downside of what was mostly a positive experience. A ticking clock measuring anything inevitably pushes towards a greater tempo, and then greater still, as it counts down, ever closer to the moment on 31 December and the final reckoning. The odd psychological effect was that even though the figure I set was entirely of my own choosing, and no one cared or was watching, and the unseen outcome counted for absolutely nothing, it did assume a significance just by being there. I not sure I liked that feeling, and especially not to have it bound up and instilled with reading – a pleasure and a realm intended to be as enjoyable as it is because it was separate from deadlines and pressures, walled off in its own sanctuary beyond normal space and time, and the everyday world. Though of course really it’s not – but it’s nice to think that way.

It’s easy (and in the grand scheme of thing right) to say that the best response was to just chill, since the grand total was freighted with no meaning – nothing was lost at 98 or gained by 103 books read.

And yet. It mattered. Oddly, and perhaps inexplicably so. I’m not sure why. I wasn’t competing with anyone. As I said no one was keeping an eye on me. I didn’t mention any total or the challenge to anyone, let along invest any importance in reaching the figure.

So why care? A good and puzzling question. A challenge is a challenge perhaps? Losing to oneself is the worst defeat of all? Keeping track highlighted how much time is actually ‘wasted’, as it might be termed, not reading? Maybe 100 books doesn’t seem a very large number? Especially in a  year? With over 1,200 on my Kindle alone? And more to add? And that leaves aside all the paper mounds and pyramids accumulated and waiting to be explored?

In a way I suppose keeping track revealed a tangible mortality of time, a limit that is real and insurmountable. Our thread of life is finite and what we do with the length available, in so far as we can ever know or guess what that is, is a series of choices.

And all of the time a clock is ticking.

Like it or not.

I set the 100 books goal again this year, with a bit more trepidation and hesitation than last.

Let’s see how it goes……tick……tock……tick…….

Acts of the Assassins

Acts of the Asassins cover
Acts of the Assassins

The close associates of a dead insurgent leader start meeting grizzly deaths.

Doubts arise as to whether the insurgent himself is really dead. His diminishing band of companions proclaim not. Bizarrely they believe he came back from the dead.

Disgraced secret policeman Cassius Gallio knows this is impossible. He was in charge of the crucifixion of Jesus – he saw the radical agitator die before his eyes. True, the body was stolen from a tomb but the guards were inexperienced and open to offers. Still he suffered for the embarrassing outcome – busted back down to uniform and posted to the wilds of Moldova.

Now, though with one phone call he’s on a plane back to Jerusalem – the case is reopened, and with it the chance to save himself and possibly the Roman Empire as well.

Even from that short description it’s obvious that Richard Beard’s book is different. A Roman Empire with phones? And planes? The Twelve Apostles as part of a murder mystery? Roman Imperial FBI with Glock pistols?

The premise is intriguing and the setting and background as creative as it is mind-bending and unsettling.

Plotwise the story is a little weak but the concept and context is so inventive that you keep reading to learn more of this odd and unique story world, and of course to find out what happens to the characters in this strange parallel universe.

Not a book that you might ever re-read but one that has enough elements of interest to hold the reader the first time around, and when the end is reached it’s hard not to find satisfaction freighted with relief.

 

Trigger Mortis

Cover image of Trigger Mortis - Bond is back
Trigger Mortis – Bond is back

Books ‘in the style of’ a deceased author can be hit and miss, but Anthony Horowitz had the advantage of a framework, and even some original passages, written by Ian Fleming himself when creating this new James Bond thriller.

Set in the 1950s, Horowitz manages skilfully to retain the essence of Bond while thankfully jettisoning the more objectionable and dated aspects of the originals.

In Trigger Mortis women protagonists give as good as they get, henchmen have backstories, and Bond has a conscience. But not too much of a one.

None of this gets in the way of a rollicking good story – on the contrary, even as the plot and characters have more depth and satisfying nuances, the action is if anything enhanced.

All the traditional staples of a Bond story are here to be enjoyed – a maniacal villain, a female character with a memorable name, an inventive and dastardly sinister scheme, and perhaps Bond’s most challenging dicing with death ever, all set against a background of Cold War tension and the Space Race.

In Horowitz’s talented hands Trigger Mortis makes for an enjoyable read whether you’re a long-time Bond fan, a dedicated thriller aficionado or just in search of your next good book.

The Girl Who Saved The King Of Sweden

The Girl Who Saved The King Of Sweden book cover design by Jonas Jonasson

“…in protest against her parents…For instance she wrote her short English essay in German and claimed in a History exam that the Bronze Age began on the 14 February 1972”

If you’ve read The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out Of The Window And Disappeared, Jonas Jonasson’s first book, the style in his follow-up novel will be familiar. For those who haven’t read his breakout work, the fact that he has retained this same approach is a very good thing.

The Swedish author has a way with words, with ideas and plot turns and twists, that are all his own. Something akin to Terry Pratchett, Jonasson can convey deep thoughts about serious topics with a light touch, one that’s often also laugh out loud funny.

The Girl Who Saved The King Of Sweden is not quite as funny as the original book, but very good fun none the less. Jonasson relishes unexpected developments and story direction, constantly surprising his reader with his inventiveness.

Not to give away too much of the story but if you can think of another book that could conjure up a situation where the slightly drunk Prime Minister of Sweden is rooting out potatoes in full evening dress in a remote field while nearby the equally merry Swedish King takes an axe to the necks of three chickens you have one over on me.

Central to the story is a nuclear bomb that links the lives of all the characters, starting with the main protagonist Nombeko – a gifted young girl living on her wits in apartheid South Africa when we meet her first. A series of extraordinary events as well as some extremely ordinary ones involve South African government officialdom, Israeli intelligence, a family of Chinese counterfeiters, two Swedish twins with a secret and an angry young girl and her (possible) Countess Grandmother in rollicking waves of adventure, unexpected complication and frequent mayhem. Not forgetting the Swedish King and PM’s nocturnal culinary efforts.

In common with Pratchett, Jonasson has a gift for depicting reality as the most absurd perspective of all. Everything else he creates and conjures up seems remarkably reasonable in comparison, and this contrast tells us a great deal about our own world and how odd really are the things we take for granted as ‘normal’.

A charming, warm, and sweet tale of what life can throw at a person – and what they can throw back.

 

Reblog from Quartz: The reason every book about Africa has the same cover

I’d never really noticed this pattern before but like many things once it was pointed out it seemed obvious:  the almost ever present acacia tree and a savannah sunset on the cover of books about Africa. Why?

http://qz.com/207527/the-reason-every-book-about-africa-has-the-same-cover-and-its-not-pretty/

Acacia tree on an African savannah
The tree that launched a thousand books (Reuters/Ed Harris)
 

In short,” the post said, “the covers of most novels ‘about Africa’ seem to have been designed by someone whose principal idea of the continent comes from The Lion King.”

 

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Image by Simon Stevens

 

What makes the persistence of these tired and inaccurate images even worse is that we’re living in an era of brilliant book design (including this lovely, type-only cover for Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah; her novel Half of a Yellow Sun begins the collage above). So why is it so hard for publishers of African authors to rise beyond cliché?

 

I asked Peter Mendelsund—who is an associate art director of Knopf, a gifted cover designer, and the author of a forthcoming book on the complex alliances between image and text—to help me understand how the publishing industry got to a place where these crude visual stereotypes are recycled ad nauseam. (Again and again, that acacia tree!)

 

He points first to “laziness, both individual or institutionalized.” Like most Americans, book designers tend not to know all that much about the rest of the world, and since they don’t always have the time to respond to a book on its own terms, they resort to visual clichés. Meanwhile, editors sometimes forget what made a manuscript unique to begin with. In the case of non-Western novels, they often fall back on framing it with “a vague, Orientalist sense of place,” Mendelsund says, and they’re enabled by risk-averse marketing departments.

 

“By the time the manuscript is ready to be produced, there’s a really strong temptation to follow a path that’s already been trod,” he says. “If someone goes out on a limb and tries something different, and the book doesn’t sell, you know who to blame: the guy who didn’t put the acacia tree on the cover.”

 

He adds that the underlying issue can be more pernicious: “Of course, there are the deeply ingrained problems of post-colonialist and Orientalist attitudes. We’re comfortable with this visual image of Africa because it’s safe. It presents ‘otherness’ in a way that’s easy to understand. That’s ironic, because what is fiction if not a way for you to stretch your empathetic muscles?”

 

That’s a reasonable diagnosis. But how to solve the underlying problem? Certain books are allowed to stand on their own; others—too often those by African, Muslim, or female authors—are assigned genre stereotypes. Mendelsund suggests that designers should start by initiating conversations with editors about what makes a book unique, so that they have something to respond to visually. And if that fails, and designers are pressured to use an offensive stereotype, Mendelsund says, “We can tell them that it’s racist, xenophobic, whatever.”

 

But change comes slowly. One day, Mendelsund predicts, there will be a best-selling novel by an African writer that happens to use a different visual aesthetic, and its success will introduce a new set of arbitrary images to represent Africa in Western eyes. “But right now, we’re in the age of the tree,” he says. “For that vast continent, in all its diversity, you get that one fucking tree.”’

‘Good Books Cheap’ – the Pelicans Return

Image of the first three new Pelican books
The first of the new Pelican books

 

Great to hear that Penguin Books are bringing back their Pelican imprint – pale blue covered non-fiction books at relatively cheap prices.

They’re also originally commissioned from authors, so good news for aspiring non-fiction writers as well as readers!

The Guardian has more as well as a short history of what was, and might be again, a cultural icon…

http://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/apr/25/pelican-books-take-flight-relaunch