Tuesday, 11 December 2012

Crime and Punishment

In 1959 on a farm in Holcolm, Kansas, the Clutter family was brutally murdered. The death of the farmer, his wife and two of their children, shocked the local residents who were horrified at the violence and perplexed by the motive for the killings. 

When news of the crime reached New York, author Truman Capote - a successful novelist, celebrity darling and bon-vivant - sensed there was more to the story. He travelled with his childhood friend, To Kill a Mockingbird author Harper Lee, to Kansas to investigate.  Over the next few years Capote became engrossed in the mystery. He became close to the men arrested for the crime and to the sheriff determined to see justice done. In 1966 Capote published In Cold Blood, his story of the crime, and in doing so invented a new form of writing -  a merging of journalism and fiction that Capote called the 'nonfiction novel'. 

I have read In Cold Blood twice and each time I marvel at the way the Capote has crafted this book. Describing in minute detail the events on the day of the murder, the trial and the aftermath, Capote draws the reader in to the scene of the crime. He alternates the narrative with the life stories of Perry Smith and Dick Hickock - the men who would convicted of the murders - and the tale of Alvin Dewey, the local policeman who would not rest until they were convicted.  

Capote apparently took no notes as he interviewed people for his research and relied on memory to recreate the dialogue he recalls in the book. So perhaps it is here that a degree of creative license enabled him to shape the tale to fit his vision of a good story. The result is a tightly woven crime thriller, built on unfolding layers which, in the end, also presents the moral dilemma of capital punishment.  For me, In Cold Blood is as close to perfect as a novel can get - a page turner with a fascinating story, interesting characters and beautifully descriptive prose.

It is no wonder that the story garnered the attention of Hollywood. In recent years two films have been made focussing on Capote's time researching and writing about the crime.

The film Capote (2005) stars Philip Seymour Hoffman in an Academy Award winning performance as the author.  Harper Lee is portrayed by Catherine Keener. Chris Cooper plays Alvin Dewey. The film was also nominated for best picture, supporting actress, director and adapted screenplay. The film is excellent and clearly demonstrates how Truman was affected by the murders and his involvement in writing this book. 

The following year, Infamous (2006) was released. In this film English actor Toby Jones plays Capote. He is joined by Sandra Bullock as Harper Lee and Daniel Craig as murderer Perry Smith. The film also features a who's-who of Hollywood with cameos by Jeff Daniels, Peter Bogdanovich, Gwyneth Paltrow, Sigourney Weaver, Isabella Rosellini, Hope David and Juliet Stevenson. 

Both films are excellent and it is hard to compare and contrast. Hoffman and Jones give different, equally excellent, portrayals of Capote. There is a lot to admire in both films, and they are well worth seeing, but on balance I think Capote is the better film.  

Monday, 10 December 2012

The Sting in the Tale

The final instalment of Steig Larsson's Millennium trilogy, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest (2007), brings Lisbeth Salander's tale to an end. This review may contain spoilers for the handful of people who have not read the bestselling books or seen the films.

Part three begins where the previous book, The Girl Who Played with Fire, finished. Journalist Mikael Blomkvist is back at his desk as editor of Millennium magazine. Lisbeth Salander is in hospital fighting for her life. As she recovers, she must fight for her freedom when she is charged with murder. Blomkvist has always believed in Lisbeth and is committed to proving her innocence. Along the way, Lisbeth confronts her past and seeks vengeance on those who done her wrong. Former spies, corrupt cops, and a whole range dodgy crims populate the story with a complex web of interwoven sub-plots adding to the adventure.

Lisbeth remains such an interesting character - complex, mysterious and utterly unforgettable. Unlike anyone I know, Lisbeth drives this series on and makes it so exciting. I would have liked to have more of her in this book and unravel more of her mystery.

The book is not perfect - it could have been shortened with some of the subplots whittled down. But having read the three books in rapid succession, my feeling at the end was one of relief and sadness. I was delighted to have read the series and enjoyed my time with the fascinating Lisbeth, but I was saddened that it was all over and that Larsson would not have any more novels to come. 

Daniel Alfredson returns to direct the Swedish version of this film, reuniting Michael Nyqvist and Noomi Rapace. The film requires viewers to have seen the previous movies, or to have read the books, to understand what is taking place. Lacking the action of the previous instalments, much of this film takes place in court rooms and hospitals. There is a great deal of suspense and tension that will keep you engaged to the end, but as is often the case, the book is so much better. 

My reviews of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and The Girl Who Played With Fire are also on this blog.

Sunday, 2 December 2012

To have and have not

The proverb 'the rich get richer and the poor get poorer' neatly sums up the gulf that has been growing between the classes in most Western societies. Inequalities of wealth are causing health and social problems that impact on society as a whole.

In The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better (2009), epidemiologists Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett explore the ill effects of the class divide and argue that greater equality is better for everyone. Tackling topics such as mental health, obesity, education, imprisonment, drug use, teen pregnancy, trust, violence, child wellbeing, social mobility and physical health, the authors show that outcomes in these areas are far worse in societies where there is less equality. Looking at 23 countries, they draw on a huge evidence bank - including data from the UN, World Health Organisation, Census, and elsewhere - to build a compelling case for a more equal society.

Unsurprisingly,  Scandinavian countries and Japan are at the more equal end of the scale, while the UK, USA and Portugal are on the complete opposite side of the divide. The rest of the countries explored fall somewhere in between. For America the researchers have broken down the data even further on a state by state basis.

In early 2010, shortly after the book was released,  I was at a conference focussed on outcomes for children. Many of the esteemed presenters cited this book during their sessions, stating that Wilkinson and Pickett's findings had matched their own research on child health, education and wellbeing.

I read this book in between Presidential debates of the recent US elections which provided an interesting backdrop to my reading as the gap between rich and poor is greatest there. While the politicians debated tax cuts, government intervention, 'Obamacare' and the like, there was a missed opportunity to really talk about the vast social inequities that have grown in recent decades.

It is clear that the weight of the evidence Wilkinson and Pickett have unearthed was compelling, but it was less clear what could be done about it other then fixing the taxation system that allows loopholes to the super-rich. There is a lack of political will to make the changes necessary to bring about a more equal society, so this book should be compulsory reading for every politician at all levels of government. The cumulative impact of the evidence was overwhelming but it is easy to despair at the prospects of any change.

I am glad that I have read The Spirit Level, but I cannot say it was a particularly enjoyable read. It requires the right frame of mind to absorb the detail. It was repetitive in parts and the scatter graphs illustrating the prose were dull. Overall, however, I think it is an important book which provides a compelling case for equality and I would recommend it.  The book was re-released in 2010 with an improved subheading - "Why Equality is Better for Everyone" - and a chapter responding to critics. There is also an Equality Trust website which summarises the research and provides other resources.

Wednesday, 21 November 2012

In the valley of good and evil

American author John Steinbeck has always been one of my favourite novelists and his story of Depression-era struggle, The Grapes of Wrath (1939) is one of my all-time favourite novels. Over the years I have made my way through many of his novels but for some strange reason I had never read East of Eden (1952). I decided it was time to rectify this oversight and have now had the pleasure of reading East of Eden.

Set in California's Salinas Valley in the early 20th century, East of Eden tells the story of two families - the Trasks and the Hamiltons - over several generations. The Hamiltons are Irish immigrants who have moved to a farm to raise their large family. Adam Trask moves to Salinas from Connecticut with his young wife to start a new life on a neighbouring farm. Adam and Samuel become friends and support each other through difficult times, as their destinies become linked.

The story parallels parts of the Bible, sharing much in common with the Book of Genesis - the tales of Adam and Eve and brothers Cain and Abel.  Adam Trask has a younger brother Charles who competes for their father's attention. Later, Adam's wife Cathy gives birth to twins, Cal and Aron, who also compete with one another.

There are a handful of interesting minor characters who are instrumental to the narrative. My favourite is Lee, the Chinese cook who lives with the Trasks and guides them through his philosophical teachings. But I also loved the character of Cathy and was keen to see whether she would get her comeuppance after all her manipulative evil-doings.

Steinbeck's love of the Salinas Valley comes through in his meandering descriptions of the landscape. While these descriptions give the reader a clear sense of the location, I found they occasionally disrupted the action. Despite this, I loved reading East of Eden and have spent the time since thinking about the novel and pondering the fate of all the characters. There is extraordinary richness in the layers of this story. While it in no way tops The Grapes of Wrath, it comes pretty close...

In 1955 Elia Kazan directed the film based on part of East of Eden. Staring James Dean, Raymond Massey and Julie Harris, the film won the Golden Globe for Best Picture in 1956. I have not yet seen the film, but plan to do so shortly.

Saturday, 27 October 2012

Fighting fire with fire

The second novel in Steig Larsson's Millenium trilogy, The Girl Who Played with Fire (2006) continues the story of unlikely heroine Lisbeth Salander. 

Lisbeth has finished her work with Mikael Blomkvist and thanks to the funds she has drained from the Wennerstrom bank accounts she is financially independent. She leaves Sweden and travels for more than a year before returning home and buying a new apartment.  Meanwhile Blomkvist is back at Millenium magazine and is preparing to publish a story about a sex trafficking ring run by underworld figure Zala, who played a prominent role in Lisbeth's past. Lisbeth's life then becomes more complicated when she is accused of murder. 
In the first book Lisbeth was enigmatic with little hints about her life scattered throughout the story so that readers understood there was something more that would explain the complexities of her character. This novel fleshes out much of her back story as we learn more about her past and the influence of events that have shaped her. 

Larsson again keeps the action moving, adding layer upon layer to the mystery. He is an excellent storyteller and this book is a definite page turner. Oftentimes in trilogies I find the middle book to be the weakest link, but not so here. This trilogy, as a whole, is compelling and contains no weak links. 

The film version is directed by Daniel Alfredson. Michael Nyqvist and Noomi Rapace return to their roles, as do most of the supporting cast. While not as exciting as the first film, the performances are universally excellent. It is helpful to have read the book before seeing the movie to get the most out of it.
See also my review of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.   

Friday, 26 October 2012

The road not taken

Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, Edith Wharton's The Age of Innocence (1920) is set against the backdrop of 1870s Old New York. 

Well-bred Newland Archer is engaged to young socialite May Welland, a wedding that will unite two esteemed families. May's cousin, Countess Ellen Olenska, arrives in New York, having left her cheating husband in Europe. Ellen's sudden arrival causes gossip and scorn among the upper class and she is pressured to return home to avoid further scandal. While Newland is initially dismissive of Ellen, he is appointed as her legal counsel and is soon attracted to her unconventional ways which challenge the unwritten rules of the society they inhabit. A love triangle begins and Newland must decide whether to follow his heart or bow to societal pressures.

Wharton infuses her novel with great wit as she critiques the ridiculous social mores of the times, pointing out the hypocrisy and superficiality of the upper class who see themselves as superior in every way. She is deeply descriptive, painting an opulent portrait, which contrasts the 'old-money' values with the new ideas emerging that challenge the customs and traditions of society.

Martin Scorsese directed a delicious film version of The Age of Innocence in 1993. Starring Daniel Day-Lewis as Archer, Winona Ryder as May and Michelle Pfeiffer as Ellen, there is a rich supporting cast of delightful character actors including Richard E Grant, Miriam Margolyes, Jonathan Pryce and Sian Phillips. The excellent performances are matched by the sumptuous visual style of the film with its grand sets and beautiful costumes. An excellent adaptation of a wonderful novel.

Wednesday, 3 October 2012

The Witches of Shreveport

It has been almost a year since I last read a Sookie Stackhouse novel, but after recently watching the finale of the fifth season of the True Blood television series I decided to return to the books to fill the gap until next season. 

Dead to the World (2004) is Charlaine Harris' fourth novel in the Southern Vampire Mysteries series. It takes up a few weeks after the events in the previous book.

Vampire Bill Compton has gone to Peru. One night Sookie stumbles across vampire Sherriff Eric Northman walking along the side of the road, apparently suffering from amnesia. When she discovers that a coven of witches cursed Eric, erasing his memory, Sookie agrees to take him in and protect him. Suddenly her brother Jason goes missing and Sookie fears this may also have something to do with the witches. The local vampires and a pack of werewolves join forces to try and defeat the witches that have moved into Shreveport and are attempting to take over Eric's power in the area. And the longer Eric stays with Sookie, the closer they become...

Eric is a delicious character and losing his memory has brought out his softer side, causing Sookie a quandary. Bill is basically absent for the whole book (which is not a bad thing as the other characters are much more interesting), but werewolf Alcide and shifter Sam provide supernatural support when Sookie needs help.

Harris has hit her stride with this novel, setting up three different plot strands that combine to bring romance, action and suspense to Bon Temps. The humour of Harris' dialogue, and the absurdity of some of the situations make for an enjoyable read. Of the four that I have read in this series, this is my favourite. I look forward to reading the next novel in the series.

The main strands of the plot are followed in the fourth season of True Blood, with some notable differences. These changes made reading the book pleasurable as I kind of knew what was coming next, but I also knew it would likely change dramatically from the TV show. 

My review of the first three novels in this series are also available on this blog: Dead Until Dark (2001), Living Dead in Dallas (2002) and Club Dead (2003).

Sunday, 30 September 2012

Swedish suspense saga

Swedish author Steig Larsson's Millennium trilogy begins with The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2005). Translated into English in 2008, the book and its sequels have been on the bestseller lists practically ever since and have been translated into two film franchises. 

By now, the story is well known. Journalist Mikael Blomkvist loses a libel case after a story he published in his magazine Millenium. With his reputation in ruins, Blomkvist accepts a job offer from retired businessman Henrik Vanger to conduct an investigation into the disappearance of his niece, Harriet, who has not been seen for over 36 years. Working out of a guest house on the Vanger's island estate, Blomkvist hires a research assistant: goth computer hacker Lisbeth Salander. She is the girl with the dragon tattoo. Together they delve into the mystery, uncovering dark Vanger family secrets.  

Lisbeth is an unlikely heroine. She is antisocial with a disturbing past, but she is so intriguing because her character is full of contrasts: strong yet vulnerable, brilliant yet damaged. You can't help but care for her and want to learn more about how she became who she is.  

The story is intelligent with many strands building to an exciting climax. The relationships are complex,  and there are many characters to keep track of.  There is also a darkness to the book, and it doesn't shy away from unspeakable acts of violence against women. While the mystery takes a while to get going, around the half-way point the suspense becomes page-turning. Immediately upon finishing this book I commenced the second novel in the trilogy, The Girl who Played with Fire, as I wanted to spend more time with Lisbeth and see what happened next.

With regard to the films, I have seen both the Swedish film (2009) and the American version (2011). While each was admirable for different reasons, ultimately I prefer the Swedish version more.

The Swedish film, directed by Niels Arden Oplev, features Michael Nyqvist as Blomqvist and Noomi Rapace as Salander. It is filmed in the bleak, snowy Sweden where you can really feel the cold as you watch. It is gritty and the scenes of violence are frighteningly realistic. Rapace in particular was an extraordinary find. She completely inhabits the character and is so convincing in her portrayal that she is Salander for me. I have since seen other films with Rapace and she has shed Salander entirely and proven herself to be an incredibly talented actress.

When I heard they were making an American version of the film I was disappointed as I thought the Swedish one was fantastic and it seemed a bit too soon to rehash the same tale. I figured they would Americanise it, so I was surprised when it was set in Sweden and tried to be as faithful to the book as possible.

Daniel Craig plays Blomqvist and Rooney Mara is Salander. It is directed by one of my favourite filmmakers,  David Fincher. So with the combination of an excellent cast and an amazing director I had high hopes for this film. While I thought it was good, I didn't think it was great.  I think there is difficulty in watching it after having seen the first film and read the book, because the story line is so familiar. Perhaps Fincher needed to make a few changes so it wasn't quite so faithful to the original and gave the audience a bit of a surprise. His visual style was definitely there (especially in the amazing title sequence with the brilliant cover of Led Zepplin's "Immigrant Song"). But the result is a bit too conventional, missing the edge that I had hoped Fincher would provide. 

My reviews of the The Girl who Played with Fire and The Girl who Kicked the Hornet's Nest  also appear on this blog.

Saturday, 22 September 2012

Bring out your best

Strengths Finder 2.0 (2007) was written by leading business author Tom Rath, a consultant at Gallup. Used in conjunction with an online self-assessment tool, Strengths Finder 2.0 provides a report highlighting individual talents and how to work best with them.

The first part of the book explains why it is important to know your strengths, and what you can do to build on the strengths that you have identified. Once you have read that section, you go online and complete the assessment tool using the unique access code in the book. This will provide you with a personalised report detailing your top five strengths. You then return to the book and read the second part which explains each of the 34 identified strengths, ideas for action and what to do if you are working with someone who has that particular strength.

I followed this path and was impressed with the report I received on my strengths. I feel it was really accurate and reflects who I am and how I work. According to Strengths Finder 2.0, I am Strategic, Learner, Intellection, Context and Arranger. Yup, that's definitely me; a reassurance of my abilities to self-assess. Referring back to the book, the ideas for action provide little fortune cookies of wisdom that will help me to build on my strengths. Reading about other strengths also provides insight into other people who have different strengths to my own.

With regard to the assessment, it is a shame that you cannot go back and take the test again - to see if you change over time and to test the validity of the initial assessment. It was also a bit disappointing that you only get to know your top five strengths. I would have found it more useful if the report provided me with a list of all my strengths in order, so I could know what my other strengths are (and are not) - even though this is contrary to the author's point of focusing on your core strengths.

The whole process - to read the introductory section and take the assessment - only took an about an hour, but the report provided to me I will be pondering for some time to come. This is not a book for everyone, but for those who are introspective and want to better understand what they are good at, Strengths Finder 2.0 is a worthwhile investment.

Friday, 21 September 2012

Crazy confectionary

I have been reading a lot of diverse books lately - epic novels like A Game of Thrones, introspective business books like Strengths Finder 2.0, labyrinthine literature like The Blind Assassin, and thoughtful essays in Hitchens' Arguably. Each has been so enjoyable - the reading equivalent of an eight course dinner of complex flavours and textures. Yesterday I went looking for dessert - something light and fluffy - and Explosive Eighteen (2011) by Janet Evanovich fit the bill perfectly.

Explosive Eighteen is the latest in a long line of novels about inept bounty hunter Stephanie Plum. Stephanie has returned home from a nightmare trip to Hawaii that she does not want to talk about. The guy seated next to her on the plane is now dead and there's a mysterious photo in her bag that she knows nothing about. After throwing it away, Stephanie discovers there is a lot of interest in the photo with the FBI, gangsters and the dead guy's widow knocking on her door to acquire it.

Besides the photo, Stephanie has other things to deal with. She has a line of skips to collect, including her nemesis Joyce Barndhart. Morelli isn't happy with her, Grandma Mazur is urging Steph to drink love potions, Ranger is continually coming to her rescue, and Lula is single-handedly keeping the Trenton fast-food industry afloat.

The title is a misnomer, as there is nothing explosive here. Just more of the same craziness in a lightweight read that requires absolutely no thought. Explosive Eighteen has moments of humour and served as a perfect diversion from the other things in my reading pile. It is quick and easy and, if you don't expect anything more, you won't be disappointed.

As I said in my review of other Plum novels, the series has been hit-and-miss. Some books have been excellent while others have really missed the mark. The formula is always the same: a fairly lame overarching storyline; a comedy of errors in trying to haul in bizarre bail jumpers; witty banter and screwball clumsiness; and, the never-ending love triangle of Plum/Morelli/Ranger.

For me, the biggest problem with the series is that the characters have never really evolved. It has been 18 years since One for the Money (1994) and Evanovich has brought out a new Plum novel every year since then. I know I have aged in that time, but Stephanie hasn't. She hasn't gained skills in her years as a bounty hunter and there is only so many times she can blow up her car before it gets old. I think it is time for Steph to grow up, make decisions about her life, and for the series to take on another dimension.

Notorious Nineteen (2012) is due out in November. I doubt that Janet Evanovich would have heard her critics and altered her formula. Will I read the next one? Of course. Will it frustrate me? Probably. But I know that Evanovich will at least provide me with an entertaining diversion for a few hours, and so it will be worth the investment of my time and money.

My review of Smokin' Seventeen is also available on this blog.

Sunday, 9 September 2012

The Pact

In 1998 a slim satirical novel by Ian McEwan won the Booker Prize for fiction.

Amsterdam (1998) tells the story of Clive Linley, a renowned composer, Vernon Halliday, a newspaper editor and Julian Garmony, the British Foreign Secretary who seeks to become Prime Minister. They meet at the funeral of Molly Lane, a woman who had been the lover of all three. The men are self-absorbed, ambitious and selfish, and Molly's death causes them think about their own mortality.  Vernon and Clive enter a pact to ensure they die with dignity should either be faced with a debilitating illness. They later have a falling out which leads to tragic consequences.

This novella showcases McEwan's writing talents and his ability to compress complex themes into a tight space. Here we explore friendship, grief, ambition, greed, morality and ethical decision making. His portrait of these unsympathetic men leaves the reader wanting more and filling in the gaps with their imagination. There is depth in his prose and his characters are interesting, albeit unlikable. There is a great twist in this satirical tale. While not as good as Enduring Love (1997) or Atonement (2001), McEwan's Amsterdam is a delight that can be enjoyed in one sitting.

My review of Atonement is also available on this blog.

Monday, 3 September 2012

An unexpected adventure

I first encountered J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit (1937) when I was a child and my father would read me chapters of the book in instalments. I was thrilled by this tale of dwarves, hobbits, dragons and elves and the fantasy world of Middle Earth. 

As the first of Peter Jackson's films of this novel is due out later this year I thought it was time to revisit this book and see whether it would still hold my childhood sense of wonder.

Bilbo Baggins is a hobbit - a creature who delights in good food and drink and making merry and staying within the confines of his community of the Shire. His wizard friend Gandalf arranges for Bilbo to partake on an adventure with a group of dwarves lead by Thorin Oakenshield. The dwarves are seeking to regain their treasure stolen by the dreaded dragon Smaug. Gandalf has assured the skeptical dwarves that Bilbo is a burglar and will be of great assistance in their quest. 

Bilbo would much rather be home and he reluctantly travels with the group through mines, forests and tunnels towards the Lonely Mountain to meet with Smaug. Along the way they battle goblins, wargs and giant spiders. Bilbo becomes separated from the group,  encounters Gollum and finds himself in possession of a most precious and powerful ring.

My memories of the book were of the battles and adventure. Reading this book again as an adult allowed me an opportunity to see more of the evolution of Bilbo from reluctant participant to unlikely hero. As he finds himself alone, he must draw on his strengths and become resilient. He finds creative solutions to problems, takes a leadership role because he has to and, in doing so, earns the respect and admiration of those around him.

Of course this is a children's book and as such some of the parts I enjoyed as a child (like the dwarves' songs) I did not enjoy so much this time around as I was eager for the story to move on to the action. 

As I read I kept trying to imagine how this would translate into film and, while I have no doubt about Jackson's genius (the Lord of the Rings films were brilliant), I am not sure how he will stretch this novel into three films. But I cannot wait to see them all and experience The Hobbit all over again.

Tuesday, 28 August 2012

Return to Pemberley

Pride and Prejudice (1813) by Jane Austen is one of my all-time favourite novels. The characters are so familiar and beloved to me as I have read the novel many times and viewed every possible adaptation.  As such I have sworn I would not go near any attempted sequel or 'inspired by' works which follow the Darcys after their marriage or have them fighting zombies.  

But then, late last year, renowned British crime writer P D James put me in a pickle when she published Death Comes to Pemberley (2011). Taking up the story six years after Elizabeth and Jane Bennet married their beaux, Elizabeth Darcy is preparing for a ball at Pemberley when her disgraced sister Lydia arrives screaming that there has been a murder on the estate. Darcy heads out into the night to retrieve the body from the woods. And so begins the mystery of who committed the crime. To say too much about the plot would spoil the story for others. 

The characters from the original novel are joined by some interesting new faces (and visitors from other Austen novels).  It was lovely to read about the odious Lady Catherine de Bourgh and I laughed out loud at Mr Collins' condescension. James writes of these characters in keeping with Austen's style. For example, when Mr Collins 'began by stating he could find no words to express his shock and abhorrence, and then proceeded to find a great number, few of them appropriate and none of them helpful' (p162). While I loved these parts, I must say I wish there were more of them and would have written the narrative differently to allow more interaction and witty banter between the peripheral characters and Mr and Mrs Darcy. 

I understand that in Austen's times there would not have been a detective, and that crimes were investigated by local magistrates. So there is no Poirot, Miss Marple or James' own Dalgleish, to find the clues and solve the crime. However, the mystery element is surprisingly weak given that James is such a master of the genre.

James is clearly an Austen fan. This is a homage in which she tries, and largely succeeds, to capture the language, wit and spirit of Jane Austen. The first twenty plus pages are a summary of Pride and Prejudice which was a helpful refresher but also a bit perplexing as I would imagine no one would approach this novel without having read (or at least viewed) the original story.  Where she fails, in my opinion, is in her characterisation of Elizabeth, who lacks the spunk and wit of the original character and fades into the background of this story. Elizabeth seems to have lost her lustre in marriage and motherhood - which is dreadfully disappointing.

It would be easy to be overly critical and bag this book as a failed attempt by James to inhabit the world of Austen. But as a lightweight holiday read I must say I enjoyed my return to Pemberley. I'd suggest that readers leave their assumptions behind and just take pleasure in the book for what it is.

Monday, 27 August 2012

You win or you die

George R. R. Martin's epic series 'A Song of Ice and Fire' begins with his 1996 bestseller A Game of Thrones, popularised by the recent HBO series of the same name. While I have seen the first two seasons of the show, reading the first novel was an exciting adventure and my expectations of the novel were exceeded as soon as I began Martin's incredible book.

Winter is coming. Summer has lasted many years and the cold winds signal a shift that will bring years of chill to the Seven Kingdoms that make up Westeros, the setting for A Game of Thrones. A fantasy of epic proportions, this story features violence, sex, power, intrigue, tyranny, loyalty, betrayal and drama, with a good dose of humour thrown in.

The writing is rich and literary, and Martin is able to successfully inhabit the voice of each of the characters. From a seven-year old boy, to a teenage girl, to an elderly man - Martin has authentically created their world and enabled the story to be told in third person from the perspective of various characters: Eddard 'Ned' Stark; Bran Stark; Catelyn Stark; Sansa Stark; Arya Stark; Jon Snow; Tyrion Lannister; and Daenerys Targaryen. There are other brilliant characters to love or hate: Cersei and Jaime Lannister;  King Robert Baratheon; Joffrey Baratheon; Viserys Targaryen; Lysa Tully; Ser Jorah Mormont; Theon Greyjoy; Hodor; Ser Petyr Balish; Benjen Stark; Khal Drago, and many more.  Tyrion Lannister is clearly a favourite of mine and he stands out among the crowd despite his diminutive stature.

The saga is complex, alternating between different locations across diverse landscapes. Starting at Winterfell, the Stark kingdom in the North, moving to the frigid Wall, the richness of Kings Landing and across the Narrow Sea to the free cities of Essos. The action moves along at a cracking pace and the novel is definitely a page-turner for all of its over 800 pages.

I enjoy watching fantasy but have never been a big fan of reading this genre. But Martin changed this for me, as he has created an intelligent, gripping saga which draws the reader in. At times the shift in point of view was bothersome as just as I was engrossed in someone's story I was transported to someone else's tale and had to wait until the character I wanted to follow to reappear. But I got used to this style and I still admire Martin's ability to carry the story along using these very different characters to describe the action.

The 'Song of Fire and Ice' series was clearly ripe for filming and I am so glad it has been made into a series by HBO. The first season (2011) covers the action in A Game of Thrones and is an extraordinary adaptation of the book. Clearly all involved in the project have great admiration for the source material. The production is classy with no expense spared to create sets of the scale and gradure needed to depict the settings of the novel. The casts is uniformly excellent with brilliant performances all around.

I have since watched the second season (2012) and look forward to reading the next two books in the series - A Clash of Kings (1999) and A Storm of Swords (2000) before the third season airs in early 2013.

Sunday, 26 August 2012

Retelling an old tale

Philip Pullman, best known as author of the His Dark Materials trilogy, contributed to the Canongate Myth series with his 2010 novella The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ. The story is a retelling of the life of Jesus Christ with a twist - in this tale Jesus has a twin brother named Christ.

The two brothers are raised by Mary and Joseph and the events in their lives parallel the story commonly known from the Bible, starting with the nativity through to the passion of Christ. Jesus was the favourite son and Christ was always second-best. Sibling rivalry in childhood gives way to distinct differences of opinion as the men age. Jesus is portrayed as the good man with a moral core and Christ wants to bring about organised religion under a centralised, hierarchical church. Christ watches from the wings and, as his brother gains followers, creates a record of Jesus' ministry allowing Christ to merge with Jesus.

When first published the novel generated a lot of controversy, largely because Pullman is a well-known atheist and he challenges the story of the life of Christ. But I suspect that few protesters read the book as its contents are hardly worth protesting over. Aside from the twin twist, the story is not anti-Christian at all. In fact the central message I took away from the tale is that Christ had a lot of good, well-meaning ideas which are better left outside organised religion.

Pullman has clearly done his research and tells his revised version of events in an interesting way, but the story lacked something for me and was a bit of a disappointment. I kept waiting for something to happen which never did. I thoroughly enjoyed His Dark Materials and had expected Pullman's impressive story-telling abilities to be applied to this tale and anticipated that this would be more of a satire. While there were some compelling passages and clever ideas present, I found the novel lacked wit and was ultimately quite boring. Pullman is an extraordinarily gifted writer and I do look forward to his next endeavour.

Mayhem in Panem

Mockingjay (2010) is the final instalment of The Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins. The story follows on from the end of the previous book and takes the tale into a new realm, away from the manufactured arena of the games and into a real battle for survival for all citizens of Panem.

Note: Potential spoilers ahead for those that have not read the previous books in the series.

War has broken out, with the rebels in the Districts rising up to counter the oppressive Capitol. Katniss Everdeen, the champion of the Hunger Games, has been rescued by the rebels and becomes a symbol of the uprising - their Mockingjay. Desperate to kill President Snow, who has caused her such heartache and suffering, Katniss leads a small band of warriors deep into the Capitol.

This book was frustrating in parts because of Katniss. It seemed like she was always in a hospital bed somewhere recovering from injuries, taking medications to help her cope, and trying to stay emotionally removed from what was happening around her. While it is understandable that she is suffering from post-traumatic stress, she comes across as weak and it makes for a boring read when the protagonist is apathetic. Katniss' lack of emotion sucks some of the life out of the story, particularly  in terms of her romantic triangle with Peeta and Gale. As a symbol of a revolution, she could have been more charismatic.

If she had more time to write and wasn't in such a rush to capitalise on the success of the first two books, Collins could have strengthened this story and made it more compelling. She could have opted for a bolder move, and perhaps changed from first person narrative to writing from other people's perspectives. With Katniss suffering so greatly from her time in the arena, other characters could have provided insight and moved the story along. Collins should also have taken more time to flesh out this story as significant events are mentioned in passing and we are not allowed to feel how Katniss and other characters react to these events. The ending is not fairy-tale happy, which was fitting for such a dystopian story. But it could have been better executed as the resolution felt extremely rushed.

Overall, I enjoyed this trilogy despite its flaws and I particularly liked the direction this story moved in. It is a great holiday read, and a story that makes you want to read on and find out what happens to the characters.

See also my reviews of the other books in this trilogy: The Hunger Games and Catching Fire.

The fire ignites

Catching Fire (2009) is the second book in The Hunger Games trilogy. The story begins where the first book ends, and this review may contain spoilers for people who have not read the first two books in the series...

Katniss Everdeen, the heroine at the heart of the story, returns home to District 12 after her victory in the arena to find that she and her family have been moved to the Victors' Village. As she tries to settle into her new environment, she struggles with her feelings towards Gale and Peeta.

On the eve of commencing a 'Victory Tour' of the districts, President Snow visits Katniss and warns her that her actions in the arena have sparked unrest in the districts. He tells her that she must prove her love for Peeta in the arena was genuine and use the tour to quash any rebellion. But movement has begun in the districts and Panem's security forces have rolled in. President Snow announces the 75th Hunger Games will be the Quarter Quell in which all victors of past games will be in the reaping meaning Katniss may need to go back into the arena.

As the second book in the trilogy, Catching Fire is a bit of a bridging story leading up to the conclusion in Mockingjay (2010). In some aspects it is a bit of a repeat of aspects of the first story, but new characters are introduced which add to the tale. The pace is slow at the start, but becomes picks up as the action quickens in the arena. It is predictable in parts but overall quite enjoyable.

Katniss remains an interesting heroine. She is deeply flawed, trying to understand herself and her place in this dysfunctional world.  This novel also allows us to learn more about Haymitch, Peeta and Gale, which gives them greater depth and fleshes out their backstories.

The book ends in a cliffhanger which may frustrate readers who do not have the third volume handy. My advice is to have Mockingjay close by to start as soon as you finish Catching Fire.

See also my reviews of the other books in this trilogy: The Hunger Games and Mockingjay.

Thursday, 10 May 2012

Fighting for their lives (updated)

The Hunger Games (2008) by Suzanne Collins is extremely popular at the moment due to the recent release of a film based on the book. I knew little about the book before I read it, except that it was written for young adults, it was set in a dystopian future, and it was the subject of a major motion picture. But my curiousity and love of dystopian sci-fi lead me to put the trilogy on my e-reader and I devoured the story over a couple of train trips during my travels.

Sixteen year old Katniss Everdeen lives with her mother and sister in District 12 of the post-apocolyptic Panem. She spends her days illegally hunting with her friend Gale, trying to gather enough food for their families to survive. Each year the Hunger Games are held, in which a girl and a boy from each of the twelve districts are chosen by lottery to participate. These games are a televised battle to the death and serve as a reminder to the people of the Districts not to attempt rebellion against the Capitol.

Katniss becomes the 'tribute' from District 12 and must fight to survive in the arena against 23 other children, in a physically and psychologically brutal entertainment for the elite in the Capitol. Told by Katniss in the first person, the novel explores her  life at home, her preparation and training for the Games, and her time in the arena. To say more would spoil the story...

There are a number of interesting minor characters who have important roles to play: Katniss' mentor, Haymitch Abernathy, a former Games winner from District 12; Rue, the tribute from District 11; Effie Trinket, the escort for tributes from District 12; Cinna, Katniss' stylist and friend; and Caesar Flickman, the host of the Hunger Games.

While the novel is far from literary it is a page-turner that will appeal to the young adult market to whom it is aimed (and to the young-at-heart). Collins describes the violence and action in a compelling way and creates an interesting heroine in Katniss. Less convincing is her depiction of the love-triangle, but it will generate interest for younger readers.

Collins has created a fascinating universe in Panem which will be explored further in the two other novels of this trilogy: Catching Fire (2009) and Mockingjay (2010). I have almost finished reading Catching Fire and thoroughly enjoying my time in Collins' imaginary world.

The Hunger Games (2012) film stars the talented Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss, Liam Hemsworth, Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks, Josh Hutcherson, Stanley Tucci, Lenny Kravitz and Donald Sutherland. It was directed by Gary Ross and has set many box office records. I have yet to see the film but will update this blog with my thoughts once I have seen it.

Update: 25 August 2012

I have now seen the film of The Hunger Games and I have mixed feelings about it. For the most part I enjoyed it, but I felt that it was somewhat watered down, perhaps to lower the rating and allow for a bigger audience. This made the picture a lot slower and less engrossing than the book. The viewer never really gets the sense of Katniss' horror and distress, losing much of the psychological impact and immediacy of the story. There were some minor differences between the book and the film which were puzzling and distracting. Some  I imagine were made to cut out minor characters and perhaps speed up the narrative, but others were unnecessary and may have an impact in later films. The casting was good, particularly Jennifer Lawrence, who is a wonderful actress. I look forward to the next installment of the film franchise, but wish it were stronger and followed the book more closely.

See also my reviews of the other books in this trilogy: Catching Fire; and Mockingjay.

In need of a tailor, a soldier and a spy

Paul Harding won the Pulitzer Prize for Literature in 2010 for his debut novel Tinkers. The quote snipets on the cover tell me that this book is 'remarkable', 'hypnotic', 'beautifully realised', 'magical' and that I should 'prepare to be seduced'. So with this in mind, I commenced reading this compact tale about a dying man's reflection on life.

George Washington Crosby is dying and over the course of his last eight days of life he drifts in and out of consciousness to interact with the loved ones at his bedside. Crosby is a repairer of clocks, the son of tinker/salesman Howard. Crosby's disjointed memories take him back to think about his dad. This is not a chronological story, but rather ebbs and flows like memory, with shifting points of view.

There are moments of real tenderness and humour in Tinkers. I particularly enjoyed the novel when it shifted to Howard during his days as a travelling salesman in Maine in the 1920s. He meets interesting characters along the way, including a hermit with a sore tooth whom Howard assists.

Harding's novel had been rejected by many publishers before being released, and I can see why. The high-falutin language screams 'literary' but the novel lacks a compelling story. While some passages are lyrical and poetic, the pace is so slow that it is difficult to engage with the storyline. In many ways it seems like a collection of poetic passeges woven together with a loose plot as an afterthought. It may have been better as a short story or a series of vignettes.

Since completing the book I have read other reviews and it seems to have a polarising effect on readers: they either love it or hate it. I was prepared to be seduced, mesmerised by Harding's hypnotic tale but I am afraid the book made no solid impact on me at all. Perhaps the'deep and meaningful' aspects of the novel were lost on me, but I felt it was rather pretentious. I would not rush out to read Harding's next novel, but I would be interested in his poetry.

Monday, 19 March 2012

Life and death in Palm Island

On 19 November 2004 an Aboriginal man, Cameron Domadgee, died in police custody on Palm Island, off the coast of Townsville. He had been arrested an hour earlier for allegedly swearing at white police officer, Chris Hurley. Domadgee's death, the police investigation into his death, and the coronial inquest that followed divided the Palm Island community and sent shockwaves rippling throughout Australia. These events are documented in Chloe Hooper's The Tall Man (2008).

Hooper became involved in the story when she was invited to Palm Island by the Domadgee family's pro bono lawyer. For the next few years she stuck with the story, despite postponements and delays. She became close to the Domadgee family and tried to understand what life is like for Aboriginals and caucasians on Palm Island.

The portrait painted of Aboriginal life is bleak - alcoholism, domestic violence, child abuse, hopelessness, and despair. But Hooper also finds joy, a connection with nature, and a strong sense of community.

Hooper's book reminds me of Capote's In Cold Blood in the way she tells a true story with a novelists ability. I had previously read her debut novel A Child's True Book of Crime (2002) and enjoyed her writing style and storytelling ability.

There is little doubt that Hooper blames Hurley for Domadgee's death. She had tried repeatedly to reach out to Hurley for his side of the story but was refused. When the evidence is presented of Domadgee's horrific injuries, Hurley clearly has a lot to answer for. Although he was cleared in criminal court of actually beating Domadgee to death, Hurley's negligent behaviour and that of the Queensland police union raises a lot of questions.

Hooper won a Walkely award for her article in The Monthly on the same subject.

Note: I am currently on holidays travelling overland across South America. This book is the first ebook I have read, largely on buses through the Andes.

Monday, 30 January 2012

A Cautionary Tale

As I have written before on this blog, my first Margaret Atwood experience was reading her 1985 novel The Handmaid’s Tale in the early 1990s at University. The book appealed to me on many levels – as a work of science fiction, a dystopian novel and as a feminist tome critiquing gender stereotypes. Over the past twenty years I have read it four times, each time gaining more from the novel and a greater appreciation of Atwood’s writing talents.

Set in the Republic of Gilead in the not too distant future, the patriarchal society is dominated by chauvinism and racism. A revolution occurred which reordered society to be militarized and repressive. Society is divided along gender lines with men classified into four groups: Commanders (ruling class), Angels (soldiers), Guardians (workers) and Eyes (intelligence agency). Women are also grouped: Wives and Daughters (ruling class), Handmaids (child bearers for the ruling class), Aunts (who train the Handmaids), Marthas (domestic servants), Econowives (wives of Guardians).

To counter the declining reproduction of the ruling classes, some fertile women are selected to be part of a group of Handmaids who serve as breeders for the wealthy.  These women mate with the men of the household in a monthly ritual known as “the Ceremony” in an effort to conceive. They have no rights and are dressed in conservative red uniforms.

The novel is told in the first person by Offred, a concubine of “the Commander”, who recalls her life before the revolution and how she became a Handmaid.  The Commander holds a high rank in Gilead and his wife, Serena Joy, is a former televangelist. The Commander can access contraband such as cosmetics, which he provides to Offred, plays Scrabble with her and meets with her outside the monthly Ceremony – putting her at terrible risk. Offred also becomes involved with Nick, the Commander’s driver, at the behest of Serena Joy.

Atwood’s writing is lyrical and rich. She uses purposeful language so well (with her vast vocabulary) that the reader is drawn in to the world she has created. The complex themes she explores linger with the reader and I found they became more thought provoking on second and third read. Part cautionary tale and part commentary on existing repressive regimes, this is speculative portrayal of a bleak world I do not want to live in.

The Handmaid’s Tale won numerous accolades including the Governor General’s Award, the Arthur C Clarke Award and was nominated for the Booker Prize in 1986. It was made into a film in 1990 directed by Volker Schlondorff, staring Natasha Richardson (Offred), Robert Duvall (The Commander), Faye Dunaway (Serena Joy), and Aidan Quinn (Nick) with a screenplay by Harold Pinter.

My review of Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace (1996) is also available on this blog.

Thursday, 19 January 2012

Memories of a dangerous time

A few months ago I had not heard of Australian writer Anna Funder. Then, in October 2011, I read her extraordinary non-fiction account of life in East Germany, Stasiland. I fell in love with her writing style and her investigative abilities and became engrossed in her book. When I was finished I was keen to read more of her work, and fortunately she had just released her first novel, All That I Am (2011). Having read this wonderful novel I can confirm that Funder is now among my favourite novelists.

All That I Am is a complex literary work which interweaves numerous timeframes, characters and locations. But these complexities make for a rewarding read in this fictionalised account of what happened to German playright Ernst Toller, activist Dora Fabian, journalist Hans Weseman and his photographer wife Ruth in the lead up to the second World War.

The story begins as a reflection from the elderly Ruth, now living alone with declining health in Sydney. Ruth receives a package in the post containing some writings of Ernst Toller which cause her to remember her early life in Germany and the rise of the Nazis. Told in alternative narratives from Ruth in modern day Sydney and Toller in 1930s New York City, the reader gets a sense of the fear growing in Germany as neighbours became spies for the Fuhrer. No one was safe.

The story picks up pace during the second part set in London during the 1930s, where Ruth and a group of German expats tried to sound a warning to the English of what was happening back home under Hitler. They smuggled news from home, distributed leaflets about the plight of the Jews and raised funds to support their exiled colleagues. All the time they were followed by the Gestapo working in London.

Funder knew Ruth and learned much of the story from her. She then built on her knowledge with her research skills and she pieced together the lives of these young people. As Funder explains, she had the bones on which to build this compelling tale.

Whenever I find a writer I love I tend to quickly devour all of their works. Unfortunately Funder has no back catelogue on which I can draw, but I do hope she is earnestly at work on her next novel.

My review of Stasiland is also available on this blog.