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

Sunday, November 27, 2011

BOOK REVIEW: The Romantic by Kate Holden

The Romantic by Kate Holden surely qualifies as one of the least romantic books I have ever read. There are certainly large amounts of sex, but it is accompanied by the kind of raw emotional revelation that makes you want to avert your eyes. It’s been said “Writing is easy; all you do is open a vein and bleed onto the page” (who said it does not appear to be quite clear) and Kate Holden is clearly a writer who takes this dictum to heart.
The Romantic is the long awaited follow-up to Holden’s memoir of her descent into drug addiction and prostitution, In My Skin. Now clean, this new book chronicles her attempts to rediscover some sense of normality in her relationships by spending time in Italy. In the process, she seems to fall into bed with a vast number of men. She describes sex several times as a “debased currency” – although she no longer trades it for money, she is still trying to earn affection, security and love.
It would be easy for The Romantic to become self-indulgent and some readers may believe that it does. My own view is that it is saved by Holden’s unflinching honesty, which was also a feature of In My Skin. At times you feel that you want to reach into the book and shake her, as she allows herself to be manipulated by yet another unreliable man, but you never lose sympathy with her. It’s the sense that she is trying to move on but keeps falling back into bad habits that becomes frustrating after a while.
The book is elegantly written, in the third person. It’s an interesting choice that initially surprised me, expecting as I was a memoir. But the book is very much an internal examination of the writer’s mind and perhaps was only possible through such a distancing mechanism. Or perhaps Holden felt self-conscious describing sex in such detail using the first person. Either way, it’s easy at times to forget you are reading a memoir, albeit a lightly fictionalised one.
I found the book somewhat depressing, although it ended on an upbeat note. If any readers have delusions left about the so-called “glamour” of prostitution, this book will destroy them utterly. Seeing how it affected Holden and the way that she interacts with people, particularly men, made me very sad. As she gropes her way back towards some sense of ‘normality’ it is also disheartening to see the way men reacted when she told them about her past. After years of saying yes over and over again she found it almost impossible to say no, and it seems that there were plenty of people willing to take advantage of that.
Ultimately, In My Skin  is a book about the redemption of Holden’s body, while The Romantic is about the rebuilding of her shattered psyche. For all that, it’s a different book and readers who enjoyed the first will not necessarily enjoy the second. A relatively high tolerance for introspection and self-analysis is required, as well as a tolerance for high levels of sexual content. For all that, those with an interest in human relationships will relate to Holden’s honesty in laying her emotional life open on the page. I look forward with interest to whatever she writes next.

Friday, November 11, 2011

BOOK REVIEW: The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating by Elizabeth Tova Bailey

When I picked up The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating I vaguely remembered reading a review at some point. I expected one of those books that purport to be about one thing, while really being about something else, on a deep metaphorical level. Surely the book couldn’t just be about snails – could it?
I was wrong – this book is purely and simply about snails. It is about one snail in particular, who lived in a pot of violets and then in a glass terrarium by Elizabeth Tova Bailey’s bed. She was suffering through a strange and serious illness, but developed an interest in snail biology, literature and history, and her research forms the core of the book. If you have ever wondered about the reproductive habits of the snail, this is the book for you.
Tova Bailey’s illness plays a peripheral role. It is perhaps too peripheral, for those hoping for a Hollywood redemption-through-snail-watching ending. I found myself hoping for Tova Bailey’s recovery, but this is a book that avoids the easy answers. In an elegant and restrained postscript, Tova Bailey gives some more background to her situation, but as I said this book really is all about the snail. That’s not to say there is no self-reflection, but it is done sparingly. A book such as this could easily become self-indulgent and it is to Tova Bailey’s great credit that she steers the opposite course. It is left to the reader to ponder, after closing the book, the questions it raises.
In some ways, the book itself resembles the snail that it features. The attraction of the story is not immediately obvious, and some may dismiss it out of hand. But slowing down and spending some time to try to understand the book, at its snails pace, has unexpected rewards. It won’t be for everyone but this quiet meditation will appeal to many who appreciate thoughtful and elegant writing.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

BOOK REVIEW: 1222 by Anne Holt

Every so often you come across a book that is so astoundingly, brilliantly good, you want to shout it from the rooftops. That’s one of the reasons I started this blog. Still, while I’ve reviewed many books I enjoyed, there have been  very few that have made me want to rush out and buy copies for all my friends so that they don’t miss out.
1222 by Anne Holt is the latest book I’ve fallen in love with, and it’s fair to say I’m head over heels. So this review may resemble the gushing praise of a new lover rather than a more rational dissection, but what’s life without a mad crush here and there?
The set-up grabs your attention from the start. A train carrying  a mysterious locked carriage derails high in the Norwegian mountains. The passengers are rescued and taken to an isolated mountain hotel. As the storm rages outside, and snowdrifts build up against the walls, one of the passengers is murdered. With no contact with the outside world, it falls to a reluctant Hanne Wilhelmson, former police detective, to find the killer.
Hanne is a character so three-dimensional  it’s hard to believe she’s fictional. Paralysed from the waist down, she shies away from human contact and has built defences thicker than the snow outside. Her instincts are to avoid becoming involved, but as she grows to know her fellow passengers her isolation becomes harder to maintain.
Setting and characters are vividly painted, and the plot is beyond gripping. This is a book to keep you awake long past your bedtime. It’s in the best tradition of the Agatha Christie whodunit, but with the pace of Dan Brown and the topicality of the best thriller writers. In the end I can only say in this review what I have been saying to friends, family and colleagues – you have to read this book.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

BOOK REVIEW: Architects of Tomorrow Volume 1 by William Van Winkle

Back when my family first encountered the excitement of dial-up internet, I took up knitting. This was back when loading a single website could take five full minutes or more. Starting at the little eggtimer was just as frustrating then as it is now, so knitting at least kept me busy in those interminable pauses.
I was thinking those early days as I read Architects of Tomorrow by William Van Winkle. Some of the interviews collected in the book date back to that period, while others are more recent. The thing that they have in common is that all of the interviewees are in one way or another, pioneers in the technology field. From gaming to processors to personal computers to services such as Smashwords, these were people with a vision of where technology would take us. One thing I particularly like in the book is that Van Winkle has gone back to the interviewees in the past year, asking them which of their predictions have come true and what their new vision for the future is, given the exponential speed at which technology is now developing. While it’s a form of guessing game, it is made up of educated guesses by some of the smartest minds in the business, so all of their comments are well worth reading.
As a book, I think the collection holds up well. I’m not a reader of CPU Magazine, where the articles originally appeared, and I’m fairly sure I don’t fall into the target readership either. Some of the interviews were a little heavy on the technical details or of limited interest to the general reader. However, Van Winkle’s interviewing style is full of enthusiasm and he doesn’t presume a great deal of technical knowledge. I do think that there were perhaps too many interviews in the collection – as a book, I think it may have been more satisfying if some of the weaker interviews were cut out.
On the whole, I enjoyed reading this book, and I’ll probably buy Volume 2 as it comes out – perhaps not to read cover to cover as a whole, but to dip into now and again. Many people ask “What’ll they think of next?” and it’s the interviewees in Architects of Tomorrow who are most likely to have the answers.

Friday, October 7, 2011

A few thoughts on subscriptions

We've just renewed our weekend subscription to The Age newspaper. We suffered through a couple of weekends without a newspaper (yes, #firstworldproblems, I know), and it got me thinking about subscriptions in general.

I read the newspaper pretty much cover to cover, every weekend (whether this is a productive use of time is an altogether different question!). I do that because it's delivered to my house.

I've also been reading the Words With Jam e-magazine lately, which is quite fun. Problem is, every time I want to download it I need to log onto Smashwords, haul out my credit card, and plug the eReader into the computer. Yes, all you people with Kindles can be smug now. But the point is, it takes effort on my part. You know what I would love? For the magazine to be delivered to my inbox as an email attachment, for me to download whenever I'm ready. I'd happily pay a year's subscription up front.

Well, it looks like I'm not the only one thinking along these lines. I've just discovered The premise? An ebook a month, delivered to your inbox in your preferred format. I'm signing up right now. I could do with some variation in my reading diet, and thing is, if the book is there, I'll read it. Could lead to some interesting blog posts if nothing else (is it bad for an ereader to throw it across the room?)

I will report back on the great subscription experiment, if I manage to tear myself away from my newspaper. And if anyone out there knows of any other good subscriptions (crime fiction magazines, especially) do let me know!

Saturday, October 1, 2011

BOOK REVIEW: Bird Cloud: A memoir by Annie Proulx

E-readers aside, I can be a bit old-fashioned when it comes to books. You see, I like a plot. It doesn’t matter if it’s tenuous, implausible or just flat out incomprehensible, but heaven save me from a book where nothing happens.
I am sorry to report that Annie Proulx’s Bird Cloud – A memoir is such a book. Ostensibly the story of the building of her dream house on a property called Bird Cloud, the back cover promises history, geology, anthropology and more.
Here’s  a summary of what happens in the book. Proulx organises the building of a house. A number of minor issues are overcome. She moves in and spends a large number of pages describing the birds that live on the property. The grand tragic finale? She can’t live on the property in winter because it gets snowed in. I needed a whole box of tissues for that one.
If that sounds a little self-indulgent as the premise for the book, that’s probably correct. Proulx talks more than once about the house going way over budget, and I have the sneaking suspicion that this book was intended to help recoup some of the cost. Or perhaps I am being unfair and the book  reflects the fact that dramas such as the polishing of the floor in the wrong colour loomed very large for Proulx. Of course, that doesn’t help a reader much. I am interested in history, geology, and other subjects promised by the back cover and barely touched on by the book. I am not interested in the squabbles between Proulx’s architect and her builder. In this I suspect I am probably not alone.
The book is of course lyrically written, as you would expect from such a renowned writer. This didn’t stop me from skipping large chunks towards the end. I would have skipped to the part where something happened, except that I got to the end and found that part didn’t exist. To make things more frustrating, Proulx drops dark hints in the early chapters about catastrophes to follow – “little-did-I-know” type statements. I can only assume she was referring to what I would characterise as minor mishaps during construction. Either that, or my copy had some important pages missing.
Without Proulx’s name I seriously doubt this book would have been published. As a personal diary of an important time in the writer’s life, it makes sense. As a cottage history of a particular piece of land, it may be interesting to people who live nearby. As a reference source for people thinking of building an architect-designed dream home in the middle of nowhere – well, perhaps not. Unfortunately, I can only recommend this book to the general public if they are in need of a soporific or so post-modern they have no need of plot. As you can see, I don’t fall into either category.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Part 2: The Emperor’s Edge and self-publishing

I just couldn’t let it go. Every possible argument for and against self-publishing has already been made time and time again, but I can’t resist weighing in with a few thoughts. If you can’t take it anymore, you have my blessing to go and watch scantily-clad footballers wives tread the blue carpet at the Brownlow Medal. Although listening to the commentary for five minutes made me want to drive a fork into my ear. Should you decide to stay, I can at least promise something slightly more coherent.
I bought The Emperor’s Edge because I was going on a long plane journey and needed books. I can get a through a lot of books in 24 hours travel and so I didn’t want to pay too much for each. To be honest, I opened up Smashwords and sat there bamboozled for a good ten minutes, wondering where to turn. The Emperor’s Edge happened to be the current no. 1 so I bought it on the principle that that many people can’t be wrong.
As you can see from my previous review, I didn’t regret my purchasing decision. For a few dollars I was more than happy with the experience. However, this post is really about asking – what if The Emperor’s Edge  had been traditionally published? From a readers’ perspective, what would be different?
For a start, I probably wouldn’t have been able to download it at all because of territorial restrictions. As it was only published in 2010, I doubt we would have an eBook version accessible in Australia yet. You can find my exasperated rant on that subject here.
Next question – do I think The Emperor’s Edge  would have sold as well if traditionally published and traditionally priced? There’s no answer to that that doesn’t involve a lot of guesswork. From my point of view, I’ve read traditionally published books that were arguably better written and didn’t sell, and traditionally published books that were far worse and sold like hotcakes. Further than that I can’t say.
Do I think The Emperor’s Edge  could have benefited from more stringent editing? Perhaps. Some of the flaws I noted in my review could have been fixed by a good editor. That said, anyone with a “name” these days doesn’t seem to get edited at all – I’ve stopped buying Janet Evanovich altogether for that reason. To be fair, when I think about The Emperor’s Edge, I am thinking of what a really good or brilliant editor could have done for it, and those are hard to find. The book seems to have had a competent edit and is by no means a failure in that department.
The upshot? We can play guessing games all we want, but ultimately each book has to be judged on its merits. Comparing The Emperor’s Edge with a hypothetical traditionally published version doesn’t get us much further in the debate. All I can say is that as a reader, I was happy with the book I bought, and the price I paid for it. To steal a cliché from the footballers’ handbook, at the end of the day, that’s what really matters.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

The Emperor’s Edge by Lindsay Buroker (subtitle: a high fantasy mystery in an era of steam) - Part 1

I was going to use this blog post to talk about self-publishing, because The Emperor’s Edge happens to be the first self-published book I have read.
But really, who cares?            
Ultimately, like all books, self-published books should be judged on their merits. I can’t resist talking a little bit about self-publishing in Part 2 of this post, but I’ll try and be fair to Lindsay Buroker by concentrating first and most importantly on the book itself.
A word of warning  - the subtitle of The Emperor’s Edge is “a high fantasy mystery in an era of steam.” As a mystery reader myself, I think calling it a mystery is probably mistaken, and I doubt this book would appeal to mystery fans. Fantasy and steam are the two key words here.
The book opens with Corporal Amaranthe Lokdon (an “enforcer” or police officer) being called to the scene of a fire. We learn that in the world of the book women dominate business, but are excluded from other roles, and Amaranthe’s role as the first female enforcer has caused some friction. The fire kicks of a series of events that forces Amaranthe to go on the run and assemble a group of misfits on a mission to save the emperor.
In terms of plot, the book is well-paced but the plot itself seems underdeveloped in places. It is possible that Buroker has left some aspects to be developed further in a sequel or series, but there are a few too many unexplained incidences for my liking.
Rather than plot, the strength of this book is its characters. A more hard-nosed reviewer would probably say that they lack originality. But they are just so damn likeable! Amaranthe is a painfully honest school-prefect type at the beginning of the book, but she gradually changes as she discovers that people in authority aren’t always right. She’s a nerd and a dag in the best way, someone who stubbornly refuses to compromise her values. Unlike too many fantasy novels, she is not beautiful, or endowed with special strengths. As a character I found her incredibly endearing. The other characters are less well fleshed out, and many of Amaranthe’s team appear to be there primarily for comic relief. However, they redeem themselves by being laugh-out-loud funny, The hunky male-model type without much of a brain is comic gold.
The other important component of a book such as this is the setting. Buroker does a relatively good job of setting the scene gradually, without dumping too much world-building information onto the reader. However as a whole it somehow failed to convince me. Perhaps it is because I haven’t really engaged with t he steampunk movement, but to me this felt a lot like standard fantasy with added steam. One issue that left me uncomfortable was the use of magic in a book that is supposed to be based on the pseudo-scientific principles of steampunk. Although it was dressed up as “mental sciences” it seemed primarily there in order to facilitate certain elements of the plot. I think it would have been a better book if Buroker had been able to devise ways to move the story forward without this additional element to confuse matters.
So ultimately, would I recommend this book? I have read some truly bad (traditionally published) fantasy in my time and this was certainly not in that category. It was an enjoyable read and I would like to spend more time with the characters and see how Buroker fleshes out their world. If there is a sequel, I will probably buy it. It’s not in my list of top books of all time, but fo the price of a cup of coffee I spent an entertaining few hours.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

BOOK REVIEW: Your Inner Fish by Neil Shubin

People who are passionate about their subject tend to fall into two categories. There are those who will bore you at length on such subjects as the taxonomy of sponges or the structure of the inner ear. Then there are those whose passion is matched by an ability to communicate, who will make you understand why the taxonomy of sponges or the structure of the inner ear are actually amazing and fascinating subjects.
Neil Shubin covers both those subjects and more in his book Your Inner Fish. Shubin definitely falls into the latter camp of interesting experts – he refers several times to his teaching work and in the book you feel that you are being gently led through the subject by an excellent teacher. Shubin’s passion is using both fossils and DNA to assess what humans share with other forms of life. He refers not just to inner fish but inner flies, inner chickens and inner skates, among others. Like the best teachers, he has the ability to simplify difficult concepts without talking down to his readers. The book is suited to a general readership and no prior knowledge of the field is assumed. In fact, you have the sense that Shubin is particularly targeting those people who might have thought the subject boring. From genes called “sonic hedgehog” to an exploration of why tadpoles hiccup, Shubin is never less than engaging, and his enthusiasm for the subject shines through. In an era when science and in particular genetic experiments on animals have become the subject of a thousand horror films, it is refreshing to find someone who talks unashamedly of his love for science and his joy of living in an “age of discovery.” By the end of the book it is almost impossible not to share his wonder at “finding the basis for our humanity…nestled inside some of the most humble creatures that have ever lived on our planet.” Shubin should be congratulated on translating his passion into a readable and fascinating book.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

BOOK REVIEW: Trick or Treatment by Simon Singh and Professor Edzard Ernst

I added this book to my “to-read” list upon hearing that as a result of its publication, the authors had been sued by the British Chiropractic Association.* My reasoning went something like: defamation case = scandal = juicy secrets. As it turned out, while the book is not at all dry, “juicy” is probably a description that the authors would scorn. In fact they clearly pride themselves on the meticulous research that went into their examination of alternative medicines.
Trick or Treatment looks at the evidence for or against five of the main streams of alternative medicine, being homeopathy, chiropractic therapy, herbal medicine and acupuncture. It also examines the history of evidence-based medical treatment and its applicability to “alternative” forms of medical treatment.
Simon Singh, one of the authors, works as a science journalist, and I expect the books readability is largely his work. In contrast, Ernst is a doctor with a great deal of experience in natural therapies, and I suspect the level of scientific rigour brought to bear is a testament to his influence. You can’t help but feel that the authors also brought a pre-existing level of scepticism to the project, but perhaps this is necessary for a scientific and objective enquiry.
The general thesis of the book is that if alternative medicines were proven to work, they would have been adopted by the medical establishment and ceased to be “alternative.” While this could be debated, it is difficult to refute the number of studies cited by the authors, almost all of which show no or dubious benefit to the patient by alternative therapies. The book also provides an interesting window into the field of medical ethics, particularly in its examination of the ethics of exploiting the placebo effect (if a placebo makes people feel better without side effects, should doctors prescribe placebos?) The authors’ reasoning is too detailed to go into here but also makes sense to a layman, as is characteristic of the rest of the book.
So his is clearly an interesting and informative book – but is it useful? I think so, with some caveats. It is unlikely to change the mind of those who are already convinced of the benefits of alternative therapies. They are unlikely to accept the contention that the results of these therapies can be “measured” and compared with any other treatment. However, for those who are unconvinced one way or another, the book does provide a clear summary of the current state of medical knowledge. It even has an exceedingly useful index listing the therapies they were unable to cover in detail and outlining the main points of any research done in relation to them. Where the evidence is insufficient to conclude either that a therapy is effective or ineffective, the authors say this clearly.
Trick or Treatment is certainly a very blunt book and pulls no punches where a therapy is not supported by evidence or could potentially harm a patient. They are particularly critical of chiropractors as an organisation, hence no doubt the court case. The book concludes by suggesting that if alternative medicines carry some of the risks of conventional treatment, they should be regulated to the same standard and the same warning labels should apply. It’s difficult to see this happening if alternative treatments remain on the fringe, but if they do move into the mainstream (for example by obtaining government funding) it may yet come to pass. In that case it would remain to be seen whether a warning label stating “this product has been shown to have little or no effect” would be detrimental to the alternative medicine industry, or whether its follows continue to believe in its intangible, immeasurable and probably illusionary benefits.
* Wikipedia tells me that Singh was actually sued over a column, not over this book. I expect the content was similar though.

Friday, August 5, 2011

How I learned to read without paper

Today I am interrupting normal transmission to tell you how much I love If you are the kind of person who goes to bed clutching a paper book to your chest, feel free to leave now. This post is for those people who have discovered that with an eReader you can carry a hundred books in your pocket, and have never looked back.
Firstly, you have to understand that in the world of eReaders I am doubly disadvantaged. Firstly, I have a Sony Reader, which reads ePub format. It was a deliberate choice not to get an Amazon Kindle – I’m not a fan of the whole “walled garden” thing – but it does make it a bit trickier buying books. I can buy from Kindle but need to convert to the ePub format, which I can only do if the book doesn’t have digital rights management. Then there are those like Readings' online store which provide books that can only be read in a browser – a fact I only discovered after purchasing a book that I now can’t read on my eReader. I’m disappointed, because I think they have great books and offers, but there’s no way I’m reading a book on my laptop. ePub files are where it’s at for me, but for a supposed industry standard they are harder to find than I thought.
The secondly and worst problem I face is that I’m located in Australia. Australia is more than an afterthought when it comes to eBooks. We are the forgotten pimple on the afterthought’s bum.  Think about this for a minute – if I go to today, it tells me there are around 968,000 ebooks. Only 717,000 are available to Australians, and for some reason quite a few of those missing seem to be by Australian authors. Australians have become very familiar with the messages  cheerily announcing “I’m sorry! This book is not available in your location.” It tends to induce a red mist and an urge to commit grievous bodily harm on the computer (which can only be overcome by thinking about how much that infuriating screen actually costs to fix).
And that’s the problem, really. It’s not that they tell you upfront it’s not available. Oh no, it’s not until you put it into your cart and go to check out that they spring the news on you. In fact, it's happened more than once that I've filled my cart with books, only to be told that none of them are available to purchase. Diesel eBooks is the worst have experienced – they let me purchase a book and then wouldn’t let me download my purchase because I was apparently in the wrong territory. It took an email  to the help desk to get a refund, and even then they didn’t refund the credit card charges I paid for making an overseas purchase (okay, it was only about a dollar, but it’s the principle of the thing).
And hence to Read Without Paper. Despite the .com address, it’s an Australian site. It offers ePubs that are easily downloaded to my Sony Reader. Even better, they tell you upfront – when you are actually considering buying the book! – where it is available. It’s a sad comment on the state of eBook sites to say it, but this is revolutionarily wonderful.  They have a great range of books that I actually want to read, and they are set out in a way that actually makes sense.
I spent around a hundred dollars on books a couple of months ago. I haven’t spent that much in years. It just goes to show the potential when sites can actually get this thing right – and in my opinion, Read Without Paper definitely have. Cheers guys!

Friday, July 29, 2011

BOOK REVIEW: A short history of nearly everything by Bill Bryson and The Pursuit of Italy by David Gilmour

I started reading Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything a couple of years ago, and soon found myself hopelessly bogged down. More enticing books beckoned, and I put it aside.
Similarly, it’s taken me at least a few months to get through David Gilmour’s The Pursuit of Italy.
It’s not that these books are not interesting, because they are absolutely chockers with fascinating facts and interesting information. Between the two of them, I feel like I’ve absorbed a fairly large amount of knowledge. No, after a lot of thought, I’ve concluded that  the real problem is the lack of structure and narrative.
Both books start out with vague goals – it’s doesn’t come much more indefinite than a history of “nearly everything,” and you can’t get much more ambitious than attempting to nail down a whole country. Of the two, Bryson’s structure is more consistent throughout the book. Each chapter deals with a specific discipline and its history, such as geology, astronomy, and physics. David Gilmour on the other hand starts out by describing various aspects of contemporary Italy (which was utterly absorbing) and then jumps backwards and goes through the history of Italy in chronological order. His book picks up again towards the end, but the middle section dealing with events in the various kingdoms prior to unification is something of a hard slog. Of course, this may just reflect the fact that this was not a particularly interesting period of time (at least for non-Italians),
Because of the broad subject matter they are attempting to cover, these books don’t tend to go into deep analysis of their subject, although David Gilmour does make an effort in this direction towards the end. Both authors write well, with an informal tone that engages the reader. Bryson in particular has become so well know n that he could get away with a much lesser book, but I was impressed by the amount of research that he put in in order to explain difficult concepts in plain language. It must have been a monumental undertaking. David Gilmour’s book is similarly well-researched and unlike Bryson the author is familiar enough with his field to offer his own insights on some of the sources he cites.
I ended up taking these two books to the beach. They are not everyone’s definition of a beach read, but it turned out that they were perfect for the disjoined nature of summer reading. I would read a chapter, have a swim, come back and pick up where I left off. To extrapolate out, I think these books are best tackled in small chunks – to read from beginning to end is to ask for fact fatigue, when all the information starts to blur into a monotonous whole. These books deserve better than that, and if you make the effort they are truly rewarding reads.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

BOOK REVIEW: Manhattan Dreaming by Anita Heiss

There are books that are good for you like all-bran or brussel sprouts, and there are books that are the mental equivalent of junk food – tasty, devoured in a flash, but vaguely unsatisfying (hello, Dan Brown).
In Manhattan Dreaming, Anita Heiss tries to have a foot in both camps by creating chick-lit with a message. Serious points about Aboriginal rights are disguised inside a frothy story about finding love in New York.
This wouldn’t be such a problem if the disguise was actually convincing. I wanted to overlook the constant moralising, because I liked this book a lot. But every few pages Heiss would pour a metaphorical bucket of cold water on the story by having her characters make a serious point about indigenous rights and racial equality in general. Perhaps people do have these earnest conversations in real life (although I have my doubts) but frankly I can do without being lectured when reading fiction.
So apart from the morality issue, what was my view on the book? I read it on a plane, and found it to be perfect plane reading. The characters were well-developed, and I didn’t end up wanting to shake the main character while yelling “get over it!” (always a good sign). The story was engaging, predictable to a point but not simplistic. I think Heiss has real potential as a writer.
But oh, those morals. I like the idea of an aboriginal woman in New York – the setup would have worked fine on its own to gently get the point across. But Heiss feels the need to add paragraphs like this:
“We have the same discussions back home,” I told him. “What constitutes “Aboriginal Art” and who is an “Aboriginal Artist”? It’s complex and takes the focus away from the art itself, which is problematic.”
Or, have you ever heard anyone, whatever their race, say “I hate being the exotic ‘other’?” As a line of dialogue it comes straight from a thesis and it shows.
I don’t believe that Heiss should leave the Aboriginal perspective out of her books, and I’ll admit that I learned some things about Aboriginal culture while reading Manhattan Dreaming. However, I do think that she needs to avoid lecturing readers. If her goal is putting forward Aboriginal and Indigenous perspectives, in the long run subtlety is likely to be more effective.
The verdict? I’m happy for my chick-lit to come with a message, but I don’t like to be hit over the head with it. Heiss may be a Adjunct Associate Professor but she should save the lectures for the classroom.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

BOOK REVIEW: Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell

For a book that is subtitled “The story of success”, Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers contains one strange omission. Nowhere in the book does he define or discuss the concept of success. The closest he comes is his comment that outliers are “men and women who do things that are out of the ordinary.” He discusses geniuses, business tycoons, rock stars, and software programmers, without ever identifying why he considers them to be successful. In most cases they have built a successful business and made lots of money – but isn’t there more to the concept of success than that?
After a lot of consideration, I’ve come to the conclusion that the book fundamentally reflects a male point of view and a go-out-and-conquer-the-world mentality. Most women in contrast would consider success to be a more holistic concept. I think we can all agree Bill Gates is a successful man, but would we still consider him “a success” if he had a dysfunctional family life and a drug addiction? In other words, by Gladwell’s standards, Charlie Sheen would arguably be up there as a success story.
This bias also flavours the rest of the book. Gladwell’s thesis is that environment is the fundamental predictor of success, much more so than innate talent. He claims that as a general rule, 10,000 hours of practice at something are required to become successful at it, although again it’s not clear what success is likely to mean in this context (does this get you to worlds-best standard or country-best, or only best in your city?) I don’t argue with the claim that practice makes perfect, or even that practice is more important than innate talent. However I do think that this criteria also explains why all Gladwell’s examples are men. Women’s lives are often a balancing act as they try to manage various responsibilities. Success for us is often getting through the day without dropping any of the balls we are constantly juggling. Dedicating 10,000 hours to something is often simply out of the question. If Gladwell is correct, perhaps this explains why there are not more women at the top levels of business.
To summarise, I think that Gladwell has both failed to define success but at the same time defined it too narrowly. Or perhaps the real question is whether the word “success” is the appropriate one. I enjoyed reading this book – it’s extremely well written and interesting – but upon finishing it I felt somewhat disappointed. I accept Gladwell’s conclusions as far as they go, as a model of the factors that create one type of “success,” but I think he has failed to realise the limitations of the questions he is asking. In particular, half the population seems to have been excluded from the analysis. If Gladwell couldn’t find any examples of successful women to interview, I would suggest there is a flaw with his definition of success, and the fact that the definition is never explicit to begin with only compounds the error.
So judging him by his own standards: Gladwell’s book has sold a lot of copies, therefore he’s a success. By the standards of academic rigour and gender equality however, if not a fail, I’d mark this book “can do better.”

Sunday, May 8, 2011

BOOK REVIEW: Murder in the Bastille by Cara Black

 For a writer, crime novels come with their own particular challenges. As well as the usual aspects of characterisation, narrative voice, and plot, there is the additional task of posing and answering the question “whodunit?” The writer must provide enough information to give the reader a fair chance to solve the mystery, yet hide the essential clues in plain sight.  It’s the literary version of the magician’s sleight of hand – the trick is to get the audience focussing on the flimflam so that they miss what is going on elsewhere. It’s only when the magician reveals how the trick was done that we cry “Of course! The butler did it!”
I’ve been thinking about the art of the crime novel while reading Murder in the Bastille by Cara Black. This is the second novel of Black’s that I have read, and both have left me feeling unsatisfied. I’m not sure Black manages to balance giving the reader enough information, but not too much. With both novels, I turned to the final chapter thinking not “Of course!” but “Where did that come from?” It’s not a fatal flaw, particularly in the private detective genre, but it did spoil to some extent an otherwise enjoyable book.
There is plenty to enjoy in Murder in the Bastille. Lovers of Paris should put this book at the top of their reading lists – Black lingers over the descriptions of its alleys and passages, squares and quartiers. Most of the time she succeeds in evoking a sense of the layers of history in the city, although more impatient readers may find the level of detail irritating. Despite this, Black maintains a good pace and keeps the plot moving along.
The book opens with private detective Aimée Leduc being attacked in a passage in the Bastille area of Paris. The police believe she was the latest victim of the serial killer known as the “Beast of Bastille,” but Aimée and her partner René have their doubts. Their search for the attacker unfolds against a backdrop of conflict between conservationists and developers over the future of the Bastille area, while Aimée and René delve deeper into its past in search of the killer.
Aimée and René are both likable, and their relationship believable. Black avoids cliché and delivers well-rounded characters, police officers and villains included. Of course, the main character is Paris itself. From an armchair travel perspective, Murder in the Bastille is truly excellent. Here’s hoping that in later books, the whodunit lives up to the setting.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

BOOK REVIEW: Open by Andre Agassi

I picked up Andre Agassi’s autobiography, Open, with a number of preconceptions. I was expecting the usual drive-to-succeed, how-I-found redemption motifs of the sporting memoir, seasoned with a hint of scandal. After all, this is Andre Agassi we are talking about – the enfant terrible of tennis who fell in love with the Hollywood lifestyle and spiralled into drugs and scandal, only to work his way back to the top, fall in love, and re-emerge as one of the elder statesmen of the sport. I might have picked up the book, but I thought I knew how this story went  already.
Wrong, wrong, wrong.
Agassi spent his career being drawn by the media as a caricature of himself. This book is his chance to finally present the whole story, and he does so with brutal honesty. A childhood dominated by a tyrannical father features prominently, and is one of the most memorable parts of the book. In a real sense, Agassi’s father shaped both his tennis game and his personality, and Agassi seems to have been searching ever since for a separate identity. There is a wistfulness and a paradox at the heart of the book – Agassi desperately wants to know what kind of a person he would have been without his father’s influence, but accepts that he will never find out.
Agassi’s love-hate relationship with tennis is also a central theme of the book. Dropping out of school and turning pro at seventeen, he never had a chance to explore other career options. For a while, he stubbornly maintains that he hates tennis, but eventually the media pressure becomes too much and he starts to give them what they want, lines about how much he loves the game. But while Agassi never comes to love the game in the pure sense, it does give him a great deal of satisfaction over the years. More importantly, by earning money it enables him to help others. The Agassi who dropped out of school discovers through others the value of education and it is genuinely moving to watch him try to create for others the opportunities that he was denied.
While the book is well-written enough, it’s not the prose that I will remember. Rather it is the sense that Agassi mined his soul for the book and laid himself bare on the page. I started the book thinking that I knew who Andre Agassi was; in the course of it I discovered I was wrong and I didn’t know him at all. It’s the rediscovery that takes place on reading the book that is the real revelation. You discover a man who has always been more of a thinker than a doer, who has struggled to free himself from his past and only partly succeeded, and who has made his peace with that. At the end of the day, you can only respect his courage and hope that his life post-tennis continues to give him the happiness that was missing in his early life.

Monday, April 11, 2011

BOOK REVIEW: The God of the Hive by Laurie R. King

Sherlock Holmes has had a strange afterlife in fiction since Arthur Conan Doyle put away his pen. Most readers will have heard the famous story of how the public wouldn’t let Conan Doyle kill his most celebrated creation; judging by the number of fictional tributes it seems Holmes’ popularity is undiminished even today.  A number of these fall into the ‘novelty’ category (Holmes re-animated after death to fight crime in the 22nd century?) but most have simply faded away. The problem is that borrowing such a famous character inevitably leads to comparisons with the original, and Conan Doyle was a hard act to follow.
You may have gathered by now I’m something of a Sherlock Holmes fan. So when I say that in some respects I think Laurie King’s Mary Russell series actually improve on the original, it’s not a statement I make lightly.
King’s series (beginning with The Beekeepers’ Apprentice) feature Holmes but furnish him with a couple of elements missing in the original – a young female apprentice and an emotional life. It’s the second of these that is the true heart of these books. If I have a criticism of Conan Doyle it is that he hinted at Holmes’ inner life while never providing enough information to satisfy the reader. The cases always came first. While this can be refreshing in an age when fictional detectives seem to require a messy divorce and a ton of emotional baggage, it leaves a modern reader burning to know more.
I don’t want to talk in too much detail about King’s latest, The God of the Hive, in case it discourages readers from going back to read the earlier books. Suffice to say it features international espionage and master criminals, in the best Holmes tradition. It is also likely to keep you awake long past your bedtime – King is truly a master of suspense. My only criticism would be that occasionally the suspense is artificially heightened, for example by exaggeration or cutting off a chapter at a particularly inopportune point. At these times I felt like the joins of the work show a little, and it feels slightly forced rather than appropriately effortless.
The setting, however, seems absolutely effortless, though I have no doubt a substantial amount of research has gone into it. The London of this book is recognisably the same London of Sherlock Holmes; yet it has layers and textures that are far more detailed than Conan Doyle’s work. On the other hand, when you think that most of he Sherlock Holmes stories were originally published as newspaper serials, it makes sense that unnecessary description is omitted.
The Beekeeper’s Apprentice stands beside The Complete Sherlock Holmes on my bookshelf. I think it’s appropriate. This is one fictional tribute that bears comparisons with the original, and in my view there is no higher praise.

Friday, March 18, 2011

BOOK REVIEW: Love and Punishment by Wendy Harmer

Chick-lit usually focuses on the falling-in-love phase of a relationship. If there is any falling-out-of-love, it usually occurs when the heroine breaks up with her clearly unsuitable boyfriend to clear the way for Mr Right. So Wendy Harmer deserves credit for writing a novel almost exclusively devoted to that messy post-breakup phase.
We first meet Francie when she’s been dumped by her boyfriend of five years. That single fact and her grief over it forms the central theme of the book, as Francie journeys from total-mess to not-such-a-total-mess.  It’s hard to emphasise with Francie’s self-loathing at times, but Harmer writes honestly and does not pull any punches. I particularly liked her refusal to have Mr Right turn up in the end and save Francie from herself. Similarly, the gay character is not the camp stereotype that seems to infest chick-lit these days, but a fully realised chacter. In many respects Harmer has written a very original book.
Unfortunately, the structure and writing of Love and Punishment don’t always live up to expectations. For example, the role of the therapist who Francie visits to talk about her problems seems contrived, a device to move the plot along rather than a realistic character. Similarly, Francie’s repeated dreams featuring her ex and his new girlfriend are less than subtle.
On a personal level, I occasionally found Francie a bit irritating. I suppose that was a risk that Harmer took when she decided to have a main character who spends the entire book in floods of tears feeling sorry for herself. In the end she does pull it off though because you sense that the book was written honestly, self-pity, snotty noses and all.
My feeling is that Wendy Harmer is still in the process of development as a writer, trying to develop comedic one-liners into sustainable and believable characters. I think she’s got guts in taking on a fairly unattractive subject and she’s tried hard to avoid the usual clichés. This book was written in 2006 so I would pick up another of her more recent books. I have the feeling she’s not finished yet.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

BOOK REVIEW: Committed by Elizabeth Gilbert

It hardly needs restating that Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray Love was, as she herself calls it, a “mega-bestseller”. Its painfully personal examination of a midlife crisis struck a chord with millions of women. In her follow up, Committed, Gilbert examines the concept of marriage in Western society, while retaining her intensely personal take on the subject.
The crux of the book is that Gilbert must marry her Brazilian sweetheart, Felipe, or he will be banned from the United States. As the survivor of a messy divorce (chronicled in Eat Pray Love) she had believed she would never marry again, and she approaches the idea with something close to terror. This book is her attempt to find some sort of peace with the notion of marriage. During their temporary exile from the US, Gilbert and Felipe travel through Southeast Asia, giving Gilbert the opportunity to consider the place of marriage in different cultures.
Gilbert retains the informal, personal tone that made Eat Pray Love so easy to read. She doesn’t attempt to write a scholarly dissertation, prefacing her discussion of many subjects with modest disclaimers, and the book is far from a complete history of its subject. Her research was somewhat eclectic – combining statistics, histories, and her own research in Southeast Asia with her own impressions and musings – and occasionally the book suffers from a lack of direction.
Like Eat Pray Love I suspect that people will enjoy the book to the extent that they like and identify with Elizabeth Gilbert. She’s far from a detached observer but she does try to be honest about her experiences and perceptions, and I remain in awe of her bravery at putting so much of her private life down on the page.  You could call Committed lightweight, and it is in one sense, but for Gilbert it was clearly not an easy book to write.
The only question that remains now, is where to from here? From the end of the book it looks like Gilbert may have run out of trauma to chronicle, so perhaps that explains why she is considering a return to fiction. It certainly seems like Gilbert will live happily ever after, and that’s the satisfying end to the story that her readers expect.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

BOOK REVIEW: A Question of Belief by Donna Leon

It was my manager who lent me Death at La Fenice, the first in Donna Leon’s Venetian detective series. By that time, I’d been to Venice, and I recognised not only the places mentioned in the book but also the accuracy of Leon’s portrayal of Italy. Finally, here was a series that showed the Italy I knew – not some sort of historical paradise populated by quaint and charming locals, but a country struggling with questions of unemployment, immigration, and how to bring its traditional values into the modern world. .
Leon has lived for a number of years in Venice, and it shows. It’s not just the casual use of Italian words here and there in the text, but a true understanding of the Venetian character and the subcurrents in an outwardly tranquil city. In her latest work, A Question of Belief, she paints a vivid picture of the sticky August weather and its effects on the population. Like everyone else, Commissario Brunetti is in the process of escaping the city for Summer when he is called back by a murder. The victim is a clerk at the courthouse, an honest man who seems to have been caught up in some shady dealings; but was that the reason he was killed or was it something more personal? At the request of a colleague, Brunetti is also pursuing a scam artist parading as a mystic.
While I enjoyed A Question of Belief, I wouldn’t count it as one of the superior books in the series. Leon’s characterisations and details of the Venetian setting are as always superb, but the pace is occasionally uneven and the plot and subplot sit somewhat awkwardly together. The title hints at an ethical dilemma for Brunetti but there is little in the book itself to make him really reflect, and this is perhaps why it lacks the punch of some of the other titles. Leon has done a wonderful job maintaining the quality of the series up until this point (this is the 19th title) but needs to ensure that the books don’t become wholly about Brunetti as a character and lose their narrative drive.
Despite those minor flaws, I’d still recommend this book. In fact, I’ve now got my mum hooked on the Brunetti series, although she’s not usually a crime reader. I believe that people pick up the books because of the romance of the setting (who doesn’t love Venice?) but continue to read them because simply, Donna Leon is a damn good writer. While it’s one of the weaker books in the series, A Question of Belief is still a pleasure and a great read.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

BOOK REVIEW: Marie Curie: A life

I had Susan Quinn’s biography of Marie Curie sitting on my desk for around a month before I even cracked the spine. Perhaps it was the mournful cover done in shades of brown and black, with Curie gazing sternly out.  Perhaps it was the size of the book that daunted me; at 500 pages (including footnotes) it’s no lightweight. I knew Marie Curie as the first woman to win a Nobel prize, but surely her life couldn’t be eventful enough to fill all those pages?
As it turns out, I was completely and utterly wrong. From the first page I was caught up in Curie’s amazing life. She was born Polish in a time when that country was occupied by Russia, and as a child learned Polish history and other banned “nationalist” subjects in secret. Women had no chance of a higher education in Poland at that time, and the Curie family could not afford to send their talented children abroad to study. So Marie Curie and her sister Bronia teamed up; Marie worked to support Bronia’s studies in Paris, then later lived with her sister during her own studies. It was in Paris that she met Pierre Curie, her partner in life and work, and began the research into radioactivity that would make her name.
Quinn reaches past the hagiographic portrayal of Marie as an early feminist saint to offer a portrait of a real woman. Science was Curie’s lifelong love, but her devotion to Pierre was real and she was devastated after his early death in a street accident. The most moving parts of the book come directly from a journal written by Curie in the year after his death, when she pours out her heart to her dead husband. The book is returning to the library with a few tear-stains on these pages.
Like the best biographers, Quinn succeeds in fading into the background. She only rarely ventures away from the evidence to offer suggestion or a comment, but they are always insightful and relevant. Her sympathy with Curie is evident , but she does not shy away from presenting the less attractive sides of her character where necessary, such as her tendency to self-promotion and her ambivalent attitude to raising children.
Reading Marie Curie: A life also led me to reflect on the role of science today. Quinn’s description of the Curies passing by their laboratory after dark to enjoy the pretty radioactive glow of the minerals provides a window to a more innocent world. Curie believed passionately in the power of science for good, but these days we have a real suspicion of science (witness the controversy regarding GM foods, for example).  On the other hand, the blindness of the Curies to the potentially harmful effects of radioactivity took a toll on their health and the health of others treated with the new “radium treatments”.  So was Curie’s belief in the power of science ultimately wrong? Like the woman herself, it is a complex question .
This is a wonderful, inspiring book, despite the forbidding cover. Still, on reading the book, I think perhaps the designer got it right after all. The cover is utilitarian, simple, and with little regard for aesthetics, but it conveys the essential information. I think Marie Curie would have approved.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Blogocide (sort of)

It's been almost six months since I set up this blog, and in that time topics have veered wildly from my search for a christmas tree to copyright to books I have read and films I have seen. It's been a useful period. One thing I have realised is that I don't want to be blogging constantly on law, as (let's face it) I'm doing this during my own time, and I don't need to be bringing work home. On the other hand, I'm still enthusiastic about writing about the books I am reading and my new eBook reader.

So, to the title of this post - I have decided that this blog in future will be exclusively about books, publishing, and the written word in general. That means I'll be deleting the non-related posts (yes, including the Christmas tree one).

Currently I'm reading a fascinating biography of Marie Curie - I'll post a review once I'm done. Ruth Park, a great Australian author, died late last year and I'd like to post a tribute to her as well.

Thanks for your patience while I worked out where this blog was going!

Sunday, January 16, 2011

BOOK REVIEW The Widow Cliquot: The Story of a Champagne Empire and the Woman Who Ruled It.

Confession: I can’t pronounce “Veuve Cliquot.” The closest I can get is something that sounds approximately like “verve click-oh” (French speakers all over the world are wincing at this minute).  I rationalise this by saying that I prefer to be in a situation where someone else orders the expensive champagne, and I just contribute to the drinking of it.
I am sure Tilar Mazzeo would be able to pronounce Veuve Cliquot impeccably, after completing a biography of the Widow (Veuve) Cliquot. Reading the forward to the book, it sounds like she doesn’t mind the drinking part either. In fact, the widow herself began her career on the drinking side of the equation, after her husband bought a small champagne production house. It was only after his death that the Widow Cliquot – Barbe-Nicole Cliquot Ponsardin – defied those who expected her to liquidate the business and instead, took the reins.
The beauty of this book is that the history of Barbe-Nicole is in many ways the history of champagne. It wasn’t just her success in managing the business that made her a legend, it was her innovative approach to the winemaking itself. For example, she introduced the technique of remuage which involves clearing the wine of sediment by storing it on an angle, so that the sediment settles onto the cork and can be easily removed. She was also one of the earliest to recognise that the traditional champagne, which resembled more than anything a sparkling dessert wine, was giving way to the drier brut style that dominates today.
There is limited information on Barbe-Nicole’s personal life, but this is where Mazzeo’s talent is most evident. Using a mix of contemporary sources, suggestions, and empathetic imagination, she creates a picture of Barbe-Nicole’s world and manages to paint a portrait of this elusive woman. We are left with the image of a woman who managed to break out of the shackles imposed on women of the age and did whatever was necessary to stay there. Barbe-Nicole lived for her business in a real sense; she was happiest when blending wine or thinking about new techniques for blending it or plotting the next daring manoeuvre that would keep her on top of the champagne market. In contrast, most of her family and descendants lived the idle life of aristocrats, which perhaps explains why she left the champagne business to her second-in-command rather than her daughter.
Mazzeo manages to roll several books into one; a history of the Widow Cliquot contains the history of champagne, an early history of women in business, and also a vivid picture of Reims at the turn of the 19th century. The book is an easy and charming read, and Barbe-Nicole is a character that will remain with the reader long after closing the final page. In fact, since finishing this book, I think of Reims and the Widow Cliquot every time I drink a glass of champagne, and that more than anything is a testament to this fascinating woman. Even if I still can't pronounce her name.