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

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

BOOK REVIEW: The Anti-Social Behaviour of Horace Rumpole by John Mortimer

The iconic characters of fiction tend to wear their years lightly, remaining the same even as the world around them moves with the times. I’ve just been paying a visit to one such old friend in the pork-pie-munching, Chateau-Thames-Embankment-swilling shape of Horace Rumpole. The old warhorse of the bar has been forced to confront some of the modern realities of life in The Anti-Social Behaviour of Horace Rumpole, but he continues to treat life with the same sort of stoic grumpiness that  distinguished his earlier episodes. And of course, the same irritants are there to play their usual part – the mad judges on a power trip, the syncophantic members of his chambers, and the well-worn relationship with his wife, Hilda.

As a barrister, John Mortimer had a detailed knowledge of the workings of the Criminal Bar and the book will not cause any of the lawyers among us to flinch. In fact, criminal barristers may even recognise themselves and their colleagues in the sharply-drawn cast that surrounds Rumpole ( I am fairly sure Horace Rumpole is unique). Mortimer also has a fine turn of phrase, accompanied by a sly wit. My favourite: “I was seated alone in my favourite corner of Pommeroy’s Wine Bar, sharing a bottle of Chateau Thames Embankment with myself.”
The Rumpole series is never going to keep you on the edge of your seat, or make you re-evaluate our existence. It features no blood or sex and little that is sensational. Still, if you are looking for well-written, well-plotted crime fiction, featuring one of the great characters of recent years, you could do far worse.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

AWW BOOK REVIEW: Sharp Shooter by Marianne Delacourt

 Cover lines which refer to bestsellers are a risky strategy, creating expectations which the novel itself may find hard to meet. Marianne Delacourt's Sharp Shooter raised my eyebrows with the cover line 'Introducing Tara Sharp, a new, kick -arse crime fighter for fans of JANET EVANOVICH.' (yes, capitals in the original). It's a bold move to refer to the woman who basically invented the kooky-crime-romance genre, although I presume the marketing department is to blame rather than the author. Unfortunately, while Sharp Shooter is a competent light-crime novel, it suffers in the comparison.

One area where Evanovich is particularly strong is keeping up the pace. In contrast, Delacourt introduces all her characters at a leisurely speed and with little urgency before the story actually begins. It’s not until page 39 and Chapter 7 when fledgling 'paralanguage agent' Sharp is hired by a dodgy lawyer with mafia connections that things start to get interesting. The first six chapters consist of background and introduction and if I hadn't been reading with a view to writing a review, I would have been tempted to put the book aside. In particular, I didn’t find Sharp engaging as a character in these early chapters. There was a great deal of what I thought was rather laboured slapstick (for example, I found the episode where she spills her drink on a potential client painfully unfunny.) Still, sense of humour is a personal thing and other readers may not have the same reaction.

Once the story gets going the book improves markedly and I liked the fact that it is set in Perth, obviously a city that Delacourt knows well. I think she also succeeded in maintaining a genuine Australian tone throughout, avoiding the risk of transplanting an essentially American story. The love interest is plausible and Tara Sharp also becomes more likable as the story progresses. Some of the more annoying minor characters fade out of view (the wise teacher speaking in broken english is one I particularly wanted to strangle).

One other aspect of the book that seemed rather underdone was the supernatural element. Sharp's ability to read auras is certainly an original plot device, but seems to me to be rather useless. As far as the story goes, an experienced reader of body language would end up with exactly the same information, and we hardly need descriptions of their auras to work out who are the bad guys. Instead, the aura reading becomes something of a sideshow, an alternative method of describing a character (eg. “Grassy green aura” instead of “tall with blue eyes”). It also makes the comparison with Janet Evanovich even more puzzling – while her new series does include a supernatural element, her hit Stephanie Plum series does not.  

Still, even taking the above into account, I did think it was competent and relatively entertaining, with a number of good points. It’s possible than fans of Janet Evanovich will like this book, if they are looking for something in a similar genre. I do think it could have done with some further thinking and editing, but then I’ve thought that about the last few Janet Evanovich books as well. I think it’s unfortunate that that cover line created such high expectations, because read on its own merits this is a competent and enjoyable Australian contribution to the light-crime-paranormal genre.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

BOOK REVIEW: Fear Not by Anne Holt

Some books don’t just have a theme, they have a Theme. In such books, subtlety is not usually a strong point. Neither is character, as all become slaves to the author’s desire to explore (god forbid) a Burning Issue Of Our Times.
Other, much rarer books, fall into a different category. You close the covers and muse on the contents. After a while, a connection between characters suggests itself, then another. You realise there is a pattern of sorts, a common thread. Yet the book seems so perfect, so the characters so convincing, you can’t quite comprehend that the author might have started with a theme in mind. Surely, it must be some sort of coincidence.
I am happy to report that Anne Holt’s Fear Not fell into the second category. The most obvious theme is that of gay relationships. A series of murders appear unconnected, until it becomes obvious that the victims were gay or advocates of gay marriage. So far, so simple. It’s the deeper theme that raises this far above the standard crime novel. That theme is long-term relationships, or the ways in which people adapt to that period when romance seems a distant memory and in its place, the  everyday chore of adapting your needs to another being. Gay relationships or straight, Holt explores the various facets of love and the ways in which relationships survive or fail in periods of stress.
I have to admit, I was initially unconvinced by the multiple-viewpoints of the story. Compared to the striking 1222 (which I previously raved about here) it seemed diffuse, harder to understand the story and to find a way in. Yet by the end, I would compare this book favourably with the other. While 1222 was a superb thriller/mystery , Holt’s ambitions here seem to be wider, and the book is richer as a result. Like certain of the Donna Leon novels, she uses the crime as a vehicle for exploring an aspect of society, while never losing the narrative drive.
Anne Holt is rapidly progressing up the list of my favourite writers. Beautifully written and acutely observed, her novels are distinctly Scandinavian but also universal. Mystery or thriller fans of all stripes – or just anyone who appreciates a good story – will find much to enjoy in Fear Not.