Monday, January 12, 2015

Charles Palliser The Quincunx

Just finished Charles Palliser’s amazing The Quincunx* and feeling a mixture of exhaustion, elation and sadness.

It’s been a while since I was so totally absorbed, transported and obsessed by a book. So much so that the characters were starting to infect my dreams!

I’ve always been a fan of the neo Victorian novel and loved Michael Cox’s The Meaning of the Night, and Sarah Water’s Tipping the Velvet and Fingersmith.

I found out about Palliser through the Guardian’s list of Top 10 Neo-Victorian novels and thought: “Great! A big fat juicy neo-Victorian novel is exactly the perfect read for an Australian summer spent inside air conditioning?”.

The story begins with John Mellamphy, a young boy, living with his mother in modest conditions in the remote English country side. John is not sure who his father is, but knows that his mother is hiding a secret document that holds the key to his identity and perhaps fortune.

This sets the scene for John’s amazing journey as he tries to recover his inheritance and seek justice and revenge.

The intricate plot involves five families who are all at some stage of another trying to seek an inheritance of the one of the largest estates in England.

John’s traumatic adventures include all the different tropes of Dickens & Wilkie Collins novels.

As Michael Malone notes in his review:

For Mr. Palliser appears to have set out not merely to write a Dickens novel but to write all Dickens novels: we meet the strange young girl in a great crumbling estate, the floating prison hulks and mysterious legacy of ''Great Expectations''; the debtors' prison and suppressed codicil of ''Little Dorrit''; the heir's convoluted name change and presumed death by drowning of ''Our Mutual Friend''; the loathsome father-son business team and the vast real-estate development scam of ''Martin Chuzzlewit''; the stormy night, carriage chase and foiled elopement of ''The Pickwick Papers''; the pauper child of secret parentage kidnapped by a gang of thieves of ''Oliver Twist.'' It’s traumatic and unremittingly grim at times as almost every disaster possible falling upon John and his mother.

But the journey is so truly worth it. 

Palliser creates a wonderfully detailed and textured picture of nineteenth century London. You can almost breath the fetid air of the dark and dirty streets of London. So much so that you don't want to leave at the end.

I was a bit worried about finishing the book as I read some reviews that had found the ending a bit of let down. A big worry when you've been making your way through such a big novel! But I was actually quite satisfied with the ending and provided you with some real resolutions.

Once you start this book, be prepared to be utterly absorbed and transported to another world.

* The title ‘Quincunx’ refers to a geometric pattern consisting of five points arranged in a cross, with four of them forming a square or rectangle and a fifth at its center (via Wikipedia)

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Latest Jack Reacher - Personal by Lee Child

I’ve been eagerly awaiting the latest Jack Reacher novel, Personal.

So when it came out in September this year I downloaded it pronto.

After a bit of dip, I thought Lee Child was getting his mojo back and the last one Never Go Back was pretty good. Not quite back to earlier form, but that’s to be expected after eighteen books.

Unfortunately Personal left me very disappointed and a little bit bewildered.

After a strong start, with the premise being that Reacher is needed by the US Government on an overseas ‘off the book’ job, the story totally peters out.

We find Reacher jet setting off to France and England with a cast of international spies, assassins and assorted shadowy government types.  

Sounds exciting and the all the right ingredients for a great thriller right?

That is why I'm so disappointed because all the elements are there and the first few chapters set everything up so well.

But then the story becomes really flat and sort of meanders to a rather desultory ending.  

While the international element was initially interesting it just wasn't sustained throughout the novel.

Plus the secondary characters were all under developed and I was a bit surprised at just how quickly the story was neatly wrapped up.

Reacher pretty much deals with the main bad guy in one page or so and by the end of the major twist reveal had me thinking ‘meh’.

But where the story really falls flat is Reacher’s partner, a young analyst named Casey Nice who is in the field for the first time. 

Reacher plays the mentor role her and it just doesn't work at all. In fact, I found Casey Nice an extremely boring and very annoying character. 

She constantly needed reassurance from Reacher that she was doing okay and it really slowed the story down.

I don’t need to see this ‘caring’ ‘sharing’ side of Reacher, I just want to see him kick butt! 

This is probably the second time Child has tried to put Reacher in a broader environment and it doesn't really work again.

The best Reacher novels are what I call the "local stories", where he is in a little US backwater town battling for the underdog.

So here’s hoping, the next one is set in a small American town.  

Monday, April 21, 2014

The Giver by Lois Lowry

After a run of YA fiction that included Hunger Games, Divergent and Legend series, I was suffering a bit of dystopian YA fiction fatigue and decided to take a break.

The break has not lasted too long as I now find myself engrossed in Lois Lowry’s YA series the Giver quartet:
  •          The Giver (1993)
  •          Gathering Blue (2000)
  •          Messenger (2004)
  •          Son (2012)

I got interested in the books after seeing the preview of the film (coming out in August 2014). The cast is stellar with Meryl Streep, Jeff Bridges and Alexander Skarsgard and the story was intriguing.

The first book in the series, The Giver, introduces us to a world that on the surface seems to be a utopia – life is ordered, comfortable and everyone is assigned a role to play.  But through the main character of Jonas, a twelve year old boy who is assigned to become a ‘Receiver of Memory’,  that novel slowly peels away the layers of this utopia to reveal a brutal reality.

The books are short, sharp and gripping. Lowry is a master story teller and the writing style reminds me a lot of Patrick Ness’s brilliant Chaos Walking Series.

Both these series are “Young Adult”, but with an emphasis on the adult. Indeed, I can’t help but compare the quality of writing, ideas and storyteller in the Giver quartet and the more recent examples of this genre: Divergent, Legend series.

There is no doubt that books like Divergent are entertaining, but that’s really it. What makes both Ness and Lowry’s books stand out is their great depth. These books make you think afterwards about the world around you and the nature of humans to repeat our own history.

I’ve just finished the third book, Messenger, which incorporated really interesting elements of fairy tale and fable genre like the evil enchanted forest. I also loved how the characters grow and develop 'off stage', we only meet Jonas again in the third book.

I'm looking forward to the last book and finding out what happens. 

Here's the trailer for the movie:

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Some reading highlights and disappointments from 2012

Here's my list of reading highlights and disappointments from 2012. 

Spy novels, thrillers and fantasy featured quite heavily on my reading list. It was a pretty quiet year on the non-fiction front.


Gabriel Allon series by Daniel Silva 

One of the best things about discovering a series so late is the extensive back catalogue. 

Daniel Silva’s spy/thriller series focuses on Isaraeli intelligence agent, Gabriel Allon, who also happens to also be a talented art restorer. 

It’s a great mix of spy stuff, history, politics and also art history that had me totally gripped. 

There are 13 books in this series (yes!) and I read books 1 -6 straight through. While I’m on a mini-break from the series, there is no doubt I’ll be back to read the rest of the books.

The Red Knight by KT Davies 

If you are after a  gritty and compelling fantasy novel featuring a knight in shining armour, who happens to be a woman, than this is the book for you.

KT Davies’ book has it all: knights, dragons, magicians, military battles, a castle siege and a dash of romance. I loved the fact that the knights were both men and women, which really gave the book an extra dimension. The ending was also very unexpected and left me wanting to know so much more about what happens to the characters.  

This  was one of the most thoroughly enjoyable reads of the year.

I Am Pilgrim – Terry Hayes 

This first novel by Australian screen writer, Terry Hayes, is a brilliant page turning thriller that focuses on a dangerous cat and mouse game between an US intelligence agent and a terrorist bent on revenge. 

The story set in a post 9/11 intelligence world is fast moving and engrossing.  I also loved the Australian connections that Hayes weaves into the story. 

What really makes this book so compelling is the main character, codenamed ‘Pilgrim’, who is not your usual gung-ho hero type but actually witty and has a real Aussie sense of humour and irony. 

It’s one of those books where, as desperately as you want to find out what happens, you also don’t want it end. I am hoping that this is not the last of Pilgrim's adventures.

The disappointments

Unfortunately two of my favourite authors disappointed last year:

The Kill List by Federick Forsyth
The story was not compelling or engaging and overall, dare I say it, just a bit pedestrian from the Master.

The Kill Room by Jeffrey Deaver
I was super excited by the return of Lincoln Rhyme and Amelia Sacks but Deaver's latest really disappointed in terms of story and character. It wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t great either and far from Deaver's best.

Some books on this year's reading list

Saints of the Shadow Bible by Ian Rankin
The return of Rebus - yay!!

The Spy by James Phelan
Recommended by Lee Child himself - so have to check it out.

Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell 
Look's like a great YA book and who can go pass an author named 'Rainbow'?

This one has rave reviews and I absolutely loved Tartt's two previous books - The Secret History and The Little Friend.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Crazy Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan

Rich boy meets down to earth ABC (American Born Chinese) girl in NYC and brings her home to his crazy rich Asian family in Singapore.

Cue a clash of cultures, generations and fashions ensues! 

Kevin Kwan’s delicious romp of a book is best described as Joy Luck club meets Pride and Prejudice meets Dynasty.

Needless to say the overtop bling book cover totally matches the over top story.

This hilarious satirical book skewers the tensions and pretensions between the established crazy rich old families and the newly rich from mainland China.

The story begins with Nicholas ‘Nick’ Young, from the venerated Young family, who decides to bring his new girlfriend Rachel Chu home to attend the wedding of this best friend Colin Khoo.

Rachel has no idea that Nicholas is from a crazy rich Asian family and it is through her eyes that the reader discovers the excessive lifestyles of the unbelievabley rich in Singapore, Hong Kong and Shanghai.

Nick is part of three intertwined super rich families who are connected through marriage and money. This is an environment where no-one blinks at owning a private jet with a yoga studio or a yacht with a bowling alley that turns into a catwalk. Cray cray!!!

While the novel drops brand names like there is no tomorrow, I loved the fact that it is also drops food names with mouth-watering descriptions of Nyonya (Straits Chinese) and Peranakan food.

It picks up on the obsession with food in Singapore, as the characters argue about where to get the best laksa. I know you'll love these these parts of book Tseenster!

It is also full of slang-lah from Malay and the Cantonese and Hokkien dialects of Chinese that is explained in the sometimes snarky, always amusing and witty, footnotes.

In between all the high gloss, I liked the way Kwan picks up on the subtleties of Chinese manners and customs. 

The first chapter is a particularly delicious example of what happens when a snooty English hotel receptionist  dismisses the Young family. No one puts the Youngs in the corner!

My only issue with the book is that it was just a bit too long and dragged towards the end. Also one of the main characters, Astrid (Nick’s cousin), storyline is totally boring.

But this one minor quibble in an page turning outrageously fun book.