Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Writers who make you feel like their friend

I love reading writers who have that special gift of making you feel like they are talking to you personally. Rather than curling up with a good book, you feel like you are curling up with a good friend on the couch and having a good ole chat.

I have just absolutely devoured David Lebovitz’s The Sweet Life in Paris. As a devotee to his blog already, I couldn’t wait to get my hands on his book. And it was worth the wait! The book is a funny and insightful collection of his experiences moving from San Francisco to live and work in Paris.

David (I feel we are first name basis now!) is able to poke fun at both the French and American – and some stereotypes
are true! The book is a joy to read; he has such a lightness of touch.

Another writer who has this special gift is Helene Hanff, who is famous for 84 Charing Cross Road. But it is Underfoot in Show Business that really got to me.

Hanff detials in humourous fashion her years as a struggling playwright in New York City in 1940s & 50s. I remember curling up and to this book late at night and being completely transported to the show biz world of New York in the 1940s.
The love she feels towards New York City is palpable in these pages.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

A Book with Real Bite - Scott Westerfeld's Peeps

Now, this is what a GREAT teenage vampire novel should be about! Scott Westerfeld’s brillantly imagined Peeps totally rocks all over the badly written schmalzy Twilight series.

Peeps is a riveting combination of sci-fi, thriller, horror and overall a rollicking good read. I absolutely devoured this book. I loved the main character, Cal Thompson, a geeky biology graduate who becomes a reluctant vampire hunter.

The melding of science, biology and vampire mythology into a contemporary story works really well. In this novel vampirism is caused by a parasite, and infected humans are known as “parasite positives” or peeps for short. In the alternate chapters, Westerfeld provides a humerous account of how specific parasites work in nature.

The book really works because of Westerfeld’s grasp of characters and his razor sharp dialogue. I was really quite sad when the book was over and wanted more. I hope Westerfeld is working on more tales of Cal and his adventures.

I’m about to check out Westerfeld’s other books, which means a foray in the teenage section of my library as his books are classified as ‘teenage’!

Oh speaking of great things, I am now officially addicted to David Lebovitz blog! I've been reading his blog while waiting for the arrival of his book
Living the sweet life in Paris. As well as brillant photos of mouthwatering food, he is just such a sharp funny writer who brings a distinct view to living and eating in France. I must also admit a large amount of envy at Lebovtiz's Parisian life!

On the topic of food, another of my special order has just been approved -
Under the table : saucy tales from culinary school by Katherine Darling. The book is Darling's account of her time at New York's famed Frency Culinary Institute.

I absolutely love these "kitchen confessional" type of books.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Alain De Botton - The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work

I've seen a few episodes of De Botton's show on TV but haven't read any of his popular books on philosophy. According to this report, Australians are huge fans of his practical 'brand' of philosophy.

So it was with a few high expectations that I approached his latest book,
The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work. What a great topic! And I was especially interested in what the book had to offer, considering the many angst driven discussions I’ve had with friends over the past year about work and what work means to our lives. (Is it oh so very Gen X to have a mid life crises in your 30s?)

Overall, I was really disappointed in De Botton’s book. It failed on many accounts. Firstly, the bulk of the book was too descriptive, lacking in substantial analysis and at times so shallow. For example the chapter on entrepreneurs, which could have been so fascinating, was too short and read like a magazine puff piece. Oh there was some attempted analysis with comments on the late capitalism, consumerism etc but they seemed like an afterthought.

Secondly, I felt De Botton was too dismissive of the occupations he was supposed to be analysing and reporting on. There was a real element of condescension and also sometimes pure snarkiness running through many of his descriptions of the "workers" he meets. Caleb Crain makes the point clear in his
NYT review calling De Botton on his mean-spiritedness and superficial judgements.

Thirdly, the language really annoyed me! It was so unnecessarily complicated and induced some eye ball rolling. In some parts of the book I thought, “is he really trying to construct the longest sentence with the biggest words?”.

Gee, I think I’ve really slammed this book! But it is coming from a good place, as I so wanted this book to be interesting, relevant and resonant.

On a side note, what is fascinating is the dust-up that has happened since Crain's review. De Botton posted quite a snarky comment on Crain blog ending with the rather lovely lines: "
I will hate you till the day I die and wish you nothing but ill will in every career move you make. I will be watching with interest and schadenfreude."

(Eye-ball rolling on "schadenfreude" - oh please if you're gonna diss someone it is so not necessary to put a foreign word in!!!)

LOL, you've got love the next posted comment - "Oh dear...".

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Order Up - Hungry Monkey and The Sweet Life in Paris

Order Up! Am soooo excited as my library has upgraded and you can now request the purchase of books online.

YAY - My two request were accepted and put on order:
Hungry Monkey just arrived and have read the first few chapters. It's really funny, Matthew Amster-Burton has a sharp and self-depreciating wit. Oh and there are recipes too!

I don't have children, so what to feed a baby isn't really on the top of my list of things to ponder. But I have reached a certain age where many of my good friends have started to have children so let's say I'm reading this one to gain a better understanding of what they have to go through. The chapter on called Adentures in Breastfeeding was particulary illuminating!

The second book, Living the Sweet Life in Paris is pastry chef David Lebovitz's food based memoir about living in Paris. The book covers two of my favourite things in life - Paris and pastries. Check out Lebovitz's blog for recipes and mouth- watering pics of his creations.

Oh, did I mention his other book is called the Great Book of Chocolate? Mmm maybe I need to place another order......

Monday, June 8, 2009

Nowhere to go - Lee Child's Gone Tommorow

Somehow I keep going back to authors like Patricia Cornwell and Lee Child when I should just stop.

Is it the optimist or masochist i
n me?

I keep hoping that their latest book will be good and they get back the form that made them such fantastic thriller writers.

But alas, after reading Child’s 13th Jack Reacher novel, Gone Tomorrow, I have given up hope.

Gone Tomorrow is a strangely flat and subdued affair, with no real suspense or action. Actually, what action there is comes right at the end and is so formulaic and boring I almost slept through it.

It's really sad because part of the fun of reading Child’s Reacher novels like Echo Burning and Tripwire, are the action sequences and military setting. The first few books were fantastic, brillant opening sections that got you right into the story and just kept you turning that page in suspense.

This latest book is the opposite. The narrative is quite convoluted with a lot of unnecessary exposition. Child tries to get Reacher involved in wider political issues, like Afghanistan and US Senate race, but done so superficially and badly. Really he is better off leaving it to a master like Frederick Forsyth.

In the end I just didn’t care about the characters or story, it was a bit like “yeah I’ll keep reading, but is something interesting going to happen…like soon?”

I just think that there is a point where there is nowhere for the character to go anymore. No doubt about it, Child has definitely reached that point with Reacher in this novel.

I am happily back to Ian Rankin’s Inspector Rebus series, book 4 Strip Jack.

Ahhhh, it's so nice to be reading good writing again. Rankin is such a brillant story teller.

Maybe reading Rankin has really spoilt me for other crime and thriller writers?

Sunday, June 7, 2009

The Angel's Game - Disappointed

The Angel’s Game is the much anticipated follow-up (prequel) to Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s mega hit, The Shadow of the Wind.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t quite live up to expectations. I loved the first three quarters of the book: great story telling and intriguing mix of gothic mystery, detective and of course tragic love story.

I was totally enthralled. Zafon elegantly and teasingly draws you into his story. The evocation of Spain in the 1920s is wonderfully moody and the characters captivating and charming.

I liked the main character of Daniel Martin, who is cynical enough to be classed as a smart arse, but of course deep down is a softie. The dialogue between Daniel and his seventeen year old assistant Isabella is short, sharp and witty.

But the last quarter of the book really lost me and left me a bit bewildered. It seemed to turn a sharp corner and become a non-stop action book. There was just lost of action and hardly any real craft.

In his review Telegraph critic Mark Sanderson comments, "it's as if Zafon is trying to be Dan Brown for those who have read something other than tabloids".

Ouch! But so true.

The twist and turns are revealed but almost all too easily and without any real detailed follow through. In the space of a few chapters many characters are killed off.

Even now I’m a bit shell shocked at how quickly the novel turned. Actually shocked and also VERY disappointed.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Alan Bennett The Uncommon Reader

Just in time for Queen’s Birthday holiday this weekend I picked up Alan Bennett’s The Uncommon Reader. It’s a cute little book, packed with ideas, humour and wit.

The premise of the book is what happens when the Queen discovers, much to the displeasure of her staff, the joys of reading. She accidently happens, by way of her rascally corgis, onto the Westminster travelling library bus and decides it would be rude not to borrow a book.

This book is joy to read; Bennett light heartedly pokes fun at the monarchy, modern management practices, bureaucracy and New Zealand too! The book is also packed with ideas about how reading can challenge, stimulate and be ultimately quite subversive. There are many laugh-out loud moments as Bennett’s humour is quite deliciously wicked.

A part of the book that was a real “Aha” moment for me was the point where the Queen points out the difference between reading and being briefed:

“briefing is not reading…antithesis of reading. Briefing is terse, factual and to the point. Reading is untidy, discursive and perpetually inviting. Briefing closes down a subject, reading opens it up.” (p.22)

As someone who has to write a lot of briefs for work, I always find it quite an unenjoyable task. Sure there is considerable skill needed in being able to write an effective, concise and readable brief, but reading Bennett’s book made me realise just why I find them so painful – the act of writing a brief is not really a creative act.

Will be chasing down Bennett’s autiobiographies –
Writing Home and Untold Stories

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Hooked on another crime series: Boris Akunin's Erast Fandorin

On another crime reading spree!

Am really excited about making my way through another list having just discovered Boris Akunin’s Russian detective novels featuring the wonderfully named,
Erast Fandorin. What a great name!

Am half way through the first book, The Winter Queen, and already totally hooked. The books are set in Russia in the early nineteenth century and feature the young detective Erast, who works in the Criminal Investigation Division of Moscow Police.

Akunin easily builds the suspense and evokes the atmosphere of Russia in 1876.

The chapters have the most entertaining subtitles, for example:
  • Chapter Two, which consist entirely of a conversation
  • Chapter Four, which tells of the ruinous power of beauty

I liked Erast straight away, he is clever and intelligent but also slightly vain. There is the hilarious scene involving a male whalebone corset!

There are 10 Erast Fandorin novels, which are still being translated into English. I can’t wait read more about his adventures and have the second book,
The Turkish Gambit, on waiting for me on my shelf already!

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Hooked on Ian Rankin's Rebus series

Got given Ian Rankin's Fleshmarket Close for present and gotta say am now officially addicted to Inspector Rebus!

Rankin's writing is so clean, clear and crisp. There is not one wasted word or description. I love the dialogue too and the droll humour of the characters, including of course Rebus.

What I liked is that Rankin is able to so easily grab you and get you into the story immediately. I haven't got into a book so quickly for a while.

The great thing about being a late convert is that I now have an extensive back list to read. Nearly finished Book 2 - Hide and Seek and have Book 1 Tooth and Nail waiting.

Will pick up Book 3 Tooth and Nail from library tommorow!

Soooo good to find myself working through another list;-)

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Historical adventure - Bernard Cornwell's Agincourt

I didn't think I'd find myself so enamoured of English history, but after my spate of reading covering different periods from Napolonic to Elizabethean period, I find myself reading Cornwell's latest book, Agincourt.

Cornwell's book is a fictional account of one of most dramatic victories in British history:King Henry V and the Battle of Agincourt in 1415.
It focuses how the English archers proved decisive in delivering battlefield victories over much larger and better equipped French legions.

I found the description of the archers and their professional standing among the army fascinating. The battle scenes, sieges of Harfleur and Soissons, are well drawn.

However, some parts of it are quite overblown, particularly the revenge story line and I would have liked some more subtley and nuance.

But overall a rollicking good read.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Totally Addicted to Thomas Perry's Jane Whitefield Series

I am totally addicted to Thomas Perry’s Jane Whitefield series of books, having just finished Dance for the Dead (Book 2) and Shadow Woman (Book 3) over the weekend.

Jane Whitefield is a “guide” who helps people who are in trouble and danger ‘disappear’. She often ends up playing a game of ‘cat and mouse’ with the dangerous people who are after the person she is protecting.

Here are some things I love about this series, and why you should definitely check it out:
  • the writing is short, sharp and drives the narrative brilliantly
  • the characters are all well developed and behave like ‘real’ people in all their moral complexity
  • Jane’s Native American background adds a fascinating element and depth to these stories, enabling Perry to delve into mythology and history
  • the various twist and turns where the roles of hunter and hunted are always changing
  • the banter between Jane and her love interest, the fabulously named, Dr Carey McKinnon, is clever, sexy and witty
  • the exploration of the human psychology of taking on new identity.
Here's the full series, as you can see I'm making my way to the latest release this year:
  • Vanishing Act (1995)
  • Dance for the Dead (1996)
  • Shadow Woman (1997)
  • The Face-Changers (1998)
  • Blood Money (1999)
  • Runner (2009)
As you can see there is a 10 year gap between the last two novels! Here's what Perry wrote in this website about the returning to writing about Jane:

"I've missed Jane, and I've found that going back to write about her after a few years of writing stand-alone books about other characters was a pleasure. I believe it was Ezra Pound who said that great literature is "always news." I think that any book we expect readers to enjoy had better be news too. Runner catches us up with what Jane's been up to and how she's changed, and gives us an inkling of how she's going to be in the future."

Here's Perry talking about the Runner:

I can't wait to get to The Runner!

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Book Buying Spree

I'm a big borrower rather than buyer of books. I think it's a hangover from my not too recent student days when I didn't have much money.

Plus my local library carries a great fiction range and regularly gets most bestsellers. It's a two dollar charge to reserve them, which is I think is a great deal.

But in the last week I've been on a bit of book buying spree!

Granted it is because I can't get these books from my library or even Borders! I recently got a borders gift voucher for a present, and literally every book I wanted was not stocked in Australia.

So my recent purchases - awaiting delivery:

  • Celia Friedman, Wings of Wrath (Book 2 of Magister Trilogy)
  • Celia Friedman, Black Sun Rising (Book 1 of Coldfire Trilogy)
  • Thomas Perry, Vanishing Act (Book 1 ofJane Whitefield series)
  • Thomas Perry, The Face-Changers (Book 4 of Jane Whitefield series

Because of the dip of the Aussie dollar against US, I haven't been going through Amazon but a great Australian online bookstore called Fishpond.com.au. The range is pretty impressive and so are the prices, especially for paperbacks. For example, I picked up Thomas Perry's Vanishing Act in paper back for $13.97.

Now that is a good deal for these tough GFC times!!

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Mid-book Rave - Thomas Perry's The Butcher Boy

I have found a thriller writer as satisfying as Frederick Forsyth!

Mid-way through Thomas Perry's first book The Butcher Boy and it is brillant! I can't put it down, the writing is short, sharp and suspenseful. Like Forsyth, the story telling is masterly, with two intersecting storylines slowly drawing closer and closer together.

The book follows the an un-named hitman, "Butcher Boy" who is double crossed by the mob after he completes a contract killing work for them. It also tells the story of the Department of Justice field agent, Elizabeth Waring, who is trying to tie all the killings together.

It was first published in 1982, but am reading the republished 2007 version. The intro by Michael Connolly describes the book in one word "relentless". So true.

Luckily I'm on holidays and able to read until 2am without having to worry about dragging myself up for work. Bliss.

First came across Butcher Boy after reading a review of Perry's latest book, Runner, which is part of his Jane Whitefield series. Needless to say, I'm tracking down this series already and have just got hold of books 2 & 3: Dance for the Dead & Shadow Woman. Can't find the first book in my library so looks like I'm going to have to make a purchase!

So excited as Perry has quite an extensive bibliography!!!

Monday, March 16, 2009

Second Time Round - Feast of Souls

It is rare for me to read a book twice, but I have with Celia Friedman's fantasy novel Feast of Souls.

This is the first book in Friedman’s ‘Magister Trilogy’, and it is an absolutely thrilling and captivating read. Second time round did not dampen my enthusiasm for this book.I had to reread it because the second book in the trilogy, Wings of Wrath has just come out.

Feast of Souls is set in a kingdom ruled by King Danton Aurelius, whose youngest son is dying from an unknown illness. Magisters (otherwise known as magicians) are gathered around in a special meeting to work out what to do. Meanwhile a young female, Kamala, is set to become the first woman to transition to a magister and shock the patriarchal world of magisters.

I'm not going to give anything else more away - but needless to say there is magic, sorcery, battles, kings, queens and princes involved!

Friedman introduces an interesting moral and ethical element into her story as magisters get their power and immortality from feeding off human’s souls – their consorts. Humans are denied the knowledge of this truth.

There are several narratives at play, but they are intertwined seamlessly. The characters are fully developed and the narrative drives a page turning pace.

It is a standout read and I am eagerly awaiting my copy of Wings of Wrath to arrive. Disappointly my library does not have the second book or actually any of Friedman's other novels. I even checked Borders and they didn’t stock it!

Thank god for the internet - I ordered my book of Fishpond.com.au, a great site I've used before to get hard to find books.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Spy thriller - Ghost War by Alex Berenson

A while ago I read a good review by my book bible, New York Times online, of Alex Berenson’s thriller: The Faithful Spy. I managed to pick up the second book in the series, The Ghost War, from my library.

It was a good read, if a little formulaic in narrative and characterisation. The main character of John Wells is of the same psychological makeup as Lee Child’s Jack Reacher. You know the loner/muscle bound action hero type. The part where we find out how much of daredevil/death wish John Wells has by riding his motorbike like, really, really fast is just a bit predictable.

Though no where near of course the hyper-masculinity of Jack Reacher. But this kinda what makes the Reacher novels so much fun too!

When I read these spy thrillers I think it would be nice to be surprised by a different kind of action hero. While reading this book I keep going back to the fact that no-one does spy thrillers and actual characters like Frederick Forsyth.

Everyone else seems so lightweight, unsophisticated and dare I say it, very American.

But it is good to roll up in bed with a fun ‘rushing to save the world’ thriller. Actually, I've got The Faithful Spy on bookshelf right now!

Friday, February 20, 2009

Disappointed - Throne of Jade

For musicians, the say the follow up second album is always a difficult one. I think this also applies to writers.

I am really, really, really disappointed with the second book in Naomi Novik's Temaraire series - Throne of Jade. If I had to use just one word to describe it, I would say it was 'pedestrian'.

Not enough action scenes, suspense or thrills. The narrative is weighed down by a lot of conversations between characters explaining things to each other. Hello? Bring back the aerial battles between dragons and the French and English!

And when there was some action, it is quite rushed and badly written. The scenes set in China are totally unbelievable and lacking in any subtley. Plus the post-colonial in me was a bit put off with the stereotypical descriptions of Chinese as inscrutable, emotionless and wearing funny clothing.

Maybe my expectations were too high?

They say third time lucky – Fingers crossed as am about to start the 3rd book in series this weekend Black Powder War.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Hooked - Naomi Novik's Temaraire series

Why did it take me so long to get to this series? I'm hooked, line and sinkered into Naomi Novik's brillant Temaraire series.

Just finished the first one His Majesty's Dragon (read the excerpt) and am eagerly awaiting my request for the second bo0k - Throne of Jade - to arrive at my library.

A historical fantasy series set in the Napoleonic era, Temaraire is an inventive re-imagining of this period in which dragons exists and are 'weapons' in the war between the French and English.

The series follows the adventures of ex-naval captain William Laurence and his dragon Temaraire as they battle the French.

This book is one of these rare sci-fi/fantasy books that actually engages you because of its well developed characters. The relationship between the gentleman captain William and the extremely intelligent Temarair unfolds in a well plotted and tightly drawn narrative.

The action scenes are real page turners too.

Really, what more can one ask for?

As Mary Jo Putney says in her review, it's like "Horatio Hornblower has become a dragon rider!"

Not sure I can wait too long and may have to buy the book! Yes, it's that good that I am contemplating buying a book!

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Good fun read – The Brotherhood of the Holy Shroud

Just finished Julia Navarro's The Brotherhood of the Holy Shroud.

In similar vein to The DaVinci Code - this book is a historical thriller with the subject matter the Turin Shroud.

The book starts with a strange fire and death at the Cathedral of Turin which brings in Italy’s Art Crimes Department to investigate.

It is a good fast paced fun page turner that interweaves the present and past, cris- crossing periods from the Byzantium to the Crusades.

Gotta say I love a good story involving knights, especially the Knights of Templar – which DaVinci Code also delves into.

Navarro is most effective when telling the story of the shroud from the death of Jesus through to the 14th century. Whereas the contemporary characters sometimes err on the side of the implausible – such as the character of Sophia Galloni. Really what is it with writers who create characters who are not only beautiful, smart but also hold PhDs? Please I know it’s fiction, but give me break!

The most dissatisfying part of the book is the ending – which wraps up quite too abruptly and quickly with one of the main character relegated to almost a footnote.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Improvement but undecided - Patricia Cornwell's Scarpetta

Ever since finishing Cornwell's Predator in disgust I vowed never to be sucked in and read another Cornwell Scapetta novel again. Ever.

Marc Ruby's review of Predator says it all. Plus the really short chapters annoyed me - I couldn't work out if whether Cornwell was trying something new for the hell of it or cos she thought it would help build any suspense or anything.

Well, never say never!

Just finished the latest Scarpetta. Good news is that it is an improvement, but bad news is that I'm not sure it matters anymore. The suspense and thrills just aren't there and the red herrings a little too obvious.

More problematic is that mid way through the book, and it takes her half the book to get the main characters together, you kind of lose track of why you care about the murder and who did it! Also the villian is just sooo obvious, oh from about page 3, it's hard not to think - c'mon that's it?? Oh yeah call me cynical but happy families ending struck such a false note to it all.

I just get the feeeling Cornwell doesn't know what to do with her characters anymore and so just keeps inventing these rather contrived stories. It seems every new book, Kay Scapetta has a new job or moved to new state. I think it is time to gracefully let them retire.

While I've got the claws out - the back cover of my version has a pretty scarry picture of Cornwell. Three words - "major plastic surgery". Actually let me add two more - "gone crazy".

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Good Holiday Read – The Forgotten Garden

Kate Morton's The Forgotten Garden is a good fun holiday read. A page turner with good mix of romance, fairytale and mystery. Bit like Dianne Setterfield's The Thirteen Tale, but perhaps not as successful as Morton’s book tried to cover too much ground in terms of all these different elements.

Reading it made me think of the way authors use the narrative device of alternating timelines for each chapter. Morton uses this device to drive the narrative, but I found at some points in the book it was done a little too obviously and with a real lack of subtleness.

I was sorely disappointed in Phillipa Gregory’s The Other Queen, which alternates between three different narrators. I just couldn’t get into it. Call me old fashion but where is the story telling skill involved?

One author who is does the alternating timelines/chapter device brilliantly is Frederick Forsyth. In his books the narrative often swing back and forth between timeframes, but he uses this device with such skill and subtlety. Forsyth builds his narrative the connections between these different time frames in such a deliberate and carefully crafted manner.

Just finished Icon which is a masterclass in story telling.