Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Some notable books for 2011

These are some memorable books that I didn’t get a chance to blog about in 2011:

The Night Circus - Erin Morgenstern

Brilliant story of duelling magicians and their protégés: Celia and Marco, who battle it out in a circus that only opens at night. It’s filled with wonderful characters and the feats of magic are always grounded in human emotions. One of the most imaginative and enjoyable reads I’ve had this year.

The interrogator : a CIA agent's true story - Glenn Carle

Fascinating and riveting insider account of Carle’s role in the interrogation of potential terrorist suspects. He details the psychology of interrogation and the often compromised operation of US agencies in often hostile countries. Carle writes with a clear sense of urgency, anger and frustration. It is a compelling account of how ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ were a moral, political and legal failure.

The coming plague : newly emerging diseases in a world out of balance – Laurie Garrett

This year I really got into my science books; perhaps making up for my youthful disregard of biology and chemistry.

Garret’s book can almost be read as a cultural history of modern science and medicine’s battle with microbes. It tracks the major diseases to emerge in the twentieth century like, Lassa Fever, Marburg, Ebola and Yellow Fever.

Each chapter begins like a detective story, with the breakout of an undetermined illness (often) affecting a third world country. It then traces the doctors, scientist and epidemiologists who go into the field to try and identify the locus of infection. Being a science journalist, Garret is able to clearly and effectively explain complexities of how viruses work and how ‘smart’ they can be.

I found this a truly fascinating book and at times very scary, as it seems in the battle between our immune systems and viruses we always seem to be on the losing side.

Reading this book, really prepped me to watch Steven Soderbergh’s film Contagion. And I’ve got to say the book was far more compelling and interesting than the film.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Song of Achilles - Madeline Miller

There are some books that stay with you long after you finished the last page. Madeline Miller’s lyrical novel, Song of Achilles is one of them.

I’ve long been a fan of Greek mythology and as a geeky teenager totally enchanted by stories of the gods, goddesses and heroes such as Achilles and Hercules.

The Song of Achilles is told from the perspective of Patroclus, detailing the development of his relationship with Achilles.

Set against the backdrop of the Trojan war, the unfolding of the love story between Patroclus, an exiled prince, and Achilles is wonderfully nuanced.

The writing is clean, clear and flows naturally. I loved the way Miller’s story features the Gods and creatures like centaurs as ordinary characters.

The book is also a satisfying page turner as the two lovers head of to the Trojan war and attempt to defy what the Gods have ordained as Achilles fate: to die a young but glorious death.

In the end the book is really more about Patroclus, rather than Achilles. It is through Patroclus’ actions that we understand what it is to be human and humane.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Felix J. Palma's The Map of Time

I’m always a bit wary when I see ‘international bestseller’ sticker on a book as I know it’s either going to be fantastic or terrible.

Luckily, Felix J. Palma’s The Map of Time is a fantastic read. It’s an intriguing mix of genres, an interplay between old fashion story telling and post modern ‘meta fiction’.

Set in Victorian London, the book is jam packed full of famous people with Jack the Ripper, HG Wells, Joseph Merrick (the Elephant Man), Bram Stoker and Henry James all making appearances.

The book has three intertwining stories, starting with Andrew Harrington whose true love, the prostitute Marie Kelly, has become Jack the Ripper’s fifth victim. Connecting all three stories is the figure of H.G. Wells, who plays the part of a reluctant hero.

I won’t give too much more away, as the joy of reading this book is the often unexpected twist and turns in the story.

The Map of Time is a fun, absorbing and witty meditation on time travel, love and what it means to be human.

I really enjoyed the character’s debating about whether you can change the past, what happens if you met a future you and consequences of parallel universes.

This is the first of Palma's books to be translated and published in English, so I can't wait for the others.

I’m off to read the original H.G. Wells, The Time Machine.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Steal: a cultural history of shoplifting

Did you know Jane Austin’s aunt, Leigh Perrot, was a kleptomaniac? This is one of the more interesting facts to come out of Rachel Shteir's Steal: A Cultural History of Shoplifting.

I’m a big fan of the cultural history genre and I had high hopes for this book, as shoplifting is such a fascinating topic and this book is apparently the first full scale study of it to be published.

Having worked in retail for many years I'm also very aware of shoplifting, otherwise known as 'shrinkage', from a practical perspective!

But overall, I found Shteir’s book a very uneven read and frustratingly disjointed. I found myself wanting to really get into the book, but the narrative was just everywhere and there was little done to connect the chapters together into a coherent theme.

For example, there were really interesting facts about the ‘loss prevention’ industry and how much ‘shrinkage’ cost retailers per year. But these issues were sort of scattered throughout the book and just when you thought it would get interesting, Shteir would move onto a another topic.

Perhaps, I’m being a bit harsh but I guess the bar was set so high with Siddhartha Mukherjee’s magisterial cultural history of cancer: The Emperor of all Maladies: A Biography of Cancer.

That being, said the best parts of the book were the analysis of shoplifting as a gendered crime and the increasing punitative punishments metered out in some parts of the United States. Also the chapter on celebrity shoplifters was fascinating and it was a clever hook to start the book with one of the most infamous celebrity shoplifters, Winona Ryder.

But overall, I was really disappointed in this book.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks

I’ve always been a big fan of fantasy fiction and will own up to a bit of a Lord of the Rings obsession. Unwrapped LoR playing cards anyone? After all, who wouldn’t want be Legolas? Life just seem so much better….and blonder in Tolkien’s Middle Earth.

While perusing my favourite online journal Salon, I happened to read Ethan Gilsdorf’s article, “How Dungeons and Dragons change my life”, which then led me to his book Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks.

Fantasy Freaks is a journalistic adventure into the world of Dungeons and Dragon, LARP (live action role play) and MMORPG (massive multi-player online role playing game). Tell you what, I learnt a lot acronyms after reading the book! Gilsdorf also visits Dragon*Con, which sounds like a real blast, and goes on multiple Lord of the Ring tours.

As well as a being a great introduction to these cultures, the most interesting part was Gilsdorf’s interviews of these ‘freaks’ and ‘geeks’. These were people who were passionately devoted to and immersed in these fantasy worlds. Most of his interviewees were quite grounded, funny and intelligent people who were not only self-aware about their little obsessions, but also able to clearly articulate the actual value they got from them.

This was the key theme running throughout the book: the value of fantasy and gaming culture. Gilsdorf provides his own moving account of how fantasy, in particular D&D helped him survive a difficult childhood and actually grow as a person. I did lose a bit of interest in the book three quarters through it and was often frustrated as Gilsdorf brought the story back to his relationship problems. His complaint that his girlfriend didn't understand or respect his fascination with fantasy was a bit yawn inducing.

Interestingly, Lev Grossman recently wrote a passionate and funny article: "Wanted:Respect for Wizards, Orc which really resonated with me. I am currently deeply immersed in the fantasy world of Georg RR Martin. I realised that you can't just dip your toe in Martin, you need to go the whole hog and embrace/ invest in the the immense world he has created.

I feel at times that it has slowly taken over my life.
It’s not often that TV show makes you
reconsider book, but the recent HBO production of Game of Thrones drove me back to reading Book 2: Clash of Kings because I simply HAD to find out what happened to all these characters.

Scary thing is that there are three more books to go!

Monday, July 25, 2011

Carte Blanche – New James Bond by Jeffery Deaver

Carte Blanche is Jeffery Deaver’s reboot of the James Bond series and it doesn’t disappoint.

I haven’t read any of the other Bond novels, preferring to watch the movies, but anything Deaver writes is definitely worth reading.

Deaver delivers another page turner with some surprising plots twist and great dialogue. Rather than fit into the world of Bond, I felt that Deaver was able to fit the Bond character into his type of story telling. Which is always about keeping the reader guessing with many delicious misdirections, while maintaining a believability and subtley.

Plus Deaver does really interesting and impressive villians, who often have unusual and weird inclinations/obsessions.

In the first few chapters, I thought Deaver was channelling the master Federick Forsyth. Usually, Deaver’s books are set in America, but here in the world of Bond it’s all about M15, M16, GCHQ and COBRA. That is definitely the world of Forsyth, so perhaps a homage?

The new technology described in the book was really fun; Bond uses all these great spy apps on his iphone to defeat the badies.

If you want a great read over a long cold weekend, the I’d recommend Carte Blanche. Hell, I love Deaver so I’d recommend anything written by him! Just be prepared to stay up late reading beyond your bed time.

That being said, I think the Bond franchise owners made a very cleaver and astute decision to pick Deaver. He really does bring Bond into present and in a very believable way.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Bossypants - Tina Fey

I’m a big fan of Tina Fey. I thought her impersonation of Sarah Palin for Saturday Night Live was one of the highlights of the 2008 American Presidential elections.

And I also loved 30 Rock, especially the first three seasons. So there was no doubt that I would be reading her biography, Bossypants.

The good news is that the book is just like an episode of 30 Rock: smart, funny, heavy on the political humour and sarcasm, plus a couple of laugh out loud moments.

Particularly funny is her chapter on what she calls the biggest issue facing women in America at the moment: the evils of photoshop.

Worth the price of entry alone.

That and the chapter on her honeymoon cruise disaster.

Although the book tracks her career, including working on SNL and 30 Rock, it is particularly light on in terms of any revelations. Indeed, there is I think a conscious lack of any Oprah moments.

Here is her description of why 30 Rock got supported by NBC:

"NBC executives must have seen something of value in my quirky and unique pilot (Alec Baldwin) because they decided for some reason (Alec Baldwin) to 'pick it up.' This means they agreed to make eleven more episodes and maybe show them on TV."

Every time the stories veer towards any sentimentality Fey throws in a very funny, self-depreciating line.

That being, said one of my gripes is that I would definitely have liked some more backstage goss and naming of names!

The book is very readable. I finished it in one sitting and it was a highly enjoyable way to spend an afternoon.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Refuse to Choose! Barbara Sher

I normally stay away from self help books, especially those with “!” or “NOW” and even worse the combo “NOW!” in their title.

But I suspended my disbelief to read Barbara Sher’s Refuse to Choose!, after it was recommended by Sarah Wilson.

Sher argues that when it comes to careers, there are two types of people out there: scanners and deep divers.

And each type is fundamentally motivated by different rewards:

  • Deep divers are happy with fitting into one defined career path or profession. They seek specialised knowledge, financial security and recognition.
  • Scanners finds it difficult to choose one career and be defined by it professionally. Instead, scanners need to do lots of different things, are always interested in what else is out there. They seek different rewards and often end up having a series of careers and spend their time "scanning the horizon, thinking about their next move."

For someone who has dabbled in a lot of different things and rarely feels completely satisfied in one career, this book really resonated with me.

I have often had the "it's time to buckle down and chose one thing" inner dialogue with myself. Or worse yet, the morally destructive comparing myself with my friends and their seemingly straight forward career trajectories.

Sher writes:

“Almost every case of low self-esteem, shame, frustration, feelings of inadequacy, indecisiveness, and inability to get into action simply disappeared the moment they understood that they were Scanners and stopped trying to be somebody else.”

In her book, Sher breaks down scanners further into different types of scanners and maps out career/life strategies for each one.

I found the advice and strategies quite helpful, moreover it was the sense of relief that I could be put a name to my feelings.

I guess that is what self-books are all about, putting a name to our problems and making us feel understood and part of a community.

I'm still working though some of Sher's advice, which must of course be tempered by the reality of our current economic climate.

While, googling about scanners I came across a great article by Dr. Lauchlan A. K. Mackinnon who puts Sher’s ideas within the context of the market place.

He notes that the contemporary workplace favours Divers and there are very few employers willing to take risks in terms of hiring practices. Interstingly, he observes that:

“Australia employers in Melbourne are more conservative and less likely to take a risk and hire on talent rather than track record compared to employers in, for example, Sydney.”

That's bad news for this Scanner living in Melbourne!

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Sookie Stackhouse Book 11 - Dead Reckoning

Book number 11 in the Sookie Stackhouse series, Dead Reckoning, has just come out.

Even though, I’m on a waiting list for the book at my library I am ambivalent about what to expect.

The last two books were really average and the last book, Dead in the Family, was a major disappointment.

At what point do you give up on a series? When has an author ‘jumped the shark’?

I’m edging toward closing the book on the Sookie Stackhouse series. I think that Harris has exhausted all possible and interesting storylines.

She has had the competing boyfriends issues (Eric and Bill), romance with a werewolf and discovery of fairies relatives.

Now, the characters just seemed to be treading water. In fact, I found Sookie quite annoying in the last two books as all she seemed to be doing was bleat on about wanting a nice boyfriend to settle down with. Ugh!

So, why do authors do it?

Sure, there is a fan base to satisfy and of course the money, but at some point I wish someone would step in and say ‘enough already’.

Don’t they realise they just destroy the legacy of their own work.

A prime example I’ve previously blogged about is Patricia Cornwell’s Kay Scarpetta series. I finally stopped at Book 15: Scarpetta Factor.

And I just checked her website and I can’t believe that she is bringing out another Scarpetta book this year!

News flash: Emperor of All Maladies won the 2011 Pulitizer Prize for general non-fiction.

Friday, April 29, 2011

The Emperor of all Maladies: a biography of cancer

I chose this to read this book because unfortunately in the last few years cancer seems to have touched a lot of people I know, either directly or indirectly.

I thought it was time to actually find out more about it in a sustained manner.

Siddhartha Mukherjee’s The Emperor of all Maladies: A Biography of Cancer is an impressive book that systematically charts how cancer has been defined and treated.

He starts with the oldest surviving description of cancer is written on a papyrus from about 1600 B.C. and follows through to the development of chemotherapy treatments and stem cell research.

What makes this book a compelling, and also distressing read, is his narration of medical breakthroughs and disasters. The increasing radicalisation of surgeons who thought they could cure cancer by cutting more and more from the body is truly horrifying.

Mukherjee also intersperses his own clinical experiences and writes with a moving honesty about his own struggles with maintaining a sense of optimism in the face of this disease.

Overall, what will stay with me is the mercurial nature of cancer: it seems to have no logic or rationale. When it comes to cancer and also autoimmune diseases, we just don't know why our own bodies decide to turn against us.

For a dedicated arts/humanities geek, the science is pretty accessible in the book. Although the last few chapters, which go into the depth about DNA and RNA, did go a little bit over my head.

This is the book to read if you are interested in understanding more about cancer.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Reading literature

I’ve started a creative writing course and it has made me realise that I don’t really read that much “literature” anymore. That is capital L, serious, Booker/Miles Franklin [insert appropriate award] winning books.

Surprisingly, the course is very much about the ‘classics’ with set readings from authors such as: Hemmingway, DeLillo, Ondaatje, Proulx, Naipaul, Carey and Winton.

I am struggling with the readings. And it’s not just the short fiction, but also the critical analysis pieces which have so far relied upon a close textual reading ie. this is an important point in the narrative because it represents this and in relationship to that etc.

Oh god, reading some of these set pieces just reminds me why I didn’t continue with literary studies at university!

The main text is The Best Australian Stories 2010, edited by Cate Kennedy. And to be quite frank I didn’t find anything that great about them! I actually enjoyed about 2 stories in the whole collection.

The frustrating thing is that I am supposed to use some of these stories as a springboard for my own writing. Oh and the fact that I have to produce a peice of fiction that is:

  • literary in style: not specialist generic fiction such as science fiction, fantasy, romance, mystery – but you may draw upon aspects of those genres providing your work remains literary in style and sophisticated in approach and content.

I'm a little miffed that it seems that "literature" does not seem to encompass sci fi, mystery or other genres. It's an old fashioned and very conservative view of literature which suprises me because the institution I am at isn't a traditional conservative "sandstone" sort of place.

After all this whining, you may be suprised that I have decided to contiue with the course. The actual creative writing has been fun and it is quite liberating that you get to make it all up! Especially when my day job is all about writing 'key messages' for other people.

That and the fact that I will be writing a genre influenced creative piece for my assesment. Just trying to work out whether to go with zombies or vampires......

Monday, March 14, 2011

On the case: My Sherlock Holmes moment

My Sherlock Holmes moment began after watching the brilliant BBC TV series, Sherlock starring the fabulously named Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman (from The Office).

The three part series is one of the best things I’ve seen on TV for a while.

Inspired by the TV series, I thought I should actually read the original Sherlock Holmes books by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. So I checked at my local library and as they were all borrowed I contemplated putting a reserve on them.

But after googling around I discovered these website that allow you to download the books for free:



So I’m off to download and print these books in preparation for series two of the Sherlock.

As I don’t do things by halves, I’m also reading Nicholas Meyer's
The Seven-Percent Solution (1974). Meyer's book is a ‘modern Holmes novel’ which tells the story of Holmes pairing up with Sigmund Freud to overcome his cocaine habit and also solve a mystery in Vienna.

It's a fun read and structured as a 'lost manuscript' of the late Dr. John H. Watson. It reminded by of another great book I read featuring Freud as a key character involved in solving a crime: Jed Rubenfeld's The Interpretation of Murder (2006).

Rebenfeld's novel follows Freud and Jung's first visit to America and their involvement in solving the muder of a socialite. It's a compelling read and provides fascinating account of the relationship between Freud and Jung.

Oh I'm also off to my library to pick up Graham Moore's The Holmes Affair (2010) which look like a rollicking good read.

Moore's book has to two connected stories: In end of the Victorian era in England, Arthur Conan Doyle teams up with his friend, Dracula author Bram Stoker to investigate a seriel killer. While in the present day, Harold White a young Holmes devotee becomes involved in the investigation of a murder of a member of the Baker Street Irregulars - one who purportedly had a long missing and much sought after diary from Arthur Conan Doyle.

Friday, March 11, 2011

George R. R. Martin's Game of Thrones

I started reading George R. R. Martin's Game of Thrones, the first novel in his A Song of Ice and Fire series of novels because I found out that HBO are making it into a new TV series. Plus the added bonus that Sean Bean was playing one of the lead characters Eddard Stark!

The good news is that Game of Thrones is a great read, with lots of interesting characters and a complicated but compelling story. It has been aptly described as, “the Sopranos in Middle-earth".

Each chapter is told from a different character’s perspective. Usually, I find this narrative structure annoying and all too easily used by writers who can’t sustain a proper narrative. But fortunately it works here and Martin is able to create a compelling level of suspense while also giving the reader an overall view of the intersecting stories.

In a very short amount of writing, Martin creates a vast world of believable characters and situations. I also liked the fact that Martin is not afraid to kill of major characters in the book, which makes it exciting!

The bad news is that I didn’t quite make it through the second book, A Clash of Kings. I got mid-way and just lost interest. The story seemed to drag on and as more different characters were introduced it all got a bit too long and laborious. Plus I was distinctly disappointed at the lack of fantasy element in the book ie. where is the magic/dragons?

I’m not sure whether I will try the second book again.......

The series is set to premiere on April 17, watch the trailer video here:

Oh and here's pic of Sean Bean in character:

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Shuichi Yoshida's Villain

It’s been a while since I have read any contemporary Japanese fiction. A few years ago, I went through a rather intense period, reading all the books of Banana Yoshimoto and Haruki Murakami.

I recently received Shuichi Yoshida’s
Villain as a present from Tseenster. It’s the first novel of his published in English and because of the current popularity for translated crime fiction, he is being marketed as the next Stieg Larsson.

Initially difficult to get into, I found that after a few chapters the book was quite engrossing.

The story is based in southern Japan, where the body of Fukuoka insurance saleswoman
Yoshino Ishibashi is found. Soon after the discovery of the dead woman's body, Nagasaki police charge twenty-seven year old construction worker Yuichi Shimizu with first degree murder.

Villain has been described as part “police procedural and dirty realism” , as the focus of the story is not really the actual crime but the affects of it on the all the different players.

The novel is not so much concerned with ‘who did it?’ to ‘why did they do it?’. Like all good crime fiction, that is the more interesting and challenging question.

Structurally the novels shifts from different narrators, some talking directly to the reader in an interview style. This structure works because the strength of the novel is really
Yoshida’s insightful and acute analysis of contemporary Japanese society. His able to directly give voice to the conflicts and misunderstandings between the different generations of Japanese society.

Interestingly, I think his most critical representations are of Japanese youth (mid twenties) and their disconnection to the any emotional reality.

Having lived in semi-rural Southern Japan in 2001, doing the usual teaching English gig, I found this
Yoshida's representations of provincial Japanese life really spot on. Indeed, one of the main characters in the novel: the spoilt rich brat could have modelled on one of my students!

I am eagerly awaiting the
translation of Yoshida's next novel.

Monday, January 24, 2011

The Hunger Game Triology

Two of my best read for 2010 were actually teen/young adults books:
I stayed up many late nights over the Christmas break reading the Hunger Games Trilogy. One of the reasons I've enjoyed teen/young adult books so much lately is that the plot lines are so sharp and tight; there is a story being told.

Set in the post-apocalyptic world where the Central Government forces one boy and one girl from each district to fight to the death in televised ‘Hunger Games’. Katniss Evergreen volunteers for her sister to becomes a contestant in this 'Big Brother' TV program with a difference:the contestants must kill each other.

The book is a thrilling read with the lots of twist and turns in the plot. And unlike some trilogies the narrative is easily sustained over the three books, with real character development.

With the movie in the pipelines, there has been much debate about who should be cast as Katniss Everdeen. My vote is for Haillee Stendfield who is brilliant in the Coen brother's lastest movie True Grit.

I also have high hope for the movie as Suzanne Collins is writing the screenplay. But we will have to wait awhile as the movie isn’t scheduled to come out to 2013.