Saturday, December 29, 2012

Back to fiction: The Sisters Brothers

In 2012, non-fiction featured quite heavily in my reading list so it’s nice to end the year by going back to fiction. 

It's holiday time and I just wanted a great story to take me away.  Patrick Dewitt’s The Sisters Brothers, certainly did that!

This book is a strange, violent and compelling Western about two brothers who are assassins.

Yes that is right, I read a Western! I must admit the Western is a genre that I’m not too familiar with and don’t have much of an interest in.

Dewitt’s book, described as a ‘revisionist Western’, tracks the relationship and adventures of the much feared and loathed Charlie and Eli Sisters who are on a job to kill a gold prospector Hermit Kermit Warm.

Set in the 'wild West' of the Gold Rush era, the story is told from the perspective of Eli Sisters and it’s really his voice that really makes the novel so interesting, original and at times very poetic.

An overweight, sensitive, romnatic and philosophical assassin is the last thing you expect in a Western genre, but Eli Sisters is exactly that. 

I’m not sure that The Sisters Brothers has ignited my interest in Western, but it is certainly a terrific read.  

It’s hard to describe this strange, funny, violent and compelling story but from the first chapter it had me totally hooked. 

One reviewer described the book as a bit like a Coen brothers movie, which is very apt as you are either a fan of their type of movies or not. There really is no in between. 

I'm a big fan of the Coen brothers, so I really enjoy this type of story telling with quirky characters and situations.  

It’s a sign of a great writer when the story and characters stay inside your head long after you have finished the book.

Charlie and Eli Sisters have certainly stayed with me.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Justin Cronin’s The Twelve

Book two finally arrived! 

The Twelve is Justin Cronin’s eagerly awaited sequel to The Passage, his best-selling ‘adult’ vampire novel.

I couldn’t wait to get my hands on this novel, especially as The Passage was one of my favourite books of 2010.

I was so eager to be transported back to the post-apocalyptic world of virals.

Where The Passage was a more intense and  emotionally gripping read, this second book shifts the series into an action/thriller genre.

But the main problem is that does so in a very slow way. It isn’t until a good third into the book that the pace picks up and the characters all converge to (another) climatic battle scene.

In these sections, you do have to admire Cronin’s ability to drive the narrative forward creating a gripping and compelling page turner. 

A lot the set peices are perfect for the Ridley Scott produced movie to come.

The final battle scene is so vivid, with the gore and violence certainly pitched up a notch.

But unfortunately the start of the book did leave me a little bit cold and I had to really persevere.

For me the book certainly didn’t hit the high notes of The Passage, and in some ways get a bit too swallowed up in its own mythology.

Overall, I felt that Cronin just wasn’t able to sustain the epic world that he created so wonderfully and vividly in The Passage.

Here's hoping Book Three: The City of Mirrors (2014-really so long again!!!) brings back some of the spark.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic by David Quammen

 Science writer, David Quammen’s new book Spillover: animal infections and next human pandemic focuses on how diseases pass on from wild animals into humans - a process called spillover.

His account covers such zoonotic diseases as SARS, AIDS, bubonic plague, Lyme disease, West Nile fever, Marburg virus, swine flu, bird flu and Hendra virus.

Sounds very dry and boring, but don’t be fooled as Quammen is a fantastic writer, story teller and funny to boot.

In his NYT review, Dwight Garner gives this exampe of Quammen's gallows humour.
“Advisory: If your husband catches an ebola virus give him food and water and love and maybe prayers but keep your distance, wait patiently, hope for the best — and, if he dies, don’t clean out his bowels by hand. Better to step back, blow a kiss and burn the hut.”
This book reads like a thriller as Quammen traces the beginnings of spillovers, the initial medical responses to contain them and then the often frantic scientific sleuth work to discover the causes.

He also interviews an array of imminent scientists and goes on site with them to capture bats, birds and various other animals. 

What Quammen does throughout the book is to emphasis the way in which the increasing human encroachment on what was once wild habitats is a key factor. This is a salient point that he returns to at the end of the book.

I’ll admit there are moments in the book where I struggled with science and did skim through some of the more technical accounts of DNA and RNA. Quammen is sympathetic to his reading, noting in one particularly dense paragraph that:
“If you followed all that, at a quick reading, you have a future in biology.”
I did find Quammen’s explanation of retroviruses very easy to understand and his chapter on the search for the original cause of AIDS one of the best parts of the book. 

Overall, this is a very approachable book and Quammen's writing is wonderfully lucid, clear and compelling.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Too many books, too little time!

One of the best iPad apps I’ve downloaded is Longform which post non-fiction articles from a range of sources (Wired, Atlantic, Vanity Fair etc).

It’s extremely easy to use and allows you to read long form journalism  in an ereader or web format, as well as save it on Readability for later on.

What is fantastic about Longform is that the articles have often spurred me onto some great books.

So much so, that I’m reading several books on a range of topics at the same time:

Anonymous and cyber activism:

This article on how Anonymous picks targets led me to British journalist Parmy Olsen’s We Are Anonymous: Inside the Hacker World of LulzSec, Anonymous, and the Global Cyber Insurgency (2012). I'm in the middle of this and so far its an interesting and detailed account of some of the key players in the rise and development of Anonymous and LulzSec.  

The article also led me to watch the recent documentary We are Legion: The story of hacktivist, which offered a much more positive view of the Anonymous and hacktivism. I thought the analogy that the distributed denial-of-service attack (DDoS) should be viewed as a contemporary form of a 'sit in' is an interesting and worthwile point.
But the best book I’ve read so far is Underground: Tales of Hacking, Madness and Obsession on the Electronic Frontier (1997). Written by Australian academic Suelette Dreyfus, it’s a thrilling non-fiction account of the early days of hacking and features ‘Mendax’ – Julian Assange. 

It took Dreyfus three years of research and although non-fiction, it reads like a complex and ingenious thriller. The cat and mouse game between these young hackers, security experts and later on the FBI and police unfolds like a great drama.

I’m looking forward to the telemovie, Underground: the Julian Assange story which is based on Dreyfus' book and screens tonight in Australia.

 Some other great books via Longform articles:


 Okay, now it's time for me to get back to reading all these books!

Sunday, September 16, 2012

A Wanted Man - Lee Child

I really, really wanted to like and enjoy the latest Jack Reacher novel: A Wanted Man

But oh dear, it was quite frankly a complete and utter bore.

I actually lost the will to turn the page (actually tap the page on my iPad!) about mid way through the book. And that is bad, as Reacher novels are usually insanely gripping page turners with lots of plot twist and turns that keep you up all night long. 

So this book finds Reacher hitchhiking and finding himself in the middle of trouble again. The plot involves the usual suspects: FBI, CIA, local police...and of course terrorists. The plot twist were very 'meh - is that it?'.

The only new thing of note is that Reacher doesn't bed any hot female law enforcement officer this book.

As I said, very blah.

What was majorly disappointing is that we don't really find out anymore about Reacher. It's like character development just stopped. Hell, let's not even bother with development for the rest of the main characters too!!

So after sorting out all the troubles, Reacher is back on the never ending road...presumable setting us up for another book of course.

Call me cynical, even for a fanboy this felt very much like a "oh it's time to churn out another Reacher novel to keep the franchise going in time for the movie launch".
I must admit this is all VERY disappointing and I'm very envious of newish fan Tseenster whose still got a couple of great Reacher novels in the series to go before she hits the wall of mediocrity.  

Sunday, July 22, 2012

A killer thriller: Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

Over the past few weeks, I kept seeing rave reviews  (Salon, NY Times,The Age) of Gillian Flynn’s new thriller Gone Girl.

Let me say that the reviews are right: this is rave worthy book.

It's a smart,funny and thrilling "who dunnit". 

It’s also difficult to review properly because there are some brilliant and slightly outrageous plot twists that can't be revealed.

In a clever but deceptively simple narrative structure, Gone Girl begins with the voice of Nick, an all American man, whose marriage to Amy seems to be in trouble.

Amy then goes missing. Each chapter alternates between Amy and Nick and between past and present.

The story spirals into a thrilling cat and mouse game between husband and wife. And ultimately between author and reader, as each reveal brings more uncertainty to the story and shifting alliances.

Needless to say the writing is sharp and  the characters well developed and believable.

This is my favourite type of thriller: it hooks you in straight away and you know you can’t stop reading until the finish.

A deliciously enjoyable read that stays in your head for a bit. In fact I needed a couple of days to properly recover from it all!

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Poision Flower - Thomas Perry

Poison Flower is the seventh book in Thomas Perry’s Jane Whitefield series.

I’m a huge fan of the Jane Whitefield books, having previously blogged on how much I enjoyed the series and how Perry is a masterful suspense writer. So I was eager to read about Jane’s latest adventures.

Overall, I have very mixed feelings about the book and as a fan felt quite disappointed. The narrative was a bit choppy and the part of the Jane helping someone ‘disappear’ was dealt with in a rather desultory and mechanical manner.  

The second half of the book was Jane in ‘revenge’ mode, with the twist being that instead of making someone disappear she is actively seeking someone on the run. There was a distinct lack of suspense as the ending was quite rush and Jane seems to get her revenge in a rather quick and easy manner.

Some of the violence and torture scenes in the book made me think that I had accidently found myself in Lee Child’s Jack Reacher series!

Plus the main ‘badie’ in the book could have done with some character development, apart from the fact that he is a psychopath we don’t really know (or are made to care) exactly why?

I really, really wanted to like this book, but kept thinking that in this seventh book Perry has really struggled to keep Jane  developing and growing as a charater.

I think it gets hard for any author to keep a series consistenly fresh and a character going after so many books without at some point having them 'jump the shark' (see for example of Patricia Cornwell and Charlaine Harris).

For me, the only author who has done this consistently is thriller writer  Jeffrey Deaver. Across his various series (Lincoln Rhyme and Kathryn Dance), Deaver delivers books that keep his characters growing, developing and always has original but believable storylines.

I am hoping that Deaver continues to deliver, as am about to read his latest Kathryn Dance book "XO".

When has a series, jumped the shark for you?