Category: Books

Book Review: Leah on the Offbeat – Becky Albertalli

In Simon vs. the Homo-Sapiens Agenda, the only thing worse than the title was the character of Leah. Leah got angry at Simon for no reason on more than one occasion, and her motivations were entirely shadowy from start to finish. She was the least defined of the entire Simon crew and the least worthy of the reader’s attention. Leah existed to make Simon feel bad, and he had enough to feel bad about in the first place.

A book is the crystallisation of a moment in time. To add anything to that runs the risk of disturbing the balance of the original story. In Leah on the Offbeat, Becky Albertalli, answering the call of “the readers who knew something was up, even when I didn’t”, has written a novel solely to pander to fans of an obscure “ship”. The balance has been disturbed.

Book Review: I’ll Be Gone in the Dark – Michelle McNamara

Some readers, though eclectic in their tastes, have areas that they don’t tend to stray into. True Crime is the sort of genre that attracts people who are really into true crime. What satisfies them may not hit the spot for your average Joe who doesn’t stray onto that side of the non-fiction tracks. Crimes aren’t always solved, and facts aren’t always known; those who are looking for neat packages may be discouraged.

This is the case for I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, which is about an unsolved string of rapes and murders, written by an author who herself passed away in the process of compiling the book. I’ll Be Gone in the Dark has become a blind alley in a blind alley, a doubly unsolved mystery which can never deliver on its promise. Is it satisfying to True Crime afficionados, or is I’ll Be Gone in the Dark a book published solely on the strength of its authorial cachet?

Book Review: The Woman in the Window – A.J. Finn

There is a closing paragraph that has only worked once, and that was back in 1985*. All variations on it – and there have been more than a few – should really see the books that feature it either pulped, or at the very least sent back for a slight edit before being released on a public hungry for the opposite of the cliché. Such is the case with The Woman in the Window, a The Girl on the Train-cum-Rear Window-cum-entire Golden Age of Cinema pastiche: it has an ending that is unforgivable.

But how did we get here, to this imperfect conclusion? The Woman in the Window is touted as “the thriller of 2018”, and it is easy to see how it will capture the imagination of a reading public that devoured The Girl on the Train and tore through Gone Girl – although it does not distinguish itself as well as either of those. One could be forgiven, simply from looking at the covers and blurbs of the recent spate of unreliable narrator led thrillers, that there is a definite trend in publishing. But they’d be right: there is a definite trend.

Snuff

Samuel Vimes is one of the most beloved, and most featured, of all characters in the ever broadening Discworld series. When Terry Pratchett presents you with a City Watch book (“City” having become increasingly loosely defined as the series has progressed), you attack it in a different mind frame to any of his other books. This is because, when Vimes is in Pratchett’s hands, he becomes an incredibly single minded author. It is only rarely that we are taken out of the mind of Ankh-Morpork’s chief protector, and then that is usually only to be placed at the mercy of the inscrutable Lord Vetinari.

 

Essentially, Pratchett knows what he likes when he’s writing Vimes, and he hopes that the audience likes it, too. Fortunately, Pratchett is in but one of his many elements. The transcendental nature of I Shall Wear Midnight was always going to be a hard act to follow, so Pratchett does not try. Instead, he places us in the company of a man who has not had a book to himself since 2005 – and he has had the good grace to have made the world move in such time. Vimes is not in the same space as he was in Thud!, and the novel reads all the better for it.

Reamde

 

Neal Stephenson and I go way back. Snow Crash, his breakthrough novel, was an enjoyably zippy future-tech adventure, overly hip and over in seconds. Over the years he learned verbosity and the ability to write more than was strictly needed, and this gave rise to Cryptonomicon. Then the Baroque Cycle came out and I gave up after only 200 pages, much to my continuing shame. Anathem has sat on my bookshelf, mocking me these past few years as I’ve ploughed through countless other books, all of them generally with fewer pages.

When Reamde was announced, I thought that my Kindle should be utilized to give Stephenson another chance. I would like to believe that my gamble paid off, although at Stephenson’s expense; against all odds, Stephenson has produced a pseudo techno-thriller: a jock in nerd’s clothing.

 

Jonathan Franzen – Sydney Opera House, September 13, 2011

(Working title: Franzen of the Opera)

A loose report of various things that may have been said at the talk.

It must be a huge burden to have people call you “America’s greatest living novelist” or “one of America’s greatest novelists” or “one of the greatest novelists”. I say this entirely without irony because, after being given that title, what left is there for you to say? Anything will be an inevitable disappointment, and none of it will be your fault. This is only true if the title was bestowed upon you; if you gave it to yourself, you deserve whatever you have coming to you.

 

In having written some pretty good books, Jonathan Franzen accidentally painted himself into a corner. His American novels became metonymous for the American novel. This gave Australians free licence to ask Franzen to deconstruct his country for our entertainment and edification. He was able to do this to an extent, but the evening was best when Franzen was being specific: why he writes what he writes, and how it all comes to be. Discussing the act of writing and what informs it is far more interesting than a simple oration on the general state of the nation in which it was produced.

John Dies At the End

John Dies At The End is not a novel, but a monster stitched together piecemeal from the detritus of David Wong’s mind over the course of several years. That it never delivers on the promise made by its title would probably not matter to the many readers unable to sustain patiences enough to stick it through to the bitter, bitter end. I stayed around, and let me say that it was so ridiculously not worth it that I practically embraced my Sookie Stackhouse chaser. John Dies At The End transmutes pulpy vampire novels into high art through sheer proximity; take Wong’s work and you can make anything entertaining by comparison. It’s a kind of magic, or alchemy at the very least.

There are several kind of misanthropies in this world: there is the kind that hates fun and the idea of anyone else having fun and must stop it at all costs (like me, telling you that this book is awful – I see this as more pragmatism than misanthropy); more sinister is the type of misanthropy embodied by Wong, which is based on the exploitation of humanity by utilising contempt for them to wring money from their all too willing wallets (this brand is also known as “capitalism”). While John Dies At The End was written by a man trying to kill the boredom of his low paying jobs, Wong has commuted that sentence to a presumably lucrative career as the editor of Cracked dot com, consistently one of the worst sites on the internet.


Club Dead

Sookie Stackhouse’s innocent abroad schtick was getting slightly on the nose, so I wrote an open letter to her based on the events of Club Dead. Bear with me, and try to forgive me for writing to a fictional character:

Freedom

 

It’s easy to say something like “when you come down to it, all American literary fiction is the same”. It’s incredibly trite and flagrantly untrue, but there is something in the work of authors like Jonathan Franzen and playwrights like Tony Kirshner that strikes me as indelibly American. I don’t believe that only Franzen could have written Freedom, but I am certain that only an American is capable of writing a novel not necessarily of this calibre but of this thematic texture.

If there’s one thing that Freedom has, it’s texture. Reading it is a frequent struggle against its characters and the society that they find themselves in, a hyper-real America that can have only been imagined by one on the ground suffering under its excesses and political metamorphoses.

The Corrections was published on September 1, 2001, and I’ve long harboured a belief that Franzen was probably upset that he had just missed out on infusing his novel with the post-September 11 shell shock that infected many authors in the intervening years. With Freedom he gets his own back, capitalising not only on September 11, but also the ensuing incursion into Afghanistan, the global financial crisis and even the rise of Obama. By waiting so long between novels, he’s had a lot to draw on – and six years can disappear in the space of a page.

Freedom is a good book. A divisive one, maybe, but still one worth the time to read.

Living Dead in Dallas

 

Sookie Stackhouse returns for round two, and Charlaine Harris decides that one story isn’t enough: she needs to nestle a second one inside the first, like some sort of weird matryoshka doll of bizarre pacing choices.