Tuesday, May 27, 2008

The joys of stepping outside your comfort zone ...

... and discovering everyone was right after all!

For years people have been telling me about this Terry Pratchett fellow, giving him nothing but the highest praise. But, well he writes sort of science fiction / fantasy stuff doesn't he, I'd say with curled lip. That's not really my kind of thing you know. Well I've started listening to the unabridged audio versions of his Discworld series, and I'm loving them. They are wonderfully funny satires with a large cast of fabulous characters. My favourite is the Librarian at the Unseen University - he has some of the best lines!

I've 'read' the first 3 so far, The Colour of Magic, Light Fantastic, and Equal Rites, and am about to start the 4th, Mort. The reader for the first two was Nigel Planer (the hippy Neil from The Young Ones), and his voice was perfect. Equal Rites was read by Celia Imrie, an excellent actor whose work I admire, but it took me a while to get over my disappointment that it wasn't Nigel again. Equal Rites is about a young girl striving to be the first female wizard, and all the main characters are female, so it was more appropriate that it was read by a female reader, but I still had this niggling feeling all the way through that it wasn't as good as the first two. I was pleased to see that Nigel Planer is back for Mort.

This got me to wondering whether I prefer Nigel's reading because he is better, or just because I heard him first. I think Nigel has an inherently funny voice, and is able to inject just the right note of sarcasm into his words.

Anyway, I'm loving these stories, and I can heartily recommend them, even if like me you think you don't like sci fi/fantasy. I'm now determined to work my way through the whole series, and luckily there are quite a lot of them.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

The Reunion by Simone van der Vlugt

Publisher: Text Publishing, 2008
ISBN: 978-1-921351-32-7

First line: She cycles the last part alone.

Sabine and Isabel had been best friends when they were young, but in high school, Isabel started hanging out with a new group of friends and Sabine became the target of her merciless tormenting and bullying. When they were fifteen Isabel disappeared one day on the way home from school. Ever since then Sabine has been unable to remember anything of that day, but now nine years later, the long suppressed memories are starting to surface.

It seems she knows more about what happened than she thought. Did she actually witness what happened? Does she know who was responsible? Why did her mind repress the memories? And is her knowledge dangerous?

Returning to her dreary job at large Amsterdam bank after a year off suffering from depression, Sabine meets Olaf, a school friend of her older brother, Robin. This contact with someone from her past, as well as an upcoming school reunion leads to more flashes of disjointed memory which slowly fill in the shadows in her past.

Sabine is initially a very sympathetic character. The scenes describing her isolation at school painfully depict the misery suffered by victims of bullying. Her return to work finds her again isolated and victimised by her supervisor. However, as Sabine reveals more of herself and her story, doubt begins to creep in. The slow building of tension as the memories fall into place ultimately leads to a somewhat unsettling ending.

Simone van der Vlugt is a Dutch writer known for her young adult novels. The Reunion is her first novel for adults, and I hope it won’t be her last.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Lonelyheart 4122 by Colin Watson

First line: Arthur Henry Spain, butcher, of Harlow Place, Flaxborough, awoke one morning from a dream in which he had been asking all his customers how to spell 'phlegm' and thought - quite inconsequentially: I haven't seen anything of Lilian lately.

Inspector Purbright is investigating the disappearance of two respectable middle aged ladies. They both had recently availed themselves of the services of a local marriage bureau, Handclasp House. At the same time, Miss Lucilla Teatime arrives in town on the lookout for a suitable ‘business’ opportunity. In the course of the investigation Purbright discovers a trail of deception and murder, with a little blackmail on the side.

Flaxborough is a fictional English town populated with some remarkable and delightfully eccentric characters. Nothing is ever as it seems in this wonderful series. Watson combines quirky characters and dry humour into a well-plotted story.

Lonelyheart 4122, first published in 1967, is the fourth in Watson’s Flaxborough series. For a list of all 13 titles see Fantastic Fiction. I've managed to pick up all but one or two titles at second hand bookshops, and I’m slowly working my way through them.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Still Waters by Camilla Noli

Publisher: Hachette Australia, 2008
ISBN: 978-0-7336-2250-2

First line: It is early evening. I am suckling my infant son.

A stay-at-home mother of two small children is feeling trapped in her life. As a successful career woman she was used to being in control, but now she feels that control slipping away. The demands of caring for her children leave her constantly exhausted. She resents the attention her husband gives to the children, particularly the eldest, Cassie, with whom he is especially close. She is determined to get her life - and her husband - back, to make things the way they used to be. And she is willing to sacrifice anyone in the pursuit of her aims.

The main character, who is never named, is one of the most unlikeable characters I’ve ever read. She is cold, distant, self-centred and manipulative. In fact I really didn’t like any of the characters, including her husband. This may in part be due to the fact that we only see them through the eyes of the narrator, who seems to be scornful of almost everyone else. Even her intimate relationship with her husband is based on power and control.

The themes of this book are meant to be controversial, to challenge our beliefs of what mothers and motherhood should be like. But this woman is more than an exhausted new mother at the end of her tether, she is a seriously disturbed psychopath. Anyone who stands in the way of her regaining the life she wants, is dealt with one way or the other.

Noli writes well and kept me turning the pages, almost against my will, but I was very uncomfortable spending so much time inside the head of this cold-blooded woman. This was a deeply disturbing book, and not a pleasant read.

Camilla Noli lives on the Central Coast of NSW with her husband and children. This is her first novel.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Shatter by Michael Robotham

Publisher: Sphere, 2008
ISBN: 978-1-84744-178-2

First line: It’s eleven o’clock in the morning, mid-October, and outside it’s raining so hard that cows are floating down rivers and birds are resting on their bloated bodies.

Psychologist Joseph O’Loughlin is called to the Clifton Suspension Bridge where a woman, naked except for her red high heels, is poised to jump. As she weeps into a mobile phone, he tries to talk her down. She turns to him, whispers ‘you don’t understand’ and jumps.

A few days later, the woman’s teenage daughter, Darcy, turns up on Joe’s doorstep. She refuses to believe her mother could have committed suicide, and certainly not by jumping off a bridge. Joe starts to believe that the woman was coerced into jumping by the person on the other end of the mobile phone. The police don’t want to treat it as anything other than suicide until another woman dies in similar circumstances.

Joe and his family have moved from London to Bristol, in the hope that a less hectic lifestyle will be better for his Parkinson’s, which is now having a significant impact on his life, and he has taken a part-time teaching job at the University. When Joe’s guilt at being unable to save the woman leads him to become more involved in the case, it begins to affect his family, particularly his wife with whom his relationship becomes increasingly strained.

As the true nature of the crimes is revealed, Joe realises that they are dealing with a different kind of psychopath. This murderer doesn’t just want to kill, he wants to humiliate his victim, to completely destroy her mind first. At one point he tells Joe of the “moment when all hope disappears, all pride is gone, all expectations, all faith, all desire: I own that moment. It’s mine. And that’s when I hear the sound. … The sound of a mind breaking.”

There’s a terrific cast of supporting characters, including Joe’s friend, retired DI Vincent Ruiz, and straight-talking DI Veronica Cray, a woman who definitely deserves a bigger role in a future book.

The crimes are chilling, but Robotham’s storytelling is compelling. As psychological thrillers go this is one of the very best. Make sure you have plenty of time when you start to read this book because you won’t be able to put it down.

Michael Robotham, previously a journalist and ghost writer of numerous autobiographies of the rich and famous, lives in Sydney. Shatter is the fourth in this loose series, in which each book takes a minor character from the previous book as the main character. The previous titles are The Suspect, Lost (aka The Drowning Man) and The Night Ferry.

Saturday, May 3, 2008

The Coroner's Lunch by Colin Cotterill

Text Publishing, 2004
ISBN: 1921145188

First line: Tran, Tran and Hok broke through the heavy end-of-wet-season clouds.

It's 1976 Laos, and the new communist regime is less than a year old. Dr Siri Paiboun at 72 years of age, was looking forward to a well-earned retirement after 40 years loyal service to the party. However, they have other ideas, and he is 'rewarded' with the post of chief (and only) coroner, despite his having no training for the position.

When the wife of a party official dies suddenly, Siri cannot find any obvious cause of death but the haste with which her husband claims her body arouses suspicion, and but tests reveal suspicious circumstances. Then two bodies in a nearby lake, and a third is found still weighted down at the bottom of the lake. They are identified as Vietnamese soldiers, and they have apparently been tortured. With a potential serious diplomatic incident on the verge of blowing up, Siri, with the help of a Vietnames coroner, and a trustworthy policeman, has to use his limited resources to find out what really happened.

Siri is a wonderful character, charming, compassionate, cynical and with a wicked sense of humour. This is a man who put a 'Welcome' mat on the morgue's doorstep. His two morgue assistants, Dtui and Mr Geung, are equally delightful, and I hope to see more of the policeman, Phosy.

There is a strong supernatural thread throughout this story, and normally this would put me off, but in this book it was handled just right. Siri is at the centre of much of the supernatural happenings, but his own cynicism helps to strike the right balance.

This is the first in the Dr Siri Paiboun series, and there are currently four more: Thirty Three Teeth, Disco for the Departed, Anarchy and Old Dogs, and Curse of the Pogo Stick, the last due for publication later this year. I know I can't wait to get my hands on all of these.

Colin Cotterill was born in London, trained as a teacher, started travelling and he's still going. He has spent many years in South East Asia, including four years in Laos and currently lives in Thailand. He has a great website too - http://www.colincotterill.com/

The Girl of His Dreams by Donna Leon

Publisher: Random House, 2008
ISBN: 9780434018031
Pages: 276

First line: Brunetti found that counting silently to four and then again and again allowed him to block out most other thoughts.

Brunetti and his deputy Vianello, pull the body of a young girl out of one of the canals of Venice. Strangely she hasn’t been reported missing, and the theft of the jewellery found in her possession has also not been reported. Brunetti’s search to find out who she is and how she met her death takes him from the palazzos of wealthy Venetians to a gypsy camp on the mainland. He finds everyone has something to hide, and untangling the lies and secrets proves difficult.

Leon touches on a lot of issues in this book: Italian politics, government and judicial corruption, the inevitable changes to Venice and Venetian society brought about by tourism and the march of time, but mostly she is concerned with the social issues associated with the influx of eastern European refugees, particularly gypsies or Rom. She deals with the issues sensitively but realistically, as Guido finds his own liberal views challenged.

I liked this book a lot: the wonderfully evoked Venice, Guido and his very normal family (and those fabulous meals!), as well as an engaging plot. My only criticism is that the side plot about a dodgy preacher seems little more than filler and didn’t really add anything to the book as a whole.

I’ve only read one other book in this series, the first, Death at La Fenice. There have been another 15 books in between, and I look forward to working my way through them. Interestingly only a few years have passed in the life of Brunetti since the first book. This is a popular series and fans won’t be disappointed in The Girl of His Dreams.

Donna Leon is an American who has been living in Venice for over twenty years. This is the 17th Brunetti novel.