Thursday, 24 September 2009

Book Review - Too Close to Home (by Linwood Barclay)

Hmmmmm.....I think I should preface this review by stating that crime/thrillers are not my "go to" genre for books. Even when confronted with a stuck-in-the-airport-with-no-reading-material-situation, I am unlikely to purchase such a garden-variety example from the glut already drowning us. But as the September selection for my book club, my fate was fixed. Whilst I will concede that the crime/thriller choices of my book club have occasionally surprised me with a gem like The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson, they have more often than not bored me with ho-hum attempts of which Too Close to Home by Linwood Barclay is a tragic example.
Sporting a generic cover aspiring to be a B-grade horror movie poster, the book looked as bland as I was about to discover its innards tasted. There was a slight chance that reading the blurb might bolster my appetite, but a quick scan confirmed my suspicions that here was yet another formulaic thriller novel designed to spoon feed the masses. And the contents, you ask? Well they left me feeling nauseous.
Too Close to Home is essentially a murder mystery centred around the cold-blooded execution of an entire family. Young Derek Cutter witnesses the murder and his family soon become embroiled in the quest to find the killers. The back cover blurb attempts to trick you into believing the book has more depth than my brief synopsis indicates, but the storyline and character development are as shallow as they come. The bumbling plot stumbles along through a hodge-podge of convenient coincidences, irrational character decisions and clumsily designed sub-plots designed to throw you off the scent but fail to do exactly that. Not to mention the ever-predictable last-minute twist that we all saw coming.
Let’s take a look at some specific examples. The book is set in an average town, full of average people and focuses on an average family. The key word here is average. But we are asked to believe that an average person would decide not to co-operate with police, but instead investigate the crime themselves. Who are these people? The central character hires a new employee, who he later learns is a bank robber, but still keeps him on leaving him alone with his recently traumatised son without really questioning his character. Again, who are these people? And let’s not forget the average town mayor who gets publicly drunk and vomits at the front door of a halfway house for women, has sex with an under-age hooker, and punches his employee in the eye, but always seems to win the people over and elude any questions about his leadership. Do I need to say it again? I could go on and on, but the basic point is that the characters and the storyline are totally unrealistic and we are asked to be gullible beyond all reason. As far as I’m concerned, this is a mortal wound for the book. You’ve lost me. Case closed!
I am but a small fish and history proves that my opinion is no true reflection of "what’s hot" on the bestseller list. Keeping with tradition Too Close to Home has enjoyed a superfluity of praise in the reading world. Not only did it win the Best Novel category at the Arthur Ellis awards (the top prize in Canada for crime fiction), but it was also a UK bestseller, at one stage selling over 45,000 copies in just one week. So it begs the question - am I missing something? Please enlighten me.
I apologise in advance to Linwood Barclay as I am sure he doesn’t deserve this treatment. His book is merely the catalyst for my rant and he is most certainly not the only offender. My quibble is with the whole damn crime/thriller leviathan. I don’t mean to sound pretentious, but when did it become OK to underestimate the average reader? And when did we, as the readers, stop fighting against it? When did we submit?

Thursday, 17 September 2009

Book Review - The World from Islam (by George Negus)

I’m ashamed to say it, but other than a brief study of the Arab-Israeli conflict in High School, my knowledge of Islam is extremely limited. Like most of us, I rely entirely on the television and tabloid media to provide a frame of reference for this complex part of the world. And like all media, it’s difficult to separate the sensationalism from the actual facts. So when I came across a copy of this book I was keen to give it a go and find out what one of Australia’s most respected journalists, and one that I have great admiration for, had to say about the issue.
The book is not a history of the Muslim world – actually it’s far from it. The tag line on the back cover reads – “Not everything, but a hell of a lot of what you always wanted to know about Muslims, but no one got around to telling you.” And that’s exactly what the book delivers. Negus presents his information through a series of colourful anecdotes that he has written over 25 years of travel and reporting from this region. Along the way we meet some interesting characters who make up Negus’ extended Islamic family and we share in the ups and downs of their lives.
Somehow Negus manages to demystify many things that seem foreign to residents of the Western world – the burka, Ramadan, insh’allah (god willing) and the Qur’an (or Koran). And surprisingly, what becomes most clear in this book is that despite the obvious differences in religion and culture, the Muslim world also shares many similarities with the West. We are not as different as we may think!
During one period of his travels throughout Islam, Negus was accompanied by his young son. It was Negus’ numerous accounts of his son’s reactions to some of the more terrifying and violent events that have occurred in the area that I found most interesting. Seeing these events through the eyes of an innocent child who is unaffected by political scare tactics really puts everything into a simplified perspective. We learn that Muslims are human - just like us - and that they want the same things out of life – a happy family and a safe home.
The real beauty of this book is that Negus manages to provide a rational and balanced account of the Islamic world. In the September 11 aftermath, governments are hell-bent on instilling a fear of Muslims and terrorism amongst their constituents. It is refreshing to listen to a voice of reason. Negus declares with unabashed certainty that “more than 99.99% of Muslims are not, repeat not, terrorists”, and after reading this book I agree wholeheartedly. Negus has certainly managed to illuminate this young mind with his human insight.(3.5 Stars)

Wednesday, 16 September 2009

Book Review - The Da Vinci Code (by Dan Brown)

It was with grave trepidation that I picked up The Da Vinci Code. As a general rule, and excluding the classics, I normally refuse to read any books that are so universally praised – there’s bound to be an anti-climax. But after much pressure from my market customers I caved to the persistent “You have to read The Da Vinci Code” comments. As most of the literate world has read the book, I’m not going to bore you with the storyline, but I will give you my reasons for thinking it fairly overrated.
For me the book started off well. I was lured into its’ intrigue and enjoyed the ambience that was created by the books’ setting and artistic backdrop. But after the first couple of chapters my concentration wavered as I became increasingly disappointed by the predictable plot. For a book that is described as a brain-teaser and a page-turner with endless twists and turns, I felt incredibly let down. Let’s be honest – do we really need a world-class cryptographer to recognise a Fibonacci sequence? Last time I checked it was part of the NSW High School Maths Curriculum. Nor does it take a Harvard symbologist to recognise Da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man. Add all this to the fact that I knew what was going to happen 10 pages before it actually happened and in my eyes you have a bit of a fizzer that, quite frankly, was a little insulting to the intelligence.
The mundane plot aside, I also found the lead characters lacking any real personality. Dan Brown focuses so much on the plot that he fails to develop either Robert Langdon or Sophie Neveu – they are merely transporters of the story – a way to move the plot along. The real characters of the story are Da Vinci, Opus Dei, The Priory of Sion and religion itself - which is all well and good but hardly groundbreaking. You only have to turn the clock back to the early 1980s and a controversial book called Holy Blood, Holy Grail (by Baigent, Leigh & Lincoln) to see that stories about this very subject matter have been circulating for centuries.
Some might think I’ve been too harsh. So to calm the masses I will acknowledge that the book was competently written and that it’s a much better read than some of the other “crap” out there. But in my view the only thing that makes the book so captivating for readers is the subject matter. People go wild over anything that questions the basis of religion. I guess we have to thank Dan Brown for at least encouraging many people who haven’t read a book for years to pick one up again. (2 Stars)

Monday, 14 September 2009

Book Review - Middlemarch (by George Eliot)

First thing’s first – I’m a Jane Austen girl. Her timeless novels form the backbone of my reading experiences. Those of you who are familiar with Austen and Eliot’s work will understand that being an Austen girl, it took me a little while to crave the taste for Eliot’s writing. Actually it took me about 5 false starts, but on the 6th attempt to read this classic novel, I was well and truly hooked.
The book is set in the provincial English town of Middlemarch in the early 1800s and it is here that we meet the two central characters, the first being Dorothea Brooke. Dorothea is a beautiful, virtuous young lady whose seeming purity of soul is admired by all those who know her. Dorothea dreams of leading a heroic life and feels she will best attain this by marrying Mr Casaubon - an elderly, stodgy scholar who Dorothea believes is destined for greatness. Dorothea does indeed marry Mr Casaubon, but she soon becomes stifled by his constant study and lack of use for her.
I have to say that I initially disliked Dorothea. I found her almost manic desire to marry Casaubon quite irritating. However, the book soon shows us that despite Dorothea's best laid plans, she is just as misguided and flawed as the rest of us. As a consequence, by the end of the book Dorothea had found her way under my skin and I found myself cheering her on and championing her transformation.
The second dominant character of the book is Tertius Lydgate, a young and ambitious doctor whose affliction for the heroic matches Dorothea's in strength. Lydgate comes to Middlemarch with big plans to change the way medicine is practiced in the region, and early on is very successful. But like Dorothea, Tertius' hasty marriage begins to backfire and his vision soon begins to crumble, as does his life, around him.
Though the book centres around these two characters, it is the support cast that makes this novel so addictive - it has a true sense of community. Whereas Jane Austen is primarily focused on a small number of central characters, Eliot manages to interest us in a whole community of people. We see how the lives of seemingly unimportant characters impact upon the lives of the ones we love, and we see how a community has the uncanny ability to shape people. The narrative is rich, filled with both suspense and drama. It's so delicious, it's almost edible. This is trully one of the best books I have ever read and deserves its' place among the classics. (5 Stars)