Work and home has been hectic recently and I'm falling behind with writing and posting reviews. I hope to draft and post three this week to get things back on track: Harry Bingham's Talking to the Dead, Daniel Pembrey's The Harbour Master, and Mark Douglas-Home's The Malice of Waves.
Lori Anderson makes her living as a bounty hunter in Florida, but is struggling to pay the medical bills for her sick, nine-year old daughter, Dakota. Desperate for cash she heckles her boss into letting her chase down a major bounty. There are two snags, however. The bounty is JT, her former mentor and lover, and she needs to take her daughter on the trip. She finds JT in West Virginia, but straightaway things start to go wrong. The Miami Mob and a theme-park paedophile ring are also searching for JT and when Dakota is snatched by one of them the stakes skyrocket. Lori is not about to forfeit her daughter or the bounty without a fight.
Deep Down Dead is a crime thriller that follows the exploits of sassy bounty hunter and single-mother, Lori Anderson, in bringing back to Florida the person who taught her everything about her job, JT. In tow is her ill daughter and a messy past with JT. The key ingredients to the book are pace, action and tension. Broadribb keeps the narrative hurtling along as her heroine grapples with JT, the Miami Mob and a paedophile ring working in the Winter Wonderland theme park. What holds the story together, however, is an endless series of plot devices, many of which felt a little clunky, that stretched believability to the limit. Moreover, the relentless pace meant the tale lacked emotional depth and reflexivity beyond some confused feelings for JT and a desire to rescue the daughter. Overall then, a Hollywood action thriller that zips along in a series of improbable scenes, propelled by a sassy lead character, a will they/won’t they romance, and fear for a kidnapped child.
April, 1975. As the Viet Cong advance on Saigon the Americans are leaving. At his villa, a South Vietmanese general, who is head of the secret police, and his chief-aide draw up a list of those to be given safe passage from the country. It is left to the captain to make the arrangements, bribing various officials for appropriate documents and access through checkpoints. As shells begin to fall on the city the selected few gather and head for the airport. There they scramble onto the last departing flight, becoming refugees and leaving millions to their fate. Via Guam they arrive in America and try to rebuild their lives, having slid from the elite and privileged to poverty. The general dreams of returning to South Vietnam and starts to build a resistance movement, aided by Claude, his long-time CIA liaison, and his trusted captain. However, the captain is not so trust-worthy, having been a long-time spy for the Communists. The captain is a man-in-between, the offspring of a French priest and Viet mother, a man educated in the US but serving a communist cause, a man who has sympathies for the people and values of both sides. This is evident in his primary commitment: his two best friends – one a committed communist and his Viet Cong handler, the other a committed anti-communist who wants to return home and take revenge for the death of his wife and child.
The Sympathizer documents the confession of ‘the captain’, an official in the South Vietnamese secret police who flees to America as Saigon falls, who is also a secret agent for the Viet Cong. His confession is a fairly lengthy and rambling account of his flight and resettlement in Los Angeles, his work as an advisor on a movie about the Vietnam war, and his return as part of a resistance cell. In it, the captain explores a whole series of issues relating to politics and ideology, identity and belonging, inclusion and exclusion, struggle and resistance, friendship and social ties, loyalty and self-deception, and how war is perceived and pursued by different parties. In this sense, it provides quite a different perspective to American framings of the Vietnam war, yet a large part of the story is set in America and concerns American-supported actions. The result is what might be termed a ‘big story’, covering a lot of territory and being thoughtful and reflexive. Some of the writing really sparkles, with nice prose and insightful analysis. Occasionally the tale is flabby and too meandering, getting lost in its pursuit of being a ‘big story’. And while the lead up to the conclusion was interesting, with some nicely literary tricks, I just didn’t believe the ending. Overall then a big story that delivers a thoughtful and thought-provoking, but also a slightly uneven, literary tale.
As Japan rattled her sabres prior to declaring war on the Allies, Australia – already mobilised for the war in Europe – sought to strengthen its defences to its North, creating a shield across the islands of Papua New Guinea. One of those islands was New Britain, part of the Bismarck chain. To its small capital town of Rabaul the Australian government sent Lark Force, comprising of 1,500 soldiers, plus a handful of outdated planes and nurses. Most of the soldiers were volunteers with only a few weeks training and its commanders were reservists with some World War I experience. After the attack on Pearl Harbour some of the locals were evacuated, but Lark Force was not strengthened. On January 23, 1942, the Japanese attacked Rabaul in strength, the town chosen for the headquarters of Japanese forces in the South-West Pacific. The attackers quickly captured the town, its deep water port, and two airstrips.
The Australian defence was weak and poorly coordinated, and those troops that did not surrender fled into the jungle. They had few supplies and little knowledge of how to survive in such an environment. They headed west and south, hoping that the Australian government would send ships or seaplanes to rescue them. There was to be no Dunkirk-style rescue, however, and many were tracked down by the Japanese and taken prisoner or killed. Over the next few months a couple of hundred managed to escape the island. Those captured toiled as forced labourers before being sent by ship to Japan. The officers and women were separated from the enlisted soldiers and civilian men, who were packed into an old cruise-liner. En route to Japan it was torpedoed by a US submarine with the loss of all prisoners, over a thousand souls perishing.
In Invasion Rabaul, Gamble tells the story of Lark Force, the fall of Rabaul, the disorderly retreat and escape attempts, and the fate of prisoners, drawing on accounts and interviews of survivors and archival material. He nicely mixes a general overview of the history of the events with more personal stories about members of Lark Force and their fates. What is largely missing is a discussion of the Australian government and military decisions and actions, and reactions of the Australian public. Nonetheless, a very readable account of one of Australian tragedies of the Second World War.
I got off to a good start to the year this week, drafting two book chapters: one on urban science, the other on smart cities and governmentality. This year will need to be a productive one on the academic side of things as a project enters its last phase. I also picked up a haul of books from the local bookshop, including The Harbour Master by Daniel Pembrey, Deep Down Dead by Steph Broadribb, Talking to the Dead by Harry Bingham, The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen, His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet, Koko Takes a Holiday by Kieran Shea, Night Watch by Sergei Lukyanenko, and The Rules of Backyard Cricket by Jock Serong.
Of the 104 books I read last year 56 were authors new to me. I'll no doubt be revisiting the work of many of them in the next few years. There's good mix of styles and geographical settings across these books.
I did quite a bit of travelling in 2016, including a month in Boston
in April and several shorter trips to Italy, Germany, Korea, Russia, The
Netherlands, and the UK. I also did a fair bit of literary travel to 41
Set in 1974 in central Los Angeles, the tale follows the lives of five
pairs of patrolmen working the night shift over a six-month period,
culminating in a fatal shooting in MacArthur Park, where the men gather
periodically to get drunk and let off steam. The Choirboys is a
fascinating, multi-layered story. The characterisation and social relations excellent,
with Wambaugh fleshing out fully-dimensional personalities who form an
uneasy and fractious alliance. The vignettes and story arc are
compelling and realistic. And the prose and voice are engaging,
blending serious social commentary with black humour and tragi-comedy. A thoughtful, insightful, critical and entertaining read.
The story charts the life of Dorrigo
Evans, a flawed war hero who is haunted by his love for a woman with
whom he had a brief affair and the horror of a Japanese prisoner of war
camp. It’s essentially an exploration of the human condition through a series of contrasts and juxtapositions – love/indifference,
freedom/confinement, compassion/cruelty, carefree/haunted – with
threads of connection, such as the camaraderie of prisoners, family ties,
poetry and literature. The result is a
vivid, haunting, moving and thought-provoking tale of love and loss told
through some wonderful prose.
The final book in the Frost series.
Wingfield does a great job at weaving
together a multiple set of engaging plot lines, overloading the already
overstretched Frost with cases and internal battles. Along with the plotting, the characterisation is excellent and the
dialogue and interactions between characters is superb. The result is a thoroughly enjoyable
read, full of black humour.
Exposure is a spy drama that focuses mostly on the fallout
affecting a wife and children when a family-man is framed as a traitor.
The storyline is nicely plotted and paced. The characterisation
and character development is excellent, with each of the leads being
fully dimensional, along with the children, and their interactions ring
true. In addition, Dunmore keeps the mood and tension low-key but
persistent, keeping the sense of an everyday family caught out of step
front and centre. The result is an engaging, thoughtful, understated
literary spy tale.
The third book in the Emmanuel Cooper
series set in 1950s South Africa. Nunn has really hit her stride with
this instalment. The characterisation is
excellent, especially Cooper and his colleague Shabalala, and Nunn nicely portrays their interactions and social
relations. Indeed, she excels at detailing the complex social structure
within and between communities – Black, Indian, Jewish, White
Afrikaans, White English – and the politics of policing within such
strictures. There is a nice attention to historical detail and the
sense of place is palpable with the reader being transported to rural
South Africa and its dramatic landscape. A very good police procedural that delivers
on multiple levels.
When the Doves Disappeared charts the entangled lives of three
Estonians during the Second World War and twenty years later. Each represent the different positions of
Estonians during successive waves of occupation, resistance, and
collaboration. Oskanen maps out their intersecting lives, shuttling
back and forth between the years 1941-44 and 1963-66, documenting the
ongoing struggles and betrayals of family and country. The result is
a compelling, bleak, haunting and thought-provoking black drama that
explores themes of love, loyalty, treachery, tragedy and freedom.
7Days has all the good hallmarks of a police
procedural – an interesting lead cop and supporting cast, a strong sense
of place, interesting puzzles, and attention to detail – but also
have the pace and tension of a thriller. Meyer expertly balances character
development, plot and pace, producing a highly engaging and entertaining
read that not only delivers an intriguing story but nicely advances the
longer narrative of the Benny Griessel books. I was hooked from the first
The ninth book in the Charlie Parker series set
in Maine. In this outing, Parker is tasked with discovering why a
small group of Iraqi veterans are taking their own lives. All the key elements were on point, the hook, the social commentary
on the Iraqi war and the treatment of veterans, the investigation, the
sense of place, the characterisation and social relations, and the
plotting. The result is an engaging, informative and tense read
grounded in strong research that contextualises but doesn’t swamp the
thoroughly entertaining tale.
In Eleven Days Sherez uses the format of a police
procedural and London’s diverse population to shine a light on a couple of fairly
weighty issues: the political
turmoil and violence in Peru during the 1970s and the role of liberation
theology and the contemporary movement of Albanian criminals into
London’s underworld and sex trafficking. The result is an engaging
and compelling tale full of gritty realism in which the politics is a
crucial element of the story but never overly dominates it at its
expense. I wasn’t entirely convinced
by the denouement, which I felt had one twist too many, but nonetheless a
superior, thought-provoking, edge-of-seat police procedural.
City of Thieves is a well crafted coming-of-age story set during
the Siege of Leningrad. The
tale has a number of strengths, including an engaging voice and prose,
well-paced narrative, a well-developed sense of place, time and context,
and a great hook and engaging story line. What makes the book shine,
however, is the characterisation and the emerging relationship between
two friends, Lev and Kolya. Benioff nicely blends their quest to find a dozen eggs, with observations about Soviet society and the war. An engaging and entertaining tale of hardship, friendship and adventure.
The Boys in the Boat tells the story of the US rowing eight and
their quest to win gold at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. The central
hook for the story is the life of Joe Rantz, a man who’d had a hard
upbringing and had never rowed three years prior to the Olympics. Brown
tells a multi-layered story, weaving together strands that detail the
development of rowing at UW in the 1920s and 30s, the personal
trajectories of coaches and master boat builder, George Pocock, their
rivalry with the University of California, and rowing in the US more
generally, the Great Depression, and how the Nazis orchestrated the 1936
Olympics. The result is a richly contextualised, fascinating, and
highly entertaining tale, rich in personal biographies, historic
occasions, and high emotion and drama.
As the Second World War in Europe drew to a close the Allies started to
hunt down Nazi war criminals and top German scientists. In many cases,
these two groups overlapped. The US had a choice – prosecute scientists who had
participated in crimes against humanity,
or give them clemency and hire them to work on military science projects
and for the US military-industrial complex. It chose the latter and through Operation Paperclip recruited many to work for the US. Jacobsen does an excellent
job of setting out the Operation Paperclip programme and detailing
the cases of several of the most prominent scientists. The result is
an interesting, engaging and disturbing read that raises all kinds of
moral and ethical questions
A very readable and highly
informative account of the battle at Midway in June 1942, including some
contextual framing with respect to Pearl Harbour, the Battle of the
Coral Sea, and the first US air raid on Tokyo. Unlike previous accounts
that suggest that the US were lucky to win the encounter, Symonds
argues that the US won due to good intelligence, strong leadership, and
the element of surprise. Given the number of different threads and
personalities involved the narrative could have easily become quite
jumbled or bogged down in detail, but Symonds manages to blend the
various strands into a coherent, gripping and page-turning story told
with an engaging voice.
Happy new year! I hope that 2017 brings you success and happiness. As has been the case for the past few years, my aim is to reduce just about everything work-wise and to get better at saying 'no' to requests. I usually also say that I plan to cut back on reading and to spend more time writing. I do want to spend more time writing in 2017, but I want the time to come at the expense of travel instead of reading (which seems to be pretty consistent regardless of whatever else is going on).
Following Bernadette at Reaction to Readings love of charts, here is my reading year, with comparison to the previous six (culled from Goodreads). It seems that I am pretty consistent at roughly two books a week, though 2016 saw a surge in pages read on 2015 (over 5k more), averaging just under 100 pages a day. I'm a bit surprised by that as I didn't feel I was reading more than usual. I'll post my best of list during the week, as well as list of all the countries/fiction I literary travelled to.
My posts this week
Review of The Choirboys by Joseph Wambaugh Review of Holding by Graham Norton Review of Crimea by Orlando Figes