Friday, May 29, 2015

Some Excellent New Reads

Dennis Lehane's new book World Gone By is just brilliant. 

It's as good, if not better, than Live By Night which introduced Joe Coughlin as an up-and-coming gangster during the depression and prohibition years of 30's America. When I read the first in the series, The Given Day, published in 2008, I was completely overwhelmed by Lehane's power as a chronicler of early 20th century America and its developing and frequently ugly power structures. 

Joe Coughlin was the youngest son in a powerful Boston family which virtually controlled the police force and the emerging union movement. In the second volume Live By Night he leaves for Florida, finally emerging as a smart, charming but brutal head of a major crime syndicate controlling alcohol and drug distribution on the Eastern seaboard as well as running gambling dens and casinos. As you would expect there's a lot of violence. 

The final novel brings the story to its fascinating but grizzly end. 

The series is well worth your time. All the novels are exquisitely plotted, gripping and absorbing on every level, and with all the tension and atmospherics you hope for in a quality read. 

I'd heard of Renee Knight's Disclaimer from early reviews in the trade press - obviously comparing it favorably to Gone Girl, the contemporary benchmark for relationship thrillers - so was looking forward to reading it.

The press were right. Structurally the two novels are similar. There are various narrative voices and time shifts, and they share a husband and wife focus.

I enjoyed it immensely. It's well written, far more credible than Gone Girl, and the drama has an incredible drive and tension that unfolds at just the right pace. It's a cliche, but I did find this book hard to put down.

And, thankfully and all too rarely, the ending is perfect. Deeply satisfying, intellectually and emotionally. 

No wonder the bids for the publishing rights went through the roof for this. It will be a mega seller and a blockbuster movie.

This is just superb. Kilcullen, a Middle East and counterterrorism expert, was a senior advisor to General David Petraeus and US Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice from 2005 to 2008, and was an advisor to the UK and Australian governments and NATO prior to this. 

In the first half of the essay he delves deep into the disaster that was Iraq, and how absurd the original decision to invade was. He then describes how the forces unleashed via that hellhole, the  warring tribes, traditions, factions and personalities, gave rise to ISIS. The final section of the essay presents the challenge the West now faces, and how it should deal with it.

I found it very persuasive. And Kilcullen can write clear English, which helps.

Well worth reading. 

This new Australian tome on copyright and the digital age was published a few weeks ago. It defines what it means to be a 'curate's egg': good in parts.

It's a collection of opinions edited by Phillipa McGuinness, publisher at NewSouth Publishing/UNSW Press. Phillipa wrote the Introduction. Unfortunately it's one of the bad parts. She name-drops copyright gurus such as the highly respected US author William Patry but never intellectually engages with them. Like many of the content industry representatives in this collection the sneer and the scoff are meant to do the job.

The many good pieces in the book however more than make up for the bad. Film critic Marc Fennell is excellent, as is Professor Sherman Young, authors Carolin Window and Linda Jaivin, broadcaster Dan Ilic, historian/librarian Tim Sherratt and academics Dan Hunter and Nic Suzor. Their views are progressive and insightful. While respecting copyright they know the law needs serious reform.

By far the worst and in fact most disgraceful piece in this collection is by Jose Borghino who is currently Policy Director at the International Publishers Association (IPA) and was formerly with the Australian Publishers Association. It's elitist, nasty and cynical. Users and reformers are moochers. They are 'freetards'. It's truly awful, braindead stuff, but unfortunately so typical of industry representatives constantly mouthing the old and by now discredited corporate line. I'm always reminded of Upton Sinclair's famous dictum: 'It's hard for a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it'. 

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Sascha Arango's Very Lame 'The Truth and Other Lies'.

What a one-dimensional, lame effort this is!

Highly lauded in the usual places of course, but in no way whatsoever does it live up to the hype.

Let's not dignify it as a 'thriller'. It's just a pretty ordinary mystery with a plot that jumps around all over the place and plot connections that are flimsy at best.

It grinds on to a slow and laborious denouement, and I was only interested right to the end just to see how the author would wind it all up, bring all the disparate elements together, resolve it in an emotionally and intellectually satisfying way - you know, do what's normally required - but no, none of that happens. It just peters out.

All the vaguely interesting characters die along the way or are simply abandoned by the author.

And the translation is often clumsy. For instance: 'The estate was in the waking coma of industrial decay'. What on earth does that mean?! 

A really second rate effort that should never have been published. It's a first draft that needed an experienced structural editor that it obviously never got.


Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Malcolm Knox: The Wonder Lover

If you saw the rather critically impoverished discussion about this new novel from Malcolm Knox on The Book Club on the ABC last Sunday (May 3) you would have seriously 'wondered' it was worth reading at all.

Look, it's not without its flaws. There are some real narrative and logic gaps, but these are minor in the scheme of things. The fact is this is a powerful and mighty achievement. It captures, engages and sucks the reader in. And it grapples with a whole range of large issues rarely done well in modern fiction.

Right from the start I loved this book. It is a rich and crowded tapestry of story and reflection, and a stimulating mix of the comic and the highly dramatic. Knox pulls off this difficult task superbly.

Essentially it's an essay on men, but also on women, on sex, on pain and suffering, on loneliness, ageing, beauty and love.

I don't think it's going too far to suggest that in a real sense it's a story of a man undone by strong and powerful women. It could be seen as a feminist tract - on the weakness of men and the power of women.

It reminded me very much of Howard Jacobson, especially his marvellous Zoo Time. It's a heady mix of the comic and the dramatic always infused with hyper real intensity. Jacobson in his Jewish style is a master of portraying males grappling with demanding, crazy women. But Knox brings far more compassion and warmth to his tale, and less social and political critique.

John Wonder keeps three wives on the go, each with two kids named Adam and Evie. They live in different countries, and he must of necessity keep well and truly on top of this complicated arrangement to keep it all secret. His job as a fact-checker for a Guinness Book of Records-type company means he has to constantly travel the world. It's not as if he cynically or lasciviously engineered this situation. He fell into it almost by accident. He's a weak character, always accommodating and wanting to do good, someone who feels obliged. 

The three wives are all very different and Knox brings them intensely alive. 

He also introduces two new characters who slowly add additional flavour to this already potent mix: the World's Oldest Woman who reaches the age of 130 before, to everyone's relief, gasping her last breath, and the World's Most Beautiful Woman, named Cicada, who John becomes seriously infatuated with.

Knox builds a lot of dramatic interest in Cicada, and their relationship. Initially I wondered about her place in the novel. She adds enormous sex appeal but what meaning? Maybe she's meant to be a complete 'other' to love and family: just lust and money, a typical male indulgence or fantasy. John is totally deluded about her. His Platonic ideal of beauty and his certainty that she is not the 'slut' that she claims to be, but an actress, is crazy. She's the town bike and her stories of her exploits are sizzling hot!

But delusion, cowardice and hypocrisy are John's key traits. His 'truth verifying' career is in complete contrast to the thoroughgoing dishonesty of his private life. 

Of course the whole charade inevitably comes apart at the end. It is a bit 'Carry On' movie in the hospital when the families meet! (This was a wrong note unfortunately, as was John's bawling after the old hag dies. The rapid gyrations between drama and comedy are occasionally off-putting, but this is a minor complaint).

There are some lovely concluding chapters. The six kids list their achievements and they are inspiring, but because of their father's frequent absences the refrain is  'Father, you saw none of this'. Likewise the wives's discussion as they assess their common predicament is just warm, forgiving and lovely.

What in the end makes this novel so magnificent is the evident power of Knox's breathtaking imagination. This is a major novel and deserves every success.