Book Review: First Person, by Richard Flanagan

Available in bookshops nationwide. 

cv_first_personFirst Person is Richard Flanagan’s new part-novel, part-memoir. He appears to have sought a balance between these two genres in a more obvious way then the usual novelist. First Person is unexpected in many ways and goes against the norm of a typical novel.

The story’s protagonist (and narrator) is Kif Kehlmann, a struggling writer from Tasmania with a three year old daughter and a wife who is pregnant with twins. He is approached to ghostwrite a notorious conman’s memoir for a sum that would appear to solve his family’s problems and the task itself promises to provide Kif with the purpose and self-assurance that he constantly seems to be in need of. Pride and well-warranted internal warnings hold him back from immediately accepting but eventually he agrees to the project and thus begins his journey to work at creating a sensational memoir with a deadline hanging over him and a dangerous criminal at the helm.

Richard Flanagan himself wrote an autobiography for an Australian fraudster, known as John Friedrich, back in 1991. I researched more on the subject and First Person time and again drew extreme similarities to Richard Flanagan’s own experience – even down to the sum offered as remuneration and that his wife was pregnant with twins at the time. He has acknowledged that his own experience has served as inspiration for First Person and initially to me this made the novel feel more significant to me. ‘

On further reflection though, I think it ultimately hindered the novel. If Flanagan had decided that this was to be his own ‘first person’ account of events that he experienced writing Death of a River Guide about John Friedrich then personally I think I would have enjoyed the book a lot more. A novel by definition is fiction and fiction doesn’t have to be as close to the original truth as Flanagan has placed it.

The story at certain stages finds a definite purpose, but all too often it veers off into irrelevancies, to the point that the main motive of the novel is nearly forgotten. Finally, the story moves back to the writing of the memoir of the fraudster, but it seems as though the story goes in constant circles and serpentines, repeating the same events and situations slightly differently and in a progressively amplified manner. The climax was sprung upon you with no time to prepare – the reader doesn’t have time to comprehend that this is what everything was building towards.

Unfortunately the faster pace doesn’t carry on for the rest of the novel, which slows back down to the point where you’re left wondering if there is supposed to be another climax building, though that never delivers. The concept of the story was solid, but I just wish Richard Flanagan had chosen one course – fiction or fact – rather than trying to incorporate both to the extent that he seems to have.

This wasn’t a book I particularly enjoyed, I have seen it described as a literary masterpiece and I definitely can acknowledge that Richard Flanagan is a very good writer. But it seems I was not alone in not enjoying it despite his ability, as I found other reviews that communicated the same view.  I feel like the novel is an acquired taste for a particular audience. I have not yet developed this taste.

Reviewed by Sarah Hayward

First Person
by Richard Flanagan
Published by Knopf Australia
ISBN 9780143787242

 

Book Review: Never Say Die, by Anthony Horowitz

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_never_say_dieAfter reading the first few chapters of Never Say Die I got the distinct impression that Alex Rider is a bit of a young adult version of Ian Fleming’s James Bond – tied to MI6, frequenting exotic places, going up against formidable enemies, the odds being seemingly unfavorable, but of course eventually saving the day. However, the similarities end there between James Bond and Alex Rider. Despite being an asset in some capacity to MI6, Alex Rider is just 15 years old, making the novels just a bit more younger-person friendly. There is an element of unrealism because of the main character’s lack of years, but it was still a really enjoyable story.

As the latest addition to the Alex Rider series, Never Say Die sets the scene with an elaborate crime in Sullfolk, England, with seemingly no real motive or explanation, and the main character thousands of miles away in San Francisco. In the following chapter the crime is then suddenly pushed aside and focuses on Alex Rider, who is struggling to recover from experiences in the novel previous. Those traumatic events are progressively given more detail as Alex takes steps to reconcile the past and solve the mystery that still remains, all the while crossing paths with dangerous criminals not only seeking revenge but also plotting an act of terrorism.

Never Say Die includes plenty of action that go along with a typical spy novel but there are also more complicated elements within to back up the plausibility of the situation. It was at times a bit young but it was understandable given the audience the Alex Rider series is aimed at. That being said it could have easily been a lot more corny but Anthony Horowitz is successful as a whole in the balance he has maintained for such a series – innocent enough to be a young adults novel, but still exciting to actually be worthwhile reading; in my opinion any age group will enjoy Never Say Die.

Reviewed by Sarah Hayward

Never Say Die
by Anthony Horowitz
Published by Walker Books
ISBN 9781406377040

Book Review: The Stolen Island – Searching for ‘Ata, by Scott Hamilton

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_the_stolen_island.jpgThe Stolen Island – Searching for ‘Ata, relates the untold story of a tiny Polynesian island near Tonga, whose history seems to have been forgotten, largely due to the booming slave trade in the 1800s that resulted in a tragic incident for the island’s inhabitants.

In 1863, an Australian-born whaler, who decided that the slave trade was more profitable then whaling, lured 144 ‘Atan men, woman and children onto his boat under false pretenses, only to sell them as slaves. No one knows exactly what happened to these people after they had been sold, but it is certain that they never made it back to their island home, ‘Ata. The Stolen Island relates how the author, Scott Hamilton, came across these stories of the now-deserted island and his journey in finding evidence to support the legends handed down through generations of story-telling among families and tribes.

I’m not sure what I was expecting from the book but it surprised me. We don’t have to go back too far in history to see slavery being practised all over the world, and yet somehow realising the extent of it in New Zealand and the Pacific which the The Stolen Island pointed out, shocked me. The story of the natives of ‘Ata being captured would have been saddening enough, but that, along with the other accounts of kidnappings and exploitation that Scott Hamilton outlines in his findings, made it all the more appalling. Many were tricked into signing contracts that gave them little or no remuneration for years of servitude and labour. Others were forced into hard labour, some even left to die on abandoned ships, and almost all had very little hope to ever making it back home.

While what happened on ‘Ata in 1863 is the main focus of the book there are many more interesting points relating to ‘Ata or slavery that the author notes and discusses which makes The Stolen Island that much more intriguing and well-rounded. The way he progressively relates his experiences made me feel like I was right there too, seeking out whatever information was linked to this mysterious island, and feeling a mix of eagerness, desperation, at times disappointment but also satisfaction.

Scott Hamilton did a commendable job of tackling this topic; clearly it was something that intrigued him and piecing the puzzle together satisfied much of his own curiosity about the island, but to put his journey and findings into a book means that people are able to know a bit more about the history of slavery in New Zealand and the Pacific, but also the history of a little uninhabited island between Tonga and New Zealand, ‘Ata.

Reviewed by Sarah Hayward

The Stolen Island – Searching for ‘Ata
by Scott Hamilton
Published by Bridget Williams Books
ISBN 9780947518110

Book Review: The Dunedin Sound: Some Disenchanted Evening, by Ian Chapman

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_the_dunedin_soundEven though I was  born and raised in Dunedin I have to say the phrase “The Dunedin Sound” is completely new to me. Not being from the generation that encapsulates that label is perhaps a contributing factor, but I have come to realize that it is a fascinating subject and The Dunedin Sound by Ian Chapman has been a learning curve for me in music coming from my own hometown, during what is largely considered to be the greatest era of music.

The Dunedin Sound delves into 17 bands that were and are closely associated with the sound, providing background and explanations about the bands along with corresponding pictures that speak volumes. Amongst those we find written contributions from people that in some way or another have a connection to The Dunedin Sound. Their experiences vary greatly, as of course does how they personally view the music attached to The Dunedin Sound, but that is what gives the book a deeper meaning (rather than just biographies of some old bands that a few people want to reminisce about). It was reading about what attracted these people in the first place to the music, that makes me want to explore the treasure created in my backyard, hidden to my generation as the result of decades passing. Ian Chapman chose his contributors extremely effectively; they range from critics to fans to musicians, to music writers and more. All have a different take but all are united on the front that a vast majority of ‘80s bands from Dunedin had something special.

Throughout the book the snapshots and newspaper clippings, as well as posters (many of them hand-drawn) and the odd scribbled note here and there really made it feel like you had opened a time capsule from those days – a very well-presented and preserved one. One writer in the book talks about how ‘those days are gone now and, as is inevitable, a mythology is created and sold.’ The writer then makes the point that The Dunedin Sound is part of that, ‘but in it, relics are left to tell their own stories’, which is exactly what they do.

The only exposure I had personally had to the music written about was listening to ‘Pink Frost’ by The Chills, and it has only been since reading this book that I clicked that The Chills were a Dunedin band. But I have now discovered The Verlaines, Sneaky Feelings, more fully The Chills and I know there is much more yet to explore. Ian Chapman and his many contributors have provided those like myself with the insight of what the Dunedin music scene was made up of in the ‘80s and has already proven to be an excellent guide in my initial introduction to The Dunedin Sound. He has also given many others the opportunity to revisit times passed, giving extra information about bands that they might have known and seen perform, and in that way provided a tribute to the bands of The Dunedin Sound but also to their loyal followers.

I would highly recommend this book thanks to this dual appeal, and Chapman achieves this without making his aims obvious: The Dunedin Sound is blunt in it’s truthfulness. In my opinion, those who are familiar with the books subject matter will appreciate that, and for the others who aren’t, it will prove to be a reliable source of knowledge about the esteemed Dunedin Sound.

Reviewed by Sarah Hayward

The Dunedin Sound: Some Disenchanted Evening
by Ian Chapman
Published by David Bateman Ltd
ISBN 9781869538958

Book Review: The Straight Banana, by Tim Wilson

 

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_the_straight_bananaIn all honesty, I was dubious about this book from the start. While Tim Wilson certainly wins points for creativity in the presentation of his novel, The Straight Banana as a whole, missed the mark for me, despite the potential for it to work. Even as ridiculous as the plot seemed initially (which it certainly delivered on) it could’ve been a comedic, fictional spin on real world events, highlighting the ridiculousness of how the world can at times be. But instead it was a confusing plot with vague and unclear motives.

The ‘hero’ of the story is Thomas Tudehope Milde; a stereotypical character of this sort of genre – having potential, never really achieving it, making poor decisions, an underdog, or as described throughout the novel an ‘Omega’ as opposed to an ‘Alpha’. Milde is a somewhat irritating character largely due to his lack of sobriety throughout the novel, which in itself does seem to be accurate in how being under the influence of some sort of substance would be, yet it is frustrating because of how incoherent the writing becomes, apparently to give insight into the mind of Thomas Milde. Of course being the central focus of the novel, you find yourself wanting him to succeed but his personality and choices mean this doesn’t appear to be a highly likely outcome, which as a reader left me feeling disappointed in the character and frustrated by his foolishness. His situation seems so hopeless that it leaves you disheartened and wanting to re-write his story for a better set of circumstances.

I did find The Straight Banana engaging at times, when the plot and point was realized a bit more and when it felt like it was heading in some direction. At these points I felt like I couldn’t put the book down and I needed to know what would happen to the washed up foreign news correspondent that is Thomas Milde. However, these times where more often then not interrupted by the disorganized nature of the novel. It would migrate from an orderly and conventional novel to a jumpy thought process that was supposed to be Thomas Milde’s, yet still in the third person narration that made up the rest of the novel.  It was hard to follow and I found myself having to go back several times to try and piece together what the subject at hand was, making the whole thing disjointed and as a result, unengaging.

Of course, it is entirely possible that this will appeal to those who would view Tim Wilson’s new novel as an interesting way of writing that should be explored more.  It is also plausible that this book would have been a lot more engaging had I read Tim Wilson’s previous novel featuring Thomas Milde; News Pigs.  It may have provided enough background to have an attachment to Milde himself and also enough context to The Straight Banana to have properly enjoyed it.

Reviewed by Sarah Hayward

The Straight Banana
by Tim Wilson
Published by VUP
ISBN 9781776560875

 

Book Review: The Black Widow, by Daniel Silva

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_the_black_widowHaving never read a Daniel Silva novel before, let alone one from the Gabriel Allon series, I was deeply impressed with The Black Widow. It was a great representation of what seems to be Daniel Silva’s incredible skill in crafting a bestselling thriller. The Black Widow contains an intricate plot about a legendary spy, a terrorist organisation, and a young woman who has the right skills at the right time.

The novel starts off appearing to be completely unrelated to the intriguing blurb covering the back of the book, but then it gathers momentum and mystery, becoming clearer where a character such as described in the blurb fits in. An attack from ISIS initiates an introduction to a secret Parisian counter-terrorism group, and from there the story works it’s way towards Gabriel Allon. Wanting the best to be involved in finding the perpetrators and stopping further attacks, Gabriel is enlisted by the French government to eliminate the threats. A plan is set into motion, infiltrate the ISIS caliphate by means of a Black Widow operation. A candidate for the role is then selected, and so begins the dangerously sensitive mission.

Daniel Silva writes with seemingly great insight into intelligence agencies from around the world and their counterparts of criminal and terrorist organisations. As stated in the forward and the author’s note, the events, incidents, characters, and places are of course fictitious, but still it is entirely believable in the sense that Silva manages to be realistic and rational.

The book itself could quite easily have been a stand-alone book; a new reader such as myself has no trouble in picking up the plot and the characters. It is not as though all the background information is thrust upon the reader so that the current story can be understood and get underway, but rather Silva reveals the previous stories and details almost with caution, letting them be explained when appropriate. As the reader, there are times when you desperately want to know more about how the past has affected the present situations and relationships, and it is then that more is provided. However, for the many people that have read the series and do know Gabriel’s history, in my opinion these explanations and flashbacks would not feel slow or repetitious. It is easy to tell that these features only scratch the surface of previous events that make up the 15 books before The Black Widow, serving as a reminder to those who have read them and for those who haven’t, making them eager to delve deeper into Gabriel’s story.

There seems to be a lot of fascination for characters like Gabriel Allon; an individual that possesses a skill set that is nothing short of extraordinary which contributes to making him mostly a misunderstood hero, if that; yet always in some respect unknown which seems to provide most of the allure surrounding such characters. Those such as James Bond, Jason Bourne, Jack Reacher, and many others have proved that there is a definite market in the entertainment industry for these brilliant and complex characters. While similar in the basic undertones, they continue to thrill those who read the books in which their lives are contained or watch the movies where their heroisms are portrayed in 90 minutes or so. Daniel Silva has created an individual that, in my opinion, stands out among these. The Black Widow is the latest instalment of the 16 book series that features Gabriel Allon, and in one book he has been able to spark my interest enough to read more of Gabriel’s story, and this to me shows incredible skill.

Reviewed by Sarah Hayward

The Black Widow
by Daniel Silva
Published by HarperCollins Publishers
9780732298951

Book Review: Florence Grace, by Tracy Rees

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_florence_graceChanges have to happen throughout the years, as we grow we must change, sometimes drastically. For many though, the most drastic transition is that from a carefree youngster to whatever we, or our environment, decides we will be. This particular transition is a story that has been told or written about many times and in many different ways.

Florence Grace is one such tale. Florence ‘Florrie’ Buckley is that carefree and spirited youngster, growing up in the harsh but beautiful Cornish moors during the mid 1800s, content, yet longing for something more. All at once, her world is turned upside down when a never-imagined secret becomes hers, and she is plucked from the home she loves and thrust into a life starkly different. Florence Grace is as much a story of survival as it is a coming of age tale. Trials and tribulations are frequent, secrets kept and then revealed, causing strife in Florrie’s new world. It did portray the realness of life; as much as it seemed from the outside that Florence Grace had the best chances in the world and that life was being kind to her, it didn’t always bring about favourable circumstances.

Florrie encounters many crossroads during the story, forcing her to make decisions about who she will become and what she really wants. These twists and turns meant that the novel was interesting and unique, drawing you in and I found that at times I struggled to put the book down. These aspects of the novel and also the captivating detail throughout, particularly about Cornwall, gave depth to the story and for me, made it feel as though I was living it too.

That being said, I did find the novel somewhat predictable. The writing style did impress me but it was easy to see the outcomes, perhaps because of it being a frequently-told story-line of growing up. I enjoyed Florence Grace, I just wish the plot surprised me a bit more. There were also a few additions or details that, in my opinion, distracted from the story. Things that didn’t get majorly expanded on, didn’t add anything valuable to the story, and that seemed to detract from the ‘realness’ of the novel.

However Tracy Rees did manage to get across what I believe she wanted to portray: a beautiful story of lows and highs, struggles and victories, losses and loves of a young girl finding her way in the world, as well as finding herself.

Reviewed by Sarah Hayward

Florence Grace
by Tracy Rees
Published by Quercus Publishing
9781784296193