29 June 2012

Review: Breathless by Dean Koontz

Breathless by Dean Koontz book cover
Grady Adams lives on his own in the Colorado mountains together with his massive Irish Wolfhound named Merlin and the book takes off when they come across a pair of animals Grady has never seen before. Grady asks his friend Cammy Rivers - a vet - to come and take a look, and she names the unique, gentle, inquisitive creatures Puzzle and Riddle, and it soon becomes apparent that these creatures will change the world.

Meanwhile there are two sub plots taking place that eventually link up at the end to make for a great climax. I've said it before, but Koontz loves to write about dogs and animals and Breathless carries on this theme.

There was a particularly good section of writing that made me laugh and is a good example of why I keep returning to Koontz. The excerpt comes from Page 216:
"If Northcott's smile looked like a grimace, then his grimace was more like the expression of a man who found a live cockroach swimming in his soup at the very moment he broke a tooth on a ball bearing spooned from the same bowl."
Classic! All in all, this was an easy read and highly recommended for animal lovers everywhere.

My rating = ***

Carpe Librum!
26 June 2012

Author Interview with Robin Baker, author of Killing Richard Dawson

Robin Baker
Today we're joined by Australian writer Robin Baker, author of Killing Richard Dawson, published by Pantera Press and recently reviewed and given four stars.

Thanks so much for joining us Robin. When you were writing the characters within Killing Richard Dawson, did you feel they were representative of Generation Y in Australia?

I wouldn’t want to speak on behalf of an entire generation, but the characters and their attitudes were certainly accurate to what I experienced at that age. I have had feedback from readers of various generations saying how much they related to the themes of hopelessness and uncertainty in the novel, which are feelings a lot of us deal with when we’re that age, so I’d suggest it speaks more about being a certain age than a particular generation.

Being a young writer and belonging to Gen Y yourself, what would you like people belonging to other generations to know about Gen Y? Did you intend to communicate any of these in Killing Richard Dawson?

I don’t agree with art that ‘preaches’ or tries to convey a particular message or point of view, so I make a point not to tell anyone how they should feel about a given topic. I try to be as emotionally honest as I can and let the work speak for itself.

There's a paragraph on page 144, where Mel – who has a crush on the narrator – is introduced by him to Jade, with whom he has a romantic interest. There is an awkward stretch of silence between the three characters, and you describe the sequence of meaningful glances between each of them so perfectly that it was one of the funniest moments in the book for me. What motivated you to write in such a way? Were you simply trying to highlight the tension between the characters or were you trying to make us laugh?

I like to tread the fine line between comedy and tension/horror whenever I can, so this seemed like a good opportunity. Embarrassing situations are always funnier when they involve someone else! Comedy is good way to get people to lower their defences; I think people are much more willing to go to very dark places with you if you can make them laugh along the way.

Characters discussing nightclubs over several pages in Killing Richard Dawson reminded me of characters talking about restaurants in American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis. Was this a silent nod to the classic or completely unintentional?

I’m not sure if I had read American Psycho when I wrote that scene (but have since read it and loved it) but the joke here was that, throughout the book, whenever a character discusses anything serious, or emotional, or indeed anything that actually matters, they are quickly dismissed and the subject is changed. This particular scene is possibly the longest dialogue exchange in the entire book and is about the most vapid of subjects, which I thought was a nice irony.

Do you have any literary influences?

I admire Don DeLillo very much. Each of his works is unique and I think Underworld is one of the greatest novels ever written. Stephen King was a big influence while I was growing up and I still enjoy his novels today. I very much admire writers of believable dialogue and character who offer moments of truth or insight into ourselves and each other.

When asked if he's ever delved into the world of Dean Koontz, Robin had this to say:

I've read three or four Dean Koontz books (not sure of the titles now, it was a long time ago) but never really got into them - they felt too much like Stephen King Lite. One of the things I enjoy most about King (and something I feel he's very underrated for) is the human element of his books. His characters are so believable and he offers some great insight into people, which I never got from Koontz. I may have to try some of his newer stuff and see if it changes my mind. 

I find it fascinating that you decided to leave your career as an English Teacher and take up work as a Funeral Director. Is the funeral industry what you expected?

I’m not sure what I expected when I first started, but it was definitely an eye-opening experience! It’s an industry that tends to be shrouded in mystery, so it was interesting to see what really happens behind the scenes, so to speak. It was challenging, rewarding, confronting and strangely fascinating. I have no regrets about my time there; I met some wonderful people, saw some things I will never forget and gained some interesting insights into life, people, grief and death, among many other things. It’s certainly not for everyone, but it was a great industry to be a part of and I enjoyed my time there very much.

What prompted this career change and how has the experience shaped or enriched your writing?I had always been curious about the industry and an opportunity arose just after my current teaching contract expired. I wasn’t enjoying teaching at the time so decided to take a chance and ended up staying there for nearly six years. It taught me a lot about myself and others and is a job that really makes you reassess what is important in your life. My next novel, Chasing the Sun, was written during this time and deals with themes of mortality and belief and what we leave behind.

Some writers have a particular writing regime or preferred method of writing. How do you prefer to work and do you have any habits?

I write on a laptop but always carry a notebook with me (or a note-taking app on a phone, if a notebook is not appropriate) where I’ll write scenes, ideas, or even just single lines of dialogue. I will either work in silence, or find one particular piece of music that suits the tone of the scene I’m working on, then play it on repeat until I drive everyone else crazy.  I prefer working earlier in the day and into the afternoon when possible, so I usually do the majority of my writing on the weekends or days off and use evenings for editing.

As a former English Teacher, are you also a voracious reader and do you have any favourite authors or books you'd like to share?

I’m always trying to read more. I write book reviews for a local newspaper so I’m lucky enough to get new releases fairly regularly, which is nice! Some of my personal favourite authors are Stephen King and Don DeLillo, as I mentioned, but I’m also a fan of clean, stripped-back, minimalist writing such as Amy Hempel, Bret Easton Ellis, Cormac McCarthy and Chuck Palahniuk. If you want something completely unique, I can recommend you check out Mark Danielewski’s House of Leaves, a true one-of-a-kind that you won’t soon forget.

I understand that you're working on your next novel Chasing the Sun. What can you tell us about it?

Chasing the Sun is “a twisted tale about Feng Shui, vampires, drinking, pet psychiatry, genocide, belief and mortality” and will be available in October this year from Pantera Press. I think it shares a similar tone and style with Killing Richard Dawson but tells a very different story and deals with different ideas and themes. I’m excited for its release and really hope you enjoy it!

Anything else you'd like to add?

Thanks for reading Killing Richard Dawson, I’m thrilled you enjoyed it! Thanks also for inviting me here today!
24 June 2012

Review: My Hundred Lovers by Susan Johnson

My Hundred Lovers by Susan Johnson book cover
* From Publisher for Review *

My Hundred Lovers is written by Aussie author Susan Johnson and I've been reading it as part of an Allen & Unwin read-along; you can read my previous two posts about the experience here and here.

The premise of the book is a woman turning fifty who reflects on her life and sorts through her body's memories.  In 100 chapters, the woman - who refers to herself throughout the novel as 'the girl', Deb and 'the Suspicious Wanderer' - gives us her one hundred lovers; in essence one hundred sensual memories.  

From first glance at the title, a potential reader might assume the main character to have had one hundred sexual lovers, however this is not the case.  Deb's sensual memories do include lovers, however they also include other physical memories such as the love of croissants, riding a horse, the sensation of her mother's red fingernails scratching her back or the feel of raindrops on her face.

Each chapter is a vignette, a glimpse into Deb's life and the chapters are not always in strict chronological order.  This is a personal and at times revealing piece of fiction and Deb is very open and honest when reflecting on her physical intimacy with her lovers; men and women.  At times sexy, at times a little confronting but nevertheless it was moving throughout as it followed the path of Deb's exploration of self.

While reading this book I couldn't help but begin to think of my own physical memories, what would my own list contain if I were to create one in the same style?  I would definitely include the smell of fresh cut grass, and the glorious sensation of getting into a bed warmed by an electric blanket on a chilly night.

Deb left one of her most important relationships until the very end of the book, the revealing of which drew a surprised and sad groan from me.  This was clever writing and left me wanting more.  The read-along definitely enhanced my enjoyment of the book and if the above has piqued your interest I definitely recommend My Hundred Lovers for your reading pleasure.

(This book also qualifies for my Aussie Author Challenge 2012)

My rating = ****

Carpe Librum!
23 June 2012

Big Books To Get Stuck Into This Winter

Are you looking for a chunkster to get stuck into?  Do you relish the heft and challenge of a juicy long book? Do you enjoy the odd doorstop here and there to break up your reading list?  Look no further!

I've put together the following list of all books greater than 700 pages long from my GoodReads list to satisfy these needs and linked them to my own reviews where possible:

Tea cup sitting on a stack of books

Clarke, Susanna (Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell)

Falconer, Colin (When We Were Gods)

Follett, Ken (The Pillars of the Earth)

Follett, Ken (World Without End)

Follett, Ken (A Column of Fire)

Follett, Ken (Never)

King, Stephen (Bag of Bones)

King, Stephen (Duma Key)

King, Stephen (Insomnia)

King, Stephen (Under the Dome)

King, Stephen (11.22.63)

King, Stephen & Owen (Sleeping Beauties)

Koontz, Dean (False Memory)

Kostova, Elizabeth (The Historian)

Lewis, C.S. (The Chronicles of Narnia)

Paolini, Christopher (Brisingr)

Paolini, Christopher (Inheritance)

Paolini, Christopher (To Sleep In A Sea of Stars)

Rice, Anne (Blackwood Farm)

Rice, Anne (The Witching Hour)

Rowling, J.K. (Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows)

Rowling, J.K. (Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire)

Rowling, J.K. (Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix)

Sansom, C.J. (Tombland)

Stephenson, Neal (Cryptonomicon)

Tolstoy, Leo (Anna Karenina)

Happy reading and feel free to tell me the longest book you remember enjoying, or perhaps the longest one you never finished.

* Last updated 3 May 2022
21 June 2012

My Hundred Lovers Read-Along Finishes

The Allen & Unwin read-along began on 1 June 2012 and  each Friday a bookish discussion has been going on over at 1 Girl, 2 Many Books who has been doing a fabulous job of hosting the read-along.  Thanks Bree!

It all ends tomorrow and I've thoroughly enjoyed reading the different comments and responses from the range of other book bloggers. So much so that it has changed the way in which I read this book; slowing down from my usual pace and paying more attention to the content knowing that we would have the chance to discuss it online together in a book club type of environment.

Here are my comments from Week 1 and 2 of the read-along.

Week 1

Hello all, many of you have commented on the segments of My Hundred Lovers I have enjoyed, so instead of repeating them here, I’ll share what I found surprising or confronting that hasn’t been raised yet.

The first is the girl’s relationship with Nina Payne. (I love the author’s use of ‘the girl’ too by the way). On pages 20-22 she has Nina walking around in a skirt without any underwear and then makes her sit on the ground with her legs apart says: “the girl would have stuck her finger in except that her friend stood up and ran away.” Am I the only one that found this a little confronting?

Even though I didn’t do it myself, I know girls practice kissing with each other, but I found the girl’s sexual curiosity went further than most and I want to know why. Perhaps this will be revealed later in the novel.

I was also shocked at the mother’s cruelty on page 18 when she says to her naked daughter in the bathroom: “I don’t remember my inner lips being so exposed when I was a girl.” I mean, way to give a young girl permanent body issues, and what loving mother would be comparing their daughter’s body to their own anyway?

How did other readers respond to these two sections? Were there raising of eyebrows, quickening of pulses or did you all take it in your stride?

Week 2

I’ve been looking forward to our discussion this week, because often I don’t have the chance to discuss the books I’m reading with others on such a detailed level, and when I read Chapter Thirty-Eight, I was confused and desperately wanted to discuss it with you all.

I understand her husband wanted to make love to Debbie although she had fallen out of love with him; that is straight forward and I’m sure many of us have been at one or both ends of unrequited love. However, is she using the slam of the coffin as an analogy for the death of the love she had for her husband or something more? Does she feel dead inside?

Debbie’s reluctance to tell us about her husband and the circumstances surrounding their relationship tells me there is something quite significant there. She is protective of this relationship in particular and open about other passing liaisons. We’re now 3/4 of the way through the book and I’m hoping she will open up to us soon. I can certainly feel the tension building, can you?

So, with that said, I'll be posting my review of Susan Johnson's My Hundred Lovers separately, as the read-along draws to a close.  But it's been a lot of fun, and thanks go to Allen & Unwin and to Bree at 1 Girl, 2 Many Books.

That's my four bucks!
19 June 2012

Review: Killing Richard Dawson by Robin Baker

Killing Richard Dawson by Robin Baker book cover
* From publisher for review *

Killing Richard Dawson is narrated by a uni student with a tragic back story now living alone with his Gran.  He's visited once a fortnight by a young social worker who checks on his Gran's welfare as well as his own, although he's been keeping his real thoughts and emotions well hidden from her for years.

Lonely as a child until he met his best friend George, the narrator has never had much luck pursuing girls or socialising.  He makes a friend at University - calling her Fatty Mel - and soon falls into a wider group of friends who go to nightclubs, get drunk and hang out.  He is depressed, directionless and unmotivated until he meets Jade, a turning point in the book.

The friends belong to Generation Y, and whilst we've all heard countless stereotypes of Gen Y, this conversation between the narrator and his friend Beau on page 160 really stuck with me:

"Why can't we fix it? If we're all so depressed, why can't we do something to change?"

Beau shrugs. "Because we're all so fucking lazy? I mean, where do you start? Changing the world isn't easy. It's a scary thought. Most people would much rather bury their head in the sand and wait for it to fix itself."

And there you have it, although Beau's answer can apply to anyone too lazy to change.

Back to the story, and Robin Baker brings a fresh new voice to Australian writing.  In one particular beach scene it was set up so logically I believed the outcome was 100% predictable until the joke was on me, the author flipping the plot on its head.  Similarly, I had a feeling I knew what was happening with a particular character during the novel and then wham, towards the end I found myself scrambling back through the pages scouring for clues.  

When it was all over, I turned straight back to re-read Chapter One - which serves as a prologue - with an entirely new appreciation.

Killing Richard Dawson is the exploration of a young man with a sympathetic and difficult past trying to find his place in the world, depressed, confused and falling in love.  It's dark, it's surprising and it's strangely comic.

My rating = ****

Carpe Librum!

Robin Baker speaks to me about his writing and more, click here to read the interview.
14 June 2012

Author Patrick White

Author Patrick White
Author Patrick White
Today I watched a documentary which aired on the ABC on 22 May 2012, entitled: Patrick White: Read Me When I'm Dead? and have been thinking about this Australian author since.

I've always known he was the only Australian writer to have been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature (which took place in 1973) however I haven't been an active reader of his work.

I studied A Fringe of Leaves at University, but I remember finding it really hard to get into and I don't think I read it right through to the end to be honest.

Patrick White at Centennial Park by Brett Whiteley (1979-1980)
Patrick White at Centennial Park
by Brett Whiteley (1979-1980)
One opinion expressed in the documentary is that White's work is inaccessible to the average reader, too intellectual, and consequently he is widely unknown to the general public. 

As a lover of books and supporter of Australian authors I find myself wondering if I should give White's work another chance.  It's been a significant number of years since I failed to engage with A Fringe of Leaves and he wrote 12 novels in total so there's bound to be something more to my liking isn't there?  And of course, there's the recent posthumous publishing of The Hanging Garden this year, albeit unfinished.

I'd love to hear from others about their favourite Patrick White novel, or any advice for first timers like myself, about the best place to start.
12 June 2012

Review: Freedom by Jonathan Franzen

Freedom by Jonathan Franzen book cover
American author Jonathan Franzen's contemporary novel Freedom was published in 2010, picked up by Oprah Winfrey and added to her selection of book club books and entered many Top 10 Bestseller Lists around the world.

My friends and family know that the trendier a book gets the less likely I am to want to pick it up; I just don't like reading what everybody else is reading.  But now that all the fuss has died down, and I was able to pick up a copy of Freedom for $4.95 I thought I'd judge for myself whether the claims of 'masterpiece' and 'great American novel' were justified.

At 597 pages, Freedom is slightly longer than your average paperback novel and covers a time period of 30 years.  It is essentially the story of Patty and Walter Berglund and their marriage together.  We spend time with Patty narrating her childhood, courting with Walter, meeting his best friend Richard Katz, having two children and experiencing marriage problems.

We also spend time with characters Walter, Richard, and the Berglund son Joey.  Much time and effort is devoted to character development in great detail with back story - emotional insights included - and the reader soon has an in depth understanding of the Berglund circle of influence.

All of this is played out against two major environmental backdrops through Walter's character; the first being the conservation of the Cerulean Warbler bird through a process of mountaintop removal and the second being overpopulation.

Did I like it?
I honestly admired the author's ability to create such a depth of character in a fashion not seen a lot in contemporary fiction.  (Perhaps this is why it is referred to as 'the great American novel'). But did I care?  No, not really.  These were ordinary people doing ordinary things and broadly speaking this story could be a book about love; or a love triangle.

I also struggled with the long paragraphs and especially the long chapters.  Some chapters were 50 - 70 pages in length, which meant reading for two nights before reaching the end of a chapter, argh!

I did feel a little 'tricked' reading this novel, as if the author had used the love story in which to park his real environmental agenda and I couldn't help getting my back up about this.  They just didn't fit together.  I also resented the length of the book and was glad when it was over.  So, my rating will reflect this: three stars in admiration of the effort, minus one star for the resentment and lack of care factor.

My rating = **

Carpe Librum!
10 June 2012

Review: Help! For Writers by Roy Peter Clark

Help! For Writers by Roy Peter Clark book cover
I had reserved Help! For Writers - 210 Solutions to the Problems Every Writer Faces by Roy Peter Clark at the library for so many months that I forget now where I saw the recommendation for it, but having read it now, I'm a little disappointed.

The book promises 210 solutions however I found that Clark really just described them and talked about himself, and his own writing a whole lot of the time.  His insistent reference to the writer as 'she' and 'her' all the time was both puzzling and annoying and I found most of his hints and tips were common sense and nothing new.

Clark seems to love his typewriter, index cards, drop files, folders, notebooks and archive boxes (especially his drop files and index cards) but didn't once mention different applications or modern methods of writing on a laptop.  Nor did he make mention of any websites or online communities for writers; presumably because these can become out of date so quickly, however this book was published in September 2011.

If you want old school advice on writing peppered with the occasional reference to Shakespeare, other authors and Clark's own writing, then this is the book for you.

My rating = *

Carpe Librum!