Friday, February 29, 2008

Bel Canto

I'm trying with Ann Patchett's novel, Bel Canto, I really am. I want to like it. I've heard great things about it from other people. And I'm keen to be a girly swot and get it read by Monday for my bookclub.

But I'm really struggling here.

I just find it so boring. The plot centres around a group who have been taken hostage in a mansion in an unnamed poor South American country. The group includes a famous opera singer, a wealthy Japanese CEO and his translator, and the Vice President of the country in which the events take place. These are possible the world's nicest and least competent terrorists. They have barely hurt anyone and seem utterly confused about why they are actually there. So the siege turns into a weeks-long ordeal where not much happens (at least so far). There is much description of the boredom experienced by the captives which I can totally relate to, feeling much the same myself whenever I pick up this book.

Then there is the impending romance between some of the captives, which I really don't find convincing. It's a hostage drama and... a love story? It's like Mills and Boon does An Evil Cradling.

There is no doubt that Patchett can write well. Her characterisations are interesting and initially the premise seemed promising. I'm only half-way through so maybe it will pick up. It could be me. Maybe I haven't given the book my full attention. Maybe it's my mood or the weather or something and maybe I'm being terribly unfair to Bel Canto. Perhaps I've missed the point.

I'd love to hear the thoughts of others on this one. Can I hold out hope for the second half? Have I totally missed the point? Is Bel Canto, in fact, an inspirational masterpiece? Please, I'm ready and willing to be convinced!

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Vampire Cool

Peeps by Scott Westerfeld is one of the most enjoyable books I've read in ages. I raced through it in one day last weekend and then passed it straight on to my husband who had the same experience.

Scott Westerfeld has built himself a reputation as one of the most exciting writers of young adult fiction at the moment, especially with his sci-fi series, Uglies. I've only recently discovered his work but in the couple of novels that I've read, I've been impressed with his ability to take a genre like sci-fi or horror and make it his own. His novels are underpinned by well-thought out philosophies and scientific concepts. In Uglies, he focused on our society's obsession with beauty, imagining a future where everywhere has an operation to make them uniformly 'beautiful' at sixteen. In Peeps, Westerfeld considers what modern science knows about parasites and uses it to explain an outbreak of vampire-like behaviour in New York City.

Peeps centres around Cal Thompson, a young university student who becomes infected by a parasite. Luckily he is immune to some of the parasite's nastier side effects (fear of light, a violent temperament, a taste for human blood) and becomes what is known as a carrier. He does get some of the cooler side effects though, such as fantastic night vision, super strength, a very good sense of smell and the world's fastest metabolism. Unfortunately he also develops a very active sex drive as the parasite tries to spread itself. Since even kissing a girl would be enough to pass on the parasite and turn her into a crazed, flesh eating vampire, he faces considerable challenges.

Cal is contacted by a secret organisation, mostly made up of other carriers, who are given the task of containing the parasite. He must track down and capture all his past girlfriends and, eventually, find the carrier who infected him. It is during the search for the girl who gave him the virus that he meets an attractive young woman, Lace, who quickly finds out more than she should about Cal's mission. Cal finds himself in a difficult situation as he falls for Lace but knows that he can't even kiss her without passing on the parasite.

Westerfeld alternates chapters of the story with chapters about the weird and wonderful world of real parasites. It sounds like a strange technique but it works. Learning about the bizarre parasites that really exist makes Westerfeld's fictional vampiric parasite much more believable. He also writes about the science of parasites in such a funny ad entertaining way that it never feels intrusive in the story.

There is little to fault in Peeps. It is smart, funny and fast-paced. Thankfully Westerfeld avoids the kind of po-faced seriousness that seems to plague some vampire books and films. The ending is all a bit rushed but it's a small criticism. This is definitely one for older adolescents and adults who are happy to go along for the ride.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Australian Crime

Until recently I had never read any Australian crime fiction but I can now boast about having already read two examples this year. In January I read Eden by Dorothy Johnston, which is not only Australian crime fiction but is also set in Canberra, thus continuing my mission to read books set in the capital. I have also recently finished The Broken Shore by Peter Temple, which I'll write about first because I can't praise this novel too much.

Peter Temple won the 2007 Duncan Lawrie Dagger for his novel, The Broken Shore, the first time an Australian author has claimed the prestigous prize. I can see why the judges might have chosen Temple's novel as I was absolutely blown away by it. The action takes place in a small coastal town in Victoria. Temple is careful to establish a strong sense of place. I could almost feel the cold winter rain of his setting and his descriptions of rural Australia are spot on. Take this passage for example:
Farmland had once surrounded the village of Kenmare like a green sea. Long backyards had run down to paddocks with milk cows oozing dung, to potato fields dense with their pale grenades. Then the farms were subdivided. Hardiplank houses went up on three-acre blocks, big metal sheds out the back. Now the land produced nothing but garbage and children, many with red hair. The blocks were weekend parking lots for the big rigs that rumbled in from every direction on Saturday- Macks, Kenworths, Mans, Volvos, eighteen-speed transmisssion, 1800-litre tank, the owners' names in flowery script on the doors, the unshaven, unslept drivers sitting two metres off the ground, spaced out and listening to songs of lost love and loneliness.

It's certainly an unromanticised view of Australian rural life.

Temple's detective Cashin is in many ways a cliche. He is posted to the country, tired and physically damaged, after a traumatic incident with a criminal in the city. He is battling with personal demons, as well as fighting other cops within the system. And of course an intriguing murder drops right in his lap.

It is to Temple's credit that he takes these standard features of the genre and makes them fresh. I believed in his characters. They speak and act like people I know. Temple captures the complexity of small town life, weaving class and racial tension into the plot with ease. Rarely has an author so accurately depicted the relationship between white and Aboriginal communities in small towns. The Broken Shore moves steadily and inexorably towards its resolution, using the conventions of crime fiction to create something fresh and absorbing.

Eden by Dorothy Johnston is another in her series featuring Sandra Mahoney, a security consultant who develops an obsession with the death of an ACT politician in a brothel. Johnston takes some pains to capture Canberra in January, a month when the city all but shuts down while most of its inhabitants escape the hot weather and head to the coast. The dry Canberra heat radiates off the pages and even as a reader I felt relief when the action shifted to a much cooler Sydney.

Johnston's story moves along at a steady pace, but for me this novel was too dry (and not just because of the weather). Much of the exposition seems awkward and forced. The plot is interesting but Johnston is so keen to reveal information to the audience that she does little to package it in an interesting way. Conversations are often unrealistic and clues are uncovered a little too easily. Nevertheless the premise and the crime are interesting enough for me to consider giving Johnston's work another go should I get the chance.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Coming Soon

Reading plenty at the moment but not writing much. The beginning of the school term seems to mean I can do one or the other, but not really both. Anyway, I'm working on a post raving about Peter Temple's wonderful crime novel, The Broken Shore. I also want to go on about how good Scott Westerfeld is (I read his vampire novel Peeps in a day!) and, strangely, am enjoying fantasy set in Medieval Japan courtesy of Lian Hearn's novel Across the Nightingale Floor, the first in her Tales of the Otori series.

I've also joined a new book club and had much lively discussion about Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell, some of which I hope to share with you.

Anyway, enough writing about what I'm going to write! Hopefully, I'll actually get a decent post done sometime soon...