Book Reviews

Review: Hades by Candice Fox

 

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Have you ever read a book, recognised a location as one that you personally know, and gotten completely excited that you can accurately visualise it?

I know I have. Isn’t it the best feeling?

I think Australian readers often get the most excited when this happens.

Why?

Sadly, as readers, we do not often get to see locations we personally know in a book because not many authors, Australian or otherwise, set their stories in our wonderful country. So when I found out about a Sydney author who not only writes gritty crime, but also sets it in and around Sydney, I got a little excited. After all, as popular as psychological thrillers are at the moment, sometimes you just crave a good ol’ fashioned slice ‘em and dice ‘em crime novel.

Detective Frank Bennett has joined a new homicide unit and has been partnered with an intriguingly complex new partner. Eden Archer is a beautiful, cold mystery and between her and her brother Eric – also a member of the Sydney Metro police force – Frank Bennett is sure that there is more to the Archers than meets the eye.

At the centre of this character driven novel is, of course, a gruesome crime. A number of large steel boxes have been discovered on the bottom of Sydney Harbour with each one containing various human body parts. Naturally, Frank and Eden are put on the case. How does the title Hades fit into this, I hear you ask. It soon becomes apparent that the gruesome crime has some pretty grisly links to Eden and Eric’s unconventional childhood, and their adoptive ‘father’, Hades.

I loved this book.

I will admit, when you read a lot of crime novels, it all starts to look, feel and sound a bit similar after a while. With Hades, Candice Fox really does try to be a bit different and make her novel stand out from the crowd, an aim which I think she has successfully achieved.

Firstly, and most importantly, I loved the characters in this novel, as well as they way the author uses them. Let us take the character Hades, for example. The book is named after a character who is not only NOT the main character (in regards to the point of view the story is largely told from), but whose primary role seems to be to illustrate how the characters of Eden and Eric grew up into the kind of adults that they are. Genius.

Now, let’s take the character of Frank Bennett. The majority of the book is told from his perspective. Interestingly, despite the fact that it is through his eyes that we see the ‘current’ events unfolding, he is actually not the most interesting character in the novel. In fact, he seems to be merely the conduit through which we view the unfolding events and personalities of the more interesting characters. I have never come across this characterisation technique in a novel before, but it works!

Obviously, I also loved the use of settings and locations in this novel, but I especially loved the restraint Candice Fox showed in using them. I have found that authors quite often either focus too much on the locations, and thus lose the essence of the story they are telling, or they don’t use them enough, and you end up feeling like the story really could have taken place just about anywhere. Candice Fox manages to use her choice of locations in a way that adds to the story-taking place, but doesn’t define it. She has expertly balanced the story and the setting.

This novel is definitely one for anyone who enjoys a good, gritty crime novel, and for any fellow Aussies who would love to finally see a good storyline located in our very own sunburnt country.

Rating: 9/10

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Book Reviews

Review: Paper Chains by Nicola Moriarty

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If I could live anywhere in the world, I would live in London. I have been there a couple of times and it is such a vibrant city that is always brimming with energy and life. As such, I am also a bit of a sucker for a story set in London.

That is what initially attracted me to reading Paper Chains.

Hannah and India are two women in their late twenties who are running from their pasts, each with their own secrets. Hannah has left her Sydney life behind her, and is intent on punishing herself for the things she has done. India, a Perth girl, is living the bohemian dream of wandering through Europe, and fixing up the broken people in need that she meets along the way. She too has a big secret that she is running to avoid, however she knows one person in particular needs to hear it. This secret is sealed up in an envelope and is also making it’s own bohemian way across Europe. The two women have a chance encounter in London and ultimately form a friendship that changes both their lives.

Although both characters are Australian, and that there are quite a few flashback moments throughout the novel, the majority of the story takes place in London. For me, it is always a thrill to read a novel and be able to accurately picture the settings and surroundings because you have been there yourself.

Ultimately, as clichéd as it sounds, it is a story about the two main characters ‘finding themselves’. However, I feel it is so more than that as well. It is a story about relationships, the importance of other people in your life, and how different people deal with the curve balls that life sometimes throws at them.

This is a bittersweet story, and that is precisely why I really quite enjoyed this novel. Paper Chains made me feel both uplifted and depressed at the same time. There are moments of happiness and sadness that are so well balanced you can almost believe that this story actually happened. Any fictional story that makes you forget for a while that it is in fact fiction… well, that takes a talented writer to be able to do that. It is full of clever humour and poignant moments, and the characters of Hannah and India are written in such a way that their unique struggles are both very real, and to an extent, very relatable.

I read this book over my summer break, and it definitely makes for a good summer read. I would definitely recommend it for lovers of Liane Moriarty, Monica McInerney and Cathy Kelly.

Rating: 8/10

EDIT: Good news for any Americans out there! Paper Chains has just been picked up by Harper Collins U.S. and will be published next year! Exciting! Read Nicola’s announcement about it here.

Author Events

Author Event: Matthew Reilly

So Monday 10th November 2014 was a day that all Matthew Reilly fans has been counting down to – the release day for his latest book, The Great Zoo of China.

Luckily for me, working in a bookstore means that I already got to read a proof copy of it back in September (my review of the book can be found here).

But that didn’t make Monday 10th November any less exciting for me.

For on Monday 10th November, Matthew Reilly was doing a launch event at the Hayden Orpheum Picture Palace in Cremorne, Sydney.

And I had a ticket.

The event was going to consist of an ‘In Conversation with…’ style of presentation with Matthew, moderated by the owner of a local bookstore, followed by Q&A from the audience (including one from myself!), and then book signings out in the foyer.

Below are highlights from the evening.

Disclaimer: Matthew gave a lot of fantastic, detailed, and in depth answers to all the questions he was asked, which makes it really hard for me to remember everything, and to include everything that he said. As such, I have paraphrased both the questions and answers, so nothing below is a direct quote from either the question-asker, or Matthew Reilly himself.

In Conversation With Matthew Reilly

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So, why set the story in China?

Matthew explained that in 2003 he visited a dragon museum in Sweden and that is when he thought of the initial concept for the book – a zoo filled with dragons. But who would build such a zoo? And why? At the time, Matthew couldn’t come up with a satisfactory answer to either of those questions. However, in 2006 he was on a research trip in China for his book The Six Sacred Stones, and he thought that China could be a good setting for the zoo. Then with the 2008 Beijing Olympics, Matthew saw that China had really emerged as a contender for the next global super power and was a realistic country to set the story in. But to be a global super power, a country must have soft culture dominance, which is where the USA reigns supreme. Soft culture involves things like Coca-Cola, McDonald’s and Disneyland. And how could China do one better than Disneyland? Why a dragon zoo, of course! Matthew also explained a little about the ‘Chinese Dream’, which is this idea of trying to cement China’s place as a formidable country on a global scale. This ‘Chinese Dream’ is actually government policy in China, which makes the idea of Matthew’s book all the more plausible – that China would want to be a global cultural leader to rival the USA.

What is Matthew’s writing process?

Matthew explained that when he was writing his first book Contest, he was 19 years old and studying at university, so often he would write at all hours of the night, and not keep consistent writing hours. Nowadays, he tends to keep reasonably normal ‘office’ hours, and this is due to the fact that he aims to still have a reasonable social life. As most of his friends and family work 9-5, Monday to Friday, Matthew has more or less also adopted similar work patterns. He said he tends to go hard at his writing Monday and Tuesday, spend Wednesday playing golf, and then go hard at it again Thursday and Friday before having a weekend on Saturday and Sunday.

In terms of his actual process in writing one of his books, he said that this had also evolved a bit over his writing career, and nowadays he needs to have a visual map drawn up of where his story is set before he even sits down to write page one. He said he sketches and also uses Photoshop to do these maps and layouts, and that he revises them over and over again until he is happy with them, and until he has a very clear vision of what the setting looks like. The other thing is that he needs everything – story, plot, characters – planned out from start to finish and planned out 100% before he sits down to begin writing the book.

The Tournament (Matthew’s last novel) was very different to his usual style. Does he plan to do something like that again?

The short answer? Never say never. First off, Matthew clarified that, at the time he was writing The Tournament, he needed the creative break that it provided him. He needed some time away from all the explosions and car chases. And, more importantly, he needed to gather himself and prepare before embarking on the journey of writing his biggest, most explosive adventure yet – The Great Zoo of China.

Matthew also told us how he copped a lot of flack from parents and Reilly enthusiasts because he had strayed from his usual style of story-telling. Matthew maintains that The Tournament was still an action novel, just a different kind of action novel that didn’t have any explosions or car chases. And as to the parents who asked/complained as to how he could write that novel when he knows that kids as young as 12 and 13 are reading his books, Matthew said that apart from Hover Car Racer, he has always written his novels for an adult audience.

In regards to Troll Mountain, how did Matthew find writing for an ebook only format, and will it ever come out in physical book form?

I thought this was a great question from the moderator. Matthew found writing specifically for an ebook format much the same as writing for a physical book. The only difference was that more marketing and promotion had to go into it. When people buy ebooks, they tend to know what they are looking to buy and don’t really browse. Whereas people who buy in books stores browse and find new things, but also discover new things by authors they already like. Matthew pointed out that he personally likes browsing better. Matthew also talked about how he thinks that books have now succumbed to what he termed the ‘Pizza Hut’ effect – you used to be able to go to a physical Pizza Hut Restaurant and sit and dine in, whereas now, pizzas are mostly a take-away, home-delivered food item. Same for books – you can download and start reading a book within the comfort of your own home, rather than having to visit a physical store.

Matthew said it was highly likely that Troll Mountain would come out in a physical book format, (although he would have to check with his publisher to see if they want to publish it that way), and that he wouldn’t be surprised if it was published in in hard copy within the next 12 months.

Audience Q&A

Can I buy your shoes?

To clarify with a bit of background, Matthew started the event by saying that he had brought with him the 3 things he had promised via his Facebook page:

  1. His new book The Great Zoo of China
  2. His DeLorean (yes, Matthew actually owns one!)
  3. His custom made, Great Zoo of China Converse shoes

Matthew was wearing his shoes, so one eager fan asked if he could have them (to which Matthew said “No!”) and then he offered to buy them off him (to which Matthew said “… how much?”). It was a great, light-hearted way to kick off the audience Q&A!

(For the record, Matthew kept his shoes firmly on his feet, and didn’t sell them!)

Was setting his latest book in China difficult due to it being a communist country?

Matthew again explained that he had actually been there for research, and that he had been to Southern China, specifically Guilin, where the Zoo in his book is located. He found the experience interesting, and eye-opening, but other than that it was pretty much the same as any other research trip. Although, he did say that they will probably never let him back in to China now that the book is published!

Does Matthew have any plans for a Contest or Temple sequel?

Matthew has no plans to write sequels for them as he thinks they are best as stand alone novels. His rule for sequels is that they have to bigger and better than the novel that precedes them, and he doesn’t think he could do Contest or Temple any better.

How about another Jack West Jr. novel?

Never say never, but in terms of research, they are the most heavy of all his novels. Even The Tournament didn’t required as much labour intensive research as a single Jack West book. So he would need to be up to doing that level of research again, before he could commit himself to writing another Jack West Jr. adventure.

Do you ever write a scene and then look at it again later and think “Maybe that’s a bit too much” and scale it back?

This was my question, which I was very excited that I got to ask!

The short answer was no, but Matthew knew what I was getting at. He said that he tends to write to the limits of his imagination as it is. Matthew then went on to explain that when Ice Station was first released, he got a lot of mail from readers saying it was just too unbelievable. His first USA publisher even told him to scale back his books, so he changed publishers! He writes for ‘big kids’ and if you get a kick out of reading it, then mission accomplished! If you like the more clear-cut, well defined, and neatly wrapped Tom Clancy type novels, then you should be reading Tom Clancy novels! But he does have a limit to his big ideas and action sequences…although he hasn’t reached that limit yet!

On that note, does he think he went too far with THAT scene in Scarecrow?

Again, a bit of (spoiler-free) background for those who haven’t read Scarecrow, a much-loved character meets their rather grisly death in a guillotine.

Matthew told us how he has received hate mail for that scene, and that he can always tell when Scarecrow had just been released in a new country, because the hate mail starts pouring in again. For a lot of fans that he has spoken to, even though they have read all his books, that scene in Scarecrow is the scene that remains clearly in their minds (on a personal note, it is the only Matthew Reilly book I have never re-read). Matthew explained that he knew he was going to do it before he wrote the book. He almost chickened out though! When he was up to writing that scene, he got up from his computer and asked himself “Can I do this? I can still back out.” But he decided he had to go ahead with it, so he sat down, wrote it very quickly and then moved on with the book. When his friends and family were reading the manuscript he’d always get a call just after they had read that part, so he always knew where they were up to when the phone rang!

The most heart-warming moment of the evening goes to one 11 year old fan who asked:

My parents let me read Hell Island, but won’t let me read Area 7 even though I really want to. So, my question is, can I read Area 7?

This made everyone in the theater laugh and Matthew good-naturedly asked if the young gentleman had learned any new swear words while reading Hell Island, to which the boy replied that there wasn’t anything new. One of the characters in the book is nicknamed Mother, which is short for something… ahem… more adult (add a curse word starting with ‘F’ on to the end of ‘Mother’). So Matthew asked this kid if he knew what Mother’s name was short for, to which the kids replied that he did. So, Matthew said if he could handle Hell Island, he would be just fine with Area 7, and that he would give him a free copy of it after the event.

My very own signed book!
My very own signed book!

After the questions, we all filed out of the theater and queued in the lobby to get our books signed! I had a quick chat with Matthew about China (I had visited at the start of the year), about what I thought of the book, and that I would be seeing him again next month, when he does an author signing at the book store I work at. He was a really lovely person, and a great public speaker and I am so glad that I got to go along to his launch event!

To find out more about Matthew Reilly and his books, visit his website here.

Book Reviews

Review: Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty

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Up until about a week ago, I had never read one of Liane Moriarty’s books, which is rather surprising considering she is a local author in my area, and I am a huge supporter and advocate for Australian authors.

I had also been hearing almost all of my colleagues at work rave about her novels, so I thought I would give her latest one a whirl, though I was a bit worried that I may not enjoy the book. I will admit I am not normally one to read a book about the lives of fictional suburban mothers and their families. Quite frankly, I find the notion of reading a book about daily trials of mothers and their kids rather dull and unexciting.

That is, until I picked up Liane Moriarty’s latest book.

Big Little Lies takes place in the fictional Sydney suburb of Pirriwee and revolves around a group of kindergarten parents and their respective children who attend the local public school. The whole novel revolves around one key event – Pirriwee Public’s annual school trivia night. Why? Because a parent is dead.

The three central characters are Madeline, a highly extroverted, bubbly force to be reckoned with, Celeste, an effortlessly gorgeous, wealthy mother of twin boys and close friend of Madeline’s, and Jane, the young single mum who is new in town. This trio form the foundation of the story we are told, and all have their own worries and trials to deal with in their personal lives.

The majority of the novel takes places over the months leading up to the ill-fated trivia night, and delves into the cliquey world of helicopter parents and playground politics. At times, you almost forget that one of the characters you are reading about is in fact dead, but Moriarty very cleverly keeps you on track – at the end of every chapter there are excerpts of witness statements and background information being given by the schools parents and teachers. In this way, Moriarty also cleverly keeps you guessing as to who exactly the deceased person is.

As sombre as the overall storyline sounds, Moriarty’s latest novel is actually quite funny, while at the same time heartbreaking. She really knows how to get you emotionally invested in her characters, and to love and loathe them in equal measure. This is one of the best examples I have seen of really well written, well-defined characters. You know exactly who they are and how they will most likely react to certain situations, even though they are works of fiction.

I also love that Moriarty hasn’t compromised herself as an author just to appeal to the American mass market. The book is rife with ‘Australian-isms’ – including a brief discussion of ‘mum’ vs. ‘mom’ spelling, greetings of ‘gidday’, and particular aspects of the first year of school that evoked nostalgic memories of my own kindergarten days. I was able to relate to many things in this novel, despite not being in the target reader demographic.

I can’t wait to pick up another Liane Moriarty novel sometime soon.

Rating: 9/10

Edit: It is exciting to see both Nicole Kidman’s and Reese Witherspoon’s respective production companies option the screen rights to Big Little Lies! Read more here.

Book Reviews

Review: The Great Zoo of China by Matthew Reilly

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I have a confession – I love Matthew Reilly.

And his books.

Mostly his books, but him as well. He seems like a nice guy, with a great sense of humour.

But back to the books.

For many years I have ranked him in my top three favourite authors. I love his fast-paced, engaging stories that obviously come from a very vivid imagination.

Basically, I wish I had written his books.

So when I saw the proof copy of Reilly’s latest book, The Great Zoo of China, on the desk at work, I quickly snapped it up before anyone else could. I was in China on a two-week holiday earlier this year as well, so I was intrigued to see how he used that as the backdrop to the story.

Wow!

I was not disappointed!

China is on its way to becoming a modern superpower; they are leaders in manufacturing and they have an intimidating, and sizeable military force. In an effort to become a dominant cultural power to rival the USA, the Chinese government have been working on a highly secretive project for the past forty years – the greatest zoo ever constructed. But this is not just any zoo; this is a zoo to rival Disneyland. This zoo is to house a species of animal that are believed to exist only in myth. This is a zoo of dragons.

The Great Zoo of China introduces us to a new character in the Reilly canon, and his first (adult) female lead – the resilient, fiery and independent Dr. CJ Cameron. CJ, an expert on reptiles and a writer for National Geographic, and a small group of VIPs and journalists have been invited by the Chinese government to preview the zoo and its magnificent creatures. Despite being shown around and reassured that nothing can go wrong, naturally it does. After all, it wouldn’t be a Matthew Reilly book unless something went wrong. And on a drastically huge and life-threatening scale!

True to form, this book had everything I love about a Reilly novel – fast paced storytelling, lots of action, good guys, bad guys, death, destruction, whiz bang tech stuff, monsters, and no time for breathing between crazy action sequences. It is an epic book, with Reilly writing at his explosive best.

However, there were two big things I noticed about the novel that I can already see being the subject of some comments and scrutiny, so I have given my two cents worth on them:

This story isn’t very original – Matthew Reilly has pretty much just re-written Jurassic Park.

Um, no. This is not the case. Yes, that parallel can be drawn and yes it does have similar aspects. Reilly has always said that Jurassic Park is his favourite novel of all time, and he was evidently very aware that people would want to draw parallels between his new book and the classic Crichton novel. Reilly does directly deal with the similarity in the book though, so he is very self-aware of the potential for comparison. I think, if anything, it’s more of an homage to Michael Crichton’s story. I don’t think it’s fair to say that Reilly is being unoriginal here. After all, since when did Jurassic park get as crazy as a Reilly novel?

Matthew Reilly is just jumping on the dragon bandwagon because they have come back into fashion – Smaug (The Hobbit), Drogon (Game of Thrones) and now Reilly’s dragons.

I am pretty sure Matthew Reilly would be chuffed to have his band of dragon creations mentioned in the same breath as Smaug and Drogon. Reilly always spends a great deal of time thinking, researching and developing his ideas for books, so I am sure The Great Zoo of China would be no exception. With that in mind, it would have been years between the initial thought/concept/trigger that got Reilly thinking about this as a novel, and then actually releasing it in all it’s glory. It just so happens that dragons are the craze right now, which certainly won’t hurt book sales!

I devoured this book in 2 days, and cannot wait to buy my own shiny new hardbacked copy on 10th November!

Rating: 10/10

Matthew will also be doing a national author tour around Australia in November/December for the release of The Great China Zoo, so check out his website here for details.

EDIT: Read my summary of Matthew Reilly’s launch event for The Great Zoo of China (complete with Q&A) that I attended here.