The Dressmaker

09/06/2015 at 1:01 AM (Books, Movies) (, , , , , , )

I’ve heard a movie is in the works for this piece of Gothic Australian revenge fiction by Rosalie Ham that I read a while back. Looking back on it, I’m not surprised this has been chosen for a film adaptation. The plot lends itself to the medium well.

Source: Goodreads

Source: Goodreads

Set in 1950s rural Australia in a town called Dungatar, The Dressmaker is about a daughter, Myrtle “Tilly” Dunnage, who was run out of town after being falsely accused of a grave crime when she was just a child and has only returned to take care of her sick and mentally unstable mother. An expert seamstress trained in Paris, the haute couture Myrtle creates soon becomes the talk of the town in spite of her suspicious status to most folk. When the locals begin to flock to her for their fashions to take advantage of her dressmaking abilities, old rivalries begin to resurface and Myrtle is able to take her revenge and leave.

The quirky and hypocritical characters with particular idiosyncrasies populating the town are the highlight of the book but do at times seem a bit eccentric and over-the-top. The driving force in this novel however is definitely the plot. While The Dressmaker is an enjoyable and fast-paced read, it is no literary behemoth.

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The Buried Giant

09/05/2015 at 9:52 AM (Books) (, , , , , )

The Buried Giant

Source: Goodreads

After having read Never Let Me Go and Remains of the Day and being enthralled by both, The Buried Giant let me down for a work written by Kazuo Ishiguro.

We first meet an old couple in a village, Axl and Beatrice, who are plagued by fading memories of the past and become aware of this fact. After speaking with an old woman, Beatrice persuades her husband Axl, to accompany her on a journey to see their son. When weary, they pause to rest at a Saxon village which is experiencing a commotion. Their host suggests the mist that permeates the air rendering the memories of everyone into fragments could be the work of a God who felt regret. When the couple sets off the next morning to a hillside monastery to consult an old monk, they have two companions who are fugitives foisted on them: Wistan, a skilled warrior and a boy with a suspicious wound, Edwin. Strangely enough the warrior appears to recognise Axl. This unexpected addition to their party makes their journey a less peaceful one.

Once they bump into a character from British folklore charged with a strange duty he never accomplished for which he is maligned, the true mission of the Saxon warrior comes to light. Their stay at the monastery puts the old couple at risk but a friend they made comes to their aid and the two parties are split up. The mission the warrior is charged with is also one the couple promise to undertake when some children mistake them as Elders sent by God and request it so their parents may return to them. While the quest is accomplished, the results of it are going to disturb the peace once maintained by the enforced mist.

The couple faces several dangers, including those who seek to separate them from each other, but it appears Axl has far more to fear from the memories of the past returning than Beatrice. While I didn’t like the fantasy elements incorporated into this and the strange ending, what I did enjoy was how The Buried Giant explored memory: what we choose to remember and what we choose to forget.

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The Great Zoo of China

09/04/2015 at 12:38 PM (Books) (, , , , , , )

After reading a lot of literary fiction, I was in the mood for a less demanding read and the Great Zoo of China by Matthew Reilly fit the bill. While I’ve read Seven Deadly Wonders and Ice Station and found those fairly interesting, it was difficult to see this one as anything but a tribute to Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park.

We learn the Chinese people have developed a zoo of a magnitude and scale the world has never seen before and a select group of distinguished guests are invited to enjoy the facilities before it is opened to the public. The main attraction it features were once thought creatures of legend but through genetic manipulation, a population of them have been bred. The cover as seen below hints at the type of beast exhibited at this particular zoo.

Source: Goodreads

Source: Goodreads

The more alert guests notice however all is not right and become wary. Some of the zoo residents are not cooperating with their trainers. While on their way to an exhibit, one of the wayward creatures ingeniously removes the control device implanted in it, targets the cable car transporting the guests and from that point on the zoo descends into chaos. Having invested plenty of money and time into this project, the Chinese officials do not want word of this getting out. So the guests need to flee to safety before being silenced by the zoo owners or being challenged as the enemy by the escaped and out of control zoo inhabitants. Dr. Cassandra Jane ‘CJ’ Cameron, the main character, who is a writer for National Geographic and an expert on reptiles ends up befriending a friendly creature that ultimately leads to their salvation although some lives are lost along the story arc.

I am confused as to what genre I should assign this book. There are: mythical creatures of fantasy, a genetic interference plot akin to science fiction, an ass-kicking female protagonist driving the action and all these combined culminating in an escape mission for survival also fits it into the category of adventure. As I picked out the Jurassic Park similarities early on, I was able to enjoy it without nitpicking at exaggerations.

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The Monogram Murders

09/03/2015 at 11:46 AM (Books) (, , , , , , )

I have never made a secret of the fact I’ve always been an Agatha Christie fan.  So I was chuffed to learn the guardians of her estate authorised a new Hercule Poirot release, The Monogram Murders by author Sophie Hannah. We hear of Hercule Poirot’s exploits through Catchpool, a sort of substitute narrator for Hastings devised by the writer. Once I used to think Hastings was foolish but Catchpool takes the cake. It is baffling he is privy to details of what happened when he was not present. The lack of explanation into Poirot’s insights makes The Monogram Murders less interesting as well. Poirot also tries to play the absurd role of a matchmaker in this novel in trying to set up Catchpool with a lady which was just not on. I for one cannot imagine Christie’s Belgian detective doing anything like that.

Source: Goodreads

Source: Goodreads

The Monogram Murders jarred me from the beginning because Hercule Poirot was dining at a coffee house upon introduction and being finicky about the cutlery. He is interrupted by a woman who comes in quite terrified and when Poirot reassures her stating that he is a detective, he is given the news that she is about to be murdered. Strangely she asks Poirot to refrain from finding out who committed the murderer, admitting justice will be served with her death.

Poirot later finds out three guests staying at a posh London hotel have been murdered through Edward Catchpool, a Scotland Yard detective so self-deprecating that you wonder why he took on this job. Each body had been found with a cufflink placed in the mouth. So Poirot wonders if the murders have any connection to the distressed woman he met at Pleasant’s Coffee House. How? These are unconnected events to the ordinary brain but obviously not to Poirot’s advanced grey cells.

The dreadfully inept and squeamish Catchpool who is in need of guidance is grateful when Hercule Poirot offers his assistance for the case. While Poirot tries to put together the pieces of the puzzle, the murderer is intent on targeting a fourth victim. Can Poirot prevent a another murder? This ends up requiring a journey into the past and into a village that has been keeping all its secrets under wraps to eventually solve the mystery.

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Damned

09/02/2015 at 12:37 PM (Books) (, , , , , )

The first book I ever read by author Chuck Palahniuk was Fight Club so I had this feeling upon reading Damned that it was not going to stand up to this particular predecessor and rightly so because it didn’t.

damned

Source: Goodreads

Madison is the intelligent but overweight and bullied daughter of a wealthy Hollywood couple with a penchant for adopting kids from poor countries for the publicity. Left alone with her new foster brother in a hotel while her parents go to an awards night, she ends up in the netherworld because of a “game” taught to her at an exclusive Swiss boarding school. Madison ends up making some friends consisting of a rip-off of John Hughes Breakfast Club characters if they were serving detention in Hell. Every chapter also emulates Judy Blume’s Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret but pulling a switch a roo, all the questions are addressed to Satan. Not having asserted herself while she was alive, Madison reinvents a new life for herself and uses her telemarketing job to create a conduit between the living that are to be soon deceased. When Madison finally meets the prince of darkness she is told an unpalatable story about herself and it ends on a note that suggests a sequel.

The book is clever in its mockery of tropes and exploration of theology and mythology but felt haphazard with the storyline. I liked the initial premise of having these characters form an unlikely bond in the underworld but a twist in the plot made it feel irrelevant. What I got out of Damned was even if you do end up in Hell, death is not all that bad.

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Unsolved Australia

09/01/2015 at 2:05 PM (Books) (, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , )

When I read Unsolved Australia by Justine Ford, once a reporter on Australia’s Most Wanted,  it reminded me of Cold Case, the television show because it is essentially a true crime book about unsolved homicides in different Australian states and territories and the reader is invited to become an armchair detective. While cases on television are wrapped up within an hour, in real life many unsolved investigations continue for years because up-and-coming scientific technologies and shifted loyalties with the passage of time is what provides the required breakthrough evidence to solve a case. This book features 18 chilling cases that are probably less heard of than the equally frightening stories of Daniel Morcombe or the Beaumont Children.

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Source: Goodreads

The first unsolved case is that of the murder of Shane ‘Bones’ Barker, who was gunned down in Tasmania outside his house on August 2 2009. The most significant lead that was unearthed is about an unidentified man who Shane Barker was seen talking to outside his home on the morning he was murdered. Read more here.

The second chapter covers the case of Daniel O’Keefe who had gone missing from his parents house in Geelong on July 15 2011. His sister Loren has devoted her time to getting the message out to remote corners of  Australia and in the mean time founded the Missing Persons Advocacy Network to assist others facing a similar situation. Read more here.

The third case is the tragic story of street worker Elaine ‘Beverley’ King who ended up murdered in Room 96 at the Burlington Hotel on July 11 1974. It had been very difficult at the time to obtain evidence due to public drunkenness and while the case is being looked into now, it has become difficult now because exhibits are hard to find, witnesses have since passed on and leads are no longer fresh. No one still has been arrested for Ms King’s murder that occurred in Sydney. Read more here.

Chapter four is about the shooting of Brewarrina bush schoolteacher Bjarne Carlsen who was branded with the words KKK on his chest. A gunshot was heard by a local on January 25 2000, and on spotting a man wearing a white pillowcase with the eyes and mouth cut out climbing though the fence, fled in fear for his life. While the gun had not been recovered when the book was written, the police made a breakthrough using handwriting analysis and are convinced the murderer is a local. Read more here.

The fifth case is about the disappearance of a young mum from the coastal town of Burnie, Helen Munnings, who had told her mother she was going to the doctor for a pap smear but in reality was meeting her love interest Adam Taylor, father of her son Donovan and during the time, the de facto partner of Karalina Garwood. Karel Munnings is convinced that Helen was killed and cannot move on until she finds out exactly what happened to her missing daughter even though the coroner stated no ruling could be made about how or why Helen died or whether any person contributed to the cause of her death. Read more here.

Case number six was about the child killer Derek Percy and the information discovered during the investigation into the case of abducted 7-year-old Linda Stilwell. The cases for which police suspected Derek Percy of involvement were: the vanishing and abduction of the Beaumont children; the Wanda Beach murders of Christine Sharrock and Marianne Schmidt; the murder of 3-year-old Simon Brook; the murder of Alan Redston and he was caught red-handed for the murder of Yvonne Tuohy for which he was found not guilty on the grounds of insanity. Unfortunately he chose to take some secrets to the grave. Read more here.

The seventh chapter was about the Rack Man who was pulled in by a fisherman while attached to a rusting metal crucifix. The manner in which the body was found makes one leap to the conclusion the victim may have been involved in organised crime but it is still a travesty of justice he still remains unidentified and his killer too. Read more here.

The next featured missing person, feared murdered was Sandrine Jourdan, mum of three children, who had been expecting an unnamed guest on the day she disappeared, July 13 2012. Sandrine struggled with depression and while the suicide probability was suspected, the arrival of bizarre correspondence to her family after she went missing suggests it was someone she knew who was responsible. Read more here.

Chapter 9 was the story of Marlene McDonald who had domestic problems with her estranged husband, John McDonald. While he was charged with the murder of his former wife who went missing on December 18 1986, unfortunately her body has not yet been recovered. Read more here.

The disappearance of Paul Stevenson who was last seen going for a motorbike ride on March 11 2012 apparently to the vicinity of Paradise Dam was the topic of the tenth case. His bike was found on the Mount Perry-Gin Gin Road but Paul was not. His family is still waiting for answers. Read more here.

As I kept reading, I was hit with the realisation there are so many sad missing persons cases, but these stories seem to have evaded attention after a few years. One such story was that of the stolen life of trusting country nanny, Penny Hill, found on July 8 1991 in a comatose state by local teacher, Sue Brown. Her death still remains unsolved although persons of interest were investigated. Read more here.

The most frightening story was that of the Northern Territory murder of Don Stevens and the sister who survived, welfare officer Noelene Stevens. It is the story of a colleague driven by jealousy to hold his workmate hostage in her own home, brutally murder her innocent brother and dispose of her pet dogs. While Matt Vanko is currently behind bars, Noelene is still finding it hard to let go of her torment. This was an odd story because the crime appeared to be wrapped up. Read more here.

The case right after it was chilling because it covered the murder of traveling salesman Nigel McAree who was found beheaded in Sydney’s beautiful Royal National Park,. The tranquil setting and the violence against the victim suggests a personal vendetta to me but the far more experienced Unsolved Homicide Team suspects that it could have been a thrill kill. The murderer in this case has still not been identified and the family longs for closure. Read more here.

The outback disappearance of Western Australian nursing student Brett McGillivray on April 10 2006 has led to the speculation of two fascinating theories: he got lost and perished in the scrub or he is still out there in a state of advanced confusion. The latter theory isn’t that implausible considering Brett left without his medication and he had previously undergone  psychotic episodes. It is also possible the bush search party failed to locate him but with no evidence of a body coming to surface the family awaits his return home. Read more here.

The fifteenth case was about the abduction of twin teenager Daniel Sheppard who went missing after family New Years Eve celebrations on January 1 1995. It hit close to home for Michael Sheppard when schoolboy Daniel Morcombe went missing while waiting for a bus. While the possibility of cult kidnappings have been explored, nothing solid came out of it to identify a perpetrator and secure a conviction. Read more here.

As he was in all intents and appearances a family man, the abduction and murder of Turkish Ali Sonmez, an invalid pensioner,  in a gangland-style killing and the odd discovery of his body dumped in the Darling river across a state border was nothing short of baffling. While it has been established his body was discarded from the New South Wales side, there is a paucity of evidence and even witnesses making it difficult to find people who would have wanted him dead. There are suspicions involving drug money or fruit trade rivalries but the killer is yet to be caught. Read more here.

The next case is that of skater boy Donny Govan, who, then 16, disappeared on August 31, 2012 from the Echuca camp site where he had been camping with his sister, Rachel O’Keane and four friends. Suddenly becoming paranoid about his camp mates and convinced they were out to get him, Donny ran off into thick bush. Although sightings of Donny have been reported in but not corroborated, Rachel persists in the belief he’s out there alive. Read more here.

The final chapter and case includes the double murder story of sweethearts Alex Rees and Ray Hill who met their tragic deaths during a romantic tryst on 2 January 1970 in a popular lovers’ lane. It was believed shots were fired through the open window of the driver’s door. Theories put forward about the culprit at the time explore if it were an opportunistic thrill killer or jealous ex-partner taking revenge or even a hospital employee/patient known to Alex through her job. Unfortunately no one has been yet able to prove who killed Alex and Ray. Read more here.

The writing in Unsolved Australia is fantastic and easy to read, the book is well researched and the forensic expert profiles were quite insightful. Some cases were going through court or were tied up, but most need to be brought back to front of peoples’ minds so new evidence can be found.

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Ape House

08/31/2015 at 1:32 PM (Books) (, , , , , )

Ape House by Sara Gruen was a book I expected to fit in the genre of literary fiction but the constant telling rather than showing made me feel this was made for mass-market, commercial appeal. Even the plot which involves stereotypically-painted, vegan-branded protesters taking vigilante action to free bonobos involved in a language lab under the misapprehension that they are being mistreated by the university is not very original and the journalist/writer couple do not deliver on the empathy stakes. The fictional Great Ape Language Lab in Ape House was inspired by Sara Gruen’s visit to the non-fictional Great Ape Trust in Iowa and as many reviews say, this fiction would have been better off as a personal memoir reflecting on her own experiences as it falls flat on research. I cannot help but agree.

ape-house

Source: Goodreads

There are many narrative threads in the story: the main premise involves a language lab which houses six bonobos that can communicate using American Sign Language and scientist Isabel Duncan who is injured during the forceful “rescue” of the bonobos who end up being used in a reality television show produced by a porn mogul; another story explores the trials of  reporter John Thigpen and his wife, Amelia as they navigate their marriage while dealing with the ramifications of free citizen journalism and book manuscript rejections culminating in a move from Philadelphia to Los Angeles. The book includes a vile, cheating boyfriend who isn’t who he paints himself to be, an unexpected student friend who ends up being Kevin’s source to break a factual story in a tabloid and thwart a rival reporter at his former job, and a suspected paternity case stemming from a university prank gone wrong.

It’s just too many preposterous things at once and while you can connect the dots, I didn’t find it impressive. Isabel becoming close to Celia was odd and did not sit right with me given what happened after the new year party although I suppose she had no-one else being more bonobo than human. The way Celia bailed her boyfriend out of jail and manipulated Kevin was also unpalatable. Isabel seemed like a doormat but I suppose she was a victim rather than a protagonist in the story. While I found Kevin fairly sympathetic, the way he found the most damning evidence isn’t in the least credible and I found his desire to harp on Amelia’s sexiness rather unnecessary. On the face of it, I suppose apart from Celia’s character, all human characters were either boring or overtly stereotyped. Ape House may be a fun read but it lacks substance.

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Dancing on Knives

08/30/2015 at 8:08 AM (Books) (, , , , , )

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Source: Goodreads

Dancing on Knives is the third book by Kate Forsyth I have read and it surprised me because I am used to her fairytale retellings and this deviated from my preconceptions as it was essentially a murder mystery. I didn’t understand Sara’s predicament until I realised that she literally had not left her home in five years because she is a sensitive soul. We learn when she was a child that she was subject to so much torment and bullying to the point that she left school and refused to go back. Her way of enduring the predictability of her life is reading romance novels and seeking solace by reading the tarot cards left to her by her beloved grandmother, Consuela, who used to tell her dark fairy tales that inspired her to paint until her volatile and womanising father Augusto Sanchez, a brilliant artist, undermined her efforts. Her siblings regard her fairly useless as she is in fear of most things which subject her to panic attacks and nightmares.

One stormy night, her father does not come home and his body is found hanging on a branch over a cliff. Although he is found alive, the mystery of his fall brings buried family secrets to the surface. There are a multitude of characters who had good motives to kill Augusto Sanchez: Teresa, the half sister who claimed she went to a party; older brother Joe who comes home late claiming he went for a surf; the twin brothers who were supposedly hanging out with their friend Nya; her father’s brother-in-law’s family who want the farm they have to convert it into a tourist caravan park; even her aunt Maureen who had only visited once after her sister Bridget’s car crash. Dancing on Knives is about how family can suffocate and free us, how art can be felicitous and ruinous, and how strong bonds can be constructed from a crisis. The suspense slowly builds and unfolds telling us about the mystery fall suffered by Augustus while the back story leads us to the day of the fall. Meanwhile the power of the sea and the little mermaid story are played up in the book ultimately enabling Sara to rescue herself from her self-imposed imprisonment and open herself to a real romance.

Dancing on Knives is not what I would call a thriller but it is the beautifully written story of a dysfunctional and unusual family and the denouement clears everything up and makes sense. I appreciated this dark, powerful story even if the mystery was subtle without too many unexpected or surprising twists.

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The Death Cure

08/28/2015 at 8:53 AM (Books) (, , , , , )

The_Death_Cure book cover

Source: Random House

I was reading this final instalment of the The Maze Runner trilogy because I thought I will get answers to my lingering questions but the author in a odd turn of events leaves 75% of the story unexplained. While it is hard not to wonder if the The Kill Order will answer them, somehow given the disappointing trajectory of the three books, I’m unconvinced if James Dashner’s prequel will resolve questions about the survivors of the Scorch and those that remain after the final showdown in The Death Cure.

The behaviour of the characters in here conflict with the characters we have come to know. Brenda and Teresa both feature in this book and this time as allies, not adversaries. I think the only point of those two was just so there was a love triangle of the girl/boy/girl variety rather than the stereotypical boy/girl/boy. While it was obvious Thomas was losing the plot in the Scorch in the previous book, in here he makes extremely strange decisions because of his developed mistrust of WICKED. The choices Thomas makes eventually end being incredibly confusing for the reader. I did though like the sudden resurgence and turncoat behaviour of a character I had thought was unlikely to re-appear. There are two deaths in the story: one was expected and also understandable but the other was bit of a pointless melodrama.

The ending is interesting because the author points out it was an alternative solution to the one that was initially planned for those undertaking the trials but the offhand remark by a character who knew too much felt like a cop-out because so much was left out.

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The Strays

08/27/2015 at 10:19 AM (Books) (, , , , , , , , , )

Although fictional, the debut novel and Stella Prize winner The Strays by Emily Bitto is somewhat influenced by the story of the Heide Circle of Melbourne and is a fascinating narrative of idealised dreams, emotional sacrifices and conflicted loyalties mostly set in the atmosphere of 1930s depression-era Melbourne.

The Strays Book Cover

Source: Goodreads

Only child Lily makes a connection with Eva, the middle daughter of the Evan and Helena Trentham, on her first day at school that evolves into a complex and deep friendship. When tragedy befalls her family, Lily takes the opportunity to stay with Eva and the community of bohemian artists who are given residence to pursue their creative passions at the Trentham home. It becomes obvious this is not an appropriate environment for children as the artists are far too engrossed in their work to do any thing as mundane as looking after the kids, who need a responsible adult in charge. As they navigate their teenage years, Eva starts to keep things from Lily until she realises things have gone too far when she finds out Eva has been having a sexual relationship with an older resident artist who she had thought was interested in her and that starts the cracks in their trust. Upon being exposed, the artist who has also been upstaging Eva’s father leaves but not alone (he leaves with not one but two girls) leaving a scandal in his wake.

What stood out the most to me was how much power author Emily Bitto’s prose gave to the mediums of art and literature, also my passions. The descriptive passages were not too long-winded and the characters were of sufficient interest to keep reading The Strays until I found out how Lily responded to the invitation she received at the beginning.

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