BOOK REVIEWS

A Lover’s Discourse by Xiaolu Guo

On paper A Lover’s Discourse is the type of book that I generally like: we have an unmanned who recounts her relationship to her unmanned ‘lover’—a man she addresses as ‘you’. Our narrator met ‘you’ after moving from China to Britain in 2016. Recently orphaned and feeling somewhat alienated by her new environment the protagonist of A Lover’s Discourse enters into a relationship with a German-Australian man. They begin living together in a houseboat, but while ‘you’ finds freedom in this kind of ‘unmoored’ lifestyle, our narrator would much rather live in an actual house or apartment. While ‘you’ earns money as a landscaper, our protagonist works on her PhD.

The structure of this novel is what initially caught my attention. The narrative is comprised of a series of dialogues in which the protagonist and her partner discuss an array of subjects: British-related issues, love, sex, nationality, identity, landscaping, architecture…sadly their conversations aren’t particularly deep or compelling. Maybe I write this because I found both characters to be different shades of obnoxious: our mc isn’t particularly passionate or interested in anything. While I should have found her efforts to understand British customs and culture, as well as trying to master the English language, to be relatable, given that I am in a similar position, I disliked profoundly the way she was portrayed. She was acerbic nag. She makes generalisation after generalisation about other countries, her own country, and about men. Not only does she repeatedly use the word ‘peasants’ to refer to the residents of her hometown, but her tone, when using this word, left a lot to be desired. She comes out with obsolete comments that make me question why she would ever want to be in a relationship, especially with man, given that she considers sex to be a violent and invasive act that she doesn’t enjoy. Her navel-gazing was far from thought-provoking. She laments her boyfriend having to work, seeming to forget that he is their sole provider as she’s busy completing this PhD she doesn’t even particularly care for (she kind of forgets about her studies once she starts her relationship with ‘you’). Her PhD actually sounded quite interesting, and I wish that it had played more of a role in the narrative.
‘You’ is a condescending man who is kind of dull. He ‘explains’ things to our narrator, and he does so in an exceedingly donnish way.
Attempts are made to connect their ‘discourse’ to Roland Barthes’s A Lover’s Discourse and I wonder…why? These two characters didn’t strike me as the types who would care about Barthes’s writings.
Bland, uninspired, and repetitive, A Lover’s Discourse was a deeply disappointing read. Thankfully it was a relatively slim book.

MY RATING: 2 of 5 stars

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The Survivors by Jane Harper

Alas, figuring out the murderer’s identity in the first 15% made this book kind of a drag.

Having highly enjoyed Jane Harper’s The Lost Man, The Survivors felt by comparison vaguely uninspired. While the setting is just as atmospheric and vividly rendered as the ones in Harper’s other novels, the characters and mystery were very run-of-the-mill. In many ways it reminded me of Tana French’s latest novel, The Searcher: we have a not-so-young-anymore male protagonist who thinks he is a regular Joe and a crime forces him to reconsider his past behaviour/actions/attitudes. The Survivors begins with a juicy prologues that is meant to intrigue readers but I was not particularly lured by it. A lot of the dynamics in this novel seemed a rehash of the ones from The Lost Man and The Dry. Our protagonist, Kieran, returns to his small coastal hometown where a violent crime brings to light secrets from his own past. Kieran is happily married and a new father, and there were a lot of scenes featuring him being a soft dad and they just did nothing for me. I guess they were meant to emphasise the gulf between teenage-Kieran, who acted like a typical Chad, and father-Kieran. The ‘tragedy’ that irrevocably changed his life did not have the same emotional heft as Nathan’s family struggles in The Lost Man. Kieran tells other characters that he feels guilt-ridden but…it just didn’t really come across. Anyhow, Kieran returns to his home, he catches up with two best-friends, one is a bit of a loudmouth and kind of a douchebag while the other one has always been the more sensible and mature in the trio. The discovery of a young woman’s body lands the community in crisis. There is a lot finger pointing and gossip on a FB-knockoff. Kieran, who is not a detective nor a crime aficionado, wants to know what happened to this young woman as he seems to be acting under a sense of misplaced obligation towards her (and her death reminds him of his own tragedy). While he doesn’t starts snooping around he’s lucky enough that he happens to hear people’s private conversation, which often reveal something essential to the mystery. For some bizarre reason the person who is actually officially investigating this young woman’s death confides in Kieran, which…I had a hard time getting behind (job integrity? None).

Anyway, chances are you’ve read this kind of story before. Maybe I wouldn’t have minded this type of boilerplate plot if the characters had been somewhat interesting or layered. But they remain rather one-dimensional. Dick guy acts like a dick because deep down he’s insecure. The cold mother is cold because she’s still suffering the loss of her son. Artistic woman fears she will never leave her ‘dead-end’ job and ‘make’ it. Kieran is they type of character who is blandly inoffensive. After the trauma he experienced and now that he is a father & husband he realises that as a teenager he acted badly. Most of the conversations he has with women seemed to exist only to make him reflect on ‘toxic masculinity’ and the harm caused by the ‘boys will be boys’ mentality. And these realisations he has about sexisms seemed forced. Also, Kieran is meant to be in his thirties…and he comes across like a middle-aged man. I understand that there are people in their thirties who may as well be luddites but really? Kieran’s voice just wasn’t very convincing.
The male side characters like that writer, Kieran’s friends, and that impertinent young guy, were rather dull. The female characters were so obviously meant to be ‘strong’ and ’empowering’ but that didn’t really make them into realistic or likeable characters.
The culprit was obvious, so I did not feel any real ‘suspense’ or curiosity. Sometimes, even if you know who did it, you can still be able to enjoy the ride…but here I just wanted to get it over and done with. The murderer was extremely underdeveloped and their explanation at the end was very Scooby Doo-ish.

All in all, this was a disappointing read. While it wasn’t all that bad, and the story had at least a strong sense of place, I expected more from Harper.

MY RATING: 3 out of 5 stars
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THE LOST MAN: BOOK REVIEW

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The Lost Man
by Jane Harper
★★★★★ 5 of 5 stars

“What happened to him?”
“Usual story out here.” Nathan made himself keep his voice even. “Wandered the wrong way and got lost.”

To call The Lost Man a crime/mystery novel seems somewhat reductive. I guess that at its heart this is a story about a family, but even writing that doesn’t do this novel justice.
From its opening pages until the very last line we are made aware of—what seemed to me—the characters’ surreal surroundings: the sheer scope their land is mind-boggling. Living in the Australian outbacks is a real challenge, even if you were grown&bred there.
Harper gives her setting an almost palpable quality: the red sand, the unforgiving and oppressing heat, the treacherous terrain. All of these elements affect the story, making each scene all the more evocative.

It was the stillness that scared him. They did not see another car or person the whole drive home, Nathan remembered clearly. That wasn’t unusual, but that day he had noticed. There was no-one else around.

I would go as far as to say write that the setting functions as one of the players in the story.
For Nathan survival is hard enough, given the unyielding nature of his land, and his troubled relationship with his former community. After the death of one of his brothers, Nathan finds himself staying in his childhood home. The fraught relationship he has with his remaining family is apparent and the reasons behind his isolation are given to us…eventually. Piece by piece we start to gain the picture of Nathan’s past and of his current circumstances. There isn’t a big and unbelievable twist (hurray!), but rather Harper slowly provides us with the right information at the right time.

Nathan felt an unpleasant sensation creep through him and he had the sudden urge to check over his shoulder. There was nothing there but cattle and stubby grass and the horizon. All was quiet.

Soon enough I found myself almost moved to tears by Nathan’s past and present experiences. His uneasy reconciliation with his actions and behaviours was painfully believable. The other characters are just as nuanced and realistically ambivalent as Nathan. His relationship to his youngest brother, Bub, his son, Xander, and his dead brother’s wife, Ilse, are truly compelling. Kudos to Harper who, unlike other authors, is able to 1) depict abuse without recurring to cliched banalities and attributing this abusive behaviour to cartoonishly villainous characters 2) create believable teenagers and children.

Lo gave him a look that could kill a cow. “Not Santa.” She left the dickhead implied.

There is a perpetual sense of suspense, given by the unknowns in our characters’ past, the outbacks, and the legends surrounding the stockman’s grave.
Nathan, as well as some of the other characters, finds himself wanting to know exactly what made his brother, Cameron, abandon his car and wander to his death. Nathan’s unease is increased by his estrangement from his family (and others in general).

“I’m afraid, all right? That the property, and all this—” he gestured at the void outside the window,—all this bloody outback—is going to get to you”

I could easily go on and on about how fantastic this book is…but I will stop. The less you known, the better.
ps: Jackaroo is my favourite new word.
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BOOK REVIEWS

The Dry by Jane Harper

Harper delivers an absorbing yet somewhat ‘run-of-the-mill’ thriller. The story is one that has been done time and again: our main character returns to the small town where they are from (having left after certain traumatic events) and is forced to confront his past ghosts as well as his new ones.
Now, despite these stereotypical elements, Harper reworks this stock plot into one gripping tale. The very first scene is thrilling: Aaron is at the funeral of his old best friend, Luke, who committed suicide after mercilessly killing his son and wife. This opening chapter brims with a tense unease: Aaron and his father where forced to leave their hometown Kiewarra years earlier, and people have not forgotten him. Aaron is all too aware of how his small town works: gossip, suspicions, petty jealousies. Yet, before he can leave, he finds himself helping the local police: was his friend capable of murder? Had he done it before?
The setting is one of the strongest aspects of the novel. Kiewarra is facing the worst drought in centuries, and locals are desperate. Harper captures this feeling of dread perfectly: farmers and shopkeepers alike are restless. The violent act that Aaron’s friend is accused off does not help the community: now more than ever, they are itching for a fight, or someone to blame. And the heat spurs their hatred and fear. Against this sizzling backdrop, Aaron confronts this latest act of violence as well as seeking answers for what happened all those years ago.
While I found this novel to be engrossing, I wasn’t very shocked by the storyline. I was hoping it would turn into much more of complex mystery, but I predicted every single twist and turn of Aaron’s investigation. The old ‘mystery’, the one surrounding his childhood sweetheart, was rather pointless. It just stole the limelight from current events. And those flashbacks were just so…clumsy. They interrupted the flow of the story. By showing obvious events Harper diminishes the thrill of her own story. Also, they read more awkwardly then the rest of the novel.
So, while this novel is predictable, and I did find Harper’s structure – as in the inclusion of flashbacks – to spoil the overall suspense, the vivid setting that accompanies Aaron’s investigation keeps the momentum of the story going. A promising beginning that needs some tweaking.

My rating: 3 stars

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Vigil by Angela Slatter

While Vigil doesn’t necessarily bring anything ‘new‘ to the paranormal/mystery genre, it has its own quirky take on the popular genre.
Weyrds are living in Brisbane. Their unusual appearances and abilities hidden behind glamours or merely thought of as eccentricities by the Normals.
Verity Fassbinder, a half and half, is a private investigator apt in solving Weyrd-related accidents. Her character is perhaps one of the book’s biggest strengths: she is incredibly straight-forward and sarcastic. Her witty remarks and perfectly timed puns made for very entertaining scenes. I found her to be an extremely charismatic narrator. Verity is from the very start the ‘engaging’ force that drives the story. Her investigations were engrossing: each lead she followed was captivating. Also thanks to the many other interesting characters such as Rhonda McIntyre, Ziggi, the Norns’ sisters and Lizzie, my attention never wavered. They made the story all the more compelling.
The humour somewhat reminded me of a more ‘adult’ Rick Riordan. And yes, Vigil might not be an incredibly moving or deep story, but I believe it is because it isn’t meant to be. Some aspects of it were stronger than others, still, it is a promising start for a highly amusing and absorbing series. Vigil is a fun and gritty mystery peppered by myths and magic.

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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