Review: Orlagh Collins – All the Invisible Things

All the Invisible Things
Orlagh Collins

It’s time for Vetty to move back to London, 4 years after her mother’s death. Living in her childhood home is difficult, but what is worse is no longer seeing eye to eye with Pez, her best friend. Have Pez and Vetty changed too much to be friends anymore? And can Vetty be honest with herself and everyone else about who she likes?

What I really liked about this novel was that the main character wasn’t automatically understood by everyone around her. Nor did she automatically know whether to shave or how to behave with other teenagers. Being a teenager is all about not knowing yourself yet and having to experiment and experience life, and Vetty gives a window into that world. Collins does a fantastic job of communicating Vetty’s insecurities in a way that still lets her be a person.

Despite Vetty’s mother dying, Vetty isn’t too put upon by her dad in terms of having to look after her little sister. I found their interactions to be strangely touching and very realistic. Discussing safe sex with your little sister isn’t really something many teenagers look forward to! I did expect more in terms of grieving from Vetty though. Losing a parent is a major life trauma.

Hmm, I’m not sure about the title of this one. What invisible things are we talking about? I tend to think of invisible things as imaginary things such as fairy tales and fantasies. You won’t find those here. I guess the secondary story line with Pez’s addiction is a hidden and private problem? I’ve not yet come across a fiction with this particular addiction, so there’s something new on offer here with that too.

I can’t believe the final school year subjects these UK kids can choose! Photography and History? Not a trace of math or simple English? Only three subjects. And it appears to be a bit optional whether you do it or not. I complain about the Australian system, but I guess at least we get a few more well rounded students.

This novel ended too soon for me. I felt so-so about No Filter (3 stars due to its luckluster romance), but this one looked promising. Indeed, I really enjoyed it. Complicated story line with multiple plot points and an actual fear of someone dying or something really bad happening? Tick. 4 stars from me, and I’d consider a reread (except Beautiful Broken Things gets first dibs).

Bloomsbury | 1st April 2019 | AU$14.99 | paperback

Review: Morgen Witzel – The Ethical Leader (S)

The Ethical Leader
Morgen Witzel

“Ethical behaviour by businesses, or their staff, is often seen as the corporate and social responsibility icing on an organizational cake – something that is nice to do but never really essential. But by turning this view around – and making ethical behaviour a primary focus – Witzel shows how businesses can create and maintain long-term competitive advantage.”

In the first line the author warns the reader – “Oh, no. Not another book about ethics” – in a laughing way that this won’t be one of those books. But it kinda is just another book about ethics. It was very slow to start off with, and there was a point near the start where I wanted to abandon it, but then I pushed through and got to a better part later on.I read it when I knew I would be distracted because I could easily pick it up and drop it again – it didn’t require too much brain power.

A strong point of this book were the inclusion of some really nice case studies that are boxed clearly from the rest of the text. For some of the case studies, the author asks ‘What would you do?’ and then tells you at the end of the chapter what actually happened. Any time there is a fact, it uses a reference. Its worth could be as a reference book because it has A LOT of references that you can refer to (haha). It has both footnotes by chapter and a Bibliography. If you like an idea, it’s easy to go and find out more about it.

The real ethics framework is only the last chapter (Chapter 10), where he gives how to make an ethical decision – how to ask yourself if it is an ethical decision you are making. But in the end, different people have different ways and levels of ethics to adhere to. It’s great to read about, and it’s nice that you should do the right thing, but even with the framework there will never be a black and white question. You can ask the questions, but not reach an answer – it’s just your opinion.

I’d like more items to action out of it, such as how to implement this in your workplace. What can I do to improve my business? How do you look after your shareholders vs employees vs customers? There were no takeaways of what I can do to create value or build employee relationships. Ultimately I just didn’t enjoy it and got nothing useful out of it. It IS just another ethics book – it’s average.

Bloomsbury | 12th February 2019 | AU$35.00 | paperback

Interview with Timothy Jay Smith

An Interview with Timothy Jay Smith, author of The Fourth Courier

Raised crisscrossing America pulling a small green trailer behind the family car, Timothy Jay Smith developed a ceaseless wanderlust that has taken him around the world many times. Polish cops and Greek fishermen, mercenaries and arms dealers, child prostitutes and wannabe terrorists, Indian Chiefs and Indian tailors: he hung with them all in an unparalleled international career that saw him smuggle banned plays from behind the Iron Curtain, maneuver through Occupied Territories, represent the U.S. at the highest levels of foreign governments, and stowaway aboard a “devil’s barge” for a three-days crossing from Cape Verde that landed him in an African jail.

You have a new novel coming out, The Fourth Courier, set in Poland. What’s it about?

The Fourth Courier opens in the spring of 1992, only four months after the collapse of the Soviet Union. A series of grisly murders in Warsaw suddenly becomes an international concern when radiation is detected on the third victim’s hands, raising fears that all the victims might have smuggled nuclear material out of Russia.

Poland’s new Solidarity government asks for help and the FBI sends Special Agent Jay Porter to assist in the investigation. He teams up with a gay CIA agent. When they learn that a Russian physicist who designed a portable atomic bomb is missing, the race is on to find him and the bomb before it ends up in the wrong hands.

My novels have been called literary thrillers because I use an event or threat—a thriller plot—to examine what the situation means to ordinary people. In The Fourth Courier, Jay becomes intimately involved with a Polish family, giving the reader a chance to see how the Poles coped with their collective hangover from the communist era.

How did you come up with the story for The Fourth Courier?

The Fourth Courier book goes back a long way for me. In 1989, the Berlin Wall fell and Solidarity won the first free election in Poland in over sixty years. In the same year, Mikhail Gorbachev introduced new cooperative laws in the Soviet Union, which was an area of my expertise. I was invited to the Soviet Union as a consultant, which led to my consulting throughout the former Soviet bloc, eventually living for over two years in Poland.

At the time, there was a lot of smuggling across the border between Russia and Poland, giving rise to fears that nuclear material, too, might be slipping across. While on assignment in Latvia, I met with a very unhappy decommissioned Soviet general, who completely misunderstood my purpose for being there. When an official meeting concluded, he suggested we go for a walk where we could talk without being overheard.

I followed him deep into a forest. I couldn’t imagine what he wanted. Finally we stopped, and he said, “I can get you anything you want.” I must have looked puzzled because he added, “Atomic.”

Then I understood. In an earlier conversation, there had been some passing remarks about the Soviets’ nuclear arsenal in Latvia, for which he had had some responsibility, and apparently still some access. While my real purpose for being there was to design a volunteer program for business specialists, he assumed that was a front and I was really a spy. Or perhaps he thought, I really did want to buy an atomic bomb!

Have you always been a writer?

In the sense of enjoying to write, yes. I actually wrote my first stage play in fourth grade and started a novel in sixth grade, but I didn’t become a full-time fiction writer until twenty years ago. The first half of my adult life I spent working on projects to help low income people all over the world. I always enjoyed the writing aspects of my work—reports, proposals, even two credit manuals—but I reached a point where I’d accomplished my career goals, I was only forty-six years old, and I had a story I wanted to tell.

What was the story?

For over two years, I managed the U.S. Government’s first significant project to assist Palestinians following the 1993 Oslo Accords. One thing I learned was that everyone needed to be at the negotiating table to achieve an enduring peace. So I wrote a story of reconciliation—A Vision of Angels—that weaves together the lives of four characters and their families.

If anybody had ever hoped that a book might change the world, I did. Unfortunately I didn’t manage to bring about peace in the Middle East, but I’ve continued writing nevertheless.

The Fourth Courier has a strong sense of place. It’s obvious that you know Warsaw well. Other than living there, what special research did you do?

Warsaw is a city with a very distinctive character. It’s always atmospheric, verging on gloomy in winter, and the perfect location for a noir-ish thriller.

I had left Warsaw several years before I decided to write a novel set there, so I went back to refresh my memory. I looked at it entirely differently. What worked dramatically? Where would I set scenes in my story?

It was on that research trip when all the events along the Vistula River came together for me. There was a houseboat. There was Billy’s shack, and Billy himself whose “jaundiced features appeared pinched from a rotting apple.” There were sandbars reached by narrow concrete jetties and a derelict white building with a sign simply saying Nightclub. Fortunately, Billy’s dogs were tethered or I wouldn’t be here to answer your questions.

My main character is an FBI agent, and I didn’t know much about it. A friend, who was an assistant to Attorney General Janet Reno, arranged a private tour of the FBI’s training facility in Quantico. That was before 9/11. I don’t think that could be done now. Maybe for James Bond himself but not for a wannabe writer.

If I was going to write a novel about smuggling a portable atomic bomb, I needed to know what a bomb entailed. Weight, seize, basic design, fuel? How would a miniature bomb be detonated? So I blindly contacted the Department of Energy. I explained what I wanted and was soon connected to an atomic expert who agreed to meet with me.

We met on the weekend at a Starbucks-like coffee shop in Rockville, MD. We met in line and were already talking about atomic bombs before we ordered our coffees. He had brought basic drawings of them. He was an expert and eager to share his knowledge.

Can you imagine having that conversation in a café today, openly looking at how-to schematics for building an atomic bomb while sipping skinny lattés?

You’ve mentioned ‘scenes’ a couple of times. I know you also write screenplays. Do you find it difficult to go between the different formats or styles?

The sense of scene is crucial to my writing. It’s how I think about a story. Before I start new work, I always have the opening and closing scenes in my head, and then I ask myself what scenes do I need to get from start to finish.

I think it comes from growing up in a house where the television was never turned off. My sisters and I were even allowed to watch TV while doing homework if we kept our grades up. Sometimes I joke that canned laughter was the soundtrack of my childhood. I haven’t owned a television for many years, but growing up with it exposed me to telling stories in scenes, and it’s why my readers often say they can see my stories as they read them.

For me, it’s not difficult to go between prose and screenplays. In fact, I use the process of adapting a novel to a screenplay as an editing tool for the novel. It helps me sharpen the dialogue and tighten the story.

In your bio, you mention traveling the world to find your characters and stories, and doing things like smuggling out plays from behind the Iron Curtain. Was it all as exciting as it sounds?

It was only one play, and yes, I confess to having an exciting life. I’ve done some crazy things, too, and occasionally managed to put myself in dangerous situations. Frankly, when I recall some of the things I’ve done, I scare myself! By comparison, smuggling a play out of Czechoslovakia in 1974 seems tame. But I’ve always had a travel bug and wanted to go almost everywhere, so I took some chances, often traveled alone, and went to places where I could have been made to disappear without a trace.

It sounds like you have a whole library full of books you could write. How do you decide what story to tell and who will be your characters?

I came of age in the 1960s during the Civil Rights Movement and the anti-Vietnam War demonstrations, so I developed a strong sense of social justice. That guided my career choice more than anything, and when I quit working to write full-time, it was natural that I wanted my books to reflect my concerns. Not in a “big message” way, but more in terms of raising awareness about things that concern me.

For example, take Cooper’s Promise, my novel about a gay deserter from the war in Iraq who ends up adrift in a fictional African country. It was 2003, and in a few days, I was headed to Antwerp to research blood diamonds for a new novel. I was running errands when NPR’s Neal Conan (Talk of the Nation) came on the radio with an interview of National Geographic photographer Jodi Cobb about a project on modern-day slavery. It was the first time I heard details about human trafficking, and was so shocked by its enormity that I pulled my car off the road to listen.

I decided on the spot that I needed to find a story that touched on both blood diamonds and trafficking. When I went to Antwerp a few days later, I visited the Diamond District as planned, but also visited a safe house for women who had been rescued from traffickers.

In The Fourth Courier, you team up a white straight FBI agent with a black gay CIA agent. Even Publishers Weekly commented that it seemed like an ideal set-up for a sequel. Do you plan to write one?

Probably not. My to-be-written list is already too long.

I’m close to finishing the final edits on a book set in Greek island village, which is more of a mystery about an arsonist than a thriller. I’ve already started a new novel set in Istanbul about a young refugee who’s recruited by the CIA to go deep undercover with ISIS. I’ve never written a novel set in the States but I have the idea for one.

To date, my books have been stand-alones with totally different settings, characters, and plots. I try to write what I like to read: smart mysteries/thrillers with strong plots and colorful characters set in interesting places. I suppose like me, I want my stories to travel around and meet new people.

You’ve had gay protagonists or important characters since your first novel over twenty years ago when gay literature had not yet become mainstream. How would you say that affected your choices as a writer, or did it?

Friends warned me that I shouldn’t become known as a gay writer because it would pigeonhole me and sideline me from consideration as a serious writer. At the time, I think the general public thought gay books were all about sex and more sex. Of course, already there were many emerging gay literary writers; it was more stigma than reality.

The world of thrillers and mysteries is still largely uninhabited by gays. Hopefully I am helping to change that. I also hope that my novels expand my readers’ understanding of homosexuality in the places where I set them. In The Fourth Courier, the gay angle is key to solving the case. In my other novels, too, the plot turns on something gay, and the way it does is always something that couldn’t have happened in the same way anywhere else because of the cultural context.

What do you want your readers to take away from The Fourth Courier?

What motivated me to write The Fourth Courier was a desire to portray what happened to ordinary Polish people at an exciting albeit unsettling moment in their country’s history. I hope my readers like my characters as much as I do—at least the good guys. The people are what made Poland such a great experience.

The Fourth Courier is my thank-you note to them.

You can find out more about Tim and his novels using these links:
Web page
Instagram
Facebook
Twitter
Goodreads
Amazon

Photo by Michael Honegger @ www.michaelhoneggerphotos.com

Review: Matthew Reilly – The Secret Runners of New York (K)

The Secret Runners of New York
Matthew Reilly

It can be extremely challenging to join the cliques of the upper echelon of society, but once you do, a whole new world awaits. When Skye Rogers befriends Misty Collins, she is invited into an exclusive group, with secret access to a portal into the future. As friendships fall apart, and the future shown by the portal is discovered, their games turn from fun to terrifying.

The book started off slowly but picked up the pace over time. The plot was intriguing and executed very well. While there was a time-travelling portal, the book didn’t revolve around it, instead focusing on the behaviour and personalities of the characters, using the portal to help achieve that end. This made the book feel much more layered and complex than a simple story about some kids having fun travelling through time. The book was very immersive, and once I had gotten past the slow beginning, I was hooked.

The end of the book was absolutely wonderful! I was worried that somehow the characters would magic everything into perfection, and it’d be like the catastrophe talked through the whole book never happened, but instead the author managed to make an ending that tied up loose ends, was satisfying in not having all the characters die, and clearly changed the lives of the characters drastically.

I definitely felt that the beginning of the book was a let-down compared to the rest. The relationship between the main character and her brother Red wasn’t really shown, but rather we were told about how close the two were. The references to movies and games also felt a bit strange to include in a book. I had to google one of the references they talked about (which broke the continuity for me a little), and some of the others felt outdated.

This was a really good book that I thoroughly enjoyed reading. I wouldn’t recommend it for younger readers, especially if they are easily spooked, but I found it a solid book and will probably read it again, which is why I’m giving this book 4 stars.

Pan Macmillan | 26th March 2019 | AU$16.99 | paperback

Review: Brad Parks – Closer Than You Know

Closer Than You Know
Brad Parks

Melanie aged out of the Foster Care system and is determined to never be like her parents for her own son. When she arrives to pick up her son from childcare, she finds herself being reported and jailed for domestic disturbance and an unknown drug charge. In the pages that follow, Melanie cannot defend her innocence,

This novel is told from the perspectives of Melanie (the accused ‘Drug Mom’) and Amy (the prosecutor), with interjections from the whispering rapist. The perspectives felt noticeably different while I was reading them, and their interactions felt real. I would have liked to be able to identify the rapist myself, as in other novels (Before Your Eyes), but that is a minor complaint. I could feel Melanie’s anguish at the same time as I saw things from Amy’s frustrated perspective.

I didn’t pick up this novel for almost a year because I thought it would be focused on the problems with the Foster Care system. Instead, despite the blurb, I found this to be a fast-paced thriller, even if it wasn’t totally psychological – it was more about how some disasters can’t be prevented, and that sometimes you just have to trust other people to have your back. I also learnt an interesting fact that prisons will let you keep your underwear (at least in Virginia), so if you’re going to be arrested, make sure you are wearing plenty of pairs so that you can use your own underwear. YMMV (pun intended)

When I was 3/4 of my way into this novel, I thought to myself that the ending would either make or break it. Thankfully the ending was really quite satisfactory, if not quite creepy enough for me. I felt that the ending really wrapped up a bit too quickly for me, as I wanted a little more information about Marcus (ew). How did the reader not see that coming? Or was it just me in the dark… 4 stars from me.

Allen & Unwin | 28th March 2018 | AU$29.99 | paperback

Review: Samantha Shannon – The Priory of the Orange Tree

The Priory of the Orange Tree
Samantha Shannon

The Nameless One has been trapped for nearly 1000 years, but slowly its minions are being freed of their bonds and North/South/East/West are all threatened once again. What is it that is keeping the Nameless One at bay? Is it the unbroken line of Queens in Virtuedom or some magery performed in the past?

I was excited for this novel because I hadn’t read a good adult fantasy in quite a while and anything with dragons is bound to take my fancy. Sadly, the dragons (wyverns) were on the evil side of things most of the time, and the good dragon riders hardly figured in the picture with their dragons. It was inevitable that the Nameless One would be freed – everything was just a quibble about how long it would take and who would be responsible for its death.

I initially struggled to keep track of the characters because the perspectives swapped each chapter before I could really get settled into them. As I warmed up to the novel, I loved Ead for her plucky determination, and her patience. However, I felt no fear for the characters’ lives. Either I didn’t like them (Roos) or I knew they’d come out the end ok because they were too important to lose (Ead and Tane).

For me this is a prime airport / long travel read. There’s no frustration for not having the next book and it’s long enough to really get settled into. I’m only giving it 3 stars because the action was too slow, and in my opinion, very predictable. I’m not going to link to my embarrassing old review for Kushiel’s Dart, but that was an epic fantasy worthy of the title.

Bloomsbury | 26th February 2019 | AU$32.99 | paperback

Review: Hayley Barker – Show Stopper

Show Stopper
Hayley Barker

Ben lives a Pure life guarded by security and filled with food and comfort. He never wants for anything – except to be allowed to see the Circus. Hoshiko is the tightrope walker of the circus – a Dreg not worthy of food and just waiting to be killed. When Ben saves Hoshiko from death they find themselves walking the tightrope together – can they both make it out from the deadly circus alive?

The blurb on this one is actually inaccurate. The Dregs living in poverty do not get the opportunity to sell their children – their children are just ripped away from them if they are ‘selected’. What I would have liked to see more of was the slums and how bad they actually are. Or, just Pure life and what it looks like normally. To me, this is just another dystopian future society with problems, there isn’t anything particularly neat about it. I found it hard to believe in the insta-love between Ben and Hoshiko. I also find it difficult to believe in the things that the 6 year old Greta can accomplish by herself. I get that she is really grownup from her terrible circumstances, but realistically she wouldn’t be able to grasp all of those concepts.

This is the age old theme of us vs them. We get the perspectives of both the Cat and Ben, the Dreg and the Pure. This will remind some readers of Red Queen or Tarnished City and similar novels. What this novel brings to the table is just simple horribleness without magic as an excuse. The author says that she was inspired by the opinions of the English against immigrants, and I have to say it’s one of the few issues that makes me really upset. Asylum seekers didn’t risk their lives on a rickety boat because life back home was good!

I warmed up to the characters and settled in, and I was mainly satisfied by the ending. I am not going to avidly hunt down the next novel in this duology though because I just didn’t feel strongly enough about anything. I’d rather reread Disruption. I put off reading Show Stopper for more than a !year! because it looked ok, but not fascinating. The blurb didn’t grab me. I’m giving this novel 3 stars.

Scholastic | 1st October 2017 | AU$16.99 | paperback

Review: Clare Strahan – The Learning Curves of Vanessa Partridge

The Learning Curves of Vanessa Partridge
Clare Strahan

Vanessa loves playing her cello and working hard at school to please her father. Her mother is unreachable – but at least she has her older brother for company. But she’s having fantasies about Dar, the guy she’s known for ages. Can Vanessa reconcile being a ‘good girl’ with wanting to grow up?

This is a sex-positive novel that doesn’t shy away from the fact that young women feel like sex just as much as young men are often depicted as doing so! It’s ok for Vanessa to feel like having sex, and it’s ok for her to have feelings for someone and touch herself. I think that this should probably be categorized as a young adult novel, but honestly teenagers the age of Vanessa (15 years) are probably going to be having similar feelings.

One of the best things about this novel was that it is set over summer, so it doesn’t make a huge difference as to what the country is of the person reading it. One thing that irritated me about this book (and it was quite minor, really) was that sometimes Vanessa would say things, and then would clarify that she didn’t actually say them! I wanted to shout at her to say the real things she was feeling! But the fact that she didn’t say them made her a more believable and honest character.

This don’t just have themes of teenage sex, it does also look at environmental activists and divorce. Yet the author doesn’t seem to be tackling too many themes at once – I don’t think I could have dealt with Vanessa having social anxiety or something else as well – her life is complicated enough as it is. This is a protagonist that some of the minorities can empathise with, even if her family is rich enough to have a mansion!

I received this novel for review a long time ago, and read my ARC as soon as it came in the door. Then I neglected to review it. So I read it again! And I’m giving it 4 stars the second time. I think it’s a really valuable and powerful novel that should be bought for secondary schools and teenagers worldwide.

Allen & Unwin | 24th April 2018 | AU$19.99 | paperback

Review: Michelle Balge – A Way Out

A Way Out
Michelle Balge

“Michelle is able to share her experiences [with depression and social anxiety] in a way that allows others to go along for the ride with her: the highs, the lows, and the amusingly unexpected. It artfully conveys Michelle’s journey through mental illness and toward mental health. Beyond the haunting honesty, A Way Out delivers heart, humour, and hope.”

This book will leave you feeling breathless and raw. The author’s honesty is breathtaking and painful, and will make inroads on your heart. What Michelle has written will resonate with other people who have been or are depressed, and hopefully make people feel less alone. Her descriptions of how she felt when deeply depressed may feel familiar, equally so the pages on her social anxiety.

Sometimes the writing style was irritating. I would have preferred for all of it to be in past tense, and not have giveaways of what the future held. It’s a little difficult to explain what I mean by this, but if you pick it up you’l quickly realize what I mean, The words themselves though and the portrait they paint is unarguably both bleak and hopeful at the same time.

What I really like about this book is that Michelle shares the WHOLE story, not just the things that work. It’s a realistic (I’d hope so, since it’s non-fiction) look at what it really feels like to be depressed and anxious, and to try different methods to combat it. The author even lists some strategies that helped her – which include medication! So many novels I read about depression/anxiety suggest that people that need medication to treat these conditions are pathetic/lesser beings compared to those who can manage with ‘just’ lifestyle changes. Remember that every person is an individual.

I don’t think I would reread this non-fiction at this stage in my life, but others might. If you have even a passing interest in understanding mental illness or have a similar mental illness that you would like to understand someone else’s perspective on, great this book. I would compare this to Two Years of Wonder in terms of author honesty and accessibility.

Review: Yassmin Abdel-Magied – You Must Be Layla

You Must Be Layla
Yassmin Abdel-Magied

Layla is ready to attend a new school, and being a hijabi is only a minor concern. She’s ready to fit in with the rest of the group, but with her sense of humour can she ever hope to stay at school past her first suspension?

I went from being really excited about this novel to being really disappointed in it rapidly. The writing style irked me. I read the first two chapters desperately hoping that the writing style was just an introduction. I didn’t find Layla a believable character. At times it seemed like the novel was just intended to explain some parts of Muslim culture, such as that women don’t need to pray at the mosque when it’s ‘that time of the month’. This detail was included in a way that just didn’t feel natural.

What also irked me about this novel was the use of numbers in Arabic words . The first one I found I thought that it was a typo! And then they kept happening, so I flipped to the back of the novel in the hopes it would explain what it meant. I thought they could be footnotes but instead it indicated a sound that couldn’t be written in English. Fine then! But why not at least attempt to use the appropriate alphabet to communicate the concept? English-speaking readers wouldn’t then be confused by numbers that meant nothing.

The ending was just too neat. I find it very difficult to believe that an adult with such deep-seated dislike of Muslim (and any outsiders) is won over in less than a day. I’m sure this novel is suitable for someone, just not me. I much preferred When Michael Met Mina, and there are other novels out there that approach the problems of being a person of colour in a world of white privilege. 2 stars.

Penguin Random House | 5th March 2019 | AU$16.99 | paperback