As summer approaches, many of us begin to think about the holidays ahead. Once the flurry of the festive season subsides, it is time to unwind and perhaps catch up on all those books, movies and TV series you missed throughout the year. Crosslight staff share some of their recommendations for your reading or viewing pleasure over the summer break.
Review by DEB BENNETT
FOR the avid reader, starting a new book is comparable to setting foot in a different land. Who will you meet? What adventures lie ahead? Will your spirits soar, your heart break, your beliefs be challenged or changed?
One of the good things about belonging to a book club is the variety of books, some wonderful and others not so great, as well as being forced to read books (and explore other lands) I might not otherwise consider.
Among my book club highlights this year have been the emotional Room by Emma Donaghue; Helen Simonson’s whimsical Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand; the confronting Dog Boy by Eva Hornung and the disturbingly compelling Summer House with Swimming Pool by Herman Koch.
Summer is often a time to catch up on all those ‘must-reads’ recommended throughout the year. But the thought of packing five or six novels, particularly if you are flying, means you often limit yourself to only one or two books.
That’s why one of my greatest discoveries this year is not actually a book or an author, it is the smart device app Overdrive.
For those unfamiliar with the free library app, it is similar to a Kindle-reader. Easy to download on your phone, tablet or iPad, once installed you record your library membership information and you can digitally borrow. You literally have a whole library catalogue at your fingertips.
For the not-so-tech-savvy, most local libraries offer quick, one-on-one ‘how to’ sessions. Some features of the app include adjustable text size, choice of back lighting, audible books and word definitions as you read.
With a limit of 20 books, you can head off on holidays and still not have to pay for extra luggage. And, perhaps best of all, automatic return means you can extend your holiday without worrying about late fees.
Review by TIM LAM
Book | The Sympathizer | Viet Thanh Nguyen
THE nameless narrator in Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Sympathizer describes himself as a “man of two minds”. So it is fitting that duality is a central theme of this Pulitzer Prize-winning novel.
This debut novel from American-Vietnamese author Viet Thanh Nguyen is an unconventional spy story that explores identity, nationalism and the immigrant experience.
The narrator is the illegitimate son of a Vietnamese maid and a French Catholic priest. He is also a Viet Cong operative spying on a South Vietnamese general.
The Sympathizer opens with the Fall of Saigon. Nguyen vividly recreates the chaos, confusion and bloodshed of the final days of the Vietnam War as American soldiers and South Vietnamese citizens evacuated the capital.
The story follows the double agent as he adjusts to life in America while continuing to spy on the South Vietnamese general, who is planning to launch a counteroffensive to liberate his homeland.
Nguyen is a refugee from the Vietnam War, who fled to America as a four-year-old with his Catholic parents. He channels his personal experience as a first-generation American into the narrator’s journey as he details the trauma, dislocation and rejection faced by refugees trying to start a new life in a strange land.
The protagonist’s narration captures the struggles of navigating between two cultures. He is forever an outsider, rejected by American and Vietnamese people because of his dual heritage. His shifting loyalties mean he is a traitor in the eyes of both North and South Vietnamese soldiers.
The double agent’s divided identity is reflected in his ambivalent attitude to his occupation. He is neither a cold-hearted assassin nor a patriotic firebrand. He is a chameleon who blends into the background, a keen observer of human behaviour. His ability to sympathise with both sides makes him a perceptive spy, yet this same quality leaves him with nothing to truly believe in.
More than just a generic spy thriller, The Sympathizer is a timely commentary on race, gender and class issues that continue to exist half a century on from the Vietnam War.
Review by PENNY MULVEY
I blame my colleague Deb. I had always been loyal to Detective Harry Bosch of the Los Angeles Robbery and Homicide Division… a copper with a tough exterior and iron-clad integrity. His creator, Michael Connelly, had drawn me into Harry’s (an abbreviation for the name Hieronymus, named after a 15th century Dutch painter) life, taking me on scenic tours of LA, as Harry forensically documented the latest crime scene and interviewed witnesses and suspects.
Then Deb handed me a new man, 6’5” tall, 250 pounds of muscle, by the name of Jack Reacher, known by all simply as Reacher. And just like that, Harry was discarded in favour of my new love – the tough, ‘react first, ask questions later’, former US military policeman.
Harry and Reacher have a bit in common. They tend to be solo operators. They share a significant distrust of others.
Both have military backgrounds. Harry was a Vietnam vet who spent much of his time down the tunnels of the Vietcong. Reacher was a military kid, who also served.
And then he quit. He now lives a gypsy life, no suitcase, no phone, no credit card, no driver’s licence – just a toothbrush, a comb and a roll of cash in his back pocket.
I know they are both on the side of good, although Reacher is a little more unorthodox in his methods. They both have great respect for women (and a bit more than respect in some of their encounters!). And, surprise, surprise, you can guarantee that at the end of their adventure each of them will still be standing! I like that in a crime novel.
I have probably read in excess of 10 Lee Childs’ novels this year (Jack Reacher’s parent). Another is due out shortly. (Deb, Christmas present please).
If you like a rollicking crime yarn, you’ll find both Bosch and Reacher in the crime section of any book shop and library.
Review by DAVID SOUTHWELL
THE most addictive thing I watched this year was The Handmaid’s Tale, the TV adaption of Margaret Atwood’s imagining of a brutally patriarchal dystopia.
The near-future scenario is that the US government has been overthrown by a fundamentalist vaguely Christian sect that seems to take more inspiration from the Old Testament than the New.
In the fledgling society of Gilead, depicted as largely located in and around Boston, women are given strictly functional roles as marthas (servants), wives, handmaids or jezebels (prostitutes).
Handmaids are fertile women, a rarity when for some unspecified reason there is widespread barrenness.
The handmaid whose tale this series tells is Offred (Elisabeth Moss).
She has become the property of leading Gilead ‘commander’ Fred Waterford (Joseph Fiennes) and, to a lesser extent, his wife Serena Joy (Australian actress Yvonne Strahovski).
During what is called ‘The Ceremony’ the male head of a household attempts to impregnate a handmaid while she lies in the lap of the wife.
The horror of this ritual rape is magnified by its cloying euphemism and businesslike formality.
Gilead is monstrous mix of medieval punishments, with minor offences or rebellions punished by cutting off hands or taking out eyes, and a modern police state, with a pervasive highly armed black clad militia and a secret web of informers.
The incredible centrepiece of this production is Moss’ remarkable performance continually shot in close-up. Her face is a marvel of fleeting forbidden emotions and repressed thoughts.
This series is totally immersive in its gloomily drab and claustrophobic sense of horror. It also routinely delivers jarring shocks, many perpetrated by the scene-stealing Aunt Lydia (Ann Down), the regime’s hellish version of a mother superior.
While hardly typical light summer fare, the series does at least introduce some tantalising moments of hope pointing to its next season.
Review by GARTH JONES
Book | Deadly Kerfuffle | Tony Martin
CAST your mind back to 2006.
The Australian 24-hour news cycle was in its infancy – scuttlebutt, innuendo, hearsay, grossly ill-informed speculation and flat out bull**** travelled at much slower speeds.
Terrestrial television, talkback radio and tabloid newspapers were still the preferred delivery methods for half-baked dog whistling and racist paranoia – Twitter and Facebook were years from hitting their straps in any meaningfully awful, democracy endangering way.
Fake News – AKA spurious bunkum – was what you heard over the back fence from your gossipy neighbour, or over a few pints from the dotty old racist down the local.
Viewed in the rear-view mirror from bad old dystopian 2017, 2006 has almost acquired a warm, nostalgic glow.
Believe it or not, that was all a mere decade ago.
Tony Martin’s career has thus far spanned four decades; his comedy long-attuned to the art of gently ridiculing day-to-day Aussie mundanity.
Deadly Kerfuffle, Martin’s debut novel, leans heavily on the Kiwi author’s keenly observed insights into the sinister flip-side of our daggy national character.
“It’s 2006, and terror scaremongering in the media has rattled the residents of sleepy, suburban Dunlop Crescent. When a Maori family moves into number 14, the local cranks assume they are Middle Eastern terrorists hell-bent on destroying the Australian way of life. Rumour has it that they plan to turn their house to face Mecca…”
Events spin madly out of control when pompous radio shock jocks, fedora-sporting conspiracy theorists, cable news muckrakers, hysterical tabloid newspaper coverage and bumbling national security apparatchiks quickly turn a bit of benign cul-de-sac pensioner bigotry into a potential terrorist event.
The seedy cast of oddballs is fleshed out with bumbling twits, scheming egomaniacs with half-baked schemes and some all-too believable Nazi thugs.
Martin’s keen eye (and ear) for trenchant detail permeates Deadly Kerfuffle.
Melburnians in particular will revel in Martin’s sense of place – dramatic hostage scenes play out in the absurdly appointed confines of an extinct theatre restaurant.
Deadly Kerfuffle is, to engage dual critical clichés, a laugh-out-loud funny page-turner. Martin’s affable literary voice makes this a jovial holiday read, while darker truths bubble at the fringes of this amiable tale of radicalised OAPs and outsized egos.
Having shrewdly set his first novel in our recent past, one wonders what accelerated horrors would beset Martin’s protagonists were it to have been set in the present day?