The Secret Agent – Joseph Conrad

While Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness is certainly his most famous work, I think that The Secret Agent is infinitely better. Why? It’s beautifully-written, full of action, suspense, well-drawn characters, and although it was published in 1907, Conrad’s astute observations about society are relevant even today. Especially today.

The plot: Adolf Verloc has two jobs. One is to run a seedy shop in London with his wife and her simple-minded brother, and the other is to operate as a secret agent. However, Verloc is certainly no James Bond; he prefers to do the absolute minimum required to receive his paycheck. That is, until he is confronted by the shady Mr Vladimir, a foreign ambassador of some kind, with an ultimatum: lose his job or blow up the Greenwich Observatory. The idea behind this plot is that by targeting a building of such symbolic significance, England will be stirred into decisive, even extreme action against criminal/revolutionary/terrorist organisations. This is pretty dark stuff and it is easy to see how this bleak take on the political world would be eaten up by conspiracy theorists.

One of the first things I noticed about this book is that although the novel is set in London, it is surprisingly un-English. None of the characters have very English-sounding names, and even the descriptions of the city do not bring to mind images of red telephone boxes and Buckingham Palace. Rather, Conrad’s London appears to be permanently engulfed in darkness, so much so that it becomes difficult to tell that the novel is actually set in London and not in some bleak, cold corner of Poland (Conrad’s home country).

Another thing I loved about this book is that although it is so obviously, relentlessly political, the characters are not one-dimensional. Throughout the novel, Verloc grapples with his conscience as he is forced to adjust from being an observer to an active participant in a terrorist plot. Then there’s the relationship between the simple-minded Stevie and the Verlocs. It is difficult to discuss this relationship without divulging any spoilers, but it is safe to say that he is, in a sense, both a symbol of innocence and the human mirror of Mr Verloc’s emotional state.

I think you can probably gather that I really loved this book, but I must admit that I did have a couple of issues with it. It did take me about 100 pages to get into the story and I did contemplate giving up once or twice towards the beginning because the writing is so dense (I’m so glad I didn’t). I also thought that some words were used a little too frequently (Mr Verloc ‘mumbles’ so much that I couldn’t help but think of Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight series) and Conrad uses a ridiculous number of adverbs. But, you can’t be too critical of his over-use of adverbs because did I mention that English was Conrad’s THIRD FREAKING LANGUAGE?!? Yep, that’s right. His first language was Polish, then came French, and then at the age of twenty-one, Conrad finally learned English. And he writes better than the vast majority of native speakers. Unfair.

Anyway, I highly highly highly recommend this book, especially if you’re a fan of political satires. Or even if you’re not. Just read it.

Have you read The Secret Agent? Or any of Joseph Conrad’s other works? What did you think? Would love to hear from you. 

~Anna

Tell the Truth, Shame the Devil – Melina Marchetta

Melina Marchetta’s Tell the Truth, Shame the Devil is a fast-paced thriller that jumps between both sides of the English Channel. The story begins in London, where suspended desk cop Bashir “Bish” Ortley is grappling with the death of his son and the disintegration of his marriage. Across the channel, a bus carrying a group of British teenagers is subject to a deadly bomb attack and Bish discovers that his daughter is one of those on board. The main suspect is 17-year-old Violette LeBrac, whose grandfather blew up a supermarket thirteen years ago, and whose mother is serving a life sentence in prison for allegedly planning the attack. As Bish is dragged into the search for missing Violette, he finds himself reluctantly working with her mother and begins to wonder if justice was actually served all those years ago.

I picked up this book after one of my coworkers mentioned that it was her favourite crime read of 2016, but I have to say that I was a little disappointed. Don’t get me wrong, I think Melina Marchetta is a fantastic writer and I am a huge fan of her YA novels, but I think this one missed the mark by a bit.

My first criticism of this book is that the plot is highly convoluted. I had a lot of trouble keeping track of all of the characters and their respective backstories, and there are a lot of plotholes. For example, I really don’t think that a suspended London desk cop would ever be allowed to collaborate with MI5 on a serious bombing case, especially if his own daughter were involved in the attack. But whatever… good story > procedural accuracy, right?

My other main criticism is that this book lacks a lot of subtlety. One of the key themes explored is racial profiling, particularly the treatment of those of Arab/Middle Eastern descent by police authorities. This is an important issue, don’t get me wrong. But I thought that it was explored so heavy-handedly that the resolution of the story was clear to me from the very first chapter.

Despite these criticisms, I thought that the characters in this book were well-constructed and interesting, especially the teenage characters. Often, teenage characters in adult crime novels have absolutely no depth, but Marchetta has a real knack for writing complex and believable teenagers.

Overall, this book was a miss for me, but I know a lot of people who loved it. I think that Marchetta is great at exploring family relationships and creating interesting characters, but not so suited to the thriller/mystery genre.

Have you read this book? What did you think? How does it compare to her YA novels? Would love to hear from you. 

~Anna

My Brilliant Friend – Elena Ferrante

After years of hearing people recommend it, I finally got around to reading Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend, the first of her Neapolitan novels. Ferrante has a bizarre cult following here in Melbourne and I thought it was high time I jumped aboard the hype train. On a somewhat related note, when did Ferrante become a thing? Was it this year? 2013? Whenever it was, we should have been talking about her sooner.

At its heart, this book tells the story of the tumultuous relationship between two childhood friends, Lila and Elena, as they navigate through adolescence and struggle to break free of the grinding cycle of poverty and isolation generated by the problems of the post-war, post-Fascist Italian state. The two girls live in a rough, violent neighbourhood on the outskirts of Naples, where money is hard to come by and opportunities for escape are scarce. Growing up on these tough streets, the two girls learn to rely on each other ahead of anyone or anything else. As they grow, as their paths repeatedly diverge and converge, Elena and Lila remain friends whose respective destinies are reflected and refracted in the other. They are likewise the embodiments of a nation undergoing momentous change. Through the lives of these two women, Ferrante tells the story of a neighborhood, a city, and a country as it is transformed in ways that, in turn, also transform the relationship between her protagonists.

The best thing about this book is definitely the characters. The relationship between Elena and Lila is so incredibly fascinating, and both of the protagonists have so much depth and complexity. Their friendship is not an easy one – rather, it is fraught with tension and the two girls are in constant competition, although neither can truly succeed without the other. A friend once said to me that Ferrante ‘cuts to the bone’ and I couldn’t agree more. Acts of terrifying cruelty are balanced by offhand displays of extraordinary kindness to paint a mesmerising portrait of a friendship that is at the same time totally unique and extremely familiar.

I also really like that Ferrante takes almost every conventional literary device and narrative structure, flips it over, and spits it out again. She introduces way too many characters at random, inserts about five different ideas into a single sentence, and the story is not quite chronological. I think that these things would annoy me if anyone else did them, but I found myself admiring Ferrante’s audacity and creativity. Also, I think that Ann Goldstein deserves a big shout-out for her spectacular translation! Often, I think translated novels can sound a bit stilted, but this one reads wonderfully.

Overall, I thought that this book was beautifully-written, compelling, difficult to read at times, and absolutely brilliant. Will I read her other books? Hell yes. Especially after the very classy cliffhanger at the end of this one. Would I recommend this book to other people? Hell yes.

Have you ever read Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels? What did you think? Would love to hear from you. 

~Anna

My Pig Paulina – Hans Limmer & David Crossley

I don’t usually review children’s books, but I had to make an exception for this one because it’s just TOO DARN CUTE.

The blurb: Angelika lives with her parents and her sister Susi on a beautiful Mediterranean island. She loves roaming the island with her favourite doll, Hippi, and when she adopts a piglet named Paulina, they have lots of fun together! When a farmer wants to take Paulina away, Angelika knows she has to save her best friend. And so begins their adventure…

Originally published in Germany in the 1960s (although recently translated into English), this book wonderfully captures the magic of wandering barefoot through the countryside without a grownup in sight. It made me laugh out loud, feel nostalgic for my childhood, and want to go on a few adventures of my own. Would definitely recommend this book for all the special little ones in your life (especially those aged 3-6).

Have you read My Pig Paulina? What did you think? What are your favourite recent children’s books? Would love to hear from you. 

~Anna

My Top 5 Post-Election Recommendations

I don’t think that I’m alone in saying that the results of the recent US election have left me feeling pretty down. But more than anything, they have left me wanting answers. How could this have happened? Why did it happen? What can we do about it? Almost every day customers come into the bookstore and ask me to recommend something that will lift them out of their post-election depression, which has inspired me to put together this list of my top five post-election recommendations.

1. Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis – J.D. Vance

Written by a former Marine and Yale Law School Graduate, Hillbilly Elegy is a poignant account of growing up in a poor Appalachian town, that offers a broader, probing look at the struggles of America’s white working class. Part memoir, part historical and social analysis, this book is a fascinating study of class, culture, and the American dream (or rather, the loss of the American dream for many). While this book does not explain – at least not directly – why Trump won the election, it certainly is a touching and troubling meditation on the lives and experiences of those who made up his largest voter base.

2. Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities – Rebecca Solnit

Although it was published in 2004, this book could not be more relevant at the moment. In Hope in the Dark, Rebecca Solnit makes a radical case for hope as a commitment to act in a world whose future remains uncertain and unknowable. Drawing on her decades of activism and her extensive research into political, social, and environmental history, Solnit reflects on the often-neglected victories of activism and argues that the positive consequences of our actions are not always immediately seen, directly knowable, or even measurable. As usual, Solnit’s writing is beautiful, but more than that, she hits home with her hope-filled message for anyone who feels overwhelmed, discouraged, and desperate about the current state of political affairs.

3. The Underground Railroad – Colson Whitehead 

While most of the books on this list are non-fiction, the power of a novel should not be underestimated. This book deals with America’s disturbing racial history and reimagines the path that slaves took to escape the Deep South as an actual railroad that runs beneath the earth. To be honest, I haven’t read this one personally, but quite a few of my coworkers attest to its brilliance. Oh, and it won the 2016 National Book Award, so there’s that.

4. White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America – Nancy Isenberg

This book is a fascinating history of the class system in America, extending from colonial times to the present, and challenges all comforting myths about equality. It’s well-written, thoroughly-researched and very relevant today. Would definitely recommend reading it in conjunction with J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy. 

5. Year of Wonders – Geraldine Brooks 

Sometimes I think that the best cure for post-election depression is a little bit of perspective, which brings me to my final recommendation. Geraldine Brooks’ Year of Wonders is set in 17th century England in a small, isolated village gripped by the plague (how’s that for perspective?) and tells the story of a brave young woman struggling to survive and to prevent the disintegration of her community. While it sounds pretty depressing, this book is actually incredibly uplifting and weirdly relevant to the US election.

Anyway, that’s it from me. Which post-election reads do you recommend?

~Anna