2019 mid-summer reading report back

Summer is the one time of the year I am able find a decent amount of time to read. And, despite going full bore on my PhD at present, this year has, thankfully, been no different. Here is a very brief mid-summer reading report back.

The Real Lolita, Sarah Weinman

I have to fess up to not having read Vladimir Nabokov’s novel, Lolita, or seen either of the films based on it (I have Stanley Kubrick’s 1962 version and, having read The Real Lolita, want to see it). This didn’t stop me from devouring Weinman’s book. The Real Lolita has two threads. The first deals with the 1948 abduction of an eleven-year-old New Jersey girl, Sally Horner. The second looks at the torturous process by which Nabokov created what is his best-known work, the story of a middle-aged literature professor and his obsession and, eventually, sexual relationship with a 12-year-old girl, a story which Weinman contends Nabokov partly based on the Horner case.

Weinman painstakingly recreates the circumstances of Horner’s abduction and sexual grooming by a much older man, and the lengthy police investigation into her disappearance. It is fascinating, at times, horrific stuff and she puts it together brilliantly. I found the second strand concerning Nabokov less satisfying. The writer was incredibly secretive with his affairs and didn’t leave much of a trail for Weinman to go on. There is a lot of supposition and attempting to join dots that doesn’t always work, even if it seems reasonably clear he was abreast of the kidnapping case – how could he not be given the media sensation around it – and lifted parts of the real life story for his book.

I suspect whether you enjoy the investigation into the gestation of Lolita and Weinman’s attempt to prove Nabokov was influenced by the Horner case, will depend on whether you think what Nabokov potentially did was wrong. This, in turn, gets bound with the fact that the novel is so completely out of sync with contemporary sensibilities, something which occasionally creeps into Weinman’s narrative. To be honest, I wasn’t hugely moved either way by the question of whether Nabokov used parts of the Horner case in Lolita. Writers, including crime writers, base work on real life events all the time, with varying degrees of transparency and ethical rigour. That said Weinman’s mission to give a voice to a young woman whose life never really recovered from the sexual abuse of an older man is an important project. Weinman also raises some interesting questions, the grist of much cultural debate today, about who has a right to tell what stories and own voices.

The Coves, David Whish-Wilson

Confirms what I have thought about the author for the long time, that he is easily one of the most underrated crime writers working in Australia at the moment. The key character of The Coves is a young boy who has managed to get a ship passage from Western Australia to San Francisco in 1849, to search for his missing mother. There he becomes embroiled with a ruthless Australian gang who controls the part of the city known as Sydney-town and who are engaged in a life and death struggle with nativist forces. The story is YA adventure meets hardboiled crime fiction, with a genuinely enthralling scene of historical place – San Francisco is a lawless city, awash with people from all over the world who have come to America for the gold rush taking place at the time. Despite being the product of considerable historical research, the writing is so assured and the story goes so smoothly, it feels Whish-Wilson turned it out over a few slow beers one weekend. Recommend.

The Boys From Brazil, Ira Levin

I have been fascinated for a while now by Ira Levin. A New York based playwright, novelist and songwriter, he was stratospherically successful in the 1960s and 1970s but now seems largely forgotten. His chief claim to fame is having written several best sellers across a number of very different genres, including science fiction (The Stepford Wives) and horror (Rosemary’s Baby), a fluidity in terms of writing across fiction categories you don’t really see in mass publishing today. The Boys From Brazil is a high level airport style thriller about a secretive Nazi organisation that has hatched a global plot to bring about the Fourth Reich. The only person standing in their way is an aging Jewish Nazi hunter. It may sound silly, but Levin delivers it flawlessly and with considerable suspense. Levin has a wonderfully clear, crisp pose style that propels whatever story he is telling at rapid pace. He was also no slouch when it came to characterisation. His depiction of the plot’s main instigator, Josef Mengele, a former officer in the SS and physician in the Auschwitz concentration camp, and his weird émigré Nazi milieu in South America, feels totally plausible and completely chilling

Ice, Anna Kavan

I am currently working on a book project that will involve me reading a considerable amount of mid-century science fiction over the next 12 months. Anna Kavan’s Ice was one of these. Kavan is not seen as science fiction writer but this 1967 book is viewed as a key entry in the early stages of Britain’s new wave of science fiction. The surreal disorienting story takes place future in which an unstoppable wall of ice is slowly covering the world, extinguishing all life. A nameless man pursues an elf like woman across the slowly dying planet. In the process he also has to deal with a mysterious military commander called ‘warden’, who may in fact be his alternative identity.

Dancing Home, Paul Collis

Paul Collis is a Barkindji man born in far western New South Wales and this is his first novel. Billed as ‘Koori-noir’, there is not a lot of crime fiction by Indigenous writers, so I was keen to get into this. Just out of prison, two Indigenous men, Blackie and Rips, undertake a road trip to Blackie’s home town so he can settle scores with a racist policeman who falsely saw him locked up. This is an interesting story, which makes no allowances for the sensibilities of white readers (a good thing). The plot is heavy on Blackie’s reminiscences about his youth, his mother, and his mistakes. On the whole this makes for an engaging story. There are a few issues with the writing that I associate with a first book, and sometimes it feels like the author couldn’t decide whether he wants to engage in a prolonged discussion about the very real racism Indigenous people face in Australia, or tell a crime story. Having said that, I think that white crime readers need to readjust their expectations on several levels when approaching material by Indigenous writers, as ‘crime fiction’, Indigenous experience, and the writing process intertwine and relate to each other in ways that are different to standard mystery narratives.

November Road, Lou Berney

I suspect more than a few of you will have already read Lou Berney’s November Road. For the most part, it is as good as many of you told me it was. I loved premise, which sees Frank Guidry, a loyal street lieutenant to vicious real life New Orleans mobster, Carlos Marcello, end up on the wrong side of Marcello’s efforts to severe any connections between himself and the mob instigated murder of John F Kennedy. Fleeing Big Easy, Guidry hooks up with a woman and her two young daughters. He is to stay one step ahead of a relentless hitman dispatched to kill him; she is running, with her two daughters, from her alcoholic husband and a boring small town existence. Berney pens a wonderfully lean story, with some beautifully scenes and nuanced characters. Without giving the plot away, my only quibble came at the end, or, should I say, the second ending, which was totally unnecessary. Otherwise, a pretty assured effort.

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