Book review: Travel Bites by the Hungry Traveller

Travel Bites cover imageTravel Bites by the Hungry Traveller, Wattle Publishing, ISBN 9781908959133, purchase direct

Two things are guaranteed to get people sharing photos on social media. One is travel. The other is food.*

Travel Bites combines both in a quick easy read. The only downside? No photos. Sad face.

Still, there are recipes which is damn awesome. Keeping the same format throughout, each chapter is a different travel story involving food or a special dish and at the end of the chapter we get the recipe for the dish.

Travel Bites takes us from Zanzibar to Vietnam to Sydney to Greece to Brighton and lots of stops in between. The writing is light and fun, with bits of info and even some travel tips – it’s a great book to take on holiday to the beach so you can plan your next overseas sojourn.

*Also cats, capybaras, anything by The Oatmeal, and teen emo quotes but six things didn’t fit my narrative, ok? 

Book review: The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins

The Girl on the Train cover imageThe Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins, Doubleday, ISBN 9780857522320, RRP NZ$36.99

Unreliable narrators are all the rage these days, as are unlikeable narrators. It’s a fine line though, unreliable can veer into the ridiculous while unlikeable can end up unreadable. It takes a good author (and a good editor, I suspect) to keep a tight rein on things and deliver the reader a nail-bitingly tense story.

Tension-lit. This is my new phrase for books like The Girl on the Train and it took a book this good to show me the pleasure in reading this genre. (Sorry readers, I strongly disliked Gone Girl.) The Girl on the Train is a novel about three woman, all unreliable as narrators (both to us the readers and to the other people in their lives) and all presented as whole characters, capable of eliciting our sympathy, our empathy, our irritation, our abhorrence and our respect.

Rachel brings us into this story and it’s with her we experience the bulk of the narrative. At first she seems a relatively “normal” commuter, making up imaginary lives for the people she watches from her train every day but we quickly realise that not all is well with Rachel. One of the houses she passes on the train is her old house, now occupied by her former husband and the woman he left Rachel for. As well as this trauma it’s clear she also has a drinking problem that can only be described as “raging”.

Megan, on the other hand, is one of the people Rachel watches from the train. Rachel’s fantasy version of Megan’s life is very different from the reality and the moment when these two collide is the catalyst for this story’s action. Our last narrator is Anna, the former lover and current wife of Rachel’s ex-husband Tom.

Hawkins really gets under the skin of her characters, imbuing them with strong, individual voices and blurring their motivations. Rachel is erratic, unable to control her drinking and often dishonest with other characters, and she dangerously teeters on the line of obsessive due to bad decision making. And yet she remains a sympathetic character with genuine motivations. Despite everything I really liked Rachel.

Megan is similarly erratic and loose with the truth but she too is dealing with her own recovery from a long buried trauma and as the novel progresses it’s clear she’s never really acknowledged that other people have screwed her over. It’s a bit of a theme throughout the book really – stop trying to find the ways you can blame yourself (women) for other people’s (men) bad behaviour.

Aside from all of this deep and meaningful analysis, The Girl on the Train is just a cracking good read, a thrill-ride and a who-dunnit. I ended up staying up half the night (waaaaay past my bed time) to read the first half and then got through the second half over the next 2 days. It is a delight to read a “thriller” that doesn’t use the same tired tropes and supposed twists. The Girl on the Train is something new and fantastic.

Pioneers by Phillip Mann

Pioneers cover imagePioneers by Phillip Mann, Sargasso Press, ISBN 9780473297978

I am ashamed to admit it but before I received new editions of three Phillip Mann books I had not even heard of him, despite the fact that he is a New Zealand resident author and in 2014 was shortlisted for the Arthur C. Clark Award for his novel The Disestablishment of Paradise. In my defence this is not entirely surprising perhaps; I am not a big sci-fi fan and a completely unscientific survey of my Twitter followers showed that I was not alone in my ignorance. Most of Mann’s books were originally published in the 1980’s and 90’s except for the aforementioned shortlisted title which came out in 2013. So Mann is not necessarily well-known to the wider NZ reading public but he certainly deserves to be and these new editions from Sargasso Press (a project by Mann and Whitireira Publishing students) will most likely ensure that happens.

The first I read was Pioneers and, oh, it is good. Angelo and Ariadne are adapted humans, engineered to be powerful and tasked to bring back to Earth the Pioneers, humans sent out into space to create outposts in the frontiers of the Universe. Back on Earth and in Aotearoa things have gone rather horribly wrong. An unidentified cataclysmic event has caused sterility in most humans and the genetic material of the Pioneers is suddenly needed.

Amidst this action Angelo is starting to question his own nature, that of his companions and his “makers”. And that’s the real story Mann is telling here – an exploration of love and humanity, and one that mirrors our current selves and anticipates our future selves. What does it mean to be human? What is it that goes on in our brains that makes us separate ourselves from other creatures? To answer these questions Angelo turns to writing, writing down his thoughts and his actions.

There is a strangeness about words on paper. I do not know what is going to come next and at the moment I am not worried. In my mind I see the words like bubbles coming to the surface of a liquid. Something causes those bubbles. I want to discover that cause.

It’s amazing to think this book was first published in 1988 because, honestly, it feels timeless. I think Angelo’s story will resonate with many readers, as much as it did with me. Angelo (and Mann) are asking some big questions and the answers they find are not always easy nor are they always obvious.

Aside from questions of metaphysics, Mann’s writing is often wonderful to read, filled with imagery that is relatively simple but authentic-feeling. He can be forgiven the occasional too-long section because as a reader it’s quite easy to just keep going with it until he pulls himself back into line.

What Pioneers captures best is the human-ness of continuously striving, to keep thinking and keep questioning. If, like me, you haven’t discovered Mann yet then now is definitely the time to do so.

Pop Goes The Weasel by M.J. Arlidge

Pop Goes the Weasel cover image

Pop Goes the Weasel by M.J. Arlidge, Penguin, ISBN9781405914963, RRP $37

M.J. Arlidge’s debut novel Eeny Meeny introduced us to DI Helen Grace and Arlidge’s particular brand of crime/thriller/police procedural.  With Pop Goes the Weasel he tells the story of a new killer while picking up the pieces from the ending of Eeny Meeny.

DI Helen Grace is again the central character and, as before, Arlidge has given her enough ambiguity and strength to keep her interesting and to centre the storyline around her. Once again someone is killing people, only now the victims are seemingly unrelated family men who have dark secrets. As with most of this genre the violence is brutal and relatively graphic.

Let’s be honest here, people, this is a crowded genre and what it’s crowded with is not always top quality. There are so many standard tropes that it can be relatively easy to see where an author is going with their plot. Arlidge is not immune to this, at times relying too heavily on a somewhat breathless, hard-boiled style that lacks originality but fortunately he saves it with small touches that humanise his characters and with playing around with the idea of a “happy ending”.

I did have an issue with some of the plot points around forensic evidence, and was not at all convinced by the given motivation of the killer. Arlidge seems intrigued by the idea of female killers which may provide some difference with the stories he chooses to tell but takes them further away from reality.

If you’re not an avid thriller mystery fan Pop Goes the Weasel offers a fast, easy read and some interesting points of difference. If you are a fan then you probably need little more enticement to make it your summer beach book.