I’m on holidays at the moment, travelling through Vietnam, working my way from Saigon in the south to Hanoi in the north. Currently I’m spending a couple of weeks on the beach in Nha Trang, which has allowed me to indulge in some summer reading.
These reviews are shorter than my normal posts because, well, I’m on holiday, but I did want to share my thoughts on the following three books: Don’t Point That Thing at Me, the first book in the Charlie Mortdecai trilogy, by Kyril Bonfiglioli; The Orphan Master’s Son, the winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction (2013), by Adam Johnson; and Yellow Eyes of the Crocodile, an international best seller by Katherine Pancol. These three books are all very different from each other and provided some great reading moments and a lot of variety as I worked my way through them. The first two books are by far stand out works, and after reading just the first book in the Mortdecai trilogy, I already know that they will become firm favourites, to be read multiple times.
Don’t Point That Thing at Me by Kyril Bonfiglioli (Penguin – re-issue edition 2014)
This first book in the trilogy about the unscrupulous art dealer, Charlie Mortdecai, was a rollicking good read filled with wit and disrepute of the most delightful nature. The writing is superb and the book is full of brilliant, laugh-out-loud, chuckle and chortle moments. Charlie Mortdecai may be an art dealer of an unscrupulous nature but he also has a highly developed sense of British sensibilities, style, taste and decorum. I could not put this book down; I haven’t had so much fun reading a book in a long time. Some of the scenarios are completely implausible but Kyril Bonfiglioli has created such a convincing narrative and characters that the events are believable. Charlie has a flair for the dramatic, never rises before 10.00am, and his bodyguard Jock panders to his boss’s needs using one form of thuggery or another, yet this is conveyed in the most endearing way and shows the deep friendship that exists between the two men.
A couple of lines that made me laugh…
“My cup of tea, which usually droppeth like the gentle rain from heaven, tasted like a vulture’s crutch. The canary looked constipated and gave me a surly glance instead of the customary stave or two of song.”
“After an hour I arose, draped the person in whipcord and hopsack and descended to the kitchen to give the canary one more chance to be civil to me. It was more than civil, almost busting its tiny gut with song, vowing that all would yet be well. I accepted its assurances guardedly.”
With the first Mortdecai book showing such skill, wit and finesse, I can’t wait to read the other two novels in the trilogy.
The Orphan Master’s Son, by Adam Johnson (Black Swan 2013)
The pull quote on the front of this book states “An addictive novel of daring ingenuity” and I have to say that I wholeheartedly agree. Johnson’s vast and in-depth research into the subject matter – politics and life in North Korea – has resulted in him producing a masterpiece work of fiction that is compelling and completely engrossing. Jun Do, the protagonist, encounters unimaginable events and horrors in the course of his life, yet the writing is so sound, the details so attentive and well portrayed that the events ring true. The Orphan Master’s Son is based on facts, a compilation of many real events portrayed through Jun Do and the array of other characters within the book. This is what makes for such compelling, addictive reading. The insight into life in North Korea is astonishing and, as someone who comes from a western country, I found it both confronting and intriguing to read. A bit like a scary movie that you watch through your splayed fingertips, I wanted to know more but didn’t want to believe that some of the events were true. This story has multiple themes – romance, action, thriller, adventure – and Johnson handles them exceptionally well. I think the extent of his research, and having visited North Korea, provides a strong platform for his narrative and allows the characters to tell the story in way that is mesmerising and memorable. This novel is compelling reading and it’s been with me to the beach, on trains, on the balcony, and in bed. I’ve even spurned television in favour of getting to the end of this story. If you haven’t read it yet, then I recommend you get your hands on a copy, or at least add it to your reading list.
Yellow Eyes of the Crocodile by Katherine Pancol (Allen & Unwin 2013)
I bought this book because it was an international best seller and so I figured that it had to be a good read. The back blurb made it sound like a comedic adventure but I have to confess that I didn’t like it. The story didn’t live up to the book description’s promises. I found the main character, Josephine, to be whiney and too much of a martyr. Her husband runs off with his sexy mistress, leaving Josephine to look after their two daughters. On top of this he takes out a loan for 200,000 Euros, defaults on the loan and Josephine simply starts paying the loan repayments because the loan is in both their names. She claims he tricked her but the reality is she didn’t even bother to read the papers that she was signing. She doesn’t get angry or confront her scheming husband, make a fuss, or tell anyone. Instead she suffers in silence, which I thought made her a pathetic character, and didn’t do much for the portrayal of modern day French women. Josephine’s neighbour, Shirley, is a woman in hiding with a secretive past, and later it’s revealed that she’s actually connected to the British Royal Family, and is an occasional bodyguard to the Queen. The idea may seem funny but story lacked the strength to pull it off convincingly. In amongst all of this Josephine writes a best seller and overcomes a lifelong emotional trauma from her childhood in the blink of an eye, or a matter of lines. I feel that this book tries to include too many big, bold events that simply aren’t handled all that well. The worst of it was that I didn’t find it funny at all. I found most of the women in the books irritating, self indulgent and annoying. Shirley, the neighbour, was the only sane character, and then she lost credibility throughout the book with irrational moments tied to the royal family angle. In my opinion, this book had great potential but it’s missed the mark. There were simply too many elements that weren’t believable, and as such the story lacked credibility. All up it was a disappointing read, and I guess it shows that just because a book is on the best seller list it doesn’t mean it’s brilliantly written.