I am Pilgrim by Terry Hayes

I was doing a book signing at a sensational book store (Petrarch’s in Launceston, Tasmania Australia) when the owner, Peter, and I began to discussing books we love. Apart from me being a huge fan of sci-fi and fantasy, our tastes were very similar. We started waxing lyrical about great historical fiction and crime fiction/thrillers. He asked me if I had read, I Am Pilgrim by Terry Hayes and when I confessed I hadn’t (I hadn’t even heard of it), he insisted I must. He pointed out the book even came with a “satisfaction guaranteed or your money back” clause. Well, how could I resist that?

18144124So, I started reading the novel. Written in the first person, it follows the life of, and investigation into, a terrorist plot by a man who has had many identities but in this book is mainly known as “Pilgrim”. Working for a top-secret US government organisation, Pilgrim, a man who has been involved in so many operations and worked all over the world, is forced back from premature retirement to find and halt a lone-wolf terrorist who plans to bring down the USA and its allies in the most diabolical of ways.

Taking the reader all over the world and into the hearts, minds and histories of both “pilgrim” and the lone-wolf, as well as different cultures and countries, the novel is vast in scope and very hard, once you get past the initial set up and what appears to be a red-herring murder in the USA, to put down. Parts of it are very well written, you feel like you are part of the action (Hayes’ screen-writing background is put to good use as the book is very cinematic) and the heart-racing consequences of some of the decisions both the “good” guys and those with nefarious intentions make.

However, it wasn’t always plain-sailing with this book. I have to say I found the main character almost too-perfect – like a James Bond/Jason Bourne and any other action and superhero rolled into one and then on steroids. There didn’t seem to be anything he hadn’t done or couldn’t do and was the “best” at – as an assassin, an investigator, an author (!) (yep), and even about art. Raised by a billionaire philanthropist, apart from a few family issues, the guy doesn’t even have to worry about money. Oh, and he’s really handsome… how do I know? Because he basically tells us – and smart – he tells us that too. Did I mention he’s also a doctor? Yet, there was so much telling rather than showing of all this throughout the novel (a major flaw in the book), Pilgrim came across as a bit of an egotistical prat (who nonetheless could demonstrate empathy for Holocaust survivors, appreciate art, and love kids – and ogle all the beautiful women that pepper the book. Apparently, unattractive or homely women don’t enter Pilgrim’s sphere) rather than the patriotic and ethical guy he apparently is.  Not only that, but when he did act/show, he made really basic mistakes and incorrect assumptions about those he was supposed to be an expert on. I found this tendency to “tell” all the time frustrating because, when Hayes “shows” he’s good at it and it’s mainly in the final stages of a very long book that he does this well.

Another aspect of the novel I struggled with was the portrait of the Islamic world. It was very negative and, frankly, clichéd. It was as if all the Arab characters, with few exceptions, were drawn from reductive and often horrible templates, created post 9/11, to justify invasion, racism, Islamophobia and so much more. I found this quite disheartening. It was very U.S.A “ra ra” (all the men in the White House, including the President, are “good blokes”, while the Turkish, Saudi and other Middle Eastern authorities are a range of negative and often idiotic stereotypes) in so many ways and I can see that it would be the kind of movie a post-Trump America (or at least those who voted for him) might love. I didn’t love the book, but I do understand its appeal – it’s simplicity. It creates a world of black and white, where there are clear-cut goodies and baddies and even when the good guys do bad things, it’s for a greater good. I couldn’t help but think of a line from the movie True Lies, when Jamie Curtis discovers her husband, played by Arnie Schwarzenegger, is a spy. She asks, “Have you killed anyone?” He answers (affected by a truth serum) “Yes. But they were all bad.” This is that kind of book; Pilgrim is that kind of “hero.”

Overall, this is a fast and quite gripping read (despite its length) that would be great for holidays or long plane trips – but be prepared to suspend your disbelief. While I don’t want my money back, it didn’t live up to the hype.

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Tell the Truth, Shame the Devil by Melina Marchetta

23566896 Tell the Truth, Shame the Devil by Melina Marchetta is quite simple a brilliant, moving and thought-provoking book that deals with so many familiar, contemporary and ideologically thorny and relevant issues in a sensitive and meaningful way.

The title is a quote from Shakespeare’s Henry IV, a king who was greatly misunderstood and is often cast by history and, indeed, his contemporaries, as a murderer of the worst kind. For his entire reign, he dealt with suspicion, distrust, gossip and attempts to assassinate his character and his actual person. It’s not surprising then that the novel also deals with someone, actually, a family, accused of murder most foul: terrorism and the brutal slaying of 23 people when a home-made bomb is detonated in a local supermarket, destroying lives, families and cultural relations. Just like Henry IV, the family and the community deal with the fallout, gossip, and everything and anything else the media and suspicious, racist minds can generate.

Fast forward 13 years, and the scene is set for another bomb to explode – this time in France on a bus containing British kids on tour. The novel then follows the inevitable fallout that occurs when it’s discovered that the daughter of one of the original terrorists, a young women named Violette, was a passenger on the destroyed bus. Worse, she’s disappeared and taken a young boy with her. Suspended DI, Bish Ortley, whose daughter, Bee, survives the carnage, commences an investigation into the tragedy. Crossing continents, counties, encountering co-operative parents, scared and hostile ones, cultural and racial conflict, as well as his own personal demons, Bish is determined to find Violette and the boy and protect them. But there are others, including a rapacious and unforgiving media who have other ideas.

Set across mainly two countries, England and France, it nevertheless draws other countries (including Australia), cultures and faiths and the people that represent these into its narrative. Avoiding stereotypes, Marchetta constructs real people who you engage with, believe in and champion with every breath, every word. The demonisation of Otherness, the way misunderstandings are formed, and cultural appropriation manipulated, is charted and exposed in all its callus cruelty as is the ease at which we’re prepared to accept the worst of people before the best; the way in which we allow fear to govern our responses even when our hearts and heads tell us differently. It’s also a story about families, about young people, trust, loyalty and the bonds that both tie and divide us.

A timely, superb book and beautifully and powerfully written, that will have you thinking well beyond the last page.

 

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Book review: The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

I didn’t sThe Goldfincho much read The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt as I was swept up in its powerful and sublime narrative with its exploration of love, loss, beauty, material objects and the relationship we can form with these and other people in our lives and how the choices we make, which are embedded in a moral code, define us.

The novel tells the tale of Theodore Decker who, suspended from school because of a questionable friendship he has formed as opposed to his own behaviour, has his life upended and shattered when he survives a tragedy that rocks New York. In the moments before and in the immediate aftermath of the disaster, he forms a bond with a young girl called Pippa and old man named Welty, both of whom become touchstones in what his life will become. Amid all the horror and shock that unfolds, Theo does something quite strange, he takes something extremely valuable and beautiful and tells no one what he has done

The consequences of this one action will echo and influence his life choices, merge into the memories of his past and erupt into the present in a prescient manner offering escape, promise and danger.

The novel then follows Theo’s life and the impact loss and accidental gain have upon him. His grief, his torment, the monotony and loneliness of his days are charted as he becomes not so much a victim of circumstance, but a victim of those determined to follow bureaucratic processes, tick their boxes and do the ‘right thing’ by this silent and oft sullen young man. This section of the book is heart-wrenching as well-intentioned people fail to see or understand how much Theo needs connection, longs for real communication and feeling, for someone to do more than simply satisfy the social niceties and offer platitudes. The only thing that allows him a link to his life before the tragedy, to experience and build any kind of emotional bridge is the object he has stolen. It speaks to him in ways that the humans in his life, even those closest to him, cannot.

It isn’t until he meets James Hobart, Hobie, an antique restorer and friend of Welty’s, and is reunited with Pippa that a semblance of meaning, if not hope, enters his life. But even this is transitory as Theo is at the whim of forces he cannot control and so his life is taken on journeys, undergoes trajectories he can neither navigate or foresee and, on the way, he collides and connects with others: his recalcitrant father, the ebullient and wonderfully strange Boris, the aloof but kind Barbours. Anchoring him on the ride his life becomes is his great secret, the object that has come to fill the hole left by the absence of those he loves.

From New York to Las Vegas to Amsterdam, from high society to the seedy underworld of crime and shady deals, drugs and booze, the novel follows Theo from his teens to his late twenties. Exquisitely written, it is a story I could not put down. Tartt’s ability to enter the mind and hearts of adolescents and adults is acute and heartfelt. Often philosophical and littered with references from popular and ‘high’ culture, the reader is swept along in the currents and eddies of Theo’s life in much the way he is. Filled with rich and complex characters, humour in surprising places, touching scenes that wring the heart and others that leave you frustrated and discontent, there is never a dull moment and, frankly, I was astonished by a few readers’ reviews that declared nothing happened in this novel. It may centre on a character who fundamentally embraces nihilism – or attempts to – but everything happens in this book. Everything that makes us human, that drives our needs, desires and hopes is explored. It seeks to understand what is free will, what is determinism. It ponders the great questions that have entertained and confounded philosophers since Aristotle, questions about life and death and meaning. It also asks, do we make our own luck or misfortune or is it somehow predestined? It is a morally and ethically complex novel that among many notions teases out the idea: do good acts necessarily lead to good outcomes and vice-a-versa? What if the wrong or bad decision can lead to the right ending? Or a good one bring about catastrophe? Does that make the entire choice or the person making it evil or their choice necessarily wrong? These are questions characters unconsciously embrace and finally ask outright. It’s left to us, the reader, to decide whether or not the answers are worthy or right (or not).

A fantastic story that lingers in the heart and head and which, like the object at its centre and the young man who obsesses over it, captivates you and whispers, “I have been written for you alone.” (Something that will make sense once you have read this utterly beautiful and haunting tale). Cannot recommend highly enough.

 

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Book Review: Bombproof by Michael Robotham

Hang on to the edge of your page, because this is one helluva ride.

Robotham’s books need to come with a health-warning: inclined to induce insomnia. I read Bombproof in one sitting, staying up to watch the sun sneak through the blinds and hear the birds begin to bloody well sing. Serves me right for starting it so late at night.  A shorter novel than some of Robotham’s others, it’s also an incredibly fast-paced book that follows the extraordinary mis-adventures of the gorgeously named Sami Macbeth, the “unluckiest person” in the world. Not a criminal, not a terrorist and certainly not a murderer, poor Sami is mistaken for all three and faces the hefty and deadly consequences of such labels.

Falling into one scrape after another, Sami finds himself embroiled in a plot to sabotage evidence in a major case. When his involvement goes horribly wrong, resulting in the blowing up of a passenger train in the London underground and the grisly death of his accomplice, Sami find himself being hunted by the entire metropolitan police, the criminal elements in the city and his face plastered all over the media.

With nowhere to run, nowhere to hide, Sami turns to the one person who can help: *sound the trumpets*. Enter, stage right, Vincent Ruiz. Grizzled, retired and with better things to do than hunt a terrorist loser, there’s nonetheless something about Sami that appeals to Vincent. Maybe it’s his underdog status, maybe it’s the fact all the poor bastard wants to do is find his sister, or maybe it’s because despite the best minds in the business being focused on capturing Sami, they appear to have missed the most important clues of all…

A great read that really pulls no punches when exposing the role of the media in constructing heroes and villains,  Bombproof is for those who  love a terrific crime tale, a swift and spine-chilling thriller and /or are fans of Robotham’s work or , like me, all three. No doubt,  Bombproof is an explosive read(Sorry, terrible, but I couldn’t resist).

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