Sunday, December 1, 2013

Micro-Reviews of Books Read, November 2013

Reviews of books read last month. Three novels (two of them by
Australian authors), and a non-fiction book about information and

1. "The Rook: A Novel" by Daniel O'Malley

A woman wakes up in a London park on a rainy night, surrounded by
dead people wearing latex gloves. She's lost her memory, but soon
finds the first of many letters from her pre-amnesiac self. She is
Myfanwy Thomas, a high ranking official (a Rook) of the Checquy
Group, a paranormal secret service agency charged. She was warned
by a psychic that she would lose her memory, so she made
preparations. It turns out her memory was wiped because she was
close to exposing a traitor in the Checquy Group. Knowing this,
she could just leave the country, take up a new identity and stay
out of trouble. Instead, she decides to find out more about who
she was, resume her job and go after the traitor. She rediscovers
she has a frightening superpower (which explains the incident in
the park), but lots of other people in the country have special
abilities too. And to complicate things further, the Belgium-based
Grafters, long-time adversaries of the Checquy, have resumed their
centuries-old goal of invading the UK.

This is a very imaginative and amusing debut novel by a Canberra-
based public servant. The characters are complex and intriguing,
with a well-executed plot.

2. "They're a Weird Mob" by John O'Grady (as Nino Culotta)

Italian journalist Nino Culotta (not his real name) is sent on
assignment to Australia to report on how Italian migrants are
settling into their new lives. It's the 1950s, and he arrives in
Sydney, with the intention of travelling around the country for a
couple of years to write regular pieces for his newspaper back in
Milan. He gets of to a rocky start, quickly discovering that the
"proper" English he learnt back home is not that helpful, and
he'll have to learn the Aussie lingo if he wants to fit in. He
does write some articles, but he finds he likes Sydney so much
that he wants to settle there himself. He gets a job as a builder's
labourer, makes some new friends, and eventually gets married.

I have mixed feelings about this novel. I agree it is a witty
portrayal of the brand of English spoken by Australians in the
1950s. But I didn't find the central character authentically
Italian. I also expected more insight into the migrant way of
life, but that wasn't the point of the novel. Perhaps what grated
the most was the author's insistence that the Australian way of
life was perfect, so "New Australians" should forget all their
old ways and just blend in. That reactionary attitude sounds
simplistic and short-sighted given the rich contributions from
the different waves of migrants over the past 60 years.

3. "Emmaus" by Alessandro Baricco

This is the story of a group of four teenage boys and their loss of
innocence. The narrator and his friends Bobby, Luca and the Saint
were brought up with very Catholic values. They were in the church
band, and spent their spare time helping out at a nearby hospital
for poor people. Things were going pretty well, they even had
girlfriends. Except the Saint, who wants to enter the priesthood.
But then they meet and become obsessed with Andre, a girl from a
wealthy non-believer family. She has a carefree attitude, sleeps
around and even tried to kill herself. Andre believes she and her
family are cursed. A strange relationship develops between her and
the boys. Unfortunately, things start going wrong for the boys,
bringing drugs, death and disgrace for some of them.

I enjoyed this short novel by an award-winning author and screen-
writer. The characters were relatable, as they dealt with issues
of faith, devotion and sin were tackled. I also found the contrasts
and interactions between believers and non-believers interesting.

4. "The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood" by James Gleick

This books takes a sweeping look at the history of information. From
the humble beginnings of transmitting messages over distances using
drums through to the modern day, where Google and others constantly
collect and analyse our digital activities to find out what we want
before we know ourselves. Despite changes in technology, many of the
same issues recur, such as how to ensure accurate and efficient
transmission. The book reminds us that abbreviations like LOL and
emoticons had precursors in the days of the telegraph. Information
is not just encoded in our devices and communication methods.
Subatomic particles and genes are information carriers. Ideas (or
memes) also convey information, and some theorists believe they too
are subject to the survival of the fittest. The book also looks at
issues such as information overload.

Overall, a generally accessible and comprehensive book, from a
respected science and technology author.