E-book reviews: a Hong Kong-set chiller debut; Stephen Fry reads Harry Potter
Expat American writer Coco Richter’s first novel has an uneven tone but once the plot gets going, the suspense builds nicely; veteran British actor has fun with J. K. Rowling’s prose and characters
Tempting the Dragon
By Coco Richter
Inkstone Books (e-book)
Tempting the Dragon is the debut novel by Coco Richter. It is, to quote her title, tempting to draw parallels between art and life. Like her heroine, Jess Winter, Richter relocated to Hong Kong from the United States. But whereas Richter turned from law to writing, Jess Winter teaches maths at the International School alongside Adam Brewer, her partner of just 10 months. Out of an interesting, detailed (sometimes a little exhaustingly so) account of first impressions of Happy Valley and the global ubiquity of IKEA emerges a thriller with supernatural undertones. The prose is readable enough, but can be slightly stiff at times (“I’m told I’m attractive in an androgynous sort of way”), and overly pedantic at others: a drink cart that moves almost as slowly on the page as down a plane aisle. I still don’t know if Jess’ habit of exclaiming “Damnit!” was endearing or odd. The nightmares that give clues to Jess’ horrific past (they began after her mother’s death) are nicely spooky, if convenient in way that actual dreams tend not to be. Stay with it, though. Once the plot finally gets going, the suspense builds, climaxing in a genuinely strange and unnerving conclusion. A curious, uneven but promising first book.
The Other Side of Silence
by Philip Kerr (read by Jeff Harding)
Audible Studios (audiobook)
Philip Kerr’s crime novels starring Bernie Gunther, a reluctant Nazi turned detective, have quietly coalesced into one of the best long-running series around. Now onto his 11th adventure, a suicidal Bernie has fled his melancholy life in Germany (his wife has left him) and removed himself to the deceptively louche location of Cap Ferrat on the French Riviera. He winds up at the Grand Hotel as a sort of all-purpose fixer named Walter Wolf, a pseudonym which suggests he is hiding in sheep’s clothing. After he winds up playing bridge with Somerset Maugham, “Bernie-Wolf” finds himself helping the man who at the time was arguably the world’s most famous writer deal with a spot of blackmail. Maugham has a secret past of his own, having worked for British intelligence during the second world war, and it has returned in the form of spies hoping to leverage his past for present gain. If anyone could understand, Bernie can, and he lends a hand while facing his own demons.
Jeff Harding catches Gunther’s sardonic, pessimistic outlook. His monotone can do grim humour and misanthropy with ease. His unmistakably American tones took a little getting used to, but it’s no weirder, I guess, than Hollywood’s SS officers speaking English with German accents. Wunderbar.
Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets
by J. K. Rowling (read by Stephen Fry)
Pottermore from JK Rowling
I promised I would use the newly downloadable Harry Potter audiobooks to finally experience the world’s favourite literary series, and so entered The Chamber of Secrets only 18 years after first publication. We begin again with Harry trapped by the ghastly Dursleys. The action starts early, however, with a magical elf called Dobby warning Harry not to return to Hogwarts and infuriating his adoptive family to such an extent that they imprison their talented nephew. Harry is helped out, and not for the last time by, Ron Weasley and after even more detours (Knockturn Alley, an absent Platform 9 ¾, flying cars) they begin a new school year. Fry reads with just the right balance of fun, excitement and underlying dread, all summed up by the Worst Birthday ever and the darkness of Diagon Alley. He clearly has enormous fun with the flash, empty Gilderoy Lockhart and his Defence Against the Dark Arts class and the equally unpleasant Draco Malfoy. What absorbs already is Harry’s development: his growing awareness of his powers, his relationship with Ron and Hermione, and his battles in Hogwarts itself. This is echoed by advances in Rowling’s prose, which is more expansive than part one. Roll on part three, I say (in Parseltongue).