Friday, 24 December 2010

Christmas treats 2010

by Julia Kuttner


Room, by Emma Donoghue

Jack lives in room with Ma.  He sleeps in Wardrobe, plays with Paper Snake and eats food off Table.  He has to be very quiet at night when the beeps sound at Door;  it means that Old Nick will come to Ma.  Jack is supposed to be asleep and not meant to listen to any conversation between Old Nick and Ma but he knows that this man is someone to be afraid of, and that he once hurt Ma’s wrist so badly that it doesn’t work properly anymore.  But!  It is Jack’s 5th birthday today, and Ma has made him a cake, his very first one, just like ‘in the TV’;  yesterday he was only four, but today he is five, and anything can happen.  And does.  So begins Emma Donoghue’s gripping story of a young student kidnapped and held hostage for seven years, the birth of a son to her captor, and their eventual escape from him, all told in Jack’s words.  What a singular feat of great writing, to describe the thoughts of a young child whose only reality is a 12x12ft room;  who has never experienced rain, or hot sun;  who has never heard the sound of a car engine, except ‘in the TV’, who has never spoken to anyone else but his beloved Ma, let alone played with another child.  Ms Donoghue’s portrayal of Jack’s isolation is profound and very moving – and brilliant, especially as he struggles to understand and make sense of his new-found freedom – as does Ma:  her attempts to reintegrate herself into society and family bring catastrophic results.  This story will stay with me for a long time.  I found (as the blurb on the cover suggested) that I HAD to read it until it was finished, and anything else I read hereafter has a lot of measuring up to do!  This novel has just been selected as one of  the New York Times’  10 best books of the year, and shortlisted for this year’s Man Booker Prize:  rightly so.  ‘The Finkler Question’ was the eventual Booker winner;  I look forward to reading it, but ‘Room’ will be a very hard act to follow.  FIVE STARS.

TraitorTraitor, by Stephen Daisley

This is a novel about friendship, sure and true and everlasting, born in the carnage of battle and strengthened by terrible subsequent adversity.  There are no happy endings in ‘Traitor’ for its theme is an exploration of what is traitorous:  the betrayal of friendship or of one’s country?  David Monroe is a New Zealand soldier at Gallipoli;  he has already been mentioned in dispatches for his bravery at Chunuk Bair, but his life is changed forever by his meeting in the heat of bombardment with a Turkish Officer, a Doctor who is frantically trying to save the life of an Australian Digger – his enemy.  They are all victims of the next explosion;  the Australian dies and David, badly wounded by shrapnel, ends up being guard to the Turk Mahmoud, who has lost his foot and most of the fingers of one hand.  They bond with each other to the extent that David tries to help Mahmoud to escape, with disastrous results, especially for himself:  he is now regarded as a deserter and a traitor and undergoes terrible punishment, especially from men he formerly regarded as friends – they have no time for ‘conchies’.  He demonstrates his courage again and again as a stretcher bearer on the battlefields of France and Belgium, where he has been sent after his prison sentence, but he is never forgiven, then or after the war;  people don’t care to associate with him for consorting with the enemy, a murderer of ‘our boys at the front’. 
This is Mr. Daisley’s debut novel and it is a searing, powerful evocation of a time when ‘King and Country’ meant everything to those at home and to those young men who went to fight – until they encountered the dreadful theatre of war, experiencing first-hand the great divide between patriotism and the bloody reality of destruction.  It is a story of love in many forms, parental love – in David’s case, the lack of it – the love of mateship, romantic love and the love of the land.  Mr. Daisley has crafted a superb and poignant story with unforgettable characters, and a wonderfully accurate portrayal of a life and times now barely remembered in this new century.   His prose is beautiful and elegiac – and utterly compelling.  Highly recommended.

Wait for meWait for me!, by Deborah Devonshire

Deborah, Duchess of Devonshire, was the last child and youngest daughter of David Mitford, second Baron Redesdale and his wife Sydney.  Born in 1920, she was part of a family famous for its eccentricity – Sydney, known as Muv to her offspring, didn’t believe in sending girls off to school and educated them herself until they reached the age of eight;  then they were entrusted to a succession of governesses, some of whom were less than leading lights educationally speaking.  Lord Redesdale, called Farv, was unlucky in his financial investments (there were a succession of moves to smaller houses as the family fortunes waned) and delighted in being entirely unpredictable in his behavior, especially when his daughters brought friends home.  He was heard often to say  that he had only read one book, Jack London’s ‘White Fang’, and it was so excellent that it quite spoiled him for anything else, and he hadn’t read another  since!  This handsome pair produced a son and six daughters, all famed for their beauty, charm and intelligence:  Nancy achieved international prominence with her comic novels ( many of the characters based transparently on her family) and historical biographies, and Jessica’s essays, reviews and best-selling exposé of the funeral industry ‘The American Way of Death established her reputation as a writer of excellent satire, but it was the sisters’ politics which fascinated and enraged 30’s and 40’s society.  Diana, the most beautiful of the girls, married at the age of 18 the heir to the Guinness fortune, produced two sons then left him  after four years of marriage to become the mistress of Sir Oswald Mosely, leader of the British Fascists and great  admirer of Hitler;  she embraced her new lover’s politics as ardently as she loved him and when Mosely’s wife died, Diana and he were married in Berlin, in Hitler’s Drawing Room.  The fifth Mitford daughter, Unity, had already  spent a considerable time in Germany, a complete convert to the Nazi ideal,with the hope of eventually meeting Herr Hitler whom she patently adored:  miraculously for her, the meeting took place and a very close and worshipful friendship was formed with the Fuehrer.  Jessica, in the meantime, had embraced Communism with typical Mitford fervor and harshly decried her sisters’ extreme politics, though her own were just as radical for the times – in short, these were all singular women whose restless energy, joie de vivre and a self-confidence born of being high- aristocracy enabled them to make their mark indelibly on 20th. Century manners and mores.
In this charming memoir, Deborah (Debo) follows in her family’s wake, crying ‘Wait for me!’  As the youngest some of the cataclysmic events occurring to her sisters flew over her head, but as time went on, she understood more and became closer to her sisters as they proceeded through their lives and loves at a breakneck pace;  in fact, Debo (if one reads  between the lines) had some amorous adventures herself:  dropped names glitter like sequins on every page, not least a friendship with President Kennedy.  As we now know, he was friends with a lot of women, and while Debo may not have been a ‘friend’ in the biblical sense (one hopes!) it is telling that Jackie Kennedy gets nary a mention:  ‘Jack’ occupies a lot of pages! 
In spite of  the sisters’ disparate political views – Debo has always been staunchly and loudly conservative – what impressed me most about this lovely, witty backward look into a family history is the great love that they all had for each other;  personal and political differences notwithstanding :  could one possibly ask for more?  Highly recommended.     

Friday, 3 December 2010

Great reads for December 2010

Great reads for December

Ghost lightby Joseph O’Connor

When I began this book, I didn’t think I’d be able to continue with it;  I wasn’t in the mood for the unbearable poignancy of the first couple of chapters which set the scene for what happens to Molly Allgood, a once-famous actress using the stage name of Maire O’Neill.  How fortunate I am that I chided myself for my faint-heartedness and pressed on beyond the squalor and misery of Molly’s old age, to be utterly beguiled by her memories of her youth and beauty, and her once-in-a-lifetime love for John Millington Synge, the famous and controversial Irish playwright.  Synge was a co-founder with William Butler Yeats and Lady Augusta Gregory of the famous Abbey Theatre in Dublin and produced his works there until his premature death at the age of 37;  Molly and her older sister Sarah received their dramatic training there and both went on to fame and fortune in the early part of the twentieth century, Sarah making a name for herself in Hollywood and Molly becoming a notable stage actress.  Tragically, Molly cannot forget her reclusive and brilliant lover, and as her life enters its decline she sees him everywhere – in the mirror, on the street – and was that his voice just whispering behind her?  Mr. O’Connor recreates these real-life characters with superlative skill;  he is careful to stress that he has written a work of fiction, and profusely apologises to Synge scholars for the many errors and licence he has taken with dates and facts - all in the name of a good story -  but there is no denying the life and the breath he has given his protagonists.  In true Irish fashion, he can be the Master of Melancholy in one chapter, then in the next  he ambushes  the reader with a seduction scene that is side-splittingly funny.  Mr. O’Connor can wear the masks of Tragedy and Comedy with equal ease, and the elegance and musicality of his prose is a delight.  He ‘can make a glass eye cry’, or let the reader be ‘as happy as a threaded needle’.  What more could we ask?   FIVE STARS

Spies of the Balkansby Alan Furst

Costa Zannis is a Senior Police Officer in Salonika, Greece, in 1940.  World War 2 is underway and Hitler is massing his forces in the Balkans, ready to push south.  Costa is very good at his job;  he is a decent man, blessed with an empathy and  excellent judgement of his fellow citizens and their failings - but  Costa’s world has become a very dangerous place, and feels even more so when he is approached by a very rich lady, a German Jew, who wishes his assistance in smuggling Jews out of Berlin, where she lives with her husband, a high-ranking Wehrmacht officer.  So far, she is untouchable by the Gestapo – her husband is powerful  - but her friends are not;  she has the money to finance their flight, but not the contacts, until she hears of Costa and his very special network of friends and colleagues.  Thus begins Costa’s reluctant expansion of his talents;  from canny policeman to clandestine operative, for he cannot refuse her request for his help – no decent man could.  Mr. Furst takes the reader on a fascinating, suspenseful journey through the Balkan countries as the first Jews make their tentative way to Greece and safety;  he has a particular talent for establishing atmosphere and mood, essential elements in a spy story – BUT! – (and it’s a very big one) – in the latter half of the story Costa’s talents become known to others who require him to further the war effort  in a different, risky,  even more life-threatening way and though the novel’s tension should heighten at this point to an unbearable level the story suffers and the suspense starts to sag with the introduction of glamorous, beautiful Demetria , wife of a cruel shipping magnate.  It is love at first sight for hitherto down-to-earth and sensible Costa;  he falls for her like a blind roofer (which brings me to wonder cynically why no-one ever seems to fall in love at first  sight with a woman who has, say, a wall eye or is slightly mustachioed.  Demetria is also blonde and has a big bottom, but this is 1940:  big bottoms are IN).  The plot’s impetus suffers accordingly.  Having said that, ‘Spies of the Balkans’ is still an enormously entertaining read;  Mr. Furst is too clever a writer to produce a flop – it’s just not quite as good as his previous novels, in particular ‘The Spies of Warsaw’.  Read that one as well!

The Crime of Huey Dunstan, by James McNeish

 Huey Dunstan has murdered a man in a violent and frenzied attack;  his case is regarded as open-and-shut and despite a spirited defense from his counsel, he is sentenced to life imprisonment.  Dunstan is 23 years old, reserved, even withdrawn,  but regarded as a good man, respectful to authority and his elders and the last person to be considered capable of such a crime.  His counsel feels that there is more to the case than meets the eye and enlists the assistance of an old friend of his, Psychologist Charlie Chesney, to interview Huey, and see if he can prise his secrets from him, thus leading to an appeal and a retrial where the charge of murder could be reduced to manslaughter, with a defence of provocation.  Mr. McNeish is a most competent writer and presents his characters well, particularly ‘Ches’, who narrates the story -  and happens to be blind.  I have to confess that I found Ches’s daily struggles and compromises with his disability to be more fascinating than the crime itself, important though it is in light of current events:  thanks to the infamous Clayton Weatherston trial, where he would admit only to manslaughter not murder because he was ‘provoked’ into stabbing his girlfriend 216 times, the law of provocation as defence has now been abolished in NZ.  This law still applies in Mr. McNeish’s story, however, and he produces a satisfying courtroom drama with all the twists and turns that we would expect in such a case.  Because Ches is 82 when he begins the story I can’t expect him to be resurrected in a second book -  he is reminiscing, really, about a particularly intriguing case in the body of his life’s work – but that’s a shame:  the reader is the poorer for not reconnecting with Charlie Chesney, in his official capacity or otherwise, in the future.

Our Kind of Traitor, by John le Carré

Dima is a Russian gangster, and proud of it.  He is also an expert money-launderer for the Russian Mafia and has amassed huge wealth for them, and for himself – but a new young ‘Prince’ is coming to the fore in the Mafia Hierachy, and the Prince doesn’t like Dima;  Dima is too ‘Old-School’, he dwells too much on the old Vor code of Honour amongst thieves (and murderers) and after one last, biggest laundering operation – the opening of a new ‘respectable’ bank in the City of London – Dima and his family will be eliminated, as were several of his dear friends and colleagues already:  it’s time, thinks Dima,  to defect with all his secrets and sell them to his preferred country of asylum, Great Britain.  Yet again John Le Carré has crafted an impeccable story of secret service diplomacy, political corruption and life-and-death back-room dealings;  his characters are superb,  almost Dickensian in range and description and utterly, utterly believable.  Mr. Le Carré has the best eye and ear for accents and body language in the business, and his wit, interspersed even at times of great suspense in this beautifully plotted story, is delicious.  This is the master at his best:  FIVE STARS.

 Every Last One, by Anna Quindlen

The Lathams are your typical upper middle-class suburban American family:  father Glen is a respected Ophthalmologist;  Mary-Beth his wife is content if not wildly happy with her comfortable role as his consort and mother to their three bright children, beautiful Ruby and twins Alex and Max;  she has her own little side business designing gardens for her neighbours – everything in the Latham family garden should be rosy, but it isn’t.  There are secrets in this family;  damaging secrets:  14 year old Max suffers from anxiety and depression and Ruby is a recovering anorexic.  There are some who would regard these illnesses as typical 21st century diseases;  that may be so, but family suffering is not lessened because many children are now bound by such commonality:  the Lathams try to respond  to and overcome their problems with as much love and good common-sense as they can muster – until a tragedy, more unbelievable  and horrifying than they can ever imagine overtakes them all.  Ms Quindlen, in her spare, lucid prose guides us through the unspeakable events that change the Lathams’ lives forever.  She tackles the core subject, grief, with great delicacy and skill;  in fact she writes so intimately of her characters that I wondered if she had suffered a similar tragedy and used this story as a catharsis:  regardless, she has produced a novel of great insight, empathy and intelligence.  This is a harrowing read, but it’s also a story of courage, familial love and most importantly, hope.  Highly recommended.

DVD’s       DVD’S       DVD’S       DVD’S       DVD’S       DVD’S

Check out the many wonderful new titles in your library, donated by The Friends of Horowhenua Libraries, resourceful and tireless fundraisers Supreme:  thanks to their latest efforts all library users can enjoy a huge range of movies, from Documentaries to mini-series, Art house films to mainstream Blockbusters,  all for a very reasonable rental (Video-Ezy, eat your hearts out!)  Below is a selection of movies I have watched and loved over the past few weeks – and for those of you who don’t like subtitles:  live dangerously!  Don’t miss out on some great movies because you don’t like to read words at the bottom of the screen – you read them in books WITHOUT the pictures, don’t you?  Same difference, as far as I’m concerned.  Happy viewing.

Tuesday, 2 November 2010

Great reads for November 2010

ONE GOOD DOG, by Susan Wilson

One good dogI have been reading a lot of very mediocre stuff lately;  consequently it was a pleasure, a DELIGHT, to come across this lovely story by Susan Wilson.  This is her sixth novel and the first I have read – it’s strongly reminiscent of Garth Stein’s wonderful ‘The Art of Racing in the Rain’ in that part of the story is narrated by the Good Dog of the title, but there the similarity ends, for Chance is very different to Stein’s Enzo;  in fact he fancies himself as a bit of a dude, an ex-fighting dog and a mighty street warrior with pit-bull ancestry  – until he ends up in the pound on Death Row.  He is rescued, albeit reluctantly, by Adam March, who because of a careless promise he made, needs to find a dog as a substitute pet for a homeless man he doles out lunch to everyday  at a shelter for indigents.  Adam, by his own standards has hit the bottom of the barrel, too:  he is a former top executive of a huge corporation who loses everything –carefully sculpted wife, spoilt daughter, several homes, the bulk of his money and social status – when he strikes his P.A in a fit of uncontrollable rage. He is sentenced by a spectacularly unsympathetic judge to a year’s community service at the shelter.  ‘You’re an arrogant bastard who needs to learn some humility’, says the judge, and this is what this book is about:  learning to be humble, learning to redeem oneself, learning to make real friends, and learning to love again.  It’s definitely a feel-good novel and in the hands of a lesser author these themes would seem chintzy and old-hat, but Ms Wilson’s considerable writing talents chronicle Chance and Adam’s experiences together in entirely credible fashion.  FIVE STARS.


The eye of the red TsarMeet Finnish-born Inspector Pekkala,  the latest hero  in a long line of thrillers about  flawed but brilliant detectives – but here’s the difference:  Pekkala was formerly Tsar Nicholas the second’s most singular and trusted detective, dubbed ‘The Emerald Eye’ and given carte blanche in his investigations – until the revolution and fall of the Romanovs.  Pekkala’s fall from favour is equally steep;  he makes an unfortunate impression on Comrade Joseph Stalin and ends up barely surviving for the next decade in the gulags of Siberia  - until Stalin requires his unique talents for investigation.  He promises Pekkala his freedom if he will track down and deliver the murdered Tsar’s fabled gold reserves – for the Glory of the Revolution and the good of the Great People of the Soviet Union, naturally!  A number of books have already chronicled the Romanovs’ last months before they were shot to death at the Ipatiev house in Ekaterinburg in 1918, most notably ‘The House of Special Purpose’ by John Boyne, and ‘The Kitchen Boy’ by  Robert Alexander;  both books show better craftsmanship, but what Sam Eastland lacks in technique he makes up for with sound facts and solid research, fast-paced action, plenty of suspense and believable characterization – the basic requirements for all successful thrillers.  This is his debut novel:  I look forward to # 2.

WENCHby Dolen Perkins-Valdez

WenchDespite its Bodice-Ripper title, Ms Perkins-Valdez’s debut novel is anything but – rather, it is the second damning account of slavery that I have read this year; more subtle, perhaps, than Andrea Levy’s ‘The Long Song’ (recently shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize) but having the same horrific impact:  how can people who purport to be civilized visit so much inhumanity on their fellow men?
‘Wench’ is first set in 1852 at Tawawa House, a fashionable resort in Ohio, popular with Southern gentlemen who take the waters every year, go hunting and fishing – but leave their wives behind, bringing instead female slaves who service their every need.  Four of these women become friends and look forward to the annual renewal of contact;  their individual histories  graphically demonstrate blatant cruelty or the same evil disguised as kind and loving treatment:  Lizzie’s master professes to love her;  she is his ‘true wife’ and has given him two children of whom he is particularly proud, especially as his white wife is barren, but he refuses her only wish that he give the children their freedom:  they are his lawful property, and as such he is entitled to sell them if he wishes.  Mawu belongs to Mr. Tip, whom she hates and bravely stands up to at every opportunity – she even makes an escape attempt, only to be brought back by the slavecatchers, stripped naked and whipped by Mr. Tip while the other slaves are forced to watch ‘as a warning’.  He then sodomises her and her humiliation is complete.  Reenie is owned by ‘Sir’, her late father - and Master’s son:  he uses her whenever he pleases, then ‘loans’ her to the resort manager.  Each woman must deal with her own tragedies as best they can;  sometimes they make the right choices but for all but one of these good women, slavery is the only option:  they dare not leave their children.  Their only hope that life may some day be different is that the first rumours of Abolition have started to surface;  indeed, Ohio, where they ‘vacation’ every year with their masters is a Free State – could this mean that more and more people are willing to protest against the appalling outrage of slavery?  Emancipation does not come until the South has fought a bloody and unsuccessful Civil War in defense of its slave-based economy;  meantime, the ‘wenches’ must remain strong in the face of their thralldom, and resolute in the hope that the next generation will know a better life.  Ms. Perkins-Valdez has produced a superb story, moving and beautifully written.  FIVE STARS                                                                                           

FEVER DREAMby Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child

Fever dreadI hardly dare introduce yet another Brilliant but Flawed super-detective to readers, but Aloysius X. L. Pendergast is such a singular invention of the above authors that, after reading the latest in a long line of Pendergast adventures, I feel I must give this SuperHero some publicity.  Pendergast is an FBI Special Agent, but that is the least of his talents:  he has two PHD’s (only two? you say); he’s a master psychologist and manipulator of the human psyche;   he has an exhaustive knowledge and appreciation of the arts and literature;  he is an accomplished forensic scientist;  he is immensely wealthy, the last survivor of  a Brilliant but Flawed family of old New Orleans aristocracy ;  he is a driver with Formula One capabilities;  he is a martial arts expert;   he has ‘preternaturally fast’ (a favourite Preston/Child adjective) reflexes, and he is a crack shot – naturally. In fact, what Pendergast doesn’t know about weaponry – about ANYTHING – isn’t worth knowing!  Lastly, he is tall and thin, pale as death (he always dresses in immaculate black suits which give him the appearance of a wealthy undertaker) and he has a disconcerting, silvery stare.  Bet you haven’t met anyone like that in the Supermarket lately.  Oh, I nearly forgot to mention (and how could I have forgotten such a villain!) Diogenes Pendergast, Aloysius’s equally Brilliant but Well and Truly Flawed criminally insane brother:  he has chosen the paths of evil, due to a terrible childhood incident which drove him to madness.
 ‘Fever Dream’ is the ninth Pendergast novel, and, incredible as all his adventures may be, Pendergast and his associates ruthlessly command the cowering reader’s attention from beginning to end:  there’s enough blood and gore to float a boat;  corpses litter the series’ pages like old bones;  Pendergast’s powers of deduction are repeatedly flaunted and effortlessly honed á la Holmes and Watson by using his dimmer associates as sounding-boards;  in fact, it all sounds like utter silliness -  BUT…..  Messrs.Preston and Child’s scholarship and research are irrefutable (they are themselves Academics) , Pendergast is made human by exhibiting some very irritating  failings, and the various supporting characters are well-drawn and credible.  Well, SOMEONE has to be, don’t they?  In the forthcoming book # 10, we are told, our hero journeys to a shooting lodge in Scotland, intent on some R & R with a dear friend who turns out to be exactly the opposite – will he prevail?  Will he survive?  Well, what do YOU think?   In short (which I haven’t been),  the action’s torrid, the prose is florid, but all these books are serious fun -  trash of the very highest quality.      

Tuesday, 5 October 2010

Great Reads fpr October 2010

The long song, by Andrea Levy

Everyone has read of the evils of slavery in America and the war that was fought between the States to emancipate its victims, but less has been written about the equal injustice perpetrated by the British Empire, who transported slaves from Africa to harvest the huge sugar plantations they established in the Caribbean.  Andrea Levy in her third novel, takes us back to the times of her forebears in early 19thcentury Jamaica, a time of complete dominance by the white planters, a time of regarding their slaves as livestock, to be traded, sold or disposed of any way they saw fit – until that same ‘livestock’ rose up in bloody revolt, leading eventually to King William 1V declaring an end to the British Slave Trade.  This is Ms Levy’s first excursion into history;  previously she has written tellingly and well of contemporary race relations in Britain;  now she explores the rich and violent path of her ancestors in Jamaica, treating us to a life as seen through the eyes of Miss July, a house slave in the Big House of the Amity Plantation.  At the end of her life, Miss July is writing her memoir at the behest of her son, and what a story it is, full of humour, cruelty, deprivation and great sorrow, for Miss July has been used badly – and has badly used people in return.  Regardless, she is sly (she tells lies!), funny and utterly irrepressible;  she is an unforgettable singer of ‘The Long Song’, as she calls her memoir:  long may her music sound.

The lion and Wildfire, by Nelson de Mille

 It’s always a pleasure to recommend a book by Nelson de Mille - he is a consummate master of the perfect airport and beach read;   his books are page-turners par excellence.  He can get a little long-winded sometimes, but he’s ALLOWED.  He produces so much high quality suspense in his writing that he can be forgiven for occasionally flagging in pace or getting bogged down with more detail than his readers  think they  need.  In his latest book ‘The Lion’, sequel to ‘The Lion’s Game’ and the previous ‘Wild Fire’, Mr. de Mille has no problems at all with the tempo as he  again treats us to his danger-prone and irreverent protagonist John Corey, Special Contract Agent (after various misadventures with the NYPD) for the FBI.  John’s a bit of a maverick;  bad guys seem to walk into his innocent fists often;  he has been known to say ‘Who, me?’ when various villains fall unconscious (or even dead) at his feet:  in short he treads a very fine line between permissible force and police brutality – not to mention insubordination - but he’s just the man to have onside against the most feared Islamic terrorist of them all, The Lion, back again to wreak death and destruction on long- suffering post 9/11 New York.  Mr. de Mille is known for his impeccable and thorough research – at no time do we feel that we must suspend belief in the plot and its fascinating characters  – until Mr. Corey ‘inadverdently’ causes another villain to bite the dust.  And our Hero proves that he is indeed a well-rounded personality,  for his daily existence has elements of the mundane from time to time.  Normal life intervenes when his wife suggests that they go wine-tasting at the weekend:  in his mind he replies ‘Wine tasting?  WINE TASTING? What kind of crap idea is that?!’  In reality he says’ Darling, what a great idea, let’s do it.’  Proof, if we ever needed it, that Mr. de Mille is intimately familiar with real life situations as well as death-defying suspense.  What a good writer he is, and how well he deserves his huge readership.

The invisible bridge, by Julie Orringer   

This is a wonderful story.  It has been a rare privilege to read such rich and beautiful prose, to be swept up and carried along by the relentless tide of history -  even though we know the terrible outcome, for Ms. Orringer has written a novel of the Holocaust.  This is a risky subject on which to write as everyone knows  of the heinous crimes of the second world war, the extermination of millions of Jews, and the sheer tragedy visited upon families and generations yet to come, but the author succeeds admirably because of the strength and believability of her characters.  The novel starts in 1937, when Hungarian student Andras Levi wins a scholarship to attend the Ecole Speciale, a venerable school of Architecture in Paris.  His life and that of his brothers Tibor and Matyas are chronicled;  their hopes, dreams and ambitions;  their love affairs and eventual marriages;  then the agonizing privations they suffer as part of Hungary’s Jewish ‘Labour Force’, cannon fodder as the expendable front line of Hungary’s Army fighting for Germany against the Allies.  The war years are predictably horrendous, not only for the unimaginable loss of beloved family, but the destruction of entire cities and lifestyles, bombed out of existence.  How could anything ever be resurrected from such annihilation?   Despite the seriousness of the subject, Ms. Orringer has not written a tragedy;  rather it is a compelling story of Life in all its guises; heart-wrenching, comic, dramatic, powerful, triumphant and moving – which is what life can be for all of us .  FIVE STARS.

The adamantine palace and King of the crags, by Stephen Deas   

Here be dragons – lots of them!  For lovers of fantasy fiction, Stephen Deas is the new Flavour of the Month, and for those of us who previously decried such nonsense (like myself) – well, we’ll all have to eat our words, for Mr. Deas has effortlessly captured our attention, hearts and minds with the sheer brio and excitement of his story-telling, and he won’t release us until he finishes the series – however long that may be.  Not that I mind, for he can tell A Story-and-a-Half:  The Realms are a loose federation of Kingdoms who depend on their dragons for their power;  bred, guarded and nurtured by their keepers, they are ridden by the aristocracy, used for hunting and warfare and kept docile by the Alchemists with a mysterious potion added to their food;  without it they would return to their natural state, uncontrollable and terrifying, able to destroy armies and turn cities to ash – and one of them has escaped.  The leadership of the Realms is also ready for change:  enter Prince Jehal, power-hungry and unscrupulous, ready to murder if he has to – and he does, reaping unexpected and unwanted consequences.  In fact the Prince, nasty as he is, gains the reader’s sneaky sympathy by the end of the second book of the series – what WAS he thinking?  Couldn’t he see the danger coming?  The fool better smarten up his act in Book 3!  And so on.  In other words, a complete entertainment, totally addictive with great characters – and those dragons.  Oh, those dragons:  I’d love one for a pet, if I had a place big enough to keep it (and several dairy herds to feed it).  Perhaps I could do a deal to rent the Waitomo caves?

Tuesday, 6 July 2010

Great reads for July 2010

Stone’s Fall, by Iain Pears

John Stone, an immensely wealthy and powerful Industrialist has fallen to his death from the second- floor window of his home – everyone believes it to be an accident except his wife, who knows of his aversion to heights and his care never to be near an upper-floor window: she is convinced he was murdered and turns to a young journalist for help in her quest for answers. Thus begins one of the most intriguing mysteries I have read in years, told in a series of flash-backs which cover several fascinating periods of 19th century history. No-one is what they seem, particularly Stone’s lovely wife Elizabeth, an elegant, titled and fiercely intelligent woman who bewitches effortlessly every man she meets, including the hapless journalist. Her origins are cloaked in mystery; is she truly Hungarian Nobility – or could she be a clever guttersnipe, whoring her way to a position of great power? Iain Pears draws us inexorably into the convoluted pathways of his plot; he is a master of lucidity, and offers a fascinating study into the nature of finance and the great global power of money as a backdrop to the machinations of his unforgettable characters, both real and fictional, for the consequences of Stone’s fall could also lead to the fall of the European banking systems – and Governments. FIVE STARS

Noah’s Compass, by Anne Tyler

Liam Pennywell is 61 years old and has just been ‘downsized’ from his job teaching a Grade five boys’ class at a second rate Baltimore Private School; he’s a widower from his first marriage, divorced from his second wife, and regarded with tolerant exasperation by her and their three daughters. He’s not exactly a loser, but loserdom is closing in fast, especially when he downsizes himself into a cheaper apartment in a poorer area, then is attacked and concussed by a burglar. (He forgot to lock his door.) The memory-loss of the event distresses him more than his family thinks it should; why does he try so obsessively to recall a traumatic experience that any rational person would strive to forget? Pulitzer Prize-winning Author Tyler explores Liam’s search for his memory and himself, the young philosophy student so full of hope and promise, with great subtlety and wit, peopling this gentle, funny novel with characters and situations that we can all readily recognize, and the realization that no-one can remain a spectator to the drama of their own lives; one has to become involved eventually, whether they like it or not! This was a great pleasure to read, as are all of Ms. Tyler’s novels.

Wednesday, 3 March 2010


by Julia Kuttner

Pavel and I, by Dan Vyleta

Pavel and IBerlin, Christmas 1946:  the once-proud capital of Hitler’s Reich is vanquished, bombed to smithereens , its inhabitants barely surviving in one of the coldest winters on record, and reduced to dog-eat-dog methods of survival.  The narrator of this story recounts how Pavel Richter, supposedly a decommissioned GI and language expert who decided to stay on in the ruined city, becomes unwittingly involved by his best friend in the murder of a mobster who has a secret, information that the British and Russians desperately want.  An almost farcical element is introduced by the fact that the mobster is a dwarf;  there is a nod to Dickens with the introduction of a cast of street waifs ruled by an Artful Dodger-like character;  the arch-villain is florid, torrid, hugely corpulent and most satisfyingly brilliant at crossing his I’s and dotting his T’s, and lastly, Pavel’s eventual love-interest is Sonia, The Whore with the Heart of Gold, terribly used and humiliated by the war, and willing to do anything to survive, like war victims everywhere.  Sonia is drawn to Pavel’s old-fashioned aristocratic air, his courtliness and intellectual gifts – he could never kill anyone except as a combat soldier, for any reason at all, least of all in cold blood – or could he?  As Vyleta’s wonderful debut novel draws to a close, we realize that Pavel is much more than the sum of his parts, and very different from surface impressions:  whose side is he on?  Who is giving him orders?  The reader, like the characters, is inexorably drawn into the enigma that is Pavel, and what a satisfying, beautifully written mystery it is.  Highly recommended.

Half-Broke Horses, by Jeannette Walls

Jeannette Walls, long-time journalist and already well-known for her celebrated memoir ‘The Glass Castle’, wanted to write a memoir of her maternal Grandmother, Lily Casey Smith , but Lily turned out to be such a larger-than-life character, so singular and indomitable that writing of her in the third person fell flat on the page;  turning her story, all true, into a first-person narrative and therefore a novel, was the only way that Lily could leap satisfyingly off the print and into the reader’s mind and heart.  The prose is matter-of-fact, without frills, chronicling Lily’s life from the age of six in the early 1900’s when she helped her father break horses;  how her younger brother Buster got the only long-term formal education ‘because he was a boy and he would inherit the ranch’, whilst she and her sister were educated by Dad, who was well-read but had his own radical ideas about politics, government and civilization in general.  When she was thirteen she was allowed to board at a mission school for six months, but was sent home because Dad had spent her tuition money on eight Great Danes, from whom he was going to make a killing when he bred them;  sadly, his next-door neighbor shot them as soon as they ventured onto his land, thinking they would kill his stock.  Lily, naturally, was bitter that her tuition money disappeared so quickly, but was eventually dispatched at the age of fifteen to a tiny settlement in Northern Arizona as its teacher.  The First World War had started;  able-bodied men were enlisting;  women were moving into the factories, so she was offered a job as a relief schoolteacher at Red Lake, five hundred miles from her home, a journey she undertook on horseback without a backward glance.  It took her a month, and this reader is still in awe of her accomplishment, written about not as a huge, brave undertaking, but just as a statement of fact:  this was how it was ‘back in the day’.  In the course of Lily’s life she learned to drive a car, fly a plane, manage a huge ranch in Arizona with her second husband (the first was a bigamous, low-down  no-gooder), and led the kind of life that makes us city-slickers quake at the mere thought of the hard work, hardship and privation.  She was a woman of huge heart, unshakeable conviction, great humour and rigid opinions, particularly about her daughter’s choice of a husband:  ‘You need a steady man.  He ain’t steady.  What are you going to do for a honeymoon?’
‘Oh, I don’t know – we’ll go where the road takes us.’
  ‘Well honey, you’re in for a ride.’  And eventually had to wave them off as ‘they took off off up the street, heading out into open country like a couple of half-broke horses.’


Remarkable creaturesThis is a novel, based on factual events and singular women, who dared at the beginning of the 19th century to challenge male domination of science and paleontology, not because they wanted to change the accepted order of things, but because their lives as spinsters made them courageous and different, emboldened by their shared curiosity and awe at the wondrous fossils they uncovered on England’s Southwest coast at Lyme Regis.  This is a story of a unique and precious friendship, that of a crossing of class barriers;  Elizabeth Philpot, upper class, genteel but comparatively poor – until she meets Mary Anning, ‘a working girl’, doomed to subsist at the bottom of the heap, until her remarkable gift of hunting fossils or ‘curies’ as they were named, brings her success and fame of a kind, but not the happiness she desires.  Tracy Chevalier blesses us yet again with another beautifully crafted story in the spirit of ‘Girl with a Pearl Earring’, the prose lucid, clear as a bell, and just as magical.  As always, she brings to life with great verve the times and the historical figures of which she writes , and as always, we are reluctant to reach the end of the tale.  A beautiful story, superbly written.

As the Earth turns Silver, by Alison Wong

As the earth turns silverMs. Wong’s debut novel is a story of morals and prejudice at the start of the 20th century in  Wellington, New Zealand;  prejudice against ‘the yellow peril’, Chinese immigrants allowed to enter the country to work – but not to bring their families, unless they could pay £100.0.0. poll tax, an enormous sum and virtually impossible to accomplish within any acceptable length of time.  It is a story of inflexible moral standards, particularly towards women and what was regarded at that time as ‘respectable’;  the fact that one’s husband beat a woman black and blue was to be expected and silently endured.  If the husband drank away all the family’s money that was also no cause for complaint:  the man was ruler in his own home;  the king of his castle.  Double standards were the norm.  This story exposes the hypocrisy of the times, and recounts with great lyricism and subtlety a forbidden love which must end in tragedy.  The author has researched widely and well to recount some of the signal events of the times;  events which, jaded even as we are, still have the power to shock us with their savagery.  Ms. Wong is a poet and her mastery of the language and the beauty of her prose are to be savoured and enjoyed.  A very fine first novel.  I look forward to the next.


White Tiger, Red Phoenix, Blue Dragon, Earth to Hell, by Kylie Chan.

Red PhoenixThese four novels based on Chinese classical mythology will never win any prestigious literary prizes:  they are brash, predictably plotted and blood flows in torrents – BUT! (as we know, there’s always a but) - Australian Kylie Chan has hit upon a winning formula, skillfully combining modern kung-fu action with  themes of warfare of the most savage kind amongst the ancient Chinese Gods, all recounted by a very exceptional (well, of course!) Australian girl who happens accidentally upon all the Heaven and Hell conflict by applying for a Nanny’s position in a very rich Hong Kong Chinese household.  Over the course of the novels, Emma Donohoe becomes imbued with semi-magic powers herself and battles the forces of evil with a fine supporting cast of Gods, demi-Gods, dragons and demons (and I’m here to tell you that the Demon King is pretty hot stuff!) - but even the ‘good’ Gods are quarrelsome, promiscuous and can’t be trusted an inch. There is a fine vein of irreverent, outrageous ocker humour permeating the series, and while we know that the old Kylie is about as serious as Pauline Hanson’s last attempts to change the face of Australian politics, it must be cheerfully admitted that each book is a breathless page-turner.  Ms Chan’s novels are FUN.

Anything by John Connolly!!

The Reapers
Much to my irritation (because I don’t like reading things out of sequence) I realized after reading ‘The Lovers’, my introduction to the novels of John Connolly, that this book was the latest in a series, the main protagonist of whom is Private Detective Charlie Parker, a man of dark secrets and huge sorrows;  completely fearless, which is just as well as he is a magnet for every kind of evil imaginable.   That he manages to vanquish all his enemies (with the aid of some unique supporting characters) is recounted by Connolly in entirely credible fashion:  each novel has exactly the right amount of suspense, menace, fear and violence to keep the pages turning at a furious rate.  Best of all, Mr. Connolly is a superbly elegant writer, scaring us silly in one chapter, then making us chortle in the next.  His one-liners should be memorized and repeated as often as possible.  He is a master of the thriller genre;  long may he continue to thrill!

Tuesday, 5 January 2010

Great reads for January 2010

By Julia Kuttner

Black water rising, by Attica Locke

Black water rising
Attica Locke’s Debut novel introduces a bold and talented addition to the ranks of black American writers.  A former screenwriter, Ms Locke weaves into her story racial paranoia in the Texas of the 80’s, black activism and a murder mystery in which her main protagonist Jay, a struggling young black lawyer about to become a father for the first time, becomes a reluctant witness.  There are several backstories,  most notably a port oilworkers’ strike and machinations by evil Oil Barons, but  Ms Locke is adept at keeping her many characters in line. Some of them are very good, particularly Jay’s white ex-girlfriend from their college protest days, now the newly-elected Mayor of Houston and a wearer of power-suits and coiffed blonde hair as stiff as a warrior’s helmet, a far cry from the days of bare feet and beads.  Corruption and activism, murder and betrayal – these are not new themes in contemporary fiction, but Attica Locke (named by her parents for the 1971 uprising in Attica NY State prison) brings a freshness and a brave new voice to former times.

The brightest star in the sky, by Marilyn Keyes

The brightest star in the sky
Once again Marilyn Keyes produces a charming, hilarious page-turner, delighting the reader with her wonderful Irish wit, but as always there are very serious themes hubble-bubbling away in the background.  Ms Keyes’ characters in her previous books are flawed individuals, buffeted by life, and the same applies here;  we get to know the occupants of a block of flats in Dublin – none of whom have socialized with each other, until crises occur.  They are all linked together and considered as candidates for parenthood by a wee soul itself, waiting to take up residence in the most deserving future mum;  there’s a count-down and much suspense until (predictably) the most unpredictable parents are chosen.  As a literary device I found this most endearing, and salute Ms Keyes for providing us all yet again with so much entertainment when she struggles mightily herself with life in the real world. ‘Tis’s a broth of a book, so it is!

Parrot and Olivier in America, by Peter Carey

Parrot and Olivier in AmericaRich, Dickensian and picaresque, Peter Carey’s latest novel is a delight, a masterly tale of an unlikely relationship between Olivier de Garmont, the scion of a noble French family, and the older, lowly son of an English printer, John Larrit, called Parrot because he is able to mimic perfectly the accent and language of anyone he hears.  Olivier is in mortal danger for fomenting dissent and sedition in post-revolutionary Paris, and it is decided by his family to send him to America, out of harm’s way with Parrot as his secret protector, coerced and bribed into being his reluctant general factotum, but also instructed to spy on Olivier by his mother.  De Garmont’s character is loosely based on Alexis de Toqueville, the French Aristrocrat who journeyed throughout America and produced an account of the mores and customs of the New Order in the New World.  The cachet of de Garmont’s noble birth allows him automatic entrée to the budding salons of the new society, but it is not known if de Toqueville had a manservant similar to Parrot, who abhors Olivier’s utter lack of practicality and wishes constantly that he were elsewhere – regardless, after many shared experiences and misadventures they develop for each other a mutual respect and dependence:  Olivier’s mother, the Comtesse need worry no more about her sickly, woolgathering son:  Parrot, that conniving, opportunistic adventurer, is also steadfast and true;  he will always be there (reluctantly!) for his aristocratic friend.  A Great Read, indeed.

Family album, by Penelope Lively

Seldom has the disintegration of a family been so lyrically but mercilessly portrayed than in Penelope Lively’s latest novel:  the wonderful façade of familial love and unity, six jolly and talented children lovingly nurtured and adored by Alison, the great Earth Mother, Charles, the erudite and charming father, and Ingrid, au pair extraordinaire, is contained within Allersmead, a charming, ramshackle but commodious Edwardian home in a good suburb - ‘room for everyone, even a dear old dog!’ cries Alison, all the while wondering why, when the children have grown up, they rarely come to visit.  Needless to say, there is a secret in this house:  everyone knows about it but the siblings don’t discuss it unless they have to, and certainly never with their parents.  Ms Lively has created  a little masterpiece of what lies unsaid in many family dramas;  male aloofness, feminine desperation and blighted expectations:  family dynamics have never been portrayed more superbly, or with such tenderness.  Highly recommended.


The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins    Young Adults

This book has just been read by an Old Adult, and I’m so glad I did!  What a no-holds-barred, barreling along at 100mph, heart-in-the-mouth story, a page-turner par excellence, and I am absolutely thrilled to announce that Ms Collins has written a sequel:  I’m hugging myself in anticipation!  It’s not easy to summarise the plot, except to say that in the near future a huge civil war has been fought in North America between the States:  the victor has redrawn all the boundaries into 12 Districts and those conquered areas must pay tribute.  Every year, as an entertainment for the masses (akin to the lions and Christians in the Coliseum) an enormous televised reality contest is organized:  two young representatives from each District are chosen to compete to the death against each other for prizes of unprecedented wealth and lifelong prestige – and permanent food supplies.  Many of the conquered Districts toiling for the victors are held in slavery on subsistence rations, so they are at a disadvantage before they start – those who are better fed are stronger.  The main protagonists, Katniss and Peeta, are from District twelve, the poorest represented area;  what happens to them is brutal, spine-tingling and always suspenseful.  What a treat it is to know that such high quality fiction is being written for this important Young Adult market, and how smug am I for thinking I’m not too old to appreciate it!

Out stealing horses, by Per Petterson

Out stealing horsesThe Times Literary Supplement judged this novel to be one of the best books of the Decade.  Written in prose as stark and beautiful as the Norwegian landscape, Mr. Petterson tells a tale of families, what keeps them together and what drives them apart, as the book’s narrator Trond, an elderly widower, surveys the memories of his boyhood just after the war.  After much reflection and self-examination he solves at last some of the mysteries connected with his final summer holiday at the age of fifteen with his beloved father, a partisan and war-time member of the Norwegian Underground.  Unbeknownst to Trond, his father is about to leave the family for the neighbour’s wife and this betrayal will destroy both families permanently, as does a tragic accident in which a child dies.  These two shattering events are the fulcrum on which the story revolves, and Trond’s elegiac journey back to boyhood is masterfully conveyed.  One reviewer said that Petterson makes each sentence do the work of ten:  there can be no truer or greater praise.  ‘Out Stealing Horses’ thoroughly deserves the Times Literary Supplement’s accolade.