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.

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