Thursday, 2 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.

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