Tuesday, 13 December 2011


by Julia Kuttner

The Conductor, by Sarah Quigley

the conductorThe Siege of Leningrad has earned its place in 20th century history as one of the most horrifying events of the Second World War.  Much has been written to record a great city’s descent into starvation, death, and the barbarism that desperate citizens visited upon each other in their efforts to stay alive.  Leningrad, the City of Ghosts:  bombed and strafed night and day by the Luftwaffe and hammered mercilessly by the German troops on its borders, it is a miracle that there were still people alive and sane at the end of the siege, more than 800 days after it began.
Sarah Quigley ‘s novelized account of the Siege, and the reaction to it by the city’s cultural elite stands alone;  it’s more than just a story of the composition of a Symphony by Dimitri Shostakovich, his 7th, called the Leningrad Symphony, his evocation of the horrors of war and his attempts to make sense and beauty of an ugly world;  it’s also a powerful and compelling tribute to the courage, tenacity and willpower of a group of starving musicians of the Leningrad Radio Orchestra, led with iron resolve by the Conductor Karl Eliasberg.  A fellow student of the Conservatoire with Shostakovich, he could never hope to aspire to similar greatness, instead having to employ his more workmanlike talents to lead  the second-string orchestra of Leningrad,  perpetually battling his contradictory  feelings of envy for always being on the periphery of the elite social circle surrounding Shostakovich, and his true admiration for his genius.
It took this reader at least a quarter of the novel to engage with Ms. Quigley’s characters;  initially I felt that they were two-dimensional and forced, but as the story progresses and she finds her wonderful rhythm the events are revealed with a stark beauty and terrible clarity that nails the reader to the page;  there’s no escape from the horror and  tragedy besetting the Conductor (when the country’s leaders order Eliasberg and his orchestra to perform Shostakovich’s newly completed 7th Symphony to boost the morale of the people, there are only 14 of his original musicians left alive – the rest have starved to death), he must find anyone who has the breath to blow a horn, and a huge reserve of determination within himself to complete the task – and survive. 
When Ms Quigley writes of music, the SOUND of it, she makes beautiful music herself;  In my reading experience there has been only one other writer who could do the same, and that was Anne Patchett in ‘Bel Canto’. What a singular gift this  is, and how fortunate we are to enjoy it.  As an added bonus, this book comes with an audio CD of Shostakovich’s Leningrad Symphony – what a delight to listen to the music whilst reading the book.

11.22.63, by Stephen King

stephen king

Stephen King has produced an astonishing body of work during the course of his career – 52 novels at last count – and all involved to a greater or lesser degree with fantasy, the supernatural and outright horror:  this time he decides to explore time travel, and the consequences of going back to alter cataclysmic events in world history.  What would happen, say, if someone was able to return to 1963 – and prevent the assassination of President John F. Kennedy by Lee Harvey Oswald?
Maine English teacher Jake Epping is provided with the opportunity to do just that in 2011, through the existence of a time portal in an old diner soon to be removed to make way for a national chain store.  He is introduced to this phenomenon by the terminally ill manager of the diner and begins his mission very reluctantly, first trying out a ‘dummy run’ of going back to 1958 to alter the fate of a person very dear to him, the janitor at the school in which he teaches.  To anyone who grew up in the 50’s, Mr. King’s version of those years is solid and sound;  his ear for idiom and his eye for detail is as sharp and funny as always and, as always, he can build suspense and dread within the fluttering heart of any reader with effortless ease.
This book covers a lot of emotional and historical ground;  it’s a whopper in size, feeling and scope, and it poses some fascinating questions, including what state the world would be in if Kennedy HAD survived his assassination – would the Vietnam war have really been avoided, and hundreds of thousands of lives saved – or would something even worse have happened, because as Jake finds out more than once, history is obdurate:  it doesn’t like to be tampered with, and will throw up many obstacles in the path of anyone who will try to do just that.  This is an exceptional story from a very fine storyteller.  Highly recommended.   

Wouldn’t it be presumptuous – but fun! -  to have a Horowhenua Library Best Reads of 2011?  After all, it’s that time of year when all the august publications –  TheNew York Times, Time magazine (and don’t forget The Listener!) et al present their lists of the crème de la crème of contemporary writing.  Well, a cat may look at a king, so I shall take it upon myself to compile my very own highly subjective list of the best of  the titles  I reviewed for the Library for 2011.

1.       Agaat, by Marlene Van Niekerk
2.       The Tiger’s Wife, by Tea Obreht
3.       The Passage, by Justin Cronin
4.       The Wake of Forgiveness, by Bruce Machart
5.       Swamplandia, by Karen Russell
6 & 7 Sea of Poppies and River of Smoke, by Amitav Ghosh
8.       Hokitika Town, by Charlotte Randall
9.       La Rochelle’s Road, by Tanya Moir
10.    The Larnachs, by Owen Marshall
11.    A Visit from the Goon Squad, by Jennifer Egan
12.    The Last Werewolf, by Glen Duncan 
13.    The Conductor, by Sarah Quigley
14.    11.22.63, by Stephen King
I f anyone requires more detail (and my usual verbosity) about any of the above titles, just scroll down;  they are all below in  various monthly sections.  And I’d like to say this:  isn’t it great that we have a library that punches waaay above its weight, providing us with such excellent reading choices.  Levin is fortunate indeed.  Happy New Year to all. 

Tuesday, 15 November 2011



by Julia Kuttner

The Last Werewolf, by Glen Duncan

Last werewolf‘It’s official,’ Harley said.  ‘They killed the Berliner two nights ago.  You’re the last.’  Then after a pause:  ‘I’m sorry.’
And that’s how Jake Marlowe discovers that he is indeed the world’s very last werewolf .  Not that he wants to be a 9 foot killing machine every full moon, but two hundred years ago he was inadverdently ‘turned’ and has since satisfied The Hunger every month.  He greets the news  that he is next on the list with relief:  he is tired of his immortality, of his victims’ souls clamouring inside him, and the very solitariness of his long existence .  He will welcome his death at the hands of the son of one of his victims, now a high-ranking officer in WOCOP, an acronym for World Organisation for the Control of Occult Phenomena – a modern version of the eighteenth century secret society The Servants of Light :  yep, brave men have been fighting monsters for centuries, but Jake is tired of running and hiding;  he will welcome his death at the next full moon.  Or so he thinks, until his unerring olfactory senses pick up the irresistible perfume of another were – and a young female, to boot!
And what happens next is the plot of Glen Duncan’s wonderful novel.  I have never read anything quite like this: rhapsodic, scholarly, subversive and screamingly funny, his prose veers from lyrical heights to obscene depths, all in the space of a paragraph.  There are enough f’s and c’s to sear the eyeballs of a bishop, but the language whether high or low is all relevant to events  that Mr. Duncan controls with superb precision and a brilliant knack for exposing society’s hypocrisies.  By the end of the novel the reader is hoping that Jake and his lover survive – he’s unique, even if he does tear a hapless human limb from limb once a month – but all is not revealed until the very last page, and even then many questions remain unanswered but are ‘for another story’.  I certainly hope so:  Mr. Duncan (who looks pretty wolfish himself in the jacket photo) owes it to the reader to finish the tale, and even if he takes several books to do it, that will be fine by me.  Highly recommended.

River of Smoke, by Amitav Ghosh

river of smokeThis is the second book of Amitav Ghosh’s Ibis Trilogy.  At the end of  ‘Sea of Poppies’( Book one)  the Ibis, a converted slave ship carrying indentured Indian labourers to Mauritius, is caught in a huge storm.  Two condemned prisoners and three Lascars murder an officer, escape the ship and are thought drowned :   the ship’s first mate is held responsible, not for the loss of life of those worthless monkeys, but for the danger that was caused to the main shipment, a huge cargo of opium on its way to the Chinese port of Canton. 
It was cruel of Mr. Ghosh to leave the reader in such suspense, but ‘River of Smoke’ answers all the questions raised in the first novel, and presents us with a host of fascinating new characters to enjoy.  There is a welcome reintroduction to some of the main protagonists of Book One, but some take a back seat as the action shifts from Calcutta to Canton.  Mr. Ghosh writes of his characters with gusto and verve and it is nothing less than a delight to follow their adventures, framed against the background of Britain’s iniquitous embrace of the Opium Trade, all in the name of ‘free’ enterprise.  Exhaustive research has been undertaken to present an authentic account of the everyday life and business in ‘Fanqui-town’ enclave of the  fabulously rich British Traders:  not permitted to reside in Canton itself, they nevertheless carve for themselves fiefdoms that ignore Chinese laws completely, believing themselves in their monumental arrogance to be above and beyond the control of the heathen devils.   Chinese objections to the enslavement of their population to the poppy go unheeded until a powerful new High Commissioner is appointed by the Emperor – a scholar, an intellectual, a poet -  and worst of all incorruptible,  he  takes up the cudgels on behalf of his people and engages the traders in the first battle of what is to become known as the British Opium Wars. 
Mr. Ghosh’s meticulous attention to fact and his great gifts for imagery and characterization make this story a winner;  my opinion after reading ‘Sea of Poppies’ was that he is a worthy successor to the great 19th century adventure novelists, and this still holds true with ‘River of Smoke’:  when Book Three is read, I know that I will regret this great trilogy coming to an end.  Highly recommended.

Hell to Heaven, and Heaven to Wudang, by Kylie Chan

Heaven to hellFor those among us who love the utter escapism of Fantasy novels, Australian writer Kylie Chan ticks all the boxes;  she has combined Kung-fu action with Chinese mythology so successfully that there is a waiting list for each of her books – we just can’t get enough of Emma Donahoe, originally hired to be a nanny to the daughter of enormously rich (and handsome, naturally) Chinese ‘businessman’ John Chen – who turns out to be Xuan Wu, the Dark Lord, God of war and martial Arts, and through her love for him, Emma metamorphoses into the Dark Lady, champion of Good, and battler extraordinaire against demons and baddies of every stripe.  Oh, it’s great stuff:  the various deities she befriends or has contact with are a very motley and amusing lot with particular powers of their own, and they’re not above using their gifts for their own selfish ends; deals are constantly being made,then broken, but when the going gets tough, they are still loyal enough to rescue Emma from all sorts of ghastly situations – and there are many:  she has variously  been turned into a snake, infected with demon essence, burned to a crisp in an effort to get rid of it, and don’t forget an inadverdent dose of HIV – for heaven’s sake:  this is more than Australian girls usually have to contend with on their OE !  It would be an impossibility to summarise her latest adventures, and anyone who would like to embark on these action-packed, mile-a-minute tales should start at the very beginning with the first book, ‘White Tiger’  (If you start in the middle you won’t know whether you’re Arthur or Martha or Wun Bung Lung),  you won’t be sorry:  Ms Chan will never win any great literary prizes -  in fact at times her writing is shamefully clunky, but she can tell a bewdy-rippah story with the best of them.  These books are the perfect airport or beach read:  these books are FUN.  

Tuesday, 11 October 2011

Great Reads for October 2011

by Julia Kuttner

The Larnachs by Owen Marshall

The LarnachsOwen Marshall is one of New Zealand’s foremost writers, and demonstrates his unique literary voice once again as he chronicles in his latest novel the successes and tragedies of the Larnach family of Dunedin.  He is careful to stress in a foreword that his book is a fictional account of events that happened to real people, but such is his skill in drawing convincing portraits of his characters  that the reader has no choice but to believe every word he writes.
The story is narrated in alternating chapters by Constance de Bathe Brandon,  and  Duggie, favourite son of Constance’s husband William Larnach, politician and enormously wealthy property speculator.   Constance is in her mid-thirties when she meets and in 1891 marries William, twice- widowed and at 57, still full of vitality, joie de vivre and the strutting self-confidence that comes from humble beginnings and hard-won success.  His ostentatious social position is epitomised by the construction of Larnach ‘Castle’, symbol of his power and standing.
Constance is also very sure of her place in society.  Raised and very well- educated by her father, one of the country’s early MPs, to consider herself equal in all things,  she decries womens’ inability to vote and agitates whenever she can to bring about change – but only within her own social sphere;  while she feels an intermittent sympathy for ‘the lower orders’, it does not prevent her from ruling her staff with an iron hand, and she is glad to have a married woman’s influence among her contemporaries, previously  denied to  her as a spinster.
William’s adult children from his first marriage detest Conny;  she is an interloper and thinks far too much of herself;   only Duggie treats her as a friend – a friendship that eventually turns to love and a full-blown affair destined to create a scandal of catastrophic proportions and ongoing tragedy for all involved.
The literary device of having each lover narrate a chapter is clever:  Mr. Marshall’s characterizations have such veracity that it is a pleasure to follow Conny and Duggie through the highs and lows of their great love;  one eager to tell the world of his delight in finding his life’s partner, and the other thrilled to experience the physical and emotional love she thought would ever be denied, but fatally unwilling to give up her social status.  Mr. Marshall has recreated the morals, life and times of a fledgling NZ society with consummate skill and great empathy.  Highly recommended.

A Visit from the Goon Squad, by Jennifer Egan

A visit from the Goon SquadSince its publication last year this novel has generated extraordinary praise, not least being included in Time magazine’s top 10 books for 2010 and this year winning the Pulitzer Prize for fiction.  Even Oprah endorsed it.  (Is that good or bad?) I approached it with trepidation:  was it too great for mere mortals to read?   ( I have been caught before).  Oh me of little faith:  All the reviews are true.  This story fully deserves every accolade lavished by the literary pundits – and anyone else  who wants to have a wild ride through time with Ms Egan as she explores through her characters the different selves we all become at different times of our lives.  Through a dizzying series of flashbacks and leaps forward, the reader follows Bennie Salazar, failed music producer and his personal assistant Sasha, ‘capable in every way but for her kleptomania’ as they are moulded and buffeted by the forces of time, and the influence and effect they have on their world through the connections they make, both intimate and tenuous, with the people they meet.  There is a host of different characters here, and sometimes it takes the reader a little while to connect the dots, but when that happens, a wonderful pointillist portrait  emerges of our flawed and ailing contemporary society – (there’s even a powerpoint presentation!), and an irrevocable truth that time rules us all:  the onrush of it;  its implacability;  and how peoples’ lives are helpless before it and the inexorable changes it makes.  In Ms. Egan’s novel time is a Goon, and no-one escapes a visit from the Goon Squad, but Bennie, after a lifetime’s vicissitudes is no fool:  he knows the score – ‘ Time’s a goon – are you going to let time push you around?’  No, sir!  This is a great book.

Cold Vengeance, by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child

 And now for something completely different:
Cold vengeanceGuess who’s back!  Messrs. Lincoln and Child have been working their little tails off to provide fans with the next instalment of the intrepid adventures of FBI Special Agent Aloysius Pendergast, that peerless paragon of perfection in all things, arbiter of funereal fashion excellence – he always wears black designer suits, giving him ‘the look of a wealthy undertaker’ -  and lethal weapon in the perpetual battle against the forces of evil.  As always, the reader is transported to places near and far, starting in the Scottish Highlands where Pendergast has been shot and left for dead in a swamp by his wicked brother-in-law.  He cannot possibly survive shooting and drowning – or can he?  Mere mortals would long be contributing to the swamp gases, but not our Aloysius :  he manages to haul himself out of the muck and crawl 12 miles (truly!) to shelter and the devoted nursing of a reclusive auld biddie who lives on the wild moors (this is Scotland, remember), gradually returning  to good health, thanks to his cast-iron constitution, burning desire for revenge, and the new-found knowledge that his beloved wife Helen, killed twelve years before by a lion (!) is actually still alive.  And as the ultimate plot device, Lincoln and Child have brought in the Neo-Nazis in the shape of a diabolical organization called The Covenant.  What CAN one say?  Except that you’ll just have to keep on reading all this glorious silliness to find out WHAT HAPPENS NEXT.  These books are seriously good fun and I can’t wait for the next one:  will Aloysius be reunited with his wife, captured by said evil Neo- Nazis?  Will Aloysius be able to sustain yet another gunshot wound? (He is now more ventilated than a Swiss Cheese.) Will his ward Constance Green reveal where she has hidden her baby, the son of his mad brother Diogenes?  Oh, the questions are endless and had better be answered soon, otherwise the enormous cult following of Agent Pendergast - he has his own webpage – will suffer terminal withdrawal symptoms.  Funeral garb never has never been more cool, and the FBI”s reputation has been burnished quite undeservedly. Trashy escapism of the very highest quality, and entertainment par excellence.

Near Misses:


The Burning Soul, by John Connolly

The burning soul

The tenth novel of the adventures of Charlie Parker, haunted – literally – private detective,  starts as always by instilling within the reader a lowering sense of dread:  a young girl has disappeared in a remote coastal town in Maine, and people are frightened:  this is not the first time it has happened.   No-one can set a scene like Mr. Connolly;  he creates atmosphere and mood perfectly;    he writes wonderful dialogue and all his characters, particularly those who have appeared in previous books are a pleasure to meet again – but this time something has gone wrong with his usual sure-fire recipe:  the plot becomes so labyrinthine and unwieldy that its impetus is lost and when all is FINALLY revealed, the reader is glad to have waded through to the finish.  Not one of Mr. Connolly’s bone-rattling successes, but it won’t stop me from looking forward to his next opus – with the hope that it will be back to his old high standard.

The Quiet Twin, by Dan Vyleta      

The quiet twin
Dan Vyleta’s first book ‘Pavel and I’ was a wonderful debut novel, set in Berlin at the end of the Second World War with marvelous characters and a great plot - how I wish I could similarly endorse his  second effort but this time he has missed the mark, and that is a great shame as Mr. Vyleta is a talented writer;  consequently it is a disappointment not to enjoy this book. 
Set in Vienna at the beginning of the Second World War,  the plot concerns the inhabitants of an apartment building, all examples of Hitler’s Inferior Races policy:  there is a hunchbacked child, a homosexual, a gypsy, a severely catatonic woman, and a hypochondriac, not to mention various minor characters, all most unpleasant.  The reader could handle all the intentional squalor if there appeared to be a point to all the dirt and depravity  -  starting with the early introduction of four unsolved murders and the deliberate butchering of an elderly dog -  but Mr. Vyleta’s plot goes nowhere, instead becoming weighed down by Freudian slips, slaps and slops.  At the novel’s end, nothing is resolved, the murders aren’t solved, and the reader is left with the uneasy thought that some of these awful characters may appear in a sequel:  I hope not.  A second-class novel from a first-class writer.

Tuesday, 13 September 2011

Great Reads for September 2011

by Julia Kuttner

Dreams of Joy, by Lisa See

Dreams of joy

It has been a great pleasure to read the long-awaited sequel to ‘Shanghai Girls’, Lisa See’s epic novel of 1930’s China, detailing the appalling betrayal of Pearl and May Chin’s father as he sells them into marriage to two brothers, peasants who live in ‘The Gold Mountain’, America, so that he can pay his gambling debts.  The sisters’ escape from Shanghai and the attacking Japanese Army produces lasting scars and horrific memories  - and a baby girl to May, the result of a passionate affair with an artist both women love:  there is much sorrow to overcome before the girls can reconstruct their lives in in Los Angeles with their new husbands;  they are the keepers of many secrets which they expect to stay hidden -  until 1955, when terrible and tragic events expose everything to Joy, the child born of war and privation, irretrievably  fracturing the relationship the sisters have as aunt and mother to her, their beloved.
In vengeful retaliation and bravado, Joy steals her college fund and flies to China to search for her biological father, only to eventually discover that the Chinese Peoples’ Republic is a vastly different beast from that depicted by her ardent socialist-leaning fellow  college students.  Finding her father proves to be relatively easy ;  he has become an artist famous for his portraits of Mao Tse Tung and posters of the Chinese people celebrating their glorious revolution, but she is mystified that he has been ordered to spend six months in a remote country collective,  giving art lessons to the villagers – what kind of work is this for a man of his repute?  It takes a long time and many adverse experiences for Joy to lose her naivete, and when Mao starts his mighty agricultural experiment, his ‘Great Leap Forward’, which results in the eventual starvation and death of millions, her disillusionment is complete.  Lisa See has carefully and exhaustively researched this terrible time;  her characters endure tragedy and horrors barely imaginable, based on authentic accounts by people who were real-life sufferers of Mao’s terrible failure;  who managed to survive to tell their dreadful stories and it is a tribute to her literary skill that the reader hangs on to every word until the story ends.  One also hopes that Ms See doesn’t abandon her singular characters:  The novel’s conclusion is still in the 50’s, which means that there are oodles of time yet left for a third book, still time for more life experiences for the brave, tenacious Chin women and their loved ones.  Fingers crossed!

THE PARIS WIFE, by Paula McLain

 20th century literary lion Ernest Hemingway had four wives.  This is a story of his first, ‘the Paris wife’, Hadley Richardson, eight years his senior, introverted and shy when they first met in Chicago, and perfectly ready to be swept off her feet by Hemingway’s handsome looks, fierce intelligence, and his utter conviction that he would make a great career as a writer.   Ms McLain paints a compelling portrait of their life and times, well-researched and empathetic to Hadley’s unenviable role as The Wife, caregiver, helpmeet, organizer and factotum to her man’s Great and God-Given Talent, and humble admirer of her husband’s many friends , of solid literary repute themselves:  Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein (and her own wife and helpmeet, Alice B. Toklas), Ezra Pound and his ménage a trois, Ford Madox Ford, Archibald MacLeish and their respective wives and mistresses – all portrayed against a background of Paris in the ‘20’s;  damaged and frenetic after the war but still a city of endlessly exciting literary and artistic possibilities. 
Narrated in the first-person by Hadley in beautifully lucid sentences, she recounts with a singular lack of self-pity all the dramas of her 6-year marriage to Ernest:   the birth of a beloved son;  the great highs and terrible lows of life with a man who was everyone’s friend, loyal, true, generous and staunch – until he wasn’t;  the agonizing inadequacy and sorrow she was forced to endure as far more attractive women than she doggedly pursued her husband, who stayed faithful – until he didn’t.  Hemingway’s shameful treatment of his friends (portraying them cruelly as thinly-veiled characters in his books was the least of his sins) is well documented;  his adultery with Hadley’s good friend Pauline Pfeifer, who was to become his second wife, was at first suggested by him to Hadley as perhaps a situation that could be workable – his very own ménage-a-trois?  After all, so many of their friends had similar arrangements which seemed to be successful;  couldn’t they give it a try?  Such is the ability of Ms. McLain to recreate the desperation and agony in Hadley’s own voice that the reader is not disappointed in her for attempting to live in a situation that was utterly repugnant to her, but to give her top marks for trying, and to applaud her for finding the courage to abandon Ernest, selfish bastard extraordinaire, and the woman determined to become his muse.
Hadley must also have the last word, a classic summation of their lives in the Twenties :  ‘We called Paris the great good place then, and it was.  We invented it after all.  We made it with our longing and cigarettes and Rhum St. James;  we made it with smoke, and smart and savage conversation and we dared anyone to say it wasn’t ours.  Together we made everything and then we busted it apart again’. A  Five star story.

State of Wonder, by Ann Patchett

When I first read the publisher’s blurb for this book I felt that I was about to begin a highly improbable ‘Perils of Pauline’-type novel;  in fact, trying to summarise Ms. Patchett’s story WITHOUT straining the reader’s credulity is a major task, but such is Ann Patchett’s literary skill that she can present  fantastic and impossible situations with utter conviction.  It’s fair to say that any dedicated reader will be hooked from the first page.
Dr. Marina Singh, a research scientist for a big Minnesota drug conglomerate is sent to the Amazon by her CEO (also her lover) when her colleague and friend, Anders Eckman -  dispatched first to check on company financed ground-breaking medical research by formidable and reclusive scientist Annick Swenson, dies suddenly of a fever:  his wife wants his body (to prove that he is really dead – she can’t believe it) and the company wants proof that their investment is proceeding according to plan.  Marina’s trip to Brazil and the jungle is predictably hellish, and she has an added burden:  the formidable Dr. Swenson was her professor and mentor when she was a student majoring in obstetrics 12 years before, until a terrible mistake and its subsequent repercussions drove her into the safety of chemical research.   Marina is naturally reluctant to meet Dr. Swenson again, to be reminded of the past and its terrible sorrow;  she can hardly wait to complete the tasks assigned, collect Anders’ ‘few effects’ (according to Dr. Swenson’s terse announcement of his death), and bring them home to his widow.  Needless to say, nothing turns out to be as it seems;  complications arise at every turn and a lot of water flows down the Amazon before Marina can  return to Minnesota, irrevocably changed thanks to, or in spite of her experiences.
 This is not the first time Ms. Patchett has written of South America and its fatal beauty;  the lyrical  ‘Bel Canto’ (2001) was first, and once again she has created memorable characters that  react plausibly and naturally to unnatural circumstances.  Dr. Swenson commands the reader’s attention from the first time she appears ;  ruthless, terrible, relentlessly honest, and utterly selfless in her devotion to science – and humanity.  Ann Patchett has done it again;  she has pulled another rabbit out of her literary hat, enthralling us with big ideas, big adventure and big characters.  Which makes this book a BIG success.

Started Early, took my Dog, by Kate Atkinson

 Jackson Brodie is a solitary man;  an ex-policeman, an ex-paratrooper -  and  he doesn’t have a very good record at personal relationships either, being the ex-husband and ex-boyfriend to several women, one of whom fleeced him for every penny.  At the start of this novel, Kate Atkinson’s 4thfeaturing his misadventures, he’s half inclined to get ‘I don’t understand’ tattooed on his forehead:  how could his life be so mismanaged – by himself – without him even trying?  He is now reduced to tooling round the English Midlands, playing at being a private detective,  half-heartedly pursuing an adopted New Zealand woman’s request to ‘find out where she came from’, a task that leads him into predictably dangerous and murky waters, and the unveiling of a tragic murder and police cover-up lasting 35 years .  Sounds like the usual familiar stuff, doesn’t it – except that Ms Atkinson is not just a crime novelist per se; she is superb at constructing plots that are straight out of left-field:  the reader doesn’t know what hits them until it arrives with a swipe across the head.  Her characters are always beautifully observed and true, and her dialogue and description is a delight:  in spite of the disturbing elements of the story, there is a much-needed element of wry humour – just what the reader needs to combat the murder, mayhem and squalor of society’s sub-strata.  It’s a rough old world out there, especially for the children – and the dog(!) - in this story, but fortunately for them, Jackson Brodie, their unlikely rescuer, turns up once again to solve the case and save the day with the help of some great supporting players.  A library member who read this before me wrote on the comments sheet:  ‘riveting’.  That sums it up beautifully.    

Tuesday, 16 August 2011


by Julia Kuttner

Finding Jack, by Gareth Crocker

Finding JackIn the course of my reading addiction I have come across several stories now about A Man and His Dog;  nothing beats ‘Racing in the Rain’ by Garth Stein, but ‘Finding Jack’ is a worthy example of the genre, touching, funny, almost unbearably suspenseful and a six-hanky read:  animal stories tug at the heartstrings whether one wants them to or not, and the protagonists of this novel have much tragedy to overcome before their lives take a turn for the better.  In a prologue as notable for its prose of deepest purple (where was the editor?!) as for setting the scene, Fletcher Carson reveals to his good friend that after the deaths of his wife and daughter in a plane crash, he has joined the army to fight in Vietnam:  it is January, 1972;  his life is meaningless without them and he is hoping to die soon fighting for the defeat of Communism in South East Asia.
Six months later, he is still alive and fully involved in the hell that the rest of his platoon has to endure;  throughout their daily ordeal they look after each other, creating strong bonds that can only be forged in war, and Fletcher comes to realize that even though he still doesn’t care about living, he cares about his fellow soldiers, and in particular about a wounded military dog who appears to have strayed from its unit:  the labrador Jack can sniff out bombs and snipers when his wounds heal and saves the Platoon on numerous occasions  - only to be abandoned as ‘surplus to requirements’ at war’s end when the American forces leave Vietnam.  Here begins the main thrust of the novel – the lengths to which Fletcher will go to save his beloved friend, the only precious thing left in his life.  You better have those hankies ready!  I couldn’t put the book down until the end, and despite all the privations that Fletcher and Jack suffered, almost wept again with relief to know that they survived – and isn’t that an example of what a master storyteller Gareth Crocker is, to engender such emotion in the reader, and to paint a picture so convincingly of the hell on earth endured by good young Americans sent by their politicians to a war they couldn’t win.  And it is a sorry footnote that of the several thousand life-saving dogs in the canine units sent to Vietnam, less than 400 were permitted to come home.  We are fortunate that Man’s Best Friend hasn’t elected to transfer his affections somewhere else.  Highly recommended.

A Man You Can Bank On, by Derek Hansen

A man you can back onTo the dedicated reader, Derek Hansen should need no introduction;  his first novel, ‘Lunch with the Generals’ generated a solid fan base (and I’m right there in the van!) who knows that subsequent novels will always be great reads, entertaining page-turners that are satisfying and well-plotted.  ‘A Man You Can Bank on’ is no exception, and though the story takes on a Keystone Cops air and an element of farce, especially towards the end , Mr. Hansen controls the action and his characters admirably without once inducing the reader to mutter cynically ‘Yeah, right’.  And that’s no mean feat, considering the plot:
The NSW outback town of Munni-Munni, hardly a dot on the map, is dying:  mortgages are being foreclosed,  Bank Manager Lambert Hampton has been forced into early retirement and his daughter Sophie, the town’s only schoolteacher, has been informed by the authorities that the school may have to  close.  Lambert’s beloved wife has recently died of a brain tumour and life appears to be utterly hopeless – until three desperate crims decide to bury their three million dollar haul from a bookie robbery and are observed doing so just outside the town:  what a stroke of luck!  Lambert uses the money to revive Munni-Munni and its inhabitants:  they have robbed the crooks!  With the huge cash injection new and successful small businesses are started;  everyone drives a Toyota Camry;  (Lambert got a good deal from Toyota);  mortgages are paid off and there is a thriving business in Jack Russells;  everyone has one and the litters fetch big money interstate.  Fate has finally smiled on Munni-Munni – until the crims get out of jail 10 years later and return to disinter their loot, only to find it gone.  Predictably, that’s when the brown stuff hits the fan:  Mr. Hansen has created a fine cast of villains ranging from the ‘duh’ variety to the Boss Big Kev, all single-mindedly determined to get what’s ‘rightfully’ theirs after spending 10 years in jail dreaming about spending it, and a wonderful array of town and bush eccentrics  equally determined to protect their investments, their town and their lives.  This is indeed a great read, a you-beaut romp through the outback with more humour than you can shake a stick at, and a convincing story of a man’s devotion to his family, friends and sense of place.  Great entertainment.

Sea of Poppies, by Amitav Ghosh

Sea of poppiesThis novel is the first book of a trilogy, and an exhaustive account of Britain’s infamous Opium trade, poppies grown and manufactured into the drug  in India and sold to China in a bid to unman and enslave both populations – until the Chinese Mandarins decide to block further imports of the poppy to their country, thus starting the Opium Wars in the late 1830s, a conflict championed by all ‘right-thinking’ British importers and supporters of Free Trade everywhere – or more correctly, a fight by them to retain the huge profits and enormous riches gained in living off the misery of others.  This story is an ambitious undertaking;  a great sprawling mess of a tale centred around the 1838 voyage of the Ibis, a two-masted schooner fitted out originally as a slaver, then altered minimally after the abolition of slavery to transport indentured Indian labourers to the Mauritius Islands.  The Ibis’s next port of call is  Canton, there to deliver its supplementary cargo of Opium, but such is the detail, the scene-setting, the sheer sweep of the story that at the end of Book One the Ibis is nowhere near Mauritius, but instead fighting a mighty storm, with an officer murdered and several escapees deciding to take their chances in a stolen longboat – Mein Gott!  What an ending:  I am nearly as much up in the air as the crashing waves and screeching winds so thrillingly described by Mr. Ghosh, and am still marveling at the ease with which he has brought an initially bewildering and polyglot array of characters (almost a cast of thousands, and every one has a backstory) into being, then pared them down convincingly until the remainder through many a different circumstance end up as voyagers on the Ibis.  This novel is also notable for the almost unintelligible mixture of Hindusthani, Urdu, Lascar and old British slang used as dialogue, and I had great fun reading the origins of many of our English words still in use today. Mr. Ghosh has crafted an adventure story in the fine tradition of the great 19th century classics;  he’s a worthy successor to Conrad, Defoe and Melville and I am looking forward with great anticipation to Volume 2, ‘River of Smoke’.  A treat is surely in store, and I hope Mr. Ghosh is hard at work on volume 3.  Highly recommended.  

Tuesday, 12 July 2011

Great Reads for July 2011

by Julia Kuttner

The Night Season, by Chelsea Cain

The Night seasonThis is Ms Cain’s fourth novel in her Beauty Killer series.  It follows Evil at Heart, Sweetheart, and Heartsick, (see earlier review below)  and one of her reviewers extols her as the new queen of serial-killer fiction.  That’s a fair comment.  In her first three novels she had all the necessary prerequisites of the genre:  blood and gore for Africa;  a crazed (but beautiful – gee, that’s a surprise!) FEMALE serial killer;  the brilliant but burnt-out detective who eventually captures her – but only after she has carved a heart on his chest and removed his spleen – (truly!),  and a plucky girl reporter with enough irritating habits to drive even the reader mad.  What more could one ask for in a thriller?  ‘The Night Season’ follows in the same vein, with the same characters , but evil Gretchen Lowell, the Beauty Killer of the other books plays a lesser role this time;  she was incarcerated for the second time at the end of book three and now sits in gaol refusing to talk, but the citizens of Portland, Oregon, must now contend with a new madman, as well as a huge, impending flood of the Willamette river caused by heavy rain and snowmelt that threatens to inundate huge areas of the city.  Oh, it’s all happening, especially as the new crazed killer poisons his victims in the most preposterously clever way, then disguises them as drowning victims.  It’s up to Archie the carved-up, burnt-out – but brilliant – sleuth and fearless girl reporter Susan Ward to track him down and reel him in.  (Sorry about that, but there is a lot of water in this novel!)  And they do, but not without a lot of heart-stopping suspense in between:  Ms Cain sets her scenes superbly;  she creates effortlessly the lowering atmosphere of a flooding city and the creeping dread of yet another killing just round the corner:  the reader cannot put the book down until the end, and there can be no more satisfying experience than to have to keep reading to see What Happens Next.  All the elements of good thriller writing have been satisfied in this series :  horror, black humour and psychological tension.  As one reviewer said:  ‘This time she adds another arrow to her narrative quiver:  the interplay between landscape and mood …. Terrifying. ‘  Wish I’d thought of that, but he’s absolutely spot on!

Oldies but Goodies

Sweetheart, Heartsick, Evil at Heart, by Chelsea Cain

These books are Potboilers par excellence – gruesome, gory, hair-raising -  all the basic requirements of the classic thriller personified in the continuing duel between Good Archie Sheridan, burnt-out superdetective, and Evil serial-killer Gretchen Lowell, twisted, psychotic and gorgeous – and endlessly fascinating, naturally.  Gretchen takes torture to new and unheard-of levels;  Archie falls victim to her scalpel but manages to survive at the cost of his marriage and mental health, not to mention his spleen.   Oh, that Gretchen – she’s so nasty she makes Lucretia Borgia seem like a favourite Sunday School teacher, but as Archie and every reader knows, she’s also irresistible and unforgettable.  The next episode can’t come soon enough.  (See Above!)

La Rochelle’s Road, by Tanya Moir

La Rochelle's roadThe advent of Ms Moir’s first novel assures this reader yet again of the exceptional quality and health of contemporary New Zealand writing:  she takes an old and well-tried theme and creates an entirely new perspective upon it, not only because of her beautiful prose and command of atmosphere and time, but also the authenticity and strength of her characterizations.
The Peterson family leave England at the end of 1866 to begin a brave new life in New Zealand;  Daniel the father has bought acreage sight unseen on the Banks Peninsula;  he is a clerk but means to become a gentleman farmer, producing grass-seed;  his wife Letitia is adoring, soft, gentle and genteel, the mother of Hester, aged 18, and Robbie, 15, and frighteningly ignorant of the realities and harsh trials of their new existence:  their land, for which they paid an exorbitant price is unproductive and must be cleared by them all of scrub and rubbish before they can even begin to think of a crop;  Daniel finds that, when his money runs out his services are not required by the contemptuous new settlers, hard men all, when he attempts to find supplementary work as a clerk or a teacher, and his humiliation is complete when he has to offer himself as a labourer – for less money than the others! – in order to put food on the table. 
The family’s plight is recorded firstly in optimistic letters Home by Hester to her friend Lucy, then by more realistic entries in her Journal.  She also finds the Journal of the house’s previous occupant, Etienne de la Rochelle, gentleman, artist and would-be explorer, the original owner of the land;  his story offers a fascinating subplot as he relates his adventures in an attempt to find a way across the Alps from West to East – and his guilty love for a Maori woman, the concubine of his guide, Teone.  Ms Moir chronicles this love story with great skill, using the language of the time with absolute assurance.  Her account of farmer- turned -labourer Daniel’s descent into bitterness, disillusionment and despair is masterly:  Daniel does not eventually conquer his land:  it conquers him, and he is forced by tragic circumstance into the realization that the contempt shown to him for his British airs and graces is perhaps justified -  there is no room here yet in this young, harsh, unrelenting land for those with pretensions towards education and airy-fairy ideas on politics and philosophy:  the class system has been turned on its head, and he with it.
This book is completely absorbing from start to finish;  Ms Moir’s prose is lyrical , brilliantly evoking people,  times and places long gone, and her chief narrators, Hester and La Rochelle, carry the story onward with strength, optimism and purity of heart.  Highly recommended.

The Tiger’s Wife, by Téa Obreht

The tiger's wife This book will not be everbody’s cup of tea:  it deals with primitive superstition, family legends and folklore, and the average reader looking for light entertainment will not find it on these pages.  That said, I can also state that this story still has me thinking of its electrifying characters;  the savagery of fate towards its unsuspecting pawns and the horror of the Balkan War, that terrible ethnic conflict that fractured Tito’s Yugoslavia permanently into all the separate little States that are trying to function independently today.  Ms. Obreht has made an astonishing debut into the world of American Letters with this book:  she was born in Belgrade in 1985 and came to America when she was twelve, but her family ties are still strong and she writes with the assurance of one whose homeland will always be with her, regardless of where she travels.
Ms. Obreht’s novel is constructed on two levels;  the modern-day first-person narrative of Natalia, granddaughter of an eminent physician : she’s impatient, rebellious, practical and brilliant, and she has no time for for old and entrenched family customs;  she has graduated as a doctor, too, and she wants to cure people, not pander to their superstitions!  Until the news comes that her Grandfather has died miles from anywhere in a remote Muslim seaside village over the border in unfriendly territory:  peoples’ memories of atrocity are fresh and vivid:  Natalia is told not to advertise her surname as she searches for answers as to why he went there – and why he chose to die there.
As Natalia delves further into her Grandfather’s past life the story’s second level surfaces:  it covers  her Grandfather’s childhood in Galina, a tiny village not even on the map, and the reason for his fascination with tigers, something that was always a mystery to her and the source of many childhood visits to the local zoo.  The village inhabitants are forces of nature;  their every day controlled by superstitions big and small and anyone displaying an iota of difference from what they know and accept is not going to have a long and happy life in Galina. A great tragedy inevitably occurs and the child grows into the man that becomes Natalia’s grandfather, forged by adversity into a formidable and unforgettable character – and so he will remain in my mind:  I am still marveling at Ms. Obreht’s brilliance;  that she can create such a book at the age of 26, and write with such maturity and lyricism of her country’s terrible history.  What a privilege it has been to travel with Natalia, back to a primitive past that still has a strong grasp on the present.  Ms. Obreht has taken me on a Magical Mystery Tour de Force,  and she has my most humble thanks

Dog Tags, by David Rosenfelt

Dog tags.And now for something completely different!  Something for the readers who just want to be entertained, to NOT have to contemplate the huge questions of life, the universe and everything:  this is YOUR book, and what an unmitigated pleasure it is; a really good legal thriller combined with enough humour to carry us on to the next Rosenfelt opus (for this is a series) and to hope that Mr. Rosenfelt keeps the jokes – and the suspense coming.  True to form, I have come in on the fifth or sixth title in the adventures of Andy Carpenter, defence lawyer extraordinaire.  It irritates me immeasurably to realize this after I have started a book;  I like to start things FROM THE BEGINNING!  Well, never mi nd:  I have started to trawl back through the series to the start, and one thing that Andy can be counted on is to be perpetually smart-mouthed in a really death-defying way, to solve the current mystery, and to get rid of all the bad guys – oh, and he’s an unashamed dog-lover:  what’s not to admire?  And Mr. Rosenfelt’s dialogue had me breathless with admiration:  one of Andy’s friends knows absolutely everyone:  ‘You wanna meet the Dalai Lama?  Well, I don’t know him but I know his sister, Shirley Lama.  I could arrange a meeting.’  I  wish I’d thought of that, and I’m still trying to figure out how to introduce it as all mine in future conversations.  Hasn’t happened yet!        

Tuesday, 7 June 2011


by Julia Kuttner

Fall of Giants, by Ken Follett

Fall of giantsI waited seven months to read Ken Follett’s latest Best Seller, such is his popularity with library members, and I’m happy to say that it was well worth the wait.  He may never scale lofty literary heights but  what a good storyteller he is, and how credible are his characters.  He has produced (yet again) the consummate read – a rattling pace, Love (True and not so!), the horrors of war and revolution, and a meticulously researched account of the seeds that were sown to germinate  the War to End All Wars, World War 1.
The story starts in 1911 and ends in 1924.  This is the first novel of a trilogy and deals with five families:  The Williams family, Welsh miners and unionists;  The Fitzherberts, English Aristrocrats absolutely certain of their ancient, inalienable rights as the ruling class;  two impoverished Russian brothers, Grigori and Lev Peshkov, eager to escape the crushing burden of serfdom under the hated Czar;  the von Ulrichs, German Junkers and diplomats – Otto the father, implacable in his dream of the domination of Europe for his Kaiser, and Walter the son, doing his utmost to avoid war at all costs;  and American Presidential Aide Gus Dewar, for a large part of the war a worried spectator of events until early 1918 when the United States finally entered the conflict.
Mr. Follett is a master at keeping the reader turning the pages at a furious rate as he moves effortlessly from continent to continent, marshalling his characters with the precision of a chess player.  He sets the scene beautifully for future events:  Ethel Williams, young housekeeper to Earl Fitzherbert takes fatal steps above her station;  her young brother Billy, ‘down t’ pit’ at thirteen and in the army to become cannon fodder at 16,  becomes implacably hardened in his support of socialism after surviving the Somme under the inept leadership of aristocratic superiors;    brothers Gregori and Lev choose very different ways to escape starvation and the Czar’s corrupt police -  Lev, irresponsible and charming, skips Russia to end up eventually in Buffalo, New York, whilst Grigori is conscripted into the Army to fight the Germans;  and Walter von Ulrich enters into a secret marriage just before war is declared that will have consequences for all.
‘Fall of Giants’ could essentially be seen as a family saga and a love story but all is framed by the huge and momentous events of the early twentieth century:  no-one emerges unscathed from the cataclysm of war and revolution and there is a sad inevitability that the second book in the trilogy will pose yet more trials for characters who have become unforgettable.   Regardless, Mr. Follett’s storytelling expertise is such that, potential tragedies notwithstanding, the reader will again be swept up in the lives of these five families – and soon, one hopes.  I trust Mr. Follett is pounding away at # 2 on his keyboard as I write!

Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter, by Tom Franklin

Crooked letterCrooked Letter, Crooked Letter, refers to a little rhyme that Southern children learn to enable them to spell ‘Mississippi’ and   with a name like that, any assistance would be helpful.  The people of this story are much the same, tricky to read ,  complicated and full of twists and turns in this beautifully written novel from Tom Franklin – his marvelous imagery encompasses the land as well as his characters, and the reader is blessed to read such fine prose.  He chronicles the lives of the inhabitants of the tiny, dying hamlet of Chabot, Southern Mississippi:  naturally, everyone knows everything about everyone, including the fact that Larry Ott, the town outcast and mechanic whom no-one ever takes their cars to, probably – well, FOR SURE – killed a girl 25 years ago, but was so fiendishly clever at hiding the deed and the corpse that the law was never able to arrest him.  Now another young girl has gone missing, and who else but Larry Ott could be the prime suspect, bearing the brunt of the finger-pointing, the name-calling and various acts of vandalism to his property:  he done it FOR SURE!
And who else but Larry Ott could bear such vitriol with stoic resignation and Christian meekness – that’s how he was raised after all, the only child of a Good Christian Woman and a Good Ole Boy who views Larry with contempt for his allergies, asthma and pudgy frame – and even worse, his obsessive reading habits.  ‘Git yore nose outta that Goddamn book and mow the lawns – git some fresh air for a change!’  Larry has been behind the eight ball for a long time, a good, lonely boy grown into a decent, lonely man – until his mother’s daily prayer for him to ‘find a friend’ – which he did when he was 14, and once more at the age of 41 – produces horrific consequences:  Larry is fate’s plaything, and fate is in a foul mood.  Mr. Franklin captures time, place and idiom with ease.  He has created a most satisfying mystery, a page-turner of the first order and a fine exposition on the Southern way of life -  functional and otherwise.  And let us not ignore the sly vein of humour throughout the book:  ‘Miss Voncille, did yall ever date Crazy Larry?’  ‘Yes, only the once, and ah was nevah seen agin’.  This is a dang fine story!    

Instruments of Darkness, by Imogen Robertson

Imogen Robertson won the Telegraph’s first thousand words Competition in 2007 by submitting the start of this book, her first novel.  It is a murder mystery, set in 1780, and the prose is as elegant and  genteel as the characters and time of which she writes.  She has researched thoroughly the political and social mores of country and city life and writes convincingly of the huge gaps between rich and poor, noble and base, and the glaring unfairness of gender inequality:  her heroine, Mrs. Harriet Westerman, runs a prosperous estate in Sussex while her husband, a Naval Commodore, is at sea – she is forthright, independent and used to making independent decisions, but is constrained by society’s expectations of how a ‘Lady’ should comport herself.  It is not socially acceptable for a woman to take on a murder investigation, even if the corpse was found on her land;  consequently she has to enlist the aid of Gabriel Crowther, recently-arrived ‘natural scientist’, an anatomist whose reputation is illustrious and far-reaching, but a recluse who has secrets of his own.  There is also a dissolute Nobleman (the main suspect), his dastardly steward and a cast of minor villains hell-bent on murder, and as the story progresses the corpses pile up in a most satisfactory way – one even gets his throat ripped out by a leopard!  Oh, it’s all good Georgian fun, and the denouement when it arrives has a twist that surprises, as it should.
Ms Robertson is a fine writer, tapping  a new vein in the crime genre by giving her work its 18th century setting;  her characters, too, could never be confined to a single story and are thoroughly deserving of a sequel, ‘Anatomy of a Murder’.   I look forward to reacquainting myself with these reluctant pillars of respectability as they triumph with respectable  but determined resolve over evildoers once again.   

Tuesday, 10 May 2011

Great Reads for May 2011

by Julia Kuttner

Swamplandia! By Karen Russell

SwamplandiaSwamplandia! Is the name of a run-down nature park owned and operated by the Bigtree family on an island in the Everglades in Florida.  They Swim with the Alligators!  Wrestle them into Submission!  Take the tourists on Island Wildlife walks and Tours of the Bigtree Historic Family Museum !  And sell their captive visitors toxic refreshments and souvenirs from the only café, reluctantly staffed by the three Bigtree children who are home-schooled  by their  mother, Hilola, Alligator wrestler and swimmer extraordinaire, star of the show and of their hearts.  Dad is Samuel ‘Chief’ Bigtree;  he is the compere, works the lights, does all the repairs, and looks after his aged father, Grandpa Sawtooth, who started up the business – which is running on the smell of an oily rag and mortgaged to the hilt.  There is not a drop of Native American blood in any of them, but it’s good for business and the tourists to think so, and as a business and a family the Bigtrees putter along until Hilola dies of ovarian cancer at the age of 36.
Ms. Russell writes with stark and painful clarity of the confusion and disintegration of the family:  the Chief leaves the children in charge of the animals – the tourists have stopped coming since the star attraction died – and goes to the mainland, ostensibly to find ‘investors’, taking Grandpa with him;  the old man has lapsed into senility and has bitten a  tourist;  he is now a reluctant resident of the ‘Out-to-Sea’ retirement facility.  Kiwi, the oldest at 17 (named for the fruit;  there’s no mention of Our Bird) is furious with his father for deserting the ship – then does precisely the same, getting himself a job on the mainland at the opposition, The World of Darkness, a huge and tawdry new funpark, where all the visitors are not called tourists, but Lost Souls.  His aim is to earn enough money to get the family out of debt and his attempts to do so are achingly funny.  Then there’s Osceola, 16 years old and convinced that she’s visited by spirits, so much so that she elopes with one, to the enormous distress of her younger sister Ava, 13 years old and an aspiring apprentice ‘gator wrestler. Ava embarks on a wild journey through the swamp on a recovery mission of her  sister with The Bird Man, a professional bird removalist as guide and everything turns predictably, horribly pear-shaped:  it is a tribute to Ms. Russell’s dazzling literary skill that she can draw the reader in to the great predatory and natural world of the Everglades to such a degree that everything is chillingly real, everything is believable -  but most of all, her evocation of family bonds, hugely strained but not broken by great tragedy, lies at the heart of this wonderful story.  This was a pleasure to read.  *****

Their Faces Were Shining, by Tim Wilson.

Their faces were shiningThe Rapture, coming soon to a place near you!  And this is what happens when it does.  Tim Wilson has quite an important day job, that of U.S.  Correspondent for TVNZ, but I’m happy to say that the ‘There’s a Great Novel Bursting to be Born from every Journalist’ cliché is very true in this case:  Mr. Wilson has made a most successful first foray into the world of the Good Book – in subject and construction.
Hope Patterson and her husband Wade have lost a son to drowning at the age of three;  they have another daughter, Rachel, but Hope turns to religion in an attempt to assuage her terrible grief.  Wade does not.  He loses his job and tries to start a new business with a spectacular lack of success.  Meantime, Hope tries all religious variations on for size – Holy Rollers, Happy Clappies et al – before deciding that the Presbyterians are her flavor of choice;  thereafter she immerses herself completely in her new identity as a worthy subject of the Lord, so Good and Without Sin that she will forget the u
nforgettable:  the outrage of her son’s death:   in fact, all that piety must ensure that she will surely get to Heaven eventually to be with her darling boy again -  not that she would consciously admit it.  Her Holier-than-Thouness creates a schism in her family:  Us against Her, much to her sorrow and confusion.  She cannot understand why her husband and daughter don’t want or need the comfort of God’s Grace and more baffling still is the sneaking thought that God has left the building whenever she asks for assistance with the Patterson family’s myriad problems.  And supreme insult is added to agonizing injury:  The Rapture, long prophesied and written of in the Holy Book, actually occurs:  the Righteous are taken up Unto Heaven, accompanied by all children under the age of 17 (even Hope’s son is taken up from his grave) – and Hope, that paragon of virtue, that shining example of The Good Woman, is left behind .  Those others of her acquaintance left to wallow in the Sinful World cannot believe it and neither can Hope:  she is forced to stay behind to confront some very big questions:  where do her loyalties lie – with God or her family?  Do you love God utterly, or is God truly Love?   Tim Wilson chronicles Hope’s rocky road to realization with real skill and, despite the serious themes, great humour.  This is a smart, funny exploration of love in its many guises but posits most persuasively  that familial love is the most unrewarded, unselfish, painful,  noble love of all.  Well done, Tim Wilson – you can leave your Day Job anytime!  ****

Ape House, by Sara Groen

Ape houseSara Groen has already been justly acclaimed for her novel ‘Water for Elephants’, a wonderful story of an American circus during the time of the 30’s Depression, recently made into a very successful movie.  Now she tries something completely different: a story of  scientific experimentation – good and bad -  with primates, in this case six Bonobos, (cousins of the chimpanzee) held at a laboratory and taught by sign language to communicate with scientists.  Reporter John Thigpen is assigned to do a story on the apes and their ‘trainer’ Isabel Duncan, a scientist who regards them as family rather than mere animals – certainly they are more her family than anyone else -  and she has made great strides in educating them and increasing her own knowledge of how the apes and their hierarchy function.  Thigpen wishes to write a serious article lauding her singular achievements and does so – until he is usurped and his story stolen by an unscrupulous colleague.  The apes’ laboratory is bombed, ostensibly by animal activists;  Isabel is seriously injured and the apes are sold on to a Porn king who wants to make a reality TV show called, of all things, Ape House!  Yep, a lot happens in a very short time and I have to say that there are more characters in this book than you can shake a stick at, some of them wildly funny and others who are superfluous to the plot;  regardless, Ms Groen manages to keep all her literary balls up in the air and we reach the happy ending (and I’m so glad it was!) with every loose thread neatly tucked away.  Ms Groen has done some very solid research into apes and their ability to communicate by picture and sign, and the story she has produced is both a damning condemnation of animal cruelty and abuse and  a loving tribute to a species’ dignity, intelligence and innate integrity.  This was a pleasure to read.  ****

Hokitika Town, by Charlotte Randall

Hokitika townThe year is 1865;  the great Gold Rush is well under way and Hokitika is booming;  there are 100 pubs throughout the town to slake the miners’ thirst – and relieve them of their hard-won gold, and everyone is trying to get rich quick by fair means or foul before the gold runs out and all the diggers move on to the next Big Strike.  Into this hotch-potch of goodies and baddies comes  Halfie – Half-pint, Harvey, Bedwetter, Monkey:  these are only some of the names he answers to, this little maori boy who has run away from his tribe after the death of his beloved tuakana Moana.  Being a resourceful and intelligent little boy he has decided to be a ‘coin boy’, and where better a place to earn coin than Hokitika town – he is sure that he will eventually accumulate enough coin to earn a place to sleep by the stove of the reclusive miner and drunk, Ludovic, with the hope that Ludovic will teach him English.  He knows that ‘That Inglish is a langwich what don’t behave’ and he would appreciate some tuition so that he can get fair treatment from Whitey.  Besides, he’s sick of sleeping up a ponga tree – that’s tolerable in the summer, but Hokitika gets a lot of rain and it’s coming onto winter, so he has to plan ahead.
Thereafter follows a rollicking account of Halfie’s adventures as a coin boy,  in his own fractured and inimitable style:  comedy and tragedy vie equally  for places in this wonderful story of great riches and hard times portrayed by a writer of superlative skill.  Halfie is ebullient, shrewd, hilarious, and quite simply unforgettable as he  bravely attempts in his little boy’s way to deal with problems that most adults would  flee rather than solve:  sometimes ‘his heart sag like a old bed’ when his mind turns back to ‘rememorying’, but he has a lion’s heart,  a fox’s cunning and a nobility of spirit that many adults would never achieve in a lifetime.  His friends – and enemies – are wonderfully drawn, too;  an astonishing cavalcade of the Good, the Bad, and the downright Ugly, and all utterly convincing.  Ms. Randall has brought our Goldrush era to thrilling life:  as Halfie would say:  KA PAI!  And I would say A-MA-ZING.  *****