Tuesday, 8 February 2011

Great reads for February 2011


by Julia Kuttner

American Subversive, by David Goodwillie

What a great pleasure it was to read this debut novel, judged to be one of the New York Times’ 10 best books of 2010, for Mr. Goodwillie has produced that rare thing;  a superior literary thriller which combines great suspense with searching  moral and ethical questions:  which person or event provides the fire to the touchpaper of radicalism from within?  What ‘last straw’ finally breaks the back of tolerance in an age of disillusionment and impotence?  For Paige Roderick it is the death by friendly fire of her brother in the Iraq war – for Aidan Cole, jaded and going-nowhere-fast failed journalism student turned blogger, (phew, glad I wasn’t holding my breath when I wrote that) it is merely the fact that he wishes to rescue Paige (she’s a serious hotty, quite apart from her lofty ideals!) and keep her safe from the radicals she hitherto supported, after it becomes clear that they no longer want to blow up buildings:  they want to kill people too.  This novel is beautifully constructed, a split memoir with each chapter narrated by Aidan or Paige;  Aidan has a very nice line in black humour, describing his New York lifestyle with ruthless honesty.  Paige is also honest, remaining true at great cost to her integrity and ideals:  she had firmly believed ‘that America had passed an invisible tipping point, strayed too far from the noble tenets of its founding;  taking it back would require drastic measures.’  Now her radical friends have reached a tipping point of their own – radicalism has turned into terrorism and she knows too much for them to allow her to live.  Mr. Goodwillie has written the thinking man’s thriller, fast-paced, highly suspenseful – and unafraid to ask the uncomfortable questions of a complacent, apathetic society.  *****

 The Imperfectionists, by Tom Rachman

 This is the story of a newspaper, a newspaper founded in the 50’s in Rome by an industrial tycoon  who had enough money to indulge himself in a flight of fancy, that of providing a superior international news organ for English speakers in Europe.  It didn’t matter that it didn’t make money;  what mattered most was that it be a benchmark always for the highest journalistic standards – and a means of being close to his one true love, the woman he installs as joint editor – with her husband.  So begins Tom Rachman’s charming novel of the experience of living and working in Rome, producing a newspaper for English readers.  He knows the business intimately, having worked as a correspondent and editor for Associated Press in New York and Rome, and for the Herald Tribune in Paris;  in fact his characters have such a ring of truth about them I have to wonder how thinly veiled they are:  how many of his former work colleagues recognize themselves in this book?  There is the Editor-in-Chief, hugely intelligent, driven, and driving everyone else before her in a breathless attempt to produce a daily newspaper that people will read despite competition from the relentlessly encroaching electronic media;  sadly, she also drives away the men in her life with her harsh judgements and scathing opinions of their worth.  Her second in command Craig Menzies is a workaholic, living with a much younger woman whom he adores.  He can’t believe that she wants to stay with him permanently – how could someone like him ever be THAT lucky?  Through a tragic miscalculation of his own, he is eventually proven correct.  Arthur Gopal, son of one of India’s greatest writers is in charge of ‘Puzzle Wuzzle’ and Obituaries;  he knows he has more to offer the paper than the tasks to which he is set, and through a series of carefully calculated underhand moves manages to get the promotion he always dreamed of:  culture editor, over and above the former holder of that title, Clint Oakley, a loudmouthed braggart and racist who is demoted in turn, to his fury and dismay, to Puzzle Wuzzle and Obits!  Mr. Rachman’s debut novel is a delight, witty, convincingly written and peopled with great characters who are all linked by the work they do for the paper – which cannot last;  the bosses in Atlanta are ready to pull the plug, with tragic consequences for one of their own.  This is a very funny book, but the reader still gets sucker-punched along the way.  I’m still thinking about some of the shocks I never saw coming, and this is how fine writing can be and should be. *****

Gunshot Road, by Adrian Hyland

Here’s something different in the Whodunnit category, and what a welcome – and different – breath of fresh air it is:  Emily Tempest, the novel’s protagonist, is a half-aboriginal woman whose stamping ground is the Northern Territory.  Her white father has worked in the mining industry all his life and never remarried after the death of his aboriginal wife 20 years earlier.  Emily has received a unique upbringing in that her father has encouraged her  to embrace both cultures ;  consequently she is responsible, educated ( well, nearly:  she went to Uni to study Earth Science, not with the intention of getting a degree but to understand better the ancient land that has its roots in her heart.  When she felt she had learned all she wanted to know she left.  Without the degree.), and fearless to a fault:  her aggression and disrespect for authority is legendary, especially if she sees injustice – ‘that bint has got nice tits and a mouth like a blowtorch!’ – is a common opinion held by Emily’s suffering work colleagues, the local constabulary.  For Emily is the district’s Aboriginal Community Police officer – a ‘Clayton’s Cop’, she calls herself, but conscientious in her representation of her people, those sad, aggressive, drunks and no-hopers who subsist in the humpies on the edge of town.  Mr. Hyland doesn’t give us the hearts and flowers version of the uneasy alliance between the People of the Dreaming and the white usurpers;  imbedded racism bubbles away under the surface and spills over it too;  ‘those bloody abos’ contribute diligently to their own degradation, but the story is infused with great insight (Mr. Hyland worked for 10 years with aboriginal communities in Central Australia) and hope;  with Emily as their champion ‘those bloody abos’ have more rights than they were aware of, and a reason to return and protect the great red land of their ancestors from something evil that is poisoning it and everything it sustains.  An old miner is murdered before he can reveal what that poison is, and Emily relies on her prescience and instincts as much as her intelligence to solve the crime – along with a cast of Outback characters that put ‘Dad and Dave’ to shame.  This is the third Emily Tempest novel;  I hope the library will give us the treat of the other two:  ‘Moonlight Downs’ and ‘Diamond Dove’:  the action is hectic;  the corpses pile up everywhere;  the ducks are all lined up in a row at the conclusion, and the Ocker humour is unbeatable.  One of the characters stops to think and  ‘He gave a fair imitation of a budgie trying to pass an emu’s egg’.  Can you top that?  I don’t think so. ****

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