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.

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