Sunday, 29 December 2013

Olive Kitteridge, by Elizabeth Strout

Ms Strout’s eponymous protagonist is an exceptional woman. She has been a high school mathematics teacher in the small town of Crosby, Maine for many years and has a wonderful empathy for her students, helping many of them with advice that in several cases is crucial: she makes a positive difference to many lives, including those she chooses as her friends – and they are few, for Olive Kitteridge does not suffer fools gladly.

Sadly, she regards her own husband and son as wanting: her frustration with their good natured compliance with her whims, their longing for her approval and more importantly, a peaceful, loving atmosphere, turns her into a bully, ashamed of her actions but unable to stop her tyranny.

Ms Strout tells Olive’s story in a series of beautifully constructed short stories; each one features her either as a major influence on the main character in the chapter or as a remote adjunct, a mere mention, as in the story devoted to the talented pianist at the local restaurant, who drinks to disguise her perpetual stage fright, and has more than her share of secrets and regrets.

Olive attends the funeral of one of her former pupils, happily married to his high school sweetheart until his untimely death from cancer but once again, secrets are revealed at the wake; the wife’s cousin had a fling with the dear departed, mentioned it to the grieving widow after a few drinks too many – ‘because I thought you knew!’ Needless to say, the poor widow knew nothing until that moment, and it falls to Olive to try to save the situation, saving with her innate, intuitive diplomacy the poor widow’s face and self-respect.

Which begs the question: why is she unable to apply these essential, enviable gifts to her personal life, which as she gets older polarise her more from her loved ones?

Ms Strout provides the answers effortlessly in this wonderful little book, which deservedly won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2008. She has just released another novel ‘The Burgess Boys’ to glowing reviews, and as I hadn’t read anything of hers before, I thought I would make Olive’s acquaintance before going on to meet the Burgess brothers. And how glad I am that I did, for ‘Olive Kitteridge’ is an unforgettable character; outstanding, outrageous, a person of lion-hearted courage and lily-livered cowardice; an Everywoman who has had to endure great grief and pain, but is still able to transcend her sorrow to make sense of her existence. Olive is simply superb, and I hope you will meet her soon.


Now that the smoke from Christmas celebrations has settled (oh, I’m SO sick of eating leftovers – and leftover leftovers is even worse!) it’s the time of year when I brazenly imitate all the really flash publications who issue their lists of Notable Books for 2013:  once again I say ‘well, I can do that!’
Thanks to Te Takere, our wonderful new (only a year old) library and community centre, I have read and reviewed some exceptional titles and it has been fiendishly difficult to pare the list down to twenty, let alone ten as I originally intended.  Then I thought ‘ Hey!  I’m not constricted to a deadline or space problems – I can recommend as many Great Reads as I like, so there! 
Here we go:
In the interests of keeping readers awake I shall list the title, author and month reviewed;  if you wish to read the whole review for a book just refer to older posts;  otherwise take a punt on the title alone – live dangerously!  You won’t be sorry.

Soon, by Charlotte Grimshaw                                                   January

The Dinner, by Herman Koch*                                                January

Merivel – A man of his time                                                      March
By Rose Tremain

Kind of Kin,                                                                                 April
By Rilla Askew*

Rubbernecker,                                                                             April
By Belinda Bauer*

Wash, by Margaret Wrinkle                                                      May

Girlchild, by Tupelo Hassman                                                   May

Olive Kittridge, by Margaret Strout*                                     May

A Delicate Truth, by John Le Carré                                       June

The Burgess Boys, Elizabeth Strout                                       July

And the Mountains Echoed, by Khaled Hosseini*               July             

Sisterland, by Curtis Sittenfeld                                                July

The Son, Philipp Meyer*                                                          September

Dexter’s Final Cut, by Jeff Lindsay                                       October

Emperor of Thorns, by Mark Lawrence*                              October

The Good Lord Bird, by James McBride*                            November

Doctor Sleep, by Stephen King*                                             November

Longbourn, by Jo Cook*                                                          November

Daughters of Mars, by Thomas Keneally*                            December

Any children’s book by master storyteller Michael Morpurgo*

Those titles marked with an asterisk are in my humble opinion the crème de la crème, the very best of the best in which every book listed is a Greatest Read.

On behalf of the staff and volunteers at our beautiful Te Takere in Levin, NEW ZEALAND I wish all great readers Seasons Greetings and a most happy, healthy and prosperous 2014.

Last but not least, my apologies for the nasty little Blog Gremlins who wouldn't let my list and my carefully ordered columns be published as I set them out.  They are horrid little things and they hate me.  Well, I don't care - I don't like them either:  they can just sit on their thumbs and lean back on their fists.  See you all next year.  xxx 

Thursday, 19 December 2013


White Fire, by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child

As patient readers of this little blog will know, I have long been a fan of Preston and Child’s fearless protagonist FBI Special Agent Aloysius Pendergast, along with millions of other dedicated followers of his hair-raising adventures as he deploys his considerable intellectual and physical powers to defeat all manner of dastardly villains. (see October 2010 review of ‘Cold Vengeance’ below)  Sadly, ‘Two Graves’ the white-knuckle adventure preceding this latest title was so absurd, so defying of all credulity that I couldn’t in all conscience write my usual ecstatic review – I mean, come ON:  a nest of evil  NeoNazis in the South American Jungle conducting eugenic experiments so that they can breed another Master Race, and who should be involved but Pendergast’s great love Helen, mother of twins he didn’t know he’d fathered (gasp!), one of whom is bred specially for great things, and the other (double gasp!!) for slavery. 
Our hero destroys the nest of evil Nazi vipers, but at great personal cost (Helen really does die this time), causing Pendergast to sink into a slough of despond from which he has great difficulty extricating himself, BUT!
His creators need to bring him back from his hell of substance abuse and depression for this latest adventure, and I am happy to say that ‘White Fire’ is a complete success, with only limited reference to ward Constance Green ( meditating in a monastery in the Himalayas) and his good and evil twins (of the nasty one no trace;  the good one is getting an education at an exclusive Swiss Academy).  Instead this adventure centres on Corrie Swanson, Pendergast’s sponsored protégé and student at the prestigious John Jay College of Criminal Justice who decides to base her thesis on the supposed slaughter by a bear of eleven miners 150 years ago in a remote area mined for silver in Colorado.  By great coincidence the rough mining camp of Roaring Fork has now become the exclusive ski resort and winter vacation wonderland of the megarich and famous – and others who find Corrie’s desire for information and request to examine the exhumed bodies of some of the miners intrusive and unhelpful:  she must be discouraged permanently from her investigations, and with a ruthlessness that takes Corrie’s breath away she suddenly finds herself in prison facing a ten-year sentence for ‘desecration of a corpse’ and various other lesser charges.  Her devastation is absolute – until Pendergast, finally roused from his torpor by her desperate situation arrives in Roaring Fork complete with the necessary evidence to refute the charges and send a message to the villains that their nefarious plans are not going to succeed.  Oh, it’s great stuff, and as an added bonus Oscar Wilde, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and his great hero Sherlock Holmes are connected to Pendergast’s modern day sleuthing in an entirely credible subplot, forming the basis of his ultimately successful solving of The Mystery – but not before Corrie undergoes some truly death-defying experiences (she has her little finger shot off and nearly goes up in smoke for being unwittingly lippy to a madman), as required in any suspense novel worth its salt.  It is a pleasure to welcome Pendergast back to the land of the living –at least as portrayed by Preston and Child:   his mourning period is now thankfully over and he can attend to his usual business of conquering evil, striking fear into the black hearts of villains everywhere with his pale eyes, pale hair and an inexhaustible supply of money and black designer suits.  Lincoln and Child are back to their best:  sound scholarship, good research and a great plot.  Who could ask for more?  This is the ideal holiday read.      

Cold Vengeance, by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child

Guess 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 bog by his wicked brother-in-law.  He cannot possibly survive shooting and drowning – 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 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.   

Saturday, 14 December 2013

The Daughters of Mars, by Thomas Keneally

It is 1914 and Australia, as a Commonwealth member country loyal to the British Empire, is gearing for war.  Country nurses Naomi and Sally Durance are sisters but Naomi has moved to Sydney from their farming home to work in a  big city hospital while Sally works in the local hospital of her home town.  They are rivals, not least because their parents appear to favour Naomi in Sally’s eyes, and she Is also resentful that her elder sister is living a life she wishes for herself.  Sally is not happy to be regarded as the family spinster, consigned to the care of her dying mother while their father buries his concern in farm work, and when the call for nurses to sign up to care for any wounded in ‘the War that Will be Over by Christmas’ is issued, Sally takes her chance:  both sisters are accepted, but leave for Cairo weighed down by their mother’s death and an act of mercy in which they are both complicit:  for Sally at least, mercy weighs heavy and sleep is troubled;  even the their new, alien surroundings in Cairo fail to blot out the secret she and Naomi share -  until they are posted onto the hospital ship ‘Archimedes’ and sent to Gallipoli, that tiny Turkish peninsular where all the brave Diggers ‘each one worth ten Turks!’ were sent to scale the cliffs from the beach and win the peninsular, in theory gaining a good foothold against their Turkish adversaries.
Thus begins one of the cruellest debacles of World War One, forever deplored and enshrined in Australia and New Zealand as a Day of Remembrance:  Anzac Day.  The battle for Gallipoli is a disaster from the start, men being used as cannon fodder by inept and arrogant commanders, battling for impregnable territory defended by experienced Turkish soldiers fighting on their home ground, secure in the belief that each Turk was ‘worth ten Anzacs!’
For the sisters and their colleagues, trying to care for the floods of wounded ferried out to the ‘Archimedes’ in a constant stream is like a perpetual waking nightmare – never in their experience have they been confronted with such horror, such terrible wounds – such anguish.  Life and death become reduced to the barest essence, and overriding everything is the grief all feel for the senseless, sinful waste, the slaughter of patriotic eager young men by commanders who had inherited their ranks but not the intelligence to match, for nine months later the Gallipoli campaign is over ( ‘didn’t succeed, don’t you know)’ and all remaining troops withdrawn, only to be sent to the Western Front.
The sisters and their colleagues are sent too, plunged again into the awful mayhem of agony and destruction, but with the results of a new weapon to contend with:  poison gas.  The adage ‘War is Hell’ has never been more true.
Mr Keneally writes with great power of this terrible time in history;  his prose is starkly beautiful and his characters are vivid and all too human, especially the men Sally and Naomi eventually pledge themselves to:  the dreadful art of war has never been more finely portrayed and ‘living for the moment’ has never held more urgency.
Mr Keneally has written a literary masterwork that has been a privilege to read:  not to be missed.


Tuesday, 3 December 2013

Doctor Sleep, by Stephen King

Stephen King has produced a sequel to his 1977 horror novel ‘The Shining’ because he states that the main character, little Danny Torrance, wouldn’t leave him:  he kept wondering how the child would grow into the man, and what kind of man would he be, that loving, sensitive, psychically gifted little boy who faced unspeakable horror at a place in Colorado called the Overlook Hotel when he was five years old.
Now we know.  Dan Torrance has not done well as an adult.  He is an alcoholic (like his father);  he has an explosive temper (like his father);  he still has his psychic ability – called the Shining – but he has suppressed it as much as possible;  it’s a curse rather than a gift,  and by the time he is thirty he has reached the bottom level of his own self-made hell.
Predictably, there is no other way to go but up, and Dan starts by drifting, seemingly at random, into the small town of Frazier New Hampshire where he meets several people who offer him practical and caring assistance to overcome his addiction.  Slowly, miraculously, life starts to regain its appeal;  he has good friends and a job he enjoys at the local Hospice – he can even employ the Shining to ease the passing of the terminally ill, and he is so compassionate and successful in his new role that he gains a nickname:  Doctor Sleep.  Life is good, indeed.
Until he is contacted via the blackboard in his room by Abra Stone, a little girl who has mystified her parents since she was a baby with what seem to be extraordinary powers of deduction and foresight.  She has reached out to Dan without effort, something Dan wouldn’t even attempt, and as he comes to know her better, he compares his abilities to hers: ‘ I’m a flashlight and she’s a lighthouse’.  Abra’s powers increase as she grows but become horrifying when she ‘witnesses’ the murder of a little boy thousands of miles away – he too has the Shining, and his murderers are a group of people who seek out and feed on the essence of children;  she is forced to ‘see’ them torturing and devouring the poor child:  the more pain, the more ‘steam’ the body releases.  With horrid certainty, Abra knows that they will eventually find her, this awful band of ghouls who call themselves the True Knot.  Disguising themselves as elderly mobile home drivers they amble across the country, conducting their evil business under the perfect cover.  They are an implacable enemy and they are coming for her.
And what happens next is why Stephen King is the true master of this genre:  he grabs the reader by the scruff of the neck and won’t let go until the last page is breathlessly read;  there are some great plot twists and the minor characters are a delight, ordinary people facing the unspeakable and incredible.  Dan’s alcoholism is portrayed with searing authenticity – Stephen King has conducted his own battle, so knows whereof he speaks - and as always there is a wonderful and very necessary vein of humour running through the horror.  What a great storyteller he is, and if there is anyone left on the planet who hasn’t read his work, well that’s their loss:  they don’t know what they are missing!

Longbourn, by Jo Baker

Jane Austen’s beloved classic novel ‘Pride and Prejudice must surely be one of the most well-known and exhaustively read stories in western fiction.  There are very few of us who aren’t familiar with the pretty Bennet girls, that bundle of nerves who is their mother, and their long-suffering but lovingly wise and tolerant father.  Miss Austen  is justly renowned for portraying with sparkling wit the differences in the social strata of the time between country gentlefolk and their ‘betters’, rich landowning aristocratic acquaintances;  the desperate attempts to find good matches for five daughters of differing talents;  and dangers to the security of the family property for lack of a male heir.
Now we review the Bennets from a new perspective:  the servants they employ to make their lives run smoothly, those anonymous toilers who silently keep the wheels of everyday life turning efficiently while the Bennets attempt to carve a better niche in society for themselves.
Housemaid Sarah has been with the Bennets since she was six;  she came from the workhouse where she was sent after the rest of her family died of typhus.  She knows she should be grateful to have found secure employment, even though it is hard, unremitting toil – she’s a drudge and she tries not to remind herself of the fact, but oh, there’s a big wide world out there and she longs to see it instead of emptying chamber pots and scrubbing unmentionables seven days a week.
Mrs. Hill the housekeeper is married to the butler;  long ago it was a marriage of convenience;  she was forced to give up a beloved child she gave birth to out of wedlock and Mr Hill offered her respectability even though he could not give her child a home.
And there is the new footman, James – he seems to arrive from nowhere and has a disturbing air of secrecy about him, especially as Mr Bennet hires him without references:  ah, the plot is thickening!
This is a lovely story, a fitting below-stairs counterpoint running successfully parallel to all the events in Miss Austen’s masterwork.  There is lively humour and great warmth in Jo Baker’s recreation of Longbourn’s unsung heroes who make the Bennets’ lives so seamless that they can concentrate on the weighty problems of the day, i.e. sending Sarah to Meryton, a walk of several miles in the pouring rain so that Jane and Lizzie may have new ‘shoe roses’ for the ball to be held that night – and that is only the least of Sarah’s duties:  she is convinced that if Jane and Elizabeth were forced to do their own laundry they would be more careful of where they stepped, instead of trailing their skirts and petticoats so gaily through the mud of country lanes.
Ms Baker illustrates graphically and with great skill the enormous gap between those who employed and those who worked in the early 19th century;  the cruelty, unconscious  or otherwise, of always assuming that one’s servants belonged to the family body and soul - but to accuse such people of slavery would be unthinkable, an outrage:  – nay, they are part of the family!  The Bennets treat their servants most kindly – most of the time.
And Ms Baker presents an interesting side to Mr Bennet, that man of honour:  his humanity is tested and found sorely wanting, and there are more clever little twists to enjoy in this beautifully written tale of hypocrisy and double standards. 
It is possible that Miss Austen would be puzzled that someone would wish to write of a class beneath that which she portrayed so beautifully, but I am certain that notwithstanding she would salute Ms Baker’s great storytelling talent.
What a lovely Christmas gift this would be for all Jane Austen fans – and there are so many!  Highly recommended.