Friday, 29 June 2012

GREAT READS FOR JUNE 2012


The Golden Mean, by Annabel Lyon                                                          It is the year 343BC and Aristotle, revered student of Plato’s academy, superb logician, philosopher and teacher, has arrived in Pella, capital of the northern Greek city state of Macedon to greet and pass on messages to his old childhood friend and liege lord Phillip, king of Macedon.  Aristotle has recently married and is anxious to bring his new (and very young) wife Pythia to Athens, the cultural centre of the universe;  he frets that she will tire of him before their marriage has properly begun – he feels he must beguile and bribe her with new experiences and fine things in order to keep her with him.  Unfortunately for Aristotle, Phillip ‘requires’ him to stay on to be tutor to his 13 year-old son Alexander, and ‘no’ is not an acceptable answer.  On one hand, Aristotle hopes and prays that Pythia will not get restive and disgruntled after the exciting life he has painted for her does not immediately materialise, and on the other he is fascinated by his new student, a brilliant, relentlessly curious young boy who wants to be EVERYTHING:  an intellectual, a warrior, an athlete, an explorer of unknown lands – and the greatest conqueror of the known world.
Thus begins a relationship that lasts for years, Aristotle always attempting to instil within his headstrong charge the virtue of moderation over extremism in all things, the perfect balance between the two – the Golden Mean – with only partial effect.  Aristotle’s teachings are undermined on several levels by court intrigue from other, lesser tutors, and Alexander’s mother Olympias ‘s sick dependence on her beautiful son, not to mention the prince’s own dreams of glory.   He is gradually forced to relinquish all influence on Alexander and eventually is compelled to watch in horror as King Phillip is assassinated.  Though the prince is never blamed for his father’s murder, many fingers are pointed at Olympias as the culprit, but Alexander does not care:  he is now king and can embark on his life’s course.
Canadian writer Annabel Lyon writes beautifully of these great figures of history.  In spare, elegant,

sometimes bawdy prose she constructs the life and times of a militant people with great care and skill, and with almost ridiculous ease breathes thrilling life into ancient heroes of culture and war who have remained a huge influence on the world for more than 2000 years.  Highly recommended.

The Chemistry of Tears, by Peter Carey

Peter Carey is one of Australia’s most famous and prolific novelists;  he has won numerous literary awards, including the Man Booker Prize (twice!), and each new work is greeted with delight by his legions of admirers – including me:  after reading his marvellous comic novel ‘Parrot and Olivier in America’, (scroll down all the way to China to read that review!) I am a committed fan, and while there is much of a mechanical bent that went right over my head in this latest book, there is also much to savour and admire;  his wonderful facility for dialogue;  his great flare for mood and nuance, and the complete credibility of his characters.
Catherine Gehrig is a Conservator and Horologist for one of London’s many museums, the fictional Swinburne.  She restores and repairs all manner of clocks and antique mechanisms, and has had an all-consuming love affair for the last 13 years with a curator of Metals at the same institution, Matthew Tindall, a married man with two grown sons. Weekends and holidays with her lover, and her profession are all she needs to feel whole and a perfectly functioning, happy woman – until Matthew dies suddenly of a massive heart attack.  Catherine is reeling, unmanned, shocked to the core – and she can’t turn to anyone for sympathy, for her great love affair has been kept secret from her work colleagues, and she has no family she can turn to.  She is completely, frighteningly alone – she cannot even attend his funeral, for the official, despised ‘wife’ will be centre stage as chief mourner.
Catherine hits the booze for the next few days;  she can’t concentrate at all on her work, that of restoring a beautiful French clock, and vodka is the only thing that can get her through the nights - until her Head of Department, Eric Croft, presents her with a challenge that will eventually rouse her from her terrible grief sufficiently enough to start functioning again:  the restoration of an automaton, constructed in the 19th century for a rich English manufacturer, Henry Brandling.  His young son Percy was ailing and tubercular;  after embarking on many different and desperate cures, Brandling decided that an automaton, a mechanical duck, would be the last, greatest entertainment for his precious little boy.  Brandling’s journals are included with the huge jumble of parts, and the account of his trip to Germany in 1854 to find the very best Black Forest clockmaker to construct his dream enthrals Catherine:  Henry and Catherine narrate alternate chapters and the reader is enthralled too by Henry’s account of the man who eventually constructs for Henry not a duck, but something much more:  is he a liar, a conman, a visionary, a genius – or all of those things?
Peter Carey writes movingly about the grief suffered by both his protagonists:  the reader has great sympathy for them even though they are not always likeable, but the last third of the book is most memorable for the thrill that starts to build as the automaton, splendid and awe-inspiring, nears completion, and the gradual taking of centre-stage by Catherine’s gorgeous young Sloane Ranger assistant, who has started to manifest some worrying problems of her own.  There is also a last, final mystery for the reader to chew on, and this reader certainly didn’t solve it – engines big or small have always stayed under the bonnet for me, but the historical enigma intrigued me greatly, and probably will for a long time.  Highly recommended.

Wulf, by Hamish Clayton

Hamish Clayton was recently announced as the winner of the prize for the NZ Society of Authors Best First Book, and deservedly so:  he has written an extraordinary, mesmerising account of early 19th century New Zealand traders and their dealings with the brilliant and ruthless Te Rauparaha, using that feared Rangatira’s exploits as a modern retelling of the 10th century poem ‘Wulf’, a verse that has resisted clear translation by scholars ever since it was written – and shall probably continue to do so, because of the myriad shades of meaning in so many of the Old English words.
Here we have Mr. Clayton’s interpretation of the poem underlying factual events in 1830 when the merchant brig ‘Elizabeth’ sailed to New Zealand from Sydney to trade with Te Rauparaha.  At that time, Te Rauparaha was so powerful that he held sway over the lower North Island, and had ambitions to conquer Ngai Tahu who had a stronghold on Banks Peninsula.  Te Rauparaha himself had captured Kapiti Island and turned it into a fortress, unassailable to war parties of any number due to the brilliance of his military tactics.  He was justly feared and had fully earned his title ‘The Napoleon of the Pacific’.   His mana was held in awe by ‘the white goblins’ as well as all Maori, for this chief also held the monopoly over a huge region in the trade of flax and whale oil, for which he received tools, blankets – and muskets.
The ‘Elizabeth’s voyage is narrated by a nameless crewmember, a man aghast at the strangeness and beauty of this new and savage land, it’s cruel weather in winter turning into searing heat in summer, trees which in winter were black and green and gloomy, bursting in the new warmth into bloody riots of red:  everything seems to become its opposite.  The crew is entertained and enthralled during their trip down the coast to Kapiti by Cowell, the ship’s trading master, a young man fluent in Maori who has already met Te Rauparaha and is happy to relate stories of the great man’s exploits – and his utter ruthlessness when dealing with his enemies.  Cowell baptises him ‘The Wolf’, and the name takes hold.
Cowell is indeed a bard, a great spinner of tales to entertain and inform – but he is not able to counsel his captain and first mate against entering into a deal to receive enormous amounts of flax if they would consent to take Te Rauparaha and 120 of his warriors south to Banks Peninsula, hidden on the ‘Elizabeth’ there to capture by trickery  the Ngai Tahu chief Tamaiharanui and his family.  The predicted bloodbath ensues, and everyone is dishonoured by the outcome, including the captain of the ‘Elizabeth’:  as a last act of treachery, Te Rauparaha reneges on the fifty tons of flax he promised and the brig is forced eventually to return to Sydney and ignominy – and criminal charges against captain and crew for being accessories to the murder of ‘native New Zealanders’.
Mr. Clayton has told this story so convincingly that the reader journeys willingly with his beautifully realised characters every step of the way:  his juxtaposition of the old ‘Wulf’ with the new is clever and intriguing and it is satisfying to know that New Zealand literature has a superlative new voice to tell our stories.

The Gods of Gotham, by Lyndsay Faye
The city of New York in August, 1845:  it is high summer and all, especially the poor, are suffering from the dreadful heat and the illnesses that flourish in the noisome, rancid downtown tenements.  Despised Irish emigrants, arriving in their thousands from a home country that can no longer feed them – the Potato Famine has started – are clustered in rat-infested ghettos, wondering if they have jumped out of the frying pan into the fire:  their children are starving and the only work they can find is that which no ‘native’ will do.  Fires start easily in such conditions and a huge one, destroying several blocks, razes the accommodation, job and hopes of Timothy Wilde, barkeep, aged 27.  He has saved his wages for years so that he can eventually feel prosperous enough to offer marriage to charity worker Mercy Underhill, virtuous daughter of a protestant minister renowned for his tireless efforts on behalf of the poor – as long as they are not Irish catholics.  There is constant friction between Mercy and her father;  he lost his beloved wife to the cholera she contracted nursing those Irish savages and he can’t bear to think that his cherished girl would meet the same fate.  Mercy defies him at every turn, and Tim’s adoration of her knows no bounds.
  Sadly, he feels no such admiration for his elder brother Valentine who has looked after him (minimally, he feels) since the death of their parents in a farm fire when Tim was 10.  Valentine indulges all his animal appetites, is totally unscrupulous – and has just been made a captain in the newly created Police force, a fledgling organisation founded by Justice George Washington Matsell in a desperate attempt to instil some kind of lawful order to a city that wallows in chaos and anarchy.  Valentine ropes Tim in as a Roundsman for the 6th Ward, giving him a Copper Star to wear to signify he is on the side of right:  Tim hates his big, bluff brother even more but is forced to comply – he has lost everything in the fire and unless he wants to starve he must adapt to his new circumstances.  And what circumstances they are!
On his way home to his new lodgings he is nearly knocked over by a terrified little girl clad only in a pretty nightgown – it is soaked in blood not her own and there begins a mystery as fascinating and sordid as the great city itself, particularly when Tim establishes that the child is an escapee from a brothel, where there are other child prostitutes, all of whom are coerced into selling themselves because  ‘the madam provides fresh food’.
His police work uncovers the graves of twenty children, all with their rib cages opened like the sign of the cross:  it appears that a serial killer is abroad, intent on stoaking religious and racial hatred for whatever ends he desires, and the sacrifice of little children means nothing if they are all Irish.
This story is so fast-plotted and such a page-turner that I had to keep reading until the very end;  then I was sorry there wasn’t more.  (And it will take some time to guess whodunit:  this tale has more twists and turns than the reader can keep track of.)  Ms. Faye is a storyteller extraordinaire, evoking an excellent sense of time and place and characters that are utterly credible.  An added bonus for me was the ‘flash talk’, the thieves’ argot that has existed since the 17th century, evolving here into an 1840’s version and the forerunner to so many of our colloquial expressions – yep, a bloke was still a bloke in those days;  he hadn’t evolved into ‘dude’!  Highly recommended.      

           

               

Friday, 1 June 2012


GREAT READS FOR MAY, 2012

Cinder, by Marissa Meyer (Young adult reading)
Children’s librarian Wendy Fraser recommended this book to me, and as she’s seldom wrong in her reading choices (we have to agree to disagree about Nalini Singh) I’m happy to give this the ravingest (ravingest??) endorsement possible:  WHAT A STORY! 
The tale of Cinderella – yep, Cinderella, her nasty stepmum and the two stepsisters – is transferred hundreds of years into the future.  Cinderella is now Cinder, living in New Beijing with a family who are, to say the least, most reluctant guardians.  She is a mechanic (truly!) and a Cyborg, to her shame, having been fitted out with a steel hand, leg and inbuilt computer screen after a terrible childhood accident.  Cyborgs are the future’s Untouchables, considered fit only to perform the most menial and degrading of tasks, but Cinder is such a good mechanic that a Royal prince visits her to have his tutor android repaired, and after that visit she and the reader are lost:  she to alien romantic impulses (she is not programmed for this!)and a reluctant involvement in a life and death experiment -  and the reader to being nailed to one spot until they have reached the last page.
To add insult to injury, the hapless reader finds that after a thrilling journey at a breakneck pace through more clever plot twists than a pretzel, there are three more books to come – and they haven’t been written yet!  To say I feel cheated is an understatement and the withdrawal symptoms are dire, but I also say with complete confidence that ‘Cinder’ will be the next big Blockbuster book/movie series:  you read it here first.

Waiting for Sunrise, by William Boyd.
    
I have been a devoted fan of William Boyd’s since I read ‘Any Human Heart’.  He is a writer of elegance and style, and also has the exceptional gift of effortlessly generating suspense and mystery in his plots without belonging to the thriller genre.  One reviewer called him an expert writer of ‘the literary thriller’ and that is certainly true of ‘Waiting for Sunrise’.
It is 1913, the setting is Vienna, and Lysander Rief, a young British stage actor of middling success has decided to visit the Austrian capital because it is currently the centre of the daring new medical science of psychoanalysis:  he has a worrying sexual problem that he hopes will be resolved so that he doesn’t disappoint his new fiancĂ© when they eventually consummate their union.  Sadly, Lysander disgraces himself utterly by a series of ill-considered decisions, and eventually breaking his engagement turns out to be the least of his worries.  He must call on the help of an attachĂ© at the British embassy to help him flee the country, and is aghast to find upon his return to Britain that his saviours expect financial repayment for their assistance – but all will be forgotten if he will carry out a small intelligence mission for them.  He is asked in such a way that refusal is not an option;  his descent into espionage and life-threatening danger reveals a cunning and ingenuity he wasn’t aware he had, and a distressing, conscious lack of honour and conscience when ‘up against it’ which can be rationalised away  - except when he dreams. 
Mr. Boyd has created with great assurance the lowering atmosphere of Europe on the brink of the Great War, and the disintegration of one man’s shaky hold on principle and decency in his efforts to survive – he does, but at enormous personal cost.  Highly recommended.

Wild Thing, by Josh Bazell.
Peter Brown, former Mob hitman turned State’s evidence is on the run again.  Those Mafia heavies will NOT leave him alone to lead a respectable life undercover as a doctor in the witness protection programme and his mentors have had to remove him from danger yet again, (read Beat the Reaper review below) this time jacking him up a job as a physician on a cruise ship.  And THAT’S not all it’s cracked up to be – far from lolling around in a deck chair working on his tan, Peter finds that it’s 24/7 drudgery;  he and the rest of the crew have no say at all in their working conditions or lack of them, let alone a union to represent them – in short, the job stinks.  To add insult to injury he has been given a new name that sounds like a nasty medicine.  He is not happy!  But (in the best tradition of wildly-plotted novels of this type) salvation is at hand:  his mentor requires him on another more important job, this time to join an expedition financed by a reclusive billionaire (hereafter called Rec Bill) to explore the veracity of a claim that a creature similar to the Loch Ness Monster is terrorising people in a remote lake in Northern Minnesota.  Peter is recruited as part of the team so that he can test the truth of the claim, and to provide security and protection of a sort to the Palaeontologist sent by Rec Bill to verify whether the ‘Monster’ is real or a hoax.
Violet Hurst is not your usual idea of a Palaeontologist:  she is loud-mouthed, foul-mouthed and she bad-mouths;  she is half-drunk most of the time because she can’t bear to face our polluted and overpopulated world sober;  she is a doomsayer and a naysayer and her lack of belief in everything ordinary people (what are they?) hold dear gets her into some unenviable situations, but she is a very good scientist, can scale cliffs like a mountaineer and shows a resourcefulness under pressure that Peter can only describe as admirable: together they could conquer the world!  Or at least, find a prehistoric monster if it exists.
And from here, things start getting silly, not to say absurd;  the plot thickens to the extent that even Sarah Palin makes an unlikely appearance -  it’s obvious that Josh Bazell doesn’t like her or the Republican Party – but the plot could well have done without her inclusion.  There is the usual plethora of footnotes (some of them VERY funny) to clarify science for the reading masses, and Mr.Bazell has even included an appendix to prove all the assertions and theories Peter and Violet espouse in the book.  I found some of this so bewildering my brain was in danger of exploding, but having said that (now that I have come up for air!) ‘Wild Thing’ whilst indeed a wild read, was also a FUN read, with the right amount of suspense at the right time, and characters that remain so likeable and engaging that we look forward to meeting them again.  And Messrs. Lincoln and Child, those former masters of the absurdist crime genre, must be looking very sour at the advent of Josh Bazell, New Kid on the Block.

Beat the Reaper, by Josh Bazell.
Peter Brown is a first-year hospital doctor in Manhattan.  He is chronically tired, an arch-cynic, prone to taking all sorts of dubious meds to keep himself awake and firing, but he loves medicine and respects his Hippocratic oath.  He is a good and dedicated Medical practitioner.  And in a former life he was a ruthless hitman for the Mafia.  This is the first paradox in Mr. Bazell’s hugely entertaining novel:  the trained killer is now saving lives.  However, Peter’s former occupation is, naturally, a big and constant worry, especially as he fell foul of his Mob bosses and testified against them, gaining himself a much-needed place in the Witness Protection program.
Unfortunately, Peter is not the sort who fades into the background;  he’s enormous, a cross between Godzilla and Attila the Hun, but after six years of medical school and nary a sighting of his former employers, he is confident enough in his new identity to lead what passes for a normal life, as an overworked and underpaid member of the medical staff at Manhattan Catholic Hospital – until one of the ‘made men’ turns up for cancer surgery in Peter’s ward.  In a horrifyingly short time, Peter is on the run, and only his previous expertise at killing people can save him – oh, the corpses stack up at an alarming rate, and there are so many novel ways for the baddies to die:  did you know that the tibia in one’s leg can be removed (provided it’s done competently, without damaging the knee and ankle);  it’s not weight-bearing, and appears to be of no earthly use at all until Peter removes his own tibia, entirely without anaesthetic (naturally!) - to stab the arch Mafia villain in the heart.  What a warrior!  And Lincoln and Child, creators of Aloysius Pendergast, that peerless paragon of Right over Might, must be writhing with envy that they didn’t come up with anything half as outlandish.  Yep, the reader’s credulity is stretched to the utmost, but there is also much to admire in this story;  there are fascinating medical and historical footnotes, a huge and ironic twist in the tale towards its conclusion, and more humour than a body has a right to expect. 
On the library’s remark sheet at the front of the book, one person has written ‘Stupid’.  Fair enough, but another has written ‘awesome read, and that’s the one I’M going with

Salvage the Bones, by Jesmyn West.
This story is narrated by Esch Batiste, aged 15 and the second youngest child of a black scrap-dealer in a small Louisiana town near the Mississippi River delta.  She has two older brothers, Randall aged 17, and Skeetah, aged 15.  Junior, the youngest at 8, survived childbirth, but their mother didn’t, and the family has not managed well without her:  each carry their own memories of her loving ways and try to exist on them like a precious food that will soon run out, and they each have their defences against the harshness of their existence, Randall in his athleticism and the hope that he will eventually be eligible for a free school basketball training camp which could lead to a college scholarship, and Skeetah to make money for the family by breeding pups from his beloved pitbull, China.  Esch loves to learn and reads prodigiously, particularly the Myths of Greece, and one story, that of Jason and Medea, strikes her as having a similar parallel to her own hopeless yearnings for Randall’s best friend Manny.  The person most adrift is their Daddy, unmanned and helpless without his life’s partner.  He turns inward and away from his children, giving the new baby entirely into their inexperienced care;  for the next eight years he puts food on the table but very little else.  His heart has turned to stone.
Despite their poverty, the Batiste children still have their goals and aspirations - until  terrible unplanned events wreck their hopes:  they are floored by fate’s cruelty and don’t believe that things could get any worse – until they do, with their father bedridden by an awful, fluky accident, and Hurricane Katrina about to hit the Louisiana coast.
Ms. West’s account of the Hurricane alone is stark and terrible:  we are there trying to shield ourselves in our pathetic little shelter from the howling, roaring wind and waterfalls of rain;  we are completely given over to our gutclenching fear in the face of such a huge, elemental power, and watch in terrified disbelief as the water floods our mean little dwelling and threatens to drown us all.
I cannot remember when I last read such splendid prose.  Ms. West is a true wordsmith;  she paints compelling, unforgettable pictures with her beautiful language and her characters are so strong and true that I didn’t want her lovely book to end, for despite the parallels to Greek tragedy, the story ends on a triumphantly hopeful note:  the Batistes and their friends survive, and they survive because they love each other enough to make all the right sacrifices.  They now have even less than before, but what they have gained is immeasurable.  FIVE STARS!!!!!