Saturday, 21 March 2015

MORE GREAT READS FOR MARCH, 2015

Amnesia, by Peter Carey

As I have stated before (with tiresome regularity), I am this Australian author’s devoted fan.  Everything he writes has delighted me.  (see June 2012 review below)  He is the consummate writer, a wordsmith extraordinaire and a master of plotting – and every story is vastly different, including ‘Amnesia’, Mr Carey’s latest, a vigorous nod to computers in general and hackers in particular.
In ‘Amnesia’ he also gives us a potted history of 80 years of Australian politics, concentrating in particular on the shameful machinations by the CIA (never proven) to bring down the legally elected Labour Government of Gough Whitlam in 1975, for Whitlam was threatening to close down an American ‘facility’ at Woomera:  this dog was snapping instead of tail-wagging for its master and had to be removed, by any means possible.
A man who remembers that time vividly is Felix Moore, a former crusading journalist whose career is gurgling down the S bend, thanks to injudicious comments made in his latest book which have earned approbation from the court and the banning of his masterwork from publication.  And, as if that weren’t enough misfortune for a single day, his drunken efforts to make a grand gesture by burning all the copies of his labours results in the near razing of his family home, and the eviction of himself from the bosom of his family.  Felix has reached the bottom:  no money, no job, no family, no hope.  Nothing.
  Until his longtime friend and resident shady character, enormously rich property developer Woody Townes steps in to offer him a deal, complete with luxurious accommodation and all he can eat (and drink):  he wants Felix to write a biography of Gaby Bailleux, a young woman who has escaped from prison thanks to a worm she released into the computers of Australia’s prison system.  Needless to say, hundreds of other prisoners walked out and disappeared too, not to mention in the American prison system, also susceptible to the same worm:  it has lost prisoners by the tens of thousands.  The CIA are in pursuit but Gaby is nowhere to be found.  Woody, with the help of Gaby’s mother renowned actress Celine Bailleux, wants Felix to ‘humanise’ Gaby, to present her in the best possible light, preferably as a crusading cyber-evangelist, an angel battling against evil corporate technology, for if she is caught and extradited to the USA they are talking treason and the death penalty.  Felix is happy to oblige, seeing an opportunity to resurrect his own former journalistic career and integrity by doing so.
All well and good, but the more research Felix undertakes, the more bad smells start to emerge, and with Mr Carey’s usual facility, the first half of the novel transforms itself from a great Australian comic romp into Part Two, where the real, serious intent of the story – and Gaby’s intentions – are revealed.  Once again this peerless writer has produced the perfect story:  a madcap blend of humour, history, corporate greed, eco-terrorism, and all manner of technological nasties.  He’s a master.  Most 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’ 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 claiming 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.



Thursday, 5 March 2015

GREAT READS FOR MARCH, 2015

The Narrow Road to the Deep North, by Richard Flanagan

I had to read this book through my fingers, in the manner of watching horror movies where one is too scared to look, but doesn’t want to miss anything.  It is a brutal, horrifying epic, told so compellingly that it will stay with me whether I want it to or not, for Mr Flanagan is a teller of hard truths;  a bard of sorrow and regrets, but he has produced a singular work of terrible beauty.
            Mr Flanagan’s story operates on several levels:  it is primarily a love story between two highly disparate characters but serves also as a record of one of the most brutal periods in the history of the Second World War;  the building of the infamous Burma Railway by the slave labour of Australian prisoners of war.  Their Japanese captors expected – demanded that the p.o.ws work literally until they dropped (and died), clearing jungle, shifting enormous piles of rock with few tools and even less food, no rest,  and frequent sadistic beatings from the guards.  For all Japanese soldiers believed that it was the ultimate in dishonour to allow oneself to be captured:  to surrender displayed a cowardice that revealed the prisoners as less than human, therefore entirely expendable.
            Colonel Dorrigo Evans, a doctor, is the senior officer of the prisoners and accorded enormous respect by his men, for he has led by example, caring for them selflessly to the very best of his ability – which is considerable, for Dorrigo was a rising young surgeon at the start of the war and given officer rank as soon as he joined the Australian Army.  He is known in the camp as ‘The Big Fella’, a tribute to his physical size as well as his huge spiritual stature – but Dorrigo is a conflicted man.
            During Dorrigo’s medical training he made important connections among the privileged of Melbourne society, including a romance with a view to marriage with Ella, daughter of a prominent solicitor.  His future seems  assured – until he meets entirely by chance the new wife of his uncle Keith:  the resulting affair with Amy is incendiary and unforgettable, and Dorrigo’s comfortable future is turned on its ear.  He is almost relieved when war intervenes so that he may leave all his romantic problems behind, but he still makes Amy a promise ‘that he will come back to her’.  Ella receives no such assurance.
            The capture of Australian troops in Java after the fall of Singapore to Japan sees Dorrigo and his men transported to Siam to begin work on a railway that Western engineers said would be an impossiblility:  their Japanese counterparts are eager to prove them wrong, and with expendable slave labour they intend to finish the job in record time.
            Mr Lanagan paints terrible pictures of cruelty and privation with his luxurious prose, stressing always the unity and fellowship that such suffering engenders, even amongst those men who actively dislike each other;   conversely, he also presents the Japanese view of their prisoners, from Camp Commander Nakamura to a sadistic Korean guard the prisoners call The Goanna.  The Goanna is a monstrous character, a terrible vehicle of cruelty,  faithfully following every order. 
No-one, Japanese or Australian, who survived those camps emerged unscathed, least of all Dorrigo, who, after receiving a fateful letter as a POW descends into a fatalistic acceptance of his future as a war hero (spurious), glittering surgical career (why couldn’t he save those boys in the camps?) and a comfortable, (loveless) marriage.
And while I would have given anything to have avoided the brutality, the barbarism and the horror of Richard Flanagan’s superb Man Booker prize-winning novel, I am privileged to have experienced such a literary tour de force.  Most highly recommended.

The Missing and the Dead, by Stuart MacBride

True to form, I have made the acquaintance of hapless detective Logan MacRae in the ninth book of his adventures – to my disadvantage, for Logan is a thriller reader’s treasure:  canny;  brave (well, of course!);   not averse to using unconventional methods to catch the crims – to the despair of his superiors;  messy private life (I’ll say:  his girlfriend’s been in a coma for FOUR YEARS.  Whaaaat???);  and the absolute loyalty and devotion of his team in rural Aberdeenshire, where he has been posted (a demotion?  Of course not, merely a ‘development opportunity’.  For whom?  Certainly not Logan). 
            Yep, Logan must have trodden on a lot of Brassy toes in the previous books to have been consigned to what is essentially scraping up drunks and druggies off the pavement on Saturday nights, and rounding up stray livestock (any old night).  A change of uniform from Detective Inspector to the bullet-proof vest and black T shirt of Police Scotland is a far cry from what he is used to, but he tries to be philosophical about his new circumstances and rounds up drunks, druggies and cows diligently – until the body of a little girl is found in an abandoned swimming pool just outside one of the small towns he polices.
            Despite the arrival of a Major Investigation Team, there are no leads as to the identity of the little girl,  in fact their enquiries seem to reach a dead end on every front – and the last thing they need is a maverick consigned to the sticks trying to stick his oar in.
            Enter Detective Chief Inspector Roberta Steel, Logan’s former partner, proud wife of Susan and mother of a daughter for whom Logan donated the sperm (yes, truly!  I wish I’d gotten onto these books sooner, then all these revelations would seem quite normal).  Regardless of her various little quirks (she is serially unfaithful) DCI Steel also thinks outside the square, and she needs Logan’s help.  Which is not forthcoming, for he has been ordered to stay away from all pending investigations, on pain of dismissal.  He has been accused – not entirely without foundation – of wrecking months of other peoples’ investigative work with his under-the-radar methods, so Steel will have to soldier on alone.
            This is a great read.  Mr MacBride has another more recent anti-hero, detective Ash Henderson in operation (see review below), which is how I was introduced to this latest opus.  What makes Mr MacBride’s stories so credible is his skill at writing of the foibles and vagaries of characters so real we can recognise in them people we know – and ourselves.  He is a superb storyteller, and lifts crime-writing up several notches with each book.  Highly recommended.   

A song for the Dying, by Stuart MacBride

As always, I found after starting this story that there was a previous work, ‘Birthdays for the Dead’.  Lots of awful things happened in the first book, including the murder of protagonist Detective Ash Henderson’s daughters and his imprisonment for the murder of his brother – a frame up:  to say that Ash has had a rough ride is a euphemism of the first order, and at the start of book two there is only one thing on Ash’s mind:  revenge.
As this story unfolded I found myself glad that I had missed Book One:  the various tragedies that Detective Henderson has to live with are almost too horrible for this craven reader to contemplate;  in fact it was all I could do to stop myself from physically recoiling at the gruesomeness of the current plot, let alone roll around in the bloodbath of Plot One – I know, I know, it’s only a story, but I have never been very good at reading about cruelty and sadism, especially when it involves children:  it is then that I wish that I was a fan of Mills and Boon.
Having said that, I must also state that I could not put this book down.
Mr MacBride has created a nightmare landscape in the Scottish city of Oldcastle, a classic battleground of good and evil where the goodies are sometimes worse than those who commit the crimes.  In his long experience Ash sees the new order of PCness and criminals having – and knowing – their ‘rights’ as an unforgivable delay in the capture of bad guys, and a further erosion of the rights of decent people – the victims.  Not that he can do anything about it from Inside, languishing on his trumped-up charges and attending futile meetings of the Parole Board.  Until …..
Until he is suddenly released from Jail by the head of a new crime unit established to find a serial killer whom everyone thought had disappeared eight years before, a killer of nurses.  Prior to his misfortune, Ash had had some success at investigating the killings and was known for his ability to think laterally.  His skills are needed in the latest investigation, for ‘The Inside Man’ has struck again:  Oldcastle is in a panic.
There are more twists and turns to this plot than a pretzel, and I admire Mr MacBride’s expertise in keeping all the balls in the air without dropping a single one.  I found Detective Ash (despite his obvious bitterness and thirst for blood) to be a lot more credible than most of his counterparts in crime fiction.  He is also completely professional, eventually finding the killer – and you’ll never guess, EVER, who it is! – before he goes after the people who put him in prison, which is exactly as it should be.  His reluctant team mates – he is a jailbird, after all – are carefully drawn and individual delights, but if I have an ongoing criticism it is this:  it rains in Oldcastle ALL THE TIME. 
Couldn’t the reader have enjoyed a few rays of sunshine as relief from Mr MacBride’s Shakespearean blasted heath?  A little bit of sun never hurt anyone;  as it is, we must rely on the warmth and relief of clever, funny dialogue and gallows humour to light up the gloom, and that’s no bad thing;  in fact in a story like this it is vital.  Highly recommended.