Reviews by Cloggie Downunder

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The Last Painting of Sara de Vos: A Novel
by Dominic Smith
a very readable tale (4/20/2016)
‘The cold air burns her cheeks as she skates along, pushing into long glides, her hands behind her back, the sound of her skate blades like the sharpening of a knife on whetstone. She wants to skate for miles, to fall until midnight into thi bracing pleasure. The bare trees glitter with ice along the riverbank, a complement to the winking stars. The night feels unpeeled, as if she’s burrowed into its flesh. Here is the bone and armature, the trees holding up the sky like the ribs of a ship, the ice hardening the river into a mirror too dull to see the sky’s full reflection… there are pockets of time, she thinks, where every sense rings like a bell, where the world brims with fleeting grace”

The Last Painting of Sara de Vos is the fourth novel by prize-winning Australian-born author, Dominic Smith. “At the Edge of a Wood”: a haunting and evocative landscape from the Dutch Golden Age, painted by the first woman to be admitted to the Haarlem Guild of St Luke, Sara de Vos, and believed to be her last known work.

It had been in Marty de Groot’s family for over three hundred years when it was stolen from his Manhattan bedroom. It was replaced with a forgery that was so skilfully executed, it was six months before he even noticed. Police and insurance agents made no headway, but finally a privately-engaged investigator tracked down the artist.

Marty intends to confront the forger, a young Australian woman named Eleanor Shipley, who consults in art restoration and conservation, while completing her dissertation on Dutch women painters of the Golden Age for her art history Ph.D. at Columbia. But his meeting with Ellie does not go quite as he had intended.

Smith uses three separate timelines to follow the progress and fates the painting, and those people in whose lives it plays a significant role: the mid-17th Century introduces Sara de Vos and details the circumstances under which her artwork was created; the late-1950s describes the production of the forgery and the aftermath of its discovery; the year 2000 tells of the effects of the threatened exposure of the fake on a hard-won reputation.

Smith’s plot is original and his inclusion of a wealth of information on 17th Century Dutch art, on the restoration and preservation of artworks and on the making of forgeries gives it a genuine feel. His characters are multi-faceted and interesting, some genuine, some misrepresenting who they are and what they know. How lives are affected by secrets kept, by regret and by guilt over past actions is a major element of this story.

Smith treats the reader to some marvellous descriptive prose: “…it strikes her that she has never painted exactly what she sees. Surely, this is the way of all art. The painter sees the world as if through the watery lens of a pond. Certain things ripple and distort while others are magnified and strangely clear” and “You live among the ruins of the past, carry them in your pockets, wishing you’d been decent and loving and talented and brave. Instead you were vain and selfish, capable of love but always giving less than everything you had” are examples.

Also: “The truer statement was that she’d used the de Vos canvas as a testing ground for her own thwarted talents, that she was reckless and lonely and angry with the world, that she craved a kind of communion, to find a layer beneath the glazes and scumbles and lead white where Sara herself still trudged through the fog of antique varnish, wracked by grief but somehow dispensing painterly wisdom.”

Smith easily conveys the 17th Century, including many interesting details about everyday life and the world of the Golden Age artist in the Netherlands; his portrayal Sydney during the Millennium is equally effective; his rendering of the late-1950s is less convincing. His blend of fiction with historical fact makes for a very readable tale.

4.5 stars
Amnesia: A novel
by Peter Carey
an enjoyable read (4/16/2016)
Amnesia is the fourteenth novel by award-winning Australian novelist, Peter Carey. The Angel Worm: a virus that proves to be a security nightmare when it opens prisons around Australia. And worse still, infects the big parent security firm in the United States, attracting the ire of the CIA and other security entities. When the hacker is discovered to be a young Melbourne woman, journalist Felix Moore is surprised to find himself involved.

Actress Celine Baillieux is desperate to prevent her daughter, Gaby’s extradition to the United States for unleashing said virus, and calls on her old Uni mate to write a biography that will exonerate this feisty young woman. Property developer, Woody Townes, the man who has extracted Felix from many a dire situation, is enlisted to facilitate matters.

But is Felix, “the most controversial journalist of his age”, known for ruining reputations and manufacturing quotes (“He freely admitted that he not only made up quotes but had also been accused of making up quotes, ‘but never the quotes I actually made up.’”) the right person for the job? It seems Felix has a fixation on the role of the United States in Australia’s politics: the “Battle of Brisbane” and the 1975 Dismissal feature prominently in the tale he constructs.

Carey gathers together a diverse cast of characters, people the reader will recognise from everyday life: the Local Member intent of preserving image; the ageing actress isolated from her theatre milieu in a working-class suburb; the highly intelligent students able to run rings around security to further their cause; the property developer with a finger in many pies; petty crooks trying to make it big; and greenies determined to expose corporate cover-ups.

Carey gives the reader plenty of humour, both in the dialogue between the characters and in the predicaments in which he places his protagonist. Felix is charmed, spoiled, kidnapped, isolated, forced to live rough and made to produce his manuscript with technology that is virtually obsolete (cassette tapes, paper and a typewriter, no less!). The back-cover blurb is quite misleading, as the story goes in a completely different direction. The pace could perhaps have been faster: occasionally, the story seemed to lose momentum. Nonetheless, an enjoyable read.
The Argonauts
by Maggie Nelson
An unusual memoir. (4/9/2016)
“In Opie’s nursing self-portrait, she holds and beholds her son Oliver while he nurses, her Pervert scar still visible, albeit ghosted, across her chest. The ghosted scar offers a rebus of sodomitical maternity: the pervert need not die or even go into hiding per se, but nor is adult sexuality foisted upon the child, made its burden”

The Argonauts is the ninth book by American poet, art critic, lyric essayist and nonfiction author, Maggie Nelson. Described as a memoir, it is more of an opinion piece on LGBTQ issues, in particular, transgender and queer. It is told in the first person by Nelson, and addressed to her (fluidly-gendered) “husband”, artist, performer and writer Harry Dodge.

Nelson touches on a myriad of topics: gender and identity, motherhood, transgender, queer families, same-sex marriage, writing and death. The opinion pieces contain occasional gems of wisdom, but soon become somewhat preachy, tedious, and boring. Many of the people described have the luxury of indulging in first-world angst, so perhaps this is the intended reader base for this book.

Sometimes the writing is not easily accessible: the concepts are so abstract and high-brow, the sentences so convoluted as to need rereading multiple times; no reader enjoys being made to feel stupid or ignorant. Nelson assumes in the reader familiarity with certain linguists, philosophers, writers, artists, poets, psychoanalysts, and unquestionably a basic knowledge of their works, ideas and concepts would increase the appeal of the book. When she quotes the work of others, her reference appears as a name printed in the margin of the text.

What redeems this work from a lower rating is that Nelson (and sometimes Harry) shares important parts of their lives: their relationship as lovers and their wedding, Harry’s steps towards transgender, Nelson’s relationship with her stepson, Nelson’s stalker, their journey toward parenthood and the birth of their son, Iggy. Harry’s account of his mother’s passing is quite moving.

Nelson has won the 2015 New York Times Notable Book and the 2016 National Book Critics Circle Award (Criticism) for The Argonauts. An unusual memoir.
The Secret History
by Donna Tartt
a compelling read (4/3/2016)
“…people never seemed to notice at first how big Henry was. Maybe it was because of his clothes, which were like one of those lame but curiously impenetrable disguises from a comic book (why does no one ever see that ‘bookish’ Clark Kent, without his glasses, is Superman?). Or maybe it was a question of his making people see. He had the far more remarkable talent of making himself invisible – in a room, in a car, a virtual ability to dematerialise at will – and perhaps this gift was only the converse of that one: the sudden concentration of his wandering molecules rendering his shadowy form solid, all at once, a metamorphosis startling the viewer.”

The Secret History is the first novel by American author, Donna Tartt. At the age of nineteen, Richard Papen goes to Hampden College in Vermont, primarily to get away from his parents and his depressingly boring hometown of Plano, CA. Having done two years of study in Ancient Greek, he jumps at the opportunity to join an exclusive class of five students studying The Classics under the very selective Julian Morrow.

Richard is somewhat dazzled by his fellow students: Henry Winter, dark-suited, stiff, aloof and extremely intelligent; Francis Abernathy, angular and elegant; the beautiful twins, Charles and Camilla Macaulay, and Bunny Corcoran, loud and cheery. Never does he dream that within a few months, one of their number will be dead.

At the centre of this book, both figuratively and literally, is a murder. The narrative is split into two: what led up to the murder, and the aftermath. The story is told by Richard some nine years after he went to Vermont. Tartt advances her story at a slow and careful pace; her characters, flawed and not necessarily appealing, develop as Richard gets to know them; her descriptive prose expertly evokes the atmosphere of the New England college.

So naturally do events lead into one another that the reader occasionally needs to step back and think: this is murder they are so matter-of-factly discussing. Black humour relieves the tension: the twins, upbraided for their failure to plan a meal, retort “Well, if you wake up intending to murder someone at two o’clock, you hardly think what you’re going to feed the corpse for dinner”.

As well as giving the reader plenty to think about (the value of life, self-preservation, friendship any loyalty), there is a plot with a few interesting turns and a quite unexpected climax. Tartt combines the story-telling talent of Stephen King with prose worthy of Wallace Stegner: the result is a compelling read that will stay with the reader long after the last page is turned.
Electra: Delphic Women Mystery
by Kerry Greenwood
An interesting read. (3/22/2016)
Electra is the third book in the Delphic Women series by Australian author, Kerry Greenwood. Electra’s father, Agamemnon of the House of Atreus, has been victorious in Troy, and is about to return to Mycenae with a Trojan slave concubine, Cassandra, when she becomes aware of the plot by her mother, Clytemnestra and her mother’s lover, Aegithus, to murder Agamemnon. Despite her privileged and secluded life, she assists Diomenes, an Asclepid healer, and Eumides, a Trojan sailor to enter the quarters to rescue Cassandra.

Having seen Agamemnon slain, Electra must flee, and takes her ten-year-old brother, Orestes with her. She is invited to accompany the trio to Delphi. Meanwhile, Odysseus is still at sea, unable to return to his wife and child in Ithica while Poseidon’s wrath remains. And the Gods argue over the fate of the House of Atreus.

Greenwood tells the story in four narrative strands: Cassandra, Electra and Odysseus each relate events from their perspective, and the deliberations of the Gods are reported from time to time. Greenwood’s extensive research is apparent on every page, but her writing style and attention to detail ensures that what could dry and boring is made absorbing and easy to assimilate.

By infusing the characters with personality and emotion, strengths and weaknesses, and giving them everyday conversation, Greenwood takes Classic Greek mythology and makes it palatable. While this is the final book of a trilogy, it can be read as a stand-alone. An interesting read.
The Versions of Us
by Laura Barnett
a brilliant debut novel (3/6/2016)
“Jim, looking back at his lovely, handsome son….had felt so full of pride and love that for a moment he’d been unable to speak. And so he’d simply slung his arm around Dylan’s shoulders, thinking that he’d never expected things to turn out like this; but then he’d lived long enough to understand the futility of expecting anything at all”

Cambridge, 1958: trying to avoid a small white dog on the path, a young woman swerves her bicycle and ends up with a puncture. A young man notes her plight and offers to help. After some conversation and consideration, they head for his room together to effect the repair. But what if she manages, narrowly, to avoid the dog and the puncture, and curtly dismisses the young man’s concerned "Are you alright there”? Or what if she falls off the bike, twists her ankle, the young man offers to help, and convinces her to skip class and come to the pub? For university students Eva Edelstein and Jim Taylor, three almost identical encounters with three different outcomes.

Where some authors might tentatively explore the “what if” scenario, Barnett executes her exploration with an elegant finesse that belies her status as a first-time author. There are three distinct timelines, each clearly marked, running in parallel throughout the book. In three separate stories, the reader observes Jim and Eva forming relationships (not necessarily with each other) and experiencing the highs and lows of everyday life.

Each chapter updates the reader on their lives at a certain time (alone or together, depending on the version and the narrator), thus covering almost sixty years. In each version there are many common elements: friends, acquaintances and family members are the same, as are mostly their character and personal details; children necessarily differ as they are begotten at different times and to different couples; incidents, anecdotes, certain themes and occasionally whole conversations occur in most or all versions. All of this gives the reader insight into emotions experienced and choices made.

Barnett’s characters are appealing: the reader easily shares their hopes, their joys and sorrows, and is occasionally dismayed by their poor behaviour. The storylines are all wholly believable: events in their lives are what happen to us all. Barnett manages to effortlessly locate her stories in place and time with the seamless inclusion of the topical: news, fashion, music, literature, popular culture.

Barnett’s writing, her themes, her characters and her style are very reminiscent of that of David Nicholls, and perhaps Anne Tyler and Kate Atkinson (Life After Life). While it can be a bit challenging to keep the three versions (with so much in common) distinct while reading, taking notes does help, and the beautiful descriptive prose more than makes up for any inconvenience.
"He stands for a moment before opening the studio door, looking down at the beach, flooded with a disorientating happiness; and he savours it, drinks it in, because he is old enough now to know happiness for what it is: brief and fleeting, not a state to strive for, to seek to live in, but to catch when it comes, and hold on to for as long as you can".

“…Jim doesn’t care: he is thinking only about when he will see Eva again. For all the years he has spent without her are dulling now, losing their shape and colour – as if he were sleepwalking through them, and has only just remembered what it is to be fully awake” are just a few examples of this. This is a brilliant debut, and fans of this style will look for more from Laura Barnett. 4.5 stars.
The Zahir: A Novel of Obsession
by Paulo Coelho
dull (3/6/2016)
The Zahir is the sixth stand-alone book by Brazil-born author, Paulo Coelho. It is translated from Portuguese by Margaret Jull Costa. Esther, a journalist and the wife of a best-selling author disappears from their home in Paris. Once the police release him from custody, dismissing the idea that he may have been responsible, he begins to wonder what has happened. He is soon convinced that she left him voluntarily, despite her occasionally dangerous job as a war correspondent. For two years, he remains obsessed about learning the reason she left him.

The first thing the narrator does is find himself a girlfriend. Then, suitably catered for sexually, he laments his inability to understand why his wife left him. As the narrator (eventually, after more than two years) sets about looking for her, the tale is filled with waffle about finding oneself, pure divine energy, spiritual journey, and energy of love flowing around the world. Much of it seems to be a vehicle for expressing the author’s opinion about topics like wealth, sex and fidelity, marriage, and power.

From the narrator’s history it would seem that this story is largely autobiographical. The author must have quite some charisma in person, because on paper his attitude and arrogance are unappealing. The dialogue is wooden (although perhaps this is a function of the translation); the prose is dull; much of the story feels contrived. This book might appeal to men of a Latin background who fancy themselves on a spiritual journey.
The Quality of Silence
by Rosamund Lupton
A brilliant read (2/27/2016)
“He knew now that a landslide a hundred feet wide was moving towards the ice road, frozen soil and rocks and shrunken trees stealing closer by a few centimetres a day, gaining speed and destroying anything in their way; as if the land itself, like the cold, was not just passively hostile but actively aggressive”

The Quality of Silence is the third novel by bestselling British author, Rosamund Lupton. When Yasmin Alfredson and her ten-and-a-half year-old daughter, Ruby, arrive at Fairbanks, Alaska, they expect that husband and father, Matthew there to meet them. Instead, a police officer is telling Yasmin that the remote village where Matthew was photographing wildlife, Anaktue has been burned to the ground with all lives lost. And the finding of Matthew’s wedding ring seems to confirm that he is one of the victims.

But Yasmin remains unconvinced; she is steadfast in her belief that her husband is still alive, alone in the wilderness, and is determined to find him before the predicted storm hits. With no safe place to leave Ruby, Yasmin is obliged to bring her profoundly deaf daughter along. No available flights mean that road transport is the only option, and before long, events see Yasmin driving a loaded eighteen-wheeler in the Arctic dark of November on an ice road. And someone seems to be following them.

Lupton’s plot is original, while her characters have depth and appeal; she states in the acknowledgements that she wanted her heroine to be courageous and imaginative, and Ruby certainly is that, with her deafness adding a unique perspective. Lupton conveys the Arctic cold and dark with consummate ease. The reader is treated to some beautiful descriptive prose.

This is a real page-turner of a book with a nail-biting climax (or two), twists and red herrings to keep it all interesting, and a strong environmental message to convey. Lupton’s extensive research into Arctic life, animals and people, into fracking, and into deafness (as well as her personal experience on this subject) is apparent on every page. Readers will find themselves contemplating society’s attitude to disabilities like deafness, as well as the pros and cons of fracking.

If the reader can sufficiently suspend disbelief about a relatively inexperienced English driver successfully operating an American eighteen-wheeler on an ice road in the dark, then this is a brilliant read.
After the Fire, a Still Small Voice
by Evie Wyld
A stunning debut (2/21/2016)
“Eucalyptus blanketed the room. He had the feeling that the trees were peering in through the windows, that they had uprooted and crept over to take a peek. The leaves of the banana tree on the roof were a gentle tap tap tap let me in”

After the Fire, a Still Small Voice is the first novel by prize-winning Australian author, Evie Wyld. A story that spans three generations, it is told from the perspective of Frank, who, in the present day, is fleeing behaviour he is ashamed of; and of Leon, decades earlier, forced to follow in his father’s footsteps.

Frank arrives at Mulaburry, determined that life in his grandparents’ hut in the cane-fields will help him forget Lucy, the woman he mistreated. “The clearing was smaller than he remembered, like the cane had slunk closer to the pale wooden box hut. The banana tree stooped low over a corrugated roof”.

Having watched the broken remains of his father, once a master baker, return from the Korean War, Leon finds himself plucked from his own baking career to land in the jungles of Vietnam.

Wyld alternates the narratives so that the significant events of each man’s life are gradually revealed, and the reader learns how one man’s history impacts on that of the other. There are common elements to each narrative, echoes that draw the stories together: the wedding-cake figurines, the baker’s fare, the cane-fields hut.

Wyld’s characters are real and flawed, characters for whom the reader can readily hope, be disappointed in and exult in minor triumphs. Their moods are deftly evoked: “With effort he stood up, ignored the squealed noises of the teacher, the weird electric sound of laughter, saw only that Amy Blackwell’s blue eyes watched him as he walked out of the classroom, away from the school, heavy enough that he might sink into the ground and suffocate, or else fall on the pavement and shatter into splinters”

Wyld touches on some topical and age-old issues: domestic violence; child abduction; the devastating effect of war on the combatants’ psyche; the lack of support for Vietnam Veterans; racial discrimination. Wyld has a talent for descriptive prose and conveys her settings with consummate ease: the humidity of the Vietnamese jungle, the sounds of the Queensland cane-field, the langour of a Sydney Christmas, all are vividly heard, seen and felt. A stunning debut.
The Life of Elves
by Muriel Barbery
Something quite different from Muriel Barbery. (2/21/2016)
“…she looked up at him with her eyes as blue as the torrents from the glacier, with a gaze in which the angels of mystery sang. And life flowed down the slopes of the Sasso with the slowness and intensity of those places where everything requires effort but also takes its time, in the current of a bygone dream where humankind knew languor interwoven with the bitterness of the world”

The Life of Elves is the third novel by prize-winning French novelist and professor of philosophy, Muriel Barbery. Two orphan girls grow up, unaware, initially, of each other, and of the integral role they will play in the battle of good versus evil.

Clara is raised in a secluded Italian mountain village by a priest and his ageing housekeeper until her prodigious musical talent sees her taken to study with the Maestro in Rome.

Maria grows up in a remote French farming village, surrounded by loving parents, elderly aunts and cousins. Not until a major battle looms do they begin to realise how important they are to the future of humankind.

Readers familiar with The Gourmet (aka Gourmet Rhapsody) and The Elegance of the Hedgehog should be aware that this book is a major departure in style from Barbery’s earlier works.

This book, too, has some beautiful descriptive prose, but, whereas her earlier novels abound with quirky characters, witty dialogue and gems of wisdom, this one is more plot-driven and involves the realm of fantasy (perhaps obvious from the title).

Prose like “…while the people of this land might be sculpted into jagged rock by wind and snow, they are also fashioned by the poetry of their landscape, which makes shepherds compose rhymes in the icy fog of the high pastures, and storms give birth to hamlets that dangle from the web of the sky” is de riguer for this story.

Major themes of this book include the importance of the connection between humankind and the Earth, nature, and the arts. Flawlessly translated into English by Alison Anderson, the book also provides a very useful index of characters at the beginning. Readers who enjoy this novel will be pleased to know that Barbery is working on a sequel. Something quite different from Muriel Barbery.
A Cure for Suicide
by Jesse Ball
An interesting read (2/16/2016)
“Time passed. After some number of days, one particular day arrived, and in the midst of that day, it was midday. The sun was shining so brightly overhead it seemed that every blade of grass could be made out, each from the others. It was a sort of harmony – nothing could be hidden, nothing at all beneath the sky”.

A Cure For Suicide is the fifth novel by prize-winning American author, Jesse Ball. It begins with a nameless man (the claimant) who is living in a house in a village (Gentlest Village) where he is taught the basic activities of daily living by a doctor/guide (the examiner). The claimant is told he almost died, and is now being healed. The Process of Villages is the treatment he will undergo, the cure for suicide. Set somewhere far into the future, or in a parallel universe, Ball’s world, and certainly many of the character names, have a slightly Scandinavian feel to it (perhaps not surprising, given his Icelandic wife).

If the reader can get past the first (somewhat bizarre) two thirds of the novel, then the discussion between the petitioner and the interlocutor forms an explanation of how the nameless man came to be going through the Process of Villages. While the lack of quotation marks for speech can be irritating, it is generally not a barrier to understanding who is speaking, except during the discussion with the interlocutor, when conversations reported at third or fourth remove create quite complicated sentences.

Ball’s style is simple and stark, but his descriptive prose is, nonetheless, evocative: “She sat at a desk with her back to him, writing long into the night as she always did. The light from the fixture in that room was shabby. It fell very bitterly over the room, and some of the light from a lamp in the street contested with it. The effect was: as she sat at her desk she looked like a figure in a woodcut. And she sat as still” and “The manager, a yellowed, rancid sort of man, the type who seldom clip his nails, who believes they need be clipped less often than you and I do….”are two examples.

Ball describes a world where depression and heartbreak appear to be eliminated by amnesiac treatments: what led to the nameless man’s therapy is a moving tale, and perhaps Ball is leading the reader to consider the ethics of medicalising grief. The conclusion will leave the reader wondering about the sincerity (or otherwise) of a key character. An interesting read. 3.5 stars
Be Frank With Me
by Julia Claiborne Johnson
poignant, thought-provoking and, above all, very funny (2/16/2016)
“’Frank will be okay, Alice,’ Mr. Vargas said. ‘He’s an odd duck, but brilliant children often are. It may take him a while, but someday he’ll figure out how to live in the world of ordinary mortals.’”

Be Frank With Me is the first novel by American author, Julia Claiborne Johnson. When reclusive author, M.M.Banning (aka Mimi Gillespie) contacts Isaac Vargas, her New York publisher, to ask for help with a new book, he is prepared to bend over backwards to assist. Years ago, her first (and only) book was such a popular bestseller that she went into hiding in California; now, a drastic change in financial circumstances means Mimi needs a publishing success.

Which is why accountancy graduate, Alice Whitely finds herself on Mimi’s Bel Air doorstep, her brief being to do whatever is necessary to allow Mimi to finish her book. When she meets nine-year-old Frank, she is at once fascinated, curious and, quite soon, wondering just what she has let herself in for. Because Frank is different: his encyclopaedic knowledge of the film industry and his movie-character wardrobe ensure that he stands apart, wherever he goes.

Johnson gives her reader a cast of characters who, for all their flaws, are truly appealing: despite his quirks (or perhaps because of them), Frank is instantly likeable; Mimi is prickly and rude, but her obvious love for Frank overrides that in spades; Alice misses the point occasionally, but her heart is in the right place, as is Xander’s, even if reliability is not his forte.

While there are plenty of laugh-out-loud moments, there are also quite a few to choke the reader up, and Johnson explores some age-old issues: how overwhelming guilt can affect the one who bears it; and why society sets such a high value on conformity. And while the plot involves broken glass, explosions and fire, as well as a bit of detective work, there is a heart-warming happy ending. This is a stunning debut novel: poignant, thought-provoking and, above all, very funny.
The Temporary Gentleman
by Sebastian Barry
beautiful, sad, brilliant (2/8/2016)
“For myself, I could only wonder at her - was this a sort of evil borrowed from alcohol? I didn’t believe that in herself, in her heart and soul, she was a vicious woman. How is it that for some people drinking is a short-term loan on the spirit, but for others a heavy mortgage on the soul? How is it many a drinker becomes gay and light-hearted, but some so darkly morose and rescinded, filleted of every scrap of happiness, that they might beat their child in the snow?”

The Temporary Gentleman is the thirteenth novel by award-winning Irish author, Sebastian Barry, and his fifth work about the McNulty Family. Now in his mid-fifties, civil engineer and former UN observer, Jack McNulty sits in his rented house in Accra, Ghana, writing about his life in an old minute-book of the now-defunct Gold Coast Engineering and Bridge-Building Company, because “there is a lot to be said for writing things down. The fog gets pushed away, and the truth or some semblance of it stands stark and naked, not always a comfortable matter, no”

Now redundant in Ghana, Jack feels he should go back to Sligo, to what remains of his family, whose story he tells, interspersed with snippets of his life in Accra. While he includes his work in bomb disposal, engineering and as a diplomat, and his extended family, the overwhelming bulk of his account concerns the love of his life, the beautiful and popular Mai Kirwan, whom he met when studying engineering at college: “The waterfall of her black hair, the hat like a boat trying to weather it, her eyes dark in the dark carriage, not so much absent as deep, deep as a well, with the water a far coin below of brightness and blackness”

Readers familiar with Barry’s work will appreciate the mention of many characters recognisable from his other works about this family, although some have different names. A bit of background knowledge of the Troubles in Ireland is also helpful, as much of the novel is set against this background. As Jack finally admits his responsibility for certain heart-breaking events of his past, Barry adds another layer to the engrossing McNulty history.

Barry again succinctly comments about the devastating effect that the change of ruling party can have on those whose loyalties were seen to be with the “other” side: “What strange men were about the earth, after this half century of wars. Men who once were true, and their very trueness turned into betrayal, as the pages of history turn in the wind. Men who were vicious and oftentimes ruthless, turned into heroes and patriots. And a hundred shades and mixtures of both”

Readers are once again treated to the wonderful descriptive prose of which Barry is a master: “We could see the coast of Africa lying out along a minutely fidgeting shoreline. The only illuminations were the merry lights of the ship, and the sombre philosophical lights of God above. Otherwise the land ahead was favoured only by darkness, a confident brushstroke of rich, black ink” and “A lark, a single bird with her dowdy plumage, burst up from her cup of sand just in front of me and like a needle flashing in my mother’s hand of old made a long stitch between earth and heaven, with a joyousness that rent my heart” are just two examples. Both beautiful and sad, this is another brilliant read from Sebastian Barry.
Cure: A Journey into the Science of Mind Over Body
by Jo Marchant
An absolutely fascinating read. (2/1/2016)
“…in many situations, we have the capacity to influence our own health, by harnessing the power of the (conscious and unconscious) mind”

Cure: A Journey into the Science of Mind Over Body is the third book by British scientist, science journalist and editor, Jo Marchant. In it, she looks at many different, often “alternative” therapies and examines the claims they make in a rational and thoughtful manner. Many of the results are not just unexpected, but frequently quite astounding. If Text had offered a “be surprised or your money back” guarantee on this one, it would have been a safe bet for them.

Quoting actual trials and real patients, Marchant reveals some stunning facts about placebos, looks at how to train the immune system, fighting fatigue, hypnotherapy for a myriad of ailments, and pain therapy of quite a different nature (will some future pain relief trials be funded by gaming software developers?). Marchant looks at biofeedback, mindfulness, talk therapy, reiki and prayer, and reports amazing results in conditions as diverse as autism, IBS, spinal surgery, ageing, HIV, childbirth third degree burns, autoimmune disease, Parkinson’s and transplant rejection.

She speculates on a different approach to aged care: “What if reshaped care for the elderly not around managing their decline, but harvesting their abilities? We could use that ageing brain to give back to a society that’s in great need…..We don’t know what the message does to a person when they are told ageing is a time of deterioration. If we reframe it, and say ageing is a time to give back to others, it might actually help them age better”

She concludes that “…the vast majority of health problems we face aren’t physical or psychological – they are both”. She also tells us “At the heart of almost all the pathways I’ve learned about is one guiding principle: if we feel safe, cared for and in control – in a critical moment during injury or disease, or generally throughout our lives – we do better. We feel less pain, less fatigue, less sickness. Our immune system works with us instead of against us. Our bodies ease off on emergency defences and can focus on repair and growth”.

All the information that Marchant conveys may be readily available, but her talent, no doubt a product of her career in both science and journalism, is to compile and present it in an easily understandable form for readers without scientific expertise. Readers will find themselves looking at how they can apply these discoveries to their own lives and the lives of those they care about, not just for treatment of illness, but for ways to improve their quality of life now and in the future. An absolutely fascinating read.
The High Mountains of Portugal
by Yann Martel
An utterly enchanting read. (1/26/2016)
“In the course of one week – Gaspar died on Monday, Dora on Thursday, his father on Sunday – his heart became undone like a bursting cocoon. Emerging from it came no butterfly but a grey moth that settled on the wall of his soul and stirred no farther”

The High Mountains of Portugal is the fourth novel by award-winning Spanish-born Canadian author, Yann Martel. In late 1904, Tomas Lobo, an assistant curator at Lisbon’s Museum of Ancient Art, sets off to the High Mountains of Portugal in search of a seventeenth century artifact that he believes to be profoundly important.

At the start of 1939, Eusebio Lozora, a Braganca hospital pathologist, is asked to perform an autopsy under strange circumstances. In the late 1980s, Canadian Senator Peter Tovy finds himself travelling with a chimpanzee from Oklahoma to a small village in the High Mountains of Portugal.

Here are three seemingly unrelated stories which inevitably intersect: three male narrators, each mourning their awful loss. But their grief does not overwhelm their stories. Martel fills his novel with unusual, different, interesting, and often amusing, elements: a brand new 4 cylinder Renault in the hands of a novice; a welcome ghost; a diary written by a missionary to slaves; the fabled Iberian rhinoceros; a very different take on the novels of Agatha Christie; a car journey across a country with a wilful chimpanzee; and a very unusual autopsy.

Martel gives the reader some wonderful descriptive prose; there is plenty of humour, some of it dark, some of it laugh-out-loud, almost slapstick; his characters are appealing, often quirky, multi-faceted, passionate and occasionally quite naive; there are interesting plots and curious sub-plots; there is profound love, deep passion and devastating loss; all of this would make rereading this novel (perhaps even several times) an unalloyed pleasure, but this one with the added bonus of uncovering even more of the numerous common elements linking each of these three loosely intersecting tales.

Martel touches on slavery, on religion, faith and saints, the ethics of primate research, how people cope with loss, the origins of man and on learning how to be in the moment, to live in the present. There are many words of wisdom and perceptive observations. He wraps it all up in brilliant prose and presents it within a wonderfully evocative cover (designed by Simone Andjelkovic). An utterly enchanting read.

A few examples of Martel’s beautiful prose:
“Loneliness comes up to him like a sniffing dog. It circles him insistently. He waves it away, but it refuses to leave”
“Every dead body is a book with a story to tell, each organ a chapter, the chapters united by a common narrative. It is Eusebio’s professional duty to read these stories, turning every page with a scalpel, and at the end of each to write a book report”
“Stories full of metaphors are by writers who play the language like a mandolin for our entertainment, novelists, poets, playwrights, and other crafters of inventions”
“Grief is a disease. We were riddled with its pockmarks, tormented by its fevers, broken by its blows. It ate at us like maggots, attacked us like lice - we scratched ourselves to the edge of madness. In the process we became as withered as crickets, as tired as old dogs”
Wanting: A Novel
by Richard Flanagan
a powerful read (1/25/2016)
Wanting is the fifth novel by award-winning Australian author, Richard Flanagan. In 1841, Mathinna, an orphaned young Aboriginal girl, one of the remaining Van Diemen’s Land indigenous who were kept on Flinders Island, was plucked from the “care” of George Augustus Robinson, the Chief Protector of Aborigines, to become the subject of an experiment in civilisation of the savage, conducted by the Governor of Van Diemen’s Land, Sir John Franklin and his wife, Lady Jane Franklin.

Mathinna loved the red silk dress she was given, but hated wearing shoes. She wanted to learn to write because she knew there was magic in it. “Dear Father, I am a good little girl. I do love my father. ……come and see mee my father. ……I have got sore feet and shoes and stockings and I am very glad……..Please sir come back from the hunt. I am here yrs daughter MATHINNA”. But when her (dead) father failed to come to her after several letters, her passion for writing faded. “And when she discovered her letters stashed in a pale wooden box….she felt not the pain of deceit for which she had no template, but the melancholy of disillusionment”.

In tandem with Mathinna’s story, Flanagan relates incidents in the life of Charles Dickens, some twenty years later. The tenuous link between the two narratives is this: when Sir John Franklin is missing in the Arctic on his search for the North West Passage, Lady Jane asks Dickens to help refute allegations of cannibalism made by explorer, Dr John Rae. Dickens also writes and stars in a play about Franklin’s lost expedition, during which he meets Ellen Ternan, the woman for whom he leaves his wife.

Flanagan’s interpretation of Mathinna’s life is certainly interesting: his extensive research into the lifestyle and common practices in the colony in the mid-nineteenth century is apparent, and he portrays very powerfully the mindset that led to the virtual extermination of the native population. While the Dickens narrative does have interesting aspects, it is so far removed from the Tasmanian story as to seem somewhat irrelevant, more of an interruption than an enhancement.

Flanagan states in his Author’s Note that “The stories of Mathinna and Dickens, with their odd but undeniable connection, suggested to me a meditation on desire-the cost of its denial, the centrality and force of its power in human affairs. That, and not history, is the true subject of Wanting”. Perhaps this statement would be better placed in a preface so that readers do not find themselves distracted wondering about the relevance of the Dickens narrative. Excellent prose make this, nonetheless, a powerful read.
A God in Ruins: A Todd Family Novel
by Kate Atkinson
Another brilliant Atkinson novel! (1/12/2016)
A God in Ruins is a book of the Todd Family by award-winning British author, Kate Atkinson. Teddy Todd: younger brother of Ursula, favourite son of Sylvie, model for his Aunt Izzie’s best-selling books, the young man whose life was cut short when he was shot down over Germany in 1944. Or not. During that dreadful war, Teddy never thought about the future: as a bomber pilot flying missions over Germany, he didn’t expect to have one.

When he came home as an ex-POW in 1945, a hero, he suddenly, quite unexpectedly, did have a future in front of him. A career (not in his father’s bank, please!), a wife, fatherhood, grandchildren: all were ahead of him in the latter half of the twentieth century.

Teddy’s war experience plays a large part in the novel, as it does in his life. But Teddy is not the only narrator of his tale: his parents, his siblings, his spouse, his child and his grandchildren all add to the story of Teddy’s unexpected life from their own perspective.

Once again Atkinson gives the reader a set of wholly believable characters, flawed but nonetheless appealing, and their reactions to the challenges life throws at them are natural and credible. And perhaps even the nasty ones have their reasons. There is plenty of humour to counter the lump-in-the-throat moments, and the irony of Ursula’s opinion on reincarnation is quite delicious. And again, Atkinson’s extensive research is apparent in every chapter.

A God in Ruins is a companion volume to Atkinson’s earlier Todd Family book and, while it is not necessary to have read Life After Life before reading A God in Ruins, there are so many common characters, events and objects that the reader who has done so will be delighted to once again encounter old friends. Another brilliant Atkinson novel! Recommended.
Life After Life
by Kate Atkinson
Another brilliant offering from this exceptional author (1/4/2016)
Life After Life is a book of the Todd Family by award-winning British author, Kate Atkinson. Ursula Todd is born during a snowstorm on the night of 11th February, 1910. She does this again and again, and this fact (amongst others) remains constant throughout the telling of Ursula’s lives, but, of course, there are also differences.

When, seemingly through chance, she does survive her birth, and the trials and potentially fatal mishaps that plague her childhood, Ursula’s lives revolve around the family that inhabits Fox Corner, parents, siblings, a rather wild paternal aunt who visits, neighbours and friends.

As an adult, Ursula’s life, along with those around her, is profoundly affected by war. Her favourite brother, Teddy loses his life when he is shot down over Berlin. But is there something she can do to stop seemingly inevitable events from occurring?

What a talented author Kate Atkinson is! She explores the idea that one might be able to change history, given enough chances, and does so in a familiar setting, with characters that easily find their way into the reader’s heart (well, except for Maurice, that is). Add to that the interesting perspectives of certain well-known events: the London Blitz from the perspective of an Air Raid Precautions warden; the bombing of Berlin from the point of view of the German common people.

Atkinson’s depth of research is apparent in every chapter. Each of Ursula’s incarnations reveals a little more of the family, their history and character, as well as historic events like the influenza epidemic of 1918. From a literary perspective, the use of multiple incarnations is a novel device that allows her to try out a multitude of different life events with just one character.

While this is nothing like her Jackson Brodie books, fans of her work will not be disappointed. Luckily, they will be able to extend the pleasure (and get another dose of the Todd family and Fox Corner) in the companion volume, A god In Ruins. Another brilliant offering from this exceptional author.
The Carnivorous Carnival: Book the Ninth (A Series of Unfortunate Events)
by Lemony Snicket, Brett Helquist
much appeal for younger readers, (12/14/2015)
The Carnivorous Carnival is the ninth book in A Series of Unfortunate Events by American author, Lemony Snicket (aka Daniel Handler). As we once again join the unlucky Baudelaire orphans, they are trapped in the trunk of Count Olaf’s car as it travels to the Hinterlands down the Rarely Ridden Road to consult Madame Lulu at the Caligari Carnival. Once there, and unable to contact their banker, ever-tussive Mr Poe by phone, they need to adopt a disguise so that they are not recognised by Olaf and his cronies. As a two-headed man and a wolf-baby, they become part of the Freak Show.

Having narrowly escaped a burning hospital and already suffered the loss of their parents, the threat of marriage, slave labour, hypnosis, a terrible boarding school, being thrown down a lift shaft, being thrown in jail, and the murder of their Uncle Monty and Aunt Josephine at the hands of the evil Count Olaf and his nefarious assistants, the siblings are ever-vigilant of his reappearance. Luckily these well-mannered and uncomplaining children are also very resourceful: Violet invents, Klaus researches and Sunny bites.

Snicket’s tone throughout is apologetic, sincere and matter-of-fact as he relates the unfortunate events in the children’s lives; his imaginative and even surreptitiously educational style will hold much appeal for younger readers, as will the persistent silliness of adults. Snicket’s word and phrase definitions are often hilarious. As always, the alliterative titles are delightful and Brett Helquist provides some wonderfully evocative illustrations.

This instalment sees the Baudelaires poked fun at by the Carnival audience, learning that one of their parents may have survived that fatal fire, discovering a fraud, narrowly escaping the a mob’s violent urges and, against their better judgement, joining forces with Count Olaf. Snicket does a clever thing with “déjà vu” in chapter five, but the utter stupidity of the adults around the Baudelaires is a constant theme that is starting to wear a little thin.

Will Violet and Klaus be able to find the headquarters of the VFD in the Mortmain Mountains? Will they be able to catch up with Count Olaf, his cronies and their baby sister Sunny? Will they discover the contents of the missing Snicket file? Readers will have to read the next instalment, The Slippery Slope, to find out.
Slade House
by David Mitchell
another excellent offering from this talented author. (12/13/2015)
Slade House is the seventh novel by British author, David Mitchell. Slade House is a haunted house with a difference. It is not easily found, nor can just anyone get in. But once every nine years, at the end of Otober, a guest enters from Slade Alley through a mysteriously transient black iron door, and a good time is had by all, for a while, at least. And then….

Mitchell divides his tale into five chapters. Each is set nine years apart, and events are narrated by the guest (except for the last chapter). These events follow a pattern, and there are many common elements, but the differences are significant and important. And while it is quite apparent what will happen by the second chapter, the finer details and nuances are expanded in each chapter.

This novel has an interesting and clever plot with a few twists. The characters are believable and their dialogue natural. Mitchell establishes the era easily with seamless references to politics, popular music and film, literature and current affairs. The genre is described as horror, although it is not of the blood-thirsty variety. It can easily be read as a stand-alone, but does have characters and features in common with other Mitchell novels, in particular The Bone Clocks, so fans of Mitchell’s work will enjoy placing these in their original context. Shorter than his usual, this is, nonetheless, another excellent offering from this talented author.

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