Rating (out of ♫♫♫♫♫)
Robyn Mundy, Wild Light, (Sydney: Picador, 2016) .♫♫♫♫♫ Robyn Mundy’s seamless prose doesn’t hit a single discordant note throughout this story of coming of age and regret.
When teenage Stephanie West is pulled into her mother’s dream of returning to her childhood home on Maatsuyker Island, it’s a wrench from Steph’s life in Sydney during her final year at high school.
The island and its basic, lighthouse-keeper house holds little charm for Steph until she meets a young fisherman Tom and until the mutton birds swarm in like giants oil slicks. Just as her mother promised, Steph sees ‘the real Maatsuyker’.
Mundy crafts the tale with a gracious hand, with drift dive pacing. The characters have no more control of their growing enchantment, with the island, with each other, with the great heaving ocean and the stormy sky than puppets on a string. Increasingly Steph doesn’t mind. But then everything changes.
There’s a sixteen year jump and the third act is another beautiful tale as Steph and Tom try to get back to the people they were in 1999. It’s beautiful. The prose is engaging. The setting is so skilfully painted and the gentle way this author crafts troubled but good people is so satisfying. A wonderful, wonderful novel.
Anthony Doerr, All the Light We Cannot See. ♫♫♫♫♫ (London: Fourth Estate, 2015.)
Undersized, snowy-haired German orphan Werner, is a genius with radios. He and his feisty little sister Jutta are wards in Frau Elena’s children’s home. At night they listen to radio receiver that Werner found and restored and, sometimes, the enchanting feathery voice of a French man talking about light makes them dream that anything is possible.
Blind French girl Marie-Laure is growing up in Paris, where her father, who guards the keys in the Museum of Natural History, has made a model of Paris to help her feel her way around the streets.
The war is pressing down on them both. It will provide Werner with the unexpected opportunity to attend an elite but brutal school from where he is dragged, too young and too small, into the confict. Marie-Laure will find herself under the roof of her reclusive damaged uncle in an ancient walled city of Saint-Malo.
The story opens with the wall city under heavy bombardment. Werner is trapped in a hotel basement in Saint-Malo and Marie-Laure is alone in her uncle’s house as the German army makes the old city the final German strong point on the Breton coast in the dying weeks of the war.
Like the light we cannot see, there is a luminosity to the Doerr’s prose, a glow of innate goodness in people forced to do evil, a pulse of energy in the folding timeline that doubles back on itself.
Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2015, a New York Times best seller, a finalist of other book awards, The Light We Cannot See took Doerr ten years to write. It was worth the wait and will always be in my top ten of all-time favourite books.
Rating (out of ♫♫♫♫♫)
Tess Lea, Darwin. ♫♫♫♫♫ (University of New South Wales Press, 2014) New kid on the block in UNSW Press’s Australian cities series, Tess Lea’s Darwin is a beautifully and compellingly written love song full of eyes-wide-open honesty about the darkness and contradictions, the intoxication of substances and nature, the extraordinary blend of people and cultures of the Northern Territory’s capital city. Capturing the scents, dampness, end-of-the line melting pot oddness of this wonderful Asian city in Australia’s far north, Tess Lea has produced a masterpiece whether you want to know more about the city or not. With an epidemiologists sensitivity she dips her lid to the ‘powerful urban planner’ the mosquito which ‘rivals geology in its forcefulness, laying down conditions for where houses can be built .. and where suburbs can be located.’ Darwin has very low high spaces and the drop from top of the hill to the silted up harbour is insignificant so drains don’t drain, rivers don’t run, swamps sit and steam.
Beneath the tropical trees, encased in soggy soil, waits Melioidosis bacteria, also known as the ‘Darwin Disease’ which thrives in the wet. It causes local and generalised infection; often pneumonia, sometimes septic shock and death. In 2009 – 10 the top end had the highest annual incidence of ‘melio’ in the world.
So why on earth would anyone want to live in Darwin? Tess Lea is a born and bred Darwin girl and has no trouble with that question. Four times disease ended attempts to set up a settlement in the top end, and then four times the only Australian city to be named after an intellectual was razed to the ground by war and cyclones. It’s ‘a survivor, you have to give it that,’ she admires.
It’s multicultural, a stepping off place for world travelers, it’s a city of beach markets and a babble of Indigenous, Asian and European languages, of crocodiles and bats, “Darwin is a place that needs to be felt to be known.”
I lived there for six months and loved it. It’s dank and hot, steam rises and you get out of the shower because the water is getting hotter, but it’s a city that reaches out and wraps its sweaty arms around people who only came for a while and somehow they stay on.
Like the other books in the series Darwin is satisfying to hold. It is a good size, has a lovely hard cover and American-cut ragged edged pages. It’s extraordinary for the power of the stories, the poetry of the prose and the enchanting way she wanders amongst the pages with her own personal stories and her own well-placed rage. I think it is the best of the series and I really want everyone in the world to read it. It’s that good.
- David Talbot, Brothers, the Hidden History of the Kennedy Years. This is not another exploration into the assassination of John F. Kennedy although there is a clear and present assumption that both Kennedy brothers were the victims of a conspiracy. Based on interviews with former staff of Robert Kennedy and some interviews with former C.I.A staffers (or their families) who were hostile to the administration, Talbot’s book presents a dark study of undercurrents during the cold war. An increasingly politicised, extremely right wing military leadership who simply refused to accept, or even acknowledge the election of young John F. Kennedy is presented in tandem with extraordinary revelations about the respectful relationship between President Kennedy and Leonid Brezhnev, the General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. Brezhnev was having his own problems controlling the war mongers in his military machine and what the two leaders shared was a terror that some dimwit on their own side would trigger a nuclear war. The back-channel dialogue between Robert Kennedy and Cuba’s Fidel Castro is another stunning revelation as the case is made that the crusading Kennedy administration collected powerful enemies within their own country. That the CIA was a fractured organisation in which elements did deals with the devils in the mafia is proven beyond doubt. That Robert Kennedy did not trust the F.B.I to protect the president or to investigate his assassination is also proven. The administration was brought to a halt by the murders of both brothers and undoubtedly the world is a worse place because of that. ♫♫♫♫♫
- Robert Littell, Legends. Martin Odum isn’t sure if that is his real name. He is an ex-CIA operative whose subconscious is blocking recollection of a trauma that triggered identity confusion so multi-layered that he is not sure which of his ‘legends’ (past identities constructed for his work in the CIA) is real. Denied the psychological assistance he craves from his former bosses, he has found a life for himself that is so uneventful he is in danger of boring himself to death. He has become a private detective hired to find missing dogs and cheating husbands. When Stella Kastner hires him to track down her errant brother-in-law, he begins a dogged journey in search of his past. Remembering could cost him his life and finding the missing brother-in-law could trigger his memory. In this clever, well plotted, cunningly crafted novel Robert Littell creates an ever changing landscape of intrigue, cruelty and evil done in the name of the greater good. It is an elegant piece of writing which I read two years ago and returned to it to see if it stood up to being re-read. It does. There is a central connndrum that I didn’t have to decipher this time around but that did not at all diminish the pleasure of reading this seamlessly complex spy novel. ♪♪♪♪
- George R.R. Martin, A Game of Thrones. The first book of the Ice and Fire series (dramatized by HBO as A Game of Thrones) had me entranced from the first page. I had to overcome a prejudice against the fantasy genre to read this book but I need not have worried, as this powerful writer took me into a world that might have been about 400 years ago, to a continent that might be located somewhere near Mongolia, to a time when summers and winters spanned decades and the land was divided between the seven kingdoms inside the vast wall and the world beyond the wall. In this book Lord Ned Stark is called by his old friend, King Robert to leave his northern castle and travel to the south to be his Hand, or second-in-command. Robert has married into the dangerous Lannister family and no-one is more dangerous than his beautiful wife, Cersei. The court of King Robert is a nest of vipers and intrigue and, very quickly, Ned and all of his children (the two girls he took with him to court and the four sons he left behind) are all in deep danger. I bought a seven-book boxset and I’m trying (unsuccessfully) not to race through them because then they’ll be finished and I won’t have them to look forward to any more. Martin writes beautifully and poetically. There are a lot of characters, with each chapter following the next stage in the lives of three Lannisters, eight Starks, as well as Dani, the daughter of the deposed “Mad King”. I didn’t get lost because I’d seen the first two seasons of the HBO dramatization but I suspect it would be a good idea to put the first book aside for holiday reading, just in case the enormous cast is confusing. I loved it and the next three and I’m happily consuming book four as I write this. ♪♪♪♪
- Gyles Brandreth, Oscar Wilde and the Nest of Vipers, London: John Murray: 2010. The fourth in the Oscar Wilde series, Gyles Brandreth takes us on a journey driven by Oscar’s curiousity, genius and web of influential friends. An unsatisfactorily explained death – in this case the untimely death of the young Duchess of Albemarle – sparks the quest. The author’s father knew the writer and Wilde biographer, Robert Sherard, in the 1930s; his teacher at school in the 1960s was Wilde’s friend; and, Merlin Holland, Oscar’s only grandson, is an acquaintance. Based on these close connections and thorough research, Gyles Brandreth sits Arthur Conan Doyle, Dram Stoker, Sarah Bernhardt and the Prince of Wales down to breakfast to discuss their evening in the cemetery chasing vampires, and insists in the Afterword that it all really happened! He is so successful in recreating this late Victorian romantic coterie that I catch myself thinking that I must remember to tell … and realizing that it’s Brandreth’s Oscar that I’m thinking about. It’s entertaining and plausable and full of Wilde wit.♫♫♫
- Simon Sebag Montefiore. Young Stalin. London: Weidenfeld & Nicholson. 2007. From the spellbinding prologue to the reflective epilogue, all 322 pages, two things leap from the pages of this biography. The first is the amount of charisma that powered out of this slightly built, intelligent Georgian, and the second is the quality of the research conducted by the author. This is what happens when good quality University academics are allowed the time and the resources to get on with what they do best. For the last decade even the high achievers of academe have been bogged down in administrative paperwork, overloaded with teaching duties and forced to jump through absurd hoops for the privilege of getting some research time. Montefiore was allowed to get on with his work. He went to the soviet archives, dug about in dusty Georgian vaults, interviewed hundreds of family, friends and victims and pulled together a story of such power and conviction that it feels like you know this Young Stalin. We know what he turned into (and given that he was the party terrorist for much of this volume it’s not surprising) but just the same, what a towering figure, open and impressive intellect and interesting man Stalin was. I couldn’t put it down and I enjoyed this volume even more than his earlier work on the older Stalin. ♫♫♫♫
- Sara Gruen, Water for Elephants. North Carolina : Algonquin Books, 2006. It’s a love story set in the Great Depression, but the passion between college boy Jacob (played by Robert Pattinson in the 2011 movie of the book) and Marlena (Reese Witherspoon), takes place amongst a cast of dwarves, fat ladies, clowns and roustabouts who bring Benzini Brothers Circus to country America. The setting, the animals, the history of this sub-strata world aboard a privately owned circus train are completely enthralling. Reviewers are calling it a big-hearted novel and the heart which beats the hardest belongs to Rosie, an elephant who is both mistreated and adored.♫♫♫
- Sebastian Barry, A long long way, London Faber, 2005. Willie Dunne leaves Dublin in 1914 to fight for the King. Barry’s writing style is redolent of Ella Fitzgerald’s singing — the poetry in his prose bounces the story along in the same matter-of-fact style and somehow, huge horrible themes sweep past us and we are never permitted to wallow. The political tension which festers back in Willie’s hometown, the detailed description of the Irish troops’ exposure to mustard gas, the awful treachery which leads to Willie losing his beloved Gretta, stay long after the novel is finished. I don’t think anyone writes better than Sebastian Barry.♫♫♫♫
- Robert Service, Trotsky. A Biography, Pan, 2010. I was a bit surprised when I finished reading Service’s well written and superbly researched biography at how much I didn’t know about this major twentieth century intellectual. I really only knew the history of Trotsky, the communist and Bolshevik but, after he fled the Soviet Union, he became an internationally renowned and admired public intellectual. His commentary was published in newspapers throughout the world. That’s who he was when he was murdered by Stalin’s hitman in Mexico and that’s why news of his death dominated the world press for a very long time. This is a powerful, moving and engrossing biography of a massively influential man.♫♫♫♫
November Rating. (out of ♫♫♫♫♫)
- Kathryn Stockett. The Help. Camberwell, Vic. : Fig Tree, 2009. The help has a lovely central premise that just telling the truth about working and living conditions amongst black domestic workers will, by itself, play a role in ameliorating the tyranny. In Jackson, Mississippi in 1962, Skeeter has returned from University, wanting to pursue a career as a journalist. Writing a book about “the help”, the black women who serve white families, might kick off her plans. But it’s dangerous for them to talk, much more dangerous than she’d realized. I loved the novel and found the courage of the maids who chose to speak out so convincing that I still have a lump in my throat just thinking about them. ♪♪♪
- Deborah Cadbury. Seven Wonders of the Industrial World. London: Fourth Estate, 2003. Television producer Cadbury’s book accompanied the BBC series of the same name but stands alone as a fascinating study of the way that big dreams in the heads of determined people can change civilization. Starting with the troubled construction of the massive iron steam ship the Great Eastern and moving on to Robert Stevenson’s Bell Rock Lighthouse on the underwater reef right in the middle of the approach to the safe harbour of the Firth of Forth on the east coast of Scotland the book then moves along with five other nineteenth and twentieth century engineering masterpieces. It is engagingly told and inspires respect for the teams who produced the engineering projects and the engineers who planned and co-ordinated the dangerous work, often at the cost of their lives. .♪♪♪
- Sebastian Barry, The secret scripture. New York, Viking, 2008. I joined the library to overcome an obsession to own every good book every written, but I was half way through the first chapter when it returned and there I was with a near-manic need to buy every book this man has written. Barry is insightful, gentle, funny and sad. It is the story of protestant Roseanne McNulty in Catholic dominated County Sligo, Ireland. Her long life spans the twentieth century. As a young woman, her beguiling beauty, intelligence and strong sense of loyalty should have helped her overcome the loss of her precious father and her mother’s insanity, but this was a country in which the Catholic Church had a stranglehold on the lives of the people. Roseanne inadvertently ran foul of the powerful ambitious local priest. This is a beautiful book and now I have borrowed all Barry’s other books from the library.♪♪♪♪
- Tatiana de Rosnay. Sarah’s Key, London: John Murray, 2008. The movie based on this novel was released last year with the exquisite Kristin Scott Thomas in the lead role and this is one of the rare times when the movie is better than the book. The book is good but de Rosnay maintained the electricity in the story of Julia, for three-quarters of the novel. In Paris, July 1942 the French police participated in a Nazi round up of French Jewish families. They were kept at the Rafle du Vélodrome d’Hiver, the winter velodrome, in terrible conditions before being packed on trains to Drancy internment camp and then on to Auschwitz for extermination. In the novel, Sarah’s family were amongst them. It is the 60th anniversary and the Paris based American journalist Julia Jarmond is asked to write a story about this dark part of French history. It is Julia’s story that de Rosnay loses the momentum with, whereas Sarah’s tale is riveting throughout.♪♪♪
- Ken Follett, The Eye of the Needle. New York: Penguin Books, 1979. This is Follett’s eleventh novel and it made him one of the highest selling novelists of all time, selling 10 million copies world wide. Set in World War Two in Britain, it is the story of a machine-like, amoral, psychopathic, aristocratic German spy, whose code name is The Needle. All of the characters are shallow and unconvincing and the plot is predictable and completely unthrilling. I couldn’t find a single wow! sentence so I don’t know if everyone is buying it before they read the first page because I was yawning by page two. ♪
October’s top five books. Rating (out of ♫♫♫♫♫)
- Anna Burns, No bones. (2010) This is Anna Burns’s first novel and it is powerful, heartbreaking and disturbing. In many ways it is as densely impenetrable as a William Burroughs novel except for the dark, dark humour. Amelia is just six, living in Belfast, when three decades of violence between Northern Ireland’s ‘catholic’ and ‘protestant’ community flares into the murderous chaos known as ‘The Troubles’. It is a journey through danger, despair, substances abuse and mental illness so it hardly sounds amusing but Burns has a way with words. Not for everyone but this novel is a masterpiece. ♪♪♪
- Peter Fitzsimons has produced a wonderful biography in Nancy Wake: a biography of our greatest war heroine (2001). New Zealand-born, Australian-raised Nancy was living a privileged life in Paris until, in her thirties, she was dropped into occupied France as a fully trained British agent, organising bands of resistance fighters into coherent effective fighting cells in preparation for the Normandy landing. It is a story about an extraordinarily brave woman and the author has captured her flaws, her ego, her mood swings and nerve, often dropping into her own idiom as he blends interview quotations with his own narrative, while still moving the story along and provided background explanatory context. I think it may be harder to create biography when the subject is still alive and Fitzsimons has clearly had moments of difficulty but overall, this is an accessible lively book ♪♪♪
- Philip Gourevitch. We wish to inform you that tomorrow we will be killed with our families : stories from Rwanda. It might seem that I was having a grim reading experience through October but it is a testament to the power of a great author when he or she can convince the reader to stay onboard through a tough journey like this. Stories from Rwanda is a 1998 account of the genocide of 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus in Rwanda in 1994. The New Yorker journalist has a great ability to provide the historical backdrop, leave in enough of the horror to capture its scale, and feature personal stories of some of the survivors. Gourevitch’s account provides explanation of the motivation and history which predated those insane three months of genocide in the small landlocked East African country. ♪♪♪♪
- Lisa See, Snow flower and the secret fan. (2005) Now this one does have some confronting details on foot binding based on thorough historical research and a fine eye for ghastly truth. See has a wonderful ability to transport us to another time, place and philosophical worldview although she is not a great writer. Her literary imagery is very limited, her sentences are often clunky and unsatisfying. It is the depth she creates in her characters that holds the reader hostage. You really will want to know how things turned out for the girls. ♪♪♪
- Geraldine Brooks, Year of Wonders : a novel of the Plague (2001) This is another first novel, although journalist Brooks had already written non-fiction books. Year of Wonders, based on the story of Eyam, a “Plague Village.” In 1666, plague arrives from London and the villagers are convinced by their young minister to quarantine themselves in a courageous effort to stop the spread of the terrifying killer. This is one of the best books I have ever read. Brooks has a fascination with both epidemiology and etymology both, and she captures dead language patterns to weave an enchanting story. ♪♪♪♪
September’s top five books.
Rating (out of ♫♫♫♫♫)
- Steven Amsterdam Things We Didn’t See Coming. Winner of the 2009 The Age Book of the Year award, the novel is set in a dystopian England after the Millennium bug really has ushered in the end of civilization. Amsterdam’s book is constructed as nine discrete stories with one central narrator creating the spine. Grim but lightly written, this talented author somehow pulls his dreadful world, peopled with cynical opportunists, into a hopeful ending. ♫♫♫
- Gyles Brandreth Oscar Wilde and a Death of no Importance. One of a series featuring Oscar Wilde and his friends Arthur Conan Doyle and poet Robert Sherard as investigative sleuths, it is a thoroughly enjoyable witty book. Brandreth made me sad, all over again, about what happened to Oscar because he seems so generous in this book. ♫♫♫
- Michael Frayn Spies Stephen Wheatley watches his younger self treading inexorably towards awaiting tragedy which unfolds in a wartime summer in the quiet English suburb because he and his best friend saw German ‘spies’ around every corner. Written with such gentle insight, it is a lovely fond wry look at the way things can get out of hand, so easily. ♫♫♫♫
- Ann Patchett Bel Canto A mesmerizing story about the bonds that develop between hostages and their gun-wielding captors somewhere in South America. Caught in the group is Roxanne Coss, an American soprano whose singing transports them all to a better place. Beautifully written ♫♫♫♫
- Edward J. Larson, An Empire of Ice: Scott, Shackleton, and the Heroic Age of Antarctic Science. Pulitzer prize winning author investigates the scientific rationale for the heroic era exploration of Antarctica. Great advances in biology, geography, oceanography, terrestrial magnetism and cartography provided the rationale for the trips rather than the ‘races’ to the pole which captured the journalistic imagination at the time. ♫♫♫♫