19 September 2016

Bright Air by Barry Maitland, Australia, 2008

A mystery that unravels between Sydney and Lord Howe Island, this novel by the very prolific Barry Maitland is well researched and captivating. Having spent much time in Sydney and some time on Lord Howe Island, I felt a connection with the setting of the story, and this definitely caught my interest in the very first chapter.

A story woven around rock climbing (with which Barry Maitland is obviously acquainted) and three tragic deaths, Bright Air leads the reader in a number of directions before, eventually, all the somewhat divergent paths converge. Josh, the central character and a member of the rock climbing group, returns to Sydney after a four-year stint in England. Shortly after arriving home, he catches up with Anna, another rock climber, who gives him the news that two of their friends recently fell to their deaths while climbing in New Zealand. Anna begins to draw connections between the two recent deaths and the death of another climber, Lucy, some years earlier. At first Josh refuses to accept that there may be connections, but, bit by bit, he is drawn into Anna's way of thinking. 
This is an easy read with plenty of suspense and action. A knowledge of Sydney and Lord Howe is simply an extra bonus.

The photo of Barry Maitland above is from

06 September 2016

Suite Française by Irène Némirovsky, France/London, 2004


Although Suite Française was not published until 2004, it was actually written in 1940/1941, which makes it, like the poetry of Wilfred Owen and Robert Graves, extremely valuable. While many other novels based on the horror of World War II have been written in the years after the war, either as memoirs by people who experienced it or after extensive research by people who did not, Irène Némirovsky wrote Suite Française while the war was raging around her. It was intended as a suite of five novels – she only managed the first two before she was arrested for her Jewish connections (even though she and her family were Catholics) and was taken to Auschwitz where she perished.

Photo of  Irène Némirovsky from
She did leave some notes on how she was intending to write the remaining three novels; however, while the notes for book three are fairly detailed, the notes for books four and five are extremely sketchy. The first of the two books, Storm in June, was most probably edited at some stage by Némirovsky, whereas the second book, Dolce, reads in many parts as a first draft. Given Némirovsky's situation, it is more than likely that she did not have the time to edit her second book.

While I do not agree with those who hail Irène Némirovsky as France's greatest author, I feel that her Suite Française is a valuable portrait of a time most of us living today have only read about. The characters in Storm in June, though occasionally bordering on caricatures, are well described. Her powers of observation are amazing, and parallel to the tragedy of France's invasion and occupation there is a lot of humour: at no point does her writing become sentimental or maudlin. 

Although the relationship between the French woman Lucile and the German officer Bruno (in Dolce) never really makes lift-off, it is obvious from the notes she left that Némirovsky had thought to develop their story (and their relationship) in the successive books. 

When Bruno says to Lucile “Ah! Madame, this is the principal problem of our times: what is more important, the individual or society? War is the collaborative act par excellence, is it not?… “, he is perhaps summing up one of main themes in Suite Française – a story about a tragedy, which became a tragedy in itself.

In 2015, Suite Française was made into a film by Saul Dibb. The photo above (from the film) is from


16 August 2016

We Die Alone by David Howarth, UK, 1955

This amazing true story tells how, in March 1943, Jan Baalsrud, a Norwegian expatriate resistance fighter, sails from the Shetland Islands to the northern coast of Norway with three other Norwegians and the crew of the small fishing boat. The idea is to help train Norwegians within the resistance movement; however, after making landfall above the Arctic circle, plans go horribly wrong, and Jan is forced to flee across the inhospitable winter wasteland of northern Norway. With Nazi soldiers pursuing him and not knowing whom he is able to trust, Jan has no choice but to push on.

Wounded, without proper clothing and with very little food, he survives almost six weeks in conditions that would have seen the death of most people after only a few days. Freezing temperatures, blizzards, avalanches, snow blindness, frostbite, gangrene were only some of the hurdles that Baalsrud encounters as he desperately tries to take himself across occupied Norway into neutral Sweden.

That he succeeds is dependent to a great extent on his own strength of character but it is also thanks to the many people who help him. These people offer their help even though they are fully aware that discovery will most surely result in a death sentence for both themselves and their families. We Die Alone is a wonderful example of courage against formidable odds but also a celebration of ordinary people's charity and self sacrifice.

Although this is not a novel of great literary merit, We Die Alone is definitely worth reading for the suspense and the descriptions of bravery and resilience that go far beyond what we believe could be possible.

 Photo of Jan Baalsrud from

01 August 2016

The Independence of Miss Mary Bennet by Colleen McCullough, Australia, 2008

I am not a fan of anyone taking characters from another author's book – in this case one of the classics – and writing a so-called sequel to that book. I can imagine that Jane Austen turned in her grave when this book hit the shelves: the writing is mediocre, the characterization is extremely poor and the plot is both superficial and unbelievable, to say the least. However, for anyone with hours to whittle away and a penchant for third-class romantic novels that follow the Mills and Boon requisite for a happy ending, this book may possibly tick all the boxes.

The Independence of Miss Mary Bennet picks up twenty years after the conclusion of Pride and Prejudice, focusing on the middle daughter, Mary, who has undergone some kind of transformation and, after being the plain one in the family, is now considered beautiful, possibly even more beautiful than Elizabeth. Mrs Bennet dies on page two, leaving Mary (her carer) the option of moving in with her sister Elizabeth, and becoming a live-in spinster aunt, or pursuing the possibility of independence (a no-no for young ladies of the early nineteenth century). Of course, in keeping with the title of the book, Mary chooses the second of these two options. As an unaccompanied lady, she endures a hair-raising trip across England and ends up being imprisoned by a religious maniac.
Photo of Colleen McCullough from
While we are following the trials and tribulations of Mary, we are also reintroduced to the other characters of Pride and Prejudice – all of them completely at odds with or, at the very least, caricatures of their original incarnations. Fitzwilliam Darcy is obnoxious, Lydia is a drunk, Elizabeth is frigid, Jane seems to be completely without backbone… add to this a number of senseless murders, a surprise sibling, thousands of pounds worth of hidden gold and fifty uncivilized orphans, and the scene is set for one of the worst novels I have read this year.

I am not recommending this book, but I do suggest you read (or reread) Pride and Prejudice and enjoy a well written and well crafted novel.

15 July 2016

The Lady in the Van by Alan Bennett, UK, 1989

At ninety-two very small pages, this is a 'book' that can easily be read in an hour or so. Bennett, a playwright, wrote The Lady in the Van from a collection of diary entries he made over a fifteen year period. It is non-fiction and tells about eccentric, elderly Miss Shepherd, who parked herself and her van in Bennett's London driveway; both stayed there for fifteen years until she was eventually removed by the undertaker and the van was towed off to a fate unknown.

 Bennett retains the diary-entry format, with many, possibly not so interesting, entries obviously removed. What remains tells the story of the strange relationship that developed between Miss Shepherd and Bennett, and we are given small glimpses of who Miss Shepherd might have been in her pre-van days and why her life mayt have spiralled so miserably out of control. There is sadness, but there is also a lot of humour, and as we turn the pages we become more and more aware of the bond between these two vastly different people.

Photo of Alan Bennett from

Miss Shepherd obviously had an enormous effect on Bennett. Not only did Bennett turn a selection of his diary entries into a small book, he also, in 1999, wrote a play (also entitled “The Lady in the Van”) for which he was nominated for a number of prizes. In 2015, the play, under the supervision of Bennett, was turned into a film with Maggie Smith in the title roll.
A thought-provoking look at those relationships that we do not choose but that choose us.

Image from the film from 

05 July 2016

Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese, USA, 2009

Verghese says about his book: “My ambition as a writer was to tell a great story, an old-fashioned, truth-telling story. But beyond that, my single goal was to portray an aspect of medicine that gets buried in the way television depicts the practice: I wanted the reader to see how entering medicine was a passionate quest, a romantic pursuit, a spiritual calling, a privileged yet hazardous undertaking”.

Cutting for Stone is an ambitious work about a small, intimate group of people living and working at a hospital called Missing in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Although only two of them are biologically connected, and the group is racially divergent (Ethiopians, Indians, Eritreans and British Indians), these people constitute what could be called a family, and the novel traces their lives from the 1940s through to the early 2000s.

The title can refer to a phrase taken from the Hippocratic Oath: "I will not cut for stone, even for patients in whom the disease is manifest; I will leave this operation to be performed by practitioners, specialists in this art… " a phrase which refers to the travelling stone cutters of earlier centuries who cut out kidney and bladder stones, using unsanitary tools; it can also refer to the two sons of the story, cutting for their father, Thomas Stone.

At the centre of the novel are Marion and Shiva Stone, the twin sons of a British surgeon and an Indian nun working at Missing hospital. Fate decrees, however, that the boys should be brought up by others (also doctors at the hospital), and it is not surprising that both boys choose medical careers. Much of the story is played out against a background of political unrest in Ethiopia, an unrest that eventually sees the twenty-five-year-old Marion move to USA. Marion grows up hating the father who abandoned him as a baby, and after an unfortunate episode when he is in his teens he also bears a grudge against the brother who he actually loves more than anyone else in the world. While he is in USA, circumstances force him to come to terms with both his hate and his grudge.

Abraham Verghese is a Professor of Medicine at Stanford, USA, and he is, therefore, qualified to write about ailments, operations and everything medical. I found the amount of medical jargon and reference to medical procedures – especially in the beginning of the novel – to be a little overwhelming, but as the book proceeds the medical aspects of the story become so integrated with the characters that the novel would probably seem lopsided without them. This is, after all, a story about doctors.

Even though the novel is basically fiction, it was interesting reading about Ethiopia, particularly from the point of view of health care, and, later in the book, it was equally interesting to look at the two-tiered approach to health care in USA and the gulf between well-equipped university hospitals and hospitals set up to care for poorer patients.

The story, though interesting, is not of the page-turning variety (not until the final thirty pages of its five hundred and thirty-four pages), and, at times, I found it slightly tedious. Certain episodes lack credibility: for example, the promiscuous activities and thoughts of thirteen-year-old children and the relationship between the surgeon and the nun, which, although it is at the centre of the novel, remains both surreal and nebulous.

Nevertheless, I enjoyed the novel, and I respected what Verghese was trying to do – even more so after reading the following comments of his from an interview:As we’ve gotten very fancy in technology and the incredible detail with which we can see the body, we sometimes lose sight of how much we can see about the body just from examining the patient. The physical exam really allows you to order tests more judiciously and to ask better questions of the test” (...)… We’re all intrinsically prone to allowing technology to take the place of common sense and I think that’s a danger. … The tests have become an easy shortcut. They’re an efficient, quick way to get information. But the great danger I see is this: I think that people fail to really connect with patients when they don’t examine them. I think the carefully done physical is a wonderful way to convey your attentiveness to the patient”.
 Photo of Abraham Verghese from