03 October 2017

All that Remains by Patricia Cornwell, UK, 1992

All that Remains is filled with many unexplained murders, intrigue and suspense, which is usually the right combination for easy reading when entertainment, and not intellectual analysis, is the main focus.

Over a period of several years a number of couples are found dead in out-of-the-way locations, their cars abandoned and no clues as to the perpetrator and/or why he/she would have done such a thing. But then the daughter of a very powerful woman goes missing, and rumours begin to circulate that government agencies could be involved.

At times the storyline demands a significant leap of imagination, and at times real life is left cowering on the edges of the pages, but this is, after all, part of the deal (that is to say, entertainment over and beyond everything else).

Patricia Cornwell has written many crime dramas where forensic science plays a major role, and while the details can be somewhat gory the main thrust of the story is usually logically, if somewhat imaginatively, presented. 

 Photo of Patricia Cornwell from The Telegraph

19 September 2017

Independent People by Halldor Laxness, Iceland, 1934

Covering almost 600 pages, Independent People is not a book to be read in one sitting, and, even if it were possible, to read the book in such a way is not to be recommended. This is a book that has to be digested slowly. Set at the beginning of the twentieth century it is not a happy read: the abject poverty of the lower classes compared with the relative comfort of the ruling classes was definitely not isolated to Iceland, but in Laxness' book the hunger and the misery is played out against a harsh, cold, unrelenting landscape.

Born in 1902, Laxness is writing about a period he actually experienced, in the environment where he grew up, and the book exudes a definite feeling of authenticity. I would even go so far as to guess that parts of the book are autobiographical or, at least, semi-autobiographical. In other words, Laxness has obviously referred to his own experiences and to those of people he has known when writing the book. For example, when he was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1955, he mentioned his grandmother in his acceptance speech and commented on how close she had been to him. He went on to say that she had always stressed upon him the importance of respecting those who hold a lowly position in the world and that he should never ill-treat animals. In the book Bjartur's mother-in-law says practically the same thing to her grandson Nonni.

Revolving around Gudbjartur of Summerhouses, the book delves into the concept of independence versus the dependence that is the lot of the lower classes. Gudbjartur, or Bjartur as he is called throughout the book, spends eighteen years slaving for the landed gentry so that he might be able to buy his own piece of land and become independent. After an introduction that gives some historical aspects to the story the actual novel begins with Gudbjartur, newly married with Rosa, on his way to take up ownership of his plot of land in an isolated part of northern Iceland.

Life is not only grim, it is unbelievably awful, and Bjartur's fixation with being independent means that he cannot, and will not, accept any kind of help from anyone. This attitude did not endear him to me, in fact I found him extremely irritating, and as the story proceeds it is frustrating to see how he hurts those closest to him. Until the very last pages of the book, he seems to be completely devoid of any kind of emotional connection with his fellow man; though perhaps it is to his merit that he does finally let go of his stubbornness and his fixation on independence to be able to experience a deep emotional connection with another human being.

This is an amazing novel, beautifully written and wonderfully orchestrated. The descriptions of the landscape and the climate are so magnificent that I froze through most of the book. A subdued kind of humour acts as a foil to the serious theme of the book while historically it gives a very good picture of the social situation in Iceland in the early part of the twentieth century.

Definitely not a book to be missed.

Photo of Halldor Laxness from Encyclopaedia Britannica

05 September 2017

The Secret River by Kate Grenville, Australia, 2005

This is a beautiful book, intelligently written. Grenville’s wonderful attention to detail results in a myriad of small word paintings, each of which add yet another layer to our understanding of both early nineteenth-century London and Sydney. Not only can we see the sights, we can also smell the smells and feel the textures. We become immersed in the places; we become part of Grenville’s narrative.

The book centres around William Thornhill, who, after winning a reprieve from hanging for a minor thieving offence, is sent to Sydney town with his wife, Sal, and their small child. It is obvious that the family feels that it has landed at the end of the earth, but William, relieved that he is still alive, sets about to turn the situation to his own advantage. For William, his entire focus is set on owning a place of his own. For Sal, her focus is set on returning Home.

Photo of Kate Grenville from The Age

When Thornhill lays claim to one hundred acres on the shores of the Hawkesbury River north of Sydney, he can see his dream taking shape. But there are others who were obviously there before him - people who do not worry about farming the soil but who seem to manage anyway. Thornhill and the other settlers along the banks of the Hawkesbury want the others gone.

ABC Splash
While it is obvious that Grenville’s sympathy is with the indigenous people, she is simply the fact presenter, and the reader is left to make up his/her mind. It is somewhat thought-provoking that while Thornhill and the others suffered inhumane treatment when living in England, once emancipated they gradually assume similar characteristics to their earlier tormentors. Their eagerness to finally be able to own something and, thereby, to achieve some degree of social status, put them in direct conflict with a people where the idea of personally owning anything, especially land, is completely incomprehensible. With hindsight we can wonder if things might have worked out differently had there had been less painful baggage on the part of the ex-convicts and a more understanding, less ignorant, attitude on the part of the people in charge. Unfortunately, we will never know.

15 August 2017

Provenance by Laney Salisbury and Aly Sujo, USA, 2009

This is a true story about one of the twentieth century's biggest and boldest art frauds. Although factual, it reads like a thriller, is well written and is definitely to be recommended.

John Drewe, with a number of aliases from John Cockett to Mr Carnall, is debonair, intelligent and well-spoken; he is also a formidable confidence man. While amazed by his ability not only to keep several steps ahead of the art establishment but also to keep so many balls in the air at the same time, I often found myself regretting that he did not turn his skills towards something positive and constructive, something on the right side of the law. His much greater-than-average intellectual capacity, his intimidating memory, his verbal aptitude and his magnetic personality propel him into a line of activity where he is motivated not so much by the prospect of monitory gain but more by the personal satisfaction of having set out to fool people and having succeeded.

Along the way, his activities impact extremely negatively on many people, both friends and strangers. For him, people are simply a means to an end, and he does not seem to mind losing friends or ruining people's lives. He is completely focused on himself.

Among those impacted are his art forger, John Myatt (who initially is not aware of what Drewe is doing with the paintings), his wife, Batsheva Goudsmid (who probably loses more than any one else) and his childhood friend Daniel Stoakes. Art dealers, art galleries, even a Roman Catholic monastic order, are all caught up in Drewe's web before, thanks to a couple of sceptics and a couple of persistent detectives, it begins to unravel.

Towards the end of the book the following question is posed: what is it that makes an artwork a valuable work of art? Should the forger's impeccable paintings be regarded as 'works of art' or does the fact that they are copies negate that possibility? When we read of Michelangelo forging several artworks and Picasso signing a work painted by someone else, we probably have to admit that, like most things today, the value of a work of art is dictated purely and simply by commercial interests.

It would be nice to think that Drewe was snubbing his nose at an art world where money has taken precedence over motive and inspiration; however, I doubt very much that Drewe was motivated by such high aspirations. For him it was just a game.

Informative, thrilling, sad and, at times, frustrating, Provenance leaves us with many disparate thoughts and ideas.

Photos of the authors are from Laney Salisbury

01 August 2017

Dark Places by Gillian Flynn, USA, 2009

The very first chapter makes it obvious that this is going to be a confronting book. It is the twenty-first century, and we learn that three people were brutally murdered twenty-five years previously in a small farmhouse in Kansas in the 1980s and that the fifteen-year-old son, Ben, was charged with their murders. The only other survivor of the massacre, Libby, becomes the main narrator.

Libby’s narration is a combination of her thoughts and, bit by bit, her attempts to find out what actually happened that night when she was only seven. She has always believed that Ben was guilty, but there are people who believe he is innocent and would do anything at all to have him released from prison.

Is Ben innocent or is he guilty?

 Photo of Gillian Flynn from The Telegraph

The story that unravels in chapters alternating between 1985 and the present day is full of leads all seemingly pointing in different directions. Possible scenarios are built up and then destroyed as more information becomes available; at all times the depressing gloom emanating from the small impoverished town and more particularly from the family itself drips from the pages. This is definitely not a happy book.

It is, however, particularly well written, and the way Flynn divides the story between the past and the present is cleverly managed. At no time is there any confusion between the two time periods.

In the end, the reader is most probably left with a sense of despair regarding present-day society. It is definitely a book that makes you think about many different issues (not just murder), and a story that will remain with you even after you have turned the last page and closed the book. 

18 July 2017

The Bourne Supremacy by Robert Ludlum, USA, 1986

This is the second of the three books in the Bourne series, and like the first book, The Bourne Identity, it is gripping for all of its almost 700 pages.

David Webb alias Jason Bourne alias Delta alias Cain is unwillingly pulled into a complicated and deadly fight against a Chinese megalomaniac whose eyes are firmly focused on controlling not only China and its supposed territories but even the entire world. Whereas the setting for The Bourne Identity was Europe and America, the setting for this second book is, after a brief opening in America, Hong Kong and China. As with the first book, where French phrases are cleverly scattered throughout, language plays an important role in creating atmosphere. In this case it is Mandarin, and although I do not speak a word of Mandarin the snippets of that language did not cause any confusion; on the contrary, it cements the story in the Far East.
The story is fast paced and suspenseful with a mixture of characters from the first book together with a number of new characters. At all times, the book is intelligent and extremely well researched and well planned. Numerous twists and turns can challenge the reader’s mental powers in the same way a big dipper might challenge a person’s physical and emotional stability, but when one has fastened one’s seat belt there is really no way of jumping off the ride.

Ludlum’s understanding and interpretation of the political situation in China (1980s) sheds light on the situation today, thirty years on. This is a book not to be missed, but to avoid confusion it should definitely be read after The Bourne Identity.

04 July 2017

The Tales of Beedle the Bard by J.K.Rowling, UK, 2008

This short work, comprising five tales for children, assumes some acquaintance with the Harry Potter books by the same author. Characters from these books are referred to in the tales, and it is assumed that the reader has already made their acquaintance. Moreover, each tale includes a critique by Professor Albus Dumbledore, who was the headmaster of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Mention of Professor Dumbledore’s prowess is made in the short preface to the book; however, for anyone unacquainted with the Harry Potter books this would probably not mean very much.

The book is actually referred to in one of the later Harry Potter Books, and the references and links between the tales and the actual Harry Potter books are very cleverly managed.

I have heard that the original book (The Tales of Beedle the Bard) – a limited edition of seven copies - was exquisitely handwritten and hand illustrated by Rowling. Each copy was beautifully bound in leather with silver embellishments and semiprecious stones. Six of these copies were given to people involved with the production of the Harry Potter series; the seventh was auctioned for charity (The Children’s Voice) and raised US$ 3.98 million.

Written primarily for children, this is an easily read book but still enjoyable, especially for those who are well acquainted with the Harry Potter books.

The photo of J.K.Rowling is from Daily Mail,  and the photo of the limited-edition book is from BBC