Monthly Archives: August 2013

Hitlers Niece Ron Hansen

Don’t bother. I could just about leave it there, but I guess and explanation is in order. Hitler is a pretty big character to have as a co-star and so the name of the novel is deceptive. It should be Hitler and his niece because he is the big character of this book. The author takes history and imagines the relationship between Hitler and his niece. Along the way, the Nazi elite seem a bit like hopeless clowns. They weren’t – they were pretty darn nasty.

Hitler is shown as a psychopath, but initially, and in respect to this relationship – he is shown as just inept. Geli Raubal is an aspiring doctor/singer apparently not very good at either. She encourages Hitler and is looking for love but can’t handle his sexual desires. The Responsible Adult would not be amused with this. For heavens sake, the Fuhrer only wants to be whacked with a dog crop and peed on. It doesn’t seem that difficult.

Geli becomes trapped in the relationship owing to her lust for material things and of course Hitlers power. Our author is in no doubt that her suicide was murder and that the trigger was pulled by Hitler. One more death to lay at his door.

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Life Before Man Margaret Attwood

Should call this life before Maddaddam which is the name of her latest novel and one I am dying to read. Life Before Man is one of her early novels. It is a narrative tale – not much plot. The novel relates the thoughts and actions of three characters over about 2 years. There is Elizabeth – who has been damaged in her childhood and whose lover has just killed himself, Nate – her estranged husband and Lesje his soon to be lover. There are no laughs to be found in this book – it is all a bit dreary. The Elizabeth character is particularly hard to like. Should we make concessions because of her childhood? Not me, I just don’t like her.

So why would you read it? Margaret Attwood is a great writer. Her prose is wonderful and her characters are very real. You can be a voyeur here and look into the lives of these three people – kind of see what makes them tick. I say kind of because I’m not sure they know themselves. Pretty much like all of us.

If you are looking for plot driven novels this may not be for you but as a narrative driven novel this is pretty outstanding.

Here’s a quote:

“They meet in church basements and offer bandages to those wounded by the shrapnel of exploding families.”

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The Hangmans Daughter series Oliver Potzsch

OK, guilty pleasure time. Nothing particularly literary here. You can buy these for .99c each from Amazon. We are in boys own adventure territory. The first novel in the series was the best. It introduced us to the local Hangman in a small Bavarian Town in the 17th Century. He has a feisty and very beautiful daughter and gets caught up in all sorts of strange plots. A young failed physician makes up a trio of heroes for us to cheer on and worry about when they are in big trouble – they are often in big trouble. His hangman duties include torture and rubbish removal. He is also very interested in medicine.

These novels provide a quick read with lots (perhaps too many) of twists and turns. Goodies turn out to be baddies – baddies turn out to be goodies, clues lay everywhere and our heroes often split up so that each one can face their own crisis. The action move briskly and small details of 17th Century life are tossed in to ensure we get the idea of the problems facing them. No plot spoiler to let you know it will all turn out well in the end.

The author is a journalist and apparently a descendent of a hangman. The novels are fast paced and while an editor with a sharper pencil would be handy, they are as satisfying as a jam and cream donut. Read one now and then, but don’t make it your staple.

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Offshore Penelope Fitzgerald

Another Booker Prize winner ticked off my list. Timely to remember why I started this exercise about 3 years ago. Seemed straightforward, find new and exciting authors but I didn’t consider all the twists and turns. Suddenly wanting to read everything a particular author had written – finding excellent authors in the almost won it category as well as wanting to read the odd ripping never nominated for anything novel.

Anyway, back to Penelope and being offshore. In this case, it is a group of deteriorating London barges inhabited by various people who act as a community afloat. This put me off them from the start. Living on a boat in the tropics seems romantic enough if you have lots of money, but a barge on the Thames is just bloody stupid. Set in the early 60’s the characters are also not a sympathetic mob and prove my case that they are a bit bloody stupid. Even the communal cat has little or no redeeming features.

The plot could be written on a matchbox and has no satisfying conclusion. It seems to have just stopped. I suppose most of our lives are like that but in a novel, I would like a bit of a story. This is a study into the detail of the characters, but none is given enough space to allow us to really understand them.

On the plus side, the writing is crisp and clear. This one is for dedicated Booker Prize followers – and if you are one, it is very short.

Your quote: “Duty is what no-one else will do at the moment.”

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The Ocean at the End of the Lane Neil Gamain

I like a bit of Neil Gamain now and then. Not sure why, but I would guess that lots of us start our reading lives with fantasy. Bill Badger, the wonderful Gnome brothers in Little Grey Men, Ratty Mole and Toad and so on, so some fantasy here and there probably allows for some nostalgia without going back to our childhood reading list. Gamain apparently writes to an adult and child audience. There have been a couple of his books that I may not want a child to be reading. This one, for me is probably in that category. The story is narrated by a seven year old boy. The sort of evil character in the novel seduces his Dad at one point. I tend to think kiddies do need to have black and white goodies and baddies and that ambiguous characters having sex with the main characters Dad can wait at least until teen years.

But forget about that, I’m well and truly grown up. So, like all his novels, this is very readable and not long. You could probably knock it off on a rainy day. Our young hero discovers that his family are not terribly reliable and like all good kiddy characters, he finds that he can rely on himself (with the help of three rather amazing female characters).

Gamain has come up with some remarkable characters for the three women who help our hero. Old Mrs Hempstock – who remembers the Big Bang, Ginnie Hempstock – who remembers the Moon being formed and Lettie Hempstock who has been eleven for a very long time are just terrific – as is their cooking and wonderful home produce.

Some harmless and very well written fun – a bit like eating jelly babies.

Your quote: “Different people remember things differently, and you’ll not get any two people to remember anything the same, whether they were there or not.” images

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The Weekend Bernard Schlink

As the Responsible Adult would say, not a cheery little tale, but worth the read. Bernard Schlink wrote The Reader – his first translated novel which was scripted into a Hollywood movie. In The Weekend, we find more moral dilemma.

Jorg has just been released from prison having served 25 years for acts of terrorism which included murder. The weekend is hosted by his Sister (who has a big secret) and he is joined by old comrades from the Red Army Faction (Baader-Meinhof gang). I found it extremely difficult to empathise with Jorg. My old protest days were all about peace and my worst act of subversion was to spell out messages in the Brisbane Botanic gardens with Sulphate of Ammonia ( which burns the grass but doesn’t kill it) I guess I just can’t understand violent protest. But anyway, Jorg is now much older and potentially broken by events and prison. What would we do if we met this guy?

A minor story being written by one of the group runs through the book which brings in events of 11th September – perhaps to amplify the effects of terrorist activities carried out by Jorg.

Bernard Schlink is a judge in Germany and like others in the legal profession who turn to writing, is clear and concise. The book is driven by narrative rather than plot and makes a good but perhaps disturbing read. It’s short and could be read on a rainy day, but perhaps you should read it when the sun is shining, the dickie birds are chirping and all is good in your world.

A quote: “Our parents conformed and shirked resistance – we couldn’t repeat that. We couldn’t simply watch children being burned by napalm in Vietnam, starving in Africa, being broken in institutions in Germany.”

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The Redeeemed M R Hall

Coroner Jenny Cooper is back in a novel with all her anxieties. I’ve taken a liking to this character. She is an idealist who wants justice no matter the consequences. That does make her a bit hard to believe particularly as she struggles with relationships and her own mental health at the same time.

In this novel, she becomes involved with the porn industry, fundamental Christians, Catholics and high powered politicians. Her superiors are heavied to stop her, but she just keeps going to get to the truth. This all combines makes her a bit unbelievable, yet I want to believe that there are people like that on the planet. So I will keep going with this series. The writing is OK, the plot moves along nicely and bad things happen to good people.

M R Hall is another lawyer writer who is also known for writing TV scripts. Good stuff.

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The Bleeding Land – Giles Kristian

Well, here’s a book with its own YouTube clip: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AFIxzqHVATA

Pretty impressive eh? Unfortunately for me, the clip is a bit more impressive than the novel. Set in the British civil war (Charles 1 vs Roundheads) it is a brother vs brother yarn. You get the idea – a family torn usunder etc etc.

I couldn’t get myself to like the characters – except perhaps the mother who at one point dresses in full amour to charge the Roundheads invading her home. I don’t really care enough to try the second novel of the series. Too many heads exploding into a red mist – not really appropriate for the time. 

If you want a quick read of this nature, you certainly could do worse. But there are better books waiting for you out there.

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Fludd – Hilary Mantel

Ouch! Before Hilary Mantel got into trouble over her portrayal of Thomas Moore in Wolf Hall, she must have copped flak from Catholics over this one. It is set in 1950’s Britain in a small town seemingly occupied by total dullards. The story revolves around Father Angwin who has lost his faith and is struggling with modernisation of the Church. He is connected to the local fludd1Nuns who run a school with the customary amount of Nunnish corporal punishment. He battles with his Bishop using sarcasm and rudeness. While his faith in God has gone, he considers that the local tobacconist is the the Devil.

Into this mix comes Fludd who, everyone assumes is Father Angwin’s new curate. But he is a mysterious fellow in whose presence people tell the truth and reveal their true characters. People, however, cannot remember what he looks like once he has left their presence.

The writing is terrific (it is Hilary Mantel) and there is a lot of humour in the novel. The questions put to Father Angwin on the detail of Catholic requirements provide a lot of fun – “May meat drippings be used to fry fish on Fridays?”

This book won’t be for everyone but for me it was a bit of light comedy.

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Masters of Rome series Colleen McCullogh

Well here’s something different.  An entire series, although I confess that I still have two to go. I do like my historical fiction which comes in all sorts of shapes and sizes. Big sweeping novels, short works, heavily fact based or just using well known characters. They can be about the big players in history or just ordinary people. They can be literary or just ripping yarns.

This series is big – you will need to invest some time if you are to read them all. It involves the big characters (and hundreds of other players) and it relies heavily on the facts as we know them. Obviously there is a lot of invention to bring the characters to life, but the characters and events stick to history. And why would you invent with this mob?

The period reflects the last years of the republic before the Ceasers ruled as dictators. We start well before Julius with Gaius Marius. This seems like a good place as events required the reforms set by Marius to enable Julius. Marius has his difficulties given that he is not an aristocrat, but against that, he is very wealthy, very smart and an extremely capable general.

Here’s the problem with the series. The Roman Republic had complex political systems and the Romans had a system of naming people that makes following characters a challenge. Plus it has a cast of thousands. Our author – attached as she is to facts – can do little to help us with this. We need to concentrate and try to separate the various characters while looking to understand the political system. How Colleen McCullogh managed to keep track of them all is amazing.

But persevere it’s worth it.

Action alternates between very well described battles and the political machinations both public and private to move the narrative. Characters are definitely three dimensional and demand an emotional response.

For me, there are parallels between the mob in Rome and the mob currently in Washington. Conservatives struggling to retain the existing ways versus the reformers. Of course, we get to see the benefits of reform in Rome – but we know that it all ends in tears. I did struggle a bit with Ceaser – he was obviously an exceptional man but in this series he is a bit too good to be true.

Colleen McCullogh is one of the great story tellers. Give the first book a go – bet you get hooked.

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