Gold by Chris Cleave: Review by Toni Whitmont

Congratulations to Chris Cleave whose book Gold is a reminder to everyone jaded by formulaic novels churned out by tired authors just how good contemporary fiction can be. Having just read it in one uninterruptable sitting, I have been left in a lather of frustration. Still several months out from publication date, I am itching to talk to someone about it, itching to put it into the hands of another reader.

Chris Cleave comes to Gold with a fine pedigree, with both Incendiary and The Other Hand being the sort of books that haunt you. Like its two predecessors, Gold is written with masterly control, has enough tension to keep the reader flooded with adrenalin and fidgetting with nerves, while it leaves the reader desperately re-examining their own values and beliefs.

The Gold of the title is the cycling medal in the upcoming London Olympics. The story unfolds around two female cyclists, their aging trainer, and a young very sick child who wraps up both her leukaemia and her parents’ fear of it, by escaping into a world of Death Stars and Lightsabers.

Cleave’s remarkable talent is to catapalt the reader right into the hearts and minds of his characters. In one pivotal scene involving a velodrome pursuit between the two women, I actually had to have a breather to break the tension. In another, in which the coach was coming to terms with his own physical limitations, my laughter was loud enough to wake the household. However, his crowning achievement is  the gradual unravelling of motivations and memories with such authenticity and veracity, one would have thought he was a psychotherapist rather than a novellist.

About love, friendship, loyalty, ambition, sacrifice and courage. It is about ordinary people on their capacity to step up to being heroes.  Gold packs a huge emotional punch and it is all delivered with the pace of the race itself. It leaves you breathless.

Gold is available to order from Booktopia here, for delivery in June.

The Good Father by Noah Hawley: review by Toni Whitmont

It always seems a great shame to me how there will sometimes be a sudden rash of fiction published with similar themes. What generally follows is that the biggest marketing budget wins, at least until word of mouth takes over from the machine, and the true readers’ favourite starts to tick over as a backlist perennial.

This time two years ago there was a tussle going on between Mr Rosenblum’s List and Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand and somehow the two books seemed to meld in the minds of the public. Mandy Sayer was just one of several Australian authors whose books about wartime Sydney, lost and found love with an American soldier (in Sayer’s case called Love in the Time of Lunacy) had to battle it out on the shelves around the middle of last year. Last month we were presented with Wonder, The Cartographer and Memoirs of an Imaginary Friend, all of which purport to speak in an authentic child’s voice and all of which are really very good, although having read all three, I do think Memoirs of an Imaginary Friend is clearly the strongest.

It is rather unfortunate then that both Defending Jacob and The Good Father are coming out within a month of each other. Both are about the relationship between a father and his son. Both revolve around whether or not the son has committed an unspeakable crime. Both are supposed to be excellent.

I haven’t read William Landay’s Defending Jacob but within two weeks of its US publication, it was topping the NY Times charts and it certainly has had some very good reviews, most of which focus on it being a legal thriller in the vein of Scott Turow.

I have read Noah Hawley’s The Good Father which will be published in April but I can tell you that this is no legal thriller. It is all together a different beast.

The book opens with notes from a police report. They describe a young man purchasing a Trojan 9 mm gun. The gun is used to shoot and kill the Democrat nominee to the US presidency. There is photographic evidence of a young man holding the gun seconds after it went off, executing its deadly mission with perfect accuracy. The report goes on to describe the life of the young man as he drifted across the US over the previous 18 months – a “hobo losing himself in the great American absence”. The man was 20 years old. The report concludes, and its reader muses over its contents. The prologue ends:

“Who was this boy and how did he become a man in a motel room fondling bullets? What made him ditch his comfortable life and embrace an act of barbarity? I have read the reports. I have watched the footage, but the answer continues to elude me. More than anything else, I want to know. I am his father, you see. He is my son.”

The Good Father is told through the eyes of Dr Paul Allen. Dr Allen is a respected and established rheumatologist. He is happy, leading a quite domestic life with his twin twelve year olds and his second wife. Their world is shattered while watching the evening news as Paul’s 20 year old son from his first marriage, Danny, now apparently known as Carter Allen Cash, is accused of murdering the most high profile candidate in America at a presidential election rally.

What follows is an exploration of fatherhood, of self, of loyalty, of obligation, of identity and perhaps, of the limits of unconditional love. There are wonderful insights into family, into connection and disconnection, and what it is like to watch someone decide to simply slip away from their moorings. Allen is convinced that Danny is innocent although that is looking less and less likely as the book goes on. What is interesting is that he examines the evidence with the same razor sharp deduction that he has to use in his medical practice as a diagnostician. He tests the evidence, he weighs each theory, he discounts neither the obvious, nor the outlandish explanation. But the closer he comes to Danny, the closer he comes to an ugly truth, a truth about himself as a father.

Noah Hawley

While Dr Allen continues to champion the cause of his son, he jeopardises both his marriage and his career. He has become a pariah – the father of the boy who killed America’s hope. He is torn between loyalty to his firstborn, with whom he has had less and less contact over the years, and loyalty to his fiercely loving twins.

Noah Hawley uses a surgeon’s precision to slice away at identity until Dr Allen is laid bare, no longer sure of who he  is or what he stands for. He piles twist upon twist so the reader is constantly on edge, constantly questioning the nature of truth and the nature of reality. And he ratchets up the tension until the very last page.

Comparisons will be made with Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk About Kevin, but there are some obvious differences. What is most interesting about the The Good Father is that it takes the male perspective, and Danny certainly came into the world loved and wanted.

Along the way, Dr Allen looks to other American assassins and/or cult leaders – Sirhan Sirhan, Lee Harvey Oswald, unabomber Ted Kaczynski, Branch Davidian David Koresh – for answers as to whether Danny could be guilty or not. These ponderings are both informative and fascinating.

This is an intense psychological novel told from the points of view of both the guilt ridden father and the meandering, ruminative son. This all adds up to create an intensely powerful book that is gripping from start to finish, and is beautifully written. It offers a fascinating, absorbing and intimate portrayal of a successful, intelligent and fundamentally good man who is forced to re-examine his whole behaviour as a father in the light of one dreadful action. It also is a startling depiction of what happens in adolescence when a child becomes a lost soul.

The Good Father is available to order from Booktopia here.

Memoirs of an Imaginary Friend by Matthew Green: Review by Toni Whitmont

According to popular wisdom, there are only seven original plot lines for stories and every thing else is but a variation. This is not a theory generally put about by publishers, nor by authors. No wonder then that every now and then I am presented with books that are almost mirror images of each other, despite being penned by different people. It breaks my heart to think that two authors might have laboured away, sometimes for years, only to find themselves shadow boxing their alter ego on release day.

If that were not hazardous enough for authors, there is the situation of a novel that has captured the zeitgeist of the moment, that becomes the standard by which all other ones in the genre are judged.  In 2003 for example, Mark Haddon blew everyone away with The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.  That, and John Boyne’s The Boy in Striped Pyjamas a few years later, became the benchmarks for the authentic depiction of the child’s voice in adult fiction.  Darren Groth’s Kindling was a great addition, with the advantage of having a wonderfully Australian setting. Last year,  Emma Donaghue’s Room, longlisted for the Man Booker, added gravitas to this sub-genre of contemporary writing. There have been a swag of wannabes and notgoodenoughs but these four have stood out as beacons. Until now.

Recently, I was presented with three debut novels for early 2012, each one being sold to me as the natural successor in that lineage. I have dipped into all three but only one quickly became mandatory reading.

I don’t know which of the seven plot lines Memoirs of an Imaginary Friend draws on, but I can tell you that Matthew Green’s debut novel is fresh and original enough to almost live up to its publisher’s claim of being “unforgettable”. Certainly it was that other over-used word – “unputdownable”.

Not only is Green clever enough to get into the headspace of a youngster, he is clever enough to do it with the clarion call of authenticity – no mean feat given that the child in question is Budo, who is in fact an imaginary creation of a boy called Max. Max is no ordinary boy. If he were described by an adult, he might be labelled autistic, or Aspergers, or something else (not that his peculiar behavioural traits are labelled by Budo – it is simply my interpretation of Budo’s observations). And Budo is no ordinary imaginary friend. For a start, at about 10, he is comparatively old and he is staring down the barrel of his own mortality. (Imaginary friends have a short life span because they die when the person who created them stops believing in them). Budo is also the only one who can save Max from a situation that is very real, very scary and that no one could possibly have imagined or anticipated.

In Memoirs of an Imaginary Friend, Green has done something quite remarkable. He has written a book which requires an adult intellect, and adult emotions, to navigate despite presenting it entirely from the perspective of the child within us all. It is a tense psychological thriller, and in parts, it is an absolute page-turner. And he has penned a warm and moving story about life, death, love, loyalty and destiny. This is no block-buster, but if you are anything like me, Memoirs of an Imaginary Friend will leave you sadder, happier and itching to talk to someone about the ingenious, the incredible, the invisible Budo.

Memoirs of an Imaginary Friend is available to be ordered from Booktopia now, for delivery from the end of February 2012.

Mateship with Birds by Carrie Tiffany: Review by Toni Whitmont

Warrumbungle ranges - The Breadknife

Many years back, when I was new to the bush, I was standing in the top paddock of a mixed grazing and cropping property backing onto to the Warrumbumble Mountains in north western New South Wales and waxing lyrical about the dramatic horizon all broken into vertical planes by weird ancient dry lava plugs.

The tart response from the farmer – an intimidatingly crusty and independent woman in her 70s – was sobering. “Good views don’t make a farm”, she said in her witheringly succinct crack of a voice.

I was reminded of that day over and over again while reading Carrie Tiffany’s luminous Mateship with Birds, which strips Australian rural life of pastiche and sentimentality, leaving us with something that is beautiful and raw with its own  living, breathing energy.

Let’s get this out of the way quickly. Mateship with Birds is the kind of book that you just don’t want to end. I was left with a feeling of great sadness and loss – not because of the way the story finished, but because I was suddenly cast out of the world into which she transported me. I simply didn’t want to be cut adrift from the gentle dairy farmer, Harry, the purposeful single woman next door Betty, with her two children Michael, on the brink of sexual awakening, and Little Hazel the younger sister dealing with her own initiation into the world of nature.

Tiffany sets her novel in the sexually repressed 1950s of Victoria but her story has a universality about it that transcends time and place. It is a story about love, lust, loneliness, family, animals and the rhythms of nature. She writes with lucid clarity, bringing as much beauty to descriptions of the daily ministrations to lactating cows, to those of Harry’s observations of the viciousness of the birds that patrol the boundaries of his paddock, to the surprising and unexpected yearnings of the human heart. And let’s not forget that despite the strictures of society at the time, growing up in the country meant be surrounded by fecundity and a lot of rutting – the cycle of sex, birth, decay, death is simply an observable fact.

This is a particularly sensual novel, and in that respect, it fits very well into that bush setting. The reader feels the ooze of the soil under hoof, smells the diesel of the red Fergy in the shed, hears the plop of the milk in the pail. And when it comes to longings of a more human kind, Tiffany’s sparse and unsentimental style is both deft and poetic.

Tiffany must have done an enormous amount of research about dairying and bird life, and considering her age and background, has done an incredible job of rendering so palpable a life that she herself could never have experienced and yet lives on the memories of a great many people.  She breathes air into this world with authenticity and sensitivity and I am certainly the richer for experiencing it through her imagination.

This is an exceptional novel. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

Order Mateship with Birds here through Booktopia.

Read Carrie Tiffany’s responses to Booktopia’s Ten Terrifying Questions here.

Suddenly, a Knock on the Door by Etgar Keret : review by Toni Whitmont

Salman Rushdie calls him “a brilliant writer – completely unlike any writer I know. The voice of the next generation”.

Clive James describes him as “one of the most important writers alive – enchantingly witty”.

According to the New York Times, he is simply a genius.

Etgar Keret has long had a cult following with books like The Nimrod Flip-Out and The Bus Driver Who Wanted to be God. He deserves so much more. His latest collection of short stories, Suddenly, a Knock on the Dooris dark, edgy, funny and poignant all at the same time. And did I say original? And did I say that these stories are best enjoyed being read, and laughed at, outloud?

Keret serves up bite-size morsels of satire, realism and absurdism – the perfect combination for anyone suffering from the bloated , overblown hyperbole that constitutes so much of the the best sellers list.

This collection is a gem. In it we have the tale of the woman who has had great sex with 28 men – all of whom are called Ari. There is a stunner of a story about writer’s block  (in the eponymous Suddenly, a Knock on the Door). There  is a sad and disconnected tale of the sporadically Hebrew speaking Chinese acupuncturist. Not to mention, the marvellous insurance salesman Oshri whose appointment with a potential client at a cafe is cut short when a young man who’d decided to end his life jumps out of an eleventh floor window in the building next to them only to put Oshri in a coma for weeks. In another jewel of concise writing, The Story, Victorious,  Keret confides to the reader that this is not only the best story in the book but also the best story in the world. And there is the wonderfully prophetic Lieland.

Thank heavens that English speakers are  finally given entrée to Keret’s world view. It seems that he has already been translated into just about every other language. Meanwhile, the writer continues to be a social critic, film maker, columnist and general all round bad-boy stirrer. Have a look at this clip and you will see what I mean. On a completely trivial point, he is also a dead ringer for Christos Tsoilkas.

As an aside, I want a donkey like that.

Suddenly, a Knock on the Door is available from Booktopia for delivery after February 1.

FROM THE PUBLISHER

Etgar Keret is an ingenious and original master of the short story. Hilarious, witty and always unusual, declared a ‘genius’ by the New York Times, Keret brings all of his prodigious talent to bear in this, his sixth bestselling collection. Long a household name in Israel, where he has been declared the voice of his generation, Keret has been acknowledged as one of the country’s most radical and extraordinary writers. Exuding a rare combination of depth and accessibility, Keret’s tales overflow with absurdity, humour, longing and compassion, and though their circumstances are often strange and surreal, his characters are defined by a familiar and fierce humanity. A man barges into a writer’s house and, holding a gun to his head, demands that he tell him a story, something to take him away from the real world. A pathological liar discovers one day that all the lies he tells come true. A young woman finds a zip in her boyfriend’s mouth, and when she opens it he unfolds to reveal a completely different man inside. SUDDENLY, A KNOCK ON THE DOOR is at once Keret’s most mature and most playful work yet, and establishes him as one of the great global writers of our time. Etgar Keret is the author of the short story collections: KNELLER’S HAPPY CAMPERS, MISSING KISSINGER and THE NIMROD FLIP-OUT.

About the Author

Born in Tel Aviv in 1967, Etgar Keret is one of the leading voices in Israeli literature and cinema. He is the author of five bestselling collections, which have been translated into twenty-nine languages. His writing has been published in the New York Times, le Monde, the Guardian, the Paris Review and Zoetrope. He has also written a number of award-winning screenplays, and Jellyfish, his first film as a director along with his wife Shira Geffen, won the Camera d’Or prize for best first feature at Cannes in 2007. In 2010 he was awarded the Chevalier medallion of France’s Order of Arts and Letters.

Excerpt from Lieland

Robbie was seven when he told his first lie. His mother had given him a wrinkled old 10-lira bill and asked  him to bo buy her a pack of king-size Kents at the grocery store. Robbie bought an ice cream cone instead. He took the change and hid the coins under a white rock int he backyard of their apartment building, and when Mother asked him what had happened he told her that a giant readheaded kid with a front tooth missing tackled him in the street, slapped him and took the money. And every since then, Robbie hadn’t stopped lying. When he was in high school he spent almost an entire week veggint out on the beach in Eilat, after selling the student conselor a story about his aunt form Beer Sheva who;d discovered she had cancer. When he was in the army, this imaginary aunt turned blind and saved his arse big time when he went AWOL. No detention, not even confined-to-barracks. There were lots of lies along the way in Robbie’s life. Lies without arms, lies that were ill, lies that did harm, lies that could kill. Lies on the foot, or behind the wheel, black-tie lies, and lies that could steal. He made up these lies in a flash, never thinking he’d have to cross paths with them again.

Clean and Lean Diet Cookbook by James Duigan

Christmas – friends and family, fabulous food, long lazy days. Well, I  hate to go all Grinch on you, but for many of us, it also means that extra unwanted dress size and a whole summer of going hungry. Which is probably why we all start obsessing about being clean and lean precisely at the time that we are becoming frumpy and dumpy.

Enter James Duigan. The master of all things healthy has the solution. He has already sorted us out with a diets and flat tummies. Now he is showing us how to cook right, all year long.

His Clean and Lean approach is now ours for the following – along with a 14 day diet plan and 100 recipes.

PS: It worked with Elle Macpherson, although admittedly she is a freak of nature.

James Duigan Clean & Lean Diet Cookbook is available from Booktopia for delivery after January 1. If you want to have a look inside, go here.

FROM THE PUBLISHER

Continuing James Duigan’s Clean & Lean philosophy this inspirational new cookbook illustrates what you should be eating to keep your body in its best-ever shape.

Starting with breakfasts to kick start your day the healthy way it takes you through lunch and dinner with ideas for quick, easy meals that won’t impact on your waistline. With James’ trademark ‘Bad, better, best’ columns there is also advice on the healthiest choices when eating out at a variety of locations from a romantic meal at your favourite Italian to your popping out to your local deli at lunchtime. A chapter of ‘Cheat Meals’ with ideas for your weekly indulgence also means you can eat well without feeling deprived of your favourite treats. Packed throughout with personal recipes from James’ celebrity clientele this book will show you how to cook your way to staying Clean & Lean for good.

About The Author

James Duigan is one of the top personal trainers in the world, his many celebrity clients include Elle Macpherson, Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, Hugh Grant and David Gandy. He also runs Bodyism, an exclusive gym in London.

The Book of Summers by Emylia Hall: Review by Toni Whitmont

Newcomer Emylia Hall weaves a touch of magic in The Book of Summers. It is not the magic of vampires or faeries. This is the magic of snatched dreams, half recollected in the dawn. The magic of snapshots of memory. The magic of some really beautifully pieced together sentences.

When we first meet Beth she is a 29 year old guarded, emotionally distant gallery attendant, virtually estranged from her father, the only family she has. Her principal preoccupation is forgetting – forgetting her past, denying her memories. This strategy has served her well for fourteen years, the fourteen years since the scarifying break from her mother, a passionate and exotic Hungarian called Marika.

So when her father delivers her a parcel one day, a scrapbook that documents the many summers she spent as Erzsi, visiting Marika and her artist partner Zoltan in a bucolic hunting lodge cum studio in a forested region of Hungary, Beth is totally unprepared for the torrent of memories that come flooding back.

The Book of Summers is a lovely coming of age story with a sting in its tail. Written very much from the perspective of Beth/Erzsi as she watches her parents marriage disintegrate, and as she tries to protect both parents from the depredations of their failed relationship, it teeters on the edge of  pastiche, avoiding it both through the beauty of the language and the compelling story telling.

This debut novel certainly has a buzz about it overseas. Typical of the comments is this: “For me, it’s the perfect summer read. It has real heart, a fantastic twist and a wonderfully redemptive ending. Emylia flawlessly conjures up those endless hot summer days of childhood—it’s one of the most deliciously evocative pieces of writing I’ve read for a long time.”

The Book of Summers is available from Booktopia from the end of February 2012 and will come (for a short time only) in a lovely matching tote bag. Best read on a hazy warm afternoon on a verandah. With a box of tissues. And a ticket to Budapest in your back pocket.

The Book of Summers: synopsis

When news of a death in the family reaches her from abroad, Beth Lowe realises that she can no longer avoid her past.  She is sent a photograph album, a poignant record of the seven summers she spent in rural Hungary.  A time when she trod the tightrope between separated parents and two distinct countries; a bewitching but imperfect mother and a gentle, reticent father, the dazzling house of a Hungarian artist and an empty-feeling cottage in deepest Devon.  Years later, Beth’s Hungarian summers continue to haunt and entice her.  The Book of Summers is about the lies we tell, the truths we keep and, above all, the ways we find to keep on loving one another.

From the author:

My first novel, The Book of Summers, is a coming-of-age story about longing and belonging.  It is born of childhood memories – some real, many imagined.  Every summer when I was small we would pack up the car and take the ferry from Dover to Calais, before driving through France and Germany.  In later years we ventured further afield to Austria and Hungary.  We’d be away for a month at a time, returning with tanned skin, mosquito bites and a hatful of travellers’ tales.  My father documented our trips with his Nikon, while I did the same with my journal.

I was eleven years old when we first went to Hungary.  It was 1990, the year after the Berlin Wall came down, and my mother was keen to explore her Hungarian roots.  Together we discovered a country that was changing, a place possessed of a turbulent past and an uncertain future.  Yet it was the simple, timeless things that captured my imagination and stayed with me.  The incredible heat that churned the surface of roads where state buses pulled in and sent us scurrying for shade in search of peach soda.  The delicious food and its relative cheapness – my sister and I marvelled at ice-cream for five pence a blob and quickly learned how to say, három gombóc fagylalt, cseresznye, vanilia és csokoládé (three scoops please, cherry, vanilla and chocolate).  The beauty of the land – we discovered a lake as big as a sea, chalky hillsides bursting with rhododendrons, mustard-painted houses with languid verandas and crooked tiled roofs.  We stayed by turns in a 1960′s tower block hotel with Russian guests that serenaded the setting sun over Lake Balaton, a faded but elegant apartment across the Danube from the Houses of Parliament, and a Transylvanian-style hunting lodge tucked among the forests of the Pilis Hills.  For several years we went back every summer, and everything was always the same and always different.

After the holidays had ended and we were back at home, with looming school and shortening days, these trips took on a new life.  My father assembled meticulous photo albums, each one marked and labelled with route maps and dates.  We’d revisit these books throughout the winter months, when sun-tans and inflatable lilos were swapped for woodsmoke and blankets, and our summers seemed like a faraway dream.  We were generous with our recall – even remembering with fondness the mosquito bites that had studded our ankles, the strange towelling sheets that itched in the hot nights, and the time our exhaust pipe fell off and we roared about a quiet French town like a rally car.  Our adventures, both vital and insignificant, fell to family folklore.  It is from these memories, these images, these facts, that The Book of Summers grew.

The rest is fiction.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,160 other followers

%d bloggers like this: