Declan Burke: The Lost and the Blind

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During the Second World War, Ireland was a neutral country but that didn’t stop the Nazis from wanting to have influence.  One plot was to fund the IRA to cause anti-British uprising.  Seventy years later a naturalised man tells a tale of Nazi gold in Donegal and a long forgotten massacre of young children.  How does this link to philanthropic investment in a small island by a Boston- American millionaire and the stories of an uncelebrated thriller writer based on that island?  Tom Noone is commissioned to write a biography of the writer and finds that some secrets are still deeply hidden.

For the first 80% of this book I was engaged, it is a passable thriller with a novel premise and a pleasingly convoluted plot.  The idea that the current Irish government didn’t want any scandal that included the Nazis because of the financial crisis and the ket role played by the German bankers is quite plausible.  The various interested parties all have something to contribute and the writing is relatively crisp.  Unfortunately it them all got a bit silly – journalist Tom is suddenly capable of killing a trained professional with his bare hands, a character is killed outside the narrative with no explanation and more.  This transformed an OK book into something a little less satisfying to my taste.

Richard Flanagan: The Narrow Road to the Deep North

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Dorrigo Evans came from a life of poverty in Tasmania to become one of the establishment, a well-respected Doctor. His life was shaped by events both before and during the Second World War. Firstly he found and lost love. Secondly he was captured and became a medical officer in a work-camp charged with the building of a section of the Burma railway – The Line. The horrors of this time and its aftermath are described from the perspective of both the prisoners of war and their captors.

This is a stunning book. The language used and the metaphors throughout are poetic. The descriptions of life on The Line are horrific and yet, as we know from a multitude of other sources, not underplayed. What grounds this book is the descriptions of life before and after the war. Dorrigo is never fully satisfied with his life, he finds it hard to love, but when his family is in danger his protective instinct comes out. The difficulty of readjustment for both the prisoners and their capturers is beautifully imagined. In fact both sides are trapped by society, the Japanese with their discipline and structure, the Koreans with their poverty and servitude, and the Australians with their class distinctions and camarardery.

Often prize winning books are too complex or intellectual, often a hard read. This is a deserved winner of the Booker Prize.

Mel Sherratt: Follow the Leader

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A man is found murdered on a canal footpath with no seeming motive and the only clue being a magnetic letter found on his body. Days later a woman is stabbed in her home, again a letter is found at the scene, again seemingly motiveless. However there is a connection between the two, they were part of a gang of ‘popular kids’ at school. As the bodies mount up DS Allie Shenton and her team are facing a race against time to find the murderer before he strikes again.

It was nice to read a simple police procedural for a change and this is a very simple police procedural at its heart. The setting in the Black Country is threaded throughout, the plot is relatively tight and there is enough backstory to all the characters to mean that it can be read as a standalone.  It’s not the most complex read in the world but it is entertaining and a good example of its genre.

Maxine McKew: Class Act

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In the UK politicians are perpetually harping on about how the standards of education do not match up to the best globally. In Australia this realisation came several years ago but, rather than trying to ape the rigid pedagogy and assessment focused approach of some countries, some educationalists chose to focus on the needs of students and address some of the failings in the system. In this book McKew looks at a series of schools and profiles a number of key players who have made significant changes to education for all. Whilst there is a slight bias towards schools serving SES (deprived) populations, there is also a concern about ‘coasting’ schools and an underlying paradigm shift in the attitude of teachers.

This book is very readable for an education tome and utterly inspirational. I had to have a notebook next to me so that I check up on references and have gleaned some really interesting information. There is equally good practice taking place in the UK but a global perspective is always interesting and this is fantastic. Having spent some time visiting Australian schools a decade ago I described the attitude as ‘laid-back’ – these educationalists are not laid-back but they focus on the right areas. I would thoroughly recommend this book as an uplifting and reaffirming boost for anyone jaded with the latest diktat.

David Whitehouse: Mobile Library

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Bobby Nusku is confused and lonely. His mother left when he was much younger and his father is neglectful and abusive. Bobby’s only friend is Sunny who wants to become a cyborg to protect Bobby from the local bullies but when Sunny moves away, Bobby is left on his own. Then he befriends Rosa, a disabled girl who is also bullied, and Rosa’s mother Val. Val is warm and kind and Bobby seeks refuge with her. However an innocent and protective friendship is misinterpreted and Val goes on the run with Bobby, Rosa and Bert the dog, in the only transport available to them, the mobile library that Val cleans. Travelling the length of the country, one step ahead of the law, the unlikely group is augmented by Joe – a troubled man with a back story.

This is a lovely book. One needs to suspend belief about much of the action (how much does fuel cost!) but the sentiments are wonderful. Each character has issues to deal with, Rosa’s disability is not defined and the details of Joe’s life are presented as fragments, both work far better than a long description would. The heart of the story is Bobby, how he mourns his mother’s absence,creating files of hair and cloth as memories, and, as the story unfolds, the reasons for that absence are slowly revealed. Bobby’s relationship with Sunny is very pure and touching, two children adrift on the cusp of adolescence. The link between them all is the love of literature.

Christopher Jory: The Art of Waiting

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Aldo grows up in a warm, loving family in Venice. His father runs a neighbourhood restaurant and he is an apprentice shipwright. However after a series of mishaps Aldo finds himself fighting in Russia as part of the Italian army in the Second World War. After escaping with a Russian girl he is sent to the Gulags and finally returns to Venice to seek vengeance for old wrongs.

This book is very easy to read and on a superficial level quite enjoyable. The plot rattles along and the writing is simple. However it is neither fish nor fowl, it is neither the sweeping romantic epic that it could be, nor the gritty story of survival and revenge that it might aspire to be. Aldo’s supposed motivation for revenge is clear but the character, who has been overwhelmingly moral to that point, commits a callous murder with little guilt. I did enjoy the book but it left little impression on me.

Susannah Clarke: Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell

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England in the early 19th Century, at war with France and magic forgotten across the land. A few worthy gentlemen read books of magic but they are merely theoretical magicians, there are no practical magicians any more. However one man seems to be more knowledgable than others, he collects books and lives quietly, challenged to show magic, Mr Norrell makes the stones of York Cathedral speak. Then he casts a spell to resurrect a wealthy and beautiful society woman, but this spell has unforeseen consequences. As his pupil, the young and glamorous Jonathan Strange, seems to upstage him through feats in warfare, Mr Norrell becomes more concerned that magic should be the preserve of the few.

I bought this book when it first came out, a decade ago, but never got into it. It’s a massive tome (1000 pages) and has many footnotes which make it a complex read. However with more time on my hands I persevered and fell in love with the imagination that created this story.

Yes, it’s flabby in places and the ending is complex, but it is just marvellous