Posted by: sallycripps | January 15, 2009

BBRLM Sally Nov 2008

* The Household Guide to Dying by Debra Adelaide – 9/10
Much more complex that I thought it would be – not “just” a story about a woman preparing for death, but about all the ramifications of that, her need to make peace with the past especially. It was the quirky bits – the chooks named after the Bennett sisters in Pride and Prejudice (Delia Bennett being the protagonists’s name), the Dear Delia letters with their underlying messages about life, the grumpy neighbour with a secret back yard – that lifted the story from maudlin to warm and witty. Readers follow advice columnist Delia Bennett as she tries to get her house in order after accepting that her breast cancer has metastisised, driving home the female tendency to show how much they care through their housework. But the story aslo hearks back to Delia’s own teen years, when she had to grow up very quickly. I guess we take away the message that there’s life even in death. And I learnt that Mrs Beeton of history was actually a young woman who died prematurely, not some old dragon.

* Napoleon’s Double by Antoni Jach – 7.5/10
Strong on ideas and philosophy, and low on plot made this a challenging read, but it was not without rewards either. You could say it was a book of the Enlightenment, challenging us to compare the old and the new, and to ponder on the differences. In fact, this was probably what I got the most from the book – the idea that we can do anything new is illusory, just like the mirages in the Egyptian desert that the characters traverse, or like the people employed to double for Napoleon. Seven conscripts from a French village follow Napoleon on his campaign to conquer Egypt. All of them are called Jean, which I thought a bit gimmicky. One of them is picked out to double for Napoleon in dangerous situations but his presence makes the leader uncomfortable, and so the band is sent off to explore Australia’s unknown coastline and hopefully perish in a far-off land. There were elements of the faults of personality in the book, and how people get grand ideas, but I didn’t find that as strong a theme as what it said about the illusion of identity. “We live in our imaginations,” narrator Jean Antoine says. He ends up creating a new life for himself, with an Irish firebrand, and we are left to ponder whether life’s worth bothering with! Jach got a bit repetitive with his ideas – I got very tired of hearing how everyone disliked commander Nicholas Baudin, and my lack of philosophical knowledge meant much of the book probably passed me by.

* The Verge Practice by Barry Maitland – 7/10
Just what my tired brain needed, a nice police procedural. Strongly plot driven, there were many sexual undertones to the story of the disappearance of leading British architect Charles Verge following the murder of his second wife Miki Norinaga, and then the subsequent death of the practice’s partner Sandy Clarke. The crack team of DI Brock and DS Kolla is called in after 4 months when the trail goes cold. Interest is maintained by a couple of side stories – Kolla’s deteriorating relationship with forensic scientist Leon on the job, Charles’ female relatives and their interesting domestic relationships, and the link with the art, architectural and plastic surgery worlds in Spain. Even Kolla’s membership of a police working party peopled by society’s minorities helps the story’s resolution, that stereotypes are dangerous. There were even hints of the play MacBeth, with its regicidal jealousy. The message was that appearances are deceptive. As usual with these stories you don’t really care whodunnit, you just let yourself go.

* The Comfort of Figs by Simon Cleary – 6/10
Like Brisbane’s Story Bridge at the centre of the book, this story had a great weight to uphold. I think its cantilever sagged a bit. It started well, with a langorous quality reminiscent of the sub-tropical setting – pelting rain infused with light, the texture of tree trunks, leaf scents wafting through the air – but that quickly becomes overpowering. It was the same with the fig metaphor, which got laboured far too much. Council worker Robbie is their greatest fan and plants them all over the city, and takes souvenirs from them to his delicate Canadian girlfriend Freya. As well, he is just as obsessed as his engineer father with the bridge that looms over the city skyline. The middle section of the book goes back to the 1930s construction and labouring done by Robbie’s father Jack, Charlie Stahl and Peter Carleton, along with engineer Lawrence and his daughter Evelyn. All the big bridges of the world seem to have an aura about them and Cleary uses this to construct a mystery about bridge deaths. Unfortunately one has to wade through a lot of bridge building facts along the way. Back in the present day, Freya is assaulted and can’t recover. Robbie, instead of sustaining her, is strangled like a fig by his need to find out about his father’s involvement with the bridge. And so to the loss of innocence and the clothing with fig leaves, hmmm. If only the fabulous historical titbits – the Catholic push to build the bridge to draw custom into the Valley and away from the City, the creek that gave Creek Street its name – hadn’t been drowned.

* Border Crossing by Pat Barker – 8/10
Barker explores the world of psychology in this story, and luckily allowed her characters to do most of the showing. The tension comes from psychologist Tom discovering that the young man he saves from drowning is someone he helped convict for the murder of an old woman. Was this just coincidence, the story asks, or did Danny actually mean to involve Tom? The stalking/revenge factor is ratcheted up as Tom agrees to help what seems to be a troubled young man comes to term with his past. Danny’s violent childhood comes out and is perhaps laid on a bit thick. Barker makes Tom vulnerable by having him go through marriage difficulties and lots of personal questioning, and creating situations where the two are alone together. We are never really sure of Danny’s true persona and left with questions about identity and how well we know each other.

* Guest reviews by Sally Cripps

NB The Australian Copyright Act 1968 (the Act) allows 10% of the number of words on this website to be reproduced and/or communicated by any Australian educational institution for its educational purposes provided that the educational institution (or the body that administers it) has given a notice to Copyright Agency Limited (CAL) under Part VB of the Act. For details of the CAL licence for educational institutions contact: Copyright Agency Limited, Level 15, 233 Castlereagh St, Sydney NSW 2000 Ph 612 93947600 Fax 612 93947601 Email: Except for personal use or as permitted under the Act (e.g. for the services of the Crown or in reliance on one of the fair dealing exceptions i.e. a fair dealing for the purposes of research or study) no part of this website may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, communicated or transmitted in any form or by any means without prior written permission. All inquiries should be made to the copyright owner Sally Cripps at w.sf.cripps at bigpond dot com

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