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Published in 2010, this is Elizabeth Speller’s first novel. I came across her work when I read a review of her second book, The Strange Fate of Kitty Easton (2012), which features the same main character, so I thought I should read the first one first. I’m not sure that was a good idea. On one hand, it certainly establishes the background and circumstances of the main character. On the other, it reads a bit like a first novel – promising, but flawed.

It is 1921. Captain Laurence Bartram has survived the cataclysm of the World War, but is now drifting and purposeless. His wife died in childbirth during the war, and his baby son soon after; now his life before 1914 is ‘a closed world he could never reach back and touch.’ He has been commissioned to write a book about London churches, but is making slow progress. Then he receives a letter from Mary Emmett, the sister of his school friend, John Emmett. He too survived service in the war, but has recently committed suicide. Mary wants Laurence to help her understand why. Though Laurence feels he is unlikely to be much help, he remembers liking Mary, and agrees to try. But what if the truth will be of no comfort to her?

This story has the form of a classic mystery, where an ordinary person undertakes some sort of quest to uncover a secret. Laurence makes a good ‘ordinary person’: he is a kind and decent man, troubled by his own memories of what he has lived through. One thing he finds out leads him to another, until the whole picture – or almost the whole picture – becomes clear. Along the way he gets help, mainly in the form of information. Quite a lot of this comes from another school friend, Charles, who has a wide range of friends and relations who together seem to know almost the entire surviving officer class from the war. I’m sure Speller is right in saying that at least in the early years of the war, getting a commission was a class thing; a question of going to the right school and having the right background. Many of them would be likely to have friends and relations in common.  Nevertheless, my problem with Charles is his role in the structure of the plot; his body of knowledge is just too convenient. There are also some fairly wild coincidences: sentences like ‘Even as he absorbed the extraordinary coincidence unfolding in front of him’ don’t really make up for the hole in the plot that necessitates them. The reader will certainly work out what is happening quicker than Laurence does. And the resolution takes a form that I think is a bit amateur.  Overall, there is too much telling and not enough showing. But this is a fault of a first time novelist, and there are other things to like about the book.

Speller has been praised for her scrupulous presentation of the early 1920s, and in general the context she provides is interesting, and sometimes thought-provoking. (There is one anachronism though – see if you can pick it.) However I found Laurence’s middle class perspective a bit limiting at times, as for example when he assumes the person he is looking for must have been an officer: it takes him several chapters to figure out that he could have been an ordinary soldier. He then at least does reflect on the class-bound basis of the army. But Charles especially reminds me of characters in the snobbish stories of the 1920s mystery writer Dornford Yates – that is, he has no character outside what is almost a parody of the English gentleman.

The book’s main strength, for me, is the issue of military discipline that is at the heart of the story. Speller has researched the area closely – she gives some references in an afterword – and it is well to be reminded what powers the British Army wielded over soldiers at that time, particularly as the centenary of the beginning of World War I approaches, with all its opportunities to romanticise the terrible sacrifice. Laurence is able to regain his emotional life by admitting to himself that during his service, he was terrified much of the time by the thought of dying. ‘We weren’t supposed to be frightened, not so that it showed,’ says one character. ‘Now when you look back, you can see that fear was the rational response to much of it’. And Speller suggests that what soldiers had to endure was essentially unendurable. This is hardly new, but highlighting the psychological as well as the physical damage caused by the war gives depth to her story.

Overall, at the better end of holiday reading. You can find out more about Elizabeth Speller here. She has just published a third book, though not featuring Laurence Bartram – there’s only so many adventures the ‘ordinary man’ can have before he makes a profession of it. The new one deals directly with the Great War. It seems like there might be a bit of an industry this year round the centenary of its outbreak. And certainly lots of controversy.

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The Broken Shore (2005) is a highly acclaimed crime story by probably the best crime writer in Australia: Temple has won a number of ‘best crime story’ awards for his work. But he is more than a crime writer. The Broken Shore was long-listed for the Miles Franklin Award in 2006, and his next book, Truth (2009), won it in 2010.  This award is given to the book which in that year shows ‘the highest literary merit’ as well as presenting ‘Australian Life in any of its phases’. He has also won other awards for literary merit. He uses some of the conventions of crime writing, but at a level that takes his work outside the narrowing confines of genre. And now they’ve made a TV movie of The Broken Shore.

Homicide detective Joe Cashin is back in his home town on the Victorian coast, recuperating after being badly injured in the line of duty. ‘I’m the cripple running Port Monro,’ he says. A loner, in constant pain and reliving in dreams the operation gone wrong, he is ‘broken’ like the rugged limestone cliffs he lives near. ‘Life was weakness,’ he thinks, ‘strength was the exception.’ When a local landowner is bashed and robbed, Cashin is given charge of the investigation by the Homicide branch in Melbourne. But is the case as open and shut as it first looks? Why are the police in Cromarty, the nearest large town, so uniformly hostile? Could there be other motives for the crime?

At one level this is a clever crime story based on careful misdirection. It is up to Cashin to arrive at the answer no one else has seen, ‘delivered to him by some process in the brain that endlessly sifted, sorted and shuffled things heard and read, seen and felt, bits and pieces with no obvious use, just clutter, litter, until the moment when two of them touched, spun and found each other, fitted like hands locking.’ (And what a great statement of the way great detectives operate – in books, at least.) As Cashin finds his way towards the truth, the tension mounts to a dramatic climax; is Cashin’s worst nightmare about to be repeated?  This is a good but fairly standard plot structure. What makes the book rise above the constraints of the crime story?

There are two things. One is the writing. Temple has a wonderful ear for dialogue; it has been rightly described as ‘brutal and spare’. Some readers find it unnecessarily coarse, but that’s how people speak. Homicide detectives see the worst of things, but cover their feelings with banter. ‘How is it that wogs have taken over this force?’ asks one detective. ‘Natural selection,’ says Cashin. ‘Survival of the best dressed.’ Cashin feels deeply, but hides his feelings. You ‘turn it into a joke,’ says his mother. ‘Even a tragedy’s only a tragedy for five minutes, then it’s a joke.’ Has he made an error of judgement? ‘With hindsight,’ he says, ‘I see most of my life as an error of judgement.’ ‘There was no firm ground in life. Just crusts of different thickness over the ooze.’ Cashin’s bleak view is reflected in the urban landscapes he visits – ‘a street of rotting weatherboards, dumped cars and thin front yards silting up with junk mail’.

The second strength is Temple’s ability to write about tragedy in a way that is neither dismissive nor melodramatic. His work reveals the underbelly of life in Australia – in this case in small country towns. Too many lives, too many relationships, both personal and social, are broken. Prejudice and racism are rife; whatever goes wrong is blamed on the Aborigines who live there. ‘You’d think the white trash were all at choir practice of a Saturday night.’ There is other theme that is equally disturbing and perhaps even more relevant today than it was in 2005, but to say what it is would be to give away the plot. However just as the bleak landscape can also be beautiful, Cashin finds friendship and purpose where least looked for.

So what do they make of this in a film? Despite a previously stated preference for the written over the visual, I found the film very satisfying. Don Hany makes a great Joe Cashin, clearly in pain but taking no bullshit; he is now my mental image of Joe Cashin. All the other casting works well, though Erik Thomson as Joe’s boss, Inspector Villani, wasn’t what I expected. He’s fine in this, but if they make a film of Truth, I hope they choose another actor because I can’t see him as the main character (which he is in Truth). There is plenty of the black humour that characterises the dialogue in the book.  The film has a strong visual impact with suitably bleak and beautiful scenery as a backdrop. The story has been simplified by the removal of one possible motive and a sub plot, and the shortening of the chain of evidence that leads to the climax. I think something is lost in doing this, but I can see that it works well enough in this context. You would have needed a mini-series to get it all in. There is a strong hint at the beginning about the motive for the crime; so much for me saying the plot is based on misdirection. But I recommend the film – even if you don’t read the book first, though naturally I also recommend you do that too.

You can read more about Peter Temple here, and some rather sketchy details about the film here. You can catch up with it on ABC ivew for the next couple of weeks.

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January 27th is International Holocaust Remembrance Day, commemorated annually on the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau. It seems highly fitting that I finished reading The Street Sweeper (2011) on that day, for much of it concerns events at Auschwitz-Birkenau. Questions about the liberation of Dachau are also important in the plot. The book took me some time to read; I had to put it down and leave it several times because I simply couldn’t go on. Is it the power of the events, or the power of the author in telling them that makes such an impression? The events would speak for themselves whatever the medium; Perlman’s achievement is to make you want to read on.

The book tells a number of stories that belong both to Perlman’s characters, and to the history of the twentieth century. The book is set in New York in the present, but the action often reverts to the past. The two main characters in this vast sweep are Lamont Williams, a young African American man just out of gaol after serving six years for a crime he didn’t commit, and Adam Zignelik, a historian at Columbia University whose personal and professional life is falling to bits. Although unknown to each other, a web of connections links them, made up of people they come into contact with, and things they learn from and about them. The story is much too complicated even to outline here, but it reaches back to the experience of African American soldiers in World War II, to the Warsaw Ghetto, to Auschwitz-Birkenau, to unionism in Chicago’s slaughterhouses, to school desegregation and the American Civil Rights movement. How do these fit together? Adam says ‘you never know the connections between things, people, places, ideas. But there are connections.’ This is the premise the story based on, and I am in awe of the amazing feat of story-telling that Perlman has produced to tie it all together. Almost everything and everybody in the story relates to, or makes reference to, something or someone else. This could be seen as artificial, but I didn’t find it so. One tiny example suffices to illustrate this sort of referencing: the daughter of Adam’s boss at Columbia (whose father was a friend of his father) is speaking to her mother, (who is Lamont’s cousin, though she hasn’t seen him for many years) about a book she is supposed to be reading for school. ‘It sucks … It’s boring and … unrealistic.’ What is the book? Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, the great American realist classic set in the slaughterhouses of Chicago.

History, then, is central to the story. Early in the book, Adam asks his students: ‘What is History’? ‘With the facts you know are solid underneath you,’ he says, ‘build a bridge to the unknown. Is this true, likely to be true, unlikely to be true or is there not enough known to you to say?’ Though this book is fiction, a lot of it is based on what is true, and a lot more on what is likely to be true. A number of the characters are either real people or based on real people; the book is dedicated to eight women, four Jewish, four African American, ‘who all died from different manifestation of the same disease’ – racism.

But being fiction, Perlman invokes another category: the imaginative recreation of what might have happened. What the imagined historian Adam discovers could have been true; it is fiction based on the spirit of what actually happened rather than any of his more precise historical categories. In the story, the imagined ex-prisoner Lamont Williams is the source of an account of real events he has learned about from a Jewish ex-inmate of Auschwitz; that never happened, and the historical account he reports is known from other sources. But Lamont is also true to the spirit of what happened; he is ‘desperate for people to remember other people.’ In this, he is unconsciously echoing the plea of the Jews of Auschwitz-Birkenau to ‘tell everybody what happened here’, a plea at the heart of International Holocaust Remembrance Day, and of this book.

You can see from the sort of history being covered here, which, by the way is beautifully researched, that much of the book is very grim. The personal relationships of most of the characters are not happy either. So why did I keep going? It was partly the compelling interest of both the story and the characters, and the urge to know what would happen next. I think I also felt some kind of a duty to the victims of this history. Who could refuse to hear when they cry ‘tell everybody what happened here’? I also took heart from the book’s epigram from Ana Akhmatova: ‘Mountains bow down to this grief … But hope keeps singing from afar’.

Elliot Perlman is the son of second-generation Jewish Australians, and he grew up in Melbourne. You can read more about him here. This is his third novel, and he has a book of short stories. His second novel, Seven Types of Ambiguity (2003) was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin Award in 2004. It was beaten by The Great Fire by Shirley Hazzard – no disgrace there. But for a novelist that one French literary magazine has called ‘one of the 50 most important writers in the world’, he seems strangely little known in Australia.

The history in this book is fascinating, if horrifying. You can read more about the Little Rock Nine here, the Packinghouse Workers Organising Committee here, the history of wire recorders here and the Sonderkommando revolt here. It is interesting that the publicity around the publication of the book also contributed to finding evidence relevant to one of the historical disputes that is important in the story; for the dispute, see here, and for Perlman’s disclosure of the new evidence on it in 2012, see here.  Will it resolve the dispute? ‘One wonders,’ he writes, ‘whether there are still some people for whom the eyewitness testimonies of African-Americans and of Polish Jews are not enough.’

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‘Morse, Rebus … and now Yussef’ reads the blurb on the front of this book – a quote from one of the London weeklies. When will I stop being taken in by what’s on the cover? The Saladin Murders (2008) is not remotely like the books of Colin Dexter or Ian Rankin, and Yussef is nothing like Morse or Rebus. He’s not even a detective! The Saladin Murders is the second of what has now become the Palestine Quartet. They are mystery stories featuring Omar Yussef, a Palestinian school teacher from Bethlehem in the West Bank who finds himself quite unintentionally caught up in conflict and murder – on four different occasions.

Of course being caught up unintentionally in conflict and murder four different times is probably a good deal easier in Palestine than in, say, Adelaide. Indeed it is the setting of the story in Palestine that attracted me to it. I was hoping for something a bit edgy and fashionably noir, but I didn’t get it. What I did get was a sometimes frustrating, rather low key story that nevertheless has its satisfactions.

Omar Yussef, principal of a UN school for refugees in Bethlehem, has come to Gaza to inspect UN schools there. But before he can begin, he finds that another of the UN teachers, who also works at the University in Gaza, has been arrested. He immediately sets out with two UN colleagues – a Scot and a Swede – to find out what is going on. He is soon entangled in a web of violence and corruption. ‘In Gaza, nothing is what it seems,’ he is told. ‘There is no single isolated crime in Gaza. Each one is linked to many others.’ And so it proves.

Matt Rees is a former journalist who worked in the Middle East, including six years as Time magazine’s Jerusalem bureau chief, and he has written non-fiction accounts of the struggle between Israel and Palestine. So we can assume that he is pretty familiar with Gaza. His view of it on one level is completely negative; the internal organisation seems to be equally or more oppressive than the Israeli presence. He sees the PLO government as a vicious, corrupt, factionalised body made up of ruthless and self-seeking men. They seem indifferent to the suffering of the ordinary Palestinians. ‘To live here,’ thinks Yussef, ‘you would have to accept the shadows, swelter in airless rooms, choke on your resentment.’ The action takes place over several days when Gaza is enveloped in a dust storm, making it an even more unpleasant place to live. A putrid puddle in front of the toilets is ‘the scent of Gaza’. I felt at some points that Rees was overly harsh in his judgement. Yet he has said that Gaza ‘is the most beautiful spot imaginable’, and that he wanted to show the good as well as the bad in Palestinian society.

The good is definitely represented by Yussef. He rejects ‘blind faith in tradition’ and opposes injustice and cruelty. He is dogged in his pursuit of what he thinks is right. He is a kind and polite man, who values his family and the simple pleasures of food and companionship. He knows his limitations. ‘How could a history teacher in his mid-fifties, slowed by the effects on his body of youthful dissipation, hope to encounter such a dirty world and retain his decency, even his life?’ He doesn’t really detect or solve, and is assisted – kept alive, in fact – throughout by his friend the police chief from Bethlehem Khamis Zwydan, and his off-sider, Sami. Yussef is mostly an observer of events, not a driver of them. The final resolution is his work, though.

So what’s my problem? First, I find it all too black and white. It’s true that the police chief is a PLO member, who stands somewhat in the middle. He’s the one that says what Rees may well believe: that the PLO ‘should’ve stayed underground for ever. We can’t govern.’ But the other senior PLO men are over-the-top evil, and their followers are mainly driven by hatred and greed. Whatever you think of the real PLO, this makes for a simplistic ‘goodies versus baddies’ story.  And though the writing is often good, it is also sometimes naïve and unconvincing. Take for example the following: ‘Khamis Zwydan’s eyes were hard with recognition of the hatred that overwhelmed Omar Yussef. He dragged his friend forcefully, but with tenderness and understanding, away from the wreckage.’ It just doesn’t ring true to me.

On a purely personal note, I was interested to see that one of the crucial plot elements in the book is similar to one that is central to the plot of my daughter’s thriller Conspire. Great minds, and all that.

You can read more about Matt Rees, Palestine and the Palestine Quartet on his very interesting web-site here. He has also written two historical thrillers, one about Mozart, and one about Caravaggio. Please note that the UK and US editions the books of Palestine Quartet have different titles.

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I really enjoyed this book – which was published in 1992 – but had decided not to review it because it seemed of such specialised interest. I only read it because I’m planning to travel to Spain. Who would care what happened there in the eighth century? But then I realised that the history Fletcher is talking about has real significance for today’s world. In particular, it has relevance for the history wars that the current Liberal government in Australia (ie conservative in the Australian context) has reignited through statements that history as currently taught does not have enough emphasis on Western traditions and values, particularly Christian religious ones. There should, says the Education Minister, be a ‘greater focus on the benefits of Western civilisation’.

In 711 AD, the southern parts of Spain fell to an invasion from Morocco. It was led by Arabs from further east, who used local Berber troops to do the heavy lifting. Northern Spain remained in the hands of the Christian Visigoth successors to the Roman occupiers of the country, with a sort of no-mans-land in between. For the next seven centuries, there were periods of peace, but also periods of sporadic warfare, sometimes between the Muslim south and the Christian north, but also internally between both Muslims and Christians, and even on occasion between alliances of Christians and Muslims against other Christians and Muslims. Though at times, especially towards the end of the period, these conflicts were couched in the religious terms of Muslim versus Christian, they were far more often about land and loot than religious doctrine. The loss of Granada, the last bastion of Muslim power on the peninsula in 1492, and the eventual expulsion of the remaining Moors from Spain between 1609 and 1614 marked the final victory of the Catholic monarchy. But Fletcher points out that the idea of deliverance from Muslim rule by brave Christian kings owes as much to Spanish national myth-making as it does to what actually happened.

The most obvious traces of the Moorish presence in Spain are the architectural ones, with buildings such as the great mosque at Córdoba – Christianised after the fall of Córdoba – the Torre del Oro in Seville and the Alhambra – a garrison/palace built in the latter years of Muslim rule in Granada. We don’t know a lot about how ordinary people lived. This is partly because the historical records are sparse, and partly because where they do exist, they relate only to the doings of the rulers. Fletcher suggests that although most Muslim rulers were more tolerant of both Christians and Jews under their jurisdiction than Christian monarchs were of Muslims or Jews, there was a fair bit of persecution on both sides. This was no golden age of tolerance.

Fletcher is however, clear that the Christian West owes a huge debt to Muslim Spain. This is because it was the conduit through which flowed Greek philosophical, scientific and medical knowledge from the East. Translated into Arabic from the original Greek or Persian, the writings of philosophers such as Aristotle were diffused throughout the Muslim world. In Spain, they were translated into Latin, and in Fletcher’s words, ‘channelled off to irrigate the dry pastures of European intellectual life’. He thinks that an opportunity was missed for scholars of both faiths to truly understand each other’s religion, but nevertheless sees the intellectual gifts that Muslim society did pass on as crucial to the intellectual awaking that was so important for the Renaissance and the rise of the West.

So what has this to do with history wars? The history I learnt at school was entirely Europocentric, and Spain was an unimportant appendage to the south. When it was mentioned at all, it was as a country foolish enough to send an armada against England, and a cruel colonial power in South America – much worse than the Anglo Saxon colonial powers. And there was nothing about Islam, except some vague idea that they were nasty heathens whom we could never manage to beat in the Crusades. I’m very grateful to Professor Fletcher for filling in at least a tiny part of what I missed by focusing on the benefits of Western civilisation. He shows you can’t understand what these might be in isolation from other civilisations. ‘The plain fact,’ he says, ‘is that between 712 and 1492 Muslim and Christian communities lived side by side in the Iberian peninsula, clutched in a long, intimate embrace: sharing a land, learning from one another, trading, intermarrying, misunderstanding, squabbling, fighting – generally indulging in all the incidents that go to furnish the ups and downs of coexistence or relationship.’ Surely an understanding of this relationship is relevant to the western world, where we know so little about Muslim history and culture?

Moorish Spain is an immensely readable short introduction to this subject. ‘The reader I have in mind,’ says Fletcher, ‘is the inquisitive traveller in Spain who might want to know something more than a guidebook can tell him about the people who built the mosque of Córdoba or the Alhambra at Granada.’ For me he goes much further than that, correcting the balance which is already far too much in favour of Western civilisation at the expense of any understanding of the history of Muslim culture in Europe.

You can read more about Professor Fletcher, who died in 2004, here. There are notes on further reading at the end of the book.

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When I recently reviewed The Market in Babies: Stories of Australian Adoption, by Marian Quartly et al. (2013), I concentrated on its underlying argument: the supply of and demand for babies for adoption. I didn’t spend a lot of time on the stories told by the adoptees; they speak for themselves. The Magician’s Son (2005) is another such story. It is McCutcheon’s autobiography and in it, he tells how he spent years trying to come to terms with the fact of his adoption.

When he was nine years old, Sandy McCutcheon was told by another child that he was adopted, and this was confirmed by the child’s parents. His adoptive parents, however, initially denied it and then refused to give him any details about his birth family. His adoptive parents were members of the comfortable, conservative, professional middle class of Christchurch, New Zealand. They provided Sandy with many material comforts, but not, he felt, the love that he craved. As soon as he was told about the adoption, he knew it was true, because he never felt that he belonged in his family. He was never comfortable with his name; it ‘felt like an ill-fitting skin, one that needed to be shed.’ ‘It was only with hindsight,’ he says, ‘that I understood how traumatised I must have been at the time. The building blocks of my personality had been shattered’. His sole option, he felt, was to rebel, as  ‘the only way I have of validating my existence’. His whole life became ‘a search for identity’.

The structure of the book reflects McCutcheon’s preoccupation with his adoption. It is divided into two parts, the first dealing with the time before he met members of his birth family at the age of 50, the second dealing with the time after. Some readers may remember Sandy McCutcheon as the presenter of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s very successful radio program Australia Talks Back (1992 -2006) (later Australia Talks, 2007-11). As well as working in radio, he was an actor, ran a restaurant, wrote several novels and many plays and was the founder of a Buddhist centre for people in need in Tasmania.  He notes that he was attracted to jobs where he could appear to be ‘someone other than who I was’. His personal life was even more unsettled; he had a number of relationships that failed, leaving him with a further sense of loss. ‘The neurosis that had been set up by my abandonment as a child,’ he says, led to the feeling that ‘if I was not worthy of being loved by my own mother, then I was not worthy of being loved by anyone.’ As it is an autobiography, we do not get the views of his various partners, but it is clear that he can’t have been easy to live with.

All through his life, McCutcheon kept searching for anything or anyone who could tell him about where he really came from. Despite the unhappiness of his childhood, he hadn’t completely lost touch with his adoptive family. During a visit to his sister and his ailing mother in New Zealand, his sister – who had also been adopted by the McCutcheons, but had never felt angry about it as Sandy did – gave him some papers she had found relating to his adoption. They gave his birth name. From there, he discovered he had a brother and sister, and later, a large extended family. His mother and father were both dead, so the circumstances of his adoption were never fully confirmed. But it seemed that when his mother and father separated, his two elder siblings went with their father, while he remained with his mother. But when she remarried, she gave him up for adoption. By this time, he was about two years old, and though it seems unlikely that he could remember that his birth father used to do magic tricks, he nevertheless later dreamed that his father was a magician – giving the book its title.

Life for McCutcheon’s birth brother and sister became very difficult when their father married a woman who mistreated them. But McCutcheon says that he would have preferred to share that mistreatment with them rather than being adopted. Once he knew who he was, he grew in ‘tranquillity and contentment’. His birth sister, however, had a different view. ‘Anything would have been better than the life we endured,’ she writes in an Afterword. ‘When I listen to Sandy tell of his life I think [adoption] might have been the better option.’ Perhaps if the McCutcheons had told Sandy from the outset that he was adopted, he would have dealt with it better, but, as he acknowledges, this would have been hard to do, given the time and place. McCutcheon has certainly judged his adoptive parents harshly, but readers may find it harder do so.

There is a Postscript that was added while the book was in the process of publication. It explains what happened in relation to one aspect of the story that left me feeling uncomfortable. ‘Were my life story a work of fiction,’ McCutcheon writes, ‘an editor would have put a pen through this postscript, citing lack of credibility.’ I am glad the issue is resolved, but am left muttering that life can be stranger than fiction.

You can read more about Sandy McCutcheon here, including the titles of his novels. He now lives at least part of the time in Morocco, and this is his blog about the town of Fez where he has a house.

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This time of the year everyone seems to be writing about ‘the best of 2013’, so I thought I’d join in. Here are my five favourite books from this year. They weren’t necessarily published in 2013; I just read them this year. The top three were easy, but numbers four and five were difficult choices and I could easily have made different ones. Why do I think they are ‘the best’? Putting them together like this makes me realise that in each case it is the writing style that appeals to me. What the author is saying is also important; each of these books seems to me to have an important message. But the message becomes most appealing when it is delivered beautifully, as is the case in all of these. I’ve linked to my original reviews for more information about them.

5. Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn

Gone Girl (2012) is a very clever mystery story about the disappearance of a young woman from her home in North Carthage, Missouri. Has she been kidnapped? Or murdered? What is her husband Nick’s role in this? Can either of them be trusted as narrators? The ingenious plot is set against the background of post GFC America; Nick and Amy’s moral landscape is as bleak as the physical setting. The combination of social commentary and plot twists is brilliantly done.

4. Home, by Marilynne Robinson

This couldn’t be more different from number 5. Set in 1956, Home (2008) is a companion to Robinson’s Gilead (2004), but I couldn’t exclude it for that reason, though I think it’s better to read Gilead first, as both books cover some of the same ground. Jack Boughton is the disreputable son of the Presbyterian minister of the small town of Gilead. The Reverend Broughton is old and ill. He loves Jack, but despairs of his wild ways. Why has Jack chosen to come home now, after so many years away?  This is a book where the story is simple. It is the relationships that matter – but also the reflections on American history and society that Robinson quietly alludes to. I know of no other writer who can make silences mean so much.

3. Bring Up The Bodies, by Hilary Mantel

It’s true I didn’t warm to this book as easily as I did to Wolf Hall (2009), the first in the trilogy. I think this was because I found the striving Cromwell of the first book more attractive than the successful courtier of this one. But I still very much enjoyed it, and nobody can deny how well Mantel writes. I like her use of the present tense and her sharp, modern dialogue. It’s true that we all know more or less what is going to happen, but Cromwell doesn’t, which adds hugely to the tension. Mantel doesn’t pretend she is writing history; it’s how Cromwell might have seen it – an imaginative recreation. Maybe it’s best to read Wolf Hall first, though.

2. The Heart Broke In, by James Meek

This is a wonderfully complex story that Meek nevertheless manages to hold together in a very satisfying way. Set mostly in present day England, with brief excursions to Africa, it is part social commentary, part exploration of morality, part thoughts on science, part love story and part family saga. And that description only scratches the surface. There is a rich cast of characters. And then there is the writing. Meek has a great ear for the vernacular, a wry vocabulary to describe modern life, and the capacity to write movingly about love, betrayal and death. A great combination.

1. Flight Behaviour, by Barbara Kingsolver

And the winner is Flight Behaviour (2012). Maybe I’m biased in my choice, because Flight Behaviour is about the effects of climate change, an issue in which I am passionately interested. The migration of Monarch butterflies has been disrupted by the destruction of their winter habitat, and they have settled instead in a valley in the Appalachians. But they are constantly as risk from the weather. Kingsolver doesn’t lecture about the effects of climate change; she shows them. But even if readers only have a mild interest in this subject, I think they’d have to agree that it’s a beautifully written book. The story is complex and satisfying. Kingsolver shows a rare humanity in presenting her characters as fully rounded and truly human. Some of this comes from her ability to write convincing dialogue. But her descriptions of people, family, nature, and life in general in rural Bible belt America are superb.

Only one of these books – Bring Up The Bodies – won any of the big literary prizes, so critical opinion isn’t on my side. But I don’t care. These are the books that moved me most this year, and I hope that other readers will enjoy – or have already enjoyed – them too. Happy reading.

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