The Good People by Hannah Kent

After reading and being so impressed with Hannah Kent’s debut novel, Burial Rites, I couldn’t wait to sink my teeth into her next one, The Good People. Like its predecessor, it is impeccably researched, this time immersing the reader in late 1800s Ireland within a small community that, when an orphaned child with serious incapacities is given to his grandparents to raise, finds itself beset with misfortune and death.

Focusing on three primary female characters and taking a true story for inspiration, Kent does a marvellous job of recreating the superstitions of a community clinging to pagan beliefs while trying to embrace modernity and the rule of the Catholic Church. For three women, the grieving grandmother, Nora, the young maid she hires to help her look after her grandson, Mary, and the “handy woman” and local healer, “Nance” the collision between old worlds and new, between faith in one set of beliefs and another, and the drive to nurture and protect is very real and painful.

Evoking the terrible poverty, lack of literacy and struggles of the small village in which these women dwell, the intimacy it creates – which is both blessing and curse – and the stark reality of their daily lives as they try to eke out an existence, Kent also manages to expose the beauty in their almost wilful ignorance; the way they embrace the magic of nature and the intrusion of culture (all while negotiating the villainy or good intentions of others), attributing that which they don’t or won’t understand to the “good people” or fairy folk. Convenient scapegoats as well as explanations for the inconceivable and painful, the “good people” are as much a part of their lives as their neighbours and the landscape from which they attempt to draw a living and life.

But not everyone believes in the “good people” or the powers and malice they’re purported to wield. Nor do some believe in the good intentions of those who cede to the fairies’ demands and desires, seeking to appease them. As Kent demonstrates, when two different ways of viewing the world and those who inhabit it collide, catastrophe and tragedy are sure to follow.

Heart-wrenching, mesmerising, beautifully written, I found myself urging characters to make different choices, to open their eyes and hearts. Flung into the midst of all this superstition – of the religious and pagan kind – as impossible and improbable as it was, as well as the way certain powers and vulnerabilities were abused for others’ gain, it’s both a relief and a wrench to leave it.

Simply superb. An engrossing and involved read that will leave you emotionally exhausted but lexically satisfied.

 

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The Keeper of Lost Things by Ruth Hogan

Goodness… where do I begin? The debut novel, The Keeper of Lost Things, by Ruth Hogan is beyond delightful. It is a ray of sunlight, filled words you want to savour, rainbows, sweet memories, glistening tears, all perfuming the room/glade with the scent of caramel and freshly baked bread. It is magical in every sense and then some.

So, what is this lexical treasure about?

Anthony Peardew, is a writer who, for his entire life, has collected an assortment of things people have left behind or lost in order to compensate for something precious he once misplaced. When he dies and leaves his enormous legacy to his personal assistant, the lovely but slightly lost herself, Laura, the purpose of the objects (and his bequest) becomes apparent.

Populated with charming, whimsical and at least one outright nasty character, as well as such endearing animals, I deliberately slowed my reading down to savour this story, putting it aside when I really didn’t want to because I just didn’t want it to end.

The style in which the book is written is a joy. I read that some reviewers on Goodreads found it confusing; others, like me, relished the way the main third person narrative switches to tell a short story about a particular object. I found this added such richness and depth to the tale and made Anthony’s obsession with collecting even more meaningful as we learn what a particular thing meant, the context in which it functioned and why it was lost in the first place.

I also read that one reviewer said the treatment of Down’s Syndrome and Alzheimer’s in the novel was insensitive. Having members of my family with both, I completely disagree. I found it not only sensitively handled, but with erudition and insight into the emotional beauty and toll (such as intolerance and lack of understanding around Down’s Syndrome and preparedness of many to discard and forget those with Alzheimer’s) these things take on individuals, their families and friends. The character Sunshine, for example, was indeed that and yet so much more as well.

At a time when there seems to be so much fear, negativity and suspicion in the world, towards each other (particularly here in Australia where we’re on the cusp of finding out the result of a misguided and toxic Same Sex Marriage vote – it should have just been passed by parliament. Instead, it’s unleashed so much bile and homophobia and caused so much unhappiness, negativity and hate to spew forth to the detriment of the most vulnerable and their families L), this book was such an antidote.

My only regret is that I have finished the book and have to wait until next year to read Hogan’s new one. The lovely thing was, upon finishing it, I felt like I’d been wrapped in the biggest, warmest hug – something I feel we could all do with.

Joyous, seriously, heart-warming and wrenching, as well as beautifully written, for a whole number of reasons, along with Strange, The Dreamer, by Liani Taylor, this is my favourite book for 2017. Thank you, Ruth Hogan, from the bottom of my brimming heart.

 

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Last Rituals by Ysra Sigurdardottir

Continuing my love affair with Nordic Noir, I picked up this book, Last Rituals, by an author I hadn’t yet read, Ysra Sigurdardottir. Commencing with a suitably grisly discovery, when a young German student’s body is found on a university campus, sans eyes and with eerie markings inscribed on his body, the reader is introduced to Thora Gudmundsdottir, a lawyer who is hired by the family of the young man to investigate his death. While a suspect has been placed in custody, the family don’t believe he’s the culprit. Teaming up with a man sent from Germany to support her investigation, the blunt and seemingly humourless, Matthew Reich, Thora and her new partner uncover not only fascinating aspects of Iceland’s history, but the victim’s enthrallment with the occult. From ancient caves and supernatural and other traditions, burial rights, superstitions and precious documents worth a fortune and which could change history, Thora and Matthew become immersed in a deadly game of hide and seek, power, lies and deception, all tinged with witchcraft and dark magic. Can they break the spell hanging over this case or will they too fall victim to the forces arraigned against them?

What I really enjoy about Nordic Noir is the emphasis on character as much as plot and this book is no exception. As the investigation continues and clues and dead-ends are explored, the reader is invited to get to know single-mother, Thora, and her children and familial life better as well as the professional and slow-burning personal relationship she builds with Max.

History and the wild and majestic Icelandic landscape become as much characters in this book as the murder investigation, adding richness and depth to the sometimes staccato scene changes and otherwise excellent dialogue.

Slow but rewarding, I look forward to more in this series.

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The Last Hours by Minette Walters

Having loved Minette Walters other books, I was so looking forward to reading The Last Hours, her first foray into historical fiction. Set in England in 1348, it tells the story of how one resilient and clever community, Develish in Dorseteshire, survived during the deadly outbreak of the Black Plague, a plague that wiped out nearly half the population.

Centred around two primary characters, Lady Anne Develish and a serf whom she has nurtured over many years, the maligned bastard, Thaddeus Thurkell, it also explores the complex network of familial and other relationships that make up the immediate village and manor house – from the simply villainous and narcissistic Lord of the manor, Sir Richard to his equally vile daughter, Eleanor, to the various bondmen and their families as well as the alcoholic priest. How they all respond to not only news of the spread of plague, but the various threats that are set to unravel the lives they’ve built, makes compelling reading.

The novel starts slowly, introducing the reader to these various players in what’s about to become a fight for survival against overwhelming odds – and not just the sickness kind. As the plague takes its toll and the folk of Develish retreat behind the walls and moat, it swiftly becomes clear that healthy humans, and those forced into close confinement can often pose a much greater hazard than a ravaging illness.

When a murder happens among the cloistered community, only quick and drastic action prevents a greater travesty occurring.

Left with no choice but to seek both news and vitals beyond Develish’s boundaries, and led by Thaddeus, an exiled group join the brutal, devastated wider world that’s been ravaged by the plague. In the meantime, those they’ve left behind who look to Lady Anne for leadership and so much more, are forced to deal with not only their own doubts and fears, but the murderous intentions of other survivors who see the plague as an opportunity for exploitation.

The premise of this story reminded me very much of Geraldine Brooks’ magnificent Year of Wonders (still one of my all-time favourite books), a tale based on the true story of the brave souls who voluntarily quarantined themselves in order to prevent the spread of plague in 1665. But there the comparison ends. The people of Develish don’t quarantine themselves for the sake of others, but to save their own skin – not that there is anything wrong with that.

Establishing the personalities, weaknesses and strengths of the various players early, I found myself mostly investing in them. Where I struggled was in the glaring anachronisms around Lady Anne’s approach to not only health and hygiene but religion and class structures. I’ve not doubt there were exceptions to the strict rules and governance of the day, only Lady Anne seemed to buck, resist and rise above every accepted religious, social and hygiene standard set by the culture and period. This meant that most of her approaches to people and household habits smacked of 21st Century mores and notions. Part of me quite enjoyed the justification for some of her “modern” motivations and rules, that made Develish such an exceptional place, but when set against the misogynistic attitudes of first her husband and, later, what would have been ingrained in so many people – men and women – she became a medieval superhero and the tolerance and understanding extended to her by those who looked to her for leadership, more than remarkable for the time. Again, it’s always beautifully rationalised, I just didn’t always swallow it, as much as I wanted to. Lady Anne was so good, and right and smart and bold, yet also marvellously strategic, she almost (almost) became two-dimensional – and it’s testimony to Walter’s writing that she didn’t.

Where this didn’t work quite so well was in the portrayal of Lady Anne’s husband, Sir Richard. Frankly, what an utter arse without any redeeming qualities whatsoever and who just becomes worse and worse as the novel progresses and his behaviours are uncovered. How anyone, even a Norman steward can show loyalty to such a buffoon when other options are available and commons sense dictates otherwise, is a stretch.

Likewise, the daughter, Eleanor. Once more, Walters is at pains to explain and justify her putrid behaviour. Problem is, she was so damn selfish and awful, she was more a caricature and device for showing other characters’ goodness and faults than a real person.

Still, I enjoyed many of the scenes with both these characters and learning how their utterly selfish motivations and unreasonable demands were subtly overturned.

My main beef with the book was how it ended. I wished I’d known this wasn’t a complete book in itself. No. It is part of a series. I found it fairly confusing towards the final pages, particularly those inserted to give you a taste of what’s to follow. I found they made little sense and made me cross rather than longing to learn more!

Overall, the period and the English countryside and rules and regulations governing English manors and lands and how fiefdoms were controlled is well-established and fascinating, as is the ghastly way in which the plague affected people and how its spread was managed. Religion is not treated kindly and nor are the upper classes who don’t seem to have one redeemable character among them – I struggled a bit with both of these depictions, particularly as religion was the world-view then and to dissent or hold alternate (and very contemporary views) was to be a heretic and risk the salvation of the soul. Atheism might have been around, as was alternate ways of thinking about God, but again, putting all these views and arguments in the mouth and mind of mainly one character – and one who grew up in a nunnery – was sometimes difficult to go along with.

The story, once it really starts, is suspenseful and there are times I was flipping pages to find out what was happening. It’s some of the main and subsidiary characters that caused me problems in terms of completely suspending my disbelief (which I am very happy to do). They appeared to have been invented in our century and sent back in time to educate, elucidate and rescue those deemed worthy or smart enough to understand redemption comes in other forms.

The writing is, at all times, lovely and compelling and I will keep an eye out for the next instalment in this series – presumably, the hours after these last ones!

 

 

 

 

 

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The Shadow District by Arnaldur Indridasson

This was a wonderful, slow-burner of a book that segues between war-time Reykjavik in 1944 and the present. In 1944, a policeman named Flovent, an Icelandic expatriate named Thorson who is seconded to the military police, try to solve the brutal murder of a beautiful young Icelandic woman outside the national theatre. Initially suspecting the influx of US soldiers and the way they captivate the local girls who take unseemly risks to be responsible, they soon find they need to look closer to home.

Back in the present a retired detective, Konrad is asked to investigate the death of an elderly man who is found dead in his apartment. When a post-mortem reveals his death is, in fact, murder, Konrad cannot fathom who would want to kill this inoffensive, quiet man. It’s not until Konrad starts delving into his past and discovers he was not only a military policeman, but part of an inquiry into the terrible murder of a young woman during the war,  that Konrad understands the two cases, even though they’re separated by decades, might be connected.

While back in 1944 a perpetrator was taken into custody, tragic events followed his arrest. Evidently, these continued to haunt the now dead old man and thus, they haunt Konrad as well. Moreso when he discovers his own tenuous connection to the case.

It’s now up to Konrad to pick up where the old man left off and see if he can finally lay the ghosts that disturbed him to rest.

Atmospheric, very character driven, the intertwining of past and present works so well, weaving threads into a tight-knit solution.

There are some outstanding Scandi-noir writers and stories out there, and I am delighted to have found another to add to my reading pleasures!

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TWO KINDS OF TRUTH BY MICHAEL CONNELLY

I don’t know how it’s possible, but this series just keeps getting better and better, so much so, I need more than five stars to rate it. The only downside of this latest adventure with former LAPD detective and now cold case worker, Harry Bosch is, because I virtually inhale the book the moment I start it, it’s over far too soon.

In Two Kinds of Truth, Bosch is faced with present and past dilemmas. He might be working on cold cases, but when one of his from 30 years earlier is resurrected, one which not only put a psychopath on death row, but which, if the killer’s appeal to have his sentence overturned and massive compensation paid succeeds, throws every case Harry has ever worked on, every criminal he ever helped convict, into doubt.

Claiming Harry framed him and he has the evidence to prove it, the killer’s case appears tight, so much so, Harry’s former partner is persuaded to help those assigned to investigate the matter. Things look grim for Harry, particularly since he left LAPD under less than salubrious circumstances. Determined to clear his name, he commences his own investigation.

In the meantime, he’s asked to help in a brutal double-murder. Keen to be back on the streets and working “hot”, Harry and his team uncover the corruption and cruelty of big pharma, those who benefit from its nefarious dealings, and the toll this takes on the most vulnerable in society.

Older, most definitely wiser, with the cunning of a fox and instincts of a seasoned hunter, and yet willingness to share his knowledge and experiences, if there’s one thing Harry will not stand for, it’s having his honour – as an officer of the law and man – questioned. Nor will he tolerate the motives of a good person being trashed, especially when they’re no longer there to defend themselves or explain their actions and motives. This means Harry will take terrible risks in order that the truth outs and that those who seek to bury it pay the consequences of their deception.

But Harry is dealing with those who don’t share his values and don’t care about truth – unless its silencing the man who seeks to find and expose it.

Taut, fast-paced, but without sacrificing tension or emotional integrity, this is a magnificent read that is impossible to put down. Characters from previous books such as Lucy Soto, Jerry Edgar, Mickey Haller, Harry’s daughter and others appear, their desire to help the man who has always had their back admirable, though not always successful.

Like all the Bosch books, it can be read as a standalone, but the rewards for following Harry’s career and personal life are so much richer when you have the whole context.

Highly recommended – nah, bugger that. Read it! You won’t be disappointed.

 

 

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