The Physician, by Noah Gordon

The Physician, by Noah Gordon, was recommended to me by a lovely book shop owner in Launceston when I was there one day doing a book-signing. Without telling me too much about the tale, the owner pressed the very thick book into my hands and said, “I think you will love this.” I always feel a shiver of trepidation come over me when someone I like or even whose reading tastes I share says this to me.  More than anything, I want to like, no, love the books that are recommended with such passion and I fear that if I don’t, I am somehow letting them down.

The good news is with The Physician, I did indeed love this book – so much so, I felt bereft when it ended.

Set mostly during the 10th Century, this is the story of a young Englishman, Robert J Cole who, from a very young age, learns he possesses a gift – the gift, basically, of sensing a person’s life force. The reader follows his life from the discovery of this gift around the age of nine to middle age; from the tragedy of his beginnings to the triumphs of his later years. Rob J has a varied and amazing life and how and why he becomes a physician and the journey he takes to train is, quite simply, sensational. We’re taken around England and given insight into the peripatetic life of a Barber-Surgeon (to whom Rob J apprentices himself), to France, across Europe and to war-riven Turkey and then Persia and its amazing culture and religious Otherness. Determined to train under the man he’s been told is the best physician in the world, Rob J makes incredible sacrifices: physical, emotional and, above all, spiritual. But in making these he gains more than his heart and mind’s desire.

The pace is wonderful, the characters so well drawn you feel emotionally attached to them in ways that are sometimes painful but always deep and meaningful. The settings are magnificently and realistically drawn and the different cuisines, the food and drink are mouth-wateringly described. I adored this book – the detail, the humanness of it and the way the macroscosm of the worlds and religions Rob J encounters are also microcosms of the everyday – of the humanity (or lack thereof) in us all.

Shaman is the sequel and I will read that with joy – only, for now, I want to savour the affects of this magnificent book – rightly hailed as a triumph. I cannot recommend it highly enough, so much so, I dare to say, read it, “I think you will love this…”

 

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Tell the Truth, Shame the Devil by Melina Marchetta

23566896 Tell the Truth, Shame the Devil by Melina Marchetta is quite simple a brilliant, moving and thought-provoking book that deals with so many familiar, contemporary and ideologically thorny and relevant issues in a sensitive and meaningful way.

The title is a quote from Shakespeare’s Henry IV, a king who was greatly misunderstood and is often cast by history and, indeed, his contemporaries, as a murderer of the worst kind. For his entire reign, he dealt with suspicion, distrust, gossip and attempts to assassinate his character and his actual person. It’s not surprising then that the novel also deals with someone, actually, a family, accused of murder most foul: terrorism and the brutal slaying of 23 people when a home-made bomb is detonated in a local supermarket, destroying lives, families and cultural relations. Just like Henry IV, the family and the community deal with the fallout, gossip, and everything and anything else the media and suspicious, racist minds can generate.

Fast forward 13 years, and the scene is set for another bomb to explode – this time in France on a bus containing British kids on tour. The novel then follows the inevitable fallout that occurs when it’s discovered that the daughter of one of the original terrorists, a young women named Violette, was a passenger on the destroyed bus. Worse, she’s disappeared and taken a young boy with her. Suspended DI, Bish Ortley, whose daughter, Bee, survives the carnage, commences an investigation into the tragedy. Crossing continents, counties, encountering co-operative parents, scared and hostile ones, cultural and racial conflict, as well as his own personal demons, Bish is determined to find Violette and the boy and protect them. But there are others, including a rapacious and unforgiving media who have other ideas.

Set across mainly two countries, England and France, it nevertheless draws other countries (including Australia), cultures and faiths and the people that represent these into its narrative. Avoiding stereotypes, Marchetta constructs real people who you engage with, believe in and champion with every breath, every word. The demonisation of Otherness, the way misunderstandings are formed, and cultural appropriation manipulated, is charted and exposed in all its callus cruelty as is the ease at which we’re prepared to accept the worst of people before the best; the way in which we allow fear to govern our responses even when our hearts and heads tell us differently. It’s also a story about families, about young people, trust, loyalty and the bonds that both tie and divide us.

A timely, superb book and beautifully and powerfully written, that will have you thinking well beyond the last page.

 

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Extraordinary People by Peter May

18867320I read Extraordinary People by Peter May, the first in what’s called the “Enzo series” during a May reading binge. Whether it was because I simply adored his Lewis books, Entry Island and Coffin Road and expected more of the same and therefore wasn’t thrilled with the change of direction and tone or whether it was because this book featuring the forensic expert, the Scotsman Enzo was a bit Dan Brown-lite, I’m not sure. Needlesstosay, I didn’t find it extraordinary, but nor was it ordinary either. It was somewhere in the middle. Good without being great, which is fine.

The novel introduces readers to middle-aged Enzo who gave up his life and first wife and daughter in Scotland to follow his lover and heart to France many years earlier. Reduced to teaching biology in Toulouse and dealing with the anger of the daughter from which he’s alienated and basking in the love of his second and younger daughter with his now dead lover, Enzo is very affable and clearly clever.

When an old journalist acquaintance basically dares him to crack a cold case involving the disappearance of a famous person, Enzo is up for the challenge. What he doesn’t anticipate is a treasure hunt replete with clues, sometimes a map, and grisly body parts which all point to the man they’re searching for being dead, but nothing to reveal the murderer.

It’s only when Enzo (and the group he’s gathered around him), using brawn and brains starts to get close to the killer’s identity, that his own life and that of those he loves is placed in danger. The dare is no longer a game, but deadly serious…

Well written, well paced, I am not sure why this novel didn’t resonate like the others. I think the hunt drags a bit, some of the characters are two-dimensional and some of the secondary characters and their motives detract from the prime narrative.

I did find I was turning pages and wanting to know what happened and can easily rate the book 3.5 stars, but I am not sure I care enough about Enzo or his adventures to embark on another one. But I still really rate Peter May and I know other people have simply relished this book and the series.

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The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson

16001863This wonderful novel, which pays homage to the genre of the absurd, The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of a Window and Disappeared is a terrific romp through time and place, featuring the most unflappable protagonist I’ve yet encountered.

The story starts on the 100th birthday of the irrepressible Allan Karlsson. Trapped in a nursing home, destined to live out his remaining years, gazing out a window, tolerating the orders of the head nurse, denying his spirit of adventure and desire for a tipple, Allan turns his back on celebrations designed in his honour and, as the title suggests, climbs out the window of his room and, as far as the authorities can make out, vanishes.

Only, Allan hasn’t disappeared. Instead, unwittingly, he embarks on an amazing journey where he encounters people both good and dangerous, an elephant, a suitcase full of cash, bamboozled police and an attorney with poor judgement. Accused of being a murderer, kidnapper, thief and other terrible crimes, Allan is a wanted man. Remaining blissfully unaware as he travels across country, collecting people as one might stamps and finding hospitality where others might expect hostility, Allan relishes his adventures. Along the way, the readers learn about this incredible man’s past, a past that makes his improbable present so exceedingly ordinary. This is because Allan has not only met many of the movers and shakers of Twentieth Century history, but played a pivotal role in most of the major events – grand and catastrophic.

Laugh out loud at times and deeply poignant in others, this is a great read that demands you suspend your disbelief, buckle your seatbelt and go along for what is a wild and gratifying ride.

Engagingly written, it’s hard to put down and leaves you with a warm and very contented feeling that makes ageing seem like a hell of a lot more fun that it’s often cracked up to be; certainly more exciting than remaining in a nursing home counting the days.

 

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The Enchantress of Paris by Marci Jefferson

Having spent the last few months reading non-fiction works about the 1660s, I found Cardinal Mazarin and the influence he wielded over a young Louis XIV, featured strongly. Thus, the premise of this book, The Enchantress of Paris, by Marci Jefferson, which is ostensibly about Marie Mancini, one of the beautiful and clever nieces – known as the Mazarinettes – of the ambitious and ruthless cardinal, captured my imagination.

24832420Initially overlooked in favour of her bolder sisters, Marie, a clever, witty and all together charming young woman, bides her time. It’s time that works in her favour as she slowly but most assuredly, captures first the attention, then the heart of King Louis, and gradually begins to control much of what occurs in the Sun-King’s court.

Educated, kind and loving but at the whim of her ambitious uncle, Marie tries to resist his orders regarding the manipulation of the king, preferring instead to appeal to Louis’s heart and head. Eschewing not just her uncle’s increasingly harsher demands and punishments, and her abilities with black magic, Marie chooses to rely on her undeniable attractions to influence the man she loves – her intellect and good heart.

While Marie wants nothing more than to have Louis for herself and all that entails, her greatest ambition is to free him from her uncle’s manipulative clutches. But Louis is young, untested and has, like his mother, relied upon the cardinal since birth. With war threatening and offers of peace coming with bride-caveats, can young, lovely Marie succeed in freeing Louis from her uncle’s control where others have not only failed, but died trying?

This isn’t usually the kind of book I like in that, though I love historical fiction, I find ones that are all about unrequited passion and endless declarations of love, long looks, sighs, teary reunions etc. especially among the nobility and royalty quite tiresome. Much to my surprise, though this novel is filled with these, I found it difficult to put down and was curious as to how far young Marie would succeed in her quest to wrest the king away from those who would control him for their own ends. Familiar with some of the history, the role of the Mazarinettes, as court ornaments, as assets for their uncle to use in an endless political game, and the relationship between Marie and Louis was largely unknown, and the historical research Jefferson has done is nicely woven into this tale of passion, freedom, regret, promises, deceit and power.

Marie, as a character, is rounded and complex. Understanding the role she’s destined to play as a pawn in a larger game, she nonetheless allows herself to dream, keeps her ethics and sense of self, and maintains an optimism that’s both endearing and frustrating. Louis is less interesting and, I think, because he’s more familiar to history buffs, unable to be drawn except with recognisable strokes. The relationship between the king and Marie is at the core of the story – a story that’s also about liberty and the pursuit of that whether it be a king or a second-class citizen in the form of a noble woman desiring it. It’s also about power and how even those deemed powerless can find passive and lasting ways to exert their authority and with lasting consequences.

For those who love a strong romantic novel and have a passion for well-fictionalised history and anything to do with the Sun King, this is a book you can lose yourself in. So long as you don’t mind endless protestations of amor and adoration!

 

 

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