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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The Wrong Side of Goodbye by Michael Connelly

Can this guy write a bad book? If The Wrong Side of Goodbye is anything to assess the others by (and it is) the answer is a categorical and resounding “NO!” Frankly, this crime series is one of the most consistently terrific I have read, and over so many instalments.  Just when you think Harry Bosch, can go no further, do no more, fail to surprise you, Connelly takes your expectations and dashes them. He takes Bosch and thus the reader to the most unexpected heights and thrilling of places – emotionally, physically (even for an ageing cop) and psychologically, but without once asking you to suspend your disbelief.

imgres-2Working in a part-time position for the San Fernando PD, Harry, who also has a Private Investigator ticket, is asked by an ageing, wealthy tycoon to find out if he has an heir from a love affair he had many years ago. With no family to leave his billions, the reclusive old man hopes to leave his estate to family as opposed to the board of directors currently in line to inherit. Harry is to work only with this man and reveal anything he discovers only to him.

Unable to refuse a cold case that may as well have come out of a freezer (and a decent pay cheque), Harry accepts, and it’s not long before he discovers a connection to the man during the VietNam war. Before he can pass on the information, the billionaire dies. When the circumstances of his death turn out to be suspicious and Harry is warned off pursuing the notion of an heir further, Harry does what he does best: refuses to be bullied or threatened.

When Harry asks his half-brother, the Lincoln Lawyer, Mickey Haller, to help him, the ante is upped and the danger grows – not just to Harry, but to those he cares about deeply.

In the meantime, the hunt for a serial rapist tightens and when a colleague’s life is put on the line, Harry stops at nothing to save her, his reputation and bring criminals to justice.

I really don’t want to say too much more about this book except Connelly is so on the money in terms of plot, character and the depth of history and, dare I say, nostalgia for a young Harry and his pre-police life (and that beckoning him from the shadows of retirement) this book evokes. It’s not simply about the cases Harry investigates, but about the relationships he forges and the bonds he forms, professionally and personally. I love the way Harry’s character is so consistent across the novels – the way he grows, or refuses to change and how he simply will not compromise his ethics.

This is a wonderful addition to the Bosch canon. I just wish they weren’t so readable so I could put them down, if just to savour the stories and make them last that bit longer.

As it is, I can’t wait for the next one.

 

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The Wonder by Emma Donoghue

This book was recommended to me by a dear friend with whom I often exchange reading ideas. Actually, she was staying with me as she was finishing this and I watched as she gasped, sighed and looked altogether satisfied with what she was reading, barely able to put the novel down. She didn’t need many words to persuade me to enjoy this book as well.

When I first simgres-1tarted reading this tale, I wasn’t sure I was going to enjoy it. Based on true stories of “fasting girls” from history, those who refused food and remained alive, claiming it was God’s work, this is a about an eleven-year old, clever and very sweet Irish girl who, though not eating for months, remains alive, claiming to be nourished by God. A British nurse, Lib, along with a Catholic nun, is sent to remain by her bedside for a fortnight to see whether or not the girl is fraudulent or a miracle. The story of what happens is told through Lib’s eyes.

To be sure (couldn’t resist), the writing was lovely, lyrical, and it was easy to be swept away by vivid descriptions of the Irish midlands, the brusqueness and almost fanatical devotion of the locals and the resistance to the British woman’s presence among them and the suspicion she brings in her wake.

Now that I have finished the book, it’s hard to remember why I felt that way. I think it might have been the religiosity underpinning the tale, the blind faith and the painful accuracy with which this was painted. It is frustrating indeed. Though, having said that, the wonderful superstition and pagan practices that were still extant in this period were marvellously realised. The reader sees the family, the wee girl at the heart, and the neighbours and local authorities who believe this child is God’s proof on earth, and their desperate need for God to be among them. Even the reporters sent to cover the story, err on the side of believing – with one exception, whom Lib befriends. Even so, the scope – in terms of setting – of the book is narrow. Almost all the scenes take place in the tiny, bare cottage of the family, the small hotel room of the nurse, or upon the wild bogs. There’s a sense of suffocation, especially as the child begins to become frail and weak and everyone remains in almost wilful denial about what’s happening.

As Lib’s frustration and confusion about what’s happening grows (is it a hoax or real?), she is uncertain who to turn to – is the nun is an enemy or friend? Is the reporter, who appears to share her cynicism to be trusted or is he just after a scoop?

The further I went into the narrative, the harder I found to leave until, like my girlfriend, I was gasping, sighing and unable to tear myself away.

Superbly written and, I realise, paced, this is a suspenseful, cloying yet stunning tale of faith, stubbornness, necessity, trust and betrayal.

Highly recommended.

 

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A Year of Marvellous Ways by Sarah Winman

25612964This is a simply magical book that, as the title suggests, covers a year in the life of ninety year old Marvellous Ways, a fantastically named, sprightly, imaginative and kind old woman with a unique take on life.

Born in simpler times, Marvellous, the daughter of a “mermaid” and the man who adored her, she is a vulnerable and strong child and later woman who endures and sees much in her long life and yet never loses her faith in the universe and people. A recluse by choice and circumstances, Marvellous’s life is simple and self-sufficient, but she is wonderfully complex. Content with her own company, and in tune with nature and the rhythms of the seasons, she is able to adjust easily to changing circumstances. When a young, former soldier and drifter, who also has a fabulous and somewhat ironic moniker, Francis Drake, washes up on the shores of her riverside home believing life as he knows it is over, Marvellous (who has been expecting him) shows him why it isn’t and teachers him about life and love and why, even when we believe we cannot, we go on.

Segueing from past to present, allowing stories of Marvellous, Drake and others who enter their orbit to unfold, the prose is sublime – poetic, really – and the events, encounters and the scenes heart-wrenchingly lovely. From before the wars to mid-last century, this is a tale about age and the ages, love, loss, faith, friendship and so much more. As I read, I felt as if Marvellous, Drake and their stories nuzzled their way into my heart and, when I finished, I knew it was there they would remain.

This is a gorgeous and very special book that will stay with you long after the final page.

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The Voices Beyond by Johan Theorin

25436079The final book in the Oland Quartet, The Voices Beyond by Johan Theorin, is quite different to the other three, but no less impressive. While it doesn’t quite have the haunting, almost dream-like and supernatural quality of the other three (mainly because the majority of the tale is set mostly in the present), it does have a sense of suspense and impending peril, almost from the very first page.

Like the other three books, certain familiar characters are present, Gerlof Davidsson, the elderly grandfather who has appeared in all books, plays a major role, not just as a touchstone for the residents of the island and the history that he’s borne witness too, but also for the younger generations who either live or holiday upon the isle. One of the newcomers is a boy, Jonas Kloss, nephew of the owner of a big and profitable resort on the island that is filled to the brim with tourists each summer – this one being no exception.

Arriving with his ex-con father and older brother, Jonas is given tasks to perform but also plenty of free time. When his older brother and cousins abandon him one night, Jonas sets out on a midnight ride in an inflatable boat, drifting with the tide, dreaming of what might be. When he is almost sunk by a ship that emerges out of the dark and his forced to clamber aboard, he bears witness to something that absolutely terrifies him. Fleeing, he dives off the ship, risking death by drowning rather than remaining onboard. He arrives on shore, wet, shaken, only to be found by Gerlof who provides him succour, listening to the boy’s tale of zombies and murderers with a healthy dose of cynicism.

But if there’s one thing readers of this series understand about Gerlof it’s that he has an open mind and heart and is slow to dismiss even the incredible. When other strange things begin to happen on the island and other people connected to the Klosses are either murdered or disappear, Gerlof understands something greater is afoot, something that has its roots in Oland’s past. If there’s something Gerlof excels at, it’s linking the present with the past and so begins another investigation into Oland’s inhabitants, its history and the reason behind one man’s dreadful and long awaited revenge…

Beautifully paced and written, this is a terrific conclusion to a fabulous series that draws on familiar characters while introducing us to some new ones as well. The landscape of the island and, indeed, of Sweden itself and the other lands invoked by this tale become as much a character as the wonderfully crafted people. This book was so hard to put down, yet I didn’t want to finish it either.

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