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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Small World by Martin Suter

19460578I wasn’t at all certain I was going to enjoy Small World by Martin Suter as, when I began reading it, I was uncertain what the story was about. Sure, there was the interesting blurb that mentions a sort of lost soul and Alzheimers, but the first few chapters gave no indication the book was going in the direction promised. But, because the writing was wonderful, the characters so well drawn, I persevered… then, bang. I couldn’t put the damn book down.

The novel centres on the affable and quite debonair Konrad, a man in his sixties whose claim to life is that he’s a close friend of the famous and fabulously rich Koch family, and one time indispensable playmate of the eldest scion, Thomas. Only, Konrad has been quite dispensable for some time now, shoved away as a caretaker in one of their many properties, this one in Greece, hardly seeing his so-called “family”, relying on their financial goodwill for support and drinking his way into his twilight years. The matriarch of the clan, Elvira Koch, would rather he was gone for good and his once bosom buddy Thomas, would be happy to forget him. When an accident in the house he is minding occurs, Konrad is forced to return to Switzerland and there his life undergoes a miraculous transformation: he falls in love.

But sadly for Konrad, the good times are not destined to last. Slowly, inexorably, he begins to lose his marvellous mind and the memories of the past, all of which have sustained him and provided great conversations in social situations. Unwilling to admit he’s struggling, it’s not until circumstances mean he can no longer deny it that Konrad’s left with no choice but to surrender to his fate.

Only, there’s one member of the Koch family who won’t allow that to happen. Determined to help Konrad keep the core of his self and the memories stored there alive, she does everything she can to provide the best medical care that her grandmother-in-law, Elivira’s, money can buy. But there are those in the Koch clan that don’t want Konrad’s memories restored, nor the truth that he has buried there to come to surface, and they’ll do anything to prevent that happening.

Part mystery, part exploration of memories and how the recollection of these, the accumulation of many of years of living construct the self and how losing them ultimately unravels identity, as well as insights into medical care and generational differences, it’s also a book that uses the past to redefine the future.

The further I plunged into the novel and the smaller Konrad’s world became, the greater the possibilities for plot, character and climax became. The way the onset and grip of Alzheimer’s is described is painful but also gripping. Konrad’s descent into the past, a part of his life that no longer has relevance in the present and his desperate and confused clinging to it is hard to read, but also provides a window into a rarely, in literature at least, discussed condition.

Konrad is wonderfully crafted and so very real. The finale is not easy to see coming and the twists and turns before the reader arrives aren’t so much the thrill the blurb promises, but are utterly compelling.

A terrific and nuanced read that makes you think in so many ways…

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Book Review: The Unquiet Bones by Melvin R Starr

 

The Unquiet Bones (Hugh de Singleton, Surgeon Chronicles #1)

What a wonderful surprise this tightly written, historically very accurate and beautifully paced book turned out to be. This novel, set in the 1300s, follows the career of Hugh of Singleton, the youngest son of a knight who, while at university, discovers his calling is surgery. Setting up practice in Oxford, he is soon lured to the small town of Bamford and into the service of local lord, who asks him to track down the killer of a young woman whose body is found in the castle privy.

Unwilling at first to become involved, but understanding he has little choice, Hugh not only learns more about medicine than he ever bargained, but how to track clues and the uncanny ways in which killer’s minds operate – all of which put him and others in danger. Added to this is the presence of his lord’s lovely but unattainable sister, the fair Joan, a class above him, or is she?

Starr writes sparsely but with wit and an accuracy that pays homage to the period but without ever sacrificing plot or story.

The tale reminded me of C.J Sanson’s Shardlake novels, but without the richness of the prose or world-building, but still with a wonderful tone. If you’re looking to dip your toes into the medieval period, enjoy a quick murder-mystery (albeit when life was slower and, seemingly, fuller and crueller), then this is perfect. I’m already halfway through his next Hugh the surgeon book and loving it as well.

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Book Review: The Hangman’s Daughter by Oliver Pötzsch

This was a strange book, but not in a bad way. Described as an historical thriller that’s set in Germany during the late 1600s, it tells the story of the hangman in the town of Schongau, Jakob Kuisl’s, efforts to exonerate a midwife accused of witchcraft and the murder of three orphan children and other sundry crimes. Uniting with the town’s young doctor, Simon, Jakob finds himself in a race against time to prove the midwife’s innocence before he’s forced to first torture her then put her to death. With the town’s Burgers refusing to listen to reason and wilfully ignoring the dreadful witch purge of decades earlier, and with the villains one step ahead, Jakob needs all his formidable abilities to catch the real perpetrators.

Graphic in the way it discusses the torture process and careful to evoke the period in which its set in terms of sights, sounds and smells, the narrative moves fairly swiftly in the initial sThe Hangman's Daughter (The Hangman's Daughter #1)tages before stalling a little in the middle and racing to the end. Though an easy and quite enjoyable read, there were elements I struggled with in the book.

Despite being titled The Hangmans’ Daughter, the daughter, Magdalena Kuisl, a feisty, smart and very beautiful young woman, is little more than a secondary character. The story very much belongs to her father, Jakob, a man with conscience and a heart who takes his job (and the requisite drink he must down before being called to execute or torture) very seriously. As if to atone for the death he delivers, Jakob is also a self-educated healer of extraordinary talent and experience. The reasons for this are made clear in the prologue which provides a context for the rather schizoid personality Jakob occasionally exhibits, whether its as a righteous father warning an amorous suitor (usually, the town’s young doctor) away from his daughter, or whispering words of compassion to an intended victim. A big man, Jakob engenders fear and grudging respect from those he encounters, even while his occupation assures he and his family will always remain outcasts.

So, while I did enjoy the story, I didn’t love it. I found it became bogged down with chases here and there and dead ends and felt padded at times. The villains were also two-dimensional and oddly portrayed. There were moments when they were mysterious and elusive, at others, they stepped from the shadows and behaved with all the skill of a keystone cop. The main villain was also never fleshed out (and pardon the pun there – which will become clear if you read it). He started off being quite scary but, by the end, was more tiresome and contradictory. Likewise with the character known as “moneybags”. Maybe it’s the translation, but when he’s revealed, there are inaccuracies in his portrayal that jarred. Ultimately, because of this and other parts of the action (which occur, rather conveniently, off-stage) the climax is turned into a bit of an anti-climax.

I also found the use of modern idiom difficult to believe. At first, it gave rather a fresh flavour to the book, brought the Middle Ages into a more contemporary setting. When I encountered metaphors like “bun in the oven” to refer to a pregnancy and increasingly more contemporary patois, I found it took away from the rather excellent scene-setting and period evocation that Pötzsch does so well.

There was also a tendency to place contemporary mores and thoughts in the minds of those who, anyone with a slight grasp of the era knows, were unlikely to exist. For example, some of the young doctor’s and hangman’s dismissal of certain medical practices in favour of what we know work now didn’t ring true. An amount of scepticism might have been accounted for, but the hangman particularly looked upon the studies of the doctors of his era with utter disdain and disregard. Admittedly, Pötzsch was able to provide the names of books and philosophers that the hangman preferred, but even so, his skills smacked more of twenty-first century hindsight than they did knowledge gained through wartime experience or seventeenth century reading.

Overall, however, the novel was a good diversion, a romp through Bavaria in the 1600s with an element of mystery and lots of gore. What I enjoyed most about it was learning that Pötzsch was inspired by his own family history – it turns out he’s a descendant of a lineage of executioners – the Kuisl’s and Jakob and his daughter were real people. To turn an element of his own past into such a interesting adventure (and there are more books in the series) shows writing and imaginative flair indeed.

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Book Review: At Home by Bill Bryson

Bill Bryson’s At Home: A Short History of Private Life is one of the most interesting, beautifully written and absorbing non-fiction books I have read in a long time. Recommended to me by two friends (thank you Katherine Howell and Jason!) who knew I was trying to get a handle on medieval houses and how they functioned, I quickly purchased this book and began to read it, not really knowing what to expect. What I didn’t anticipate was that I would be alternately enchanted, amused, bemused, shocked and thoroughly entertained.

Buying an old refectory in Norfolk, UK, one-day, Bryson starts to become extremely curious about the reason we do certain things or why certain behaviours have become normalised, if not ritualised, within the home (as one does :)). He ponders, as an example, about why salt and pepper, of all the spices and herbs available to us, are the ones given premium spot upon kitchen and dinner tables and are liberally sprinkled over food practically to the exclusion of all others. He considers why suits often have buttons sewn down the sleeve, serving no ostensible purpose but decorative. These types of questions lead him to move room by room through his house and investigate the history of its purpose and, in the process, discover many amazing facts about rooms, the people who inhabited them and what they did while in these (and many, many other things): in other words, investigate subjects, ideas and practices that we often take for granted.

What Bryson also does, and which makes this book so magical and fascinating, is explore a diverse range of tangential issues such as, when pondering the room known as “the study”, he discusses the sex life of rats; or, when considering ‘the bedroom’ we read about the way medicine was practiced in the past, shonk practitioners, childbirth, mortality rates, body-snatchers and share in part of the account of a woman in the 1800s who, I kid you not, had a mastectomy without an anaesthetic. From the dangers and beauty and expense of wallpaper, to arsenic, funerals, calico, cotton, and the miserable conditions of child labourers, to candles, gas, electric light, the invention of string, the cotton-gin and the push mower; from Queen Victoria, the Crystal Palace, Thomas Jefferson, Capability Brown, Beau Brummel and Charles Darwin, architects, high-class prostitutes, and labourers to princes, Bryson takes us on a whirlwind journey through time and space, introducing us to rich, wonderful and simply awful characters and practices as well. The etymology of words is also discussed, as are some of the less savoury habits of human beings, while many myths of the past are also debunked or upheld.

This is such an amazing and wonderful book. I kept savouring all the details, laughing out loud in some sections while inhaling sharply in others. I kept reading snatches aloud to my partner, who can’t wait to get his hands on the book and share my enthusiasm. I have no doubt he’ll be reading his favourite bits to me and, though I have just devoured them, I will delight in hearing them again.

This book is now up there with my all time favourites. Cannot recommend it enough – whether you’re a history buff, someone who loves to learn unusual facts or just after a great read, this is the book for you!

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