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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Unicorn’s Blood by Patricia Finney

images-3The second novel in the David Beckett and Simon Ames series, Unicorn’s Blood by Patricia Finney is a cracker of a read. Set a few years after the first instalment, Firedrake’s Eye, though it features our erstwhile and now estranged heroes, it’s very much a tale about a diary the young Princess Elizabeth kept that, if it should fall into the wrong hands, could mark the end of her glorious reign.

Discovering the diary, which has a unicorn upon the front replete with a ruby eye, is missing, Elizabeth tasks her trusted servant, the dwarf, Thomasina with finding it. But Thomasina’s quest is just one of the narrative threads; the others involve Simon and David, a former nun who is now the queen’s nightsoil woman and her granddaughter, a courtier who has become too grandiose for his already considerable boots, and Sir Francis Walsingham and his intelligencers, all of whom together prove we do indeed weave a tangled web. From the freshly scented rooms of the courts, to the stench of the streets of Bankside and the Stews, to the cruelty and fierceness of the prisons, the barbarity of torture and depravation, to the female-centred spaces of the laundries of the palaces, to the ditches and snickets of London, Finney conjures up a real and lived place and time. Like it or not, you can breath the malodorous fumes of people and lanes, hear the tolling bells or screams and sobs of prisoners, many punitively punished for little more than trying to eke out an existence, and feel gratitude that we live in the era (for all that’s wrong with it) that we do.

Narrated by none other than Virgin Mary (Finney’s originality with this works so well and adds a fantastical element to the novel) and featuring a few of the characters from Firedrake’s Eye, this is such a beautifully written and structured story that reveals both Finney’s knowledge of the era and skill as a writer.

Filled with philosophical insights and reflections on class, social (in)justice, female sexuality and the very real burden of gender in those times, the book swings from heart-wrenching, to exciting, depressing, all the while respecting and understanding that history, whether fictive or factual, is worth revisiting for any number of reasons.

A stellar book by a fantastic writer.

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A King’s Ransom by Sharon Kay Penman

When you pick up a Sharon Kay Penman book, you know you’re not only in the hands of a masterful storyteller, but someone with such a deep respect, passion and knowledge of the era she’s writing in as well, that the past comes to life on every single page. So it is with A King’s Ransom, the sequel to Lionheart, A King's Ransomwhich continues the saga of Richard, Coeur de Lion, by focussing on his amazing journey home from the Crusades.

Richard’s quest to seize control of his lands and take up his rightful position and the power it grants him as King, has been undermined by both his treacherous brother and the duplicitous French king, Philippe, making his journey home even more urgent and essential.

Each leg of the journey is described in detail, allowing us to travel beside Richard as he endures the stuff of legend. His journey home literally becomes Homeric, casting him as an Odysseus, one who like his ancient forebear, is beset by storms, ship wreck, illness, forced separation of his men and ghastly monsters in the form of the Holy Roman Emperor who imprisons Richard and his knights and refuses to release him unless an outrageous ransom is paid.

It’s not only Richard’s trials we follow but also those of his sweet wife, Berengaria, his magnificent mother, Eleanor of Acquitane and his sassy sister, Joanna. They too have their own tests of endurance – whether it’s the conditions under which they’re forced to live and travel, or the torment of not knowing what’s happened to their beloved husband, son and brother and an uncertain future.

In this book, we also see Richard, who can be alternately courageous, foolhardy, loyal, irrational and bad-tempered, wielding the statecraft he clearly learnt from his mother’s knee. Richard is both honest and a wonderful speaker, who brandishes words with the same skill he does the sword. A charismatic and natural born leader, the chapters in Germany particularly are thrilling as you sense the tide shifting, finally, in Richard’s favour.

It’s only once Richard and Berengaria are able to reunite that a different side of the king is shown. Penman does the most wonderful job of exploring the reasons for Richard’s seemingly aberrant behaviour and describing his wife’s acute pain at her treatment. This is all eruditely and convincingly explained in the Author’s Notes – which are sensational in themselves. I love Penman’s author’s notes.

The last chapters of this hefty book are unputdownable as the main characters’ lives reach conclusions that, even if you know your history and the outcome, are alternately devastating, heart-wrenching and very gratifying. I wept, sighed, cried out in protest and went through a roller-coaster of emotions – and I knew what was going to happen!!! This is a testimony to the world and people Penman has created, the way she’s transformed historical figures into living breathing people the reader cares deeply about – or loathes! When a particularly nasty character gets their comeuppance, you can’t help but feel gratified as well.

This was a magnificent book, a rich and vibrant retelling of a man known to us through history and legend. What I also loved was the way the other characters in his life where given moments where they too took centre stage, particularly some of the women. I wept for them most of all.

What a tale, what a writer. More please Sharon!

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Book Review: Life or Death by Michael Robotham

In an earlier review oLife or Deathf Robotham’s works, I said they should come with a health warning as they render the reader unable to sleep. I want to correct that statement and instead recommend they be issued as a cure for narcolepsy, because I defy anyone to try and sleep while reading his latest work, Life or Death, because I sure as hell could not.

While I will read anything this man writes, I initially thought this was to be another in his Joseph O’Loughlin series and kept waiting for one of my favourite fictive characters (and his cop buddy, Vincent Ruiz) to make an entry. They don’t. This novel isn’t part of the O’Loughlin series and I initially experienced a small flash of disappointment that was swiftly staunched. That’s because this novel is a tremendous standalone with a fabulous premise: why would a man escape from prison the day before he’s due to be released?

Why indeed.

That question is enough to arouse anyone’s curiousity, and I wondered how Robotham was going to pull off the story of Audie Palmer, a young man convicted of armed robbery ten years earlier and in which four people died, who flees his jail cell the day before he’s given state-sanctioned freedom for serving time. Reviled outside the prison, hounded endlessly within, Palmer’s life has been one of misery and hardship – so why does he make it worse by escaping? Why risk adding 20-25 years to his sentence by becoming a felon once more?

Palmer’s escape sets in motion a series of events over which he appears to have no control. Hunted by the authorities and criminals alike, Palmer is on a mission, but will he succeed and what’s the nature of this mission? Why didn’t he just wait one more day and walk from behind bars a free man?

This was a simply sensational tale. Taut, fast-paced, filled with believable characters, Robotham’s cracking dialogue, and original descriptions, I couldn’t put this down. Not only do the people come to life as the present and past unfold, but the different settings, the American landscape from the borders with Mexico to Texas, also develop a life of their own. You can smell the heat, taste the brackish water or the greasy eggs in an out-of-the-way diner, feel the sand, hear the flyscreens squeaking on rusty hinges as forlorn and deadbeat extras make an appearance. Despite having a horrible headache that required codeine, I stayed up till 3am to finish the book. I had to know what happened to Audie (who you come to champion so hard it hurts!), I had to know why he did what he did. The plot doesn’t only thicken in this novel, as back-stories and flashbacks weave their way in, laying solid foundations upon which the present is built, it sets harder than concrete making the conclusion one, though you don’t see it coming until the end, marvellously strong and utterly satisfying.

The only downside is that I have finished the damn thing and now have a long wait for Robotham’s next book. But if you like crime novels, edge of your seat thrillers, character driven works that also pay homage to setting, and are just superbly written, then I cannot recommend this highly enough.

 

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