Origin by Dan Brown

If there’s one thing I really enjoy, it’s a page-turner of a book and, Dan Brown’s latest Robert Langdon mystery, Origin, is certainly that. Park your bottom, pour a coffee, wine or beverage of choice, put on the lamp, and begin…

Once again, the quiet, Mickey-Mouse watch-wearing Professor of Symbology, Robert Langdon (and now I always picture the wonderful Tom Hanks), is in the wrong place at the right time – the right time to thrust him into the middle of a murder investigation with potentially catastrophic, future-of-humanity-is-at-stake, life-changing consequences.

Attending the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, to hear a former student of his, Edmond Kirsch, deliver a speech he claims “will change the face of science forever”, by delivering the answers to two fundamental questions that have perplexed scientists, religious minds and philosophers for centuries, what Langdon doesn’t expect is the murder and mayhem that unfolds. Though, really, on past experiences (I’m thinking Angels and Demons, The Da Vinci Code, The Lost Symbol and Inferno) maybe he should.

After all, Edmond, a computer and high-tech genius who has made dazzling and accurate predictions for over twenty years that have gained him a global cult following, is no stranger to controversy. Not afraid to poke a religious hornet’s nest, the book opens with Edmond baiting three religious leaders by allowing them a preview of what he intends to release. For such a smart man, this seems like a dumb move as there are those among the faithful who will do anything to ensure his discovery is never revealed.

When the presentation to the world goes horribly wrong, it becomes a race against time as Professor Langdon (and his trusty watch), a beautiful female side-kick (is there any other kind?) and a very sophisticated piece of technology, work to ensure Edmond’s discovery is made public. As much as the good Professor and his helpers seek to do what they believe is right, there are those working against them who believe the same thing and will stop at nothing to ensure they fail, even if it means more bloodshed.

In the meantime, all eyes are turned to Spain – as conspiracy theories and theorists, a growing media pack, denizens of the internet and a digital and real audience simultaneously commentate upon what is happening.

Gaudi’s, Sagrada Familia

There’s no doubt, Brown has perfected the art of making sure his reader is hooked. Fast-paced, filled with didactic speeches (that are nevertheless interesting and entertaining), that reveal religion and science to be both juxtaposed and yet, not as polemically situated as one might think, Langdon’s mission is, indeed, an ideological game-changer… or is it? Tapping into the zeitgeist, Brown ensures that the questions tormenting many in the world at present such as the role of religion and faith in a technologically-savvy, rational world that constantly seeks proof and wonders can these two oppositional ways of thinking ever find common ground, are asked. Required to suspend your disbelief (which is fine), there are some strange plot points that frustrate rather than illuminate, and so impact upon the overall believability, even within this genre, of the sometimes OTT actions and consequences. Mind you, the glorious descriptions of Antoni Gaudi’s works does go someway to compensating.

As is often the case, the journey to uncover answers is often more exciting and revealing than the destination. Still, there is much to enjoy about a book that excites the mind and the mind’s eye, turns an academic into, if not a super-hero, then certainly a hero and, it seems, religious authorities into villains while concurrently overturning a great many expectations. There’s also a satisfying twist that many might see coming, but that doesn’t reduce the impact.

Overall, another fun, well-paced, Robert Langdon adventure, replete with groans, dad-jokes, and some fabulous facts. I hope he takes us on a few more.

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Coffin Road by Peter May

26352121Was it only a couple of reviews ago I was praising this man’s talents to the hilt and congratulating myself for discovering him and the books he’s written that I haven’t yet read? Yes. It was. Now, I want to curse him… Why, you ask? Because the man is such a damn, amazing talent, I cannot put his books down once I start them and therefore, I am a sleep deprived, Nigel-No- Friends bibliophile – or maybe that should be a May-o-phile? Because I am. I’m an unabashed fan of this man’s stories.

Coffin Road, the fourth book of May’s I’ve read is a stand-alone novel and is exceptional. Set in Scotland, it takes the reader to the northernmost parts, the wind-lashed and sea-soaked dangerous isles that ring the Outer Hebrides, to the main islands and Edinburgh and Glasgow as well.

The novel opens with a man penning a letter before it switches to another scene where a man is washed up, all but drowned on a beach. Wearing a life-jacket, battered and bruised, he’s no recollection of who he is or what he’s doing there. It’s only that others seem to know who he is: his neighbour, his lover and his dog. With partial memories and able to easily perform certain complex tasks and skills, the man, who discovers his name is Neal, is ambivalent about finding out who he is or was; that’s because, somewhere, in the deepest recesses of his memory, he knows he’s done something terrible…

The story is then about this man’s efforts to uncover who he is and what he discovers. Written in the first person, you feel his pain, uncertainty and the small triumphs and fears he experiences, especially as he draws closer to the truth and the potential notion that he is a monster…

In the meantime, another narrative unfolds and we’re taken into the life of a rebellious teen who, two years earlier, lost her father in awful circumstances and is struggling with both his death and her mother’s efforts to continue with life.

The world May creates is bitterly real, the characters driven, flawed and completely magnificent. The plot, which in other hands might err on being fanciful, is suspenseful, clever and absolutely gripping. I couldn’t put the darn book down – it was with me at breakfast, lunch and then in the wee hours until I finished it. Then, like any good book, I was disappointed I had! But, of course, I have more May’s to read and many more sleepless nights to follow.

Ah, what’s sleep for anyway? I can do that when I’ve shuffled off this mortal coil…

Onto my next May…

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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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Jar City by Arnaldur Indridason

19553654Jar City is the second book in the Inspector Erlendur series (but the first with the inspector translated into English), that I’ve read as part of what’s swiftly turning into a Nordic noir/crime word-feast.

Set in Reykjavik, Iceland, the inspector is a 50-year-old, rather dour, no-nonsense person, divorced from his wife who cannot stand him and has done all in her power to ensure he has little to no relationship with his two now-adult children. In this book, his daughter, Eva Lind, a pregnant drug-addict, turns to her father for help but, in doing so, finds she receives as much as she gives. It’s in the scenes with his daughter that gentler but also contradictory aspects of the inspector’s personality (and past) are revealed.

Just as the personal life of the protagonist is exposed through hints, brief interior monologues and flashbacks (mainly through memory) of the past, likewise, the solution to the major crime being investigated, the murder of an old man in his apartment, seems to lie in actions taken decades earlier. Actions that while they held no consequences (at the time) for the criminal, resonated well beyond for the victims, affecting many lives, curtailing bright futures.

Bleak, like the last book in this series I read, the grey landscapes, constant rain and chill form a steady backdrop to the investigation. The pace is steady, unfurling almost reluctantly, but keeping the reader gripped at all times. Rape, genetic diseases, secrets, lies, bureaucracy, abuse of power, the ambiguous push and pull of family, terrible brutality and arrogance all feature in this book. The characters are all so well drawn, complex, flawed and yet relatable. Motivations are apparent, people’s guilt and desires clear.

Despite the fact barely anyone is willing to aid the investigation, preferring to keep knowledge to themselves, leave dark secrets buried, or choosing to be laconic when questioned, thwarting the inspector and his partner’s efforts, suspense builds until the perpetrator is revealed, past and present collide and dreadful inevitability rears its head.

A clever, well-written book that anyone who enjoys a good crime novel, with an intricate plot and characters that ring true will thoroughly appreciate.

 

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The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert

This was a simply astounding book. Beautifully written, featuring a heroine, Alma Whittaker, whom you grow to love and admire as she matures into a capable, resourceful and kind woman across two tumultuous centuries, The Signature of All Things manages to be both intensely personal and soul-searching as well as broad and even sweeping in scope.

imgres-27Commencing in England during the eighteenth century with the tale of Alma’s father, Henry’s, humble beginnings and rise to power, wealth and status, it shifts to the early days of Philadelphia, USA, where Henry establishes his family/dynasty and wields his not inconsiderable influence in society, and manages to increase his already formidable fortune. Whether it’s because of his class background, Henry is not tied by the usual social structures that dictate what a female can and cannot do. Having found himself a clever and capable wife, he is determined his daughter should have everything his money can buy – including an eclectic education, one that constantly stimulates her questioning nature and challenges her searing intellect.

Plain, exceptionally tall and with a masculine build, and with a mind that knows no bounds, Alma becomes a gifted botanist, driven by her need to discover, to know and understand how the world around her and evolution works. When other people come into her life that don’t share her view of the world, Alma sees them as another challenge to be studied rather than overcome and so her life is broadened in numerous ways.

Without spoiling the wonderful plot, the reader follows the decades of Alma’s life – from the US to exploring the globe and the people she encounters and how this changes and confronts her. Old ways of viewing the world no longer stand and Alma is at the vanguard of new methodologies and praxis, her sex being both a blessing and a curse when it comes to insights and taken seriously within a male-dominated profession.

After reading and disliking Eat, Pray Love (I know, I know – I wrote a column about it in 2010 – you can read it here if you like, but I found the white, whiny and privileged position hard to stomach) I never thought I would read another Gilbert book. My dear friend and fellow book lover, Kerry, advised me too and I am grateful she did. The prose is sumptuous, the telling spell-binding. I didn’t want this adventure to end and I found that even now, weeks later, Alma resides in both my head and heart.

A magical tale about science, family, love, discovery, philosophy, science and ways of being in the world and with each other. Cannot recommend highly enough. I also read it’s been commissioned as a mini-series by the same people who produced Downtown Abbey. Cannot wait.

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