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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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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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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The Black House by Peter May

11713120The Black House, the first book in the Lewis Trilogy by Peter May is simply sensational. Set on one of the northernmost islands in the Outer Hebrides, it tells the tale of Fin McLeod, a Lewis native who has been living in Edinburgh for the past 18 years. A Detective Inspector, Fin is sent to Lewis to investigate the murder of a man who, it turns out, went to school with Fin and was generally regarded as no-good thug. While Fin’s knowledge of Gaelic was considered when sending him north, it doesn’t endear him to the man in charge of the case nor to some of those he once called friends. 18 years is a long time between drinks and Fin left Lewis the way he has returned, with secrets in his heart and ghosts to lay to rest. But when one of the ghosts returns to haunt and harass him, Fin finds it not just those keeping his secret he has to protect, he has to watch his own back as well.

Beautifully told and masterfully plotted, this is poetic and character-driven writing at its best. May places you right there in wind-swept, ruggedly beautiful Lewis, amidst the machair and under the grey skies pierced by sunlight. Segueing between first and third person, past and present, Fin’s personal story from child to adult and that of the current investigation begin to intersect and become clear, all of which builds to an utterly breath-taking and simply stunning climax.

I put this one down so reluctantly and quickly picked up the next book in the series. I am so happy I discovered May because he has so many books to his name, and now I have a new author in whose work I can lose myself.

A sublime read.

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Book Review: Under the Wide and Starry Sky by Nancy Horan

Recommended to me by a dear friend with great taste in books (and everything else for that matter!), I was delighted when I began reading Under The Wide and Starry Sky by Nancy Horan to discover it was a fictional account of the life of Robert Louis Stevenson and his older and beloved wife, Fanny ven de Grift Osbourne.

I didn’t know anything about Fanny so discovering more about this magnificent woman, her life, strength, creativity, loyalty and endurance, was wonderful. We first meet Fanny when, with three young children, she sets off from San Francisco to study art in Belgium only to find the sch17797253ool she intended to enroll in doesn’t accept women. Taking this in her stride, Fanny sets off to Paris, determined to pursue her dream and escape the trap her life with her unfaithful husband, Sam, has become. Once there, her life changes in ways she could never have foreseen, but it’s indicative of the era (and the mindset of various folk) that women – and especially ones like Fanny who are smart and independent – often exchange one form of imprisonment for another.

Horan does a wonderful job of presenting the reader with a fully rounded character whom you champion as much for her flaws as her warmth and formidable directness. A woman ahead of the times in many ways, Fanny does not suffer fools, especially after her early life is mostly defined by one. Experiencing great tragedy and loss, Fanny tries not to let these circumstances define her or the lives of her children, though these are a constant sad presence which mark her indelibly and make her artistic soul ache. A fish out of water as an American in France, England, Scotland and later the South Pacific, Fanny is both a survivor and someone who seeks to improve her situation in whatever way she can. Unable to tolerate injustice, this is one characteristic she shares with her husband, Robert Louis Stevenson.

 

RLS was also a revelation. Horan draws this ebullient, sick, witty, intelligent and oft-times difficult man with sensitivity and realism. As a child, I was introduced to the work of RLS with the beautiful Child’s Garden of Verses, which I in turn read to my own kids. I adored this book and it provided succor and delight through some dark times as did, when I was a little older, Kidnapped! and Treasure Island (Long John Silver both terrified and exhilarated me!). As a mature age Uni student, I came to appreciate Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde so, in a sense, Stevenson’s works have been literary paving stones upon which I stepped at different parts of my life. Discovering, even in fiction, the man behind the words was lovely. Popular, generous, offended by and active against injustice, he used his gift with words to entertain, thrill and inform. Surrounded by good friends, including members of the literary elite such as Henry James, it wasn’t until RLS’s fame grew that he also encountered syncophants and the pressure that can come with professional expectations.

Dogged by illness his entire life, he and Fanny (who was as much a nurse as critic and wife) would move locations to manage his sickness. This took them to fascinating places and had them enjoying (or not) amazing encounters: from the Swiss Alps to the South Seas all of which are covered in this lovely book.

I had no idea RLS was so peripatetic and this was particularly fascinating.

You don’t have to be a fan of RLS or his work to adore this book. It is a great story, a love story that deserves to stand with better known and heralded ones, as well as a fabulous recounting of a life well-lived and well-loved. Terrific.

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