Home Stretch by Graham Norton.

I’ve been a long-time fan of Graham Norton and his self-named chat show, where celebrities of all ilk grace his couch as he not only puts them at ease, but entertains his guests and audience alike by unearthing gems about those he interviews. The same can’t be said for the folk who are foolish or brave enough to dare the Red chair…

Though I’ve known for a few years that Norton had also written some well-regarded novels, such is my funfair bias against celebrities who write a singular book, let alone books, and receive the kind of publicity that most authors can only dream about – whether the famous person ever wrote the book or not – that I tend to avoid reading them, unless they’re memoirs or come with a recommendation. While I’ve been pleasantly surprised in the past, I still find myself feeling irrationally annoyed when, say, someone highly regarded and successful for acting writes one book and calls themselves an author, and then appears on every chat show and newspaper and online, using their “celebrity” to promote their work. But the rational part of me also thinks, why wouldn’t you?  Good for them! (I told you I was biased about celebrities who become writers (as opposed to celebrity writers – no problem with them) – and I’m not proud of it). But this is something Norton doesn’t do. Like other people more famous for one or two things than writing, he humbly creates his fiction and allows it to speak for itself.

And my, awards and accolades aside (which he’s deserved) does it do that.

Let me tell you Norton can not only tell a cracking good yarn, but his writing is moving, evocative and filled with insights about what makes people tick.

Homestretch opens in 1987, just as a small Irish village prepare to celebrate the wedding of two of their young people. On the eve of the wedding a terrible tragedy occurs and lives are lost. But it’s what happens to the survivors and their families, particularly young Connor, in the aftermath and the unfolding years that compounds the sorrow. This unfolding tale of grief, identity, the bonds that both unite and tear us apart, demonstrates how, try as we might, we can never run from our past, let alone our mistakes.

From country Ireland to England and America, this is a poignant, beautifully told story about choices, weakness, strength and how fear – of others, of ourselves and who we were and are – can be a much greater burden than either sorrow or guilt.

Now that I’ve read one Norton book, I cannot wait to read his others.

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Law of Innocence by Michael Connelly.

You know when you pick up a Michael Connelly book you’re in great story-telling hands. This novel, featuring the Lincoln Lawyer, Mickey Haller, is no exception.

This time, Haller has been accused of murder and all the evidence is against his protestations of innocence. Determined to represent himself, Haller is not without colleagues and friends – past and present – who believe he’s not guilty and insist on helping him, no matter what it takes.

From the confines of his jail-cell, Mickey decides a not-gully verdict isn’t enough; he wants complete exoneration-to be declared, publicly in court, and found innocent. But the law is strict in this regard and, as his day in court draws near, Mickey finds that his enemies – past and present – are against him. Try as he and his team might, the odds are stacked against him.

Yet again, this is a superb rendering of not just characters old, beloved and new, but the intricacies of the law and the criminal justice system in the USA (and California in particular) as well as the schism and tensions that exist between prosecutors and defenders, criminals and those who claim their innocence. Taut, tense and beautifully paced. A great read.

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People of Abandoned Character by Clare Whitfield.

It was the fantastic title and wonderful historic and dark premise that had me purchasing this book the moment I set eyes on it. I mean, imagine a novel that features a woman who comes to believe she has married Jack the Ripper!

Set in the grim dank streets of Victorian London in 1888, the reader follows thirty-year-old Susannah as she falls head over heels for young, handsome surgeon, Thomas. But just as former- nurse, Susannah, keeps secrets from her new husband, so too Thomas and his wilful and quite creepy housekeeper, appear to be keeping very dark ones from her. But when their efforts to hide the truth from Susannah become deadly, she is forced to act.

I know many readers loved this book, and what sharing impressions of novels and their impact does is expose how wildly divergent readers’ tastes can be, and this is a wonderful thing. We each bring our own context, genre preferences and expectations to a book (for better and worse!). Sadly, while I so admire the notions underpinning this book, adore historical fiction (and crime!) and the push to give women of the past a voice, I didn’t enjoy this book as much as I hoped.

There’s a number of reasons, but mainly I found I didn’t relate to or care about any of the characters, not even Susannah. I also found some of the plot points and character motivation more convenient than logical vehicles for moving the narrative forward. What I did enjoy was the evocation of the city, the descriptions of dirty, fog-bound London and the gap between newspaper reports of the brutal murders, and even the brief experiences of the poor victims and those upon whom the grisly deaths impacted. I also love the chutzpah and imagination writers show when they tackle well known stories and mysteries – especially from the past – and put an original spin on them.

Unfortunately, while it has positives, this book didn’t quite hit the mark for me.

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The Happiest Man on Earth by Eddie Jaku

I’d heard so much about this book before I read it, how it was life-changing and joyous for so many readers. When a friend bought it for me for Christmas, I was delighted. At last, not only would I get to experience this amazing book, but after a very ordinary year, lose myself in some happy and wise recollections…

Oh. Boy.

Now, I know this might come across as foolish and/or naive, but what I didn’t expect when I started The Happiest Man on Earth was a memoir of a Holocaust survivor. Don’t get me wrong. I knew Eddie had endured and survived Nazi atrocities – I just didn’t realise this book was mostly about his shocking experiences. If I’d known that at the start, I never would have read it and, I tell you now, I would be so much poorer for not having had the experience.

My great-grandfather and great-grandmother, before the pogroms started.

My reasons for not wanting to read Holocaust stories is deeply personal. Please, bear with me while I explain. Over the years, I’ve read so many accounts, so many histories of Nazi barbarism; I studied, with desperate passion the history and literature of the era, watched endless documentaries (remember the gut-wrenching World at War series popular in high schools in the 1970s?) in an effort to understand how and why the attempted genocide of Jewish people (and homosexuals, gypsies and so many others) happened, it almost broke me. You see, I lost so many of my family during the Holocaust. In fact, my great-grandfather and great-uncle were interned in Buchenwald (and, I believe, pretty much when Eddie was there) and, later, my great-grandmother and great- grandfather died, a year apart (suicided) in Theresienstadt. So did numerous cousins and other family members and their friends, neighbours and so forth. But, those who survived, my grandmother, grandfather and my great-uncle and some of their friends and distant relatives – some coming to Australia, others to Israel or the USA – never, ever spoke about what happened. It was there, in the depths of their eyes, the silences that came upon them and even the numbers tattooed on their forearms. Nor did their children speak; my mother and aunt neither. And, until very much later in my life, I never asked. It was like I knew not to be inquisitive, not to venture there and, if I did, I would not be told anything anyway. Instead, I read and read, watched documentaries and films, sought understanding elsewhere in an effort to find answer to questions I didn’t even know I had… until I couldn’t any longer. I reached saturation point and a great heavy sadness came to reside within me. Then came Eddie’s book…

My great grandmother. Else.

Eddie takes the reader with him from his childhood (so resembling my family’s) to his awakening as a young adult to how he was perceived by a radically altered Germany. Forced to change his identity to get an education, deny his family and origins and so much more, Eddie stumbles into terror. He unapologetically describes his treatment at the hands of the Nazis, the sacrifices, the brutality, deprivation, desperation as well as the emotional and psychological torture he and others were forced to endure, all because they were Jewish and/or outsiders. He became viewed as an un-person, not human; his past, present-and thus future erased. His story is heart-aching and terrible. I had to stop often, take deep breaths, allow tears. But I also had to keep reading. Eddie’s story isn’t just a Jewish man’s, or my family’s or anyone else specifically. There is a sense in which it is everyone’s story. I don’t think Eddie did this deliberately, but this is the message I took (and no doubt others) from his incredible life. Just when I was floundering and thinking I couldn’t read anymore, I read this: Eddie writes how important it is not only for him and any remaining survivors to tell their story – something his generation (including my grandmother, uncles etc did not.). He says that by staying silent (because how do you speak to those horrors?) a whole generation grew up not knowing what their parents and others survived. This, Eddie tells us, was and is a mistake, for in the silence, the huge gap, deniers rose, more haters to take the place of the old ones. We’re bearing witness to this in so many ways today.

I’d never thought of it that way before. I understood the need to preserve the self, what dignity remained, to try and wipe the shocking memories from the mind, from culture from history. But this is wrong. This is why, as Eddie says, we cannot stay silent, cannot forget-why survivors of any horror really, must tell their stories and be heard. We owe it to them to remember by sharing these stories. Eddie thus acknowledges the power of not only the past and human strength and goodness, but the power of story.

Not only to prevent the spread of invidious doubt and hate but to learn what ultimately defeats hate and its correlates (or cause): fear, cowardice, bigotry and every kind of ism. Eddie makes that clear. What defeats all of these is love. Not necessarily romantic love (though it does too), but love for our fellow humans, friendship, kindness, selflessness and hope. They cost nothing and yet are priceless and ultimately save us from our worst nature. From others’ worst nature.

Eddie’s book is beautiful. For all its heart-ache, sorrow, stomach-churning descriptions of savage and shameful acts, it is uplifting. Eddie’s lessons – those his appalling experiences have taught him, and those being part of a loving family and community and world, he shares with us all. The tears I initially shed in sorrow became ones of happiness. Thank you, Eddie.

A wonderful, emotional start to a New and hopefully, better year.

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