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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Book Review: The Columbus Affair, Steve Berry

I usually love Steve Berry books. I grab them off the shelves and read them quickly because they’re genuine page-turners and damn interesting. The Columbus Affair, however, wasn’t quite either of these. I turned the pages more to get to the end and it was only interesting in parts.

Basically (without spoiling the story) this novel follows the adventures of a journalist, Tom Sagan, who as the book opens is about to commit suicide. He discovers he’s “the Levite” a keeper of a special Jewish treasure that has ties back to the days of Columbus and his voyages to the Americas. This knowledge sets off a chain of events and dangerous adventures that puts lives on the line (of course!). Spanning Europe, America, Jamaica and South America, the book is, in typical Berry fashion, wide in temporal and geographical scope. It also features the Magellan Billet, though no Cotton Malone.

Overall, however, I felt this book wasn’t up to the standard of his others – it was too didactic. Berry was determined to show off his research and the knowledge he gained and subsequently played with (the way he sometimes does this is very clever), but I felt the narrative suffered as a consequence. There was too much telling. Another reason I didn’t feel this book was as good as his previous ones was the decision to make a suicidal journalist his main protagonist. I didn’t mind the fact there was no Malone, as much as I like him. No, what made this character so problematic was for reasons the novel makes clear, this guy is basically despised by former colleagues (he’s stripped of his Pulitzer and his once fine reputation is in tatters) and completely alienated from his family. In other words, loathed by everyone. Therefore, it’s hard for the reader to like him as well. He had so few redeeming qualities. Likewise, his daughter, Alle, was a complete pain in the arse. I also found her stupid – and considering she was doing her PhD, some of the decisions she made and conclusions she leapt to, the people she put her faith in, didn’t ring true to me. The main villain, Zacariah, was so bad, a child would have run screaming from him – but not Alle. No, she gave him more chances than a casino. In the end, she came across as more of a convenient and sloppy narrative device that didn’t add any depth or richness to the tale.

I am sure many people will like this book and, really, I give it two and half stars. There are some good moments, some interesting ideas, but it was a bit too black and white and preachy for me. Nonetheless, this hasn’t deterred me. I will look forward to the next Berry book and continue to enjoy reading his back catalogue.

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