Of all the popular writing genres, fantasy can be perhaps the most impenetrable to an outsider. Worst is when it is part of a series. The best in the genre thus make each novel encapsulated—it can be read separately or as a whole. Seer achieves this feat, but then Marillier is among the top Australians working in the genre. The novel is part of a series set in dark ages Ireland, in which the fantasy is grounded in ancient belief systems. It is part of the characters’ world-view, and fully credible. Seer begins chillingly, with the wreck of a Norse vessel on an Irish island. Three seafarers survive, but they are not what they seem. Heroine Sibeal is intended for a life as a druid priestess, but she is drawn to one castaway. Result: a book which readers of romance, historicals and the fantastic should enjoy, packaged tastefully.
Melbourne’s forgotten history is a feature of publishers Arcade. This latest example concerns an extraordinary entrepreneur. Macpherson Robertson was born poor, in goldrush Ballarat. He grew up using his wits, and as a teenager spotted an opening in the confectionary market. Lollies made him a very wealthy man, but he was more just a capitalist. Robertson was highly innovative, in areas such as food technology, marketing and hygiene. He never lost an opportunity to promote his product, and cared for the welfare of his workers. It became personal when 16-year-old employee Lizzie caught his eye. For a time Robertson juggled two families, and a busy schedule. His name survives in a school, a Fitzroy landmark, and even Antarctica. Cadbury bought his business after his death, but we still devour Mac’s inventions: Cherry Ripe and Freddo frogs. Macrobertsonland provides inexpensive, well-presented history, with a foodie angle. The perfect accompaniment for Xmas chocolates.
Charles McCarry - The Secret Lovers
This review first appeared in The Sunday Age - 08 June 2008.
Charles McCarry was a cult figure among spy novelists, respected but too little read. His recent republications show that he is an American equivalent of John le Carre. Both writers have the edge in knowing their subject personally, being former spooks. McCarry also tends to be eerily prescient, as when a novel, written in 1975 (but set in 1963) resonated with Gulf War II. That was The Tears of Autumn, probably his apex. The Secret Lovers is not on the same level, but still far above most modern spy fiction. A dissident novelist smuggles his masterwork out of Soviet Russia. Paul Christopher, McCarry's series hero, receives it just before the courier is murdered. How has the security breach happened? So beings a tale that reaches from the bedroom to the Spanish Civil War. At the heart of this story is a love affair, a tightly kept but powerful secret. The narrative is a superb artefact, with one fault: McCarry can write women's speech, but not look into their minds.
Last Updated on Tuesday, 09 February 2010 07:54
The Price of Darkness - Graham Hurley
This review first appeared in The Sunday Age - 02 March 2008.
Rebus may be enjoying his well-earned retirementt, but the police procedural continues, with new and established writers competing for market postiion. Among the very best is Graham Hurley. His crime scene is Portsmouth, but his broader concern is modern Engalnd. Hurley has two sleuths, Faraday, detective inspector and bird-watcher, and DC Winter, a rough and unorthodox cop. Within a short space of time, a property developer dies in an apparent gangland execution, and a government minister is assassinated by terrorists. The two cases show an almost forensic efficiency, but does that alone mean a link? As Faraday investigates, Winter is involved in a complex undercover operation. Their paths will cross in a story of murky morals and dodgy motives. Hurley's major target is the devastation wrought by Thatcherism. which 10 years of Labour governments have failed to fix. When those in power worship market forces and hate community, it is hardly surprising that their enforcers - the police - suffer. Burnt out and bitter, they are prey to the temptation of the dark side, to join the criminals, or take the law into their own hands. Powerful stuff.
Last Updated on Wednesday, 03 February 2010 22:33
Lustrum - Robert Harris
This review first appeared in The Sunday Age - 10 January 2010.
The great Roman orator and politician Cicero had a biography written, which duly vanished in the mists of time. Now Harris provides a modern equivalent, in the form of a series of novels. They are narrated by Cicero's actual biographer, his secretary and slave Tiro (inventor of the ampersand). The incidents described actually occurred, and they are extraordinary. As Rome changed from Republic to Empire, various powerful men fought for spuremacy. They include General Pompey, Cicero and the eventual winner, Julius Caesar. The stakes were high, and so was the body count. Modern politicians lose their seats, but the unlucky Roman senators faced forced suicide, or even crucifixion. Harris, while sticking to the script of recorded events, writes a live-in, convincing historical that doubles as a political thriller. He even teases with an opening that sets up the reader for yet another historical mystery, then shifts easily into Roman politics. Not least of the novel's achievements is the recreation of Cicero, a man shown here to be a superb political operator, but with a humane side.