Friday, February 27, 2009

La's orchestra saves the world

When her husband leaves her to live with a French woman in France her parents in law allow her to live in their country house in Suffolk. With a degree in literature from Girton Hall, Cambridge, followed by married life with Richard in London, La took a while to adjust to her new surroundings despite her early life in Surrey. Mrs Agg from the farm next door helped her settle in and when war broke out she worked looking after hens on a nearby farm. It was there that she met Feliks, a Polish airman who had flown with the RAF. After he had been shot down and lost an eye he worked on farms.

Alexander McCall Smith's book, La's orchestra saves the world, provides a microcosm of life in the farming community near an airbase during the Second World War and reflects on relationships that develop or have the potential to develop, particularly between La and Feliks.

Permission is granted for La to start an orchestra which meets once a month to play music for themselves and anyone who wants to listen. The orchestra becomes a symbol of defiance against the threat that overshadows the lives people living in England. Music, even played inexpertly, has the power to bring people together, if only for a short time.

The book explores the effects and aftermath of war and how people adapt to hardship and change. It also questions political outcomes that impacted upon the lives of people from other countries who supported the allies during the war but lost their homelands in the carve up at its conclusion.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Heart and soul

Maeve Binchy once again introduces us to the lives of a cast of characters in her latest novel, Heart and Soul. A new heart clinic is opened in the grounds of St Bridget's Hospital, Dublin and the story is based on the development of the clinic during its first year and the lives of the staff and patients, their families and friends. Clara Casey - director of the centre, Declan Carroll - the centre's GP, the nurses - Barbara and Fiona, the admin officer- Hilary, Ania - an immigrant from Poland and Fr Brian Flynn are a small number of the cast of characters whose relationships are explored and interwoven in the novel. Regular readers of Maeve Binchy books will enjoy meeting again characters who have appeared in earlier books including Quentins, Scarlet Feather, Nights of Rain and Stars, Whitethorn Woods and Evening Class.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

The girl with the dragon tattoo

I had heard on the grapevine that The girl with the dragon tattoo written by Stieg Larsson was a must read book and the grapevine was correct.

Mikael Blomkvist, journalist and part owner of the magazine, Millennium, was found guilty of writing a libellous article about industrialist and financier, Hans-Erik Wennerstrom, resulting in a large fine and a three month gaol term. In order to save the magazine he decided to (temporarily) resign and move to the country for a period.

Lisbeth Salander, aged in her mid twenties but looking younger, worked part time for the firm Milton Security as an investigator. Although not always the most reliable of workers as far as adhering to office principles, her reports were always thorough and frequently contained information that normally would not be available to researchers.

Henrik Vanger was 82 and former CEO of the successful Vanger Company which employed many people in Sweeden. Each birthday Henrik received a flower in a frame. The first flower had arrived a year after the disappearance and possible murder of his niece, Harriet, thirty-six years previously. Her disappearance was still a mystery and had become an obsession of her uncle.

Henrik, via his lawyer, commissioned Lisbeth to prepare a report on Mikael Blomvist and then asked to start investigating Wennerstrom. He then asked Mikael to spend a year writing a history of the Vanger family as a cover for investigating Harriet's disappearance. As well as a large salary Henrik promised to provide information about Wennestrom that would help prove that he was a criminal.

Mikael reluctantly accepts the project but soon becomes immersed in the intricacies of the Vagner family and also uncovers leads in the investigation of Harriet's disappearance missed in the initial investigation. As the investigation proceeds he needs a research assistant and Lisbeth is employed to assist him.

The book is more than an excellent crime mystery but also describes the attempts to keep the magazine afloat, questions the ethics of withholding the publication of material relating to a crime which would harm others if made public, and allows the reader to explore the lives of the characters, particularly Lisbeth - the girl with the dragon tattoo.

The girl with the dragon tattoo is the first book in the Millennium Trilogy. I look forward to reading the next instalment.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

More Bones

In Bare bones Dr Temperance Brennan's beach holiday planned with Andrew Ryan is put on hold as she endeavours to discover the identity of a number of bodies including two men found in a crashed Cessna plus the head and hands of person found in two bags containing bear and bird carcases and a headless skeleton in a disused toilet pit. As she investigates threats against her are made via email by someone calling himself the Grim Reaper. More bodies are located, attempts are made on the lives of people following up leads in the case and as the investigation develops it becomes obvious that apparently separate deaths are linked and in crimes involving smuggling drugs and animal parts.

A decomposed body is found in a cupboard and Tempe Brennan is asked to investigate cause of death. At the laboratory a mysterious man shows her a photograph of a skeleton and says that is why the man died. The investigations lead Tempe and Detective Andrew Ryan to travel to Israel to return a skeleton excavated from a cave, the bones possibly being 2,000 years old. The adventure in Cross bones includes exploring caves and finding additional bones which may or may not belong to the Holy Family. Danger stalks Tempe and Ryan as other people also try to gain access to the mystery bones.

Tempe Brennan is supervising a field trip on an island, Dewees, north of Charleston in South Carolina. In the final days of the archaeological dig a recently buried body is found in a shallow grave. Tempe is asked by the Coroner, Emma Rousseau who is also a friend, to assist with the case. When Tempe discovers that Emma is ill she tries to help her friend by taking on an increased workload. During the investigation other bodies are discovered and links between the seemingly unconnected deaths are developed. Tempe's life becomes complicated when her estranged husband, Pete, and Detective Andrew Ryan both advise her that they are coming to Charleston to visit and stay with her. Tempe receives threats, which she ignores, trying to get her to drop her investigation and then one evening Pete is shot. Pete is working for a client in Charleston and his investigation links to the case Tempe is investigating. Was the shot meant for him or for Tempe? Kathy Reich's book, Break no bones, keeps the reader guessing as she unravels the plot resolving the murders and also the complications in the lives of the main characters.

A brush with birds

A brush with birds: Australian bird art from the national Library of Australia provides examples of illustrations of birds as portrayed by a variety of artists from the First Fleet to more recent times. Artists include John Hunter, George Raper, Sarah Stone, John William Lewin, John Gould, Neville Cayley (sen and jnr), Ebenezer Edward Costelow, Lilian Medland, Betty Temple Watts and William Thomas Cooper. Each section provides a page or two of text discussing the work of the artist followed by a series of coloured plates showing examples of their work. An interesting work for those interested in birds and also for observing changes and development in style in the portrayal of birds.

The shark net

The shark net: memories and murder was written by Robert Drewe and first published in 2000. It records the memories of Drewe growing up in Perth in the 1950s and 1960s. His father worked for the Dunlop Company and the family transferred to Perth when Robert was six. Amongst the description of suburban life there is the undercurrent of fear created by a series of apparently unrelated murders which for many years baffle police. One of the victims was a friend of Robert. An implement used owned by another friend was a weapon used for another murder. It was later discovered that the murderer, Eric Edgar Cooke, once worked for the Dunlop Company. The effects of the murders played a significant part in the minds of the local citizens and as a journalist Robert Drewe was particularly interested in the case.

As well as describing the life of the Drewe family in Perth and the constrictions of being part of the Dunlop family the book recalls the murders and associated crimes committed by Cooke and the fear these crimes created in the community. Interspersed are chapters where Drewe attempts to portray the thoughts, feelings and actions of Cooke as the series of crimes are committed. This is an interesting, readable book based strongly on fact but with sections written as fiction.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

The comfort of Saturdays

Alexander McCall Smith produced the first book in The Sunday Philosophy Club series in 2004. Titles in the series include The Sunday Philosophy Club, Friends, Lovers, Chocolates, The Right Attitude to Rain and The Careful Use of Compliments. The latest book is The Comfort of Saturdays (published in the USA as The Comfort of Muddy Saturdays).

The books, set in Edinburgh, describe the relationships between Isabel Dalhousie and her family and friends. Isabel is a philosopher editing a refereed journal, Review of Applied Ethics. Editing a journal about ethics creates many opportunities to investigate and agonise about the content of the articles submitted as well an examination of the role of egos in academia and publishing. Being financially independent Isabel is able to live her life without having to worry unduly about matters financial however being a philosopher she analyses and worries about everything else, particularly about how she and her friends live their lives. Consequently the books tend to contain a proportion of angst as Isabel decides on the ethical and moral action to be taken.

Characters regularly appearing in the books include Isabel's niece, Cat, the owner of a delicatessen and a young woman with a succession of unsuccessful relationships; Eddie, the insecure young man who works in the delicatessen; Jamie, a young musician who once went out with Cat but when that relationship ended has a relationship with Isabel and together they have a son; and Grace, Isabel's housekeeper who has definite views on most topics including how to bring up children.

It is not in Isabel's nature to let matters lie and she often investigates and solves mysterious events. In The Comfort of Saturdays Isabel meets a woman at a dinner party who asks her to help her husband who has been implicated in a scandal after the death of a patient prescribed a new drug. Private concerns about a young composer who may come between her and Jamie and why Eddie needs a large sum of money keep Isabel's mind fully occupied.

In the Sunday Philosophy Club series the light hearted, intelligent style of writing used so effectively by Alexander McCall Smith examines a range of familiar human problems causing the reader to reflect on how they may have handled the situation while they follow the situations to be resolved by Isabel.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

The lost dog

Tom's dog is missing in the bush. As Tom searches for the dog his mind explores sequences of events from his life and the life of his family. Michelle de Kretser has written a book about loss, love and aging with the themes interwoven in the account of the search for the lost dog, the declining health of Tom's mother and the mystery of Nelly's past life.

Tom's father, Arthur, went to India during the Second World War, married Iris de Souza and they had a son. After migrating to Australia Arthur died leaving his wife and son dependant on the reluctant charity of Arthur's sister. Tom escaped but his aging mother still lives with her sister-in-law.

Tom is an academic finishing a book on the ghosts in the writings of Henry James. His world is the world of literature but he finds himself entering a corner of the art world after meeting Nelly Zhang, an artist who paints pictures and then supposed destroys the artwork after photographing it and exhibiting the photographs in exhibitions.

While searching for the dog he remembers events relating to his family's life in India and in Australia. Increasingly the needs of his mother as her health fails require more of his time and cause him to reflect upon possible changes to his future lifestyle. Intrigued by and drawn to Nelly Tom also attempts find out the secrets of Nelly's past as he attempts to define his thoughts and feelings for her.

Although the book describes ten days in Tom's life it covers several lifetimes while Tom searches for who is and what he wants of his life while searching for his dog. This is a beautifully written book with the interwoven plots, including flash backs, encouraging the reader to want to know what happens next but also to engage in personal reflection.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Stephanie Plum forever

Since 1994 Janet Evanovich has been writing a series of novels about Stephanie Plum and her attempts to capture bond absconders whose bail was posted by her cousin, Vinnie. Stephanie is not the most successful bounty hunter in New Jersey often requiring a number of attempts "to get her man". Helping her are an assortment of associates including Lula, Grandma Mazur, Ranger and Joe Morelli, her on again off again boyfriend. Each novel usually includes further zany characters to help or hinder Stephanie carry out her task. These characters often reappear in a later book. Stephanie does not lead a quiet life. Around her things happen. Cars explode or disintegrate or crash, buildings blow up, bodies are found. Frequently she finds herself in situations she would rather not be in but that is all part of the life of being a bounty hunter - if you are Stephanie Plum - as is junk food and questionable fashion. The books can be dangerous to read in public as the larger than life characters and or ridiculous situations can cause the reader to laugh out loud resulting in strange looks from those without the privilege of enjoying the book.

The titles of the fourteen novels so far include sequential numbers - One for the money, Two for the dough, Three to get deadly, Four to score, High Five, Hot six, Seven up, Hard Eight, To the nines, Ten big ones, Eleven on top, Twelve sharp, Lean mean thirteen and Fearless Fourteen.

Reading Stephanie Plum books can be contageous and I have had conversations with many women waiting for the next installment. Since 2002 Janet Evanovich has written additional, often shorter books, containing further adventures of Stephanie Plum - Visions of sugar plums, Plum lovin' and Plum Lucky. Diesel - a bounty hunter with special powers - appears in these books assisting Stephanie in her adventures. The latest in the 'Between-the-Numbers' novels is Plum Spooky, a book the size of the traditional Stephanie Plum novels.

In Plum Spooky Stephanie is looking for Martin Munch who has stolen a magnetometer and disappeared. Out of the blue Diesel reappears in her life and insists on helping her as he is looking for his cousin, Wulf Grimoire, who possibly has Munch working for him. As an added complication Stephanie discovers that she is baby sitting a precocious monkey named Carl who insists on accompanying them and causing additional havoc. Animals often feature in Stephanie Plum novels. In Plum Lucky a horse was a major additional caharacter. The search leads them to the Barrens populated by an assortment of unusual characters and events and after confronting a range of dangerous situations Stephanie, Lula and Diesel, with assistance from Joe and Ranger and Ranger's men, eventually track down their targets. Needless to say various subplots add to the enjoyment of this humourous adventure. Now waiting for the next installment.

Women of the Raj

Margaret McMillan wrote Women of the Raj in 1998 and it was republished in 2005. It tells the story of the life of British women living in India particularly in the eighteenth, nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The East India Company had established trade with India in the seventeenth century and by the eighteenth century had established posts along the coast of India. The power of the East India Company grew and was supported by contingents of the British army as the importance of the Indian trade route increased. By the beginning of the nineteenth century the East India Company had become the Raj.

Increasingly British women travelled with their husbands when their husbands were posted to India where in India they faced an entirely different lifestyle from their way of life in Britain. The women largely kept to their own community and most tried to replicate the British lifestyle, especially food, clothing furniture, flowers and entertainment in an alien environment. There was a ready supply of cheap labour and the woman was expected to ensure that the household ran smoothly but she was not normally expected to do physical work. Entertainment included visiting other families, parties and sport. In summer, those who could afford to do so, retreated to the hills where the temperatures were cooler. However there were also threats including disease, snakes, heat that sapped energy and rapid dogs. After 1857 there was also the threat of another mutiny.

When children of British families were born in India there were concerns for the health of the children and also for their education. Consequently families in the position to do so sent young children back to England to be cared for by family. Wives faced the choice of abandoning their children or abandoning their husbands.

Women of the Raj provides a number of case studies illustrating the lives of British women in India providing a different perspective of the British in India as well as interesting background information for family history researchers with family in India at the time.