OVERTHROWN BY STRANGERS by Ronan Bennett
Ronan Bennett was introduced into book club a few years ago and quickly became a favourite. His stories are tragic, full of despair and moral decay, with the little guy fighting forces much bigger than he is. All the settings of his novels are different, ranging from pre-revolution St Petersburg to 1950s Congo, to 17th century peasantry superstition, to modern day Northern Ireland. In this book the setting is the capitalism of Los Angeles and the corruption, revolutions and misery of the Central American countries Mexico, Guatemala and Peru. As one review I read on Google said, (I now can't find it to acknowledge the writer), Mr Bennett takes apolitical people who are unwittingly thrown into political events and have to deal with it. These are not pretty books, but because Mr Bennett has the ability to get not only inside the heads of his protagonists, but also into the depths of their souls, his books are stunning. I have read that Bennett spent two years in an Irish prison for supposed involvement of an IRA bank robbery that resulted in a policeman being killed, but through lack of evidence he was released. On reading his books, it is very clear that this experience has heavily influenced a lot of his writing.
And this is the one that I think is the best. It is simply an outstanding book, from the complexity of the story line, the variety of his characters and the depths he takes us to them. He throws some tough themes at the reader - the desperation of displaced people trying to survive in a violent, revolutionary, guerilla environment; erosion of traditional economies vs western capitalism; how power corrupts; and the chilling normality of horrible people going about their everyday lives.
I bought this book in a second hand book shop and before putting it into the book club, I did some hunting on the net for reviews etc of it. None. The blurb on the back was so lacking in information I really thought I might have bought a dud. Maybe that is why it was in the second hand shop! So it was with some trepidation I contributed it, and finally read it, the first of us to do so. Took a few pages to get into it, but once started couldn't stop!
Three people, all damaged and troubled for various reasons from completely different countries and backgrounds - an Irish ex-prisoner, a thief from Peru, and a woman with a legal background from San Francisco find themselves on the run from the New Era Mission of Christ which seems to have a rather unhealthy interest in spreading the word in politically unstable countries. The story alternates between the present and the past as each of the three character's story is told and how they come together. This past interspersing with the present is a bit confusing to start with until it is clear who all the characters are, but very quickly takes on a force of its own.
This is a thriller, a political statement and love story combined. Excellent reading. I will now reread all his other books!
OPEN by Andre Agassi
So much has been written about this book since its recent publication, with Andre's astonishing revelations. In this day and age, the drug use revelation didn't really surprise me, but the control his hair had over his self-worth and win or lose, plus playing tennis commando brought on bouts of hysteria at the ridiculousness and bizarre complexity of such a life-in-the-lights existence.
Andre's telling of his life is incredibly personal, it is almost as if he is sitting on the couch telling it. He is a very gifted man, not only as a tennis player, but also as a story teller and writer. With his amazing memory and recall ability, plus his observations of the human condition, he has given us an invaluable and not particularly pleasant insight into the highly charged world of professional sport. I am in awe of this man, the passion, love and respect he has inspired through his life, and can only wonder what he might have achieved had he ever had the opportunity to travel his own path in life. More photos would have been brilliant too!
A RESPECTABLE GIRL by Fleur Beale
Fleur Beale is a New Zealand author who mostly writes fiction for teenagers and young adults. This novel, though has universal appeal and is an excellent read for anyone after an historical novel. Set in the province of Taranaki in 1859, (which incidentally is the part of New Zealand where the author comes from) the story centres on Hannah Carstairs. Although only 15 years old, and still a girl to our way of thinking, she is on the brink of adulthood. The main town of New Plymouth is essentially a frontier town, raw, unplanned, unformed, dirty and often chaotic. Hannah lives with her twin brother Jamie, her English father, her Maori stepmother Rawinia and half brother Arama. Her mother died giving birth to Hannah and her brother. An independent and spirited girl, Hannah is conflicted as to her eventual place in the world. She is smart enough to see how hard life is for the women in her community and consequently doesn't want a bar of marriage or babies. But she knows she cannot stay living with her parents forever, simply because there isn't enough work or money to support everyone.
In New Plymouth and the province at large, war between the colonial settlers-the British-and the local landowners-the Maori-is looming over control of the land. Hannah finds her loyalties tested due to her peculiar family situation; at the same time she discovers interesting and alarming information concerning her parents and her origins. Which in her forthright and independent fashion, with all the single mindedness and passion of a teenage girl she sets about resolving.
Very well written, god plot and character development, with enough romance, intrigue and adventure to keep any young adult and not so young adults hooked. Nothing too complicated, just a jolly good read.
THE LIFE AND DEATH OF LAURA FRIDAY by David Murphy
Bullock, a provincial town of unknown size, but larger than a village and smaller than a city, situated somewhere on the coast of New Zealand. It could be anyone of dozens of towns but I can't help but imagine it to be somewhere on the West Coast, where the people are plain speaking, can't abide pretentiousness, have their peculiarities and oddities as we all do, a strong sense of community, and prone to ship wrecks way back then, which is how Bullock came to be established. And not on the smell of an oily rag, but on the very rare and wonderful weed that accompanied the pioneers on the ship and that was saved from the wreck. This is not a huge part of the story, but certainly contributes to some very comic moments and memorable characters.
Young John Kennedy is born and bred in Bullock, descended from one of the ship wreckees as is most of the population. The heavy hand of the Catholic Church presides over Johnny's family life, especially that of his mother and casts a long shadow for many years. Johnny is a teenager when the novel begins in the late 1960s, and along with his friends lusts after any number of nubile teenage girls, with the determination to become a writer and so escape small town Bullock. Which in a most bizarre set of circumstances actually comes to pass. The 'circumstances', which you have to read to find out about, result in his creation of Laura Friday and Pavarotti the Parrot, characters which make him very famous and very rich. Until, one day, he has enough and decides to return to Bullock.
This is an extremely entertaining and heartwarming novel, chock full of highly interesting and diverse characters and small town life in Bullock with all its eccentricities and correctness. Johnny chases his dreams with enthusiasm, naivety and brilliance. At times there is a bit too much silly boy humour based on bodily functions, but really it doesn't matter, and it is actually funny. Well I thought so.
I couldn't find out much about the author David Murphy other than what is in the biography notes in the book. Born in England, he now lives in a small town in New Zealand, not on the west coast of the South Island as I imagine Bullock to be, but inland on the east side of the North Island where the weather is better! Nevertheless he captures beautifully the tone and pace of small town life, and the "OE" experience of so many young New Zealanders.
THE APOLOGIST by Jay Rayner
Jay Rayner was born in the UK in the mid 1960s and became a journalist. During his writing career he has also been a restaurant critic which seems to have stood him in good stead with this book.
The Apologist is Marc Basset, a very well known food critic, renowned for his reviews which pull no punches and make him very hard to like! He adores chocolate, is a great cook and lives with the very patient and understanding Lynne, which he considers a minor miracle: that anyone would want to live him. A classic case of low self esteem? This tenuous control he has over his world completely unravels when a chef he has reviewed most unfavourably kills himself as a result. Marc does feel responsible and he decides to apologise to the widow. He has never apologised for anything in his life before. The feel good factor he gets from it ultimately takes on a life on its own, until he finds himself apologising for no end of things that apologies are needed for or perceived to be needed for. This is political satire at its best, very tongue in cheek, and very relevant to the world we currently live in, with all it religious and cultural intolerances, political correctness, grievances against colonial powers going back hundreds of years, the concept of instant fame and celebrity, how easy it is to lose one's sense of self. Tightly written and well controlled, this is a highly entertaining and thoughtful book, its main character being not entirely likable, but who we do come to feel sympathy and empathy for.
THE LAST DAYS OF DOGTOWN by Anita Diamant
If you have read The Red Tent, and loved it, and expect something similar with this book, you won't get it. But this is still an extremely good book. The main difference I think is that this book is essentially character driven rather than plot driven. Little happens in this novel, other than the decline and decay over time of the town of Commons Settlement, more commonly known as Dogtown for the packs of dogs that frequent the area. It is not a pretty story, with very little positive or uplifting in it. The main characters have had hard lives, and continue to do so in the harsh climate and environment of rural Massachusetts in the 1800s. Yet despite all this there is plenty of humanity among the community with people looking out for each other. The beauty of the book is in the writing, how she creates her characters, making them human and believeable in such an inhospitable environment.