Many on-line reviews of this book compare it too closely, and unfavourably  to the author's quite brilliant account of a murder and its subsequent trials in the American city of Savannah - 'Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil'.  This is a completely different type of book from the former, and I think it unfair to compare the two too closely. This too is about a crime, but the crime forms the backdrop to what is really a tribute to a very old, very beautiful, special and quite mysterious city.

Venice, surely, would be on most people's bucket list of cities to visit, and hopefully spend more than a day or two in. John Berendt does exactly that, his arrival coinciding with a massive fire which destroyed the iconic 160 year old Fenice Theatre. His intention was to spend a few weeks exploring the city and its surrounds, meeting Venetians but it would seem his enquiring journalistic nature got the better of him and he found himself caught up in the mystery of how the fire happened.

He meets many, many people, some interesting, some not so much, but all with a story to tell and a theory on the cause of the fire. In the first few pages we meet one of the most famous Venetian glass blowing families and later read about a massive family feud between two of the brothers that has torn the family apart. He meets the son of Count Volpi, a businessman and politician who contributed to much of the development of the infrastructure of Italy and left his legacy in founding the Venice Film Festival.  Unfortunately for him and his son he was also a close associate of Mussolini. Perhaps the most fascinating character is the Rat Man of Treviso - too special to give further details of here.

One of the many criticisms of this book has been the focus on the large number of American expatriates who have close ties with Venice, rather than the Venetians themselves.  Yes, these expats are all rich, their cups runneth over with their own self-importance and self-interest, but nevertheless their stories are still very, very interesting. From the beautiful sounding palaces they live in, exquisite works of architecture that somehow still seem to stay upright a few hundred years after being built, to their social connections, how they make their money, to their use of boats as a form of transport, to the lady who wears only white - riveting stuff.

Every second or third chapter there is an update of the investigation into the cause of the fire and the subsequent trial of those deemed responsible. And that would make a book in itself.

But of course the main star is the city itself. It is obvious the author adores the city, its age, its durability and defiance. He provides bits of history - the city's dominance as a commercial and trading power in the 1400s, its conquest by Napoleon in the late 18th century and even such interesting details as the origin of the word ghetto which was a locality in the city where the Jews lived, and still is today. He creates gorgeous images of what the city looks like, its atmosphere and essence, how the real life of the city is behind the main canals, and that the best time to visit is early February -after the Christmas/New Year holiday rush and before Carnival.

Reading this book has put spending some time in Venice further up the bucket list than it was. Fascinating, interesting and compelling reading.  



He had me at 'Amsterdam',  'Black Dogs' was pretty macabre, 'The Comfort of Strangers' downright scary, 'Enduring Love' ever so slightly creepy, 'Atonement' divine. Then this. So, yes, admittedly it has been some 11 years since 'Atonement' was published and he has published four novels since then, none of which I have read. My mistake perhaps.

What I loved about those earlier novels was the compactness and perfection of the writing: with the exception of 'Atonement' they are all short books. So much was said in so few words. 'Atonement' is longer than this novel, but an awful lot happened in that story over quite a long period of time, plus the story was told from the perspective of a number of different characters. It touched me. This novel - none of those things.

There is a huge amount on the net about the autobiographical bits and pieces in this story and the significance or otherwise of that, plus plenty of over-analysis of time and place and characters. But the upshot for me is that it is far too long - the main character, Serena Frome, drones on endlessly,I felt little or no engagement with any of the characters or with the story for that matter, and for the length of the book very little actually happens. In short, very disappointing.

I did love the setting however, and the author's writing of it. Set in London, early 1970s, middle of the Cold War, troubles with the unions, British Government in chaos, oil crisis, all sorts of trouble in Ireland, the author conveys the uncertainty and worry of the average Brit with the possibility of heating cuts, petrol rationing, where will the IRA strike next, job security, being overtaken by Communists. A wealth of material to write a novel about spies, espionage and double crossing. But 'Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy' it aint.

Serena is a most unlikely heroine. Smart and well educated without being brilliant, pretty without being stunningly beautiful, product of an Anglican bishop and closet-feminist mother, keen to get ahead in life, she is probably typical of many girls of her middle class upbringing at this time. She is young, so love and romance rank pretty highly in her small universe. She has an affair with a much older Cambridge professor, which leads her into working for the intelligence service. She finds herself as a pawn in the long game, code name 'Sweet Tooth', of MI5 nurturing the writing talent of an up and coming writer, Tom Haley. Naturally they fall in love, naturally the whole things unravels. End of story, and, a la McEwan, with a twist.

So not much more to be said really. Other than the writing of Serena's target Tom  Haley, which I thought was the best writing in the whole book - short stories within the novel. They are all the things those earlier novels of McEwan's are that I have read - touching on the dark side of human nature. Creepy, macabre, weird, brilliant. If only there was more of this in the book instead of all the rambling, introspective, precious thought processes of Serena's brain.

JANUARY 2013 READING: A Possible Life by Sebastian Faulkes

A POSSIBLE LIFE: A Novel in Five Parts by Sebastian Faulkes

Well, I must be a bit thick or something but I really did not get the purpose of this 'novel'. I have always thought of a 'novel' as a long story with a plot and characters that are linked in some sort of organised and sequential manner. This book meets the 'long' and 'characters' requirements, but other than four very small and tenuous links the five parts have nothing to do with each other. I kept waiting and waiting for the connections to show themselves, got to the very last page and still nothing. So, like a number of other reviewers have done, perhaps it is better to read this book as five short stories penned by a master of the writing game.

Because, I loved reading these five stories. Mr Faulkes is an exquisite story teller, creating five very different stories, with five diverse leading players, and five very different voices. Ranging from 1800s rural France, to Victorian London, Trieste in 2029, World War II and 1970s America, we meet respectively Jeanne, an illiterate peasant girl who spends her life working for a middle class family; Billy, who spends most of his childhood in a workhouse, but finds this start in life ends up being to his advantage; Elena, a brilliant scientist, whose life is dominated by a peculiar Catherine/Heathcliffe childhood; Geoffrey, a mild-mannered sport mad school teacher who finds himself betrayed to the Germans, then sent to a concentration camp to do unspeakable things; and finally Jack, an almost-aging rocker who 'discovers' a musical prodigy and launches her into fame and fortune, but at a cost.

All these stories then, are about life, none of them very happy lives really, but that perhaps is the secret to the success of these stories. The author gets right under the skin of his characters, into their very souls as they try to deal with what life is throwing at them. Some thought is given at times by the characters as to what would have happened if a different decision had been made, as I am sure most of us wonder about from time to time. But the business of living takes a lot of energy and so these thoughts simply remain that.

For some stories this works better than others. I really don't get the story of Elena who, with a fellow scientist discovers the bit in the brain that enables human beings to feel, empathise, foresee their own deaths - all things apparently that animals don't consciously think about; and the story about Jeanne which hops from present to past to present to past again, even on a second reading is just plain puzzling. But the stories about Geoffrey, Billy and in particular Jack are very good. They are very insightful into that bit of the brain that deals in empathy, making connections and being human, all helped along by Mr Faulkes' great writing.

So, don't read this book as a novel - you will do your head in, but read it as five stand alone stories about people dealing with what life throws at them. And revel in the writing that gives such insight into the human condition.


VINACULAR: A WINE LOVER’S A-Z by Scott Kennedy and John Saker.

Review copy kindly supplied by Awa Press, via Booksellers NZ.

With books that are a combined effort between a writer and an artist, it seems to be the norm that on the cover the writer’s name goes first. But in this little gem, the artist’s name is the first on the cover. Is it because K comes before S? Or is it because the illustrations, that are so perfect in every way, stand out more than the writing?

I like to think this could be the case, as the illustrations really are quite lovely – gorgeous quirky little drawings, bold but not overpowering use of colour, that capture so succinctly equally well worded snippets of wine trivia that Mr Saker has so neatly defined for us. Together the two make this very nicely produced little book that is a pleasure to pick up, open, randomly read, chuckle, put down and very quickly pick up again.  

I wonder how much wine passed Mr Saker’s lips while he was researching and formulating his definitions? Some really are quite funny - “Entry Level Wines – Entry level wines are like ground-floor apartments. It’s where you start out, pay less, get no kind of a view and wonder how good it must be up there in the penthouse. (Or how hideous down in the basement.)”Or Quaffer – “Quaff a quaffer to quickly quench, but factor in the quality quotient, for down so easy can go quite queasy. ‘He made me a quaffer I should have refused!’ “ And so it goes on for the other 24 letters of the alphabet.

I know Christmas has been and gone, and this book was in the shops then. But it really is the most perfect little gift book, and you don’t have to be a wine expert to enjoy the match between words and pictures.  I bet Mr Kennedy and Mr Saker had way more fun putting this together than we could ever have reading and re-reading it, but that joy and passion for what they do comes flying off the pages for us to enjoy. With a glass of wine and a companion to laugh with. You can't enjoy a book like this on an E Reader - where would all the red wine drips and drops, evidence of a good time, go?

JANUARY READING: Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain


War - what is it good for? Well, if nothing else, over the centuries it has produced outstanding writing, even if like this novel, very little of the action takes place on the actual battlefield. Instead, in this piece of outstanding writing,  it is Thanksgiving Day; the battlefield is a football stadium deep in Texas; the combatants are, on one side, eight young men from the bottom of the US Army pecking order and, on the other, the rest of America.

Billy Lynn, at 19 years old, is one of ten Bravo soldiers, sent to Iraq to fight. At the beginning of this story, the remaining eight (one died in the battle, the other seriously injured) have all been flown from the real battlefield of Iraq where they happened to be filmed by a Fox News crew while simply doing their job - ie battling insurgents and trying to keep themselves and each other alive - back to America for a two week period. Lauded as heroes by Bush and his cohorts, then in turn by the media, then the population at large, these ill-equipped young men are transported around the country, wined and dined, feted and praised, all over a two week period. At the end of which they are put back on a transport plane and returned to their tour of duty. Heartfelt thanks indeed. 

The reader sees all this craziness and hype through the eyes of Billy. These young men really can't understand what all the fuss is about. Where ever they are paraded they are cheered, lauded, thanked (for what). There is no connection at all that these boys have been living a life utterly different and disconnected from 21st century America. In Iraq they have purpose, camaraderie, they are battle hardened fighting units, but in their homeland they are simply a product, a pawn in the game of American consumerism, vying kings for the castle, and delusional self esteem.

The climax of this tour is their presence at a football game between the Dallas Cowboys and the Chicago Bears where the boys will be taking part in the half time show with act of the moment Destiny's Child. The boys are completely out of their depth, only interested in getting as much drink on the sly they can, smoking the odd joint, and hopefully hooking up with one of the Destiny Child stars or failing that, a cheerleader. They can't figure out what all the fuss is about, and really can't be bothered with it all.

Billy comes across as the strong sensitive type. His analytical radar is perhaps a bit too sophisticated for a high school dropout who opted for a stint in the army rather than a stint in prison. Nevertheless he is a superb vehicle for the author's unflattering portrait of his fellow countrymen, the moral right, the power of the interdependent triangle of the media, big business and politics, and the general level of ignorance of what war really means.

Powerful stuff, and very well written. Not a novel about a war per se, but more about how war is perceived by those actively engaged in it, engaging with those who are not actively engaged in it.