31 August 2010

Review: People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks

People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks book cover
People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks was extremely popular 2 years ago, winning the Australian Book of the Year Award, and Literary Fiction Book of the Year Award in June 2008. It was on every Top 10 list in Australia, and subsequently I avoided the trend and didn't engage, until now that is.

Lured by the possibility this book would feature in an up and coming book club I finally took the plunge. Dr Hanna Heath is a rare-book expert based in Australia, and is given the unique opportunity to examine and conserve the Sarajevo Haggadah. The Haggadah is described as being a 'lavishly illuminated Hebrew manuscript made at a time when Jewish belief was firmly against illustrations of any kind'.

The author was inspired by the true story of this rare and mysterious Hebrew manuscript, and takes the reader back through the centuries, each time giving us a hint of the manuscript's journey and turbulent history. We soon learn the Haggadah was hidden and protected from the Nazis during WWII, saved from the flames in Venice in 1609 and was in danger several times since it's creation in 1480.

I was fascinated to learn more about the Jewish belief in the 1400s with regard to true representations of people and illustrations. I was also struck by the persecution of the Jewish people throughout the novel, and was surprised that a book filled with such religious turmoil and conflict was so popular with the reading public.

In her examination, Dr Heath finds microscopic debris, a wine stain, a white hair, and while she investigates their origin, the reader is taken back in time to find out what really happened. I thoroughly enjoy this writing technique and find it thrilling to know more than the main character in any novel.

Interspersed throughout the story is the troubled relationship with Hanna's mother and a family secret so big it could irreparably ruin their relationship forever. Whilst this sub-plot was quite interesting and contributed to Hanna's character development, it wasn't pivotal to the story line. Although I must say I really enjoyed the Australian touch and the occasional reference to Australian places during the book.

If you haven't already read this best seller, I would certainly encourage you to pick it up. If you're interested in medieval manuscripts and their preservation, you'll love this book. You'll also enjoy it if you are a fan of the historical fiction genre. However, let it be said that some of the material is heavy and quite serious in terms of religious persecution and conflict.

My rating = ****

Carpe Librum!
20 August 2010

Review: Cathedral of the Sea by Ildefonso Falcones

This magnificent novel has been translated from Spanish and has sold over two million copies in Europe as well as winning many prizes. Set in Barcelona in the 1300s during the construction of the spectacular gothic Santa Maria del Mar Church, there have been many comparisons to Ken Follett's earlier novel Pillars of the Earth. I might as well state at the outset that whilst both historical fiction novels are epic page-turning sagas featuring the construction of a Church/Cathedral, Pillars of the Earth is more focussed on the building of the Cathedral, whilst in the Cathedral of the Sea, the building of the Church is almost a back drop, and never really the main focus of the story.

The Cathedral of the Sea is a good solid read at over 630+ pages, and is set over a period of more than 60 years. The story begins in 1320, with the parents of the soon to be main character Arnau. His parents experience terror first hand when the local lord arrives on their wedding night to exercise the right of firma de espoli forzada, which gives the lord the right to sleep with a bride on her wedding night. Needless to say the novel is gripping from the very beginning and I was instantly hooked.

Falcones is able to convey the sights, sounds and smells of this period brilliantly and throughout all of the various classes from the very rich to the destitute and the poor. Various conflicts feature throughout the book; we learn about the relationship between the King, Barcelona and the Pope, we witness the terrible treatment of Jews and the powers of the Inquisition. This novel really has it all. The main character undergoes several twists and turns in his life, and several changes in occupations, but I won't spoil the book by mentioning any of them here.

As you would expect in such an historical epic, the plot is rich with family secrets, sex, power, riches, religion and conflict. Oh, and of course the building of the Santa Maria del Mar Church is going on in the background although the reader is able to enjoy the progress and the architectural beauty without being bogged down by pages and pages of tedious detail.

I would recommend this book to anyone who enjoyed Ken Follett's Pillars of the Earth or World Without End, and of course anyone who enjoys their historical fiction rich in substance.

My rating = ****1/2

Carpe Librum!
11 August 2010

Review: The Pilo Family Circus by Will Elliott

The Pilo Family Circus by Will Elliott book coverBorn and based in Brisbane, Will Elliott is the author of the multiple award winning fantasy novel The Pilo Family Circus.

After a bizarre incident in Brisbane on his way home from work, Jamie finds himself being harassed by clowns who trash his house in an obscene manner and eventually recruit him as a clown in their circus. The Pilo Family Circus is located on a different plane between earth and hell, and Jamie finds he is trapped in this strange community.

When Jamie puts on the white face paint of the clowns he becomes a different person, JJ an angry and vicious clown. When the paint is removed, Jamie re-emerges, horror struck at the behaviour of his nemesis JJ.

Not having read a lot of fantasy, the genre was a little unfamiliar to me, however I immersed myself in this new world as much as I could. The blurb promised the book would be 'darkly funny' and 'gleefully macabre' and it certainly was all that. The writing was strong, the violence and conflict felt very sharp and unique and the dilemma Jamie finds himself thrown into was very original and equally as dangerous.

I enjoyed reading about the different sections within the circus (i.e. acrobats, dwarfs, carnies) and would have liked to have discovered more about their individual stories and how they became trapped in the circus. I also recognise however that this would have slowed down the pace of the book, so I guess you can't have it all.

Will Elliott has certainly found success with The Pilo Family Circus, winning the ABC Fiction Award in 2006, amongst many others, including a nomination for the International Horror Guild Award. Will is the first Australian to be nominated in the novel category for this award, and I believe more Australian readers should be familiar with his work.

My rating = ***

Carpe Librum!
08 August 2010

Review: Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke book coverThis is a book about magic, and at 864 pages it took some time to get through. The book begins in England in 1808 where we meet Mr Norrell, a theoretical and reclusive magician with a penchant for ancient books of magic. Magic hasn't been practised in England for hundreds of years, however Mr Norrell demonstrates his skills as a magician and tricks all other theoretical magicians to disband their society, thereby making him the only practising magician in England.

Unbeknownst to Mr Norrell, Jonathan Strange - who has never studied magic - finds he has a particular skill in the field and becomes Mr Norrell's pupil.

The book continually points to a complex level of magic beneath the surface and historical facts via the use of false footnotes. These footnotes are quite amusing at first, but end up dominating the pages at times and add significant bulk to the novel. They are very elaborate and I found them distracting at times. The footnotes feature on almost every second page and is something I will definitely remember long after reading this book.

Mid-way through the book I wasn't sure where the plot was heading, however towards the end it started to reach a climax and had a satisfying conclusion. Comparisons should not be made to any of the Harry Potter novels though, as they're nothing alike. Nor is there any resemblance to the fantasy element in Lord of the Rings. This is a complex and intellectual undertaking about two magicians set in an historic time, with the Napoleonic war in the background, and the magic from Faerie land being sought and studied via old and rare books.

I thought it was a good read, however a little cumbersome.

My rating = ***

Carpe Librum!