THIS MONTH’S MIX OF BIOGRAPHY AND FICTION, BOTH ENTERTAINS AND PULLS AT THE HEARTSTRINGS.
MOONGLOW Michael Chabon, 4th Estate, $39.99
Until now, Michael Chabon has been way above my head. Yet with this autobiographical/biographical telling of the last week of his grandfather’s life he delivers an experience that anyone can warm to. Painkillers loosen the old man’s lifelong silence. One moment we’re laughing at the grandfather’s engineering exploits with the US Army, then suddenly we are witnessing the tender relationship with his schizophrenic wife, made doubly poignant when Chabon finds medical records that reveal her as very different from the person known to her family. Chabon shows how deluded we can be about another’s reality, even after decades of closeness.
ARROWOOD Mick Finlay, HQ, $29.99
William Arrowood is a private detective working in South London whose wife has left him. His do-gooder sister has moved in to attack the squalor and steer him away from drink. It’s 1895. Sherlock Holmes is the talk of the town. Arrowood detests him and despises the forensic approach, preferring to intuit the truth. In the booths and taverns close to the river there’s a cell plotting to rid Ireland of the British yoke. Among London’s poor, whose lot is beatings, broken teeth, disease and starvation, Arrowood and his assistant strive to achieve justice. A young boy in the wrong place can be swiftly sealed into a barrel that bumps its way down to a cellar... Finlay beguiles and chastens. A chilling tale well told.
THE CHILBURY LADIES’ CHOIR Jennifer Ryan, The Borough Press, $37.99
“Yes, yes,” I thought, looking at the flyer. “A nice little period piece about ladies in an English village during the Second World War.” Not a bit of it. These characters are consequential; the silly girls mature, the evil midwife gradually reveals her back story and — realistically — the situation never resolves itself but we are left with a wry acceptance that tomorrow could be the obverse, inverse or reverse of all that has gone before.
INSOMNIAC CITY Bill Hayes, Bloomsbury, $29.99
Maverick neurologist Oliver Sacks, who died 19 months ago, fell in love for the first time at the age of 75. Bill Hayes was his lover. Their six years together is the focus of this jolting memoir. A love that neither had anticipated was joyful — high jinks in New York City — and then, when cancer loomed, bittersweet.
AFTER Nikki Gemmell, 4th Estate, $29.99
In her 2003 book The Bride Stripped Bare, Gemmell — a best-selling author and weekly columnist at The Australian newspaper — gave readers too much information. It would have been quite difficult for friends and family to look her in the eyes after so much frankness. Yet, undaunted, she has gone on telling tales that perhaps shouldn’t be told. After is a confronting non-fiction work. Gemmell’s mother chose to take her own life. Gemmell’s mixed feelings include a lot of love for her mother, which makes her book a purifying experience for the reader and no doubt for Gemmell herself.
KEEP YOU CLOSE Lucie Whitehouse, Bloomsbury, $19.99
I sometimes get impatient when writers offer entirely useless information. For the umpteenth time, character X “sips her coffee” or “cradles a glass of wine”. Who cares? However, every detail in Whitehouse’s thriller builds atmosphere or subtly redirects the reader’s focus. Three murders in Oxford and two suspicious deaths leave the bereaved bewildered and redefined. This is an expertly plotted story, with a twist in the tail.