A VIKING SAGA / AN AUSTRALIAN HISTORICAL ADVENTURE / A SEQUEL TO AN 1881 CLASSIC / A THRILLER TACKLING THE NAZI MENACE
SAGA LAND Richard Fidler & Kári Gíslason ABC BOOKS, $40
The sagas of their Viking forebears are essential to Icelanders’ sense of who they are. As Fidler (best known for his radio program Conversations) notes, “The sagas are as important to Icelanders as the Declaration of Independence is to Americans.” In Saga Land, Fidler and his friend Gíslason, travel to the Nordic island of volcanoes to establish whether or not Gíslason is descended from Snorri Sturluson, the legendary author of the sagas. Along the journey, Gíslason acts as a guide, introducing Fidler to Icelandic history, as the pair visit the locations where the sagas took place. Gíslason recounts the stories with their Shakespearean intrigues of power, betrayal, lust and tragedy, while Fidler contributes modern-day storytelling and interviewing skills to help the reader visualise the spectacular landscapes and hear the voices of the locals. Saga Land is a combination of mystery, travelogue and storybook.
JEFF MAYNARD VERDICT: Legends
THE GRIFFITH WARS Tom Gilling and Terry Jones ALLEN & UNWIN, $33
There have been several books about the 1977 murder of Griffith anti-drugs campaigner Donald Mackay. But The Griffith Wars is the first to be written by somebody who lived in the New South Wales city — and who was intimately involved in covering the goings on in Griffith, before and after the Mackay murder. That somebody is Terry Jones. Jones was a friend of Mackay, a long-time resident of Griffith and editor of The Area News in Griffith as well as The Griffith Times. The book draws heavily on the meticulous diaries Jones kept and his personal dealings with the main players in the Mackay murder. Jones knew Aussie Bob Trimbole, the man given the job of organising the assassination of Mackay. He also knew the Calabrian mafia figures who gave Trimbole that job because Mackay’s anti-drug stance was affecting their lucrative marijuana growing and selling business.
KEITH MOOR VERDICT: Insider’s account
MRS OSMOND John Banville PENGUIN RANDOM HOUSE, $39
Mrs Osmond is Irish Man Booker Prize winner John Banville’s sequel to Henry James’ Portrait of a Lady. That classic 1881 novel ended ambiguously. Isabel Osmond, nee Archer, had suffered as her marriage to the odious Gilbert cracked under the pressure of scandal and betrayal, adultery and greed. In the debris, she had suitors begging for her love and attention, but her sudden disappearance after the funeral of her beloved cousin Ralph left her intentions opaque. Banville imagines an Isabel who is out for exquisite revenge, with a plan that is both unexpected and brilliant. His Isabel has steel in her spine, and a welcome recklessness. Banville’s prose is a good match for Henry James’ slow and intricately detailed storytelling. Nothing races along here. An entire page can be taken up with descriptions of a fleeting thought. He hasn’t trampled on anyone’s legacy here, but neither has he stooped to imitation, and I don’t think Henry James would be unhappy with the result.
CLAIRE SUTHERLAND VERDICT: A homage
MUNICH ROBERT HARRIS HUTCHINSON, RRP $33
How hard is it to write a novel when history creates the framework and determines the ending? Such a challenge would defy most novelists but Robert Harris is sure-footed in creating a fictional world within the negotiations surrounding the 1938 Munich Agreement. Two Oxford University friends are on opposite sides of the negotiating table when British prime minister Neville Chamberlain goes to Munich to convince Adolf Hitler to embrace “peace in our time”. History judged Chamberlain’s appeasement more harshly than Harris, who gives him a sense of purpose and self-belief. But the fictional intrigue comes with the university friends — British civil servant Hugh Legat and German diplomat Paul Hartmann. Hartmann inveigles his old friend into a dangerous plot against the Nazi menace. An air of doom stalks the two amid the febrile atmosphere and the Gestapo threat. The novel lacks some of the masterful characterisations that distinguished Harris’ previous novels Fatherland and An Officer and a Spy, but this is still a superior thriller with stunning historical detail. Even Legat and Hartmann’s encounters with Hitler carry the stamp of authenticity.
NICK RICHARDSON VERDICT: Intriguing