Siberian bears, ruthless oligarchs, crashing ice sheets and corrupt officials come together in this splendid contemporary thriller.
Investigator Arkady Renko is worried about his girlfriend, Tatiana Petrovna. She's a journalist and often disappears for dangerous assignments. When she abruptly leaves for Siberia, with only a few clues as to her whereabouts, Arkady takes on an assignment that allows him to follow and check up on her. He discovers that Tatiana has been working with oligarch, ex-political prisoner and now presidential aspirant, Mikhail Kuznetsov. She's doing what she believes is the right thing, supporting Kuznetsov's anti-corruption platform, but it's a murky world of money, politics and terrorism.
Arkady, too, has his hands full. Sent to Siberia by Prosecutor Zurin, he's tasked with investigating suspected Chechen terrorist, Aba Makhmud. He also starts inquiries into another oligarch, Boris Benz, which takes him deep into Siberia, to the city of Irkutsk, where he sustains some serious injuries. When two politically motivated murders are uncovered, Arkady is given orders by Zurin to perform some nasty – and illegal – business. If he doesn't follow through, Zurin threatens dire consequences. Caught on the horns of a dilemma, Arkady doesn't know what to do, until fate provides some spectacular twists of its own.
The ninth in the Arkady Renko series of thrillers, which began with Gorky Park, Martin Cruz Smith's latest is a sophisticated, neatly organised and well paced mystery with enjoyable characters, crisp dialogue and moody atmospherics. For those interested in the politics of modern Russia, there is plenty to satisfy, with brief discussions of Putin, corruption and the murderous oil economy. And just when you think the story may be running out of puff, the last fifty pages delivers a breathtaking finale.
Classy and enjoyable stuff.
The Siberian Dilemma, by Martin Cruz Smith. Simon and Schuster. $32.99
Review by Chris Saliba
A great biography of one the twentieth century's towering intellectual figures.
Susan Sontag is best known for her essays such as “Notes on Camp” and “Against Interpretation”, published in the late 1960s. Her 1977 book, On Photography, a collection of essays originally published in the New York Review of Books, is considered the seminal text on the subject. Sontag also wrote fiction, with mixed results. Early novels such as The Benefactor and Death Kit are considered opaque and difficult, while in the early 1990s Sontag had a best seller with The Volcano Lover.
In Sontag, by American writer and translator Benjamin Moser, the reader is treated to a first class biography. It mixes cultural and political history, philosophy, literary analysis and of course, the complex and divided character of Susan Sontag herself. She emerges as a troubled, difficult, cantankerous, hypocritical, generous and vulnerable woman. Determined to present herself in an idealised aspect – as a thinker, intellectual and cultural warrior – Sontag often hid her true self, keeping her 15 year relationship with Annie Leibovitz a secret, even from her sister. This friction between real self and self as brassy persona meant the writer was a “house divided”. Relationships – friends and lovers alike – were never stable, always subject to Susan's unreasonable and explosive personality.
Fascinating, absorbing and intellectually rigorous, Sontag provides a window on a key cultural figure of the last 50 years, summing up an age, its art and literature.
Sontag: Her Life, by Benjamin Moser. Allen Lane. $59.99
Review by Chris Saliba
Child prodigy Barbara Newhall Follett wrote The House Without Windows, a song in praise of nature, at the age of twelve.
A young girl, Eepersip, finds living in a house – restrictive doors, windows, rooms and their attendant rules for living – repugnant to her. She decides to leave her parents' house and live in the wild. At first Eepersip roams the woods and meadows, making friends with animals and exulting in the plant life. She eats berries and roots, drinks freshly gathered water and makes comfortable beds in the wild for sleeping. Eepersip lives in a kind of ecstasy; a pure joy inhabits every waking minute of the day. She can't imagine going back to living in a house. Her parents, Mr and Mrs Eigleen, have different ideas. In a comic game of cat-and-mouse, they try to capture Eepersip and bring her back. But their half-hearted, ill conceived strategies always fail, often farcically. In one episode Eepersip actually jumps over her father and runs in the opposite direct.
Having experienced the wonders of the woods, Eepersip decides to discover the delights of the sea. For the third part of the novel, Eepersip treks to the mountain tops, where she experiences a near transformation, giving the novel a mesmerising, glittering finish.
Barbara Newhall Follett began writing The House Without Windows when she was eight and finished it at age nine. The manuscript was destroyed in a fire and so she began re-writing it from memory. Where memory failed her, she recreated, letting her writing go off in new directions. She was only twelve years old when her novel was published in 1927.
The House Without Windows is certainly an astonishing feat, for a writer at any age. The book is suffused with a magic and wonder; the descriptions of fish, animals, plants, insects all convey an utter ecstasy of experience. The book also offers psychological lessons. Eepersip eschews identity – there are sections where she doesn't even like to be called by her name – in favour of merging with the natural world. To achieve happiness and oneness with all things, the ego must be erased. By the novel's end, Eepersip, as a solid personality, with name, family history and place in society, has almost disappeared, replaced with a humming presence, a oneness with the world.
A book of mind boggling originality from a preternaturally gifted writer.
The House Without Windows, by Barbara Newhall-Follett. Hamish Hamilton $22.99
Staff review by Chris Saliba
Adventure – and some danger – looms for young Stuart Horten when he finds a box of old coins that hold the clue to his great-uncle Tony's mysterious disappearance.
Ten-year-old Stuart Horten has his fair share of troubles. His family has recently moved to the town of Beeton due to his mother's work. It's hard making new friends, especially when you're anxious about your height. Stuart is short, and he fears he's inherited the short genes in his family. His name doesn't help matters: S.Horten, or Shorty Shorten as he was teased at his old school.
Stuart's father grew up in Beeton and the Hortens have quite a bit of history in the town. Things start to get interesting when Stuart learns that his great-uncle, known by his stage name as Teeny-Tiny Tony Horten, was a famous magician who mysteriously went missing. Stuart also learns that the Horten family ran a factory, Horten's Miraculous Mechanisms, which was integral to developing some of Uncle Tony's greatest illusions. When Stuart discovers some old coins, they lead him on an adventure to find out what exactly happened to Uncle Tony.
Lissa Evans' first novel for children, Small Change for Stuart, (now re-printed) is a brilliantly constructed adventure story with plenty of magic, wonder and just a touch of nostalgia. Looking back to the 1940s, it's a time when technology was clunky yet magical nonetheless. Stuart must use his outdated coins, found in an old box belonging to Uncle Tony, to activate a series of coin operated machines - a toffee dispenser, a weighing machine etc. - which give him clues to find Uncle Tony's magic workshop and find out what happened to him. Comic relief comes in the form of the Kingsley triplets – April, May and June – who live next door and run their own newspaper. The girls are delightfully bossy and April, who has a real bent for sleuthing, ends up performing some heroic duties. There is also some danger in the form of the ruthless Jeannie (with her hopeless flunky Clifford in tow), who wants Uncle Tony's workshop for herself.
This is classic family holiday reading, the kind of adventure you want to keep coming back to.
Small Change for Stuart, by Lissa Evans. Published by David Fickling. $16.99
Book review by Chris Saliba
North Melbourne Books