First person plural…

The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides

virgin suicidesTwo things prompted me to promote this novel, which had been in my bedside TBR bookcase for ages, to the top of the pile.

Firstly, although not written for teens, I cited it in the post I wrote trying to comprehend the current vogue for suicide-lit in teen novels (see here).

Secondly, after reading reviews of Weightless by Sarah Bannan by Victoria at Shiny and Harriet on her blog. (I desperately want to read this book now!) Weightless is not about teen suicide, although it does appear quite dark – but it is written in that rarest of styles – the “first person plural” – as is The Virgin Suicides

This novel was Eugenides’ 1993 debut – a very daring one at that.  Fancy publishing as your first novel a story about a family of five unconventional teenaged sisters who commit suicide and told from the collective point of view of the group of teenaged boys who had worshipped them wanted to get into their pants!  It hits you right from the start:

On the morning the last Lisbon daughter took her turn at suicide – it was Mary this time, and sleeping pills, like Therese – the two paramedics arrived at the house knowing exactly where the knife drawer was, and the gas oven, and the beam in the basement from which it was possible to tie a rope. They got out of the EMS truck, as usual moving much too slowly in our opinion, and the fat one said under his breath, ‘This ain’t TV, folks, this is how hast we go.’  He was carrying the heavy respirator and cardiac unit past the bushes that had grown monstrous and over the erupting lawn, tame and immaculate thirteen months earlier when the trouble began.

We’re then told of Cecilia’s first attempt at suicide, slitting her wrists in the bath. Cecilia, at thirteen the youngest of the Lisbon girls, survived this. She gets patched up in hospital:

“What are you doing here, honey? You’re not even old enough to know how bad life gets.”
And it was then Cecilia gave orally what was to be her only form of suicide note, and a useless one at that, because she was going to live: “Obviously, Doctor,” she said, “you’ve never been a thirteen-year-old girl.”

The Lisbons’ five daughters were born a year apart. Somehow I couldn’t help but mentally compare the family to the Bennets in Pride & Prejudice!  The girls are very close-knit, and Lux (14) is definitely a Lydia-type. Mr Lisbon is a maths teacher at the local high school, perplexed by his five daughters, so not unlike Mr Bennet in that regard. Mrs Lisbon is the antithesis of the flighty and voluble Mrs Bennet though – she is steely, closed and authoritarian, a strict Catholic – and to be honest we never find out much more about her. Mr Lisbon is a maths teacher at the local high school, and seems to be liked well-enough there, but is totally under the thumb at home. But enough of the Austen comparison!

The Lisbon family kept themselves to themselves. The girls weren’t allowed out on their own, and weren’t generally allowed to have guests home either. No wonder the girls are the subject of speculation and a challenge to the local teenaged male population. A while after Cecilia returns home from hospital, Mr Lisbon persuades his wife to let the girls have a chaperoned party at home – the first and only one they’ll have. Their friends and neighbours join the girls in the basement and things are getting going when Cecilia, wearing a cut-down vintage wedding dress, quietly asks to go upstairs – and defenestrates herself, impaling her body on the railings.

This is the beginning of the end really, although it will take a year before the other girls follow suit. The family is never the same, Mrs Lisbon is even more closed in, Mr Lisbon becomes an emotional wreck, their house starts to get shabbier and shabbier. The girls close ranks too whether by choice or confinement. Only Lux has a wild, feral air about her – sneaking out at night to have assignations with countless partners on the roof. Then the anniversary of Cecilia’s death approaches… naturally I can’t tell you more about what happens.

All the while the boys watch and talk about the Lisbon girls. They collect anything to do with the girls, from the news articles after Cecilia’s and later the others’ deaths, to Lux’s discarded album sleeves, to copies of medical reports later smuggled out for them. These items form a catalogue –  ‘The Record of Physical Evidence’ as they try to come to terms with and understand the events of that tragic thirteen months. Everyone has their own theory about why they did it, but will they ever really know?

VirginSuicidesPosterThere is a dreamlike quality to this novel, contrasting sharply with the events within. I remember that feeling came across very well in Sofia Coppola’s feature-film debut – she wrote and directed. Kirsten Dunst (having turned down American Beauty) was troubled teen Lux, with James Woods and Kathleen Turner as Mr and Mrs Lisbon. I must watch it again, I remember it as rather good.

I read Eugenides’ epic second novel Middlesex pre-blog – I remember finding it rather drawn out (in the same way as Donna Tartt to me). The Virgin Suicides is much shorter, coming in at just under 250 pages. If you think that makes for a fast-paced read though, think again. Although it’s not long, the months between the bookending events are explored in much detail. This does make for a slightly flabby middle – as  the boys recount the events in hindsight, collect their evidence and present it to us through their team leader narrator. We never get to know which one of them narrates and we never get to know how long after the events they’re actually telling the story. If you’re looking for answers and resolution, this isn’t a novel to give them to you – in fact it’ll leave you with more questions.

The Virgin Suicides certainly marked the emergence of a great new American writing talent though, and I enjoyed it very much. (8.5/10)

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below (affiliate link):
The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides, 4th Estate paperback, 260 pages.
The Virgin Suicides [DVD] [2000] dir Sofia Coppola.

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It’s World Book Night tonight …

world book night 2015

It’s World Book Night in the UK tonight – an evening when passionate booklovers all over the country thrust copies of books they love into stranger’s hands to promote our shared love of reading.

I applied to be a giver once again, having done it twice before. I gave out copies of The Spy Who Came In From the Cold by John Le Carré on the first WBN in 2010, and then Rivers of London by Ben Aaronovitch last year (links are to my reviews).

spring-tideThis year I will – eventually – be giving out copies of the marvellous Scandinavian crime novel Spring Tide by Cilla and Rolf Börjlind – which I recently reviewed here.

I say eventually because, for whatever reason, the email from the WBN people telling me the books were at my pick-up point didn’t happen. So I made the trip down to my local library after lunch today, only to find that Thursday is early closing. I’ll be giving them out as planned next week instead then …

If you’re a giver, I hope you’ve managed to get hold of your books and have a great time distributing them. I know that many bookshops will be hosting WBN parties and there’s a big do in London. If any of you are the recipient of one of the special WBN editions of the 20 books chosen, I hope you enjoy reading it.

Happy World Book Night!

An Economic Allegory?

The Boy Who Stole Attila’s Horse by Iván Repila

ivan repila

At 110 pages, this short novel in the Pushkin Press Collection is easily read in one session. Once grabbed by this powerful story I wasn’t going to put the book down until I’d finished it.

It concerns two brothers, who are only known as Big and Small appropriately to their comparative sizes. They are trapped at the bottom of a well which, like a mould for an iceberg, is wider under the surface the further it goes down. Their attempts to climb out fail; Big tries to throw Small up and over, this doesn’t work either. No-one hears their cries, despite the well being not far from the path. Will they ever get out, or will they die down there?

The days go on, they survive on worms, maggots and the earthy water from the sludge, portioned as per their size. Big keeps up his exercise regime. Small gets thin, sickly, and feverish but does recover a little. Big admonishes him for not eating.

‘You should eat even if you aren’t hungry.’
‘I’ll eat whem I’m hungry. I’ll drink when I’m thirsty. I’ll shit when I feel like shitting. Like dogs do.’
‘We aren’t dogs.’
‘In here we are. Worse than dogs.’

Later:

‘I think I’ve got rabies,’ he says.
‘No. You don’t have rabies yet.’
Small looks at him lovelessly, and asks:
‘Then what is this anger I can feel inside?’
‘You’re becoming a man,’ says Big.

The days go by and Small starts raving, making up tales including one that he was ‘the boy who stole Attila’s horse’. Big keeps up his regime. It gets harder and harder to find food, and all the time they have had a carrier of bread and cheese they were bringing back for their mother by their side – now beyond eating. The days carry on, Small gets ever-weaker. Big does his best to keep him alive…

This story is so Grimm – it is really a modern fairy tale. The boys’ struggle is told unsparingly in its detail in Sophie Hughes’ translation from the Spanish, from the taste of maggots to their physical state, yet it is not until near the end that we find out what happened. The brothers’ love for each other shines through, although there are some truly dark moments. On this level it is a compelling and touching tale with some flashes of humour just when you thought it was getting too black.

Where I had problems with it though was as an economic allegory of the state of Europe – that’ll teach me to read the publisher’s blurb just before I start a novel!  Indeed the whole book is prefaced with a rather nasty epigraph from Margaret Thatcher (and another by Bertold Brecht). It wasn’t until I read John Self’s excellent review at Asylum that I was able to formulate my thoughts in this regard: The hole or void is pyramid shaped – the boys are at the bottom where they are literal and metaphorical have nots. It would take a miracle for them to reach the surface where they’d join the haves – but how do you climb out of a void?  That’s my take, but I’m not sure I’d have got the economic allegory, even noting the quote from Thatch, if I hadn’t been pre-warned.

This strange little fable was definitely well worth reading for the writing is fine indeed. It’s Repila’s second novel; the first to be translated into English – it’ll be interesting to see what comes next. (7.5/10)

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Source: Publisher – thank you. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below (Affiliate link):
The Boy Who Stole Attila’s Horse (Pushkin Collection)by Iván Repila, 2013 trans Sophie Hughes 2015. Pushkin Press, paperback original, 110 pages.

Woolly Jumpers…

Breaking the Code by Gyles Brandreth

brandreth breaking codeI read this book just pre-blog back in summer 2008. Brandreth’s political diaries from 1990-1997 – the time that he was an MP (Tory, for Chester) were fascinating reading. They recount, with his customary wit, all the goings on in and out of the chamber, committee rooms and the Whips’ office. He was one of William Haig’s speech-writing buddies.

I enjoyed reading his diaries very much but have no desire to re-read them, so this book is going in the garage sale/charity shop box.  But – before it finds another home, I wanted to share the most hilarious paragraph in it – I bookmarked it all those years ago. You need a small bit of background to put it into context…

Before becoming an MP, Brandreth was particularly noted for being one of the regular resident wits/brains in Dictionary Corner in the teatime C4 TV show Countdown. In these appearances, he usually wore novelty jumpers – and people used to send them in for him. The extract below is from 1993 during the time that the Maastricht Treaty to create the European Union from the EEC would come into force later that year, the Railways Act would later enable Major to privatise parts of British Rail …

Tuesday, 20th April

The Maastricht nightmare drags on – we finished at 1.13 a.m. yesterday. The Railways Bill drags on – Roger Freeman is a joy to watch, but I’ve falled between two stools. You can either (like Sproat) ignore the whole thing, site in a far corner of the committee room, reading correspondence, signing letters, or (like Stephen [Milligan]) you can get stuck in and follow the Bill line by line. I’ve been following it, but not with sufficient attention to detail to make either a worthwhile contribution or any impact. (My only ‘moment’ was when Prescott started muttering ‘Woolly jumper! Woolly jumper!’ while I was speaking. I came up with a reasonable riposte: ‘The advantages of a woolly jumper is that you can take it off at will. The disadvantage of a woolly mind is that you are lumbered with it for life’)

Photos of Brandreth wearing the ‘woolly jumpers’ are not so prevalent these days – but I did find this one – from the 1000th programme of Countdown with L-R Brandreth, Carol Vorderman, Richard Whiteley, Richard Stilgoe (another regular trying to outdo Brandreth in the jumper stakes here!)

Countdown

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, (affiliate link), please click below:

Breaking The Code: Westminster Diaries by Gyles Brandreth – new edition hardback 2014.
Breaking The Code: The Brandreth Diaries: Westminster Diaries, 1992-97 Phoenix paperback 2000 – with Gerald Scarfe cover above – S/h copies available.

Scandi-crime time…

Spring Tide by Cilla & Rolf Börjlind

spring-tideOn Thursday 23rd April, it is World Book Night. Once again, I applied to be a ‘giver’. I picked a book from the list, and wrote my case for being awarded a batch of copies to give out. I was delighted to be accepted and even more pleased to get my first choice of book – Spring Tide – the first in a Scandi-crime series by the husband and wife scriptwriting team behind some of Swedish TV’s biggest hits (including adaptations of Martin Beck, Arne Dahl and Wallander).

I had the immense pleasure of meeting Cilla & Rolf Börjlind last summer at an event hosted by their UK publisher Hesperus, and somehow I didn’t get round to writing about it at the time. Cilla & Rolf were absolutely charming and despite my not having watched much of their TV work, they chatted about how they work together – if I remember correctly, they alternate chapters writing and editing, but also one of them will take the lead on a particular character.

Spring Tide is their first novel together and a second featuring the same team, Third Voice, was published last month and is waiting its turn to be read on my bedside table.

Needless to say, given the Börjlinds’ pedigree, Spring Tide arrives fully formed with a fascinating plot full of twists and turns and a pair of investigators that are totally original. But before we get to them, the novel begins back in 1987 with the spectacularly gruesome murder of a pregnant woman, who is buried up to her neck on a beach on the night of the spring tide – she essentially drowns. It’s witnessed by a boy hiding behind the rocks up the beach. It’s a bold start!

We then return to the present and meet Olivia Rönning. Olivia is a police student in Stockholm; her supervisor gives them all a project – to examine a cold case and report back. Olivia chooses the beach-murder – a case her late father had been in charge of; her supervisor isn’t surprised at her choice. It’s hard to get anywhere on the case though, as most of those involved are gone, dead or disappeared. If only Olivia could find Tom Stilton, her father’s colleague, a policeman who dropped out.Meanwhile, there has been spate of attacks on homeless people in Stockholm. The attacks are filmed and posted online. In the latest, they go too far and their victim, known as One-eyed Vera, dies. Her friend Jelle, a homeless man, vows to uncover her killers. Is there a link with Olivia’s case? Olivia, as you might expect, gets totally emotionally involved in the case and begins to investigate it, at great personal risk and we are taken on a roller-coaster ride through the less acceptable sides of Swedish life – from high-class prostitution and corrupt businessmen to the fate of the homeless.

There are certainly echoes of the Martin Beck books by Maj Sjöwall & Per Wahlöö (my review of the first, Roseanna, here). The Martin Beck books are famed for their emphasis on justice and exposing the bourgeois underbelly of Swedish society. However, whereas Sjöwall & Wahlöö get their cases solved by dogged detective work the Börjlinds, with Olivia and Stilton (once she finds him) being outside the formal police system, are not bound by procedure and consequently the action moves at a greater speed and in a more exciting way, although being over 450 pages long. Rönning and Stilton make a fascinating coupling as an investigating team. Both are damaged in their own ways but are totally different to the usual maverick cops – very refreshing indeed.

Spring Tide was translated by Rod Bradbury who is well-known for translating the best-selling  The 100 year old man… and there was no jarring – I was hooked on this novel from the outset with the result that Spring Tide is probably the best Scandicrime novel I’ve read. I’m looking forward to reading the next in the series, and I can hand out my copies on World Book Night knowing that I loved reading it. (10/10)

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Source: Publisher – Thank you! To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below (affiliate link):
Spring Tide by Cilla & Rolf Börjlind. Hesperus, 2014. Paperback, 476 pages.
Third Voice (Ronning & Stilton 2) – Hesperus, March 2015. Paperback, 464 pages.

‘Get Lost – Get Found’

Paper Towns by John Green

PAPER-TOWNS-POSTER-570I still haven’t read John Green’s best-selling The Fault in Our Stars – but I did see the film. I enjoyed it and predictably, I cried. My daughter lapped up book and film, and is forever quoting ‘it’s a metaphor’ at me; she surely wants to go to Amsterdam and sit on that bench. (We will do that someday, OK?) Anyway, Green’s previous novels are now getting the big screen treatment, with films of his 2008 novel Paper Towns coming out this summer and Looking for Alaska in 2016. I decided to get ahead of the game this year, and appropriated Paper Towns from my daughter’s TBR pile…

paper townsPaper Towns is set in a suburb of Orlando, Florida – it’s not just a holiday destination, people do live there and the action takes place during the last couple of weeks of High School following a group of friends who will be graduating and going off to college in the autumn.  It begins:

The way I figure it, everyone gets a miracle. Like, I will probably never be struck by lightning, or win a Nobel Prize, or become the dictator of a small nation in the Pacific Islands, or contract terminal ear cancer, or spontaneously combust. But if you consider all the unlikely things together, a least one of them will probably happen to each of us. I could have seen it rain frogs. I could have stepped foot on Mars. I could have been eaten by a whale. I could have married the queen of England or survived months at sea. But my miracly was different. My miracle was this: out of all the houses in all the subdivisions of Florida, I ended up living next door to Margo Roth Spiegelman.

Our narrator is Quentin, he has known Margo since they were kids. Despite moving in different circles, they have a shared experience that will link them forever – as children they found a dead body in a park together!

Q, as he is mostly known, tells us this in the prologue. Q is best friends with the oversexed Ben and geeky Radar. The prom looms and the key thing in most of the students’ minds is getting a date. Relationships between the graduating students are being redrawn daily it seems. Q doesn’t have a girlfriend, and seems resigned to not going.

Then one night, at midnight, Margo appears at his window and tells Q that he needs to get the keys to his mum’s car and that they are going out. He can’t refuse… they sneak out and Q is driving following Margo’s directions:

“I love driving under streetlights.”
“Light,” I said, “the visible reminder of Invisible Light.”
“That’s beautiful,” she said.
“T.S.Eliot,” I said. “You read it, too. In English last year.” I hadn’t actually ever read the whole poem that line was from, but a couple of the parts I did read got stuck in my head.
“Oh, it’s a quote,” she said, a little disappointed. …

I’m glad Green signposts the quotes, for I wouldn’t have recognised it (further research leads me to a chorus in The Rock – a pageant play with words by T.S.Eliot, published 1934).

Anyway, Margo and Q spend the night playing pranks on all those who have slighted Margo, putting fish in places where they’ll stink, shaving off a bully’s eyebrow as he snores – that kind of thing. It’s slightly dangerous and a real thrill for Q and even when they get caught later, trying to sneak into Seaworld, Margo can talk her way out. Q is besotted with Margo, and hopes that it will lead to something.

The next day Margo doesn’t turn up at school. She’s run away – something she’s done many times before. She always leaves a convoluted trail of cryptic clues, but as she has just turned 18, her parents are at the end of their tether, her little sister needs them. So it’s up to Q, with his friends to decipher her plans and find Margo before graduation – they only have a few days. Quentin begins the tortuous procedure of deciphering the clues. He has an increasing worry that she’s done something more ‘final’? Will they find her in time?

I must admit that I’m rather glad that the American High School culture of ‘Prom’ wasn’t around when I was at school, the pressure they all put themselves under – to get a date, to lose their virginity, to conform – I always end up thinking of Carrie!  There will always be those who get left out, and also those who choose not to participate – like Q and Margo respectively. Quentin is a lovely young lad, and I felt confident that he would blossom at college later. Margo though, the girl of mystery, wild-child, with an independent streak a mile-wide, really just wants to be loved. Why else would she always leave clues?

It’s on their night out before she runs away that Margo talks about ‘paper towns’ first – likening Orlando’s bland expanse of white roofs viewed from a high-rise to a sheet of paper you could fold up into a plane and throw away.  That’s a nice metaphor, but the reality of the ‘paper towns’ is fascinating. The term refers to copyright traps – ficticious towns placed on maps, so publishers know if their map has been plagiarised. This concept will be very important in finding Margo.

I am so behind on John Green, the phenomenon, that I didn’t know about his Youtube channel – the vlogbrothers in which he and his brother Hank talk about all sorts of things – and style themselves as ‘nerdfighters’. I’ve watched a few of the videos and it’s lovely to see these men in their 30s championing nerds and nerdish pursuits, talking at nineteen to the dozen like overgrown teenagers, offering good advice and having fun. I’ve subscribed!

One thing is clear – John Green reads a lot – and he has a mission to sneak as many literature references as he can into his books. Apart from the Eliot quote above, we get Moby Dick and Emily Dickinson in Paper Towns, and I’m sure I’ve missed many others. The Fault in Our Stars, of course, is itself a mashed up quote from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar – ‘The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves.’  This referencing to literature in American High School novels is not just limited to Green though – Meg Wolitzer’s recent novel Belzhar (my review here) is entirely based on The Bell Jar by Plath and there are others which I can’t recall at the moment. I don’t recall British YA novels mentioning A-level set texts in the same way though!

I can see why John Green has become so popular though. His text is literally full of great one-liners – both comic and serious, that are just crying out to be put on a T-shirt, or made into a poster. If you google John Green quotes and look at the images, you’ll see thousands and thousands of fans’ artworks featuring his words. One thing I did pick up on from Paper Towns though, is that he is a big fan of using the word ‘metaphor’ – but if I hadn’t know about the ‘It’s a metaphor’ quote from The Fault in Our Stars, it may not have stuck out quite so much…  This was a really enjoyable novel, and I really want to explore his others now.  (8/10)

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Source: Own Copy. To explore further on Amazon (affiliate link) please click below:
Paper Towns by John Green, Bloomsbury childrens books paperback, 320 pages.

Shiny New Books is 1 today!

SNB logo tinyIt was a year ago today that my dear friends Victoria, Harriet and Simon and I dipped our toes into the waters of publishing an online book review magazine.
Four issues, three inbetweenies and over 500 pages of content later – we’ve reached issue five of Shiny New Books and can almost call ourselves established! It’s been a fun year and the four of us work together well – Thank you all.

SNB logo tiny Our main aim was to find great books to recommend and to match these tomes with the best book-bloggers to write about them, and to accompany the reviews with a wide range of supporting material. Our list of contributors has grown with us to encompass new friends from all over the place and the scope of the titles we include has broadened too, although quality fiction remains the backbone of the mag.

SNB logo tinyI’d like to thank everyone who has written for us so far – you are all amazing, but especially our regulars and our new behind the scenes helper Bookgazing!  Also thank you to all the publishers who have sent books far and wide to our reviewers. 

SNB logo tinyNow we are a bit wiser about what works and what doesn’t, we hope to continue making our quarterly main editions of Shiny New Books better and better. Our inbetweenie issues are being re-christened ‘Extra Shiny’ and the next one will be on May 12th.  I’m putting that date out now because one of our new features is the Shiny Book Club. We’ve announced the book chosen today, and we’ll congregate to discuss from that date in our ‘Extra Shiny’.

SNB logo tinyOther plans?  Well it would be nice to make the magazine pay for itself – although it doesn’t cost a fortune to run, there are costs which we’ve paid for.  We could offer affiliate links to certain online stores, but are a bit wary of that undermining our independence.  We could offer space for advertisements on the sidebars, but that might clutter up our look! Any suggestions are welcome.

SNB logo tinyAlso, we’re always searching for new reviewers – email us at info@shinynewbooks.co.uk  In particular, we’d like to feature a few more SFF titles and we’ve not reviewed poetry properly yet, so if either of those genres are your thing, get in touch, or just get in touch anyway.

SNB logo tinyI’ll be highlighting my own reviews at Shiny (9 + 2 BookBuzz features!) over the next couple of weeks, but don’t let that stop you from popping over for a look – do sign-up for the newsletter and we welcome comments – just in case you’ve forgotten, you need to click HERE.

 

Happy Birthday Shiny.

Here’s to Issue 5 and beyond!

 

 

 

Keywords: Thriller, Vatican, Relics!

The Fifth Gospel by Ian Caldwell

fifth gospel

No! This isn’t a lost thriller by Dan Brown! Far from it (although at times I wish it had had a bit of Brown’s rip-roaring pace). The Fifth Gospel comes from the co-author of a best-selling religious thriller of ten years ago – The Rule of Four, and has taken author Ian Caldwell that ten years in the writing.

The Fifth Gospel is set in the Vatican City during the twilight of the pontificate of John Paul II, who has a starring cameo to play in the closing stages of the novel. An historical note, without which I’d have been completely lost, sets the scene for the relationship between the original Green and Roman branches of Christianity who split around 1000 yrs ago (the Great Schism of 1054 I learned later) becoming Orthodox and Catholic churches. This division was further reinforced by the Crusades in 1204.  Importantly though, one group, known as Eastern Catholics decided to sit in the middle following Eastern traditions but obeying the Pope. John Paul II wished to reunite the two churches.

So we have a pair of brothers, both priests – Simon and Andreou, who come from an Eastern Catholic family, but Simon had converted to become a full Catholic and has risen up the Vatican ladder. Andrew has remained a ‘Greek’ and thus was married, and has a young son, Peter. I didn’t know that there are types of Catholicism where celibacy is not compulsory. Ironically, Andreou’s wife Mona has left him!

To cut a long story short, the Vatican Museum is to mount an exhibit which is being curated by Ugolino Nogara. Its absolutely top secret and there is not long to go before the exhibit’s opening. When Andrew gets a call from his brother who is in trouble, he leaps in the car to Castel Gandolfo, the Pope’s summer residence half an hour’s drive from Rome, to rescue him. Upon arrival he finds Simon and the body of Ugo.

Both brothers had been working, unknown to each other, on different aspects of Ugo’s project. Simon travelling in Eastern Europe and the Balkans, Andreou helping Ugo to understand the differences between the New Testament Gospels – how the Synoptic Gospels: Matthew, Mark and Luke are more factual and sometimes copy each other, while John is more theological and philosophical in its intent – changing some of the details to fit. Before this novel is over, we will become quite familiar with many of the differences and similarities in the four gospels – particularly in relation to the crucifixion – because… you’d guessed it – that old fake relic the Turin Shroud is to be one of the key features in this exhibit.

Shroud_of_Turin_001

The Turin Shroud (detail, plus negative image) Wikimedia Commons

As Ugo said:

“Yet even now,” Nogara continued, “when we exhibit the Shroud, it attracts millions of pilgrims. At a recent exhibition it drew two millions people in eight weeks. Eight weeks. All to see a relic that has allegedly been disproved. Put that in perspective: the Shroud draws five times as many visitors as the most popular museum exhibit in the world. So imagine how many will come once I prove that the radiocarbon dating of the Turin Shroud was wrong.”

Did Ugo find new evidence about the shroud? Was he killed for it?

Simon is arrested for his murder, and refuses to say anything. Andreou is thrown into turmoil – he suspects that Ugo had discovered something in the Diatesseron, the ‘Fifth Gospel’ their copy of which has gone missing. The Diatesseron was (really) created by an Assyrian Christian called Tatian around 160AD – in it, he attempted to pull together all the four gospels into one single narrative, reordering, getting rid of duplication, adding bridging passages etc.

The next bombshell to hit Father Andreou is that his home is broken into, he gets sent ‘we know who you are’ type threats etc – and from that point on, he moves himself and his son around a variety of ‘safe’ locations within the Vatican’s walls. Cue next bombshell: Simon is to be tried, starting tomorrow, under Canonical Law. The ultimate punishment being to be stripped of his priesthood and have his Vatican passport taken away. We are thrown into an extremely complicated trial, full of twists and turns, discoveries, betrayals, and more before it is time for the exhibit to open, and we discover the full extent of what happened!

Somewhere inside this sprawling novel which runs to 427 pages, was a good thriller trying to get out. However, due to it being based upon real artefacts and the intricacies of Canonical Law in the Vatican, both of which need a lot of explanation, the thiller had to play second-fiddle to the artefacts and theological discussion. Indeed, by the end I was more interested in whether this book considered the Turin Shroud to be real or fake than in Ugo’s murder (something they are still disagreeing about!). I also got rather fed up with Andreou the devoted father, passing his son around all his friends while he wrestled with the trial and the facts – this aspect of emphasising the differences between the Eastern and Western Catholics was quite heavy-handed (although I agree that relaxing the celibacy restrictions would be a good thing).

So as a murder mystery, this book doesn’t quite pass muster; as a theological mystery it was rather more exciting. I learned masses (pun!), and cross-checking some of the facts against Wikipedia for this review, could appreciate the amount of research that went into this book. As a non-believer, for a book to get me reading up about the last days of Jesus and his crucifixion, at Easter-time, must mean something.  (6.5/10)

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Source: Publisher – Thank you.
To explore further on Amazon UK, (affiliate link), please click below:

The Fifth Gospel by Ian Caldwell. Published March 2015 by Simon & Schuster. Hardback 448 pages.

More fool me? …

tbr-dare-2014It’s April 1 – and the end of the TBR dare, so time for an update.

If you consider only the books I’ve reviewed for this blog, I only cheated fully once and partially twice!

The full cheat was the pair of Quick Reads titles I squeezed in on convenient train journeys.
The partial cheats were: The Helios Disaster by Linda Bostrum Knausgard – which I had originally planned to review for Shiny New Books, but found too weird and my thoughts too bitty to write a coherent full-length piece for Shiny, and Lurid & Cute by Adam Thirlwell – another Shiny read which I disliked so much I couldn’t finish it!

Including those above, I have read 34 books so far this year, of which 16 were on my TBR before Jan 1st and 14 are Shiny Reviews for issues 4 in January and issue 5 coming next week and were excluded from the TBR Dare accordingly.  I hope that James, TBR Dare host, will forgive me for my partial participation this year. As ever, my intentions were good – but I am fooling myself if I didn’t realise I had so many reviews to read/write for Shiny!

Needless to say, I have read some cracking books for Issue 5 of Shiny including several wonderful debuts, a couple of non-fiction titles, a much-loved re-read and that new novel by ‘Ish’…

Back to normal soon.