No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Friday, September 28, 2007

#57: Special Topics in Calamity Physics -- Marsha Pessl

On Friday, March 26, with the same innocence of the Trojans as they gathered around the strange wooden horse standing at the gate to their city ... Hannah drove our yellow Rent-Me truck into the dirt lot of Sunset Views Encampment and parked in Space 52. The lot was empty, with the exception of a swayback blue Pontiac parked in front of the cabin (a wooden sign slapped crookedly over the door like a Band-Aid: MAIN) and a rusty towable trailer ("Lonesome Dreams") chucked under an evangelist oak. (It was in the midst of some violent enlightenment, branches stretched heavenwards as if to grab hold of His feet.) A white sky ironed, starched, folded itself primly behind the rolling mountains. Garbage floated across the lot, cryptic messages in bottles. Sometime in the last week or so, it had sleeted cigarette butts.
I had to buy this as soon as I saw the title, and I'm pleased to report it was a damned fine read.

Blue van Meer is a precocious and over-educated American teenager, reared peripatetically -- 36 schools between five and sixteen, I think it was -- by her brilliant left-wing father after her mother's death when Blue was five. This odd upbringing has produced a girl who provides a reference for practically every metaphor, weird statistic or astute observation that she comes out with. I'm still trying to decide if it's irritating or reassuring.

Because I like Blue. She reads far too much (each chapter bears the title of a Great Work of Literature, from Othello to Che Guevara Talks to Young People). She's a geek, or possibly a nerd: top of the class in every school she's attended, remarkably mature for her age and possessing a confidence that does a great deal to conceal a lack of social skills. Or perhaps she just falls in with the wrong crowd - the Bluebloods -- when she starts her senior year at St Gallways, in Stockton, North Carolina.

Right from the start it's clear that this is a murder mystery, that Hannah was murdered and that Blue was the one who found her. The novel is about how Hannah dies, but not only about that: it's about lies and secrets and the past, about people who disappear and people who create new identities, about things that aren't at all what they seem (I can't count the layers of deception) ... about Blue's transformation, at the hands of Jade Vine, from plain Jane -- oh, did I mention the visual aids? drawings by the author, presented as photos, throughout -- to all-American teen ... about, really about, Blue's claustrophobic love-hate relationship with her father, Gareth van Meer.

I don't think I can do justice to the convolutions of plot, and I don't think I should try. The writing, the prose, was what dazzled me (in good and bad ways). Sheer pyrotechnic writing, wordplay and sly humour (I'd say more than half of the references are sheer fabrication), acerbic observation (Blue is especially dry on the vagaries of the June Bugs, her father's serial girlfriends, each ditched before things can get too serious), Milnean Capitals, and some gorgeous metaphors -- hair ivying across a chair, sauteed kitchen air.

All of which makes me wonder if the novel is structured around the two points when Blue is lost for words. The first time, she leaves a word-length space in the sentence, a space to stand for an indefinable personal quality: the second time, at the end, she acknowledges the lack of a word and moves on.

Special Topics in Calamity Physics is a novel that I suspect could be read on several levels: murder mystery, coming-of-age novel, satire on modern American life, a cult novel with clever in-jokes and pop culture references. It's reminiscent of Donna Tartt's The Secret History, but too much has been made of the similarities: though both novels are set at school and deal with the gradual (apparent) acceptance of an outsider into a clique, presided over by a benign academic, the outsiders are quite different, as are the cliques and the acceptance and the outcome.

I recommend it to anyone with a bit of the nerd, geek, outsider in them, anyone who appreciates writing that fizzes with invention but not just for the sake of it: certainly to anyone who was ever told, as a teenager, that they read too much. (Believe me, you never read as much as Blue.) And I am very much looking forward to Pessl's next novel.

There's a heavily interactive website to which I've just lost half an hour.

#56: The Floating Egg: Episodes in the Making of Geology -- Roger Osborne

Marking this as 'read' is a bit of a cheat, because I read about half and skimmed the rest: and how I wish I'd thought to read it in the ~10 years I've owned it, instead of picking it up ready to package and send it to a BookMoocher, and finding myself entranced!

The Floating Egg is a series of pieces (not really essays: some of them are quotations from original sources, some are fictionalised vignettes, some are straightforward historical accounts and some are collections of historical minutae) concerning geology: in particular, the geology of the North Yorkshire coast around Whitby, an area which Osborne clearly knows and loves. There are chapters on alum (the 'floating egg' of the title refers to the method of extracting alum from a solution of mineral salts: a hen's egg, placed in the mixture, would float to the surface at the moment when the liquid had reached the correct density), on meteorites, on dinosaur fossils, on Captain Cook, and on theoretical geology -- the strata that are typically found adjacent to one another in the British Isles, an understanding of which helped early geologists to earn their keep by advising mining corporations.

Each chapter stands alone, though some make strange reading taken together. It's just the right sort of book to rekindle my interest in a science of which I used to have a working knowledge (almost took Geology O-level as an additional subject, but class was Saturday mornings and I couldn't get to it). It made me want to do some serious fossil-hunting again, to walk Yorkshire beaches and pick up jet and ammonites, to revisit the Natural History and Science museums and look at old bones and ancient iron.

Shall try to BookMooch a copy ...

#55: Trim: Being the True Story of a Brave Seafaring Cat -- Matthew Flinders

This good-natured purring animal was born on board His Majesty's ship the Roundabout in 1799 during a passage from the Cape of Good Hopeto Botany Bay; and saving the rights and titles of the parish of Stepney, was consequently an Indian by birth. The signs of superior intelligence which marked his infancy, procured for him an education beyond what is usually bestowed upon the individuals of his tribe; and being brought up amongst sailors, his manners acquired a peculiarity of cant which rendered them as different from those of other cats, as the actions of a fearless seaman are from those of a lounging, shame-faced ploughboy;
I bought this on spec: it's a neat little hardcover, about 50 pages long, and it was on offer in Nauticalia in Greenwich. I'm fond of ships' cats, and fascinated by the affection they often elicit from Navy and civilian sailors alike. In Trim, Flinders -- more generally known for circumnavigating Australia, a feat which he clearly couldn't have managed without Trim's help -- shows a warm and whimsical side of himself. Apparently the book was written while its author was held prisoner in Mauritius by the French. Flinders wanted to improve his prose, and his beloved cat had just disappeared (eaten, he was sure, by hungry slaves): the result is this touching little tribute.

Trim, named after a character in Tristram Shandy, was a proper seafaring cat. He was perfectly capable of swimming, and of catching hold of a rope-end, if he fell overboard. He invited himself to dine in the officers' mess, and his somewhat forward table manners (grabbing food off the fork of a lieutenant who was talking too much) were tolerated to a surprising degree. He did get a hiding for stealing meat from the larder, though. He took an interest in astronomical observations, scaled the rigging only when the order was given, and loved to chase musket balls around the deck.

Trim did not take to life on land, on one memorable occasion leaping straight through a sash window that somebody had inconsiderately left closed with him on the wrong side. Back at sea, though, he survived shipwreck and privation before his master's imprisonment: Flinders was prevailed upon to lend him to the young daughter of a French lady, but he strayed (or, given the character of the creature, escaped) and was never seen again.

Flinders is definitely writing half in jest when he lauds Trim's fine looks, bemoans his vanity, recounts his adventures &co: it's a gentle parody of the picaresque. But the affection he felt for his constant feline companion, and the clarity with which he conveys Trim's character, is timeless: it brings Flinders and Trim back to life.

There's a lovely page about Trim here, with a photo of the statue of Flinders, fine upstanding Navy chap, and his cat rubbing against his leg.
And the Maritime Museum have a delightful multimedia Trim page for children, here.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

#54: A Circle of Stones -- Shelagh MacDonald

This is a reread, but I first read the novel so long ago that I'd forgotten most of the plot. All I remembered was an English girl (Tini) on a Greek island channelling the goddess Athene, and Pethi (her Greek friend) with his cat riding on his shoulder. (I have fond memories of trying to persuade the cats at home to do this. I may also still have some scars.)

A Circle of Stones, like its sequel Five from Me, Five from You, is set on the island of Serifos, the birthplace of Perseus. McDonald's writing is clear, not condescending (I wonder if children today would find it difficult, as they apparently find Rosemary Sutcliff's writing hard work) and unaffectedly poetic: the 'swearing tremble' of a cat's growl, for instance. She balances the beauty of the island -- blue skies, white houses like sugarcubes tumbling down the hill -- with the grinding poverty that sends most of the men abroad, because there's no work.

Pethi has a secret which might make all the difference to the islanders. George, Tini's father, is an archaeologist who'd love to share that secret. And the man who owns most of the island's mines is scheming to close the mines and make his fortune another way. Vleppo (the aforementioned cat) plays a major role in thwarting those schemes. (I'd forgotten just how much violence there was in this book. I'd forgotten just what Vleppo does.)

Rooting around on the web, I find there's another children's novel, No End to Yesterday, by Shelagh MacDonald -- but it's set in the 1920s. I suppose she'd written all she wanted to write about Serifos, Pethi and Tini. I do wish there was more.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

#53: Pilgrim -- Timothy Findley

I have lived many times, Doctor Jung. Who knows, as Leda I might have been the mother of Helen -- or, as Anne, the mother of Mary. I was Orion once, who lost his sight and regained it. I was also a crippled shepherd in thrall to Saint Teresa of Avila; an Irish stable-boy and a maker of stained glass at Chartres. I stood on the ramparts of Troy and witnessed the death of Achilles. I saw the first performance of Hamlet and the last performance of Moliere, the actor. I was a friend to Oscar Wilde and an enemy to Leonardo... I am both male and female, I am ageless and I have no access to death.

Pilgrim (he admits to no first name) is introduced to us in such a way that we expect the entire novel to be told in retrospect: we meet him as he walks out at 4am one spring morning in 1912 to hang himself in the garden of his Cheyne Walk home.

Pilgrim, though, can't die. After hours dead his heart begins to beat again: and his dear friend Lady Sybil Quatermaine accompanies him to Switzerland, to the Burgholzli Psychiatric Clinic in Zurich, where he is given into the care of one Herr Doktor Carl Gustav Jung.

Henceforth Pilgrim is as much Jung's tale as Pilgrim's own -- more, perhaps, since for quite a while Pilgrim refuses to speak at all. Luckily, Sybil has entrusted his journals to Jung, and Jung's wife Emma reads them: at first with disbelief and later with a growing fascination. For Pilgrim writes of other lives he's lived, of other times: of the time when he was Elisabetta Gherardini, gazing upon the painter Leonardo with a deadly hatred; when he was Manolo, a crippled Spanish shepherd-boy, and begged a young Catholic woman named Teresa for a miracle she could not bestow; when he was Simon le Jeune and signed his name in the great glass window at Chartres Cathedral; of walking the walls of Troy, shaded by a parasol, watching heroes fight ...

Of course, these may all be fantasies. The nature of Pilgrim's condition is never made clear, and -- aside from his undoubted resistance to death -- there's no objective evidence to support his claims. There is a birthmark (or is it a tattoo?) in the shape of a butterfly -- Psyche's symbol -- that appears to accompany him through all these lives. There's his assertion that although he dies and is reborn, he never knows what it is to be a child.

He is, if nothing else, a man who inspires great loyalty: from Kessler, a man with madness in his own past, who tends him in the Clinic; from his manservant Forster, who affects disguise and engages in espionage to 'rescue' his master; from Lady Sybil, who may be a spiritual messenger or simply a Victorian aristocrat with a penchant for the supernatural; from Emma, who weeps over his journals and rejoices when it seems he's free. Doves and pigeons are drawn to him. Photographed in the snow, a butterfly appears in the picture.

Towards the end of the novel, Pilgrim becomes decidedly more active: he has an agenda, and he wants the world to listen, for some of his dreams are of a future filled with blood and war.

I read Pilgrim feeling that there were layers of the story that entirely eluded me. Perhaps this is a tale of madness, of Pilgrim as just another patient at the clinic -- where the Countess Blavinskeya believes herself to be an inhabitant of the Moon, where a woman plays piano with Robert Schumann's hands, where a man writes on every surface with an invisible pen, and another believes himself to be a dog. (Picturesque madnesses. Upper-class madnesses.) Or perhaps it's a tale about art and the power of art, from Leonardo's light-and-shadow to the glorious colours at Chartres ...

Or perhaps it's a tale of the case that Jung could not solve, that shaped his interests in mysticism, synchronicity, the collective unconscious. Perhaps Pilgrim is that collective unconscious embodied.

Perhaps.

#52: The Navigator of New York -- Wayne Johnston

The eponymous Navigator -- from the old word for 'explorer', though this novel's set in the first years of the twentieth century -- is Devlin Stead, a young man from Newfoundland. Devlin, after receiving a series of letters to which it's impossible to respond, travels to New York to confront the letters' author, Dr Frederick Cook.

Connoisseurs of Arctic history will be familiar with Cook's name and his history: his claim to be the first man to reach the North Pole, and the first to scale Mount McKinley in Alaska. The first claim was challenged by Robert Peary, whom history recognises as first to the Pole; the second was proven fake by Cook's travelling companion, who testified that they had not ascended the mountain. Debate still rages.

And debate rages within these pages too: Peary and Cook's feud, post-Pole, occupies a significant portion of the novel, with Devlin fiercely loyal to Cook. Cook, after all, knew his father, Francis Stead, and was on the expedition on which he died. Cook, it turns out, also knew Devlin's mother. And Cook is a man who can keep a secret: indeed he relinquishes them only reluctantly, and even the last few pages of the novel contain unexpected revelations -- unexpected to Devlin, at least, though I was beginning to suspect that there might be a little more to Cook's version of events than he'd yet disclosed.

Though the focus, for the main part, is on the relationship between Devlin and Cook, the scenery is stunning. The sense of New York -- Manhattan -- springing up almost overnight, the sheer energy of this new city (when Devlin first arrives, the north part of Manhattan Island is still fields, where families live in shacks: Cook recalls a time when men hunted small game from the roof-gardens of the Dakota Apartments), is vividly recounted, its sheer vitality a marked constrast to the polar wastes. Which is not to say that the Arctic passages are lacking: Johnston evokes the emptiness, the oddness of the polar regions in language that reminds me of Shackleton, Scott, Amundsen. Devlin's mother walks beside him across the ice, the fifth in a party of four. Jo Peary, devoted wife of the explorer, poses in formal dress with her daughter Marie on a Greenland beach. The Belgica is photographed by night, eerily flash-lit ...
Eventually, a 'day' consisted of an hour-long twilight, the sun barely clearing the almost-flat horizon to the east before it began to set again.
We could not keep our minds from reacting as they normally would to the light conditions, could not help feeling that this was the dusk of a day in which the sun had run its normal course across the sky and now was setting. We did what people do at dusk: gave in to reflectiveness, to thoughts of the past and what the coming days would bring.

Devlin's story is inextricably linked with Cook's -- and with Peary's, after Devlin saves him from a chilly death in Greenland. And in the end, Devlin, who has given his allegiance wholeheartedly to Cook's cause in the feud between the rival explorers, discovers that Peary holds the key that will unlock the last of Cook's secrets.

Devlin is very much of his time, stiff and shy, his emotions painted in bright simple colours. I'm not sure I liked him, but I pitied and envied him. And Johnston's writing, his evocation of Newfoundland and New York and the Arctic, is sparse and brilliant at once, like light on snow.

#51: The Hallowed Hunt -- Lois McMaster Bujold

The third in the Chalion trilogy, this isn't closely connected with The Curse of Chalion or Paladin of Souls. It's clearly the same world, presided over by a quintet of gods: it's possible that one of the failed attempts to heal Ingrey came by way of Ista, the heroine of the second novel. But the Weald is a darker and older place than Chalion itself, and this tale of shamanism and werecreatures is shadowed by the memory of ancient wars and the unquiet dead.

Ingrey is a fascinating protagonist -- I've come to expect no less from Bujold, but the craft that's gone into his character still impresses me. Sent off by Sealmaster Lord Hetwar to tidy up after a prince's murder at the hand of the woman he intended to rape, Ingrey thinks of himself as 'not quite bravo, not quite clerk, but a man to be relied upon for unusual tasks discreetly done'. Only from the actions and reactions of those around him does it become clear that he's rather more than that; a man feared and respected for his martial prowess, and feared, too, for the curse he carries. Ingrey, at fourteen, was spiritually (shamanically?) bound to a wolf whose very existence he's learnt, through hard and painful lessoning, to quell. No wonder that people never introduce him to their female relations.

Lady Ijada, whom he escorts to the capital, is under a similar curse, courtesy of the late Prince Boleso. And, it transpires, they are not the only two who have such a relic of the past in their souls.

There's immortality the hard way, here (and a couple of extremely thoughtful asides about the implications of the method). There's a wood haunted with the ghosts of sacrificed warriors from a war four centuries before. There are the five gods, and their hopes and deeds that intersect with Ingrey's own desires. And there is, gloriously, someone very like a Viking prince: Jokol, named Skullsplitter (which turns out to be a tribute to his epic poetry rather than to any stereotypical violence) and his tame ice-bear.

Towards the end the magic, the politics and the history became rather confused (though this might've been me, staying up later than I should to read). But there is a gloriously primitive feel to the Wealden magic, with its sacrifices and sacred animals and woodland setting; and though some aspects of the story were predictable, others were entirely unexpected.

I do wish there were more Chalion books: there's little sense of trilogy-conclusion here, and surely more to tell.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

#50: Territory -- Emma Bull

"A mining engineer. Someone who tells people where to dig mines, and how to do it."
"…And find water, and place for house and grave for good luck … How to use magic in ground."
Not for the first time I'm glad of my habit of setting aside the dustjacket of new hardcovers before reading. If I'd read the blurb on the front cover, I'd have discovered a lot of the plot before the characters admitted it to themselves: Jesse's nature, Mildred's sideline, and the location of the book's climactic event. And the gradual revelation, the magic beneath the mundane, comes on slowly, with admirable pacing.

Territory is a frontier Gothic, a novel of the Old West with sorcerers and hexes and skewed perceptions. Tombstone is not just a convenient setting; the story is grounded in place and people. Here's Wyatt Earp and his three brothers, here's Doc Holliday and his wife-by-courtesy, Kate. Here are all-night poker games (do the hands hold darker meanings?) and cattle rustlers, land claims and muddy streets and the Fourth of July. Here's an episode of American history wrought new, and I feel at once disadvantaged and peculiarly blessed by the fact that it's not my history. I've never been a great fan of Westerns: I don't know much about frontier life or the post-Civil War period. I came to this with fewer preconceptions than an American reader might have done, and I suspect my experience of the novel has been quite different.

The novel focuses on two characters: Mildred Benjamin, recently-widowed but fiercely independent, who earns her living by type-setting for the Tombstone Nugget; and Jesse Fox, a drifter on his way to Mexico, whose sole source of income seems to be training horses but who has two years of college education (studying to be a mining engineer) and a chequered past.

Fox comes to Tombstone in pursuit of the thief who stole his horse, and stays because he finds an old friend, the Chinese physician Chow Lung. A Chinese woman is murdered, and Fox and Chow seek out her killer.

Mrs Benjamin, meanwhile, befriends the Earp wives; finds herself drawn to Fox; discovers a new talent as a reporter; and witnesses events for which her world-view offers no explanation. But that doesn't mean they're inexplicable.
He saw, for an instant, two things … he saw them both at once, as if someone had put the wrong picture in one half of a stereopticon slide. In his memory, too, there were two versions of the last few seconds, and one of them had nothing uncanny in it.
(That's a delightfully congruous similitude, by the way; it's firmly rooted in the period, and it tells us something more of the character's past. I'll bet there isn't a stereopticon within a hundred miles of Tombstone.)

One of the admirable things about Territory is the richness of the characters. There's a whole novel's-worth of backstory between Fox and Chow, told only in allusion and asides; there's more story than meets the eye (and in more than one sense) to Mildred Benjamin. And there's the larger story, told with a light and almost negligent touch, of how Wyatt Earp has made Tombstone his own. And the story of how the Chinese community, 'Hoptown', coexists with the frontier camp that's Tombstone: occupying the same space, and yet almost wholly separate.

I wasn't altogether content with the ending: there are plenty of threads left dangling, though a resolution of sorts has been achieved and the ground's ready for new beginnings. (How mixed are my metaphors?!) In particular, I'd have liked another passage from Jesse's point of view.

[Later: the interweb hints that this is the first in a two-part series. There's nothing in the novel itself, or on the dustjacket, to support this -- and it does make a difference, so perhaps there should have been! -- but in terms of story it makes excellent sense.]
[Still later: Emma Bull's Territory Q&A plus sample chapters.]

Monday, September 03, 2007

#49: A Rhinestone Button -- Gail Anderson-Dargatz

A crow flew up from a fence post as they passed. The first crow Job had seen that year. His mother had always said that you should look to the first crow of the season to tell you what your year would be like. If you saw a crow resting, then you could look forward to a relaxing year. A crow flying in the air made for a busy time. A crow coming in for a landing meant things would slow down after a busy start. Job couldn't remember what a crow taking off meant.
Job, pretty as a Botticelli angel and innocent as a lifetime of church-going and strict parenting can make a grown man, is a farmer in Godsfinger, a small town in Alberta. The town's named because it lost its church to a tornado, then lost the new church to another. And religion is a force as strong, here, as the round of seasons or the community itself. Job, farming alone after his parents' death and his brother's departure to theological college, is content with the neatness of his life: he bakes as well as any of the women in town, and there's always work to be done on the farm.

But Job is different, and not just because of his looks. He sees sounds; his is a world rich in synaethesia (the rounded glass egg of a vacuum-cleaner's hum, the tawny rose blushes of chickadee wings) and only gradually does it become apparent that there is a great deal missing from Job's neat, 'tightly-coiled' life. This revelation, vouchsafed to the reader well before Job realises it himself, is spurred by the arrival of Job's brother Jacob, his wife Lilith and their son Ben, fleeing minor scandal and the loss of Jacob's position as pastor. Job's childhood friend Will is exposed as gay, and Job is found guilty by association. Under his brother's influence, Job becomes caught up by the evangelical drive of preacher Jack Divine, and tries to reconcile his own wordless, shaky faith and his search for something missing with the religious certainty (and its undercurrent of casual, quotidian misbehaviour) that he sees in others.

Job's life is complicated by each social interaction. There's the waitress at the cafe, Liv, who wears 'broomstick' skirts and mocks his faith; Jacob's lack of interest in the realities of farming life, and his denouncement of crop circles as the work of demons; Lilith and Ben, both with demons of their own; Debbie, the girl from a radio dating show who finds her soulmate between the door of the cafe and Job's table ... Temptations on every side and nothing solid, safe or certain.

And throughout the novel there are ducks; a tame duck wearing a diaper, a duck falling dead out of the sky into Job's arms, a duck flying into a tornado ...

A Rhinestone Button is full of the imagery of rural life, and it contains one of the most compelling descriptions of a tornado that I've ever read, the air pulling out of a man's lungs, the noise like a freight train, the upward spiral of blossom.

The quiet desperation of Job's life looked like peace to me at first, but I was drawn into the claustrophobia of small-town life. And it's a tale that ends happily, or more happily than it might have done, though to my mind there's as much loss as gain.

#48: Theft: A Love Story -- Peter Carey

I could not see why she would tolerate him but of course this is the LIBERTY given to those of so-called genius that they are permitted to act like TOTAL MORONS.
This novel reminds me of being cornered by the personable drunk at a party: the voices are loud and distinctive and larger than life, and one can't help nodding and smiling regardless of whether one actually, in the cold light of day, likes the characters at all.

Carey is an Australian writer through and through; every facet of country, history, culture fascinate him and is spun large. Theft is his take on the Australian art world. The novel's protagonist, Michael Boone (a.k.a. Butcher Bones), is an acclaimed Australian artist recovering from a divorce in which the Plaintiff won custody of their son and -- possibly worse -- of most of Boone's paintings, necessitating a criminal act and subsequent stay in prison. Released, Boone once more shoulders the burden of his 'damaged' brother Hugh, an idiot-savant whose voice is compellingly clear and who is wholly reliant on his brother.
...not since the bawling screaming murderous year I ran away to study life drawing at Footscray Tech had it ever once occurred to me that it might be possible to be ever free of my brother's bony elbow, his stinky breath, his sweaty sudden arrivals in the middle of my sleep.
The brothers are holed up in the back of beyond, abusing Boone's sponsor's house and his credit at the local store in order to produce Art, when Marlene squelches across a flooded creek and into their lives. She's gamine, clever and married to Olivier, who has the dubious distinction of being the son of famous painter Liebowitz, and morally entitled to verify his dead father's works. Boone is a great fan of Liebowitz, and one senses that this connection, as much as Marlene's plans to resurrect his career (a department-store show in Tokyo, a trip to America), that greases the slippery slope on which Boone finds himself.

The novel's told in alternating voices, Michael and Hugh. Michael is driven by opinions, ego and a brash bravado that begins to seem hollow once he leaves his native land and finds himself a nobody in the dog-eat-dog American art scene. Though of course he has Marlene ... Hugh's voice is a delight, reminiscent of Carey's take on Ned Kelly: capitalisation, repetition, a skewed yet sane and perspective on the world ("The turning indicator was flicking ticking at an awful rate like the heart of a sparrow or a fish -- how can they bear it?"), and underlying it all a devotion to his brother, a devotion that's reciprocated to an unexpected degree.

The subtitle of the novel is 'A Love Story', but like the title itself it's open to interpretation and reinterpretation. Is the love story only about Marlene? Is the theft is only about the missing Liebowitz? I can think of several answers, and the one I like the best has to do with the strength of the bond between Michael and Hugh, and how it's tested, and what matters most in the end: not love, not even art, but that bond. (Marlene gets away with a great deal, as long as she doesn't pose a threat to Hugh.)

Boone's sheer delight in his art and his media is infectious: this novel made me pick up paintbrush and acrylics for the first time in ages.