An avid reader calls it as she sees it on books, publishing and the written word in general.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

BOOK REVIEW: A Question of Belief by Donna Leon

It was my manager who lent me Death at La Fenice, the first in Donna Leon’s Venetian detective series. By that time, I’d been to Venice, and I recognised not only the places mentioned in the book but also the accuracy of Leon’s portrayal of Italy. Finally, here was a series that showed the Italy I knew – not some sort of historical paradise populated by quaint and charming locals, but a country struggling with questions of unemployment, immigration, and how to bring its traditional values into the modern world. .
Leon has lived for a number of years in Venice, and it shows. It’s not just the casual use of Italian words here and there in the text, but a true understanding of the Venetian character and the subcurrents in an outwardly tranquil city. In her latest work, A Question of Belief, she paints a vivid picture of the sticky August weather and its effects on the population. Like everyone else, Commissario Brunetti is in the process of escaping the city for Summer when he is called back by a murder. The victim is a clerk at the courthouse, an honest man who seems to have been caught up in some shady dealings; but was that the reason he was killed or was it something more personal? At the request of a colleague, Brunetti is also pursuing a scam artist parading as a mystic.
While I enjoyed A Question of Belief, I wouldn’t count it as one of the superior books in the series. Leon’s characterisations and details of the Venetian setting are as always superb, but the pace is occasionally uneven and the plot and subplot sit somewhat awkwardly together. The title hints at an ethical dilemma for Brunetti but there is little in the book itself to make him really reflect, and this is perhaps why it lacks the punch of some of the other titles. Leon has done a wonderful job maintaining the quality of the series up until this point (this is the 19th title) but needs to ensure that the books don’t become wholly about Brunetti as a character and lose their narrative drive.
Despite those minor flaws, I’d still recommend this book. In fact, I’ve now got my mum hooked on the Brunetti series, although she’s not usually a crime reader. I believe that people pick up the books because of the romance of the setting (who doesn’t love Venice?) but continue to read them because simply, Donna Leon is a damn good writer. While it’s one of the weaker books in the series, A Question of Belief is still a pleasure and a great read.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

BOOK REVIEW: Marie Curie: A life

I had Susan Quinn’s biography of Marie Curie sitting on my desk for around a month before I even cracked the spine. Perhaps it was the mournful cover done in shades of brown and black, with Curie gazing sternly out.  Perhaps it was the size of the book that daunted me; at 500 pages (including footnotes) it’s no lightweight. I knew Marie Curie as the first woman to win a Nobel prize, but surely her life couldn’t be eventful enough to fill all those pages?
As it turns out, I was completely and utterly wrong. From the first page I was caught up in Curie’s amazing life. She was born Polish in a time when that country was occupied by Russia, and as a child learned Polish history and other banned “nationalist” subjects in secret. Women had no chance of a higher education in Poland at that time, and the Curie family could not afford to send their talented children abroad to study. So Marie Curie and her sister Bronia teamed up; Marie worked to support Bronia’s studies in Paris, then later lived with her sister during her own studies. It was in Paris that she met Pierre Curie, her partner in life and work, and began the research into radioactivity that would make her name.
Quinn reaches past the hagiographic portrayal of Marie as an early feminist saint to offer a portrait of a real woman. Science was Curie’s lifelong love, but her devotion to Pierre was real and she was devastated after his early death in a street accident. The most moving parts of the book come directly from a journal written by Curie in the year after his death, when she pours out her heart to her dead husband. The book is returning to the library with a few tear-stains on these pages.
Like the best biographers, Quinn succeeds in fading into the background. She only rarely ventures away from the evidence to offer suggestion or a comment, but they are always insightful and relevant. Her sympathy with Curie is evident , but she does not shy away from presenting the less attractive sides of her character where necessary, such as her tendency to self-promotion and her ambivalent attitude to raising children.
Reading Marie Curie: A life also led me to reflect on the role of science today. Quinn’s description of the Curies passing by their laboratory after dark to enjoy the pretty radioactive glow of the minerals provides a window to a more innocent world. Curie believed passionately in the power of science for good, but these days we have a real suspicion of science (witness the controversy regarding GM foods, for example).  On the other hand, the blindness of the Curies to the potentially harmful effects of radioactivity took a toll on their health and the health of others treated with the new “radium treatments”.  So was Curie’s belief in the power of science ultimately wrong? Like the woman herself, it is a complex question .
This is a wonderful, inspiring book, despite the forbidding cover. Still, on reading the book, I think perhaps the designer got it right after all. The cover is utilitarian, simple, and with little regard for aesthetics, but it conveys the essential information. I think Marie Curie would have approved.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Blogocide (sort of)

It's been almost six months since I set up this blog, and in that time topics have veered wildly from my search for a christmas tree to copyright to books I have read and films I have seen. It's been a useful period. One thing I have realised is that I don't want to be blogging constantly on law, as (let's face it) I'm doing this during my own time, and I don't need to be bringing work home. On the other hand, I'm still enthusiastic about writing about the books I am reading and my new eBook reader.

So, to the title of this post - I have decided that this blog in future will be exclusively about books, publishing, and the written word in general. That means I'll be deleting the non-related posts (yes, including the Christmas tree one).

Currently I'm reading a fascinating biography of Marie Curie - I'll post a review once I'm done. Ruth Park, a great Australian author, died late last year and I'd like to post a tribute to her as well.

Thanks for your patience while I worked out where this blog was going!