Monday, March 10, 2014

The Son | Philipp Meyer

There is nothing I enjoy more than a good Western. The cover itself sold me this book (totally judging a book by it's cover!), a flatland desert with scrubby bushes, a dirt track and a lone horse and rider moving to wards a vast horizon. I couldn't wait to start this 500+ page book.

The story is of the McCullough family through the generations told in alternate chapters rather than chronologically. I really liked this structure as it was easy to see the family as a whole over centuries of their settlement in Texas.

It begins with Eli, who was kidnapped by Comanche indians when they attacked his family's homestead and massacred the rest of his family. He was thirteen years old and learned the ways of the Comanche and was accepted into their tribe. This was in the 1840's and 50's. We then read extracts from Peter McCullough's diary which span 1870's through to 1940's. He is Eli's son. And these two stories intercalate with Jeanne Anne (Peter's daughter) which spans from 1926 through to the 1980's.

It spans a great amount of frontier history, from the colonisation of Mexico into Texas, the Indians and their way of life which was destroyed by the white settlers, the Pioneers, the cattle-ranchers and the oil men. All leave their mark on the landscape and have made Texas what it is today.

This is a novel akin to Legends of the Fall, a great movie more or less set in the same time in history. If you enjoy family sagas, well written, with plenty of good research and well drawn characters, you will really enjoy this novel. Meyer has also written American Rust, which i will read now based on the strength of this book.

If you enjoy this kind of story you must read Cormack McCarthy and Thomas Eidson, two fantastic writers of fiction set in the West.

Burial Rites | Hannah Kent

I really enjoy reading first novels, and this one was a great find. Kent is Australian, born in 1985, and has wasted no time in developing her talent.

This novel is the story of the last two people executed in Iceland. Kent has done a huge amount of research and has rendered both the characters and the landscape in a believable and engaging way.

Agnes is to be executed for her involvement in the murder of a leading citizen. She is sent to wait her execution at the home of the District Office and his family for lack of government facilities to house her. The family is horrified at the prospect and unwelcoming.

Agnes is put to work on the small holding and we enter into the lives of this small community through the eyes of the mother, the daughters, Agnes and the priest she is made to talk to. As the story develops we learn of what took place in Agnes' life to lead her to the night of the murder.

In the end, she is executed alongside her accomplice. Was it the right decision?

A worthwhile read, well crafted and very engaging.

Friday, February 28, 2014

The Poisoner's Handbook | Deborah Blum

"Murder and the birth of forensic medicine in Jazz age New York" says the cover. It's all that and more.

This is a wonderful non-fiction account of the science of toxicology, pathology, forensics and the art of poisons. The setting is a mix of wild west and an emerging city trying to deal with thousands of deaths a year, corrupt city officials and two amazing men who challenged the system.

Charles Norris and Alexander Gettler were the two key men who standardised the procedures in crime scene forensic examination of bodies, the retrieval of cadavers and autopsies. Norris redefined the job of Medical  Examiner and the science of toxicology. Previous to his time, Medical Examiners were politically appointed, included plumbers, realtors, and drunks. Cause of death were either made up or exaggerated. Norris trained Gettler, the best chemist he ever worked with, to design tests for all kinds of poison and noxious substances and they pioneered systems to prove victims were murdered.

What I loved about this book is the very readable style, the amount of research done and the stories of people who were killed or were killing others with seemingly innocent substances.
Many died of radiation poisoning when using cosmetics that included Radon. Gas leaks decimated many innocent people in their homes, arsenic and lead and cyanide were included in  anything and everything. It's remarkable how many children died from poisoning in this era.

Once these new compounds were discovered, they were used in many common substances, with no regulations or labelling. Fascinating to see how Norris and Gettler were so forward thinking, astute and resilient in the face of ridicule. When they began in the department, science was laughed out of court and was not thought of as reliable material in criminal cases. By the end, they were providing the only proof needed to convict murderer's of their crimes.

At the the time of Gettler's retirement he estimated he had done 100 000 autopsies.

Fantastic read.