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The Black Art of Killing

There will be no mention of the c-word in this column. I will go ahead, as per usual, with a rather eclectic collection of books recently read.
I feel it behoves me now and again to read something quite different—ie a book written by a man. In this case I went really out of my comfort zone with a crime novel called The Black Art of Killing, a debut by British screenwriter Matthew Hall. Dr Leo Black is an ex-Special Services operative who has been in every modern theatre of war and done more than his fair share of killing. He has left the army, disillusioned with the failures in the Middle East and elsewhere, and is now teaching military history at Oxford, where the lefties on the faculty are wary of his anti-war conversion. Leo learns that his best mate from the army has been killed doing a routine bodyguarding job and Black is enticed back into the field to find out who killed his friend. This is a well-written thriller with a subplot involving scientists and a threat to humanity, but it stands out for the analysis of the philosophical dilemma Leo Black must confront—when is it alright and/or necessary to kill? When is violence justified?

Another surprise read for me was Monsters: The Passion and Loss that Created Frankenstein by Sharon Dogar—surprising because it is promoted as Young Adult, a genre I usually avoid (being an increasingly aged adult). However, I was attracted to reading about the affair between Mary Godwin and Percy Byshe Shelley and the events leading up to her writing Frankenstein—about which I’d heard snippets, but not the full story. I had no idea, for instance, that Mary was only 16 years old when she ran away with Shelley—as was her younger sister Claire, when she became pregnant to Byron and later, to Shelley. It reminded me of the 60s Push and the 70s in the inner-west when ‘free love’ seemed, amazingly, more advantageous to men and much less so to women who (like Mary Shelley) were castigated for the slightest hint of jealousy. Not that I know anything about that—it’s just what I heard! I recommend this excellent book to anyone who loves novels about writers, and it’s a must-read for the HSC kids ‘doing’ Frankenstein.

Back in my real comfort zone is the fabulous new novel The Weight of Love by Irish writer, Hilary Fannin. This is a beautifully written story about a love triangle.  Robin, Ruth and Joseph are friends in their 20s and the novel follows them through to their 40s when their past inevitably must be confronted. The characters are compassionately drawn, Fannin’s eye for detail and pithy observation are reminiscent of Michelle de Kretser’s,  and I especially liked the mothers of both Robin and Joseph. An entirely satisfying read about human foibles, love and relationships. Loved it.
Last but certainly not least, is a new historical novel, The Dictionary of Lost Words, by South Australian writer Pip Williams. Our wonderful protagonist, Esmé, spends much of her girlhood under the table in the scriptorium where her father and others are compiling the first Oxford English Dictionary. In a time during which the suffragette movement was changing the way women viewed themselves and the world, Esmé begins to notice that a lot of words, primarily those pertaining to women’s lives, are considered unworthy of inclusion in the OED. Esmé sets out to rescue those words and also to find meaning in her own life. This is a stunning novel which can be compared favourably to the bestselling Burial Rights by Hannah Kent. Read it and Love it. See you on the other side!