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Michael Frayn is one of the lions of Britain’s literary world. His achievements include the 2002 Whitbread best novel award (for Spies,) a Tony for his 1998 play Copenhagen, while his first novel The Tin Men won the prestigious 1966 Somerset Maugham award.
Meanwhile, his 1982 play Noises Off is still performed regularly around the world, and never fails to ignite its audience’s sense of humour.
Respected UK theatre critic Michael Billington, in his review of a recent production, declared that Frayn “must have the subtlest mind ever applied to the writing of farce”.
This observation of Frayn’s “subtlest mind” when writing farce might also apply to his latest novel, Skios. Fans of the comedy genre, and Frayn’s work specifically, will love this gentle romp. But I’m betting earnest bookworms will also chortle quietly as they work their way through the banana lounges, bedrooms and balconies of the Fred Toppler Foundation’s Greek Island headquarters.
The games begin when Nikki Hook, PA to Mrs Fred Toppler and the person in charge of the philanthropic organisation’s annual in-house lecture weekend, arrives at Skios airport to collect her keynote speaker. Dr Norman Wilfred, a world expert on the scientific organisation, is due to deliver a post-dinner speech titled Innovation and Governance: The Promise of Scientometrics. No matter that the prestigious group of house guests (politicians, wealthy benefactors, scientists and the like) would rather sit in the sun and drink Champagne than listen to Dr Wilfred. But Nikki is determined to become the foundation’s CEO. If her VIP speaker is a hit, the job is hers.
How fortunate, then, that the man who approaches her at Skios airport as she holds up her “Dr Norman Wilfred’’ sign is such a dish. “She felt a little leap of the heart at the sight of one particular candidate, a rumpled young man with muddled, extraordinarily pale blond hair …”
At that same moment, impish playboy Oliver Fox sees Nikki and her sign. He also realises immediately that this might be his chance to escape an ill-conceived island love-in with a woman he had met at a bar then rashly planned to meet on Skios. When Nikki asks if he is Dr Wilfred, Oliver replies, “I cannot tell a lie.”
But what of the real Dr Wilfred, who at one stage we see wandering lost among a herd of goats in search of a poolside breakfast? Or Georgie, whose arrival at Oliver’s borrowed villa comes as a surprise to its temporary occupant? And will Nikki land the top Toppler job?
Frayn, who turns 80 next year, has lost none of his verve or storytelling skill. Skios has “film potential” written all over it (we’d like to see Joanna Lumley in the Widow Toppler role, please) but, in the meantime, enjoy the book. It is perfect beach holiday or cold winter afternoon reading.
by Michael Frayn
» $29.99 (Faber)
THE BOY WHO WOULDN’T DIE
by David Nyuol Vincent, with Carol Nader
» $29.99 (Fairfax Books)
Often, a person’s true story is far more extraordinary than anything a fiction writer might invent. And so it is with Sudan-born David Nyuol Vincent, who has become one of our country’s most important voices on matters of racism and refugees. Forced to become a child soldier in Ethiopia after fleeing his war-torn country, David eventually escaped to Kenya. In 2004 he was granted a humanitarian visa to Australia and the long process of emotional repair began. At a time when the Fifty Shades of Grey phenomenon is bringing new readers into bookshops, we are lucky to have David’s very moving personal story to offer as an alternative.
THE LAST OF THE IMPERIOUS RICH: THE LEHMAN BROTHERS 1844-2008
by Peter Chapman
» $19.95 (Portfolio/Penguin)
This new edition of Peter Chapman’s excellent 2010 bestseller includes an updated introduction – a reminder that the recent collapse of the once-prestigious American banking house still impacts upon the Western financial system. “At the time of my writing of this introduction,” Chapman states, “groups of protesters are occupying Zuccotti Park near Wall Street and tent encampments have been set up outside St Paul’s Cathedral in the heart of London to decry the excesses of capitalism.” What would the 19th-century German-born entrepreneur and cotton broker Henry Lehman say about that? Earlybird alert: a perfect Father’s Day gift.
THE GREAT SURVIVORS: HOW MONARCHY MADE IT INTO THE TWENTY-FIRST CENTURY
by Peter Conradi
» $29.99 (Alma Books)
The early 20th century was not kind to Europe’s royal families, and the execution of the Russian tsar and his family in 1918 was a stark reminder that monarchs can be forced from their thrones and held accountable for the state of a nation. Peter Conradi examines the surviving monarchies of 10 European countries, including Britain, Denmark, Monaco, the Netherlands and Spain, and assesses their contributions and their chances of survival in the 21st century. A worthwhile overview by The King’s Speech author.
OLYMPICS: FROM ANCIENT GREECE TO THE PRESENT DAY
by Richard Platt
(illustrations by Manuela Cappon)
» $29.99 (Kingfisher)
An ideal resource for children aged 10 and under, this illustrated history book outlines the ideals of the ancient Olympics and follows through to modern Olympics founder Pierre de Coubertin’s aspirations for an international sporting event that would bring together the world’s finest athletes. The book includes highlights and hero profiles, and will provide your child with important background information to survive this month’s intense media coverage and public interest.