Friday, 29 May 2020

Grown Ups, by Marian Keyes.

            Millions of Marian Keyes fans will heave a sigh of pleasure at the appearance of her latest book.   True to form, it follows the fortunes of yet another Irish family, the three Casey brothers, over the course of six months.  As we all know, a lot (good and bad) can happen in such a short time, and Keyes fans can settle back and prepare for the tragicomic read that Ms Keyes is so good at:  strong, credible characters;  lots of slap and tickle, and plenty of wonderful Irish craic.  What more could we ask for from the Queen of Chick Lit?  Except that this time, not all the boxes are ticked.
            It is Johnny Casey’s 49th birthday party.  Wife Jessie has pulled out all the stops to prepare (catered) a five-star spread, inviting his brothers Ed and Liam and their families, and all appears to be proceeding satisfactorily – until Ed’s wife Cara, suffering from delayed concussion from an earlier ‘incident’, decides to reveal family secrets that will profit none of them to know.  ‘Loose Lips Sink Ships’ could not be more apt as the Casey Family Ship starts listing terribly under the weight of the revelations:  Johnny has a separate secret bank account that struggling businesswoman Jessie is unaware of – and it appears he has been having an affair with an ex-family-friend;  youngest brother Liam, (still forty, though!) recently married for the second time to considerably younger theatre set-designer Nell (whom all the family children adore) bonked a teenage friend of Jessie’s daughter on their Tuscan holiday;  Cara, a Bulimia sufferer who told everyone she was cured, was caught in the act of bingeing – by Nell and Ferdia, Jessie’s eldest son (but still nine years younger than Nell) who can’t keep their hands off each other.
            What a party!  What a Rage!  What a mess.
            Ms Keyes works hard to bring us all up to speed with the plot details and how all these lamentable situations developed, but halfway through this mighty tome (upwards of 640 pages) the action slows to a pace that snails would breeze past – which is a great shame, for at her best Marian Keyes is a hugely entertaining writer who can combine with great empathy the highs and lows of our frenetic modern existence:  in this story she has thrown too many balls in the air without being able to catch them all.  FOUR STARS.  (Because she’s Marian Keyes).    

Friday, 22 May 2020

Nothing to See Here, by Kevin Wilson. 

           Lilian Breaker has not made a success of her life to date, after being expelled as a formerly promising Scholarship teenager from a prestigious Tennessee prep school for taking the fall for her very rich room-mate.  Lilian’s mother’s silence was bought with a big pile of money – not that Lilian saw any of it, but strangely enough, she is still in contact many years later with rich room-mate Madison, who is now married to Jasper Roberts, fabulously rich Senator for Tennessee, and aspirant for the soon-to-be-vacant position of secretary of state.  Madison’s future is golden but, being kind as well as breathtakingly beautiful (Lilian is not), she thinks of Lilian often and to that end, has a position at the Roberts estate that might interest her:  would she like to be Governess (‘like a Nanny?’ says Lilian, but no, a Governess is much more high-end, she is informed), to twin children, a 10 year-old boy and  girl  from Senator Robert’s first marriage.  Their mother is dead and there is no one currently to care for them –Stepmother Madison can’t;  her life is much too busy, especially as she has produced son Timothy – who goes to day-care and has an unusual obsession with stuffed toys. 
‘Come and meet Bessie and Roland, Lil, see what you think’.
            Okay, then.
            Lilian has never been able to resist the siren call of her best and only friend and reluctantly embarks on the weirdest adventure of her life so far, as she discovers that Bessie and Roland are Madison and Jasper’s shameful secret, a secret that would destroy Jasper’s political aspirations permanently if it were revealed. 
For Bessie and Roland ignite.
            Yes, they internally combust.  If they get upset, angry or frightened they start to burn, real flames that don’t harm them, but play havoc with the furniture, not to mention creating unnecessary attention from the fire department:  they must be kept the absolute opposite of upset, and Lilian is just the person for the job. 
            Kevin Wilson has produced a fantasy for the bizarre times in which we live.  All his characters, especially the heroic Lilian, are larger than life, as they must be to convince the reader to believe.  His story is hugely funny but the humour leavens the difficulty of trying to keep a family together these days – especially a new one.
            Yep, nothing to see here guys, unless you turn the pages.  This is a great book.  SIX STARS.  

Saturday, 18 April 2020

American Dirt, by Jeanine Cummins.

            Lydia owns a bookshop in Acapulco, a city in Mexico that was formerly a tourist paradise, until the cartels started moving in;  now people are frightened of what their city has become, especially after bodiless heads starting appearing in random suburbs, their mouths stuffed with notes saying ‘They talked’.
            Still, life goes on and Lydia’s family has come together to celebrate her niece’s 15th birthday, her quinceañera;  it’s a bright and happy day and Lydia and her son Luca are in the bathroom when the shooting starts:  when it has stopped, all sixteen of her family members have been massacred and the cartel gunmen are looking through the house for survivors – they are expressly looking for her and her son.  For Lydia’s husband Sebastián is a reporter who is fearlessly outspoken about the cartels and the evil with which they are polluting society, and he has just written a damning article about the local cartel boss Javier ‘La Lechuza’ (The Owl) – who is also a devotee of Lydia’s bookstore:  today is pay-back time for the bad press.
            Miraculously, mother and son are undiscovered in the bathroom, but are forced to listen to the assassins help themselves to the barbecue her beloved husband was cooking when he died;  it seems an eternity before they can emerge and call police who, as everyone knows are entirely ineffectual:  Lydia knows there will be no justice;  she also knows that she is ‘unfinished business’ for Javier and his sicarios;  they won’t stop until she and Luca are both dead.  The Owl’s vengeance and reach are terrifying.
            Unless she starts running.  Running to El Norte, the USA – surely his influence doesn’t reach that far – yet?  Lydia cannot stop to reflect for any length of time on the rightness of her decision to flee:  she has no choice, and there begins a nightmare journey where death pursues them every step of the way.  Lydia is forced to make snap decisions, trust people she has never met before, but regard everyone new as a potential enemy, including a cocky teenage gang member who has a knack of eventually appearing wherever she goes.  This reader, too, travelled every step of the way with her:  I covered my eyes when she and Luca leapt off a bridge to board ‘La Bestia’ The Beast, the freight train that all migrants fleeing homeland brutality must board to take them further North;  I shuddered at the cruelty inflicted upon them because of their vulnerability, and marvelled at the spontaneous kindness and care that desperate people can still show each other.
            Ms Cummins has produced a tour de force, a masterwork of contemporary American fiction that reads like a thriller, yet explores every human emotion.  ‘She sticks her hand through the fence and wiggles her fingers on the other side.  Her fingers are in El Norte.  She spits through the fence.  Only to leave a piece of herself there on American dirt.’  SIX STARS.

Saturday, 28 March 2020

Peace, by Garry Disher.

            ‘All a cop wants at Christmas, thinks Constable Paul Hirschhausen (Hirsch, please) is not Heavenly Peace, just a general absence of mayhem’.  And fair enough, too.  Hirsch was a detective in a former life – and a previous book, which naturally I haven’t read.  (Where have I been all my life?)  He exposed crookedness and graft in the South Australian Police force, but is regarded as a nark by his colleagues, and instead of being rewarded for his honesty, has been demoted to country constable, patrolling tiny towns and remote farms.  It’s not what he was trained for, but he’ll do his best regardless, and after a year based in Tiverton, Christmas has rolled around again - he hasn’t exactly hit his stride, but he is being seen as less of an outsider and more of a fixture – he hopes.
            Criminal acts are pretty minor by big city standards;  the usual domestics, drunks and thefts – until several of the miniature show ponies of one of the locals are carved up and left to die in their paddock.  As if cruelty to animals weren’t horrific enough, a woman visiting the weekly Doctor’s clinic left her little daughter in her car in stifling summer heat:  it was touch-and-go for a time as Hirsch fought to free the child from the car, only to have the subsequent battle with the mum uploaded to YouTube – publicity he doesn’t need, being already in bad odour with his superiors.  He just can’t catch a break and, true to form, when you’re sure that things can’t get worse, they invariably do.
            The neglectful mother is found murdered, along with her teenage son (‘No, no, constable, I only have one child!’);  her little daughter has disappeared, along with an older daughter that no-one knew about, necessitating an influx of the top brass from Adelaide – and Sydney, even, and it goes without saying that these luminaries treat constable Hirschhausen as the yokel he deserves to be – but he was a good detective, and the demotion hasn’t deprived him of his skills.  He can still mix it with the big boys, and does so with aplomb.
            Mr Disher is SUCH an entertainer!  He paints great word-portraits of small-town Australian life;  the huge, empty, dried-out landscape, and the hardiness and humour of the classic Aussie battler.  In prose stark, shocking and familiar to us all on this side of the Tasman, he introduces us to characters that we could recognise anywhere in Oz or EnZed:  we are cuzzies, after all.  And happy to be so.  FIVE STARS.  

Sunday, 22 March 2020

A Heart so Fierce and Broken, by Brigid Kemmerer.  Young Adults

            This is the sequel to ‘A Curse so Dark and Lonely’, Ms Kemmerer’s epic retelling of the Sleeping Beauty legend (search drop box), but with a great contemporary twist – that of introducing protagonists from our modern world into the parallel kingdom of Emberfall, there to break the curse set by evil enchantress Lilith that turns Crown Prince Rhen into a murdering monster:  well, in  the best of fairytale traditions, true love in the shape of Harper rescues him from the curse, his kingdom is freed, and everyone should live happily ever after.  Except that they don’t.
            Rhen has inherited a kingdom in ruins after constant warfare;  his subjects are starving, and there are rumours that he is not the rightful Heir:  there is an older half-brother whose mother could practice magic, and no matter how hard Rhen’s troops try to quell the gossip it still persists.  The only high point in his life is his love for Harper, so-called Princess of Disi, who has supposedly promised thousands of troops from her country:  Washington, DC?  If his subjects find out about that, it will be the end of his reign – and of him.
            Enter Commander Grey, formerly his most loyal and trusted servant:  Grey has discovered that he and Prince Rhen are indeed brothers, but he decides the best thing to do is to leave Emberfall and take up another identity;  he doesn’t want the crown under any circumstances and the less people know about him, the better.  Naturally, life is not like that, particularly in fairy tales:  he is captured, cruelly flogged by Rhen’s men, eventually escapes thanks to trusted friends, but is forced into an alliance with Karis Luran, queen of Syhl Shallow, Rhen’s sworn enemy:  she will back him with troops and weapons, everything he needs for military success, if he will vanquish Rhen’s army with his nascent magical powers – powers he wasn’t aware that he had until he was flogged by Rhen’s order.  Grey is in between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea.  And to complicate life even further, he begins to fall in love with Lia Mara, Karis Luran’s daughter, a girl as good as her mother is evil:  his life is starting to slip beyond his famous discipline and control.
            Ms Kemmerer has us all by the scruff of the neck, and won’t let go:  I was turning pages at a furious rate, and was even more frustrated when I reached the end and found that an arch-villain, thought dead, is still stirring up lethal trouble.  It’s going to take aaaaages for the next instalment to appear, and in Trump’s  America, anything could happen in that time.  I hope it doesn’t!  FIVE STARS.


Sunday, 15 March 2020

Half a World Away, by Mike Gayle.

           Most times it makes me cringe to read that a novel is ‘heartwarming’.  Such a description usually means it’s heavy on the romance and pathos, and light on real-life situations to which the reader can relate, so I approached Mr Gayle’s novel with the necessary caution – and am happy to say that this story does indeed deserve to be called ‘heartwarming’ in the very best sense, and another praiseworthy adjective:   unputdownable.
             Kerry Hays writes to her little brother Jason:  they were both put into care when their mother disappeared;  Kerry was ten and Jason was eighteen months old.  She hasn’t seen him since, her beautiful little coloured brother (same mum, different dads) whom she loves to distraction, but she writes to him regularly, even though she is not allowed to know where he is:  he has to contact her.  Which is a bit hard as he doesn’t know she exists, and the authorities don’t have to inform him.  Still, Kerry believes that one day they will make contact again;  she has much to tell him as the years go by, including the fact that, in her thirties, she became a mother herself, an event that thrills her to the marrow:  she finally had her wish to love and care always for a vulnerable little being that is hers alone, a feeling she hasn’t experienced since she was everything to Jason that her mother wasn’t.  Kian’s dad is a space-waster, but Kerry doesn’t care.  They don’t need him!
            Kerry and her son are managing adequately;  they have a small flat on a semi-tough housing estate;  she cleans posh houses for a living and has a reliable income:  Jason by contrast has been adopted into a wealthy family who, having already had their children thought it only right that they give a needy little someone the opportunity to shine and be loved by them.  Jason is now Noah Martineau, a Barrister with a beautiful home in London’s Primrose Hill and a family to match, a fact that makes Kerry burst with pride when she eventually makes contact with him, the only problem being that he has never been interested in his origins;  he’d much rather face the present and speculate about the future, much to his wife’s exasperation:  in fact his refusal to face up to his past has induced her to kick him out, which means that he is not receptive to a stranger turning up professing to be his half-sister.
            Mr Gayle tells the poignant story of Noah and Kerry’s new relationship with humour and grace as they both traverse the strata of British society:  racism as everywhere in the world,  constantly rears its ugly head, but it doesn’t stop old love from being remembered, nor new, loving relationships from being forged, even in the face of tragedy.  FIVE STARS.        

Sunday, 8 March 2020

The Overstory, by Richard Powers.

           The 2019 Pulitzer Prize, America’s most prestigious literary award, has been deservedly given to Mr Powers for his towering and beautiful paean of praise for that which we take so much, to our peril, for granted:  the tree.
            Written as a novel, it still abounds with incontrovertible facts, especially as to what will happen to our earth when the human race has finally denuded our wonderful, nurturing planet of all the forests and their ecosystems: we will be breathless, airless – and non-existent, but still homo sapiens rushes to its destruction, for clearing trees means clearing land, means cities built, means crops farmed for increasing populations, means money, money, money, now our only God.
            Mr Powers introduces us to nine disparate characters who connect, sometimes intimately, to tell his wonderful story:  Nicholas Hoel, artist and sculptor;  Mimi Ma, Chinese-American engineer;  Vietnam veteran Douglas Pavlicek;  Dr. Patricia Westford, Botanist and Dendrologist;  Neelay Mehta, wheelchair-bound Silicone valley Gamer King;  Olivia Vandergriff, college student on the verge of attaining her degree in Actuarial Science;  Adam Appich, student psychologist;  and Ray and Dorothy Brinkman, a prosperous but unhappy childless couple.
            Not all these people will meet, though five of them link up in protest at the denuding of American redwood forests in the ‘90’s and join groups which are successful – initially – at stopping Redwood destruction in Northern California.  They are so delighted with small victories that they name themselves after their favourite trees:  Mulberry, Doug.Fir, Maple, MaidenHair, Watchman - and Maidenhair/Olivia and Nicholas/Watchman actually stop the felling of an enormous thousand year old wonder with its own name (Mimas) for nearly a year by camping on a platform in its upper branches – until the money men send in a helicopter to knock them out of the air while the cutting machines assemble at Mimas’s base.  The tree is doomed, and so is the protest.
            And further desperate, illegal protests end in tragedy and eventual betrayal, with one of their number tricked into confessing to a crime for which they all were guilty:  he receives not one, but TWO life sentences for domestic terrorism.  From eco-Warrior to domestic terrorist – so much for youthful idealism.  And did their efforts, puny as they seemed, make any difference to the fate of the most giving things on earth?  To trees, ‘our link between earth and sky'?  We must hope and pray so - to a deity other than the Money God.
Every person who cares about our planet should read this book.  SEVEN SERIOUS STARS!