Saturday, 7 December 2019

Akin, by Emma Donoghue.

           Retired, childless scientist Noah Selvaggio is planning a trip to Southern France – Nice, specifically, the city of his birth.  His late sister has left him a bequest in her will on the condition that he go off ‘and have some fun!’, so he shall follow orders, not hard to do as he has nothing to tie him to his New York apartment.  His brilliant wife, also a scientist, died nine years ago;  his sister’s beautiful, wastrel son died of a drug overdose a couple of years previously and it’s very obvious that Noah, about to ‘celebrate’ his 80th birthday is only marking time until it is his turn to follow his family into the beyond.  Still, it will be interesting to see the South of France again;  he wonders how much of Nice he will remember, having left as a young child towards the end of World War Two.  And it will be interesting to know if his maternal Grandfather’s illustrious reputation as a photographer will still be celebrated in his birthplace. 
            Yes, now that the trip is only days away, Noah is pleased to see that he can still feel some excitement at spending his Milestone birthday in such a special place.
            Until he is called by Rosa Figueroa, a social worker (with 24 other cases in her personal workload) who informs him that his sister’s late, overdosed son had an eleven-year-old son of his own, previously cared-for by the maternal grandmother:  sadly, she has died of complications from diabetes, and Michael has no-one from his biological family to care for him.  Apart from Noah, his Great-uncle. 
And it does Noah no good to enquire after the whereabouts of Michael’s mother:  ‘she’s currently incarcerated.’  Would Noah be prepared to care for Michael until Rosa can track down Michael’s Aunt (who is who knows where) – perhaps he could take Michael to Nice, too?
            The acclaimed author of  ‘Room’ takes us all to Nice on a very bumpy ride for two people who do not want to be together;  a man at the wrong end of his life forced with zero experience to care for a child who is grieving for the absence of his mother and grandmother, the pillars of his short existence. And there is the deepening puzzle of Noah’s origins, the mystery of which ultimately creates the fragile beginnings of a relationship that, at the end of the trip, doesn’t seem so impossible after all.  This is a story of the true meaning of kinship and the unbreakable bond of family, there whether we recognise it or not.  SIX STARS.   


Sunday, 1 December 2019

A Curse so Dark and Lonely, by Brigid Kemmerer.  Young Adults

            Seventeen-year-old Cerebral Palsy sufferer Harper and her older brother Jake are in trouble in Washington DC:  their father has abandoned the family with huge debts;  their mother is a terminal cancer patient, and the people from whom their dad borrowed want their money back yesterday – with interest, the interest being Jake as enforcer and standover man to extort money out of other unfortunate debtors.  Harper is Jake’s reluctant look-out when he works as a heavy, until one night she sees a woman being attacked by a man not far from where she is hiding.  Without thinking she grabs an old tire-iron and gives the attacker a good swipe – and finds herself hoisted up and dragged away, away into an alarming parallel world that bears no relation to her own in real life, for she is transported by her abductor Commander Grey to a fairy-tale castle inhabited by a handsome prince, and no, she wasn’t dropped on her head on the way:  she is now a captive in the realm of Emberfall, and is part of a curse that lays upon the land, a curse so dark and lonely that it seems no-one can break it.
The curse has been imposed by an enchantress called Lilith, and can only be broken by true love (truly!  Sound familiar?) between the handsome Prince Rhen and whichever young woman Commander Grey manages to purloin from the other side:  so far, results have been very sketchy, especially as Rhen turns into a monster every month and lays waste to anything that moves, including most of his subjects and all of the castle inhabitants, including the royal family.  Commander Grey is still alive because he’s a fast mover.  Believe it or not.
 And, needless to say, the arrival of Harper with her palsied leg does not inspire Prince Rhen toward any affectionate feelings – until Harper (after she has accepted her impossible circumstances) shows an aptitude for strategy, planning and tactics that are an unexpected and refreshing change from the norm:  handicapped Harper from DC becomes Princess Harper of Disi, a powerful and entirely fictitious ally of Emberfall, and there to promise Disi’s thousands of fictional troops to save the country’s inhabitants from a hostile Queen’s border attacks, the evil enchantress, and the monster, who is scheduled to make his dreaded appearance soon.
This is a great blend of fantasy, fairy tale and hard lessons in the Big City, and Ms Kemmerer leaves so many questions hanging that she must have Book Two underway.  Well, I hope so:  - what about Commander Grey, eh?  What’s happening with him?!  FOUR STARS.  

Tuesday, 19 November 2019

Knife, by Jo Nesbo

            It’s hard to imagine how dedicated thriller readers survived before the advent of Scandy Noir, the genre created by Stieg Larsson’s ‘The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’, and continued with varying degrees of talent by any aspiring author with a Scandinavian-sounding name.  Until author and ex-muso Jo Nesbo came on the scene, launching his burnt-out, alcoholic detective Harry Hole on an unsuspecting public:  we have never been the same since, begging like addicts for each new episode of Harry’s adventures on the Dark Side – and we always, always get our fix.           
            This time round, the Dark Side is largely of Harry’s own making:  his beloved wife Rakel has thrown him out;  he is drinking himself unconscious every night and his work has become slipshod – well, who can produce results when remorse and alcohol overwhelm everything?
            And worse is yet to come:  rapist and murderer Svein Finne is finally out of prison where Harry put him so long ago, and is swearing vengeance, especially as Harry also killed his son (read ‘The Thirst’!).  Harry’s past is rapidly catching up with him and he has never been so ill-equipped to defend himself.  Only a further tragedy of cataclysmic proportions can drag him back onto the straight and narrow – temporarily, at least –for he MUST solve the heinous crime of his wife’s murder, which surely would never have happened if he had been there, drunk or not, to protect her.  When he has found the murderer and killed him, then he’ll drink himself to death.  
He’s officially too close to the victim in the investigation, and therefore required to leave the investigating to his colleagues.  And officially, he’s on bereavement leave.  Well.
            Since when has officialdom ever stopped Harry Hole and his rat-trap mind from deducing information from the slimmest of leads, the mere breath of suspicion – and always coming up with the right conclusion?  Hopefully.
            Red Herrings (it’s Norway, folks!) constantly fool Harry and the readers;  Nesbo convincingly casts suspicion on absolutely everyone as well as the obviously evil Svein Finne, but once again I have to say that I never suspected Whodunnit when all was revealed.  And more shocks are to come:  we are kept guessing about everything – including Harry’s fate – until the very last page, and that is surely the mark of a storyteller par excellence, a master of characterisation, suspense – and human failings.  FIVE STARS.        

Tuesday, 12 November 2019

The River, by Peter Heller.

           Dartmouth College best friends Jack and Wynn decide to take two semesters off to experience the adventure of a lifetime:  canoeing the Maskwa river in Northern Canada.  They are young Renaissance Men, sharing a love of arts and literature as well as finely developed skills in surviving in the great outdoors, and a great love and respect for the natural world.  This trip will be unforgettable, just for its beauty alone.
            And it is, but for none of the above reasons.
            The first few days after setting out they have seen no-one else apart from plenty of wild-life – but are becoming increasingly concerned by the smell of smoke in air that should be pristine.  When they climb a tree to view the horizon, they are horror-struck to see an enormous wildfire coming their way.  Suddenly the idea of no electronic contact with the outside world doesn’t sound so great after all, and when they finally meet two other canoeists further upriver and warn them of what’s ahead they are disgusted with their couldn’t-care-less attitude, fuelled by fifths of bourbon.  Well, they’ve done the right thing:  what the drunks do about it is their own business.           
            Jack and Wynn press on, determined to try to outrun the fire (oh, for a sat phone to call in a copter!) and reel from the next shock:  through the gathering smoke and mist a couple are having a knock-down-drag-‘em-out fight on a river beach – about what is unclear.  Should they warn them of the danger?  Nah.  Can’t even see them! 
Hours later, yeah.  Conscientious Wynn and Jack paddle back but find  no-one – until the husband finds them, saying he has lost his wife in the mist:  he’s distraught, but Jack feels his story is suspicious.  Nevertheless, he and Wynn decide to mount a search for the lady who, when they eventually find her, is still alive but has injuries consistent with a terrible beating. Attempted murder?  Jack and Wynn are duty-bound to try to save her and themselves, first from the fire, then from her husband who obviously wants her dead.
            Peter Heller has a prodigious talent for transporting his readers right into the thick of things, be it the roiling horror of a vast wildfire and the terrible destruction of everything before it, or the great and awe-inspiring beauty of the wild;  it’s all here in beautiful language for us to marvel or lament over, and proves yet again that greedy and rapacious humans are indeed lower forms of animal life.  SIX STARS.   

Tuesday, 5 November 2019

Queenie, by Candice Carty-Williams.

          Londoner Queenie Jenkins, eponymous heroine of Ms Carty-Williams first novel, is a troubled soul:  troubled by the fact that her white boyfriend (she is black, of Jamaican ancestry) has demanded a break from their relationship:  what kind of break?  A month?  Three months?  Permanently?  Surely not, for Queenie loves her Tom, even though she realises she has been more than a bit on edge lately.  Well, some of his relatives are frankly racist, and she is against Police Brutality and into Black Lives Matter in a really big way.  Well, she has to be, innit?  (as her African Bestie would say):  when you’re black, the right-white people regard you as a bit suss anyway.  You have to stick up for yourself, and Queenie never lets an opportunity go by to do so.  Now Tom has had enough, and wants a breather.
            Oh, please God (Queenie never prays, and never goes to the family’s local Catholic church unless dragged there by her grandmother and Aunty) please may this break just be a breather?  Please may she not lose her funny, kind, loyal partner of three years because she is a damaged person, and it shows in a myriad different ways.  Please, God.
            Meantime, she has to find a new place to live – which she does and it’s definitely substandard – and new ways to pass her spare time – which she does, and has more questionable sexual encounters than she expects, some of them so rough that she is forced to visit the local sexual health clinic, accompanied by her lovely white bestie from work (where she is on a final warning) for moral support:  Queenie’s life is starting to unravel at an alarming rate, but she still clings to the hope that Tom will eventually make contact. 
You think?
            Ms Carty-Williams chronicles Queenie’s fall from grace and eventual redemption in ruthless detail, all the while using Queenie’s family as a Greek Chorus, especially when Queenie reaches rock-bottom, shifts in with her Grandparents, then decides on psychotherapy. 
            ‘ “Psychotherapy?  PSYCHOTHERAPY??!  You trying to shame all ah we?  You tink you are the only one with problems?” ‘ – Oh, granny lets her have it, before eventually conceding (because her husband said so!) that maybe that’s what young ones do these days.  Her generation just got on with it. 
            As a counter to the Greek Chorus, Queenie is constantly buoyed by the texts of the Corgis (the Queen’s corgis:  get it?), her close friends and staunch allies, all of whom provide loving and hilarious support when she most needs it.  Queenie is blessed indeed and so are we, to be part of her tragicomic journey to wellness.  This is a great story, innit?  FIVE STARS    

Friday, 25 October 2019

Auē, by Becky Manawatu.

            Auē is Maori for sorrow or woe, and it concerns the ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’ in this superb novel – a description that doesn’t apply to material things, but to the most important need of all:  the need to love and belong together, a need that dominates everyone’s life, and the vengeance wreaked by those who lack it.  Or deserve it.
            Each chapter lets a different character tell the story, which starts with the fatal accident suffered by seventeen-year-old Taukiri’s foster parents.  Completely unmanned by the tragedy, he delivers his eight-year-old brother to his Aunty Kat and his Uncle Stu;  they have a farm in Kaikoura;  it should be a neat place for Arama to live – you know, cows, sheep etc.  He’ll be right in time, Taukiri tells himself, while he goes to Wellington to search for his Hoe-Bag birth mother.  Yeah, right.  As if!  Nope – Tauk’s going to get a job, find a place to live and eventually the great gaping hole in his soul will close over and he will be healed.
            In a perfect world.
            Real life doesn’t turn out so conveniently:  Tauk ends up busking (he’s a great guitarist, a natural, like his dad) and it’s not long before he chums up with Elliot, another busker who has access to all kinds of memory-deadening ‘medications’:  fortunately, Elliot has a sister who looks out for them both so he hasn’t hit rock-bottom – yet.
            Meantime, Arama isn’t happy in his new home.  Aunty Kat is not happy either, because Uncle Stu is a bully and gives her black eyes and bruises whenever he feels like it;  he even smashed Arama’s All–Blacks lunchbox just because it was there.  He’s a W.A.N.K.E.R.  (Sorry mum, for the swear.)  If it weren’t for Beth, who lives on the neighbouring farm with her Dad Tom Aiken and dog Lupo, he would be very sad indeed.  Oh Tauk, can’t you come and get me?  Where do I belong?  Who do I belong to now?
The story is also traced of Taukiri’s ‘hoebag’ birth mother Jade and his fisherman father Toko.  Jade was born into a gang and has never been able to escape – until she met Toko, who rescued her from The House where she was born and degraded;  he is her saviour – her everything:  she could never live without him.  Until the gang comes looking, and she finds that she has to.
This is a singular work, a poignant and beautiful story that should rightly become a kiwi classic.  Ka pai, Ms Manawatu!  SEVEN STARS!        

Friday, 18 October 2019

The Van Apfel Girls Are Gone, by Felicity McLean.

           Ms McLean has previously written a children’s book and ghostwritten six other works for various celebrities.  This is her first novel, and centres on the families who live in Macedon Close, a cul-de-sac in a quiet, far-flung suburb of Sydney.  Eleven-year-old Tikka Molloy and her older sister Laura are very best friends with the three Van Apfel sisters who live further up the street;  Hannah, Cordelia and Ruth are firmly controlled by their deeply religious parents, especially their father, who appears to model himself on a Biblical prophet of old – and he punishes the girls accordingly.  With his fists, and Cordelia is often a victim of his cruelty ‘because he has to drive the devil out of her’. 
            Sadly, the more he punishes Cordelia, the more she rebels – even when he kills her pet mice and rips her hair out she doesn’t see the error of her ways:  could Cordy be an irretrievably lost soul?
            Tikka and Laura, whose home-life is blessedly normal, do their best to support their friends, even though they are forced to concede that Cordy brings a lot of her father’s biblical wrath purposely upon herself, and her latest trick of flirting with the new replacement teacher is sheer madness – she’s only thirteen!
            But she is their friend, to the extent that when the Van Apfel girls announce they are going to run away, Tikka and Laura will do anything they can to help them – except that the carefully orchestrated escape goes wrong, with tragic results for one of the Van Apfel girls, and twenty years later Tikka, now in her 30’s and working in the States, sees Cordelia look-alikes wherever she goes;  she is unable to forget the events of 1992:  what happened to Cordelia and Hannah?  Ruth was found, but there has never been a trace of the other two, and Tikka and Laura have never been able to leave the tragedy behind.
            Now Laura has cancer and Tikka comes home to give her family the best of her support, but the mystery still remains, even though the Van Apfel parents are long dead:  what happened to Cordelia and Hannah?
            Ms McLean’s novel works best when narrator Tikka is eleven;  with her shrewd, humorous and knowing gaze, she skewers the everyday – and covert! – behaviour of her neighbours and schoolmates:  no-one is safe from her scrutiny, but it’s a shame that the first and last chapters are overwritten, fraught searches for Cordy:  it’s a literary device that doesn’t work here and I nearly gave up before the third chapter. Happily, Ms McLean gets into her stride and lets Tikka carry the day.  FOUR STARS.