Wednesday, 18 July 2018

Radio Boy, by Christian O’Connell                   Junior Fiction

            Spike Hughes is so average at St. Brenda’s that most of the other kids hardly notice him – except the school bully, Martin Harris, who likes to torment everyone.  Perhaps that wouldn’t be so bad, except that Martin Harris is good looking, the captain of the cricket and football teams – and is the son of the Headmaster, Fish-Face Harris, whom everyone fears and despises:  Fish-Face is a bully too;  even the teachers are anxious around him.
            Spike’s major pleasure is being an early morning  DJ at the local hospital where his mother is the Ward Manager – it’s only for an hour but he’s sure being a DJ will be his life’s work;  he has no other ambition except to wed Katherine Robertson, the Most Wonderful Girl in the School – one day.  But he is utterly betrayed by the Station Manager, who wants to give his spot to the Garden Show because ‘no-one listens to Spike’s Show between 6 and 7.  (That’s AM, not PM).  Spike is beside himself with rage and disappointment, leaving the hospital studio unusable by exploding the stink bombs he got for Christmas.  Well, it was the Station Manager’s own fault, giving his hour to someone who looked like a Garden Gnome!
            However, help may be at hand with the news that St Brenda’s is going to start its own Radio Show.  Spike is overjoyed:  he will have another chance to realise his dreams, at the same time impressing Katherine Robertson, the Girl He is Going to Marry.  Until Fish-Face Harris announces that the new Radio Show will be manned by his own dear son Martin.  BETRAYED AGAIN!!
            There’s nothing else for it but to rally the rest of the school AV club (his two friends Artie and Holly), and start a secret Radio Show of their own, broadcasting online with equipment begged, ‘borrowed’ and bought on EBay with his Dad’s assistance:  it has to be secret because if his Mum found out the sky would fall in – Mum’s pretty tough, but worries constantly about ‘what people think’.  What she doesn’t know won’t worry her, Spike reasons:  this idea can’t fail!  And he’s right.  With techno genius Holly as Producer and Artie in charge of music (Artie rescued his Dad’s vinyl collection from being dumped and is an ace music selector on a ‘borrowed’ turntable.  He lives in a huge house called The Gateau Chateau, so named because Artie’s Dad owns a chain of bakeries.  This means that there is always a supply of cakes and buns past their use-by date:  genius!)  Yep, Radio Boy/Spike, Elvis/Artie and Mystery Girl Producer can’t go wrong – until they do.  Majorly.
            Christian O’Connell has his own Breakfast Show on Britain’s Absolute Radio so he knows what he’s writing about, and how to capture hearts and minds of today’s techno-savvy kids  by making the AV Club’s exploits so laugh-out-loud funny but believable that a huge uptake of 10 year old AV students in the future will be a sure thing.  FIVE STARS    

Sunday, 8 July 2018

The Wanted, by Robert Crais.

           This is Robert Crais’s twenty-first novel;  he’s a New York Times bestselling author, so where was I while he was churning out this huge output?  Living in happy ignorance, obviously, BUT.
            I have finally caught up with the rest of the world and recognise a classic example of formulaic crime writing, especially when series protagonist ace Private Investigator Elvis Cole has top karate and kung-fu moves, cool looks, a smart mouth, and a murderous side-kick called Joe.  Who could resist such a God?  He makes other classic PI’s of modern fiction look like Grade A twits, and his villains – OMG, his bad guys are literally to DIE for!
            Elvis is called by a frantic mother to investigate the mega-expensive Rolex watch she found hidden in her teenage son’s bedroom.  Son Tyson has been expelled from several schools for ‘behavioural’ problems’ and has recently taken up with a girl that his mum deems wholly unsuitable.  Elvis thinks so too when he searches Tyson’s desk (yep, Elvis is even better at ferreting out hiding places than a mum), and finds great wads of greenbacks:  Tyson is a thief, and he and the wholly unsuitable girl have been burgling rich properties in Bel Air and other L.A. high-end neighbourhoods – just for the thrill of it, because life is boring, and life has been mean to them.  They deserve to have some fun!  And lots of money.  The problem is, they took a laptop belonging to someone who has major incriminating secrets on it;  the owner wants it back, and to that end has hired a couple of Enforcers, Harvey and Stemms, to recover it.  All well and good, except that Harvey and Stemms are killers, and think nothing of leaving a trail of bodies in their wake as they track down the teenage burglars.
Well, thank the Lord for Elvis, his coolness, his Corvette, and sidekick murderous Joe:  in short chapters and even shorter sentences, Mr Crais introduces and dispatches minor characters with experienced ease;  we learn a little of Elvis’s backstory in the process – he fell in love a book or two ago;  the lady had a son with whom Elvis bonded, and he would have loved to have been a dad – now he feels the sorrow of a solo life, but by the next book he may have paired up again;  he attracts women like flies.  Of course! 
Anyway.  Harvey and Stemms meet a very predictable fate – which is a shame, for they were more finely drawn than I expected, and a heap more interesting than some of the main characters, several of whom appeared to be forgotten about when this story ambled towards its end.  And despite the pleasurable fact that Elvis has a cat so savage that all visitors give it a wide berth, I’m not inclined to read past or future books.  This is Fast-Food writing:  tasty, fills a gap, but has zero nutritional value.  THREE STARS  

Wednesday, 4 July 2018

The Twelve-Mile Straight, by Eleanor Henderson

            The Twelve-Mile Straight in 1930 is an unpaved Georgia road leading from a cotton mill town to the poor Negro wards at the impoverished end of the county.  It is also the scene of the bloody murder of negro labourer Genus Jackson, accused of raping the daughter of the white share-cropper who employed him on the farm owned by the most powerful man in the county. Despite his innocence, he is lynched first, then dragged behind a pickup truck along the twelve-mile, and dumped broken and unrecognisable outside the sheriff’s office.  His boots are missing, stolen by the driver of the pickup, who has since lit out for parts unknown.
            So begins Eleanor Henderson’s explosive novel of Southern Georgia during the Depression, a state that would always be part of Old Dixie, regardless of the Civil War, Emancipation and all the other hard-won racial concessions:  in 1930 white privilege, fear and hatred still rule, and the only difference from being slaves is that the coloureds are reluctantly paid starvation wages – if the cotton crop doesn’t fail.  Elma Jesup, daughter of the share-cropper who made the accusations against Jackson has  ostensibly given birth to twins, a girl red-headed and freckled like herself, and a boy who is obviously mulatto:  she is a Jezebel!  There she was, engaged to the grandson of Mill-owner George Wilson (also red-headed and freckled) but she done crawled into bed with a nigger!  The town ladies vow never to associate with her or her wild, nigger-loving father Juke, even though they know the same could be said of their own feckless husbands;  they can’t seem to stay away from them coloured gals and the number of ‘terminations’ that Doc Rawls has to ‘arrange’ is proof of that fact. 
            In prose that should be the envy of all aspiring writers, Ms Henderson describes Elma’s attempts to make something of her young life and circumstances against the backdrop of racism and unchanging views as old as the hills beyond her home:  the writer’s voice is clear and sweet when she describes Elma’s undying sisterhood with her mute negro housegirl Nan, and harsh as a crow’s call when she writes of incest and unspeakable cruelty on the farm, and the hypocritical lengths that Southern society will pursue in order to preserve the old, comfortable way of life.  As we all know nearly ninety years later, old attitudes die hard, and sometimes don’t die at all.  ‘The Twelve-Mile Straight’ is a monument to all those who struggled for dignity and change – and are still doing so.  SIX STARS     

Thursday, 28 June 2018

Girl on Fire, by Tony Parsons 

           DC Max Wolfe returns, prickly and recalcitrant as ever in his fifth adventure, but this time he is a victim in the opening pages.  Someone has programmed a drone to attack an ambulance helicopter, causing it to crash into a huge shopping mall causing multiple casualties.  Max was in the mall to buy his daughter Scout a new back pack (the old back pack is hopeless;  it’s only for babies) and, apart from cuts and bruises, considers himself blessed to have escaped when so many others died.  His good luck doesn’t stop him from feeling enormous anger and sorrow on behalf of those who didn’t survive, and the sooner Scotland Yard can track down the killers, the better.
            It doesn’t take them long:  Max is part of a team specially chosen to raid the house of Pakistani immigrants – on the surface law-abiding citizens, but the sons of the family have recently returned from Syria where they were apparently fighting Jihad.  Why weren’t they under surveillance? Max asks, for the raid turns bad, with one police officer murdered by one of the sons, and both brothers killed ‘in self-defence’ according to the official police statement.  Race relations in London have hit rock-bottom, and gangs have started to form outside the raided house, those in support of ‘Jihad!’ and far right extremists determined to shout them down.
            Max’s personal life decides to contribute to the powder-keg situation in the shape of his ex-wife:  it’s time for Scout to have some stability and order in her life.  She should come and live with her mother and mum’s new family, and to that end – for she knows that Max will not consent – she has retained legal advice, so there!  It goes without saying that Max’s lot is not a happy one, but hey!  He’s the hero, he’s supposed to solve all these problems with a careless grin and minimum effort, but when his beloved dog Stan becomes deathly ill too, he’s pretty much ready to throw in the towel.
            As always, (see review below) Mr Parsons evokes perfectly the fearful atmosphere of a huge city under threat;  his minor characters are portrayed with fairness and honesty, especially the raiding officers and what the job does to them – but he is equally stark in presenting the distorted view of Islam that murdering fanatics embrace, and the effect it has on their families.  Sadly, where this book falls just a little despite the author’s obvious competence is that it fails to engage the reader for the whole length of the story, even though there was an unexpected and shocking twist to the tale right at the end.  What a shame.  FOUR STARS.

The Hanging Club, by Tony Parsons

            How satisfying, how enjoyable it is to be hooked by a story on the very first page – it doesn’t happen very often, especially with crime writers who follow a by-the-numbers formula, but Tony Parson’s swashbuckling superhero DC Max Wolfe, despite his superior and unerring powers of deduction has a human side which makes him much more credible:  his personal life in each book so far (this is the third) is less than ideal, except for his love for his little daughter Scout, and their dog Stan.  Max has been a solo Dad for several years now, and while he wishes, as everyone does, for True Love (he has fallen for a different girl in each story – unsuccessfully!) he still blesses life with his little family. 
Not everyone is so lucky, especially the victims of the latest mindless violence he has to deal with every day:  a decent man remonstrates with louts who are urinating on his wife’s car parked outside their home.  The louts beat him to death, film it on their phones, then get the charges reduced to manslaughter in court – ‘he was freatening us, me Lord! It was self-defence!’ – despite the iphone evidence, their sentences are a slap on the wrist, leaving yet another family permanently in ruins.  Max feels a burning hatred for the smirking murderers in the dock, especially when they laugh at him, the arresting officer, on their way to prison.  Sometimes – many times, the Law is an Ass.
And another group thinks so, too – a masked group who post online their execution by hanging of taxi driver Mahmud Irani in a place so secret that no police at West End Central, Max’s base, has any idea where it could be – except that Mahmud’s body is dumped at the site of the old Tyburn Tree, London’s infamous place of Execution.  The video states that he was found guilty of grooming, drugging and abusing children, but the sentence he served (two years) was absurd:  death by hanging was the proper verdict.
This killing is followed up by another ‘execution’, in the same secret place of a trust fund manager who drove his Porsche over a child biking across a zebra crossing, sending the little boy into a coma for six months before he was taken off life-support, but Money-Man was sent down for two years only – another ‘wet bus ticket’ slap – and he was even reinstated in his job when he was released.
Once again, his death is posted online for all to see, and the internet is buzzing with support for the vigilantes who are doing what should have been done to those murdering bastards in the first place:  Bring Back Capital Punishment!
And those weak-kneed coppers who tiptoe around guarding the prisoners’ rights – they’re worse than the lot of them.  As Max finds to his horror when he puts two and two together and finds himself in the same secret place, awaiting his execution.
Mr Parsons keeps the action barrelling along at Porsche speed, at the same time giving readers a marvellous picture of another country within Britain:  London, that great and sprawling city, from the teeming centres of Smithfield and Soho to the elegant leafy avenues and squares of those rich enough to live there – and a compelling portrait of London’s underbelly, a place that no-one wants to explore.  FIVE STARS


Sunday, 10 June 2018

Red Queen, by Victoria Aveyard            Young Adult reading

Glass Sword, by Victoria Aveyard

            A lot of dystopian fiction has been written for young people since ‘The Hunger Games’, that superb trilogy by Suzanne Collins.  The genre has not always been well-served by writers hoping to leap on to the bandwagon as they churn out pale imitations of a very successful formula – until Victoria Aveyard restores the faith in what was becoming a tired old theme, i.e. impoverished but fearless (and beautiful) girl fights evil (and disgustingly wealthy) enemies to free the world of tyranny and (after numerous death-defying, shocking and nail-biting misadventures) vanquishes the Bad Guys and everyone lives happily ever after.

           While it is true that the above could be a much-abridged summation of Ms Aveyard’s quartet of novels (I’m galloping through the second one), her protagonist Mare Barrow is hugely appealing, and carries the story effortlessly – she is feisty (of course!), sassy and downright rude (you go girl!) whenever she can’t help herself, and that’s often – and she has a secret power unknown to her until she falls onto some electrified wires:  she wasn’t fried as she expected, instead she found that she could harness the electricity and use it to zap those who would do her harm – and they are many, for Mare has Red Blood.  Don’t we all?  I hear you say, but in this Dystopian future, a thousand years after a huge nuclear war razed cities and countries, those with red blood are servants and underdogs;  the Silver Bloods are the rich and dominant leaders, and they are cruel masters.
            So far, so familiar, except that Mare is a thief by trade, until she picks the pocket of a Silver Prince out slumming;  fortunately for her, he listens as she rants at him about having no choice in her occupation;  it’s the stranglehold the Silvers have on the Reds, keeping them downtrodden and oppressed that forces her to steal so that her family won’t starve.  His solution, instead of having her executed for theft, is to give her a job as a servant in his family’s summer palace.  Mare has just dodged death, but why?  Not that she isn’t grateful, but her new duties combined with her new-found talent for controlling electricity – she is now known as little lightning girl – complicate and endanger her life more than she ever dreamed.  It is clear too, that the ruling Silver family is not as secure on the throne as they appear.  They have enemies within as well as the seething rebelling Red masses without:  can the little lightning girl conquer them and become a Red Queen?
            Not in the first book:  Mare ends up on the run, a fugitive with a loyal little band of followers, searching for more gifted ‘Newbloods’ like herself, part red, part silver, but each with an extraordinary gift that, if enough are found, could be moulded into an elite army, capable of defeating the most powerful of enemies.  Ms Aveyard has given great new life to a genre that has been flogged almost to a standstill and her characters are full of life and exuberance – in Mare’s case, electricity! – and, as should be the case in fantasy sagas of Good and Evil, strong questioning of moral standpoints and values.
            This is a great series, action-packed to the last page, and once again I thank my granddaughter Ava, reader extraordinaire, for telling me about it.  FIVE STARS        

Thursday, 31 May 2018

The Chalk Man, by C. J. Tudor

          It is 1986 and Fat Gav (yep, he really is), Metal Mickey (he wears braces), Hoppo (short for Hopkins), and Ed Munster (his surname is Adams which really has nothing at all to do with the Munsters, but …) and Nicky Martin, a vicar’s daughter and the only girl in their little gang are all 12 years old and go to the same school in the picturesque village of Anderbury.  They are firm friends (though Metal Mickey has a mean streak and is hard to like all the time) and are looking forward to going to the annual Fair, the highlight of their school holidays.
            The Fair is ACE, as they all thought it would be, until Ed is a spectator at a terrible accident as a piece of faulty equipment flies off a ride and badly injures a young girl standing nearby:  fortunately for her – and Ed! A cool-headed stranger takes charge, and under his instruction Ed is able to assist the girl until the ambulance arrives.  He and the stranger are heroes!  And how cool that the stranger will be his school’s new English teacher when the holidays are over.  Of course, it’s a terrible shame about the poor girl, her pretty face quite ruined by her injuries but apart from that, 1986 is going very well indeed.
            Now it is 2016 and the great potential of their collective futures is gone:  Fat Gav is in a wheelchair, crippled in a driving accident caused by Metal Mickey;  English teacher Ed lives in a state of gentlemanly and alcoholic seediness in his family’s home – his beloved Dad has died of Alzheimer’s and his mum is living elsewhere;  Hoppo is a plumber and still lives with his mum, who is very frail and forgetful.  And Metal Mickey, spiteful, hate-filled Metal Mickey, has returned to Anderbury after a very long absence during which he created for himself a new persona as a high-flying advertising exec:  he is threatening to write a book about the event that none of them can bear to face:  the brutal murder and dismemberment in the woods of the girl who had been injured at the fair.  Her body parts were buried here and there under piles of leaves, discovered by the boys as they played in the woods;  only her head was never found.  Now Mickey wants to write a book about this heinous crime because ‘he knew who killed her’. 
            C.J. Tudor’s debut novel, narrated by Ed, has more layers than an onion and covers much more emotional ground than the usual common-or-garden thriller;  there are several important sub-plots woven tightly and well into the main theme of the story, not least abortion-on-demand (Ed’s mother is a Doctor at an abortion clinic), and the fact that each member of the little ‘gang’ (with the exception of Mickey – at first) is an only child:  they are each other’s true siblings.  But what is the significance of the little stick men drawn in chalk that always seem to turn up when something horrible has happened?  I hope Ms Tudor’s next book is as gripping and clever as this one.  FIVE STARS         

Thursday, 24 May 2018

Prime Cut, by Alan Carter.

           In 1991, Alan Carter emigrated from England with his wife and son to Australia, ‘Land of Golden Beaches, Blue Skies and Flies’ – and all dedicated WhoDunnit readers in this part of the world are very glad he did:  England’s loss is definitely Down Under’s gain, for Mr Carter decided to write his first thriller, Prime Cut while being a ‘kept man’ in Hopetoun, a small coastal town in South West Australia.  He has since travelled across the Tasman and also resides part-time in the South Island’s beautiful Marlborough Sounds, producing another opus, ‘Marlborough Man’ (reviewed below) which was so good that I nagged our library until they purchased more of his titles:  I’m very lucky to be so spoilt, but so is anyone else who reads any of his books, for he has an unassailable eye and ear for the smallest nuances of Oz/NZ vernacular and behaviour – anyone from this neck of the Southern Hemisphere would swear that he was born here, for he gets it right on every page.
            His protagonist in ‘Prime Cut’ is Philip ‘Cato’ Kwong, once a rising star in the Perth police – he was even used on a police recruitment poster, urging young people regardless of their ethnic origin (Kwong is Chinese) to Step Up – those were heady days being the darling of the Higher-Ups, until a wrongful arrest sent his skyrocketing career in the other direction:  Now as punishment he is stranded in Hopetoun, sidekick to Jim Buckley, stock control policeman;  the only corpses he sees are of the sheep and cattle variety and  his marriage has also failed:  Cato’s life has hit the skids.
            Until the remains of a body are discovered by the local schoolteacher on the beach.  Initially it is thought that the poor man was attacked and half-eaten by sharks – until closer examination by forensics reveals that the torso’s head was removed by a chainsaw. 
            Cato can’t help rejoicing – while he’s as horrified as the next bloke by the ferocity of the man’s death, he is thrilled to be involved in real police work again, a crime that will require his undoubtedly superior skills of deduction:  it will be a chance to shine, not least because the local Plods just aren’t experienced enough to investigate as cleverly as he can.  He looks forward to showing the Big Boys from Perth police that they made a mistake in consigning him to the outer darkness of Hopetoun.
            The only cloud on his new horizon is a baffling accident suffered by a retired Pommie police detective researching a cold case, a brutal and sadistic murder in the North East of England thirty years ago.  When he and an off-duty police officer arrived to interview an old fisherman at his caravan, they were nearly killed by an explosion when they tried the door.  Suddenly, Hopetoun seems to have become Sin City.  Cato hopes the cavalry will arrive soon!
            Mr Carter’s characters inhabit their roles effortlessly.  Cato, despite his belief in his talents is forced more than once to face the fact that he doesn’t always get things right first time, especially regarding the harmless old fisherman, and especially when it comes to first impressions of his Hopetoun colleagues, several of whom taking it upon themselves to appraise him of a very long list of his faults:  yep, he has been weighed and found wanting.
            The smart dialogue and non-stop action keep the pages turning at a great rate and it’s very satisfying to read a novel set in this part of the world that rings true throughout.  Bring on the next one!  FOUR STARS

Marlborough Man, by Alan Carter

           In 1991 Alan Carter emigrated from Britain to Australia.  He is the author of a series of crime novels (which our library has yet to obtain) that have brought him great success, and he divides his time, so the blurb says, between Fremantle and his property in the South Island of New Zealand – the Marlborough Sounds, to be exact.      
What a wonderful advocate he is of all things Kiwi, particularly in his neck of the woods at the top of the South Island:  there can be no keener observer of daily life, good and bad – including NZ politics and big business and its effects on the environment:  he doesn’t miss a trick, as my dear old gran used to say.  Add to that a clever plot and engaging characters, and crime writing has never been better.
            Police Sergeant Nick Chester is in a witness protection program, fleeing from the UK with his wife and Downs Syndrome child to anonymity – he thinks – 13,000 miles away Down Under.  He can’t be traced here, surely;  he and his family are set up in the back of beyond at the end of a dead end road little more than a gravel track, so.  Why does he still feel jumpy (paranoid would be closer to the truth), continually on edge, waiting for a sign that his enemies are coming for him?  To make the situation worse, the discovery of a child’s abused and tortured body, dumped by the side of a local road has galvanised and distracted all his colleagues from the usual boy racers, firewood thieves and Saturday night drunks.  He should concentrate on this shocking crime, not on vague feelings of unease, no matter how disturbing they may be.
            But his instincts are correct:  the criminals who want to kill him have the means to pay computer hackers to find him.  They are on their way;  he and his family are in mortal danger – then another little boy goes missing:  his life has become a nightmare. 
            Nick’s colleagues rally round:  another safe house is found for his wife and little boy until he can ‘dispatch’ the assassin who must inevitably show his face, or be dispatched himself, but their concerns – and his – are taken up with the discovery that the body of the second child is in the same abused state as the first.  The whole of Marlborough is reeling with horror:  this bastard HAS to be caught – it can’t happen again!  Yeah, right.  That’s what everyone said the first time.  And making matters worse?  There are no clues;  no revealing evidence.  This sicko has done this before, including casting red herrings like confetti to lead everyone into dead ends which, predictably, lead to more dead bodies.
Mr Carter moves the action along at a very satisfying pace;  he is a smart, witty writer and his characters are all satisfyingly as they should be, from the villains (there are several grades of villain here, from the ‘good’ baddies who save Nick’s bacon, to the really evil paedo baddies that get caught in the end) to Nick’s colleagues, chiefly his sidekick Constable Latifa Rapata, smart-mouthed upholder of the local law and acknowledged expert in unarmed combat, when she isn’t ticketing boy racers – one of whom has fallen in love with her and wants to be engaged, even after a deadly beating she endured at the hands of the villain:  ‘Look!  Engaged, and me with a face like a kumara.  Isn’t he a sweetie?’  Nick can’t deny it, but Latifa is a sweetie, too, and from the novel’s conclusion it appears that we may not meet these great characters again, which will be our loss.  Chester and Rapata would have made a great team for a very satisfying future Kiwi crime series.  I hope Mr Carter will change his mind.  FIVE STARS