Saturday, 16 February 2019


What You Wish For, by Catherine Robertson.


           This is Catherine Robertson’s second instalment in her wholly addictive chronicle of life in a small New Zealand town – I still haven’t figured out where it is yet, and she herself says that it could be anywhere, or where we want it to be.  Fair enough, but she makes Gabriel’s Bay sound so inviting, so typical of a community that we would all like to join, that I would like to pay it an extended visit. 
            Her characters are very real, as the first book demonstrated (see review below).  Some have had an improvement in their circumstances;  Kerry McFarlane has made a satisfying life with Sidney, no-nonsense solo mum of two strapping boys, and is currently expecting a visit from his parents in the U.K.  His dad is famed for being monosyllabic, but his mum makes up for it in spades.  Kerry’s powers of oratory fall somewhere in between.  Mum and Dad are going to stay with struggling farmer Vic Halsworth in a guest cottage Vic’s wife established during their very short marriage.  Vic doesn’t say much either, and doesn’t really know how it came to be that Kerry’s parents are renting his cottage.  While the income will be very welcome, he has bigger problems to deal with:  there are squatters on his land camping by the river and the local council (who haven’t changed their spots at all since the first novel) wants Vic to move them on – health and safety, you understand, not to mention polluting the waterway);  now an anonymous person has started a blog naming Vic as a ‘dirty’ farmer.  Things are only middling!
            The beloved, long-serving and suffering Doctor Love has retired, replaced by earnest young Indian Doctor Ashwin Ghadavi:  he has his own cross to bear in the shape of his mother in Ahmedabad;  he must uphold the family honour by marrying soon – here are the details of a suitable twenty-five year old.  Return home forthwith, and look rested!  Yes Mum.  The only inconvenience with that plan is that he has fallen helplessly in love with Emma, gorgeous free-spirited daughter of Jacko, proprietor of The Boatshed, the best bar and cafĂ© in the district – well, the best bar ever if measured on the friendliness and conviviality scale.  Yes, Ashwin has found his niche, and doesn’t want to return to Ahmedabad, looking rested.  Gabriel’s Bay is IT.
            Ms Robertson treats us to interesting subplots as well, characters such as Devon, so beautiful he is mistaken for a girl, not least because he refuses to cut his long blonde hair in defiance of people’s opinions that he must be a poof;  and Brownie, just out of jail and trying to integrate himself into the community again:  they’re all here in this charming story that ace journalist John Campbell said made us ‘not so much readers as neighbours’.  An entirely fitting compliment.  FIVE STARS.

Gabriel’s Bay, by Catherine Robertson

  
          Gabriel’s Bay could be any small coastal town in New Zealand, according to Catherine Robertson, so if your small town fits the description, then that’s where this charming little story is set:  easy-peasy.
            Gabriel’s Bay has high unemployment, an aging and diminishing population, and the attendant problems of petty crime, drug use and child neglect.  The local council are all dyed-in-the-wool practitioners of licking each other’s nether regions depending upon what it will get them, and those sterling characters who are genuine in their wish to see the town they love survive and prosper – somehow! – are at a loss to know how to remedy the situation before Gabriel’s Bay deteriorates into a ghost town.
            Enter Kerry Francis MacFarlane from London, employed as home help to an elderly couple who were one of the first families in the area, and therefore the Gentry:  they are of the mistaken belief that they have employed a woman, when in fact Kerry is a male, and a ginger one at that (every stripe and colour gets an outing in this book).  He has left his bride at the altar and feels that the farther he travels from the scene of the crime, the better:  to say that he is feckless is unkind, but he definitely needs to overhaul his ‘responsible-for-his-own-mess’ sensibilities.  Gabriel’s Bay is just the place to have a change of heart.  It rolls out its characters to him gradually;  they don’t accept charming strangers with the gift of the gab at face value, so it is up to Kerry to prove that he has stickability, especially when floating the idea of luring tourists to the town by opening a kind of Museum of Miniatures:  both his employers have made a wonderful miniature railway and a gorgeous dollhouse (with a real diamond chandelier!) and the local Doctor spends his rare leisure hours making intricate and authentic mini soldiers for war games of famous battles.  These  games are tremendously popular among the local aficionados because the historical outcome is not always achieved, depending on who’s playing:  Sacre Bleu – Bonaparte won against Wellington last week!
            Naturally, Romance rears its pretty head for Kerry, but not in the shape of someone gorgeous, lean and lithe:  instead Sidney is a struggling solo mum with two unruly sons and a waistline that disappeared long ago – in other words, someone real.  She is also a big-hearted minder of waifs and strays, not all of whom are poor – and she doesn’t tolerate any BS, so to Win Plump Lady and prove his worth as the town’s saviour, Kerry has to grow a spine and, for the first time in his life, Stay Put and Follow Through.
            Christmas is coming, and ‘Gabriel’s Bay’ is the ideal present for a hugely entertaining Beach or Airport read -  just the fun, feel-good story to relax with during the holidays.  Catherine Robertson has done small-town New Zealand proud.  FOUR STARS. 
  


Wednesday, 6 February 2019


Verses for the Dead, by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child


           Woo Hoo!   Silver-eyed, silver-haired and silver-tongued FBI special Agent Aloysius Pendergast is back, and about time, too:  it’s all very well gadding off to the Himalayas to bring back Constance, his 120 year-old (or thereabouts.  Ask me no questions;  you will just have to read the previous books) ward, for whom he has developed a great love, even though she has been despoiled by his wicked  brother Diogenes and bore him (Diogenes) a child (looked after by monks in the same Himalayan Monastery.  Oh, for goodness’ sake:  do I have to fill in the whole backstory?  Read the books!)
            Anyway.
            Pendergast and Constance are back in New York, cosily ensconced in his Riverside Drive Mansion, when he is called to Miami on a most distressing case:  a young woman has been found dead, her heart cut out – and the same heart has been found on the gravestone of a young woman who committed suicide.  Also, Pendergast has a new boss in place of his late superior, who always allowed him free reign to employ often unconventional – and sometimes fatal – means to solve the many cases for which he is famous:  Assistant Director Pickett has no such intentions – it’s time Pendergast’s rogue behaviour and lack of discipline was curtailed.  The sooner he is exiled to a desk job in Utah, the better.
            To that end, Pendergast is given a partner of Pickett’s choosing, Agent Coldmoon, a rising, ambitious young star who will solve this awful crime and expose Pendergast for cutter-of-corners and lamentable rule-breaker that he is:  Coldmoon will report everything to Pickett;  the FBI will shine and Pendergast will be out the door. 
            But that doesn’t happen:  Three more young women are killed by the same horrible method, their hearts left on the tombs of three suicides, and it is patently clear that only Pendergast has the expertise and foresight to plumb the depths of the sick mind behind these crimes.  As always, our hero wears his usual garb in spite of the Florida humidity:  a series of black designer suits of finest wool, equipped with multiple pockets in which to secrete plastic bags of clues that he gathers at the crime scenes.  He invariably resembles a very rich undertaker.  He does change at night, though, into a white suit of finest linen, accompanied by hand-made loafers.  He is a polymath par excellence, and Coldmoon has never met anyone like Pendergast, ever;  eventually, he is so impressed with his unconventional partner that he defies his boss, offering to go to Utah too, rather than betray Pendergast. 
            And what of the killer, and who done what?  The big reveal is made in true Preston and Child fashion;   an entirely unsuspected villain is unmasked, snakes and alligators feature in large numbers, and Special Agent Pendergast, covered with gory glory (as usual) is free to return to his Constance.  Great fun!  FIVE STARS      

Thursday, 31 January 2019


Scrublands, by Chris Hammer.

            Ex-Journalist Chris Hammer’s debut novel is very timely, given Australia’s current ‘highest temperatures since records began’ problems:  a huge drought has sucked the small New South Wales town of Riversend dry and all living things are suffering – as they currently are in real life at this moment, thanks to the vicious effects of climate change.
            Mr Hammer writes so vividly of Riversend’s drought and its horrendous effects that a beer would have been good to cool myself down as I read;  in fact I was tempted to don sunnies and a broad-brim hat with corks to block out the searing heat and unrelenting sunlight that dominates his story – but an inexplicable mass murder actually takes centre stage, and though the murderer is already dead, there are still too many unanswered questions a year on to let sleeping dogs lie.
            Journalist Martin Scarsden has been sent by his editor to write a piece on Riversend a year after a supposed pillar of society, the popular reverend Byron Swift opened fire on the steps of his church one Sunday morning and killed five parishioners, before being killed himself by his friend, the local policeman.  Martin has been instructed to find out how the town is faring, how people are surviving now after losing five good men in an apparently mindless rampage by a caring and charismatic churchman who supposedly cared deeply for his community – and how they now subsist in drought conditions.
            Martin has his own demons to fight after a stint in the Middle East, returning to Australia with PTSD and a decided lack of enthusiasm for his job;  he and his editor are hoping that this piece will re-ignite enthusiasm for the investigative journalism at which he excels, and for his life which doesn’t hold the same enjoyment anymore. He discovers that Riversend is a dying town where the businesses can only open on Tuesdays and Thursdays;  it has a surly, unresponsive population (we’ve already answered all these questions!’), and  the more information he obtains, the more mysterious the priest’s motives appear, especially as he was accused of paedophilia before his death.
            Then the bodies of two young German Backpackers are discovered in a private dam belonging to one of the old families in the area, and incorrect information given to him for the story results in Martin being sacked:  he is now ‘disgraced former journalist’ Martin Scarsden.  Things can’t get worse, one would think, but they do, and Mr Hammer drives the reader at breakneck speed to his novel’s conclusion (it even rains on the last page, thank you Jesus!), never letting up the suspense until all is finally revealed – but I have to say that, despite some great Aussie characters and a wonderfully evocative portrayal of small-town Australia, his final revelations are unconvincing – he has too many villains, and keeping tabs on them slows the action considerably for the last chapters of the story - which is a shame, but I’m sure he’ll get it right next time.  FOUR STARS.

Sunday, 27 January 2019


Bridge of Clay, by Markus Zusak.

            This mighty novel is a bit of a dog’s breakfast:  as it starts it’s hard to work out time frames and who’s writing about who.  It takes a chapter or two to get the head around the fact that this is a family story, and a great one, but the narrator, Matthew, the oldest of the Dunbar boys, has never tried this writing lark before, especially on his grandmother’s old TW (typewriter) disinterred from her former backyard.  But he has to tell the story of himself and his four brothers, and how they fared after their mother died and their father (The Murderer) left them to fend for themselves within a year of her death.  All – plus warts – must be revealed, a great tide of secrets, yearnings, humour, joy, tragedy and terrible loss, so that the new version of their family can flourish, shorn of all sorrow and guilt.
            Matthew is not a natural writer, but he’s ruthlessly honest – especially about the lack of musical ability of all five boys.  Before their mother Penelope had fled Communist Poland as a refugee, she had enjoyed minor success as a concert pianist and wished to pass on her love of music to her Australian larrikin sons – well, they loved music, too:  they just didn’t want to play it.  They did, however, hang on to her every word as she recounted Homer’s great epics, the Iliad and the Odyssey, bequeathed to her by her father, who looked ‘like Stalin’s Statue’. 
            Their father, Michael, had a history,  too:  Penelope was not his first wife, who left him because he was too ‘small-town’ for her;  he was to suffer from that label for years afterwards, until he met Penny and the piano that she had worked so hard to buy outside his front door.  It had been delivered to the wrong address – that was about the luckiest thing to happen to Michael Dunbar, ever:  his second family.  Until cancer intervened and ruined everything, exposing him for the weak man he always thought he was. 
            Matthew is ruthless in his account of his father’s failings, especially when he turns up out of the blue to request help from his sons to build a bridge to prevent flooding on his country property.  They haven’t seen him for years, and have made a slapdash, ramshackle life for themselves:  he is not welcome, but one son does take pity;  16 year old Clay, who decides to help for his own mysterious reasons.  Clay, ‘the boy who smiles but never laughs’ has decided that his reprehensible father is worth helping.
            Markus Zusak is justly famed for his marvellous novel ‘The Book Thief’:  this novel reinforces his stellar reputation as a truly great storyteller, able to make us laugh or cry at will:  Matthew punching on the Old TW never had a better guide.  Messy, muddly magic.  SIX STARS    

Thursday, 24 January 2019


Elephant Secret, by Eric Walters.                     Junior Fiction


           Samantha Gray and her Dad have an elephant sanctuary in the U.S.A.  They care for a herd of eleven elephants;  money is scarce on their 200-acre property and they have to spend it wisely, especially on secure fencing and good feed for their large charges.  There’s not much left over for themselves, but they wouldn’t have it any other way:  they are loved and respected members of the herd, and the herd is Sam’s family – her mother died giving birth to her and she has known no other life.  And that’s the way she wants it, for in her experience, elephants can be a lot nicer than people.
            Sam and her Dad are particularly excited as the story begins because one of their elephants is pregnant and after nearly two years (!) is about to give birth:  she has been artificially inseminated at the request of a mysterious investor in their sanctuary who has provided them with a lot more cash for food and even two trained zoo veterinarians to assist at the birth – he must have very deep pockets!  They are all thrilled to be a part of this – until everything goes wrong;  despite the vets’ best efforts to help, the mother dies and they fight to save the baby, who requires 24/7 care and feeding – and for the progeny of an Asian elephant, looks very shaggy indeed, so much so that Sam names her Woolly.
            What’s going on?
            The mysterious investor is so excited by the birth that he eventually reveals himself so that he can pay Woolly a visit, and Sam and her Dad are dumbfounded to find that he is a very famous billionaire computer genius and  conservationist who has invented a program to extract the DNA of woolly mammoths, enormous ancestors of elephants who roamed the icy planes of the earth thousands of years ago:  Woolly is a clone, an exact copy of a female mammoth who died and was frozen in the arctic ice three thousand years before.  Her life is precious beyond imagining.
            Mr Walters has given children of all ages a touching and marvellous story of conservation under stress, elephant behaviour, and the great love and loyalty they can feel for each other and their human friends.  We need more books like this to urgently promote the message that elephants are an endangered species: If we don’t stop despoiling our beautiful world they will soon be extinct, like the mammoths that used to roam the Tundra.  FIVE STARS.

Saturday, 19 January 2019


In Pieces, by Sally Field.

          Actor Sally Field’s memoir is many things:  a chronicle of the Great and the Good (and others) of Hollywood TV, where she achieved teen stardom playing Gidget, motherless, surf-crazy but charming daughter of a widower;  a stark and terrible account of a childhood ruined by a sexually abusive stepfather, and a relentlessly honest, warts-and-all assessment of her relationships – her failures and successes, particularly with her nearest and dearest.
            It cannot be easy to turn the camera on oneself, but Ms Field has ruthlessly done just that, starting with her childhood in the 40’s, where her mother Margaret pursued a minor career in B movies.  Margaret had married soldier Richard Field who was soon shipped off to war;  fortunately he returned to his bride and fathered Ricky and Sally: unfortunately, they were unable to stay married, so  Margaret came home to her widowed Mom:  marriage wasn’t what it was cracked up to be!  She had some success with work in TV and film (good old Mom babysat), and eventually met dreamily handsome Jock O’Mahoney, known as Jocko, another B movie and TV actor – and a stuntman:  how could she resist?  This time, she had found Mr Right.
            But she hadn’t:  Jocko demeaned her son and abused her daughter and Margaret anaesthetised herself with Vodka, the great drowner of sorrows.  When Jocko eventually left (with another woman), Sally became the breadwinner, landing the role of ‘The Flying Nun’, a piece of TV puffery so inane that she was embarrassed to be a part of it – but she was the only earner;  Margaret’s spectacular beauty was wrecked by drink – even B movies were now beyond her reach. So.  Sally was IT.       
            Sally’s role as breadwinner for the family on the odious ‘Flying Nun’ was so crucial that she was driven to Tijuana in Mexico for an illegal and frighteningly dangerous abortion;  as it was, when she did marry and was expecting the birth of her first child, her nun’s habit had to conceal her pregnancy by any means possible:  lugging about piles of books;  carrying enormous vases of flowers, etc, for Sister Bertrille was a Holy child, without sin and blemish:  for her to be and look pregnant was unthinkable!  As anyone would expect. 
In due course Sally Field would get the opportunity to prove that she had the chops to be a serious actor;  she won two Academy awards and several Emmys, a source of enormous satisfaction to her after her start as America’s Queen of Feather-Brained comedy, but her finest achievement in her eyes are her three fine sons – and her talent for writing;  the ability to tell a story, her story, with honesty, grace and humour.  She has come through the fire of her life relatively unscathed and we are privileged to share it.  FIVE STARS

                           Actor Sally Field’s memoir is many things:  a chronicle of the Great and the Good (and others) of Hollywood TV, where she achieved teen stardom playing Gidget, motherless, surf-crazy but charming daughter of a widower;  a stark and terrible account of a childhood ruined by a sexually abusive stepfather, and a relentlessly honest, warts-and-all assessment of her relationships – her failures and successes, particularly with her nearest and dearest.
            It cannot be easy to turn the camera on oneself, but Ms Field has ruthlessly done just that, starting with her childhood in the 40’s, where her mother Margaret pursued a minor career in B movies.  Margaret had married soldier Richard Field who was soon shipped off to war;  fortunately he returned to his bride and fathered Ricky and Sally: unfortunately, they were unable to stay married, so  Margaret came home to her widowed Mom:  marriage wasn’t what it was cracked up to be!  She had some success with work in TV and film (good old Mom babysat), and eventually met dreamily handsome Jock O’Mahoney, known as Jocko, another B movie and TV actor – and a stuntman:  how could she resist?  This time, she had found Mr Right.
            But she hadn’t:  Jocko demeaned her son and abused her daughter and Margaret anaesthetised herself with Vodka, the great drowner of sorrows.  When Jocko eventually left (with another woman), Sally became the breadwinner, landing the role of ‘The Flying Nun’, a piece of TV puffery so inane that she was embarrassed to be a part of it – but she was the only earner;  Margaret’s spectacular beauty was wrecked by drink – even B movies were now beyond her reach. So.  Sally was IT.       
            Sally’s role as breadwinner for the family on the odious ‘Flying Nun’ was so crucial that she was driven to Tijuana in Mexico for an illegal and frighteningly dangerous abortion;  as it was, when she did marry and was expecting the birth of her first child, her nun’s habit had to conceal her pregnancy by any means possible:  lugging about piles of books;  carrying enormous vases of flowers, etc, for Sister Bertrille was a Holy child, without sin and blemish:  for her to be and look pregnant was unthinkable!  As anyone would expect. 
In due course Sally Field would get the opportunity to prove that she had the chops to be a serious actor;  she won two Academy awards and several Emmys, a source of enormous satisfaction to her after her start as America’s Queen of Feather-Brained comedy, but her finest achievement in her eyes are her three fine sons – and her talent for writing;  the ability to tell a story, her story, with honesty, grace and humour.  She has come through the fire of her life relatively unscathed and we are privileged to share it.  FIVE STARS
                 

Saturday, 12 January 2019


The French Girl, by Lexie Elliott.


           Ten years before this story opens, six Oxford university students spend a carefree, booze-and-love-fuelled week in a farmhouse in the French region of Dordogne.  The weather is perfect and so is the farmhouse, which belongs to the parents of Theo, one of the students – it even has a swimming pool, and a very attractive young neighbour, Severine, who avails herself of the pool whenever she wishes:  they are neighbours, non?  And this is what good neighbours do.
            Unfortunately, the happy week is ruined on the last night by a screaming argument and the break-up of a relationship:  the next morning everyone suffers multiple hangovers and a silent, sulky drive back to damp and dirty London and the real world.  Narrator Kate Channing is in pieces, for her romance with aristocratic Seb has ended, partly, she is sure, because of her humble northern origins;  her very best friend Lara is still entwined with Seb’s cousin Tom but that won’t last long;  she has more oomph than she knows what to do with and it needs to be shared around;  Theo of the red hair and uncontrollable blushes (not to mention his inability to tan properly) shocks them all by joining the army, and Caro – smart, spiteful, clever Caro is preparing herself for a stellar legal career:  she will leave them all trailing in her wake. 
            And what of the French girl, Severine, whom no-one gave further thought to as they left?  Apparently, she disappeared after taking the bus to the nearest village, never to be seen again:  oh dear, never mind.  Everyone must move on.
            Until a French detective visits London after a decade to interview all those staying at the farmhouse at the time of Severine’s disappearance:  her cold case has been re-opened for her body has been found in a sealed well on the farmhouse property.  She has been murdered and he has many awkward questions for those who saw her on the last night of her life – and -  quelle horreur! – he seems to regard Kate, now on the brink of success in the corporate world, as his prime suspect.
            It is hard to believe that this is Ms Elliott’s debut novel, for she writes with an easy assurance that most first novelists would furiously envy:  there are no holes in the plot;  the action is fast and furious, and there is a legal end I didn’t see coming – she demonstrates very cleverly the extent that the law can protect and defend everyone, including the criminals.  FIVE STARS.