Saturday, 22 September 2018

Children’s Fiction.

Here are two completely different war stories for children – though the second title is definitely more suited to teenage readers.  It is a story of The Great War, The War to End All Wars, and it deals unflinchingly with more adult themes and their consequences, including the Influenza pandemic that engulfed the world at the end of hostilities.  Despite their vast differences in time and place, both titles have in common the terrible cost that war forces upon us all, especially the children.

The Blue Cat, by Ursula Dubosarsky.

            Sydney, Australia in 1942:  Columba and her best friend Hilda watch, fascinated, as a new boy is introduced to the school by the Headmaster at assembly.  His name is Ellery and he has come from You-Rope, where they speak French and where Hitler is.  ‘The Pope lives there, too’, remarks Hilda, who is known as That Child! by Columba’s mother, because Hilda soaks up information – and gossip – like a sponge and passes it all on like the bush telegraph. 
            Ellery is the palest boy Columba has ever seen which is a worry, for the Australian sun is fierce;  they haven’t had rain for months, the big dam is nearly dry and new water restrictions have been brought in:  Ellery will be fried like a sausage if he doesn’t keep out of the sun, and despite the general urge to scoff at those who are different, Columba is curious and concerned about Ellery.  He lives in a flat with his father, but where is his mother?  She wishes he could speak English so that she could ask him, for Columbia is a naturally curious child – especially about her own name, which she knows means ‘Dove’, and she has exhausted her mother’s patience more than once with her relentless questioning.  But why does Ellery carry with him ALL the time a book written in German, ‘Die SchatzInsel’?  German is the enemy’s language in You-Rope;  they are the enemies along with Japan of King George and the British Empire, and the Australian Army is fighting them at this very minute!
            Another mysterious new arrival in the street is a large grey/blue cat, a stray who adopts two spinster ladies for a time.  They are Columba’s next-door neighbours, Miss Hazel and Miss Marguerite, and they are bereft when the cat moves on, especially Miss Marguerite, who is ‘delicate’.  Where has it gone?  Will it return?
            The questions multiply as Hilda turns up at school to announce importantly that her big brother is now a prisoner-of-war in Italy:  Hilda hopes he will be getting enough to eat.  (Her mother’s words).  And the warships in the harbour multiply, too:  the Americans have arrived to save them all!  But Columba still wants to know about Ellery.  Because she wants to be his friend.
            Ms Dubosarsky captures the times perfectly.  Her characters are exactly right, a great humorous mix of the young and old, and every chapter is accompanied by pictures and newspaper clippings of the day, which is an inspired addition to this lovely story.  Perfect for those keen young readers ten and upwards.  FIVE STARS

The Goose Road, by Rowena House.

         In Northern France in 1916, Angelique Lacroix receives the dread news that her father, who was one of the first to enlist in the French army, has been killed in the battle of Verdun.  Her mother is stunned with grief;  Angelique is not.  She hated her father, who beat her and her adored brother Pascal often, especially when he had been drinking;  she is just glad that it wasn’t Pascal who died:  now the family farm will belong to him and he will come home from war victorious, and marry Angelique’s very best friend.  She hopes.  Such are the dreams of a 14 year old.  In the meantime she and her mother must carry on and save what they have for him, even though the French army keeps passing through their district ‘requisitioning’ any livestock to feed their troops – and thanks to the troops’ rampant and brutal theft of every farm’s animals and poultry, people are beginning to starve;  Angelique hopes that the army doesn’t discover their farm, remote as it is.
            But they do, and remove their cow and pig.  Nothing is left except Pascal’s flock of magnificent Toulouse geese, hidden in the woods when the army scouts arrive.  And as if that were not enough tragedy, their father’s gambling debts surface in the shape of angry creditors demanding what is owed:  they will lose the farm and very soon be homeless unless Angelique and her mother can think of a solution, and the only solution is for Angelique and her Uncle Gustav to herd her beautiful geese across France to find the highest bidder in a country that is desperate for food, a country full of liars and profiteers, good people who are starving – and English and French Officers who will pay astronomical prices for a Christmas Goose, especially those Officers who are expecting to die in battle soon.
            Ms House recounts Angelique’s journey with her beloved Uncle as suspensefully as any good thriller writer;  her characters are rock-solid and she captures all too well the desperation and despair that makes good people do terrible things – and those like Angelique’s childhood friend René, who enlists in the army despite having a withered leg from a bout of Polio:  he couldn’t bear to be called a coward.  This is a truly great book for all teen readers.  FIVE STARS      

Saturday, 15 September 2018

The Blood Road, by Stuart MacBride.

        The Scottish city of Aberdeen has the worst weather in the U.K., if not the world.  It never stops raining, from the gentle pitter-pattery misty kind to the driving, horizontal, attacking, sleety stuff guaranteed to freeze Logan MacRae to the marrow as he ponders his ‘promotion’ in Police Scotland to Inspector in the Professional Standards division, a job he is unsure if he actually enjoys.  He really should be out catching crims, rather than policing his own colleagues – it doesn’t seem right somehow, as evidenced by the change in said colleagues’ attitudes.  They scuttle past him in the corridors with minimum eye-contact and he now sits by himself in the pub, not at the rowdy table. 
            Until Detective Sergeant Lorna Chalmers, whose unsatisfactory  behaviour he is investigating in relation to several linked child abduction cases is found hanging in her garage, an apparent suicide, and because Police Scotland is woefully short-staffed, not to mention copping the flak from the media at its inability to solve the child disappearances, Logan is seconded to investigate Chalmers’ suicide and an even bigger mystery:  the return (temporarily) from the dead of Detective Duncan ‘Ding-Dong’ Bell, found murdered in a rental car a couple of days before Chalmers’ suicide.  To say that most of the police force is in shock is no exaggeration, especially as most of them had attended Ding-Dong’s funeral two years before.  That was a suicide too.  It’s hard to know where to start and who to question, and which of the investigations should get the most of Police Scotland’s scarce manpower:  Logan’s job sucks.
            And the rain keeps falling – and rumours keep surfacing of a Livestock Mart, a terrible auction of kidnapped children bid for by paedophiles for sexual pleasure;  it’s the last thing that Logan wants to investigate – and the last thing that readers want to read about, for child abuse (and animal cruelty) show that some people are beasts and should not be dignified by being called human.  Once again (see review below) Mr MacBride takes his readers to the Dark Side of his characters’ behaviour, but always alleviates the horror at the right time with his trademark brand of humour – I would sleep like a smug baby every night if I could come up with all those quick quips and smarty rejoinders that his characters bandy about – but I can’t even remember any!  Life is cruel.
            Demoted-to-Detective-Sergeant Roberta Steel makes another unforgettable appearance;  she is gay and the proud mother with her wife Susan of two daughters, fathered turkey-baster fashion by Logan (the things some people have to do for friends!) and she is not happy at her loss of status, particularly when Logan makes her drive the squad car because he is Senior Officer.  Well, that’s what you get when your policing methods are less than ‘conventional’, not to say downright illegal.
            It’s great to meet up again with all these mighty characters, good and bad – but when is it EVER going to stop raining?!  FIVE STARS
Now We Are Dead, by Stuart MacBride

           Mr MacBride’s archetypical burnt-out but brilliant copper Logan Macrae features only peripherally here;  instead the floor is given to Detective Chief Inspector Roberta Steel, proudly gay and relentless enemy of Aberdeen’s bad guys – until her illegal efforts to put rapist Jack Wallace behind bars result in exposure, a court case, and demotion to Detective Sergeant.  And an insatiable desire for revenge against the Motherfunker who dobbed her in – Logan Macrae. 
            To add awful insult to terrible injury, the brutal rapes are still happening, and with each new crime, the ‘raping wee shite’ she put away (now released from prison and trumpeting his innocence all over the media) cannot resist sending a video of himself and ‘friends’ going to the movies, having dinner, clubbing – all at the exact times that the rapes occurred:  Roberta knows Wallace is behind each crime, but proof is impossible to come by and it is not long before she is in trouble with her superiors – again! – for surveilling the Wee Shite’s house, much to his delight;  he has a video of her doing just that and he has made an official complaint of harassment to her boss.  Just what she needs.  To make matters even worse, she is told that if she keeps up with the harassment, she won’t just be losing her job, but her behaviour will be terminating the job of her long-suffering but protective assistant Detective Constable Tufty, in her opinion a ‘useless wee spud’ – but her useless wee spud.  She’s on a final warning.
            There is an element of Keystone Cops to the opening chapters of ‘Now We Are Dead’;  there is lots of comedy, clever repartee, not to mention cheeky young kids training to be tomorrow’s crims, but Mr MacBride brings us all back to cruel, stark reality with Steel and Tufty’s efforts to prosecute a debt collector for ruthlessly beating an old lady and cooking her little dog in her microwave, and the discovery by them of an eight month old baby left in his cot with a tin of dog food while his mother died from an overdose on the filthy mattress in front of him.  In both cases, the neighbours refuse to give evidence:  in the baby’s case the neighbours got out the air freshener when the smells got worse.  Which proves that such is Mr MacBride’s storytelling skill he can take readers anywhere he likes on the emotional spectrum that he chooses, and it is not always a comfortable journey.
            It is clear too, that Steel and Tufty are in line for a very messy showdown with Raping Wee Shite Jack Wallace;  once again it isn’t pretty, but again Mr MacBride demonstrates his effortless mastery of the Crime genre.  My only criticism is that he doesn’t write his stories quickly enough:  there should be one every six months, not a measly one per year!  FIVE STARS.    

Thursday, 6 September 2018

Clock Dance, by Anne Tyler

           There is no writer more adept than Pulitzer Prize-winning author Anne Tyler at depicting family relationships (the dynamics of which we are all familiar with whether we like it or not), and in this latest lovely story covering a  period of fifty years, she demonstrates yet again her expertise as she portrays the daily skirmishes and defeats in the battleground of the marriage of 11 year old Willa Drake’s parents, before recounting Willa’s forays into Romance with all its future disappointments.
            Willa has plans to be a linguist, until at twenty-one she meets The Love of Her Life Derek at college.  It is 1977;  Women’s Lib hasn’t properly taken hold yet and Derek is a master of persuasion – it seems like no time at all before her studies are ‘interrupted’ and she is married, becoming the mother of two sons:  where has the time gone, not to mention her ambitions?  Then at forty-one, she is a widow after Derek dies in a Road Rage incident. (He was the angry one).
            Fast-forward to 2017:  Willa is now sixty-one and living in Tucson, Arizona with her second husband Peter, a retired lawyer.  They live next to the golf course because he loves the game.  Her sons are not estranged from her exactly  - they just don’t contact her often.  Well, they live in different states and they have their own life, don’t they?  But neither is married, and Willa would love to be a grandmother.  Peter has never had children so he doesn’t understand her yearnings, nor is he interested:  Golf is King!
            And so it would remain, until Willa gets a phone call one night, asking her to ‘come help out’ in Baltimore, Maryland – her son’s EX-partner Denise (whom Willa has never heard of) has been shot in the leg, and her 9 year old daughter needs to be ‘babysat’.  The caller is a neighbour who has to get to work;  she cain’t be lookin’ after Cheryl and her dog Airplane no more, and Willa’s phone number was on Denise’s list:  can Willa come soon?
            And Willa does, for a variety of reasons, one of them being to finally meet someone from her son’s closed life whilst being seen to be doing a great kindness, and it will be a great break from the golf course -  except that Denise and her frighteningly independent little daughter Cheryl are not what she expected at all:  in fact the little community in which they live is quite different from anything she has experienced.  She feels rejuvenated, needed and necessary, part of a network of people who depend on each other for help, company and friendship:  Tucson and her golfing husband are becoming foggy memories.
            Which means that sacrifices must be made, but will it be Willa (as usual) who makes them, or will she finally find enough gumption to live a different life?  Ms Tyler never lets her readers down:  every story and its characters are of the same superb quality –  quality as reliable as the sunrise.  What artistry!  FIVE STARS 

Wednesday, 29 August 2018

Less, by Andrew Sean Greer

            Arthur Less is a novelist who has gained minor fame, first for being the lover (when he was young and beautiful) of a much older Pulitzer-Prize winning poet (Arthur was entrusted by the poet’s wife to teach the illustrious man how to swim, a fateful decision), then for his own literary efforts, which are hardly in the same league.  Still, he has made a reputation of sorts for himself in San Francisco, including (oh, the irony) of taking on a much younger lover:  now, as Arthur approaches his fiftieth birthday, young lover Freddy is about to marry someone else -  for Less has refused to give more.  He cannot bear the thought of being an old, infirm burden in the future to someone who means everything to him.  Nope, time to pull the plug – and as for going to the wedding (yes, Less has received an invitation;  the ceremony is in the wine country somewhere) he has hit upon the perfect excuse not to attend:  he has a number of invitations to attend various literary events in different parts of the world, including a 5 week tenure at a Berlin University.  He will accept them all!  Arthur Less will not even be in the country when his darling ties the knot.  Perfect.
            Except, of course, that it isn’t.  Fretting is Less’s middle name;  he worries constantly about things that have occurred, could occur and may never occur, and true to form, glitches and hitches occur with gay abandon at every stage of his odyssey:  the card entry to his flat several floors up in a Berlin apartment building refuses to work (of course it does!), necessitating in a death-defying climb up several balconies to gain entry;  a heinously expensive luxury camel trip into the Moroccan desert laid every other member of the party low with a mysterious illness – except Arthur.  Why wasn’t HE sick?  His beautiful and beloved blue suit is destroyed by a stray dog (truly!) in India, and last but certainly not least, in his research for writing a classy foodie review of a rare Japanese cuisine, he is trapped in a 400 year-old restaurant – because the door to the room in which he is dining is stuck.  Because it is 400 years old.
            But all these distractions (and I listed only a few) have done nothing to take his mind off the fact that Freddy is now married and enjoying an idyllic honeymoon in the Paradise of Tahiti with his new husband.  Arthur can imagine almost to the minute what they will be doing and when;  all his attempts to distract himself from the horrible reality of being without Freddy have come to nothing.  He must face his future without his love.
            Fittingly, Andrew Sean Greer was awarded the 2018 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for this superlative little love story.  He proves himself over and over as the master of metaphor, and shows us that comedy is as essential to the human condition as its opposite.  I feel very blessed to have read this lovely book, and I’ll go travelling with Arthur any old time.  Less is definitely more!  SEVEN STARS, SO THERE!!!  

Monday, 20 August 2018

Wake of Vultures, by Lila Bowen

          What the Sam Hill have we here??!!  This little book, the first of a series, is bursting with monsters of every stripe and kind.  Shape shifters, werewolves, vampires, unicorns (truly!), harpies, dwarves and cockatrices (that’s a new one on me) crowd the pages and fight for space to be the biggest and baddest in Lila Bowen’s page-turning fantasy set somewhere in the region of West Texas in the 1870’s.  It’s the perfect mix of history and fantasy, so successfully blended that the reader has difficulty distinguishing between fact and Ms Bowen’s boundless imagination, and it’s written in such Good Ole Boy language that I thought I was back in ‘Lonesome Dove’ – Ms Bowen’s all-time favourite TV series.  She knows her onions, as my dear old Gran would say!
Nettie Lonesome works on a rundown property in Durango Territory its owners grandly call a ranch;  the ‘work’ description is laughable too;  she is their slave.  They told her that they found her as a baby, and because they saved her life she must repay them by ‘working’ for her keep – and the ‘keep’ barely keeps her alive.  She can see no change in her miserable existence until her talent for wrangling and training mustangs earns her a job offer at the next property, which is far enough away from Ma and Pa’s decrepit spread, but too obvious for them to come looking for her:  it’s called Hiding in Plain Sight. 
Her life changes dramatically:  she earns a wage (very small)  she is fed well (she can’t believe she can have second and third helpings!), her skills are appreciated and rewarded – but everyone believes that she’s a boy, an error that Nettie does not correct:  in her experience women are only in the background to serve and clean up after men, plus do other things she’d rather not think about – nope, pretending to be a boy is far better.  And for the first time in her young life, she makes friends with her workmates.  What a great feeling!  Life is good.
            Until a dying Indian woman is found crying in the desert, wailing that the Cannibal Owl has stolen all the children of her tribe – and she chooses Nettie as the person who must avenge the dead children and destroy the monster, before all the children in Durango territory are eaten.  She has until the next New Moon to do so. 
            Needless to say Nettie is horrified and understandably reluctant to carry out this new task, especially as she is only a puny girl pretending to be a feller:  she’s not equipped to go up against monsters of any kind, particularly one that eats children by the score, but the Indian woman is persistent, especially after she dies:  she haunts Nettie so persistently that Nettie finally, and with very bad grace, starts her search for the Cannibal Owl – maybe then that Injun will let her get a good night’s sleep!
            This story reminds me of Charlaine Harris’s ‘True Blood’ series, a delicious and successful mix of horror and humour:  dang if I cain’t wait for ‘Conspiracy of Ravens’ – whut’s takin’ it so long??  FIVE STARS!

Sunday, 12 August 2018

Warlight, by Michael Ondaatje

            Michael Ondaatje has recently won the Man Booker supreme award for  the last fifty years of fiction for ‘The English Patient’, a prize certain to make readers approach his latest novel ‘Warlight’ with reverential awe:  his story of two children abandoned by their parents at the end of World War Two must surely be beyond criticism, such is the greatness conferred on the writer by this honour – still, there is a certain dour similarity to some of the characters that gibes with the distinct personalities he works so diligently to create.  The story loses impact as a consequence.
            Nathaniel and Rachel, aged fourteen and sixteen, watch their parents pack for an extended work trip to Singapore in 1945.  The parents will be away for a year, not a short visit by any means, but necessary:  don’t worry, though – their lodger Walter would be looking after them, they will be quite safe.  Except that both teens have suspicions that Walter – whom they have nicknamed ‘The Moth’ – may be a criminal.  He has some very questionable friends who could be criminals, too, not that they communicate these suspicions to their parents who leave separately, both with an excited, anticipatory air.  They watch their mother Rose pack her trunk, and listen to her explanations of where she would be wearing this or that, and for which occasion – and are shocked to find months later that same trunk hidden in the basement.
            She has left them.  Why?  For what reason?  It is Nathaniel who is most obsessed with finding out the truth, especially when an attempt is made by shadowy strangers to murder him and Rachel and the Moth is fatally wounded trying to protect them.  The experience was so horrific that it brings their mother back from whatever shadowy corner of the world she has been hiding:  her enemies are trying to get to her through her children.  It is time she returned to protect them.  Her daughter doesn’t feel the same way:  their mother should never have left, and their father – well, where is HE?
            I would love to know that, too.  He disappears completely from the narrative.  A lot is made of Rose and her mysterious background, and through diligent searching via a convenient job in the Foreign Office, Nathaniel is able to trace a lot of information about his mother’s spying activities for Britain during and after the war.  It is also obvious that Rose made many enemies, each of whom has her death as top priority:  it is just a matter of time till she meets her fate, leaving her as a perpetual enigma to her son, and the person most hated by her daughter.
            Mr Ondaatje’s prose is predictably dazzling but it was hard to warm to his characters and, instead of feeling saddened by Rose’s demise and sorry for her hapless son, all I could think of was ‘Serve you right!’  FOUR STARS    

Friday, 10 August 2018

Radio Boy and the Revenge of Grandad.                 Junior Fiction
By Christian O’Connell

            After being introduced to Spike Hughes A.K.A. Radio Boy in Book One,   I HAD to meet up with him again in Book Two and am happy to report that the sequel, continuing his adventures as DJ Radio Boy in his Dad’s garden shed, is just as entertaining – especially as a new character makes his mark, whether Spike wants him to or not.
            Now that Spike has been outed as Radio Boy, his cred (and his listeners) have increased hugely;  he still hasn’t made any impression on Katherine Robertson, The Girl He Would Love to Marry Some Day – in fact she is now going out with horrid but handsome School Bully Martin Harris – but Spike is now regarded as pretty cool and funny by his schoolmates.  And his parents, particularly his dad, are proud of him too.  Life is pretty good (even though Headmaster Fish Face Harris makes it plain every day that Radio Boy and his sidekicks Artie and Holly are his least favourite pupils and he wastes more time than he should on thinking up nasty punishments for them instead of doing his job of running the school.)  Never mind:  Radio Boy and his team can handle anything, especially when his favourite DJ announces that there will be a competition  to find a DJ to replace him when he takes a week’s holiday very soon.  COOL!!  This competition is Spike’s to lose!  He’ll nail it!  No-one else will even come close, so they may as well not bother entering.
            But they do.
            And Spike is super disgusted to learn that his very own Grandad is up against him – not to mention Fish Face Harris (WHAAAAAAT???!!!).  Even Sensei Terry, who runs a Karate class and is also the local Postman has entered.  WHAT’S WRONG WITH THEM?  Don’t they know – of course they do! – that being a DJ will be his life’s work and they shouldn’t waste their time going up against him, because no-one in the history of radio is a surer thing than Radio Boy.
            Unfortunately, his Grandad thinks the same about himself.  He has recently been thrown out of home by Nan and has come to stay at Spike’s house, thanks to an invitation from Mum;  well, that’s all very well but he’s sleeping in Spike’s bed, which means that Spike has to sleep on the World’s Most Uncomfortable Air Mattress, and to add insult to injury, Grandad SNORES.  IN SURROUND SOUND.  And because he tried to take over Radio Boy’s nightly shed broadcast, Spike and the team were forced to sack him.
            He didn’t take it well, and has turned into the Grandad from Hell, entering himself in the Radio Competition as professional singer Tony Fandango.  Spike is mortified.
            And that’s not all:  Spike’s dad and his old mates resurrected their teenage band the Pirates and have now reached the semi-finals of Simon Scowl’s TV show.  DOUBLE mortification!
            Christian O’Connell has worked his magic again, effortlessly involving readers of all ages in the ordinary lives of his characters:  these characters are you and me and the neighbours, not to mention the rellies, and once again Radio Boy is laugh-out-loud funny.  I hope Christian’s working on Radio Boy #3 – now I know he’s a DJ himself in his day job, but writing great children’s books is more important.  FIVE STARS.