Monday, 24 June 2019

The Hoarder, by Jess Kidd.

           It’s impossible to confine Ms Kidd to a particular writing genre:  comic novel, magical realism, ghost story, heart-warmer, crime thriller:  ‘The Hoarder’  fits the bill admirably in all categories, leaving the reader to wonder how she did it.  (And I still do!)
            Irishwoman Maude Drennan is temping for a company that provides home help for the well-off in London’s West End;  currently, she is employed as a ‘caregiver’ to another countryman, Cathal Flood, an ancient recluse and hoarder whose property is so full of rats and rubbish that the local Council consider it and him a health hazard.  They want to put him into ‘Assisted Living’ which, according to Cathal, would be worse than dying.  Fair enough, but Cathal does nothing to endear himself to Maud, a potential ally;  instead he does everything he can to make himself disagreeable – and so does the house!  Taps turn on and flood everything just after she has cleaned it;  the kettle regularly boils itself dry and the pantry is always emptying its newly clean shelves.  What to do?  For with every inexplicable mishap that Maud must rectify, a fresh clue to the house’s past occupants reveals itself:  the house is trying to tell her something, and gets angry when Maud is not clever enough to read the signs.
            Maud’s home-life isn’t all hunky-dory either:  her downstairs neighbour, a majestic transvestite called  Renata with whom she drinks another neighbour’s questionable home-made hooch every night, is a lover of detective yarns and is fascinated by Maud’s tales of the house and its caprices (not to mention Cathal and his acres of garbage);  Renata has a list of things that Maude should do to solve the various mysteries – unfortunately, she can’t assist because Agoraphobia has made her a prisoner in her maisonette for many years.  Her resentful sister (‘she’s just jealous because I stole all her boyfriends off her!’) does her shopping, in between fights involving door-slamming and vowing never to return, but Renata is a prisoner of her fears.  Solving the mystery – and a couple of probable murders will be Maud’s responsibility entirely, which is very hard, for she has secrets of her own that don’t bear close scrutiny, such as the several saints (all from her Granny’s Book of Saints that Maud loved as a child) that tiresomely dog her footsteps:  who knows which – or all – of them will be following her down the street, whether she wants their company or not!
            Ms Kidd’s singular characters are all beautifully larger than life, and an added bonus is that unique brand of humour that can only be Irish, not to mention the swear-words:  there are enough gobshites and feckers in this book to float a boat. Fair play to you Ms Kidd!  SIX STARS.    

Sunday, 16 June 2019

A Book of Bones, by John Connolly.

            In the twenty years since his first book was published, John Connolly has perfected the art of supernatural thriller writing – it is an incontrovertible fact that no-one does it better, including the master himself, Stephen King:  then why have his last titles not lived up to the quality of those before them?
            They are as beautifully – even lyrically – written as every Charlie Parker story always is;  assassins extraordinaire Louis and Angel still loom large, though Angel is suffering grievous side-effects from the Chemotherapy treatment for bowel cancer;  FBI Special Agent Ross still retains Charlie for special missions pertaining to the supernatural, knowing that Charlie appears to have an entrĂ©e to worlds of which ordinary mortals should know nothing (in the interests of their sanity); so why has the air gone out of the balloon?
            This story is a continuation of ‘The Woman in the Woods’, where Pallida Mors, a particularly bloodthirsty (and odiferous) murderer has strewn victims in a trail across the North-Eastern United States in her search for hidden maps at the behest of her Master, Quayle, a truly evil lawyer cursed with eternal life – unless he manages to assemble all the pages of a magic Atlas (truly!), which when complete, will destroy the world as we know it, and finally end his own benighted life. 
            I am the first to admit that my truncated version of events would not induce the Rational Reader to pick up this book, but all Charlie Parker fans will give RR the stink eye:  no-one can carry off such wild plotting as successfully as John Connolly.
Until now.
‘A Book of Bones’ is Part Two of the search for the missing pages, with the pursuit of Pallida and Quayle by Charlie, Louis and Angel;  Louis is particularly keen to meet with Pallida again after she put two bullets in him at their last meeting:  he thirsts for vengeance.  Angel, is along for the ride, even though he shouldn’t be going anywhere, but where Louis goes, so does he.  And the first third of the novel doesn’t disappoint:  there are a series of bloodthirsty serial crimes to mystify merely mortal Northern English police;  wonderfully descriptive accounts of ancient British history and beautifully etched characters who have the fatal misfortune to meet Pallida and Quayle, BUT.  Thereafter, the action slows down and even stops completely under the weight of dense detail and digression.  I don’t believe that Connolly has fallen in love with his own erudition, but many tangents a tough and taut thriller doth not make.  (Work that one out if you can:  this is why he’s the writer and I’m not!)  Very disappointing.  THREE STARS.     

Sunday, 9 June 2019

The One Dollar Horse, by Lauren St John                Junior Fiction

           Starting with Anna Sewell’s ‘Black Beauty’, there have always been children’s classic horse tales, a wealth of wonderful stories about the most beautiful animal on earth, and ‘The One Dollar Horse’ deservedly follows the tradition:  horse-loving children aged twelve and up (girls especially!) will identify with the many strong messages in this book, especially the overriding belief that if one wants it enough, nothing is beyond reach.
            This is not a new title, but the first in a trilogy about teenager Casey Blue, volunteer at a no-frills riding school in London’s East End.  Casey lives in a scruffy high-rise apartment with her beloved Dad, an ex-burglar who has zero luck finding a job after a stint inside.  Her mother died when she was two, so her Dad is everything to her – until fate steps in one day and she and her father rescue an ill and traumatised horse that has escaped from the local knacker’s yard:  from then on it is Casey’s mission to bring the dying animal back to good health – and back to life, a job much easier to imagine than to achieve. 
            Fortunately, Casey has some firm friends in the tiny horsey fraternity in the East End, including Mrs Smith, an elderly lady who once had a glittering career in Dressage and Show Jumping;  Mrs Smith is a woman who understands big dreams and how to realise them, having had huge success herself.  She knows that Casey and the One Dollar horse (so named because Casey’s dad found an American dollar on the day they rescued him – it was all he had in his wallet, so the knacker accepted it!) have a special, loving bond that occurs very seldom:  if they are coached correctly, they could be eventing stars – especially at Badminton, the biggest prize of all.
            Casey’s efforts to attain the standard required to reach Badminton hit many snags on the way, not least rivalry and derision from other competitors;  she finds that there are few highs and lots of lows in her efforts to lift her game, and just when all finally seems attainable, her father betrays her by selling her horse to the father of her rival competitor.  How Casey overcomes these massive barriers to the success of her dreams is told with humour, verve and a true sense of suspense by Ms St John, who writes like she’s been there, done that on every page:  great stuff.  FIVE STARS.

Monday, 3 June 2019

Necessary Secrets by Greg McGee

           This is SUCH an Auckland book - not least because Greg McGee lives there and captures effortlessly the pace, heart and diversity of population that characterise the sprawling, messy city bursting beyond its boundaries.  From the elegant harbourside reaches of Herne Bay to the sad state houses of Glen Innes and New Windsor, Mr McGee transports the reader on a Tiki Tour of best and worst with his protagonists, the Spark family.
            Den the widowed Herne Bay patriarch is ostensibly celebrating his 70th birthday;  his three children plus some mysterious hangers-on have joined him to drink champagne (which he hates) and doubtless end up fighting with each other, but it won’t matter, he thinks, for this will be his last night on earth:  he intends to die by his own hand – assisted by Walter, his name for an ancient Walther PPK with one bullet in it, for he has received a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s from his physician and wants to leave the world while he can still remember names and faces.  Fortunately, he has sold his boutique advertising and production company to his eldest son Will, who seems to be running the business successfully;  his daughter Ellie has some sort of glorified social worker position helping waifs and strays – why, one of them, Jackson, a strange quiet Maori boy is living with them at the moment, and he has a sister who has suddenly turned up:  why are they here, exactly?  Oh yes, that’s right – their father is now out of jail for half-killing their mother, and he’s looking for Jackson to kill him because it was Jackson’s testimony that put him inside.
So Ellie’s OK.  Youngest son Stanley seems to be the only unfocused one, living on a remote Golden Bay ‘Co-Operative’ having decided to renounce all his current worldly goods (which weren’t many.)  Oh, he’ll be alright.  So.  Tonight will be the Night!
            Except that it’s not:  Den’s house burns down and the insurance company is procrastinating about the pay-out, saying that the fire could have been deliberately lit, which is bad news all round, especially for Den who is farmed out to Assisted Living.  Will, inheritor of the family business is deeply in debt and in urgent need of the insurance pay-out to prop up his company, plus his marriage is going south – and he has a raging meth habit.  Could things get any worse? 
Of course they could, and they do, in ways that kick the plot along at a great pace, providing a solution to those necessary family secrets that is both credible and satisfying, for Greg McGee is completely at home with his characters and city, and portrays the whole with an honesty and expertise that is masterly.  FIVE STARS

Tuesday, 28 May 2019

The Strawberry Thief, by Joanne Harris.

            I have the feeling that this fourth book in Ms Harris’s series involving Vianne Rocher, fey and eccentric chocolatier-extraordinaire in the Southern French village of Lansquenet-sous-Tannes will be the last:  there is an air of finality to the plot and all the ends are tied up neatly by the last page – not in an unpleasant way;  just very conclusively.  Which is a shame, for Vianne and her Gypsy lover Roux (played so convincingly in the film version of ‘Chocolat’ by Juliette Binoche and (sigh) Johnny Depp) have become loved, staple figures that every reader of Ms Harris’s fiction associate with her work:  to give up stories of them and Lansquenet-Sous-Tannes is akin to having to forsake chocolate!
            The village is changing, and people are dying, including Narcisse, the old farmer and owner of the florist shop across the square.  No-one is surprised by his demise;  he was very old, but the contents of his will shock everyone:  his daughter (whom no-one likes) inherits the farm and shop, but a little wood adjacent to the farm is left to Vianne’s daughter Rosette, considered by everyone to be retarded because she doesn’t speak and was unable to attend school because she had ‘accidents’.  When children bullied her (well, could you blame them?  She’s VERY odd!), stormy weather could appear in a cloudless sky, for Rosette has the power to put the wind up anyone who upsets her.  Better she stays at home with Vianne – who feels the change in the wind too, especially when a stranger, a mysterious woman rents Narcisse’s shop and starts business as (of all things) a tattooist!
            And people start flocking to her – almost like the Pied Piper, Vianne thinks – which fills her with dread, for the Pied Piper always demands to be paid.  And the tattooist has the seeming ability to read peoples’ minds, to glean all their secrets;  even Vianne’s old adversary Father Reynaud, bearing a terrible secret of his own as well as having to read Narcisse’s last written Confession, is helpless before her power.
            When Roux visits the tattooist, then announces he is moving on, Vianne is bereft, but the unthinkable occurs when Rosette, against her special orders, visits the tattooist:  this woman is intent on taking away all whom Vianne loves.  It’s time to call up the wind.  It’s time for the tattooist to go.
            Ms Harris beguiles the reader as always with her wonderful imagery – especially her descriptions of strawberries, and who could ever be impervious to her thoughts on chocolat, sweet balm for us all.  She has seduced us yet again with her lovely characters –magical realism was never better served.  Vive Lansquenet-Sous-Tannes!  FIVE STARS  

Monday, 20 May 2019

Blood and Sugar, by Laura Shepherd-Robinson.

           Laura Shepherd Robinson’s debut novel works well on various levels,  but not as an 18th century crime thriller, as it has been promoted. It starts off promisingly  enough, with a grisly murder in 1781 in the shipbuilding town of Deptford, close to London on the Thames river:  the naked and horribly tortured corpse of young London  lawyer Thaddeus Archer has been found hanging from a lamppost down by the docks. When his sister reports him missing to Archer’s old friend Captain Harry Corsham and the trail leads to Deptford and identification, Corsham is shocked at the lack of cooperation he finds:  none of the town’s worthies, from the Mayor, to Magistrate, to local physician, to rough and ruthless seamen, have any time for Corsham’s enquiries, still less for finding Archer’s killer – for Archer was an Abolitionist, abhorring slavery in Britain, and trying to find any legal means to stamp out the heinous industry in human souls.  Deptford and its inhabitants all depend – indeed, England depends on the human cargo shipped by slavers across the Middle Passage to the Caribbean, there to work in the sugar plantations, so that an Englishman may enjoy sugar in his bowl of tea.  What decent British citizen would question such a right?
            As Corsham delves into the murkier levels of his inquiry his questions unleash violence upon himself, and yet more murders;  it becomes clear that it is not only the local hierarchy of Deptford who are intent at hiding at any cost the evil he uncovers -  especially the voyage of the ‘Dark Angel’, a slave ship that ran low on water halfway home, and threw more than three hundred men, women and children off the ship to drown.  The more Corsham discovers, the more he realises that a very powerful syndicate is pulling the strings, and the legitimate industry of slavery will persist as long as they say so.  Human misery is trumped by profit every time.
            Ms Shepherd-Robinson’s story moves too slowly to be described as a thriller;  dare I say that there are too many minor characters who contribute little to the action, and Corsham asks himself so many questions (no wonder he upsets everybody!) that his introspection becomes a very annoying plot device, BUT!  As a harrowing historical account of the worst sin and indignity that the human race can perpetrate against itself, her story works brilliantly.  FOUR STARS.       

Sunday, 5 May 2019

The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock, by Imogen Hermes Gowar.

           It is September, 1785 and canny Deptford merchant Jonah Hancock is horrified to learn that the trusted Captain of Hancock’s ship ‘Calliope’ has sold the vessel for – for A Mermaid????
            And a fearsome ugly one at that! But the Captain swears that Mr Hancock will make himself rich from displaying such a Curiosity;  there is no other like it and the merchant should set about reaping the returns on his ‘investment’ as soon as possible.  Jonah Hancock has had many tragedies in his life:  the loss of his wife and baby in childbirth fifteen years before;  the responsibilities of many relatives to support without any of the rewards of a close and loving family life, and the prospect of bleak and loveless old age – he may as well try his luck  with his horrid new acquisition:  what more can he lose?
            To his great shock, he finds that his friend the Captain is right:  there is no shortage of spectators wishing to pay good money to see his Curiosity – why, he even receives an offer he can’t refuse from the Madame of one of the most exclusive brothels in London to display the Mermaid for one week, she eagerly acquiescing to the most outrageous sum he can name – and there, finally, he meets his fate in the shape of Angelica Neal, high-priced courtesan who effortlessly steals his heart (and hopefully, his fortune later).  He is hopelessly smitten, but not entirely foolish:  he is dogged, determined and good at playing the waiting game, even enduring a tempestuous and doomed love affair she conducts with a handsome and penniless young man, and as a show of devotion he even dispatches his Captain on another search when Angelica gaily challenges him to ‘find me another mermaid!’
            And he does.
            But this one is real and has a dreadful gift of plunging all who see and hear her into a dreadful melancholy, including Mr Hancock:  it is time for Angelica, low-born and whore though she may be, to fight for all she holds dear – including Mr. Hancock.
            Ms Gowar thrills us with her gorgeous language and spectacular imagery, especially when evoking the tumultuous life of 18th century London and beyond, and the huge, unassailable ramparts of the Class system.  From those forced to sell themselves for food to the courtesans of princes, ‘commerce’ is involved every step of the way:  what do you have that I can buy at the cheapest possible price?  (Beauties and Curiosities excepted!)  SIX STARS.