Sunday, 16 December 2018

Apostle Lodge, by Paul Mendelson.

           This is the third novel in Paul Mendelson’s crime series set in the beautiful city of Capetown, South Africa;  again it features Colonel Vaughn de Vries, old school, burnt-out Afrikaner detective from the Apartheid era:  he is not popular with the new Rainbow Nation administration but they cannot deny that he gets results whether they like him or not, and currently he is being pressured to find ASAP the monster behind a series of recent murders where women’s bodies have been found raped and tortured in deserted buildings.
            One of these buildings is Apostle Lodge, an architect-designed house near a popular beach in the city;  it has been for sale for years with no takers, for opinion is that it is spectacularly ugly and, now that a woman’s defiled body has been found in its lounge there is zero chance that it will ever be sold.  To make de Vries’s job even harder, there is no crime scene evidence;  whoever perpetrated the crime was meticulous in leaving no trace of themselves, and it is only by doggedly trawling through recent killings from other districts that de Vries’s staff uncovers evidence of murders that are distressingly similar:  there is a serial killer at work.
            The public of Capetown is not ready to absorb such horror:  a few days before a huge bomb has blown a delivery van apart in one of the busiest tourist thoroughfares of the city; there are at least eleven deaths and more expected amongst the fourteen others who are fighting for their lives – add to that the crippling drought that has struck the entire coastal region, threatening to wipe out livelihoods, industries and in some cases, life itself.  No. Capetown cannot take another blow, and Vaughn de Vries and his team are under extreme pressure from his latest bosses to get results – and present a good image to the Press, one of whom seems to have inside information about the crimes – and him – that could only have come from his department.  Who is the leak?  Unthinkably, some of the inside information could also have come from the killer himself.
            Paul Mendelson has crafted with great skill another unputdownable thriller, a roller-coaster ride set against a backdrop of racism, greed and corruption: signalling that change for the better has yet to occur in the Rainbow Nation – as proclaimed by one black policeman who states baldly that de Vries and his team only investigate ‘white’ murders – until a politically driven plot to conceal a heinous crime by the government to boost its popularity comes to light, proving that no part of the Rainbow Nation is spared in this stark account of today’s South Africa.  SIX 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

Friday, 7 December 2018

Preservation, by Jock Serong.

            In 1797 the ship Sydney Cove was wrecked off Preservation Island in the Bass Strait separating Tasmania (then known as Van Diemen’s Land) from Australia.  The valuable cargo of rum and tea was salvaged, the captain and thirty-two of the crew stayed to guard it while the mate, carpenter, the supercargo, and tea merchant accompanied by thirteen lascar crew departed in a repaired longboat to sail to Sydney for help.
            Months later, three starving, wounded ghosts of men are rescued by a fishing boat;  two are European, the third a lascar boy supposedly unable to speak English.  The Supercargo William Clark is his master and has managed to keep a diary of sorts of their terrible experiences;  the other European is the tea merchant John Figge, made ugly by horrendous facial injuries:  both men have differing versions of the privations they have suffered – and their wounds, especially Clark’s, both of whose hands have huge spear holes in them.
            The men also take pains to avoid each other, and it is not long before Lieutenant Joshua Grayling, the Governor’s representative sent to assist them, discovers why:  the tea merchant has an unsettling air about him, not caused only by his smashed nose;  his general demeanour causes discomfort and hackles to rise.  He is not the man to ask for a favour, for the price paid for it might be much more than one could afford – as Grayling eventually discovers.
            And he discovers, too, that the young lascar boy Srinivas speaks fluent English, this talent hidden on the advice of his father:  one learns a lot more about a master’s plans if they think one is ignorant, which means that what is written in Clark’s diary  - especially about the wicked savages who cruelly injured them – has a dissenting witness.
            Jock Serong has turned the factual event of the wreck of the Sydney Cove into superb historical fiction.  He depicts with masterly skill the great natural world that mere handfuls of men were trying to tame and enslave, and the ‘natives’ who at first assisted, then vainly resisted the White Man’s Civilisation.  Much has been said and written about Colonisation in Australia - and New Zealand – but seldom matched by Serong’s gorgeous imagery when describing nature, and his stark and terrible depictions of man’s barbarity and savagery, in the name of civilisation, to his fellows.  There are parts of this novel that I had to read between my fingers, but it has been an unforgettable experience.  SIX STARS!     

Sunday, 2 December 2018

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.  

Monday, 26 November 2018

Smoke and Ashes, by Abir Mukherjee

            Book three of Abir Mukherjee’s vastly entertaining crime series featuring Captain Sam Wyndham of the British imperial Police Force in Calcutta, and his trusty sidekick Surendranath (called Surrender-not, because how’s any British chap supposed to pronounce that absurd name) commences in late 1921:  mild-mannered but persistent little lawyer Mohandas Ghandi has founded his Congress Party and decreed that its legions of members should register their disapproval of British Rule by ‘Peaceful Protest’, a euphemism for followers to clog up transport networks , thus bringing Calcutta commerce to a grinding halt whenever they get the word.
            The authorities, particularly the police, are feeling the strain:  the jails are full and there have been unexpected resignations among their own ranks by those who feel the power and worth of Ghandi-ji’s logic:  there is nothing more effective than peaceful, non-violent protest, and there are always the jackals of the Press hanging around to report on any savage lapses of professionalism by the authorities – and there are many, especially in the army which has been brought in to restore order where the police have failed, for the military is staffed with Sikhs and Ghurkas, ruthless and famed warriors with an utter contempt for the local Indians, for whom they feel no kinship. 
It’s a sticky situation, old chap, compounded even more by the fact that Captain Sam is nearly caught by the Vice Squad on their raid of an Opium Den where he has been stupefying himself for most of the night.  He is forced to make a hair-raising escape across the rooftops – and discovers a dying man, eyeless and stabbed on both sides of his chest.  Sam is unsure whether he’s having an opium nightmare or if what he has found is real – until after his lucky escape to safety, where another body killed in the same fashion is discovered two days later.
And to prove that all the Gods of the Indian Pantheon are laughing mightily at British expense, the Powers-That-Be in Whitehall have decided to shore up the Raj with a visit from the future king-emperor, Prince Edward, Prince of Wales:  a great show of British might and power will surely convince all those natives, low caste and high, where they really stand.  Sam is a slave to his addiction, an ‘Opium Fiend’;  Surrender-Not, scion of one of Calcutta’s proudest families, has been exiled because he is working for the Raj, but together they must try to avert the inevitable bloodshed caused by Peaceful Protest and Prince Edward’s Christmas Goodwill Visit, not to mention the ritual killings, all of which display great purpose and planning.
Yet again Abir Mukherjee displays his mastery of the era, melding the crime genre satisfactorily with the explosive events of British and Indian history of almost a century ago.  His two unlikely protagonists are so convincing that, along with Surrender-not, I hope Sam cleans himself up for the next instalment!  FOUR STARS

Tuesday, 20 November 2018

Take Your Last Breath, a Ruby Redfort mystery

Junior Fiction by Lauren Child.

           My granddaughter Ava LOVES Ruby Redfort, and after reading the second of her adventures, I can see why:  Ruby is cool!  The first book wasn’t available so it was a little difficult to fill in all the details;  suffice to say Ruby is almost the youngest secret agent ever, except for the late Bradley Baker, who was recruited when he was even younger than her (thirteen) by Spectrum, a spy agency ‘set up to foil the plots of evil geniuses capable of committing any crime’.  Since Ruby’s induction into the agency she has risked death, broken codes (she is a master code-cracker – it’s just something she does) and has had Perfect Bradley Baker rammed down her throat at every opportunity:  well, she’ll show her superiors at Spectrum that girls can do ANYTHING!
            Well, anything with some rock-solid assistance from her very best friend Clancy Drew, who is the most loyal bestie in the universe;  he is not supposed to know that she is a secret agent, but where she is concerned he is zipped up tighter than an oyster and is as reliable as the sunrise – with one exception:  he doesn’t like the ocean.  Nasty critters such as sharks  live in the ocean, and he is not convinced by Ruby’s explanation that ‘sharks are just big fish going about their business’.  As far as Clance is  concerned, their business is to eat him, and because of this aversion he is a particularly fast swimmer – when he can  be convinced, persuaded or bullied to put a toe in the water.
            Which is a definite inconvenience because Ruby’s latest adventure is to check out rumours of Pirate attacks on the local shipping in their coastal city of Twinford, and even more exciting whispers of buried treasure somewhere in the outlying islands:  Ruby needs Clance to be her partner, her offsider, not a jelly-trembler hiding under the seat of the boat – which she has commandeered from Spectrum without their knowledge.  Ruby is taking the mantra ‘Girls Can Do Anything’ to its outer limits, not to mentioned getting sacked by Spectrum boss LB if she is discovered.  Yep, Clancy will have to put his silly little phobias aside if he wants to outwit pirates and find treasure.  What’s he got to worry about?  It’ll be a stroll in the park.  Yeah, right!
            I can certainly see why Ava is so devoted to Ruby:  Ms Child has created a SuperGirl who is heaps of fun.  She has amazing talents bordering on the genius level but she still manages to have ordinary friends who do ordinary things – and they are all very, VERY funny.  The villains in this story couldn’t be more villainous, especially Count von Viscount, whom Ruby faced down in the first book – he doesn’t do too well in this story either, but I’m sure he’ll be back for Book Three.  I should think so!  FOUR STARS   

Wednesday, 14 November 2018

A Keeper, by Graham Norton.

           This is Irish talk-show host Graham Norton’s second novel and once again he displays with effortless ease the Irishman’s ability ‘to tell a good yarn’, and to surprise the reader yet again with a story that is not at all what one expects.
            Elizabeth Keane, divorced, fortyish and pretty much dissatisfied with her current life, returns from New York to the little Irish village of Buncarragh.  Her mother has died and Elizabeth is there to settle her mother’s estate and decide what to do with the property;  she is an only child and everything should be fairly straightforward – except for her mother’s brother and his family.  There was talk for years that Elizabeth’s uncle should have also inherited the house (as well as the family business) so Elizabeth is not looking forward to being ‘welcomed’ into the bosom of the family again;  after all, family friction was one of the reasons she left home in the first place, as well as her mother’s awful neediness. 
And the rumours.  The rumours that Elizabeth’s mother Patricia, a spinster who’d missed the boat with a husband on it because she had to look after her ailing mum, all of a sudden disappeared for months after her mother died, then came back with a baby and the announcement that she had married a lovely man who lived near Cork, but sadly he died, so it would be just Patricia and baby Elizabeth now.  Well.  Who would believe all that balderdash?  No, that uppity Patricia had got herself in the family way and come back with a baby and no husband:  Elizabeth was regarded as the village bastard and had to wear the shame of it until she was able to escape to university.  Well, she hasn’t made the ideal life for herself in New York – far from it, but it beats Buncarragh by a mile:  as soon as she has sold mum’s house she’ll leave, never to return.
And there things would have remained until Elizabeth finds a collection of letters in her mother’s wardrobe, a trove of historical information so intriguing that Elizabeth decides to play detective and travel to its source, for it is obvious that these letters are from the father she never knew, the father who had died.  Well, his letters were so lovely that Elizabeth’s sore heart quickens:  if she searches out his home, could there not be other members of the family still surviving?  Could she have a history after all?
Mr Norton tells his protagonists’ story in flashbacks:  Patricia is Then and Elizabeth is Now, and both women tread a rough road;  in fact it is hard to know who suffers more:  Patricia for all the sacrifices she made and the lies she was forced to tell, or Elizabeth, innocent recipient of a family history she never dreamt of.  Mr Norton’s prose gets a bit purple at times but he can still weave a tale that nails us to the spot.  FOUR STARS.