Wednesday 15 May 2024

The Hunter, by Tana French.

 

            Tana French – Thank you!  It’s about time that we had a sequel to ‘The Searcher’, her spellbinding story of seething, age-old enmities in the tiny village of Ardnakelty, new home of ex-Chicago detective Cal Hooper.  He has been a resident of the village for two years now and in that time has made some firm friends of the locals, has Lena, a ‘lady friend’ (a fact that the village rumour-mill reports on with all the alacrity of a Sunday tabloid), and a foster-daughter, Trey, to whom he is teaching his considerable knowledge of carpentry and furniture restoration.  Life is pretty damn fine, thank you – until a bad apple turns up to taint the barrel.

            Trey’s dad Johnny returns to Ardnakelty, much to the amazement and horror of his deserted wife and children, and Trey as the eldest, is furious that he can just swan back to his tumbledown home as though he’d never left, this time bringing a posh British mate with him, who is very fascinated with his Irish roots – ‘yes, his dear old Granny came from Ardnakelty, and with her she brought tales of Gold in Them Thar Hills’, and pretty soon Johnny has stirred up everyone with tales of gold-bearing seams on their farmland, if only they’d like to invest with him and his posh mate.  And people seem to fall for it, to Cal’s amazement – but as the weeks pass and Trey’s dad talks faster and faster with less success, the ugly side of Ardnakelty begins to reveal itself:  threats both veiled and plain are made if Johnny’s scheme doesn’t show a profit soon, but what’s most troubling to Cal is that Trey seems to be at the heart of them – on purpose. 

            It becomes very obvious that Trey wants her father gone – by any means necessary, and she’s smart enough to orchestrate proceedings:  Cal and Lena find that they have to get up awfully early in the morning to be ahead of her to avert a tragic outcome, for Ardnakelty is a pagan force unto itself;  old crimes and grudges are never forgotten and a 15 year-old must not be allowed to sacrifice herself on an altar of hatred and revenge.

            Ms French as always dazzles us all with her warts-and-all depictions of village life, her lyrical descriptions of breathtaking country, and her singular characters, from Bobby Feeney who believes in aliens to Mart Lavin, Cal’s neighbour who also seems to be the Ringmaster of Threatening Events:  someone does die, but the victim and killer are a complete surprise – as they should be.  And the Craic is first-class, so!  SIX STARS. 

Monday 6 May 2024


 

 

Tom Lake, by Ann Patchett.

              Tom Lake is not a person, but a place – a place that was known as Tom’s Lake, until people’s love of abbreviation shortened it.  It was a small community on the northern shores of Lake Michigan, renowned for its summer stock performances, perfect venues for up-and-coming young actors to make their mark and go on to greater things – or fade out under the relentless competition.

            It’s also a place of memories, both wonderful and awful, as Lara Wilson works with her daughters picking cherries on their fruit farm forty years later;  they are all back home for the summer – and the pandemic:  the farm is horrendously short-staffed as all their usual pickers are in lockdown, and Lara’s beloved girls have all returned to spend lockdown with their parents, and are now demanding a story of Lara’s past, that summer she spent at Tom Lake starring – yes, STARRING! – in Our Town by Thornton Wilder opposite Peter Duke, now a world-famous movie and TV actor. The fact that she used to date him has been a never-ending source of delight to the girls, always up for a good story since childhood:  cherry-picking is hard, monotonous work and they need a diversion.

            And this story is indeed diverting.  Lara is a truthful woman and has censored very little in her retelling of her romance with Peter Duke, the Unknown Actor, for whom she fell so wildly in love at the age of twenty-four, ‘that it felt like falling off the roof at midnight.’  But she didn’t share everything with her curious girls, especially his desire to experience fully every sensation and emotion on offer, and his penchant for self-destruction – or the particularly cruel and casual end to their sizzling affair, or how the events at Tom Lake eventually put an end to her own nascent acting career.

            Ms Patchett has created an ode to love in all its forms noble and otherwise, with characters to match:  it was absurdly easy for this reader to fall under Peter Duke’s spell, and her lesser characters are little works of art.  A vein of humour flows through the drama like a welcome drink, and it was very hard to say goodbye to Lara and her lovely daughters – and Tom Lake.  SIX STARS.    

Wednesday 24 April 2024

 

Horse, by Geraldine Brooks.

 


            Pulitzer Prize-winning author Geraldine Brooks has excelled herself yet again with ‘Horse’, her novelised true story of America’s greatest racing stallion Lexington, illustrious sire of future generations of champions, and an essential and integral ancestor almost lost to history.  Were it not for the efforts of determined academics who were relentless in their detective work following up the clues leading from the forgotten equine skeleton labelled ‘horse’ in the attic of the Smithsonian, one of America’s finest museums, and researching the provenance of several obscure equine paintings found in unlikely places, Lexington would have remained unsung and unheralded still, and his marvellous genetic history lost, not to mention the turbulent historical significance of the times in which he lived and flourished, the 1850”s and 60’s.

            Ms Brook has reimagined that time with her usual skill:  from the time Lexington was foaled in Kentucky in 1850 he was personally cared for by Warfield’s Jarret, a young slave whose father was Doctor Warfield’s chief trainer, so essential that Dr. Warfield allowed him to buy his freedom and currently, Jarret’s father is saving to buy Jarret’s freedom, too.  The ugly face of slavery is not so evident on Warfield’s farm if one is a successful trainer of thoroughbreds and his son is following reliably in his father’s footsteps, but when the brilliant new colt is eventually sold, Jarret is sold along with him, and he and Lexington have some bitter experiences – and some great adventures, for Lexington proves his brilliance time and again:  both have such a bond that they are inseparable until one of them dies:  it is up to the modern researchers, Theo, a Nigerian Art Historian and Jess, an Australian scientist working at the Smithsonian, to join the clues and reconstruct the history, especially of the shattering impact of the Civil War and the emancipation of all those enslaved and Sold South.  Tragically for Theo and Jess, it is patently clear that racism is still alive, well and flourishing one hundred and fifty years later:  racism, overt or otherwise will never go away.

            Ms Brooks has written a fitting and loving tribute to equine beauty and genetic brilliance, and a bald and frightenly factual recitation of the tragedy of racism, inbred and otherwise.  FIVE STARS.

                   

 

Monday 15 April 2024

 

The Running Grave, by Robert Galbraith.

         

 
        
As  we all know, Robert Galbraith is a pseudonym for J.K. Rowling.  This is the seventh novel she has produced under this name featuring Cormoran Strike and Robin Ellacott who, thanks to various fearless exploits in previous books, run a very successful Private Detective Agency. 

                Galbraith’s series also has a romantic undertone in each book:  will Robin and Strike finally acknowledge the feelings they have for each other and stop messing about with other, lesser characters?

                Sadly, the answer is a resounding NO.  And it takes Galbraith nearly 1000 pages to do it!  You have to have strong wrists and lots of patience to navigate the progress of the labyrinthine plot and a photographic memory to keep track of the myriad characters required to flesh out the latest reason for which Strike and Robin have been hired:  a prominent businessman has engaged them to find out the whereabouts of his rebellious son Will, who has disappeared (willingly) into the clutches of the Universal Humanitarian Church, a relatively new quasi-religious group operating out of various U.K. cities.  It has the requisite charismatic leader, handsome Jonathan Wace, known as Papa J., and lots of adoring followers, all living in religious freedom and bliss on a big Norfolk Farm which presumably is self-supporting.  The members donate lots of money to various charities – and to Papa J., and the best way to find out just how above-board (and safe) everyone is, is for Robin to go Undercover as a prosperous new recruit.

            And what she finds chills her to the marrow, not to mention putting her in terrible physical danger:  all is obviously not well at the Farm, and God is nowhere to be seen.  Cruelty is everywhere.  She manages to escape with Strike’s help, but what about the other ‘recruits’?  Who’s going to save them?

            There are parts of this book that are heart-in-the-mouth exciting, and others that just amble and jog along, reintroducing characters that, because of the length of the story the reader has forgotten about and has to retrace plot steps, which is a shame.  Galbraith is too good a writer to indulge in so many superfluous characters, and too good to get lost in his/her own plot.  FOUR STARS.

Tuesday 2 April 2024

 

Dirty Thirty, by Janet Evanovich.

 

      


   
Fast food writing:  tasty but vitamin-free.  Fills the gap but no nutritional value.

            Janet Evanovich, the Queen of Fast-food writing, has now produced her 30th novel starring Stephanie Plum, ‘Jersey girl, successful underachiever working for Vincent Plum (her cousin) Bail Bonds as a recovery agent, hunting down losers who’ve skipped out on their bond.’  The plots of each story vary very little, but what makes them compulsively readable are the reliability of the characters to charm and entertain the reader every time. Who could resist Lula, former Ho and more than generously proportioned bestie of Stephanie – she rides shotgun on various pick-ups of miscreants, always dressed in unforgettable combinations of outrageously undersized skirts, tops (?) and spike heels.  She also has a gun in her bag which she will use at the slightest opportunity, even though she is the lousiest shot in Trenton.

            And Stephanie’s grandma Mazur:  she likes to attend viewings at local funeral parlours;  in fact the last one she went to was a triumph of the undertaker’s art, the corpse being so healthy-looking that Grandma would swear that he was ready to rise up out of his casket and ask her to dinner!  Grandma has a gun too, she’s always packin’ and hoping that she will get an opportunity to fill someone fulla lead some day.  Stephanie’s mum, Grandma’s daughter, manages to keep the household together without having a nervous breakdown – for the most part;  when situations finally get too trigger-happy with various family members, she has been known to start knitting very long scarves and calling on the assistance of Jim Beam.

            And let us not forget Stephanie’s love interests – not just one but two, yes TWO hotter than hot males:  Joe Morelli, Trenton detective, and Ranger, ex-special forces member and owner of a very prosperous security firm.  They both vie in their different hot ways for Stephanie’s attention, each having different advantages in that Joe, like Stephanie was brought up in the neighbourhood – and he has Bob the dog, another singular character, especially when Stephanie has to dogsit him for two weeks.  Ranger is Cuban and makes every female heart skip a beat – even the reader’s, and Bob likes

him too – what treachery!  He’s supposed to be a one-man dog!

            Which all goes to show that I can rabbit on loftily about Fast-food writing as much as I like, but no-one does it better, or more entertainingly than Janet Evanovich:  roll on Book Thirty-one!  FOUR STARS.            

                

Sunday 17 March 2024

 

The Night House, by Jo Nesbo.

 

      


      Internationally acclaimed Swedish crime novelist Jo Nesbo has embarked on a different literary journey this time around:  his classic burnt-out detective Harry Hole is nowhere to be seen as Nesbo decides to take an apparent trip into the supernatural where there are no rules, and no end to the horrific ways that people can die.  He also offers us plot alternatives:

1.      Richard Elauved is 14 years old and has just lost both his parents in a fire that engulfed their apartment.  He has been sent to the country to live with his uncle and aunt, his only relatives.  He hates himself, his life, and his new classmates, and bullies them relentlessly – until he sees one of his victims devoured by a telephone (hey, I’m only the messenger!), then another classmate is turned into a ‘magicicada’ with brilliant red eyes and the wings to escape him when he tries to crush it – in short, he was the last person to see these missing kids alive so the authorities place him in a special ‘school’ to see if he will confess to anything he hasn’t yet told them.  His escape from the school is more unbelievable than cannibalistic phones, but ends on a hopeful note, so that the reader can handle Alternative Two, which is:

2.     Richard Hansen, successful teen fiction writer is invited to a school reunion fifteen years after the above events;  it transpires that we were reading above the plot of his first smash hit and at the subsequent celebrations he is touchingly modest about his literary achievements to his adoring classmates, none of whom  have reached such fame.  It’s great to be the centre of such respectful attention and, in a rare moment of remorse for his 14 year-old behaviour, he apologises for being a bully – only to realise as the evening progresses, that the whole night has been organised by all his ‘fans’ to pay him back for the terrible hurt he caused them all to suffer.  Do they succeed?  Alternative Three reveals that:

3.     It’s time for Richard to wake up – wake up from ElectroConvulsive Therapy applied to him as an experimental treatment to help him forget the terrible memories that have trapped him in a hospital known as the Night House for the last fifteen years, and to take his first tentative steps back to a normal life.

 

Jo Nesbo has again taken his readers on a wild ride to the dark side and back – is there nothing he cannot do to stop us devouring every page?  Even kid-eating telephones get past our BS meter!  He’s the best.  FIVE STARS.

 

Sunday 3 March 2024

 

Until the Road Ends, by Phil Earle.                  Junior Fiction.

 

 


        
Beau is a stray barely existing on the mean streets of London in 1939;  life is haphazard at best, cruel for the rest of the time – until he is rescued from death by Peggy, His Girl, His Saviour, and brought back to her home in Balham to live safely with her family.  Who put up some half-hearted objections which she dispenses with in seconds:  her younger brother Wilf has Mabel, Queen of the Couch, a cat far too full of her own self-importance, so Peggy is entitled to have her very own pet, too.  Who could deny the fairness of that arrangement?  Only Queen Mabel, who loathes Beau on sight and wastes no time in telling him so in the most scathing of tones, but he doesn’t care, because someone, Peggy, loves him!  It is a wonderful, heady feeling and Beau hopes it will never end.

            But.  In the way of all Happily-ever-afters, nothing remains the same:  Hitler and his planes eventually start bombing London, and it is decided that London’s children should be evacuated to ‘the country’ where they will be safe – oh, and people should ‘put their pets down’ because food will be rationed and there will be none to spare for cats and dogs. 

            Peggy and Wilf are devastated.  They don’t want to leave their darling mum and dad, but they will do so only if mum and dad promise to keep looking after Beau and Mabel;  they couldn’t bear it if they were to come home at the end of all the conflict to find that their most-loved pets in the entire world had been killed because they needed to be fed.  Their parents, being honourable people, agreed, and the children were sent off to the coast 100 miles away, to live with Aunty Sylvia, Dad’s sister, who didn’t know one end of a child from another.  But what could be done?  Needs must.

            And Beau went out nightly with Peggy’s Dad who was an air-raid warden, a job Beau became famous for, because Beau could smell people buried under the rubble;  in fact he was so good at it that no-one dare say he should be put down- until the terrible night when a huge bomb destroyed their lives forever, and Beau – and Mabel – are on their own.

            But not quite.  Their next-door neighbour Bomber, a carrier pigeon fully trained in delivering military messages convinces them to try to reach their much-loved Peggy and Wilf:  If it can be done, it WILL be done!  And Beau and Mabel’s adventures begin in earnest.

            This is a beautiful story, predictably heart-breaking and fraught with suspense – but also based on fact:  there really was a dog trained to find people under the rubble;  he sniffed out more than 100 people buried alive beneath their homes.  His name was Rip and he was a Hero.  As so many were at that terrible time.  FIVE STARS.  For readers 11+.