Saturday, 28 March 2020


Peace, by Garry Disher.

            ‘All a cop wants at Christmas, thinks Constable Paul Hirschhausen (Hirsch, please) is not Heavenly Peace, just a general absence of mayhem’.  And fair enough, too.  Hirsch was a detective in a former life – and a previous book, which naturally I haven’t read.  (Where have I been all my life?)  He exposed crookedness and graft in the South Australian Police force, but is regarded as a nark by his colleagues, and instead of being rewarded for his honesty, has been demoted to country constable, patrolling tiny towns and remote farms.  It’s not what he was trained for, but he’ll do his best regardless, and after a year based in Tiverton, Christmas has rolled around again - he hasn’t exactly hit his stride, but he is being seen as less of an outsider and more of a fixture – he hopes.
            Criminal acts are pretty minor by big city standards;  the usual domestics, drunks and thefts – until several of the miniature show ponies of one of the locals are carved up and left to die in their paddock.  As if cruelty to animals weren’t horrific enough, a woman visiting the weekly Doctor’s clinic left her little daughter in her car in stifling summer heat:  it was touch-and-go for a time as Hirsch fought to free the child from the car, only to have the subsequent battle with the mum uploaded to YouTube – publicity he doesn’t need, being already in bad odour with his superiors.  He just can’t catch a break and, true to form, when you’re sure that things can’t get worse, they invariably do.
            The neglectful mother is found murdered, along with her teenage son (‘No, no, constable, I only have one child!’);  her little daughter has disappeared, along with an older daughter that no-one knew about, necessitating an influx of the top brass from Adelaide – and Sydney, even, and it goes without saying that these luminaries treat constable Hirschhausen as the yokel he deserves to be – but he was a good detective, and the demotion hasn’t deprived him of his skills.  He can still mix it with the big boys, and does so with aplomb.
            Mr Disher is SUCH an entertainer!  He paints great word-portraits of small-town Australian life;  the huge, empty, dried-out landscape, and the hardiness and humour of the classic Aussie battler.  In prose stark, shocking and familiar to us all on this side of the Tasman, he introduces us to characters that we could recognise anywhere in Oz or EnZed:  we are cuzzies, after all.  And happy to be so.  FIVE STARS.  

Sunday, 22 March 2020


A Heart so Fierce and Broken, by Brigid Kemmerer.  Young Adults


            This is the sequel to ‘A Curse so Dark and Lonely’, Ms Kemmerer’s epic retelling of the Sleeping Beauty legend (search drop box), but with a great contemporary twist – that of introducing protagonists from our modern world into the parallel kingdom of Emberfall, there to break the curse set by evil enchantress Lilith that turns Crown Prince Rhen into a murdering monster:  well, in  the best of fairytale traditions, true love in the shape of Harper rescues him from the curse, his kingdom is freed, and everyone should live happily ever after.  Except that they don’t.
            Rhen has inherited a kingdom in ruins after constant warfare;  his subjects are starving, and there are rumours that he is not the rightful Heir:  there is an older half-brother whose mother could practice magic, and no matter how hard Rhen’s troops try to quell the gossip it still persists.  The only high point in his life is his love for Harper, so-called Princess of Disi, who has supposedly promised thousands of troops from her country:  Washington, DC?  If his subjects find out about that, it will be the end of his reign – and of him.
            Enter Commander Grey, formerly his most loyal and trusted servant:  Grey has discovered that he and Prince Rhen are indeed brothers, but he decides the best thing to do is to leave Emberfall and take up another identity;  he doesn’t want the crown under any circumstances and the less people know about him, the better.  Naturally, life is not like that, particularly in fairy tales:  he is captured, cruelly flogged by Rhen’s men, eventually escapes thanks to trusted friends, but is forced into an alliance with Karis Luran, queen of Syhl Shallow, Rhen’s sworn enemy:  she will back him with troops and weapons, everything he needs for military success, if he will vanquish Rhen’s army with his nascent magical powers – powers he wasn’t aware that he had until he was flogged by Rhen’s order.  Grey is in between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea.  And to complicate life even further, he begins to fall in love with Lia Mara, Karis Luran’s daughter, a girl as good as her mother is evil:  his life is starting to slip beyond his famous discipline and control.
            Ms Kemmerer has us all by the scruff of the neck, and won’t let go:  I was turning pages at a furious rate, and was even more frustrated when I reached the end and found that an arch-villain, thought dead, is still stirring up lethal trouble.  It’s going to take aaaaages for the next instalment to appear, and in Trump’s  America, anything could happen in that time.  I hope it doesn’t!  FIVE STARS.

             

Sunday, 15 March 2020


Half a World Away, by Mike Gayle.


           Most times it makes me cringe to read that a novel is ‘heartwarming’.  Such a description usually means it’s heavy on the romance and pathos, and light on real-life situations to which the reader can relate, so I approached Mr Gayle’s novel with the necessary caution – and am happy to say that this story does indeed deserve to be called ‘heartwarming’ in the very best sense, and another praiseworthy adjective:   unputdownable.
             Kerry Hays writes to her little brother Jason:  they were both put into care when their mother disappeared;  Kerry was ten and Jason was eighteen months old.  She hasn’t seen him since, her beautiful little coloured brother (same mum, different dads) whom she loves to distraction, but she writes to him regularly, even though she is not allowed to know where he is:  he has to contact her.  Which is a bit hard as he doesn’t know she exists, and the authorities don’t have to inform him.  Still, Kerry believes that one day they will make contact again;  she has much to tell him as the years go by, including the fact that, in her thirties, she became a mother herself, an event that thrills her to the marrow:  she finally had her wish to love and care always for a vulnerable little being that is hers alone, a feeling she hasn’t experienced since she was everything to Jason that her mother wasn’t.  Kian’s dad is a space-waster, but Kerry doesn’t care.  They don’t need him!
            Kerry and her son are managing adequately;  they have a small flat on a semi-tough housing estate;  she cleans posh houses for a living and has a reliable income:  Jason by contrast has been adopted into a wealthy family who, having already had their children thought it only right that they give a needy little someone the opportunity to shine and be loved by them.  Jason is now Noah Martineau, a Barrister with a beautiful home in London’s Primrose Hill and a family to match, a fact that makes Kerry burst with pride when she eventually makes contact with him, the only problem being that he has never been interested in his origins;  he’d much rather face the present and speculate about the future, much to his wife’s exasperation:  in fact his refusal to face up to his past has induced her to kick him out, which means that he is not receptive to a stranger turning up professing to be his half-sister.
            Mr Gayle tells the poignant story of Noah and Kerry’s new relationship with humour and grace as they both traverse the strata of British society:  racism as everywhere in the world,  constantly rears its ugly head, but it doesn’t stop old love from being remembered, nor new, loving relationships from being forged, even in the face of tragedy.  FIVE STARS.        

Sunday, 8 March 2020


The Overstory, by Richard Powers.


           The 2019 Pulitzer Prize, America’s most prestigious literary award, has been deservedly given to Mr Powers for his towering and beautiful paean of praise for that which we take so much, to our peril, for granted:  the tree.
            Written as a novel, it still abounds with incontrovertible facts, especially as to what will happen to our earth when the human race has finally denuded our wonderful, nurturing planet of all the forests and their ecosystems: we will be breathless, airless – and non-existent, but still homo sapiens rushes to its destruction, for clearing trees means clearing land, means cities built, means crops farmed for increasing populations, means money, money, money, now our only God.
            Mr Powers introduces us to nine disparate characters who connect, sometimes intimately, to tell his wonderful story:  Nicholas Hoel, artist and sculptor;  Mimi Ma, Chinese-American engineer;  Vietnam veteran Douglas Pavlicek;  Dr. Patricia Westford, Botanist and Dendrologist;  Neelay Mehta, wheelchair-bound Silicone valley Gamer King;  Olivia Vandergriff, college student on the verge of attaining her degree in Actuarial Science;  Adam Appich, student psychologist;  and Ray and Dorothy Brinkman, a prosperous but unhappy childless couple.
            Not all these people will meet, though five of them link up in protest at the denuding of American redwood forests in the ‘90’s and join groups which are successful – initially – at stopping Redwood destruction in Northern California.  They are so delighted with small victories that they name themselves after their favourite trees:  Mulberry, Doug.Fir, Maple, MaidenHair, Watchman - and Maidenhair/Olivia and Nicholas/Watchman actually stop the felling of an enormous thousand year old wonder with its own name (Mimas) for nearly a year by camping on a platform in its upper branches – until the money men send in a helicopter to knock them out of the air while the cutting machines assemble at Mimas’s base.  The tree is doomed, and so is the protest.
            And further desperate, illegal protests end in tragedy and eventual betrayal, with one of their number tricked into confessing to a crime for which they all were guilty:  he receives not one, but TWO life sentences for domestic terrorism.  From eco-Warrior to domestic terrorist – so much for youthful idealism.  And did their efforts, puny as they seemed, make any difference to the fate of the most giving things on earth?  To trees, ‘our link between earth and sky'?  We must hope and pray so - to a deity other than the Money God.
Every person who cares about our planet should read this book.  SEVEN SERIOUS STARS!    

Sunday, 1 March 2020


The Butterfly Girl, by Rene Denfeld.

  
          I have never forgotten a book by the above author that I read six years ago, called ‘The Enchanted’, an astonishing story about a prisoner on Death Row, and how he got there.  It was horrifying, heart-breaking and ultimately uplifting, a story of the emotional and spiritual vandalism perpetrated upon the most vulnerable, and what turns a child into a killer:  now, Rene Denfeld has produced another searing exposé of the careless ignorance and cruelty that permeates our society, and the few – too few – good people who try to make a difference.  And she knows whereof she speaks, as a journalist, investigator and foster-mother.  She writes from  experience.
            Celia is a 12 year old street kid in Portland, Oregon.  She sleeps under a freeway on-ramp with two other boys, panhandling and turning the occasional trick to get money.  (Not much).  She left home because her mother has become a heroin addict thanks to her new husband, who introduced her to the habit so that he could move in on Celia:  when Celia reported him to the authorities she was called a liar, so she ran away and joined the homeless kids on Skid Row, but her only regret is that she left her little sister behind;  Celia knows that Alyssa will eventually meet the same fate.  She is only six. 
Celia has a single fantasy that sustains her:  her love for the grace and beauty of butterflies, instilled within her when she was very small by her mother when times were different:  Celia stays in the local library for hours reading about the gorgeous winged creatures, and when life is particularly ugly, she can lose herself in butterfly dreams.  It’s the only way to survive.
Naomi is an Investigator of missing children, and has had some success in her searches – but she cannot find her own sister, left behind as a toddler when Naomi herself escaped from captivity in a bunker when she was nine years old:  her failure to track Sarah down eats at her soul, for she promised that she would return, return to rescue her – and she hasn’t.  But she still tries, still relentlessly goes over all the old clues – and meets Celia, the Butterly Girl.
Ms Denfeld weaves a masterful spell over the reader as she takes us to the story’s end at a thriller pace;  her characters are all too tragically real, as the vulnerable always are, but hope is there too, thanks to good people like Ms Denfeld:  she puts her money where her mouth is!  SIX STARS. 

Saturday, 22 February 2020


Down the River Unto the Sea, by Walter Mosley.


           Walter Mosley has a huge body of work to his name and, as always, I have been shamefully ignorant of his accomplishments until now:  his stand-alone novel featuring brilliant, world-weary and jaded Afro/American Private Investigator Joe King Oliver follows all the rules of classic crime fiction as laid down by Dashiel Hammett, Raymond Chandler et al, but lends a 21st century perspective to crimes and corruption as old as civilisation itself.
            Joe wasn’t always a PI;  he used to be a hot-shot, ambitious Detective in the New York Police Department, until he was mercilessly framed by anonymous colleagues:  he was unwittingly getting too close to some of their horrifying scams and he needed to be removed from the scene.  This involved luring Joe into the embrace of a beautiful, supposedly wronged woman whom he was sent to arrest and he was videoed by hidden cameras used to provide ‘evidence’ when she screamed RAPE.  He was incarcerated for several months in the infamous Rikers prison;  his wife could have bailed him out, but was shown the ‘rape’ video by colleagues supposedly meant to be his friends;  now his marriage is in ruins;  he is irreparably damaged by his time in Rikers, not to mention physically scarred and, if it hadn’t been for one of his old work mates who set him up as a PI, he would be on the streets:  his life is one big grudge – except for the existence of his teenage daughter, literally the light of his life.
            She works for him after school as his receptionist and one afternoon ushers in a young woman on a mission:  Willa is a lawyer who has recently been working for attorney Stuart Braun, who has been crusading with great fanfare to free black radical activist Leonard Compton.  Compton killed two police officers he said were drugging and trafficking young, poor women and he is now on Death Row, but Braun’s zeal and enthusiasm to appeal for justice seems to have waned:  he is no longer interested in the case.  Could Joe read through the files she has brought and consider finding out what happened to make Braun lose interest?
            And Joe does, embarking on a dangerous, almost fatal journey to dig through layers of corruption so thick he thinks he’ll never reach the bottom – until he does, starts to ascend and realises that he’s climbing into the heights of wealth, gentility – and power. 
            Mr Mosley’s story is well-constructed, smart, funny and peopled with great characters, including a spectacularly evil man who is thoroughly engaging and charges Joe a dollar for all the mayhem he alone can create (he owes Joe a favour from long ago).  For lovers of Crime Noir (and there are so many of us) he cain’t be beat!  FIVE STARS.      

Monday, 10 February 2020

Silver, by Chris Hammer.


           Chris Hammer’s second crime novel is a sequel to ‘Scrublands’, his epic, page-turning tale of drought, bush fires and murder in a remote little town in Australia’s New South Wales (reviewed January 2019):  now he follows it up with ‘Silver’, a sequel blessed with all the elements that made ‘Scrublands’ so successful – strong characters, marvellous evocations of time and place, and shrewd journalistic assessments of Australian reaction to foreign investment on a federal and local government level.
            Sacked journo Martin Scarsden is once again the main protagonist;  he is joining his new love, Mandy Blonde and her baby son Liam in Port Silver on the NSW coast.  Mandy has inherited a large property there and she thinks it’s the perfect place for a new start for them all – time to put the horrific events of the past year in their proper place:  behind them.  The only problem is that Martin hasn’t been completely honest with Mandy:  unbeknownst to her, he was born in Port Silver and when he was eight, suffered the terrible loss of his mother and twin sisters in an accident;  then he had to watch his father drink himself to death.  The day Martin left Port Silver was the happiest day of his life, and he doesn’t know how he will settle back into normal living (doing what?  He is no longer a journalist) when he has so many ghosts to haunt him.
            Their new life is off to a very shaky start, he thinks – until he calls round to the townhouse Mandy has rented, only to find her with hands bloodied, shaking with terror, and a stabbed and dying man stretched out in her hallway.  To make a horrendous situation even worse, Martin recognises the victim as that of his old school friend Jasper Speight who, presumably, had called round particularly to see Martin:  he had damning evidence of local corruption and wanted Martin to investigate.  Now he is dead and Mandy, of all people, is a suspect.  The situation could not get any worse, thinks Martin, and God hears that and laughs.
            Mr Hammer has written a big novel – some 560 pages – and it’s chock-full of minor characters and situations, a lot of which feels like unnecessary padding:  there are more murders and even more suspects:  when the final unveiling is flourished I have to say that it’s almost an anti-climax.  It’s true that I never suspected whodunnit, but I nearly drowned with all the red herrings.  Having said that, ‘Silver’ is still a fine, suspenseful read.  (You just have to have strong wrists!)  FOUR STARS.