Tuesday, 12 July 2011

Great Reads for July 2011

by Julia Kuttner

The Night Season, by Chelsea Cain

The Night seasonThis is Ms Cain’s fourth novel in her Beauty Killer series.  It follows Evil at Heart, Sweetheart, and Heartsick, (see earlier review below)  and one of her reviewers extols her as the new queen of serial-killer fiction.  That’s a fair comment.  In her first three novels she had all the necessary prerequisites of the genre:  blood and gore for Africa;  a crazed (but beautiful – gee, that’s a surprise!) FEMALE serial killer;  the brilliant but burnt-out detective who eventually captures her – but only after she has carved a heart on his chest and removed his spleen – (truly!),  and a plucky girl reporter with enough irritating habits to drive even the reader mad.  What more could one ask for in a thriller?  ‘The Night Season’ follows in the same vein, with the same characters , but evil Gretchen Lowell, the Beauty Killer of the other books plays a lesser role this time;  she was incarcerated for the second time at the end of book three and now sits in gaol refusing to talk, but the citizens of Portland, Oregon, must now contend with a new madman, as well as a huge, impending flood of the Willamette river caused by heavy rain and snowmelt that threatens to inundate huge areas of the city.  Oh, it’s all happening, especially as the new crazed killer poisons his victims in the most preposterously clever way, then disguises them as drowning victims.  It’s up to Archie the carved-up, burnt-out – but brilliant – sleuth and fearless girl reporter Susan Ward to track him down and reel him in.  (Sorry about that, but there is a lot of water in this novel!)  And they do, but not without a lot of heart-stopping suspense in between:  Ms Cain sets her scenes superbly;  she creates effortlessly the lowering atmosphere of a flooding city and the creeping dread of yet another killing just round the corner:  the reader cannot put the book down until the end, and there can be no more satisfying experience than to have to keep reading to see What Happens Next.  All the elements of good thriller writing have been satisfied in this series :  horror, black humour and psychological tension.  As one reviewer said:  ‘This time she adds another arrow to her narrative quiver:  the interplay between landscape and mood …. Terrifying. ‘  Wish I’d thought of that, but he’s absolutely spot on!

Oldies but Goodies

Sweetheart, Heartsick, Evil at Heart, by Chelsea Cain

These books are Potboilers par excellence – gruesome, gory, hair-raising -  all the basic requirements of the classic thriller personified in the continuing duel between Good Archie Sheridan, burnt-out superdetective, and Evil serial-killer Gretchen Lowell, twisted, psychotic and gorgeous – and endlessly fascinating, naturally.  Gretchen takes torture to new and unheard-of levels;  Archie falls victim to her scalpel but manages to survive at the cost of his marriage and mental health, not to mention his spleen.   Oh, that Gretchen – she’s so nasty she makes Lucretia Borgia seem like a favourite Sunday School teacher, but as Archie and every reader knows, she’s also irresistible and unforgettable.  The next episode can’t come soon enough.  (See Above!)

La Rochelle’s Road, by Tanya Moir

La Rochelle's roadThe advent of Ms Moir’s first novel assures this reader yet again of the exceptional quality and health of contemporary New Zealand writing:  she takes an old and well-tried theme and creates an entirely new perspective upon it, not only because of her beautiful prose and command of atmosphere and time, but also the authenticity and strength of her characterizations.
The Peterson family leave England at the end of 1866 to begin a brave new life in New Zealand;  Daniel the father has bought acreage sight unseen on the Banks Peninsula;  he is a clerk but means to become a gentleman farmer, producing grass-seed;  his wife Letitia is adoring, soft, gentle and genteel, the mother of Hester, aged 18, and Robbie, 15, and frighteningly ignorant of the realities and harsh trials of their new existence:  their land, for which they paid an exorbitant price is unproductive and must be cleared by them all of scrub and rubbish before they can even begin to think of a crop;  Daniel finds that, when his money runs out his services are not required by the contemptuous new settlers, hard men all, when he attempts to find supplementary work as a clerk or a teacher, and his humiliation is complete when he has to offer himself as a labourer – for less money than the others! – in order to put food on the table. 
The family’s plight is recorded firstly in optimistic letters Home by Hester to her friend Lucy, then by more realistic entries in her Journal.  She also finds the Journal of the house’s previous occupant, Etienne de la Rochelle, gentleman, artist and would-be explorer, the original owner of the land;  his story offers a fascinating subplot as he relates his adventures in an attempt to find a way across the Alps from West to East – and his guilty love for a Maori woman, the concubine of his guide, Teone.  Ms Moir chronicles this love story with great skill, using the language of the time with absolute assurance.  Her account of farmer- turned -labourer Daniel’s descent into bitterness, disillusionment and despair is masterly:  Daniel does not eventually conquer his land:  it conquers him, and he is forced by tragic circumstance into the realization that the contempt shown to him for his British airs and graces is perhaps justified -  there is no room here yet in this young, harsh, unrelenting land for those with pretensions towards education and airy-fairy ideas on politics and philosophy:  the class system has been turned on its head, and he with it.
This book is completely absorbing from start to finish;  Ms Moir’s prose is lyrical , brilliantly evoking people,  times and places long gone, and her chief narrators, Hester and La Rochelle, carry the story onward with strength, optimism and purity of heart.  Highly recommended.

The Tiger’s Wife, by Téa Obreht

The tiger's wife This book will not be everbody’s cup of tea:  it deals with primitive superstition, family legends and folklore, and the average reader looking for light entertainment will not find it on these pages.  That said, I can also state that this story still has me thinking of its electrifying characters;  the savagery of fate towards its unsuspecting pawns and the horror of the Balkan War, that terrible ethnic conflict that fractured Tito’s Yugoslavia permanently into all the separate little States that are trying to function independently today.  Ms. Obreht has made an astonishing debut into the world of American Letters with this book:  she was born in Belgrade in 1985 and came to America when she was twelve, but her family ties are still strong and she writes with the assurance of one whose homeland will always be with her, regardless of where she travels.
Ms. Obreht’s novel is constructed on two levels;  the modern-day first-person narrative of Natalia, granddaughter of an eminent physician : she’s impatient, rebellious, practical and brilliant, and she has no time for for old and entrenched family customs;  she has graduated as a doctor, too, and she wants to cure people, not pander to their superstitions!  Until the news comes that her Grandfather has died miles from anywhere in a remote Muslim seaside village over the border in unfriendly territory:  peoples’ memories of atrocity are fresh and vivid:  Natalia is told not to advertise her surname as she searches for answers as to why he went there – and why he chose to die there.
As Natalia delves further into her Grandfather’s past life the story’s second level surfaces:  it covers  her Grandfather’s childhood in Galina, a tiny village not even on the map, and the reason for his fascination with tigers, something that was always a mystery to her and the source of many childhood visits to the local zoo.  The village inhabitants are forces of nature;  their every day controlled by superstitions big and small and anyone displaying an iota of difference from what they know and accept is not going to have a long and happy life in Galina. A great tragedy inevitably occurs and the child grows into the man that becomes Natalia’s grandfather, forged by adversity into a formidable and unforgettable character – and so he will remain in my mind:  I am still marveling at Ms. Obreht’s brilliance;  that she can create such a book at the age of 26, and write with such maturity and lyricism of her country’s terrible history.  What a privilege it has been to travel with Natalia, back to a primitive past that still has a strong grasp on the present.  Ms. Obreht has taken me on a Magical Mystery Tour de Force,  and she has my most humble thanks

Dog Tags, by David Rosenfelt

Dog tags.And now for something completely different!  Something for the readers who just want to be entertained, to NOT have to contemplate the huge questions of life, the universe and everything:  this is YOUR book, and what an unmitigated pleasure it is; a really good legal thriller combined with enough humour to carry us on to the next Rosenfelt opus (for this is a series) and to hope that Mr. Rosenfelt keeps the jokes – and the suspense coming.  True to form, I have come in on the fifth or sixth title in the adventures of Andy Carpenter, defence lawyer extraordinaire.  It irritates me immeasurably to realize this after I have started a book;  I like to start things FROM THE BEGINNING!  Well, never mi nd:  I have started to trawl back through the series to the start, and one thing that Andy can be counted on is to be perpetually smart-mouthed in a really death-defying way, to solve the current mystery, and to get rid of all the bad guys – oh, and he’s an unashamed dog-lover:  what’s not to admire?  And Mr. Rosenfelt’s dialogue had me breathless with admiration:  one of Andy’s friends knows absolutely everyone:  ‘You wanna meet the Dalai Lama?  Well, I don’t know him but I know his sister, Shirley Lama.  I could arrange a meeting.’  I  wish I’d thought of that, and I’m still trying to figure out how to introduce it as all mine in future conversations.  Hasn’t happened yet!        

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