Thursday, 23 February 2012

The End of the Wasp Season, by Denise Mina

For lovers of crime/thriller novels, the more of this genre they read the more predictable the plots become:  we end up wearily familiar with the brilliant but burnt-out supersleuth, the star of the show – which makes one wonder why writers feel they cannot stray from this old, tried-and-true formula;  there HAS to be a new variation just to liven things up a bit, and to prevent the reader from solving the murder/mystery in the very first chapter.  Well, I’m happy to report that this paragon has finally arrived, thanks to Denise Mina and her singular heroine, Detective Sergeant Alex Morrell.  Alex is nasty.  She’s spiteful and bad-tempered;  fiercely loyal to police hierarchy;  a product of a slum Glasgow upbringing; a brilliant analyst of human behaviour good and bad, and the enemy of hypocrisy and pretension.  She is also pregnant with twins and loves her husband very much.
‘The End of the Wasp Season’ is not the first time Alex has made an appearance, a previous novel being ‘Still Midnight’, but this book is easy to read as a stand-alone story, with enough references to her past to enable the reader to enjoy her current adventure with no distractions – which is vital.  How about this for a plot:  we know almost from the beginning that two privileged teenagers commit a dreadful, mindless murder, but it’s not until the very last page that we find out which one actually did the awful deed.  (And here I say that I was WRONG, I who can usually spot the bad ‘un a mile off).  There are no happy endings in this story;  it’s bleak and unforgiving of its characters’ shortcomings, but Ms Mina has a wonderful knack of getting to the essence of things:  she can deliver in a single sentence what other writers use a page to describe.   She is an exceptional writer and deserves all the superlatives heaped upon her, for Alex Morrell is a babe – foul-mouthed, bad-tempered but honourable and unforgettable.  Can’t wait for the next instalment.

Maine, by J. Courtney Sullivan
Three generations of women from the same family congregate at the old family beach house in Maine for the summer month of June – not because they planned to be together, but because circumstance dictates it.  Alice, the matriarch, first came to the property as a newly pregnant married woman nearly sixty years before;  her husband had won beautiful beachfront land on a bet with a friend and since then the family, now spanning four generations, have made annual pilgrimages to this lovely and cherished place.  Alice is in her 80’s, sharp as a tack, a devout Catholic with a tongue like a butcher’s knife – especially on matters of faith – and a defiantly heavy drinker.       
Alice’s granddaughter Maggie has also arrived to stay solo ‘for just a few days’;  the original plan of spending some idyllic time there with handsome but feckless boyfriend Gabe scuttled after a huge fight that has ended their relationship.  The problem now is that Maggie’s plan of confessing to Gabe that she is pregnant – in a setting guaranteed (she hoped) to introduce him gently and romantically to the responsibilities of impending fatherhood – has been thwarted:  she finds that at the age of thirty-two, she will have to soldier on alone.  Gabe informs her by email that he can’t deal with fatherhood ‘at this point in time’, which means it’s time to bite the bullet and inform the rest of the family, specifically her mother, Kathleen.
Kathleen is the oldest of Alice’s children, a former alcoholic and intentional rebel against everything that Alice holds dear:  thanks to several massive family confrontations, one involving the death from cancer of Kathleen’s beloved father Daniel, Alice and Kathleen are bitter foes.  Kathleen has sworn after her father’s death never to return to Maine – until she gets the news of Maggie’s pregnancy;  then she swoops in from California to take charge of her errant daughter and do battle with her detested mother.
And into this mix is added the long-suffering, martyred Ann Marie, Alice’s daughter-in-law, married to son Patrick (‘I am the ONLY one of this family who looks after YOUR mother and what thanks do I get?), who  has reluctantly arrived two weeks earlier than usual to keep an eye on Alice (and her drinking) because she couldn’t persuade Kathleen to come from California to do her family duty – until Kathleen gets the news of Maggie’s dilemma.  Ann Marie is furious.
The stage is set for family fireworks, and Ms Sullivan does not disappoint us:  she writes beautifully of fraught family dynamics, the struggles of successive generations to break iron-bound ties of faith and Irish conservatism, and the attempts by Kathleen and Maggie to be as unlike spiteful Alice as possible, without realising that they are more like her than they can possibly imagine.  No-one to their lasting regret has inherited Daniel’s sanguine and sunny nature, that calming and amiable influence that always steadied the family ship, and as Alice eventually reveals yet another bombshell guaranteed to shock her divided family to the core the reader is treated to the long-secret reasons for all the family slights and resentments.  Each woman has successive chapters to herself, a narrative device that works particularly well here, and by the end of this tender, funny and loving tribute to an American family, the reader feels as familiar with the Kelleher family as their own.  Ms Sullivan portrays beautifully ‘The importance of generations:  one person understanding life through the experiences of all the people who came before’.  Highly recommended.

Pao, by Kerry Young
Yang Pao is 14 when he is brought to Jamaica from China in 1938 with his mother and brother;  their slain father’s best friend Zhang has made a new life for himself there and wants to look after his dead comrade’s family.  Chinese merchants have established themselves in Kingston, and Zhang has gained influence as a formidable ‘fixer’, a provider of protection against various dangers besetting the population of Chinatown (racist attacks being only one) and its denizens, and he is the owner of several gambling and smuggling rackets.  Zhang is a crooked character, but he has a way of inspiring respect without fear, (unless it is absolutely unavoidable!) and a credo drummed daily into Pao that in its own fashion is an honourable way of looking at the world.
As time passes, Pao flourishes in his new environment;  he makes strong, lasting friendships and it is generally understood that he will become heir to all of Zhang’s rackets, big and small;  he is happy with his new life and even more so when he meets the great love of his life, Gloria.  Distressingly, Gloria is a prostitute, an occupation that is not honourable according to Zhang – ‘We did not fight and die in Chinese revolution to put women to work to satisfy base needs of base men’ – and when it is time for Pao to marry, Gloria is not on Zhang’s list:  Pao must marry well, and so he does – he weds Fay, the daughter of a rich Chinese businessman. 
And does everyone live happily ever after?  Of course not!  Fay loathes Pao – he’s nothing but a small-time racketeer: she has been forced into marriage,  forced into giving him two children, forced into living in squalor with him in Chinatown instead of in her beautiful childhood home on the hill, and forced to tolerate the fact that he visits his whore three times a week – oh, life is not turning out according to Zhang and Pao’s plan at all.  Add to the combustible mix Fay’s obsessive dependence on the new, young and handsome parish priest, and the unpleasant solutions that Pao must employ to solve his many ‘business’ problems;  then the reader can’t help but feel great sympathy for Pao and an urge to give him good advice, for Pao is the ultimate ‘likeable rogue’.  First-time novelist Kerry Young has him narrate this great little story in his own inimitable fractured English, detailing honestly his many faults but revealing, too, his innate love and respect for humanity, family, friendship – and his adopted country Jamaica, for Pao’s story is set against the backdrop of Jamaica’s turbulent and bloody history;  it’s struggle for independence;  and its dogged attempts to meld all the diverse races on that little island into one entity:  a Jamaican.  This was a pleasure to read.        

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