Sunday, 29 July 2012

The Inquisitor, by Mark Allen Smith
Geiger is in the ‘information retrieval’ business, a euphemism for torturing certain people into supplying information – not always with physical cruelty, but by brilliant psychological manipulation of the terrified victim’s worst fears.  He is a master at what he does, his ‘clients’ are very powerful, he employs utmost discretion, and he ALWAYS has a 100% success rate. 
His business is fronted by Harry, a hand-picked computer whiz;  their combined fees are astronomical – but they’re worth it:  no client has ever voiced dissatisfaction or demanded their money back for a job less than well done.  Geiger is at the top of his game – and he is also a terribly damaged man with recurring nightmares and migraines that a lesser mortal would beg release from:  the torturer is tortured from within.
Geiger has only one rule in his fearsome business:  he never deals with children.  Not ever.  So he is horrified to find that, instead being presented with a man accused by the ‘client’ of stealing and hiding a priceless work of art, he is given the man’s son – a mistake, the client’s representative states, but perhaps Geiger could work on the son to reveal the whereabouts of his father?
Until this point I felt little empathy with Geiger and Harry, his P.A.  Despite Mr. Smith’s obvious talents as a writer he failed to connect with me for the first 50 pages – until the appearance of the child Ezra, 12 years old and terrified out of his wits:  the child’s rescue by Geiger and the bond formed between the unlikely pair as they try to escape their ruthless pursuers is the main thrust of the plot.  Geiger is forced by terrible events to face his past, a time so horrific that he had completely blocked it from his consciousness, turning himself into little more than a cipher to do so.  Now he is compelled to confront old demons so that he can conquer the new – and keep Ezra, Harry and himself from being killed.
Mr. Smith has had much experience in film-making and screenwriting and this is his first novel.  He has made an excellent debut into the difficult genre of suspense and thriller writing – so many who tell such stories are distressingly formulaic and predictable, but Mr. Smith has presented us with a different kind of protagonist:  not only can he inflict pain, but he is also capable of bearing it, and despite the moral questions posed by his actions throughout the story it is impossible for the reader to feel that Geiger is anything less than heroic in his intentions.  The novel’s ending is suitably ambiguous, which makes me hope that Geiger and Harry will meet again in the future – fingers crossed!

Talulla Rising, by Glen Duncan
I have been waiting for Glen Duncan to write his sequel to ‘The last Werewolf’ for what seems like ages, but It wasn’t, really :  he has turned out #2 in record time because (he says in a very funny interview in the NYTimes) that he needs the money – presumably to keep the wolf from his door (sorry, sorry!) -  and fair enough, as long as the quality of writing doesn’t suffer.  Well, I’m happy to report that all is well in Mr. Duncan’s anarchic and bloodthirsty world of monsters big and small.  He brings a refreshing literary talent to the relatively new ‘bonk and bite’ book style – there are so many of them these days that very few  break the bounds of boring predictability:  Duncan’s 9 foot killing machines and smelly vampires are a breath of fresh air (if it wasn’t so laden with blood) in what is fast becoming a very tired genre.
Jake Marlowe, The eponymous Last Werewolf, was killed at the end of the first book;  unbeknownst to him, his lover Talulla Demetriou manages to survive the attack that ends his 200 year-old existence – and she is pregnant with his twins.  She is helped to hide from countless enemies by Cloquet, a former enemy and perennial loser who becomes her helpmeet and staunch ‘minder’;  she gives his life the sense of purpose it has always lacked – after all, it’s a big job to find a suitable victim for slaughter every month when the moon rises.  Not everyone can do it!
Unfortunately for Talulla, word of her pregnancy has reached some very unsavoury (and smelly) ears:  it is believed by a certain cult of vampires that the consumption of a werewolf baby at a certain time of the year will give them the ability to march around in daylight, instead of dissolving into an odiferous puddle of ash as soon as the sun hits them.  Talulla is a marked woman/werewolf, captured and completely disabled by the nasties as she is giving birth and forced to watch helplessly as the vampires make off with her little son. Luckily (depending on which way you look at it) the kidnappers were unaware – as was she! – that another child was on its way:  Talulla’s little girl is spared the same fate as her twin.
Thereafter begins a mad pursuit through Europe to try to track down Talulla’s enemies before they destroy her child, and on the way she encounters to her utter astonishment other werewolves,  all new -  it seems Jake was a little careless in his ‘relations’ with a certain prostitute, who in turn managed to infect several other people:  Werewolves rule, Dude!
Mr. Duncan’s plotting is bombproof:  in case the reader wonders where our hairy heroine gets the money to charge around the planet recruiting allies and helpers, well, Jake left her his considerable fortune, amassed over two hundred years, for a start.  No matter how many times I looked for a ‘Yeah, right!’ slipup I never found one;  the action never flags and some great new characters have been added to the mix.  I’m happy to say that this is that rare thing:  a sequel that packs just as much punch as the first, and is just as engaging.  And Glen Duncan can’t end things there because (by his own admission) he needs the money!  All to the good, I say.  Highly recommended.

Peaches for Monsieur le Curé
This is the third of Joanne Harris’s novels about Vianne Rocher, that beautifully eccentric, fey and footloose weaver of magic and maker of superb confections.  We first met her in ‘Chocolat’, Ms. Harris’s 1999 runaway best-seller, where she opens a chocolaterie in French village Lansquenet-sous-Tannes, only to gain the hatred of the local priest, who convinced himself that she was a witch – and he wasn’t entirely wrong. She also finds love with Roux, a gypsy who travels the waterways of France before they both move on to Paris and another chocolaterie in ‘The Lollipop Shoes’.  In that story Vianne and her little family are threatened with great harm but survive to continue charming peoples’ palates and dreams with her wonderful chocolates – until she receives a message from the dead to bring her back to Lansquenet: the curé, father Reynaud, the enemy who drove her on from that village is now in sore need of help – hers.  Not that he would ask.
It has been eight years since Vianne left Lansquenet and much has changed.  New people have arrived to settle in the village:  Muslims.  At first, all was well:  Lansquenet is not intolerant and while not rolling out a brass band welcome to strangers is not shunning the new arrivals either.  Everyone rubs along well enough – until Monsieur le Curé objects to the creation of a minaret in an old water tower:  it breaks local noise regulations, he says, but really he finds it a personal offence to hear that foreign chanting in competition to his church bells.  The priest and the local Muslim leader are on a collision course.
More sinister events occur – the curé finds that his position as village priest is being eroded from within when dissatisfied parishioners feel that they need a ‘21st century man of God’:  father Reynaud feels the winds of change and they are chilling.
Ms. Harris writes very well of bigotry and racism.  She does not shy away from examining the actions and reactions of one culture as it pits itself against another, and portrays only too clearly the evil that men can perpetrate in the name of religion.  Her countless fans will find this third ‘episode’ in Vianne Rocher’s travels as satisfying as the first two, but I have to say that a very pat and convenient fate for two of the major characters was a disappointment and less than worthy of a writer of Ms. Harris’s talents:  my first thought was that she had grown tired of her story and wanted to give it a quick and tidy ending.  So far I haven’t changed my mind.

Briefs Encountered, by Julian Clary
Happily gay star of stage and TV screen Julian Clary has written his third novel, ‘Briefs Encountered’, in part an homage to Noel Coward, towering icon of 20th century British theatre, but more a mystery story concerning Coward’s beloved home of thirty years in Kent,’Goldenhurst’ and the influence, pernicious and otherwise, the house had on him and subsequent owners – including Mr. Clary!
Yes, our Julian doesn’t resist making himself one of the characters in the book – being himself of course, one would think, but making himself low-rent enough to cause shudders of disdain amongst his queenly contemporaries in alternating ‘modern’ sections of the story, where he owns ‘Goldenhurst’ for barely a year (re-naming it with a snigger ‘Priest’s Hole House) before selling it with indecent haste for a knockdown price to Richard Stent, a celebrated actor renowned for his uncannily accurate portrayal of Coward in a filmography of the great playwright. 
Stent is initially thrilled with his new purchase;  despite his fame he knows that his career is finite and is fully aware that with approaching age satisfying dramatic roles will eventually dry up, but he gets a huge boost from the fact that he is now living in a house that once belonged to his idol – the trouble is, there seem to be a lot of other occupants as well, Things that go Bump in the Night kinds of occupants:  this house is not a Happy Home!
Unfortunate events start to occur at an alarming rate, as they do in alternating chapters for Noel Coward and his great love American stockbroker Jack Wilson.  ‘Goldenhurst’ has a unique way of showing its disapproval for those it doesn’t like, and Jack is one of them.
So is Jess, Richard’s wonderfully efficient but possessive P.A.  It is patently clear to everyone but Richard, that though he is as gay as a hat (yes, this story is crammed to the gunnels with very merry people!) Jess is unhealthily obsessed with her unsuspecting boss – oh, absolutely everybody can see the writing on the wall:  it’s all going to end in tears.  And it does, but as this is a story about a celebrated actor, playwright, musical star and wit who modestly admitted that he ‘had a talent to amuse’, there are also more delicious one-liners and tart humour than a body can memorise in a bid to pass off as her own at the next dinner potty.  How tarsome, but what a pleasure to read such sparkling dialogue. 
Having said that, I have to say that Julian, the dear boy, will never become a literary Giant:  he needs a better editor than he has – or perhaps this was the best his editor could do with what she was given:  either way, there are some pretty clunky passages in his narrative.  Even so, Mr. Clary manages to move the plot along at a cracking pace;  his characters (except for the villains) are loads of fun, celeb names are dropped like sequins and importantly, comparisons are drawn between sexual morés of the nineteen twenties and thirties when to Mr. Coward’s perpetual fear and dismay, it was illegal for two consenting males to engage in sexual activity, to the present day, where same-sex couples may join together in civil union.  Regardless of its flaws, Mr. Clary’s latest is an entertainment extraordinaire, worth reading for the humour alone. Lashings of fun.

Snowdrops, by A. D. Miller
As everyone knows, snowdrops are those charming white flowers that appear every spring looking like ballet tutus trimmed with green spots:  in Moscow, ‘Snowdrops’ is also a nickname for corpses caught up in frigid winter snowdrifts, not making an appearance until the spring thaw and the smell of corruption herald their last resting place.
A. D. Miller’s superb first novel reveals corruption on many different levels. He spent several years as the Moscow correspondent for The Economist, so is eminently qualified to describe in the most eloquent and brutal terms the loss of Russia’s moral compass  - which has probably been missing in action for generations.
In 21st century Moscow anything and anybody can be bought for a price, and that ruined, tawdry and fascinating city’s inhabitants have turned confidence trickery and fraud into an art form – and they don’t stop at fleecing gullible foreigners:  their own compatriots are fair game, too.  Everyone is on the make and on the take;  everyone wears a mask of false friendship and bonhomie, especially whenever some poor gullible fool is paying the bill, and reality, when it finally rears its judgmental head, is merciless.
The story is narrated by Nick, a British lawyer approaching forty, sent by his London firm to represent them in Moscow to oversee deals connecting banks to Russian ‘investors’ in oil-rich Siberia:  there is an indecent amount of money to be made by banks lending startup money to finance new oil terminals;  they  are falling over themselves to advance money to the new breed of Russian entrepreneur, and Nick’s firm is there to do the legal work and charge huge fees.  Money for jam, until he and his colleagues start dealing with the Cossack, an oligarch with a shadowy past and a talent for being out of contact in matters of urgency.  They begin arranging the finance for him to construct a new terminal in Murmansk, advancing hundreds of millions of dollars – oh, life is going well, there will be fat bonuses for all, with a possible partnership for Nick, and everyone is just about swimming in all the vodka tossed back in the many toasts to their success.
Nick has also started the romance of his life with Masha, a beautiful damsel in distress that he prevented from being mugged in the Metro;  she has been suitably grateful since and she and her ‘sister’ are his firm friends, especially when they find out that he is a lawyer.  And at that point Nick’s slide into corruption begins – gradually but inexorably, he is involved in a scheme to remove an old lady from her desirable central Moscow apartment, shifting her to a new high-rise flat on the outskirts of the city.  Nick completes all the tedious legal work, even advances a hefty loan himself to expedite matters, all in the name of Love, only to discover eventually, predictably, that he has been conned – out of his money and out of his reputation, and left only with the bitter, guilty realisation that he ignored all the warning signs (and there were many) in a futile bid to hang on to his ephemeral romance.  More unpleasant revelations follow, and life for Nick will never be the same again:  his naiveté has been his downfall.
A.D. Miller has written a superlative modern morality tale, examining venality and abandonment of principle from many angles.  He also peoples his work with great characters, beautifully observed and entirely convincing, and as a bonus – in case the reader will think that the story is an unmitigated tragedy from start to finish – there is a rich vein of humour throughout the novel, and the lasting impression that people the world over will do what they must – and what is easiest – to survive.
And the very last word must go to someone who summed Nick up most succinctly on the Remarks sheet inside the library book:  ‘Naïve fool – shouldn’t be left walking around loose.’
That person stated in a single sentence what has just taken me a whole page!  Ah, it’s a dreadful thing to be a verbal diahrroetic.

The Beginner’s Goodbye, by Anne Tyler
Pulitzer Prizewinning author Anne Tyler has written another little gem:  this writer never fails to be consistently good;  an excellent observer of all the foibles and eccentricities that make us all so different – and so much the same.
Her latest protagonist is Aaron Woolcott, an editor who works in the family business set up by his father, a firm that specialises in Beginner’s Guides to every conceivable thing, and a vanity press for those paying to publish their own work.  He has been handicapped since a childhood illness deformed his right arm and leg and has fought ever since against his overprotective mother and sister for his right to take  care of himself – he truly believes that, though he is living with very big disadvantages in his life, he is still ‘pretty happy’.  And he becomes happier still when he meets Dorothy Rosales, a radiology specialist. (he’s checking out contributors to the Beginner’s Guide to Cancer.  DON’T SPEAK!).  Dorothy views him with suspicion:  she is sure his interest in her is because she would be the ultimate caregiver, given her obvious medical skills and his obvious disabilities.  She is not the least bit interested in that kind of relationship and it takes some time to convince her that he wants her because she DOESN’T wish to take care of him.
Eventually, Aaron prevails and they marry four months after meeting, embarking on a marriage that turns out to be unsatisfactory for both of them – until Dorothy is killed in a freak accident.  Aaron then has to deal with all the stages of grieving, the anger he feels towards her for leaving him, and his own guilt when he realises that there is a yawning gulf between being cared for and cared about.  The reader journeys gladly with him through this big, painful learning curve, for Ms. Tyler fills her pages with lovely minor characters, each trying to help Aaron in their own different ways to survive – the casseroles and advice pile up at an astonishing rate! – and her sure touch for comedy in the most unlikely circumstances increases the reader’s enjoyment in every chapter.  Highly recommended.   



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