Wednesday, 30 January 2013

The Mystery of Mercy Close, by Marian Keyes
Marian Keyes:  Queen of Chick Lit, one of the funniest Irish authors in print, and creator of a series of much-loved books about the Walsh sisters (there are five) and their long-suffering parents.  A wonderful success story, surely, were it not for the fact that Ms Keyes has suffered from life-threatening bouts of depression, an illness she writes about from sad personal experience in this latest novel. 
Ms Keyes follows her usual formula:  each book is wonderfully humorous, but deals with big subjects:  domestic abuse;  drug dependency;  alcoholism and infidelity – our sisters experience many of the pitfalls of life and Helen, the youngest sister and protagonist of ‘Mercy Close’, is about to suffer her second bout of depression, the knowledge of which utterly terrifies her.
Helen has just been forced by circumstance to move back in with her parents – a fact that her parents greet with as much dismay as she.  Her formerly successful business as a private investigator has dried up, thanks to the all-encompassing Irish recession, and her beloved flat is no longer hers but now belongs to the bank:  she is thirty-three years old, homeless, jobless, and if it weren’t for her reluctant family, friendless; she’s too prickly and blunt to have many friends.  Poor Helen is the ideal candidate for depression -  insidious messenger of desperation, hopelessness and despair -  to set up shop.
Enter Jay Parker, detested ex-boyfriend and Con Man, oily, smarmy, bad news in a good suit – but he has a confidential job for her.  (Confidential?  CONFIDENTIAL?!  She’ll sew her lips together with #8 wire after removing her tongue if that’s what’s required:  she needs the dough!)  Jay has now transformed himself into the manager and go-to guy for one of Ireland’s many Nineties BoyBands, the Laddz, who, because they are also in dire need of  money, are planning a big comeback concert in a week’s time.  Unfortunately, one of the Laddz, Wayne Giffney, has disappeared and Jay is relying on Helen to find him.  Otherwise they’ll ALL be in the cack – promises have been made;  merchandise has been ordered;  the venue is booked ( a 15,000-seat stadium – Mary, Mother of God!), and where the Bloody Hell is Wayne??  Time is running out and he has to be found, or they’ll all be in for a quick trip down the gurgler.
Despite a complete absence of clues to his disappearance and a stunning lack of co-operation from those whom she felt should help, Helen finds that the deeper she delves into Wayne’s life, the more of an affinity she feels with him – maybe he doesn’t want to be found;  maybe he just wants to continue living peacefully in his little house in Mercy Close, as far away from the cut-throat music world as possible.
Sadly, too much is at stake with the other band members for that to happen, and as the concert draws near and Helen’s illness threatens to engulf her, life-changing decisions have to be made, not all of them good.
Ms Keyes peoples her story with great minor characters;  she is a shrewd, almost painfully funny observer of everyday behaviour – no foible is left unturned! – but she also gives a courageous and honest account of what it is like to live with a disease that makes its sufferers want to die.  Highly recommended.

The Dinner, by Herman Koch
On the front cover of this explosive little book a question is asked:  ‘How far would you go to protect the ones you love?’  The reader finds out soon enough as Paul Lohman and his wife Claire prepare to meet his detested older brother Serge and his wife Babette for dinner at a restaurant that has a three month waiting list:  naturally, Serge didn’t have to book three months in advance;  he is such a popular politician that the way is cleared for him wherever he wishes to go, for it is a foregone conclusion that he will win the next Dutch election.
Paul would be quite happy not to have contact with his brother at all;  he considers him a hypocrite and a boor, coarse and unmannerly, and it mystifies him that Serge is so popular -  ‘a man of the people’ –  worse still, he can’t bear to be witness to the wide-eyed admiration and fawning of staff and patrons in the restaurant.
Serge has arranged the dinner for a particular reason:  they must discuss their sons, 15 and 16 year old cousins who spend a lot of time together.  Recently, a  dreadful crime has been committed:  a homeless woman was burnt to death as she sheltered in an ATM cubicle, and the Netherlands is up in arms at the sheer ruthless brutality of the act.  The entire population is screaming for justice – a perfect opportunity for an astute politician to cement his already secure position as front-runner, turning  to his advantage the public’s horror at the barbarity of the crime.  Instead, Serge wishes to discuss with his family his retirement – for clips have surfaced on YouTube of the ATM cubicle;  though the authorities are as yet unaware, the boys are implicated in the country’s most heinous murder.  Serge’s son has confessed.
To read this beautifully constructed little horror story is to peel off layer after careful layer the veneers that people wrap around themselves in order to be respectable, happy, successful – normal?  And the criminal lengths they will employ to preserve the fa├žade, and the survival of those they love.
Mr. Koch is adept at leaving the reader with more questions than answers – what an excellent writer he is, helped most ably by his translator, Sam Garrett.
Canadian writer Anne Michaels once said that to read a novel in translation is like kissing a woman through a veil:  that may be true, but this reader  (who must always depend on translators!) marvels at the ease and facility that  Mr. Garrett employs to make the words flow.  There wasn’t a veil in sight.  Highly recommended.  


Sunday, 20 January 2013

Just in case you think I have been pretty slack lately – you know, not many titles reviewed -  well, I must confirm that I have been reading as busily and prolifically as ever (even though Christmas and New Year with family and friends intervened), but books that I looked forward to reading, that I thought would be sure-fire winners proved less so.  Why bother to review something that falls short of the mark, I told myself – then thought that it’s entirely likely that others might find more and different things to enjoy in these novels than I did, and fair enough: ‘ one man’s meat is another man’s poison’, so below are listed some ‘close, but no cigar’ titles that readers less picky and pedantic than I might enjoy.

The Darlings, by Christina Alger – Big business and bigger greed in New York City

The American Heiress, by Daisy Goodwin – Downton Abbey Lite, but very entertaining

The Wrath of Angels, by John Connolly – his 12th Charlie Parker book, but not his best

The Cutting Season, by Attica Locke – her first novel ‘Black Water Rising’ is the better book by a mile

The Laughterhouse, by Paul Cleave – there’s nothing at all to laugh about here; a squalid, sombre, entirely negative view of Christchurch and its people pre-earthquakes.

I finished all of those books, but didn’t think they came up to the standards of other titles reviewed in this blog – comments, anyone?  I would welcome your opinions.

Winter of the World, by Ken Follett

Once again, the reader joins the five families introduced in the gripping first volume of Ken Follett’s trilogy.  The characters we met in ‘Fall of Giants’ (see 2011 review below) have all had children and it is they who take centre stage in this second book.  Once again the reader needs strong wrists and a firm grip – this is a whopper novel, in scope and sheer size, but as before, weight is unimportant as the reader is swept up on the tide of world affairs, the evil events that led up to World War Two, and the unimaginable suffering and privation of ordinary people as they endured the destruction of democracy and the end of the civilised and ordered  life they had always taken for granted.
It is 1933.  Walter von Ulrich and Lady Maud Fitzherbert are married and live with their two children, Carla and Erik, in Berlin.  They are horrified at the relentless rise of Adolf Hitler and his Nazi party, and like many other concerned Germans, do their best to oppose his growing power, but to no avail.  Hitler is seen by richer citizens as being ‘good for business’ and by poorer folk as a saviour because he is creating jobs.  Fascism is gaining ground and they can do nothing to stop it.
Ethel Williams, the young housekeeper of Earl Fitzherbert’s Welsh mansion has produced a bastard son to him, and has made a new life for herself in London with her Jewish husband, Bernie.  Ethel has long held political ambitions and is now the Labour MP for her district in the East End.  Lloyd, her adored son, has no idea who his real father is and the Earl, a Tory MP, does nothing to acknowledge him, for he has a legitimate son, Boy, of whom he is most proud.  Who needs the bastard when you’ve got the Real Thing?
Lev Peshkov, the charming Russian petty criminal and escapee from St. Petersburg, has also made a new life for himself in Buffalo, New York – he is now an owner of Movie theatres, a film producer – and a regular user of the Casting Couch, in spite of having a long-suffering wife, Olga (mother of Daisy) and a mistress, Marga (mother of his son Greg):  He hasn’t let any grass grow under his feet!  And there are disturbing rumours that he has gangster connections and a gang of heavies to carry out his threats, rumours with enough substance to stymie the social asperations of Daisy, who has to flee to England where her substantial wealth will buy her admittance to the circles in which she wishes to move.
Grigori, Lev’s responsible older brother, has married Katerina, Lev’s pregnant girlfriend, and has raised Volodya, her son, as his own.  He is a leading light in the Communist party, though his ideals have become stunted as he watches worrying mistakes and shortcomings exposed in the day-to-day implementation of the dream that so many fought and died for.  But he is an optimist – Rome wasn’t built in a day!  Comrade Stalin will keep the ship on a steady course – won’t he?
Gus Dewar is now a Democratic senator in President Roosevelt’s government, and has two sons of his own.  His great dream is to reprise the idea of the League of Nations, rejected by the Wilson government in 1918;  he sees it as a way to stop the spread of fascism and to unite all nations in a bid to keep world peace.  Roosevelt is not receptive, however:  his New Deal is of paramount importance;  united nations will have to take a back seat for the time being.
Once again, Mr Follett sets the scene superbly for his cast to play their parts;  his calm and reasoned analysis of events leading up to the war and the reactions of his characters to the situations in which they find themselves is a high point of storytelling.  His accounts of the major battles fought on sea and land are superlative – and gripping:  this reader is usually prone to eye-glazing at the mere mention of strategy and tactics, but Mr Follett winds up the tension – and the heart rate effortlessly.  This is a page-turner on the grand scale – which is just as well, considering its length.  The only time that the story loses a little credibility is when Mr Follett writes romantically;  then his characters become two-dimensional and unconvincing – in other words, he can’t write love scenes:  he’s an action man, not a lover!  Regardless, I’m hanging out for the third book.  We went from 1933 to 1949 here;  as the second generation have all produced children I expect the last in the trilogy will feature the third generation.  I shall be waiting.  Highly recommended.    

Fall of Giants, by Ken Follett
I waited seven months to read Ken Follett’s latest Best Seller, such is his popularity with library members, and I’m happy to say that it was well worth the wait.  He may never scale lofty literary heights but  what a good storyteller he is, and how credible are his characters.  He has produced (yet again) the consummate read – a rattling pace, Love (True and not so!), the horrors of war and revolution, and a meticulously researched account of the seeds that were sown to germinate  the War to End All Wars, World War 1.
The story starts in 1911 and ends in 1924.  This is the first novel of a trilogy and deals with five families:  The Williams family, Welsh miners and unionists;  The Fitzherberts, English Aristrocrats absolutely certain of their ancient, inalienable rights as the ruling class;  two impoverished Russian brothers, Grigori and Lev Peshkov, eager to escape the crushing burden of serfdom under the hated Czar;  the von Ulrichs, German Junkers and diplomats – Otto the father, implacable in his dream of the domination of Europe for his Kaiser, and Walter the son, doing his utmost to avoid war at all costs;  and American Presidential Aide Gus Dewar, for a large part of the war a worried spectator of events until early 1918 when the United States finally entered the conflict.
Mr. Follett is a master at keeping the reader turning the pages at a furious rate as he moves effortlessly from continent to continent, marshalling his characters with the precision of a chess player.  He sets the scene beautifully for future events:  Ethel Williams, young housekeeper to Earl Fitzherbert takes fatal steps above her station;  her young brother Billy, ‘down t’ pit’ at thirteen and in the army to become cannon fodder at 16,  becomes implacably hardened in his support of socialism after surviving the Somme under the inept leadership of aristocratic superiors;    brothers Gregori and Lev choose very different ways to escape starvation and the Czar’s corrupt police -  Lev, irresponsible and charming, skips Russia to end up eventually in Buffalo, New York, whilst Grigori is conscripted into the Army to fight the Germans;  and Walter von Ulrich enters into a secret marriage just before war is declared that will have consequences for all.
‘Fall of Giants’ could essentially be seen as a family saga and a love story but all is framed by the huge and momentous events of the early twentieth century:  no-one emerges unscathed from the cataclysm of war and revolution and there is a sad inevitability that the second book in the trilogy will pose yet more trials for characters who have become unforgettable.   Regardless, Mr. Follett’s storytelling expertise is such that, potential tragedies notwithstanding, the reader will again be swept up in the lives of these five families – and soon, one hopes.  I shall be waiting.



Tuesday, 15 January 2013

Two Brothers, by Ben Elton
Ben Elton is renowned for his enviable comic skills;  he is a standup comedian of great repute, and a master scriptwriter of some of the great comic TV series of the last decade, ‘Blackadder’ being but one of his accomplishments.  He is also a prolific author (where does he find the time!) and ‘Two Brother’s is his fourteenth novel.
This story is based on his family’s German-Jewish history;  tragically, some of the most unspeakable incidents happening to his characters actually are part of his family’s oral record, yet more proof, if that were needed, of the hatred and bestiality that overcame so much of a formerly proud and civilised nation, held in thrall by a master trickster and his band of thugs.
In 1920, three babies are born:  the first two are twins delivered to Frieda and Wolfgang Stengel, young Jews who, despite postwar hardship in their city Berlin, are determined optimists;  Wolfgang has dreams of being a great Jazz composer – the first Jazz opera, no less!  And Frieda is about to sit her final medical exams;  she believes in helping and healing, and to be a doctor will fulfil that wish.  Their babies are expected with delight and already much-loved – money will come from somewhere;  they are both healthy and enthusiastic:  love will find a way.
Sadly, one of the twins does not survive the birth, but Frieda is convinced to adopt at the hospital the son of a young woman who died in labour;  she was not married and her parents want nothing to do with their bastard grandson.  A hasty but legal adoption is arranged, and the couple go home with twins, even though one of them was not born to the Stengels, and is in fact of German peasant stock.
On the same day in 1920, another bastard child is born:  the National Socialist Party under the leadership of an obscure Austrian corporal named Adolf Hitler rears its head for the first time. Germany, with its smouldering resentment at the dishonourable terms of the treaty ‘settlement’ of Versailles, which demanded reparations that plunged the suffering country into even more poverty, and the French occupation of the Ruhrgebiet, is the perfect spawning ground for the ham-fisted dogma and hatred engendered by a few evil men with dreams of power:  as the boys grow, so does the Nazi party, especially as rampant inflation becomes another ill that the German people must battle.  It is easy to blame the Jewish population, so many of them banking professionals, for the plight that ordinary citizens face, and who better than rising politician Hitler and his henchmen to generate anti-Jewish propaganda, and make promises of ‘a better Germany, proud and strong once more’ – under his leadership:  a land where the race can become pure again, without the pernicious influence of those sub-human Jews.
Mr. Elton uses the insidious rise of Nazism as a backdrop to his story of the twins, Paulus and Otto;  their completely different personalities and strengths, the many battles they fight with each other, and the deep love they share for the same girl - Magda Fischer, a rich and beautiful Jewish music pupil of their father’s.
As Hitler’s hold on Germany becomes stronger, the Jewish noose is inexorably tightened. Despite succumbing often to purple prose, Mr Elton conveys with a storyteller’s skill the gradual, dreadful descent into the madness and destruction of the Second World War and the ingenious plans that Paulus and Otto contrive in their attempts to survive the Holocaust -  so that between them they can prevent their beloved Magda from dying.
This is a gripping story, a page-turner of the first order.  I have to say that Mr Elton sometimes plays fast and loose with slang and idiom from time to time, but never with the truth, as he recounts in an afterword at the book’s end.  Many of the events in this novel have been disturbing and horrifying to read,  made more immediate because of their authenticity, but it has been a deeply satisfying experience reading about those Everyman twins, brothers first, Jews second; united in their devotion to their family and in their love for their Jewish princess, Magda.  Highly enjoyable.

Soon, by Charlotte Grimshaw
Simon Lampton and his family enjoy a privileged and enviable position:  a close friendship with the current Prime Minister of New Zealand, David Hallwright, enabling them to be honoured houseguests at his palatial holiday home north of Auckland for the summer.  For Simon and Karen his wife, it is a very satisfying time;  they have reached social heights envied by their contemporaries and never dreamed of by themselves.  Simon is a wealthy and successful obstetrician and gynaecologist but came from the very lowest of backgrounds;  Karen is his trophy wife, another goal to be ticked off his list of  life aspirations, along with the respect of his medical peers, beautiful home, BMW and children – whom he loves utterly:  they are his reward, his bonus for the hard years of his childhood with an alcoholic father and the hard work of studying and establishing himself in a demanding medical field.
Life can’t get any better – can it?
Unfortunately, all that glitters is not gold:  the longer the Lamptons stay with the Hallrights, the more hidden agendas reveal themselves:  the friendship with David on which Simon prides himself – ‘I never kowtow to him;  I’m apolitical and always give him my honest opinion.  That’s why we get on so well together’ – goes through subtle changes, partly caused by David’s glamorous second wife Roza, who holds all the males of the holiday household in thrall, including Simon.  As the holiday progresses it becomes increasingly obvious that Roza doesn’t regard Simon and Karen as bosom buddies;  she tolerates them charmingly for one reason:  she wants their adopted daughter, Elke – because Roza is Elke’s natural mother:  she couldn’t look after her when she was born, but she can now and begins an insidious campaign to win over the affections of the beautiful 18 year old.
Ms Grimshaw describes this tug of love with such articulacy that the reader feels palpably the steely determination of one character to possess, and the heartbreak and anguish of others finally aware of what they stand to lose.  As they find themselves trapped in the cleverly-woven web of privilege and ambition, all masked by the paper-thin veneer of best-mateship, Simon and Karen have to decide which hard decisions to make, and how to keep that which they love most – as well as retaining their self-respect.
And this is not Simon’s only crisis:  a shameful memory from the past rears its ugly head, threatening not just him and his cushy life but scandalous enough to cause big problems for his ‘best friend’ the Prime Minister.  Simon Lampton’s envied existence is fast becoming intolerable.
Ms Grimshaw has given us a wonderful story, written with great pace and clarity.  Her characters are a delight, each captured with elegant and astute observation – David Hallwright bears a striking resemblance to our own Dear Leader, John Key, and his party and policies are mercilessly dissected.
In my reading experience, no author can evoke mood, atmosphere and landscape more strongly than she, and it is a pleasure to read such a fine book.  Highly recommended.