Sunday, 18 August 2013

The Red Road, by Denise Mina

Ms Mina is justly renowned for her gritty and disturbing thrillers (see September 2012 review below) set in the stark confines of the city of Glasgow, and ‘The Red Road’ continues in the same vein:  Detective inspector Alex Morrow is Ms Mina’s White Knight in an unremittingly grey world, and once again she is battling – vainly, it seems, to make a significant wound to the belly of the criminal world of which her brother Danny is a kingpin.  Danny who tricked her, exploiting her yearning for family into ignoring her intuition sufficiently enough to nominate him as her twins’ godfather, yet another layer of respectability he constructs in his attempts to hide his activities from law enforcers: who better to have on your side than a high-ranking policewoman who is also your sister?
DI Morrow’s lot is not a happy one and is further complicated by the puzzling death of a respected lawyer who seemingly collapsed both lungs in a fall;  the resurrection of a 15 year-old murder for which a 14 year-old girl served a prison sentence – defended by the late lawyer;  and yet another murder committed on the same night (the night Princess Diana died) of a teenage boy.  His young brother was found guilty, but information has just surfaced that shows that the evidence and his ‘confession’ were manufactured – by the police.
Yet more killings are uncovered, and with them corruption so deep that Alex feels as if she is drowning in it:  whichever decision she makes will deeply affect innocent people.  If she says nothing and preserves the status quo the villains will continue on their merry way, reaping the rich rewards of their sins, and if she speaks out and exposes Glasgow’s festering underbelly yet again, more baddies are lined up to fill the shoes of those she sends away.
She speaks out.
And reaches her glass ceiling.  Her brother is caught in the net of her investigation, but because of their kinship she is not allowed to claim credit for her skill at catching him along with so many other big fish:  the praise and promotions go elsewhere.  She is forced to conclude – rightly – that she is too good at her job;  too principled, and too na├»ve in believing that there are others of her acquaintance who are of a similar mindset.
And we shall have to wait until the next gripping instalment to find out if Alex’s morals and self-respect remain untarnished, and if she can survive the horrors of her job without being permanently brutalised by it.
As always, Ms Mina poses many more questions in her stories than simply ‘who done what’:  she examines with great skill and insight the human frailties that assail so many of us, and the tipping points reached that turn ordinary folk into sinners.  Highly recommended.

Gods and Beasts, by Denise Mina

Detective Sergeant Alex Morrow is back again in this taut and clever thriller from premier crime writer Denise Mina.  Ms Mina writes of Glasgow and its mean streets and meaner inhabitants with great assurance and skill, drawing the reader effortlessly into Alex’s Jekyll and Hyde world, introducing new characters and giving the existing ones lesser or greater roles as the plot demands.
Brendan Lyons takes his 4 year-old grandson to the post office to buy Christmas stamps;  while they are standing in the queue a gunman bursts through the door to rob the place.  In an act of tremendous bravery, Brendan passes his grandson to the person behind him (‘He’s yours’) then calmly proceeds to help the robber gather the cash, but when that is accomplished, he is shot to death, riddled with bullets by the gunman.  Even more horrifying is the fact that the robber and he knew each other.
Martin Pavel is the young man charged by Brendan with the safekeeping of his precious grandson.  He is a damaged soul, (as are we all) unsure of his place in the world, an inheritor of great wealth but at a loss to know what to do with it:  DS Morrow and her partner Harris are baffled by his presence in Glasgow, and his reluctance to divulge anything about himself;  in fact, the more they delve into Martin and Brendan and his family’s past, the more confusing and labyrinthine the case becomes – especially when the name of a very well-known local politician surfaces in the course of their investigations.  But DS Morrow is nothing if not dogged, determined to weave all the loose threads into a credible pattern that she can believe in. She presses on, only to find that to her horror, information is being withheld – from within:  by her own department.
Ms Mina can evoke atmosphere and construct characters so believable that her word pictures are unforgettable and have the reader, however disquieted by her no-frills prose, calling for more:  However, having stated the obvious, I  have to say that ‘Gods and Beasts’ is a bleak story, as bleak as the Glasgow weather at Christmas time – there are no happy endings, just respite and escape from tragedy for some of the characters, and the exposure of others to the criminal and corrupt underbelly of organisations they had thought unassailable by the gangster element.  It may be the city of Glasgow is so corrupt that it is irredeemable, unable to be saved - or forsaken - ‘by those who live with self-sufficiency outside the city walls –be they Gods or Beasts’:  regardless, by the time the reader reaches the explosive conclusion of this fine story it is clear that  Alex’s problems are just beginning:  regardless, it is a great consolation to know that once again, DS Morrow has won a battle in a long, frustrating and exhausting war.  Highly recommended.

Wednesday, 14 August 2013

Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn
I had to wait a long time at our library for my turn to read ‘Gone Girl’, which is sure testament to its popularity.  And now that I have galloped to the end of the tale, I can understand why.  Ms Flynn has written a gripping, highly unpleasant psychological thriller starring two of the nastiest protagonists one could have the displeasure to meet.
Nick Dunne and Amy Elliott meet at a party in New York and become lovers.  They are both successful in a small way;  Nick is a writer for a popular magazine and Amy writes psychological quizzes for various publications.  She is also independently wealthy thanks to a series of children’s books written by her parents loosely based on her life.  Everything in their garden is beautifully rosy including their eventual marriage, until the economic chaos of 2008 brings their blissful lifestyle to a close;  they both lose their jobs and Nick, a native of Missouri, learns that his mother has terminal cancer.  His father has already succumbed to Alzheimer’s disease and frequently escapes from his nursing home, and Nick knows the burden of his parents’ care is too much to place on the shoulders of his loyal twin Margo.  It is time to go home to Carthage and take responsibility.
There is just one problem:  Amy doesn’t want to go.  She doesn’t want to leave the Centre of the Universe for Podunk City, home to failed businesses and unemployed hopeless cases, losers and drug addicts, just because Nick wants to look after his mother:  Maureen is not her mother – she hardly knows the woman, and as for Nick’s sister, well they don’t like each other and probably never will.  Amy makes the move with very bad grace.
And Nick’s nightmare begins.  On the day of their fifth wedding anniversary he returns home to find the house in disarray and his wife missing, and when he enlists the help of the police he is shocked to find that circumstantial clues point to himself as a suspect in her possible murder.  He becomes an object of hatred, the subject of national speculation – did he do it, or didn’t he?  Did he kill that beautiful, talented woman whose eventually recovered diary reveals her great love for him and the fact that she had started to become frightened of him – or is he a victim of a frame-up, as he comes to believe:  Amy may not be gone at all – she may be orchestrating her disappearance purely for spite.
Ms Flynn is a very clever writer.  She keeps the reader guessing all the way along, revealing with each new twist in the plot another damning fact about the two main players  - for Nick is not the blameless, put-upon spouse forced to live with an obsessive-compulsive harridan who refuses to knuckle down to domesticity and give him children.  He has shameful secrets of his own that when revealed implicate him even further in foul play.
I salute Ms Flynn’s ability to enmesh the reader so successfully in her account of the failure of a loving relationship between Amy and Nick, and their reactions when they find out that neither of them were the paragons they believed -  but what a nasty pair of players they are in a game that has no winners.  They deserve each other.  Compulsively readable.

Crime of Privilege, by Walter Walker
This is an interesting story – not the most riveting in pace and suspense, but well-crafted and intriguing because its characters are instantly recognisable, thinly disguised by other names but we all know who the Gregory family is in real life.  The nearest thing that America ever had to royalty, it is a paradox of great triumphs and terrible tragedies.
Mr Walker, a trial lawyer and eminently qualified to write a legal thriller, opens his story with a wonderful party that Senator Gregory gives in 1996 at his summer residence at Palm Beach in Florida.  George Becket is a law student and a starstruck guest, a friend of an invited friend who can’t believe his good fortune at being in the presence of such luminaries – until he witnesses the young bloods of the family sexually assault a drunken young woman in a secluded part of the mansion.  George intervenes and saves the girl from further debasement;  he helps her to clean herself up and leave the house, then tries to put the incident from his mind, leaving the party soon after:  the occasion has lost its allure.
Life continues uneventfully for the next couple of weeks – until he is visited by a man purporting to work as ‘security’ for an immensely rich developer, Josh David Powell, the father of the girl George prevented from further hurt at Senator Gregory’s party.  The young woman hasn’t come out of the experience well, will be ‘in therapy for years’ and wants to charge the Gregory boys with rape:  the security man wants George to fly to Florida, see the District Attorney and make a statement – ‘just tell the truth, son, tell the truth’ – of what occurred, but he asks him in such a way that it is clear George will suffer if he doesn’t make the trip.
And he is duly tied up in knots by the Attorney who is clearly in the pay of the Gregory family.  Power and money:  who can withstand its seduction?  Certainly not George Becket, who finds that his capitulation to the cover-up earns him good grades at law school and a cushy job as an assistant district attorney at Hyannis, another holiday playground of the Senator and his siblings.
Life should be wonderful, but he subsequently learns that Josh David Powell’s daughter has committed suicide, and there is an unsolved murder of a young woman whose body was found on a golf course close to the Gregory compound.
The girl’s father thinks George is a man of honour.  He asks him personally to re-investigate his daughter’s murder – he is confused and insulted by the patent lack of action by the local authorities and feels that the only person gathering evidence is himself – which is exactly right.  The cover-up is in full swing.
Predictably, George shuns Mr Telford, nicknamed ‘Anything New?’, the question he has been asking of the authorities since his daughter died, but he eventually finds himself between a rock and a hard place:  Josh David Powell the rock, hugely rich and powerful and thirsting for revenge for the degradation and suicide of his daughter, intent on making George’s life very uncomfortable unless he comes up with evidence beyond a reasonable doubt of Gregory crimes;  and hard place ‘Anything New’ Telford, who believes wholeheartedly in George’s honour and non-existent integrity to nail the killers of his beloved child.
‘Crime of Privilege’ is a clever reconstruction of many factual events.  It doesn’t rush the reader breathlessly from one chapter to the next but Mr Walker writes with clarity, wit and style and George is well portrayed as the man who takes the easy way out - until his conscience and long-dormant integrity finally demand otherwise.  Recommended.

WarHorse, by Michael Morpurgo           Junior fiction
Children’s author Michael Morpurgo is one of the most prolific and gifted storytellers in print.  He writes on a multitude of different subjects, and for children of all ages.  (Including me!)
Recently I reviewed his book ‘Little Manfred’ with great pleasure and now wish to do the same for ‘WarHorse’, his classic tale of the First World War, published in 1982 and subsequently dramatized on the stage, then in a fine movie directed by Steven Spielberg. 
The story of Joey, a rich red bay with four white socks and a white ‘cross’ on his forehead is told by Joey himself, three parts thoroughbred and one part farmhorse, from the time he is bought by Farmer Endicott in a drunken bid to spite someone he hated, to the time he is sold as a cavalry horse to an army captain in 1914, because the farmer needed the money - ‘ a man’s got to live’- despite the fact that his son Albert loved Joey, regarded him as his own and had trained him to pull a plough and earn his keep. Endicott’s betrayal is so underhand and shocking that Albert vows to join the army as soon as he is old enough so that he can find Joey and bring him back to England and the safety of his former life.  It is a promise he keeps, joining the Veterinary force at age 17, still in time to witness first-hand the bloodbath on the battlefields of Northern France, where terrified boys become exhausted, embittered men overnight – and horses share strange allegiances and frightening adventures, as Joey relates with vigour and poignancy.
This is a wonderful story – beautiful and terrible, an object lesson for all in the brutality and futility of war and how it deprived millions on both sides of everything they held most dear, in the end accomplishing very little.  How fortunate, though, that we have writers of the calibre of Mr Morpurgo who are unafraid to write of such things for children, for children are our future, and should know of the terrible mistakes made by their forbears.  Highly recommended.             


Saturday, 3 August 2013

Sisterland, by Curtis Sittenfeld

Sisterland.  Population 2.  Do NOT enter without permission!

For all of their childhood, this was the sign on Daisy and Violet Schramm’s bedroom door, placed there by Violet.  They are identical twins born in St Louis, Missouri 9 minutes apart, and the shock was so great for their 23 year-old mother - who had been expecting a single child -  that she never really recovered.  Life was inexplicably cruel to have dealt her such a blow, especially after she discovered that marriage to a quiet man much older than herself was not the answer to her loneliness.
Daisy and Violet know they are different, not just because they are identical twins and therefore expected to have a special bond, but because they have ‘the senses’:  they are psychic.
For bold, brash and funny Vi being psychic is as natural to her as breathing;  why lose sleep over it?  She is the dominant personality and jeers at Daisy’s longing to be ‘normal’, to NOT know that one of their schoolmates will die before long, and to NOT be regarded as strange and a freak after the class favourite turns on her for not predicting the romantic outcome she desires.
The twins’ journey to adulthood is fraught with pitfalls;  their mother succumbs to depression and isolates herself completely from her family’s ‘otherness’;  their father, that quiet, decent man, becomes quieter still and the twins can’t wait to leave home and apply to colleges in another State.
For Daisy this means a blessed escape from everyone who knows her – she can start again, make new friends at college and experience for the first time a new, thrillingly normal life for herself.  She meets and marries a good, kind man, has two children and vows never to return to St Louis unless she absolutely has to.  Her life is complete.
Until her father, bereft after his wife’s untimely death seems to need her presence – not that he would ask.  Or is it because Vi has made a mess of her college education (dropping out after six weeks) and leads a precarious existence, seemingly having trouble taking care of herself, let alone keeping a concerned watch on their father.  Naturally, Vi thinks she managing just fine, thank you very much:  she has advertised herself as a psychic and has a sporadic clientele in between waitressing jobs.  She is also an unashamed user of her family’s generosity financial and otherwise, and Daisy knows with that sinking feeling that it is time to come home – fortunately under another name;  she is now Kate (her middle name) Tucker.  Vi has gained a huge amount of weight – the twins no longer look identical – perhaps she can remain incognito in the city of her birth.
Until Vi drops The Bomb:  she predicts that a huge earthquake will strike St. Louis on October 16th, bringing herself nationwide publicity  and throwing Kate’s dreams of anonymity into disarray.  The tremors of Vi’s prediction spread outward, engulfing all within range, not least Kate’s marriage and the security she has worked so hard to nurture:  Vi has swung a wrecking ball through everything.
Curtis Sittenfeld, author of ‘American Wife’, that excellent novel of an American Presidential couple who bear more than a passing resemblance to George and Laura Bush, has produced another winner, an examination of all the different ways that we care for other people:  the love-hate relationship of siblings;  the conscience-stricken, tiresome responsibility for an elderly parent;  and the complex, ever-changing minefield of marital relations.
Such is Ms Sittenfeld’s skill at portraying this exceptional family that she can effortlessly give the ‘ties that bind’ a compelling new dimension:  highly recommended.

Joyland, by Stephen King

Stephen King needs no introduction.  He is one of the most widely read authors on the planet and rightly so, for he has that happy knack of presenting something different and completely unexpected with each new book.
Even though he writes mainly of the supernatural – so vividly and well that it would have to be someone utterly devoid of imagination who didn’t feel the hairs rise on the back of their neck -  he still has a master storyteller’s ability to make his characters completely normal, credible, as they experience the exact opposite.
The completely normal protagonist this time is 21 year old Maine college student Devin Jones, recently abandoned by girlfriend Wendy after a two-year romance - without ever experiencing IT, though he has tried many times to engineer circumstances favourable to the happy possibility of IT happening, but no such luck:  Dev is still a virgin and faithless Wendy has bestowed IT on some other guy practically on the first date!  He is humiliated, and tries to console himself with the summer job he initially got in North Carolina to offset his college fees, that of a jack-of-all-trades in an amusement park called Joyland.
And Joyland does seem to be the ideal panacea for Dev;  he likes the work, makes friends easily and is thrilled to be rubbing shoulders with some very interesting characters, not least Madame Fortuna, alias Rozzie Gold, who tells him the story of the murder of a young woman in the Horror House four years earlier.  She also tells him there is a shadow hanging over him and to watch out for a little girl in a red hat and a young boy with a dog.  Yeah, right thinks Dev – until he meets both children under very different circumstances:  he saves the little girl from choking on a hot dog, and he meets the young boy Mike and his mother on the beach as he walks to and from his lodgings every day.  Sadly, Mike has a terminal illness and is fully aware he has little time left.  He also ‘knows’ things and has warnings of his own for Dev, though he is not sure of their significance.
Working at Joyland turns into a most unique experience for Dev:  he knows he will never again find a job where he wowed all the little kids in a ‘Howie the Hound’ suit;  where he learnt what is virtually another language, the carnival argot, colourful and often outrageous;  where he struggled dreadfully with pangs of love unrequited but made great, lasting friendships, especially the special bond he forms with Mike – and where he almost loses his life, for the Horror House has secrets, and there are those who will kill to preserve them.
Oh, it’s great stuff – literature lite for sure, but pure entertainment nevertheless:  as always, Mr King’s readers will be loath to reach the end of the tale, and that has to be the ultimate recommendation.