Sunday, 30 March 2014

The Last Days of the National Costume, by Anne Kennedy

Auckland city, 1998.  A huge power outage has occurred, shutting off electricity to thousands of residents, and bringing Auckland to the unwelcome attention of the world:  ‘I mean to say, what modern first-world city on the planet blacks out its entire CBD?  And for weeks on end?’
GoGo Sligo (yes, I know;  awful, isn’t it,  but there is an explanation for Megan’s ghastly nickname – I just don’t know why the author stayed with it.) and her husband Art (Arthur) Frome live in the inner city, in a grace-and-favour villa provided by his wealthy parents.  He is a PHD student nearing completion of his dissertation and GoGo, a university drop-out, occupies herself with a small business, repairing and embroidering various garments for private customers and designers.  Their life is comfortably secure and pleasant, not least because every month a cheque arrives from Art’s grandmother the family matriarch, ensuring that living on the smell of an oily rag is both unseemly and unnecessary.
Life is good, pre power-outage:  GoGo’s business is humming along well enough, and because she works with her hands, she allows her mind free-range speculation about her clientele:  ‘Blouse, cream silk, torn front placket’ translates into ‘Desperate hurry, sex.’  ‘Jacket, man’s sports, navy, cigarette burn’ becomes ‘Late night, yacht club, gazing at woman.’  ‘Blazer, school, torn front panel’ is ‘Boy, innocent.’  And so on.  She is almost always right, for GoGo’s customers usually end up confiding in her – her honest face?  The calming atmosphere of her little workroom?  Who can say, but GoGo takes a certain mordant pleasure in her powers of deduction, and when an Irish national costume is brought in with a ripped shoulder seam by a punky woman who could hardly be described as the owner of the costume, GoGo is suitably intrigued.  The customer has no information about the costume which is obviously old, an heirloom that needs extensive repair to restore it to its former glory, but GoGo takes on the job, certain that she will ferret out its mysteries sooner or later.
The mysteries reveal themselves all too soon:  she is visited first by a business man who wants to collect the repaired costume, and while he is there his wife also arrives, demanding to know if GoGo has had an Irish national costume in for repair:  it is an heirloom for her daughter and she saw a person of her husband’s acquaintance wearing it in the supermarket!  For reasons inexplicable to her GoGo denies she has the costume and doesn’t reveal the presence of the woman’s husband in her workroom:  she is now complicit in Punk and Businessman’s deception and morally no better than they who practised the deceit.
And things don’t improve:  the inner city power outage occurs, knee-capping her business (sewing machines can’t work without power);  she lies to the businessman, telling him that the costume is not ready because she hopes at first that he will confide (as they always do) in her about his adulterous relationship – she makes him return several times with the promise that it will be ready – and confess he does, but he tells her his family history, his Irish childhood in Belfast – and completely ensnares her mind and her heart, until GoGo is a Gone Goose.  (Well, what a stupid name.  Anyone called GoGo deserves everything she gets.)
Anne Kennedy has given us a story of very uneven quality.  GoGo is a charming, gossipy narrator, witty and sharply observant of everyone’s foibles but her own;  however, I found her reasons for delaying the return of the costume entirely unconvincing – certainly insufficient on which to hang the plot.  Conversely, her client’s narrative of his Belfast childhood and the family’s reasons for leaving were gripping heart-in-the-mouth stuff, and her account (all true) of a big city without electricity is first class.
GoGo’s husband Art, privileged young scion of the squattocracy is absent for large parts of the story, despite the importance to the plot of his family’s eventual fall from wealth and grace.  For Ms Kennedy’s story to succeed on all levels he should have been given the spotlight he deserved:  he is a character just as fallible as GoGo and the businessman, but more likeable.
It is a shame that such a good plot has so many glaring inconsistencies.  If Ms Kennedy’s characters had been more credible (GoGo:  give me a break!!) this good novel would have been much, much better.

By Blood we Live, by Glen Duncan

With his first two novels in this trilogy, ‘The Last Werewolf’ and ‘Talulla Rising’ (see July 2012 review below) Glen Duncan raised the bar for all aspiring horror writers:  no-one does bloody and gory better than he, nor do his characters enjoy themselves more as they rip and chomp their way through hapless humans with mindless delight – there ain’t nothin’ like it, especially as feeding on humans is vital to their existence.  By Blood We Live:  there is no other way.
Unfortunately, humans are starting to resent being torn to pieces at full moon, and they are even less enthused at being drained of blood by vampires every three days.  (Vampires have a withering contempt for werewolves; they regard them as merely part-timers, not serious in their vocation.)  Yes, humans are starting to strike back in the form of the Militi Christi, the Soldiers of Christ, an organisation funded by the Catholic Church and bent on exterminating with silver bullets and wooden stakes every monster it can lay its hands on.
Needless to say, this is nothing new – monsters have been fair game for hundreds of years, hunted by various arbiters of good versus evil – but this time the Militi Christi (thought by uncharitable monsters to be formed by the church to take the heat off all the accusations of child abuse)  seem to have vast numbers and superior intelligence-gathering that the werewolves in particular find baffling and devastating, especially when they are felled by silver bullets.
It is time for werewolves and vampires to unite in a common cause:  survival.  
Remshi, the oldest vampire in existence (20,000 years and bowing under the weight of all that ‘life’ experience) is looking for werewolf Talulla Demetriou, not only to form a future alliance, but because he is convinced that she is the reincarnation of one of his lovers from long ago;  his great and only love, despite feeling enormous affection for his ward Justine, an abused young prostitute he rescued from the streets.
As with the first two books, the action never flags, and Mr Duncan rubs the reader’s nose in all the sins of the world;  there is no escape from human degradation – in fact, the monsters come off, if not squeaky clean (how could they, butchers all?) but a lot more honest and free from hypocrisy in their lifestyle.
Having said that, I still found the continuous action, the ‘search and destroy at all costs’ to be overkill:  Mr Duncan’s enormous intellectual skill and delight in presenting his monsters as the good guys is intriguing, though hardly unusual in the ‘bonk and bite’ genre;  despite his wonderful, anarchic characters and their predicament, there will be an all-out war:  will evil prevail?  And who are evil -  the monsters or the Soldiers of God?  WHAT is evil?  Mr Duncan asks all these questions, but provides no satisfactory answers.  Regardless, he has produced yet again an enormously entertaining  book, perhaps not an ideal end to his trilogy, but commendable and highly readable.  You be the judge.             

 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.


Monday, 17 March 2014


Then We Take Berlin, by John Lawton

John (known as Joe) Holderness is a Cockney wide boy, a thief trained to the nth degree by his grandfather Abner, who adopts him when his alcoholic mother is killed by a German bomb whilst enjoying a lunchtime G and T at the local pub.  Joe has many things stacked against him, not least his East End origins and the bestiality of his father, a soldier who returns infrequently from battle to take out the horrors and evil of war on his 13 year old son.  Life, especially during the London blitz would be unendurable were it not for the home of sorts provided by his grandfather, and Joe’s love of reading – the best form of escapism ever.  (And I’m sure every dedicated reader knows that.)  He is a ‘word child’:  he has a gift for languages ; he can imitate successfully any accent;  he is  a boy of ferocious intelligence but devoid of scruples – in short,  he is the perfect apprentice thief.  And he is an apt pupil.
All continues as normal in Joe’s world until Abner has a fatal accident, and necessity dictates a change of address;  the war has come to an end but Joe’s draft papers arrive, and he is sent to the Royal Air Force, there to stir up so much trouble that he is constantly in ‘the glasshouse’ for insubordination – until his many and doubtful talents come to the attention of Lt. Col. Burne-Jones, an intelligence officer who sees in Joe his true calling:  cat burglar and spy for the British Secret Service.  After a crash course in German and Russian, he is despatched to Hamburg, ostensibly as a clerk, but also to check on various citizens who swear they endured six years of the Nazis without becoming one of them.
Germany:  broken country of ruined cities and a vanquished and traumatised population – the perfect breeding ground for rackets and the black market.  Joe the Chancer is in his element.  There is money to be made, quite apart from his clandestine activities on behalf of His Majesty.  He’s as happy as the proverbial pig in shite – and then he meets Nell.
Nell, short for Christina Helene von Raeder Burkhardt, patriotic Berliner and aristocratic German , and at twenty already a victim of tragedy at the hands of the Nazis is trying to atone for the terrible sins of her countrymen, witnessed first hand at Belsen.  She occupies a high moral ground, ultimately inaccessible to Joe the Rogue;  he finds her principled view of the world amusing, strange and na├»ve:  his experience of life has taught him that principles mean nothing – there is only money, and everyone has his price, including himself.
Mr Lawton has given us a gripping read, a searing account of man’s inhumanity to man, and characters that live and breathe on the page.
Joe is the Artful Dodger of the Second World War, endearing, charming, amoral, and bent as a corkscrew.  No good can come of his liaison with Nell, his polar opposite, but the reader hopes until the bitter end that the impossible will happen – this is a novel, after all!  Regardless of the outcome, John Lawton has written a page-turner par excellence:  highly recommended.

A song for the Dying, by Stuart MacBride

As always, I found after starting this story that there was a previous work, ‘Birthdays for the Dead’.  Lots of awful things happened in the first book, including the murder of main protagonist Detective Ash Henderson’s daughters and his imprisonment for the murder of his brother – a frame up:  to say that Ash has had a rough ride is a euphemism of the first order, and at the start of book two there is only one thing on Ash’s mind:  revenge.
As this story unfolded I found myself glad that I had missed Book One:  the various tragedies that Detective Henderson has to live with are almost too horrible for this craven reader to contemplate;  in fact it was all I could do to stop myself from physically recoiling at the gruesomeness of the current plot, let alone roll around in the bloodbath of Plot One – I know, I know, it’s only a story, but I have never been very good at reading about cruelty and sadism, especially when it involves children:  it is then that I wish that I was a fan of Mills and Boon!
Having said that, I must also state that I could not put this book down.
Mr MacBride has created a nightmare landscape in the Scottish city of Oldcastle, a classic battleground of good and evil where the goodies are sometimes worse than those who commit the crimes.  In his long experience Ash sees the new order of PCness and criminals having – and knowing – their ‘rights’ as an unforgivable delay in the capture of bad guys, and a further erosion of the rights of decent people – the victims.  Not that he can do anything about it from Inside, languishing on his trumped-up charges and attending futile meetings of the Parole Board.  Until …..
Until he is suddenly released from Jail by the head of a new crime unit established to find a serial killer of nurses whom everyone thought had disappeared eight years before.  Prior to his misfortune, Ash had had some success at investigating the killings and was known for his ability to think outside the square.  His skills are needed in the latest investigation, for ‘The Inside Man’ has struck again:  Oldcastle is in a panic.
There are more twists and turns to this plot than a pretzel!  I can only admire Mr MacBride’s expertise in keeping all the balls in the air without dropping a single one.  I  found Detective Ash (despite his obvious bitterness and thirst for blood) to be a lot more credible than most of his counterparts in crime fiction.  He is also completely professional, eventually finding the killer – and you’ll never guess, EVER, who it is! – before he goes after the people who put him in prison, which is exactly as it should be.  His reluctant team mates – he is a jailbird, after all – are carefully drawn and individual delights, but if I have an ongoing criticism it is this:  it rains in Oldcastle ALL THE TIME.  Couldn’t the reader have enjoyed a few rays of sunshine as relief from Mr MacBride’s Shakespearean blasted heath?  A little bit of sun never hurt anyone;  as it is, we must rely on the warmth and relief of clever, funny dialogue and gallows humour to light up the gloom, and that’s no bad thing;  in fact in a story like this it is vital.  Highly recommended.   


Wednesday, 5 March 2014

Bad Monkey, by Carl Hiaasen

Carl Hiaasen has been called the funniest crime novelist in print by many reviewers, with complete justification:  he has a long list of novels to his name, all best-sellers, and all set in Florida, his home state.  He has a fan base of millions, not only because he produces with each new story a fast-paced, hilarious plot with great characters, but he also has an important ecological and environmental message to deliver:  he is a major voice protesting against the overdevelopment of Florida’s beautiful wild places;  the despoliation of the environment by big corporations and the destruction of rare animals thanks to loss of habitat.  He is a champion of creatures great and small and the places they call home, and what better way to skewer corporate greed than with a pen.
The bad monkey of the title resides with Neville, an elderly fisherman in the Bahamas who has just been deprived of his idyllic beachside home and land by an unscrupulous Miami fraudster who has faked his own death by having an arm surgically removed (!), then bribing a fishing mate on a cruiser to have it fished up by an unsuspecting tourist.   After his ‘death’ is declared an accident, he will be free to develop Neville’s home as a luxury timeshare resort where he and his pudgy wife will live a life of sinful pleasure on their ill-gotten gains – they think.
Neville, however, is not without initiative.  He consults the local voodoo woman, a disreputable old hag who demands his body and the use of as payment for the powerful spell she will cast to rid him of the fraudster – a bridge too far for Neville:  he has his standards!   Even copious quantities of alcohol would not be able to disguise his revulsion – instead, as a second option he reluctantly hands over his monkey, much to that bad-tempered creature’s dismay, then waits for the fraudster to meet a horrible fate.
It doesn’t happen.
Enter Andrew Yancy, disgraced former Monroe County detective demoted (by his boss for an act of public violence against his girlfriend’s husband)  to restaurant inspector, a job guaranteed to put anyone off their grub.  He is deeply unhappy but the only thing that sustains him is that something smells fishy (sorry, couldn’t resist) about the lone arm dragged from the deep, and the chain of murders (including an attempt on him) that follows:  he sees a way back to his boss’s good graces and his return to detective status if he can follow up and make sense of the clues that reveal themselves.
Oh, it’s all happening in ‘Bad Monkey’, with the monkey playing an important part in the downfall of the baddies, and an eventual satisfactory ending for the goodies, but the overarching message is clear:  don’t foul your own nest!  Which is what is happening with distressing frequency everywhere.  Bless Mr Hiassen for highlighting this in every book that he writes.  Highly recommended.

The Invention of Wings, by Sue Monk Kidd.

On her eleventh birthday in 1805, Sarah Grimke is given a ten year old slave, Hettie ‘Handful’ to be her waiting maid.  Sarah is the daughter of wealthy Charlston plantation owner and judge John Grimke and his imperious wife Mary;  it is high time she left the nursery and had her own proper room (fortunately vacated by one of  her older brothers, sent off to college to be a lawyer) and Hettie has been taken away from her mother Charlotte the enslaved family seamstress to learn the duties of looking after a young lady.
Unfortunately, Handful lives up to her name – she is disobedient and sassy, earning without effort cruel punishment for her misdeeds.  She pines for her mother, and instead of sleeping on the floor outside her young mistress’s room – in case she be summoned during the night – she constantly sneaks back to the slave quarters to be with the only person she loves in the cruel world they are forced to inhabit.
For her part, Sarah is appalled to be given another human being as a gift and tries to free Handful, much to the outrage of her family:  her carefully crafted document of manumission is ripped apart and flung into her room and intensive instruction in the duties and future expectations of young ladies is commenced.  In its own way South Carolina aristocracy has imprisoned Sarah as much as the slaves that are vital to its way of life;  the role of the Southern gentlewoman was that of wife, mother and housekeeper:  she owned nothing, was not allowed to vote and her opinions were not sought on any subject by the patriarchal society in which she existed.  And it didn’t do to rattle the cage!
Regardless, Sarah still champs at the bit, especially as she has a lively intellect and is clever enough to know that her plain looks will not easily snare her the husband her family wishes for her:  indeed, her younger sister Angelina has much better success in that area and would be married ten times over were it not for her regrettable and forceful opinions on emancipation.
  Sarah’s only means of escape is to journey north to New Jersey as companion and general dogsbody to her ailing father, who as a last resort has been prescribed bracing doses of Northern sea air;  she is astounded to experience the North’s differing political viewpoints, and when her father dies having received no benefit from the climate Sarah decides to stay in the North, eventually making a life for herself with the Quakers, who are devout and staunch believers in the emancipation of slaves – but not of women.
Angelina eventually joins Sarah, and her fiery eloquence, combined with Sarah’s irrefutable logic gains them fame – and notoriety – among the first abolitionists to tour the Northern States lecturing on the evils of slavery, until their message comes unhappily close to calling for the emancipation of women as well as slaves.  Their male counterparts are not happy!
And neither is Handful:  with the departure of Sarah her protector, Handful’s life has become almost unendurable;  she is terribly crippled as a punishment for attending a Black African church, despite having permission to do so but far from breaking her spirit and being the good nigger that her owners expect, she becomes more determined than ever to make her escape, or die trying.
Ms Kidd writes with great power of the iniquity of slavery and she has based her novel on the true life story of the Grimke sisters, early and fearless champions of emancipation for all.  She has researched assiduously the Southern way of life and its ingrained and casual cruelty to the human beings who kept it wealthy before the Civil War, and she illustrates beautifully the courage born of desperation needed to take the first steps in defence of the enslaved.  Above all, this is a novel about sisters, the love they have for each other, black or white, and the wings they have to invent for themselves so that their spirits may fly.  Highly recommended.