Sunday, 27 April 2014

My Notorious Life, by Kate Manning

Madame X, as all the newspapers of the day called her, was a notorious midwife and abortionist plying her dreadful trade in Nineteenth century New York.  Constantly reviled by the Press, her name was connected to all kinds of crimes, even murder:  she was eventually arrested but committed suicide before she was forced to stand trial.  After her death it was discovered that she and her husband had amassed a huge personal fortune – not only from ‘murdering the innocent’, but manufacturing and successfully selling all types of potions for ‘female complaints.’  By the end of her life, Madame X had profited handsomely from the misfortunes of her gender, but was powerless to withstand the united opposition of the entirely male medical profession, men who believed without question that women were put on earth only to bear children – and serve men.  Nothing and no-one should try to change the status quo.
Kate Manning has taken up the cudgels on behalf of Madame X, transforming her real-life travails into a gripping novel narrated by Ann ‘Axie’ Muldoon, called Axie because she is always asking questions.  She and her sister and brother are the children of impoverished Irish immigrants, come to New York to find the crock of gold but experiencing instead poverty and discrimination much worse than that which forced them from Ireland.  The slums in which they live teem with filthy, starving children, desperate women and men who drink away their little money so that they won’t have to face the dire straits in which they live.
When the story opens, Axie and her two siblings are begging outside a bakery shop.  Their father has died in a work accident and their Mam has been terribly injured by a mangle at a laundry and it has been days since any of them have eaten – until a kind gentleman buys them bread at the bakery, then takes them back to see poor Mam in the evil tenement:  Mam’s condition is dire, and she consents to her three babies being  taken to an orphanage, then sent ‘out West’, to be adopted into kind families who are childless but will love them as their own.  What choice does she have?  Reverend Brace of the Children’s Aid Society is there to offer a solution, but poor Mam implores Axie not to let her brother and sister out of her sight:  they must all stay together, promise, promise!  And Axie does, making the promise that will haunt her for the rest of her life, for the promise is soon broken ‘out West’;  brother and sister are taken to separate homes, but nobody wants Axie:  at twelve she is no longer malleable – and she has a mouth on her that people don’t like:  she is sent back to New York city as a malcontent.  She will have to find work, and her own way in the world.  And that is the stuff of this marvellous novel:  Axie’s attempts to survive – and prosper;  her ceaseless quest to find her lost brother and sister so that she can fulfil the vow she made to her beloved Mam, and to try by whatever means possible to make the lot of women less onerous – she is one of the very early advocates of birth control and is not afraid to expose the male hypocrisy of sowing the seed but avoiding the harvest.
Kate Manning has created a wonderful protagonist in Axie Muldoon.  She is the perfect herald of changing times; she is hilarious, bumptious, loud and vulgar – but true to herself and her loved ones in heart and mind.  Well done, Ms Manning:  Madame X and her times have been well served.  Highly recommended.

The Chase, by Janet Evanovich and Lee Goldberg

Oh dear.  I was so sure that Book # 2 would be a vast improvement on Book # 1 (see September 2013 book review below) that I looked forward to reading ‘The Chase’ and the return of FBI agent Kate O’Hare and her impossibly attractive nemesis Nicholas Fox, allies in the war against crime, despite the fact that Nicholas is on the FBI’s Most Wanted List of Criminals.  The first book had a lot of rough edges, not least the uneasy differences in prose styles (‘you can take over now, Lee – it’s my coffee break.’) which should never have been so obvious;  in the second book the seams are not showing as much but:  WHERE’S THE ACTION???
I am the first to admit to being picky when it comes to pacing and plotting, but when you consider that the authors have lined up heavy artillery (literally!) in the shape of rocket-launchers and drones, the action should have been incendiary, to say the least.  Sadly, the reader doesn’t get beyond an amble to the final page, with only an occasional snicker at one-liners that don’t appear often enough.
Our sexually repressed crime-fighters (no, nothing has happened yet, despite Nick’s determined efforts:  Agent Kate has her tin nickers on, and he doesn’t have a can opener) are now on the trail of a fine art thief who used to be White House Chief of Staff – he is also the Boss of Bosses of a huge security firm called BlackRhino (does that ring any bells?) and he is utterly ruthless in his pursuit of his own wicked ends.  Just like real life!  Our crime-fighting duo must bring him to justice, the only fly in the ointment being Nick’s inherent love of crime:  all the wonderful art that has been purloined has a fatal fascination for our arch-criminal, and it is up to Whiter-than-white Agent O’Hare to restrain him from temptation.  Absurd as this plotting may sound, it could have worked (even the presence at the climax of Kate’s elderly Mission Impossible Dad and his seedy old mates) if the plot hadn’t sprung a slow leak somewhere along the line.  I haven’t had the pleasure of reading Mr Goldberg’s solo efforts, but I feel that either of the authors would have fared better if they hadn’t combined their talents.  I am sure there will be a third book, for Ms Evanovich’s name is a powerful drawcard  but can’t say if I will send myself to sleep for a third time – thrillers should have the opposite effect.   

The Heist, by Janet Evanovich and Lee Goldberg

I have been a devoted fan of Ms Evanovich and her bungling bounty hunter Stephanie Plum (not to mention Stephanie’s sidekick ,former ‘Ho Lula, now an inept filing clerk but magnificently unaware of her shortcomings:  what a neat character!) since ‘One for the Money’.  Ms Evanovich has now reached # 20 in the series, the latest being ‘Takedown Twenty’, a treat I have yet to enjoy.  In between times, she tries her hand with other characters and now she has teamed up with Lee Goldberg (so sorry, Mr Goldberg – despite the stellar qualifications you enjoy in the book jacket notes you are a man of mystery to me) to produce a new set of ongoing characters in ‘The Heist’, the story of goodies and baddies collaborating in an uneasy partnership to catch the ultimate Ponzi schemer, an investment banker who has skipped the U.S.A. with $500 million.  His whereabouts are now unknown.
All well and good:  the bones of the plot are sound.  the FBI figure that it takes a conman to know one and help them apprehend Mr Banker, so make a deal with Nick Fox, a crook they have just jailed, thanks to the determined -  not to say obsessive - efforts of their agent Kate O’Hare to Bring Him to Justice:  a phony escape is arranged and Mr Fox makes his getaway as part of the deal.  The only fly in the ointment is that no-one kept Agent O’Hare in the loop:  she is dancing with rage – puce with it, and decides that that S.O.B. is not going to get away from her.  He is not going to outsmart her.  Even if she has to kill him she will bring him back alive!
Fair enough.  The only problem is the writing.  The first chapters are just about the klunkiest things in print:  Agent Kate is slim, trim,  an ex-Navy seal, trained to a standstill in myriad different ways to kill.  Naturally, she is blonde and possesses sparkling blue eyes.  As an added bonus her Dad is also an ex intel operative, with favours owed to him all over the globe from his many secret missions on behalf of the U.S.  He rescues her a lot, which is good because it keeps his clandestine skills honed and besides, it gets him out of the house.
Nick Fox is charming, irrepressible and a lover of the high life.  Naturally, he has windswept brown hair, dark brown eyes and a lazy smile.  And formidable, crooked skills that enable him to pull off breathtaking crimes of absurdity.  Just like real life!
The only requirement to make all this silliness work is that the writing must be credible – and seamless, and that doesn’t happen until at least chapter six, before which it is almost possible to tell when either or is saying, ‘well, you can have a turn now’.  Because I am so familiar with Ms Evanovich’s style it was pretty easy to work out when she was at the helm, and as always, the minor characters are great fun, and fans of hers take heart:  there are twenty seven more chapters to go and it does get better.  Despite the wild plotting (including lightning fast trips to Greece, Berlin, Bali and other more remote Indonesian islands, where Agent Kate’s Dad gets to quote geographical info about each destination with Wikipedia-like ease – oh, the joys of cutting and pasting!) Nick and Kate Get Their Man, no-one gets rubbed out except the bad guys, and Kate’s dad has so much time away from home that he’s looking forward to his former life as an Old Fart.
It’s a sure thing that a sequel will be planned; I just hope that by the time it appears, all the rough edges of this new partnership will have disappeared and what was a fun concept becomes a great series.   

Sunday, 13 April 2014

Shame and the Captives, by Tom Keneally

August, 1944:  in a Prisoner of War camp on the outskirts of the New South Wales town of Cowra, Australia an uprising by the Japanese captives occurred.  When it was eventually subdued, more than 200 lives had been lost and 500 prisoners had escaped into the surrounding farmland, to be recaptured eventually by soldiers and local inhabitants.  The instigators of the rebellion had ordered that no prisoner must harm any townspeople or farmers if they were to come into contact with them, and this was honoured, but the main reason for the uprising seemed to be a mass death-wish;  an attempt to force the barbarians who held them captive to kill them, rather than experience any longer the humiliation of captivity.
Booker Award-winning author Thomas Keneally brings powerfully to life the whole episode, transplanting the P.O.W. camp to the fictional farming town of Gawell and expertly re-creating characters and situations to evoke the harshness of the winter environment – ‘this barbarous country where it is so cold but it never snows’ – the boredom and resentment of thousands of angry men;  and the yawning gulf in cultural understanding between them and their captors.
Tengan is one of the Japanese elite;  a destroyer pilot who was forced to crash-land his faltering bomber off the coast of New South Wales, only to endure the unimaginable shame of being captured by aborigines and turned in to the local authorities.  He is one of the first to be sent to the camp at Gawell, followed by other soldiers who had fought in the Chinese campaign in Manchukuo and the Pacific, warriors all who expected to die in battle as the emperor and the Gods instructed:  to exist in ignominious captivity is a shame too great to be borne.
There are other nationalities imprisoned at the camp:  several thousand Italians, Formosans, Indonesians and Koreans, but their philosophy and cultural make-up is different and more accommodating - the Italians are considered so reliable that local farmers can apply to have them as farm workers – ‘ Yair, they’re not bad jokers for Dagoes’:  yes, every other nationality in the camp tolerates their imprisonment markedly better than those who expected to die gloriously for the Gods and the Emperor.  Unless they can mount a last suicidal attack against their despised captors, the Japanese prisoners will not only have disgraced their families and country, but also their ancestors:  the die is cast.
Mr Keneally writes masterfully of war, his novel ‘The Daughters of Mars’ (see review below – what a great book!) being a perfect example, and he doesn’t fail us here.  His characters are compelling, not least the young woman with a P.O.W. husband in Austria, who, whilst living with her farmer father-in-law embarks on a doomed affair with their Italian prisoner farmworker;  the fraught relationship between the camp commandant and his second in command;  and the utter contempt felt by the Japanese for any kindness shown by their captors.  Mercy can be only regarded by them as weakness.
Mr Keneally is a writer of superlative quality, and each book is a pleasure.  Highly recommended.

The Daughters of Mars, by Thomas Keneally

It is 1914 and Australia, as a Commonwealth member country loyal to the British Empire, is gearing for war.  Country nurses Naomi and Sally Durance are sisters but Naomi has moved to Sydney from their farming home to work in a  big city hospital while Sally works in the local hospital of her home town.  They are rivals, not least because their parents appear to favour Naomi in Sally’s eyes, and she is also resentful that her elder sister is living a life she wishes for herself.  Sally is not happy to be regarded as the family spinster, consigned to the care of her dying mother while their father buries his concern in farm work, and when the call for nurses to sign up to care for any wounded in ‘the War that Will be Over by Christmas’ is issued, Sally takes her chance:  both sisters are accepted, but leave for Cairo weighed down by their mother’s death and an act of mercy in which they are both complicit:  for Sally at least, mercy weighs heavy and sleep is troubled;  even the novelty of their new, alien surroundings in Cairo fail to blot out the secret she and Naomi share -  until they are posted onto the hospital ship ‘Archimedes’ and sent to Gallipoli, that tiny Turkish peninsular where all the brave Diggers ‘each one worth ten Turks!’ are sent to scale the cliffs from the beach and win the peninsular, in theory gaining a good foothold against their Turkish adversaries.
Thus begins one of the cruellest debacles of World War One, forever deplored and enshrined in Australia and New Zealand as a Day of Remembrance:  Anzac Day.
The battle for Gallipoli is a disaster from the start, men being used as cannon fodder by inept and arrogant commanders, fighting for territory that is impregnable and defended by experienced Turkish soldiers fighting on their home ground, secure in the belief that each Turk is ‘worth ten Anzacs!’
For the sisters and their colleagues, trying to care for the floods of wounded ferried out to the ‘Archimedes’ in a constant stream is like a perpetual waking nightmare – never in their experience have they been confronted with such horror, such terrible wounds – such anguish.  Life and death become reduced to the barest essence, and overriding everything is the grief all feel for the senseless, sinful waste, the slaughter of patriotic eager young men by commanders who have inherited their ranks but not the intelligence to match, for nine months later, the Gallipoli campaign is over ( ‘didn’t succeed, don’t you know)’ and all remaining troops are withdrawn, only to be sent to the Western Front.
The sisters and their colleagues are sent too, plunged again into the awful mayhem of agony and destruction, but with the results of a new weapon to contend with:  poison gas.  The adage ‘War is Hell’ has never been more true.
Mr Keneally writes with great power of this terrible time in history;  his prose is starkly beautiful and his characters are vivid and all too human, especially the men Sally and Naomi eventually pledge themselves to:  the dreadful art of war has never been more finely portrayed and ‘living for the moment’ has never held more urgency.
Mr Keneally has written a literary masterwork that has been a privilege to read:  not to be missed.