Thursday, 22 May 2014

Night Film, by Marisha Pessl

The remarks sheet on this library book had only one comment from a previous reader:  ‘weird’. 
And it is, in that the plot generates terrific momentum for a good two thirds of the story, then winds down to a conclusion that is hardly satisfying – at least for me.  The author’s intentions are clear (maybe!):  she has created her story as metaphor for the works of her shadowy and reclusive protagonist Stanislas Cordova, world famous film director, auteur and recluse, unseen since a 1977 Rolling Stone interview.  He specialises in the suspense and horror genre, maintaining that everyone should ‘travel to the edge of the end, for mortal fear is as crucial a thing to our lives as love.  It cuts to the core of our being and shows us what we are.  Will you step back and cover your eyes?  Or will you have the strength to walk to the precipice and look out?’
Needless to say, Mr Cordova has a cult following, strengthened by his secrecy and the fact that all his films are made on a huge Gothic estate he owns in upstate New York – he is the perfect subject for famed investigative reporter Scott McGrath to delve into after McGrath receives a mysterious phone call telling him that ‘Cordova does bad things to children’.  Unfortunately, his curiosity earns him a career-destroying lawsuit, the breakup of his marriage and a wish never to hear the director’s name again – until he reads of the death of Ashley Cordova, the director’s 24 year old daughter, a possible suicide.
Call him fatally curious after all the wrath Cordova has already visited upon him, but Ashley’s death excites Scott’s interest again in a way that nothing has since his disgrace:  he HAS to establish to his own satisfaction that her fall down a lift shaft in an abandoned building was an accident, suicide – or murder.
As his investigation progresses (aided by her ex boyfriend and a hat-check girl, one of the last people to see her alive) dark magic starts to surface:  it appears that Ashley has been marked by the devil and her death was owed to the Evil One for services rendered to her father.  Ms Pessl by this time has the reader by the throat – she can generate suspense and a lowering dread with the best of them, and as an added fillip the reproduction of notes and photographs from Scott’s comprehensive files bring the reader deep into the story.  As a literary device this is quite a novelty.  I have never been more intrigued by a plot after seeing various photos of Ashley and reading newspaper reports (mock-ups of the New York Times and TIME Magazine, no less!) of her prodigious musical gifts and the Police Report on her death:  it gives a great verisimilitude to the plot – until Scott’s investigations lead him into a maze of false starts, dead ends and trails that bring him inexorably back to the beginning.  He is a hamster on a wheel.
And so is the reader, snagged in an insoluble mystery of the fictional film director’s own making.  Each discovered revelation obscures something else, right up to the final page – where all should be explained, but isn’t.
We are forced to draw our own conclusions, as in a classic Cordova film.  The previous reader thought that Ms Pessl’s book was ‘weird’, and I can understand why:  I’ve never read anything like this before either, but I salute the writer’s many attempts to flummox and trick us, at the same  time wondering if it was really necessary – her overuse of italics, too, nearly drove me mad!
Neverthless, her powerful imagery and her creation of a protagonist in Stanislas Cordova who dominates in spite of his absence, every page of this book, must be commended.  But how many readers will last the distance?  I am sure Ms Pessl enjoyed writing this book.  I wish I could say I enjoyed reading it. 

Heartland, by Jenny Pattrick

Donny Mac is on his way home to Manawa, a tiny village at the foot of Mt. Ruapehu on the central plateau of the North Island of New Zealand.  He has just served a six-month sentence for grievous bodily harm, charges brought by the overprotective mother of an old ‘schoolmate’, someone who has taunted and bullied him since he was a child – but Donny Mac doesn’t care now:  he has completed an anger management course;  still has his job as a shelf-packer at Manawa’s New World supermarket;  a little home his late grandfather left him and a place in the local rugby team, possible future winners of the regional championship.  His life is on an even keel again and he is happy – childishly so, for Donny Mac is regarded as slow;  ‘ a few sandwiches short of a picnic’ and ‘not the sharpest knife in the drawer’, but he dearly loves Manawa and everyone in it  - except for all the townies, who turn up during the ski season on Ruapehu, having bought up all the old mill houses for use as their holiday accommodation.  No local likes the townies who disrupt their quiet way of life with speeding SUV’s and raucous parties, but they accept them as a necessary evil, for Manawa is dying.  The timber mills are closed, there are no jobs and all the young folk have left to look for work in the big cities, as has happened in countless other once-thriving communities.  At least the townies spend money when they come to ski on Ruapehu, enabling the village to stutter along for another year.
Yes, Donny Mac can’t wait to get home – until he finds that his house has been appropriated in his absence by Nightshade, the local slut, drunk most of the time, and hugely pregnant – ‘ and the baby’s yours, you ##@$!!’  Which in all fairness, is drawing a very long bow:  given her non-existent reputation, the hapless baby could belong to any one of the local youths, but after being rejected by them all, she has settled on poor slow Donny Mac as a last desperate resort.  She has been abandoned by everyone.  He is her only chance of support.
And support her he does, much against the wishes and counselling of his true friends, people who love him and worry about him and wish that his life could be better, and that is the crux of this charming story:  the fellowship of a tight-knit community;  their heartfelt affection for each other regardless of blood-ties, and their wildly desperate solutions to frightening problems.

Jenny Pattrick is a firm favourite with New Zealand readers.  Her ‘Denniston Rose’ trilogy is fast becoming a classic of popular fiction, similarly the beautiful ‘Landings’ and while there are a couple of her titles that I thought weren’t up to her very high standard she has hit her mark once again with ‘Heartland’.  It is a heartwarmer of a tale in the very best sense of the word, and the only complaint I can make is that I finished it too quickly – I didn’t want to leave Donny Mac, Vera, Bull and the Misses Macaneny, finely drawn characters that will stay with the reader long after the story is finished.  Highly recommended.                

Thursday, 8 May 2014

An officer and a Spy, by Robert Harris

France, January 1895:  convicted spy and traitor, army Captain Alfred Dreyfus is publicly humiliated before a crowd of thousands, there to watch him being stripped of his military insignia, sword broken and spirit crushed by the righteous condemnation of all French citizens.  Unfortunately the French army, who had hoped its popularity -  so diminished by their defeat and loss of Alsace/Lorraine in the Franco-Prussian war of 1870 -  would soar after the capture of this Jewish turncoat, is forced to witness an impassioned statement of innocence from the accused:  ‘Soldiers, they are degrading an innocent man …. Soldiers, they are dishonouring an innocent man …. Long live France …. Long live the army’.  Then he is marched along each of the four sides of the huge square, enduring the abuse and hatred of all,  before being taken to prison.  His public degradation is complete.
A reluctant witness to Dreyfus’s shame is Major Georges Picquart, there at the wish of the Minister of War, who, unable to attend the event by protocol, wants a full and frank account of proceedings.  Picquart makes such a good impression on the Minister that he is promoted to Colonel and given command of the Statistics Department, a euphemism for France’s intelligence operations.  He is delighted!  He is now the youngest colonel in the army and he applies himself to his new duties with all the zeal of the new broom – and therein lies his downfall:  he becomes too good at his job.
Georges starts innocently enough, reviewing the intelligence work of his ailing predecessor but his diligence gradually reveals alarming discrepancies in the evidence against Dreyfus, and the emergence of another army officer who appears to be in the pay of the German Embassy.
Georges is not an advocate, nor even an admirer of Dreyfus who has by now been sent to Hell in the shape of Devil’s Island in the North Atlantic, there to suffer as the only prisoner unimaginable torment from the elements, lack of contact with his beloved family and complete silence from his guards – but despite possessing the same anti-semitic bias as his contemporaries Georges has his own code of honour:  something is badly amiss in his department and the wrong man has been suffered an appalling fate.
However, all efforts to alert his superiors to the dreadful miscarriage of justice fall on stony ground.  At first he is gently admonished to let ‘sleeping dogs lie’, but when he exposes the real spy he is threatened with the end of his army career – the worst of fates for Georges;  the army is his life, his love and the air that he breathes – until the air becomes foul.
Robert Harris’s novelised account of France’s Great Shame is narrated by Georges Picquart, a complex figure who rose to great heights in the Army and plummeted to huge depths in his efforts to expose the terrible injustice perpetrated on the wrong man, relentlessly exposing the army General Staff in their attempts to cover up their shoddy errors, ineptitude and anti-semitism.  Mr Harris’s fine writing and exhaustive, impeccable research brings every character to thrilling life and illustrates perfectly the prevailing French view of the time: ‘Hmph – a  Jew traitor – and a rich one:  what can you expect?  They’re all the same, loyal to no-one but themselves.’
Highly recommended.

The Gospel of Loki, by Joanne Harris

For lovers of fantasy, here is the ultimate:  a retelling of the old Norse legends of the Gods led by Odin the One-eyed, master of disguise and ruler of Asgard, glittering and all-powerful sky-kingdom, impregnable against attack from its many enemies – until Odin after a secret journey to the underworld, returns with Loki.
Loki, father of lies;  Loki, the mischief-maker;  Loki, uncontrollable essence of Wildfire;  Loki, plotter par excellence – you get the picture?  The introduction of Loki into Asgard was not a good idea!
Joanne Harris is known for a body of work that is completely different:  the smash hit novel and film ‘Chocolat’, its sequel ‘The Lollipop Shoes’ followed by ‘Peaches for Monsieur le Curé’ (see 2012 review below) and various other novels that have a great readership.  Now she tries her hand at recounting a story already told myriad times – with a 21st century twist:  Loki is a good dude!  Just a little misunderstood is all, and any mischief that points to him (and there is SO much) is inclined to brushed off with ‘So shoot me.  I can’t help it.  It’s my nature.’  Which is absolutely right, but according to Ms Harris’s version – sorry, Loki’s;  he’s the narrator – Loki burns with resentment at the less than tepid welcome he receives from the established Gods of Asgard, who treat him like the upstart and outsider that he will always be, even after he demonstrates considerable intelligence and guile in getting them what they want.
They want what he can get them, but they don’t want him.
Loki has his own descriptions for the Gods he calls the Popular Crowd:
Thor, the Thunderer.  Likes hitting things.  Not a fan of Yours Truly.
Balder, god of peace.  Yeah, right. Known as Balder the Fair.  Handsome, sporty, popular.  Sound a little smug to you?  Yes, I thought so too.
Freyja, goddess of desire.  Vain, petty and manipulative.  Will sleep with practically anyone as long as jewellery is involved.
Frey, the Reaper.  Twin brother of the above.  Not a bad guy, but a fool for blondes.
Mani, the Moon.  Drives a cool car.
Sol, the Sun.  Drives a hot car.
And so on.
Yes, Loki has their number and in time decides to bring those ingrates to heel, to teach them a lesson as only he can.  Odin swore to be a brother to him when he lured him away from the underworld, but hasn’t fulfilled this vow to Loki’s satisfaction:  the twilight of the gods is nigh, and Loki, Bringer of Light – and Destruction – will be the instrument of Ragnarok:  oh, it’s going to be a Conflagration felt in every corner of the Nine Worlds and absolutely EVERYONE will be sorry they were’nt nicer to Loki, so there!
Ms Harris has given us a rollicking, amoral anti-hero in her version of Loki the Destroyer;  he is shameless, hedonistic, ruthless (so shoot me, it’s my nature), but never less than enormously entertaining:  he’s, like, totally FUN!
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.