Thursday, 30 October 2014


Dear Daughter, by Elizabeth Little

Janey Jenkins has been imprisoned for ten years.  She is serving a life sentence for the murder of her mother, a socialite famous for her wealth and many marriages.  Prior to her conviction, Janey was famous for being famous, a la Paris Hilton and whichever Kardashian one fancied;  now, she has lost ten years of her life and celebrity is the farthest thing from her mind – she is tortured by her memories of the last hours of her mother’s life;  the snarling, spitting fight they had (nothing new) and the fact that she can’t remember the act of killing her mother (even though she wished her dead many times), only the discovery of her body, and the blood, lots of blood, especially on herself.
            ‘An open and shut case’, the Police said, and so it was:  at the age of seventeen Janey was incarcerated.  Until now.  Her zealous lawyer Noah Washington has proved doctoring of evidence by the Police Department and Janey’s conviction has been overturned:  after ten years she is free!  Free to face the Press and Social Media in all its forms, including a particularly vicious blogger who wishes her dead – and soon.  Hiding out until the furore dies down (if it ever does) is the only solution;  at least the solitude in new surroundings, and internet access at last, will help her perhaps, to remember something – anything – significant of that last night of her mother’s life and the last night of Janey’s freedom, for there are tantalising wisps of recall that she clutches at, hoping to find more pieces of the puzzle.
            And she does, including discovery of the stunning fact that her mother was not Swiss as had always been believed, had not been born into fabulous wealth as the world thought, but had come from a dying mining town in South Dakota:  the time for Janey to travel to her mother’s birthplace has arrived.  It is time to solve the mystery of her mother’s early years and in so doing expose the reason for her murder, for much as Janey loathed her mother, killing her was not a solution. 
Oh, the plot thickens so well you could stand a spoon in it!  Ms Little’s debut novel is indeed a great read;  Janey, who narrates a story that rushes at breakneck speed, is a character that will stay with me for a long time – she’s sassy, loud, brave, hilarious – and recklessly stupid:  the reader spends a lot of the book admonishing Janey not to be just that, for Janey has endeared herself to all by the novel’s twist-in-the-tail ending;  we are all cheering her on, only to find that Janey’s celebrity has outrun her and will eventually be her downfall.
            Much as I would love to meet Janey again in print, the prospects look dim, but who knows?  ‘Stranger things have happened at sea’ as my old Granny would say, and a writer of Ms Little’s talent could surely conjure up a reason for Janey to grace us with her notorious presence again.  Here’s hoping.  Highly recommended.

The Giver, by Lois Lowry.              Teen fiction

This wonderful teen novel was first published in 1993 and it has now been made into a major film, starring Jeff Bridges and Meryl Streep – there couldn’t be a more stellar endorsement.  Therefore it is presumptuous of me to add my little two-cent review to the screeds of praise, all fully justified, from august literary sources but I say with utmost respect (in the words of Lewis Carroll) ‘A Cat May Look at a King.’  So there, and here goes.
            Jonas is approaching his 12th year of life.  He lives with his father, a nurturer, his mother, a Justice department employee, and his sister Lily, who is approaching her 8th year of life.  They live in a Community, its rules and regulations rigidly followed, and everyone is fully cognisant of their position in life, and their life’s work – which begins after the Year 12 naming ceremony - their eventual selection of a spouse (by the Council of Elders);  their allocation of children (one of each gender);  their eventual relegation to Childless Adults when the children leave the family dwelling;  then the last stage:  the House of the Old, and eventual Release.  All decided by the Council of Elders.  All freedom of choice has been removed, but no-one cares, as this happened long, long ago – back and back and back:  no-one remembers any more what life was like when people decided their lives for themselves;  all they are aware of is that their lives are peaceful, benevolent and free from worry.  Life is also without colour, and most vitally, without familial love.  No-one has ever experienced it, so no-one knows what they are missing.
            Until Jonas finds out what his life’s work will be at his naming ceremony.  He will be the Receiver of Memories, from the Giver, the current holder of all the world’s memories, good and bad. 
            Initially, Jonas is enormously privileged by his new duties – until the Giver educates him in the pain of memory as well as its joys, and it gradually dawns on him that the eradication of remembrance of sunshine, warmth, colours, blue skies and most of all, the closeness of family, is even more heartbreaking than the memory of  pain, sorrow, heartache and sadness:  the more Jonas learns from the Giver, the more he longs to go somewhere where these emotions still rule – where people still have freedom of choice.
            Eventually, Jonas does make a choice – it is forced upon him by circumstances he never dreamt he would have to face, and his escape from the Community is the climax of this wonderful story, for he escapes not only from the security of a tranquil and ordered society, but the absence of choice, hope and love.
‘The Giver’ is the first book of a quartet – I can’t wait to read the next three books.  Lois Lowry has examined with lucid and beautiful prose the effects of a Dystopian society that are just as relevant today as in 1993.  How blessed we are to have such a writer in our midst.  I loved this book.  Highly recommended.

The Drop, by Dennis Lehane

Dedicated readers will whiz through this little gem, as I did, in no time flat.  Mr Lehane, as always, serves his readers well, this time with a novella that is bristling with hard men and dirty deeds, simultaneously leavening the cruelty with passages of such lyricism ‘that he could make a glass eye cry’ – oh, isn’t that a great old Irish saying?  But Irishmen are not the main players in this drama:  instead the action takes place in a run-down bar in Boston, managed for the Chechen Mafia by two Polish cousins.
            Cousin Marv used to own the bar (named for him) but he made some bad decisions and ended up selling out to the Chechens.  Story of his life.  Now he is the manager.  His cousin Bob Saginowski is the bartender and they rub along well enough – but only because they are family.
            Bob is a devout Catholic.  He goes to mass daily at the church that he has attended since he was a child, joining a few other faithful souls who realise  with the priest that the dwindling congregation cannot sustain the church for much longer.  The other members ( including a local detective ) wonder why Bob never goes to confession, and NEVER takes communion.  Bob is a mystery to everyone – not least himself, but he knows what his main problem is:  he is lonely;  hugely, heartbreakingly lonely.  If life doesn't look up soon, he’ll die.
            As though God has perceived his sadness, Bob hears a whimper as he passes a trashcan on the way home one night.  On further exploration he finds a beaten and wounded puppy scrabbling about in the bottom of the can, and as further evidence of a miracle, a girl who lives in the house (belonging to the trashcan – still with me?) makes herself known without taking any ownership or responsibility for the little dog.  Bob is so happy to suddenly have two friends in his life (two more than usual), that he doesn’t dare question the mystery of Nadia’s association with the beaten dog in her trashcan:  God, in his usual mysterious way, has answered his prayers at last.  It is now worth waking up in the morning.
            As Bob’s friendships progress to daily walks in the park with Rocco (he named the dog after the patron saint of dogs!) and Nadia – damaged in her own way as much as Rocco – Cousin Marv is ruminating on the myriad failures of his life:  he now lives with his spinster sister;  he has to pay for sex once a week at the local whorehouse;  and he has NO MONEY.  Something has to be done to alter the course of his miserable life for the better, so Marv decides on the ultimate act of betrayal:  to plan a heist of the Chechens’ bar on the night of The Drop, when all their criminal associates drop off their ‘takings’ from all over the city for the Chechens to collect at the end of the night.  Needless to say, he does not inform his cousin (Marv doesn’t like to share), but Bob suddenly has problems of his own:  Rocco’s original owner, the sadist who nearly killed that defenceless little animal, has materialised seemingly from nowhere – and wants his dog back.
Mr Lehane doesn’t spare the reader’s delicate sensibilities – every sentence packs a heavy punch, and every sentence does the work of ten.  What a great storyteller he is, as evidenced by the many successful movies made from his novels, including this one,  starring the late James Gandolfini – can’t you just see him as Cousin Marv?  ‘The Drop’ was a pleasure to read.  Highly recommended.


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