Tuesday, 27 January 2015


The Rent Collector, by Camron Wright

In 2009 Camron Wright’s son Trevor filmed a documentary in Cambodia called ‘River of Victory’, an account of the appalling poverty and daily struggle for survival of the inhabitants of Pnom Penh’s huge municipal waste dump.  These people had come to the city from even more privation in the country to try to make a living;  as peasants most were illiterate, but all had one thing in common:  a huge work ethic and powerful desire to make a better life for their loved ones.
            The struggles of one such family in the film inspired Mr Wright to turn the family’s travails into an extraordinary, novelised account of their refusal to yield to the squalor of their everyday existence, and their ultimate success in making a better life for themselves. 
            Sang Li, her husband Ki Lim and their baby boy Nisay eke out a precarious living as trash pickers for recyclables at Stung Meanchey, ‘The River of Victory’ – which is anything but:  acres of noisome garbage tower over everything;  when it rains the water collects and stagnates in filthy channels that everyone tries to avoid at all costs:  cuts and scratches suffered while picking through the rubbish easily become infected, and medical help isn’t cheap.
            The lives of everyone at Stung Meanchey are precarious;  they are all grindingly poor, but they all have to a greater or lesser degree that vital emotion to get them through each day:  hope.  Hope that the next day will be better, that the pickings will be larger and get them a bit more money from the buyers who gather at the end of each shift – and the hope that eventually, they will be able to move on from Stung Meanchey.
Sang Li and her husband work as hard as everyone else, but their progress is hampered by the failing health of their baby Nisay, who is continually beset by fevers and diarrhoea, and the predations of the gangs of young boys who roam the dump, looking to rob the vulnerable.  Every time Sang Li saves enough money it is eaten up by the cost of medications for Nisay whose symptoms reappear as soon as the pills are finished, and like everyone else, Ki Lim has been attacked and robbed by the gangs of the little money he earned after twelve hours picking through garbage.
The family is desperate:  they haven’t enough money to pay the rent on the hovel in which they live, and they know that the loathed Rent Collector, a spiteful old woman known for her complete lack of compassion – and her drunkenness – will accept no excuses:  she wants her money.  NOW!
Until a miracle occurs:  someone has given Sang Li a picture book they found amid the garbage, thinking it would be good for Nisay;  when the Rent Collector chances upon the book she is disarmed.  Weeping at the sight of it, she takes the book without mentioning the rent.  
Sang Li is intelligent -  she realises that the Rent Collector can read:  can she profit from this situation?  Can she convince the Rent Collector to teach her to read, for Sang Li knows that literacy is the doorway to knowledge:  knowledge creates opportunity.
And literature is at the heart of this remarkable story, for in a former life the Rent Collector taught literature at a prestigious university.  She is an ideal vehicle through which Mr Wright explores human stories, real and imagined;  the Rent Collector delivers a fine education to Sang Li, her last pupil - and many compelling, brutal and unforgettable life lessons as well.
Mr Wright is such a skilful storyteller that it is impossible for the reader to discern where reality ends and fiction begins:  suffice to say that this reader doesn’t care – the message is loud and clear:  hope is the key.  Highly recommended.

The Bright Side of my Condition, by Charlotte Randall

In the first years of the nineteenth century four stowaways on a sealing ship are left on an uninhabited island in the Southern Ocean by the captain, furious that they should try to hide themselves on his ship;  he didn’t have enough to feed his legitimate crew, let alone four escaped felons from Norfolk Island.  Well, they could earn their passage back to Sydney town by collecting seal pelts;  he would be back in a year to collect them.
Thus does their privation begin. 
New Zealand author Ms Randall has a very large following here;  this is her seventh novel (see May 2011 review of ‘Hokitika Town below) and is based on actual events:  four stowaway felons were indeed marooned on one of the Snares Islands and instructed to collect sealskins to earn their passage home;  unfortunately, the ship’s captain didn’t  return to collect them in a year:  nearly ten years would pass before they saw a sail on the horizon.
The story is narrated by Bloodsworth, a thief and layabout, transported from England to Norfolk Island for stealing (amongst other things) a length of lace.  His reluctant companions are Slangham, who murdered his wife;  Gargantua, or Fatty (until privation peeled the weight from his bones), and Toper, a superstitious and God-fearing Irish Catholic drunk not known for deep thinking.  Gargantua is reluctantly acknowledged to be of an intellectual bent – he can recite huge swathes of poetry, especially that of Rabelais, his favourite.  He is also a classic stirrer and takes smug satisfaction in setting his fellows against each other;  it gives him some small pleasure to manipulate those he considers less clever than he.
Slangham is a workhorse;  he drives the others mercilessly to provide the skins that they hope will eventually earn their freedom, and he takes no pleasure in life that anyone can see:  he is a volcano of hatred and misery:  he hates himself and everyone else.
Bloodsworth, initially aghast and horrified at their plight eventually reconciles himself to their environment and learns to love the spectacular wilderness and wildlife of the island.  For the first time in his life he feels truly free.
And therein lies his downfall:  his mind must be sick to enable him to actually feel so rebellious;  to stop taking orders from Slangham, self-appointed ‘boss’;  to please himself what he does each day:  no, something is wrong.  They cannot have a madman in their midst.  He must be punished.
Ms Randall does not put a foot wrong in this masterly tale;  the island, paradise or hell according to the weather conditions, is described in gorgeous imagery and her characters are all too real, especially Bloodsworth who has a conscience that weighs more than the world – but just in case readers think this is a tale of unremitting gloom, gems of humour like rays of sunlight illuminate the story at strategic points, enhancing more – if it were possible – the reader’s enjoyment.  This is a great story.  Highly recommended.    

Hokitika Town, by Charlotte Randall

The year is 1865;  the great Gold Rush is well under way and Hokitika is booming;  there are 100 pubs throughout the town to slake the miners’ thirst – and relieve them of their hard-won gold, and everyone is trying to get rich quick by fair means or foul before the gold runs out and all the diggers move on to the next Big Strike. 
Into this hotch-potch of goodies and baddies comes  Halfie – Half-pint, Harvey, Bedwetter, Monkey:  these are only some of the names he answers to, this little maori boy who has run away from his tribe after the death of his beloved tuakana Moana.  Being a resourceful and intelligent little boy he has decided to be a ‘coin boy’, and where better a place to earn coin than Hokitika town – he is sure that he will eventually accumulate enough coin to earn a place to sleep by the stove of the reclusive miner and drunk, Ludovic, with the hope that Ludovic will teach him English.  He knows that ‘That Inglish is a langwich what don’t behave’ and he would appreciate some tuition so that he can get fair treatment from Whitey.  Besides, he’s sick of sleeping up a ponga tree – that’s tolerable in the summer, but Hokitika gets a lot of rain and it’s coming onto winter, so he has to plan ahead.
Thereafter follows a rollicking account of Halfie’s adventures as a coin boy,  in his own fractured and inimitable style:  comedy and tragedy vie equally  for places in this wonderful story of great riches and hard times portrayed by a writer of superlative skill.  Halfie is ebullient, shrewd, hilarious, and quite simply unforgettable as he  bravely attempts in his little boy’s way to deal with problems that most adults would  flee rather than solve:  sometimes ‘his heart sag like a old bed’ when his mind turns back to ‘rememorying’, but he has a lion’s heart,  a fox’s cunning and a nobility of spirit that many adults would never achieve in a lifetime. 
His friends – and enemies – are wonderfully drawn, too;  an astonishing cavalcade of the Good, the Bad, and the downright Ugly, and all utterly convincing.  Ms. Randall has brought our Goldrush era to thrilling life:  as Halfie would say:  KA PAI!  And I would say A-MA-ZING 


Tuesday, 6 January 2015


Blue Labyrinth, by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child

Special FBI Agent extraordinaire Aloysius Pendergast returns yet again to do battle against the forces of evil – and not before time, I say!  His myriad fans have been languishing without him, and it’s all very well for Messrs Preston and Child to throw them a bone from time to time with various solo novels and the combined authorship of a series featuring a new hero, Gideon Crew, BUT.
All that secondary activity is a mere distraction until the Master resurfaces, this time to fight a mysterious new villain, one who has hidden his identity so well that more than half the book is (greedily) consumed before his identity is revealed.
In common with all the other evil ones that Pendergast has dispatched to the hereafter, (see 2013 review below) Mystery Man is festering with hatred towards our pale hero -  but he is no ordinary Dastard, for he is motivated by revenge:  thanks to an awful genetic curse wrought upon his family by one of Pendergast’s ancestors, Mystery Man contrives through absolutely genius planning, to infect Pendergast with the same fatal malady - but not before leaving the dead body of Pendergast’s twin son on the Agent’s front doorstep as a calling card and to start the ball rolling.  Pendergast’s days are numbered!
Now.  Because Pendergast knows something about absolutely everything he is able to self-medicate for a while as he searches for his killer, but as the horrid disease starts to have its wicked way, raising his temperature uncomfortably in his black wool suits, he realises that the cavalry will have to be summoned – and who better to ride to his rescue than Margo Green, anthropologist and ethnopharmacologist,  doughty companion on many previous bloody adventures at the New York Museum of Natural History.  It will be her job to manufacture ASAP an antidote from rare  ingredients pinched by none other than Constance Green, Pendergast’s mysterious ward – well, she’s certainly mysterious to ME, as I haven’t yet found the book (and I thought I had read them all) where she makes her first appearance.
By any reader’s calculation she must be about 150 years old, but is as young and glowing as the dawn;  the only clue to her advanced years is her curiously formal way of speech, and her retro fashion sense, but – but the woman is an Amazon!  And she knows HEAPS about various acids, and how to administer them to nasty men who should know better than to try to stop her at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden from stealing a super-rare plant to save Pendergast’s failing life.  Constance Green is a warrior, and she accomplishes grand larceny and mass murder in minimum time and maximum efficiency (he’s definitely worth it!) clad only in a silk Teddy.  Sorry, Constance:  chemise.
Does Our Hero survive?  Well, what a silly question:  of course he does, returning to his healthy pallor in no time at all, and enjoying a fresh supply of Armani funeral garb.  And he and Constance are closer than ever, which is only right:  she rubbed out half an army of mercenaries that he might live!  Do you suppose she fancies him?  Watch this space.

White Fire, by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child

As patient readers of this little blog will know, I have long been a fan of Preston and Child’s fearless protagonist FBI Special Agent Aloysius Pendergast, along with millions of other dedicated followers of his hair-raising adventures as he deploys his considerable intellectual and physical powers to defeat all manner of dastardly villains.  Sadly, ‘Two Graves’ the white-knuckle adventure preceding this latest title was so absurd, so defying of all credulity that I couldn’t in all conscience write my usual ecstatic review – I mean, come ON:  a nest of evil  NeoNazis in the South American Jungle conducting eugenic experiments so that they can breed another Master Race, and who should be involved but Pendergast’s great love Helen, mother of twins he didn’t know he’d fathered (gasp!), one of whom is bred specially for great things, and the other (double gasp!!) for slavery. 
Our hero destroys the nest of evil Nazi vipers, but at great personal cost (Helen really does die this time), causing Pendergast to sink into a slough of despond from which he has great difficulty extricating himself, BUT!
His creators need to bring him back from his hell of substance abuse and depression for this latest adventure, and I am happy to say that ‘White Fire’ is a complete success, with only limited reference to ward Constance Green ( meditating in a monastery in the Himalayas) and his good and evil twins (of the nasty one no trace;  the good one is getting an education at an exclusive Swiss Academy).  Instead this adventure centres on Corrie Swanson, Pendergast’s sponsored protégé and student at the prestigious John Jay College of Criminal Justice. Corrie has decided to base her thesis on the supposed slaughter by a bear of eleven miners 150 years ago in a remote area mined for silver in Colorado. 
By great coincidence the rough mining camp of Roaring Fork has now become the exclusive ski resort and winter vacation wonderland of the megarich and famous – and others who find Corrie’s desire for information and request to examine the exhumed bodies of some of the miners intrusive and unhelpful:  she must be discouraged permanently from her investigations and with a ruthlessness that takes Corrie’s breath away, she suddenly finds herself in prison facing a ten-year sentence for ‘desecration of a corpse’ and various other lesser charges. 
Her devastation is absolute – until Pendergast, finally roused from his torpor by her desperate situation arrives in Roaring Fork complete with the necessary evidence to refute the charges and send a message to the villains that their nefarious plans are not going to succeed.  Oh, it’s great stuff, and as an added bonus Oscar Wilde, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and his great hero Sherlock Holmes are connected to Pendergast’s modern day sleuthing in an entirely credible subplot, forming the basis of his ultimately successful solving of The Mystery – but not before Corrie undergoes some truly death-defying experiences (she has her little finger shot off and nearly goes up in smoke for being unwittingly lippy to a madman), as required in any suspense novel worth its salt. 
It is a pleasure to welcome Pendergast back to the land of the living –at least as portrayed by Preston and Child:   his mourning period is now thankfully over and he can attend to his usual business of conquering evil, striking fear into the black hearts of villains everywhere with his pale eyes, pale hair and an inexhaustible supply of money and black designer suits.  Lincoln and Child are back to their best:  sound scholarship, good research and a great plot.  Who could ask for more?  This is the ideal holiday read.

The Woman who Stole my Life, by Marian Keyes

Stella Sweeney is a beautician in Dublin.  Her husband Ryan is a thwarted artist (his talent was never recognised or appreciated but he has channelled his gift into making posh bathrooms for posh people); they are parents to  a teenaged boy and girl who require a lot of supervision and organising, and it is a source of great pride for her to know that despite she and Ryan’s working-class origins, they can afford (just) to send their children to an exclusive private school.  Nothing but the best for Jeffrey and Betsy.  They are Stella’s main focus in life;  her reason for getting up in the morning.  Ryan is another matter – his main focus seems to be on his business, then Ryan:  the grand passion that controlled their young lives has now disappeared, lost in the stresses and strains of everyday living – so what else is new?  This is what happens to us all, and that is the secret of Marian Keyes’s success:  her great ability to recount stories of people just like us, her readers;  people we can identify with so easily.
Where Ms Keyes starts to leave reality behind is the unbelievable misfortune Stella suffers when she contracts Guillain-Barré Syndrome, ‘an  auto-immune disorder which attacks the peripheral nervous system, stripping the myelin sheaths from the nerves’.  Got that?  The body can recover eventually, but until that happy day, Stella spends a huge amount of time in hospital, paralysed and unable to communicate at all – except after a time to establish a winking, blinking code with a hunky neurologist who – quelle horreur! – eventually becomes her (gasp) lover!  How could this happen to someone who couldn’t move a muscle for more than a year?  And what about hubby and the kids?  A?  A?  More importantly, how does a writer convince her readers that this is just an everyday occurrence?  Well, I have to say with some regret, that she didn’t convince ME – which is a shame, because I was entirely willing to suspend belief – up to a point.
Never mind, though:  for the most part, Ms Keyes writes beautifully of what she knows i.e. the publishing world, this time exposed in all its two-dimensional ugliness, and her supporting characters are as strongly drawn as ever.  Lastly, let us not forget her biggest virtue as a writer:  humour.  That wonderful Irish variety of humour, so inimitable and so vital;  such an arsenal against all the troubles that beset us ordinary folk and without which we would be defenceless indeed.  Ms Keyes may have missed the bus with ‘The Woman who Stole my Life’, but I’ll be waiting for her at the next stop.