MORE GREAT READS FOR JUNE, 2015
The Legend of Winstone Blackhat, by Tanya Moir
What a privilege it has been to read this wonderful story. Though its content will horrify any reader with a tender heart, it is a magnificently written chronicle of the abuse and neglect that one child suffers, and his attempts to keep his humanity; his efforts to fit in and stay sane in the face of impossible odds.
Winstone Haskett’s mother is in jail, and his father moves himself and his three children from rental to run-down rental in his search for work throughout small South Island towns. Winstone’s dad is not interested in providing a conventional home, or even conventional food for his kids; they can look after themselves, and seem to be making a reasonable fist of it – except that the youngest, 6 year-old Marlene, keeps wetting the bed, and she and Winstone stink, because she crawls in with him, then pees over them both when she’s asleep. They are both too young to successfully keep up any standards of personal hygiene and neither can work the rental washing machine; consequently no-one wants to sit near them on the school bus, let alone play with them at school.
Food is a problem too. Sometimes Dad will bring home takeaways or do a supermarket shop for very basic items, but mostly he leads his own life in the pubs and clubs and the kids don’t see much of him at night unless he brings ‘company’ back to consort with in his dirty bedroom.
Winstone’s life has reached a low ebb – until he is rescued by a passer-by just as he was about to get bullied and beaten by bigger boys from school; this saviour turns out to be his first real friend, even though he is an adult, and Winstone is thrilled when he is invited into Zane’s clean home for something to eat (on clean plates); he is told to take a shower (in a wonderfully clean bathroom with fluffy white towels); then he is treated to a great cowboy movie on Zane’s 52” plasma TV: is God smiling on him at last? Sadly, no.
Zane requires payment for his constant friendship, kindness and western movies, the kind of payment that Winstone eventually knows is not what adult males should be doing to 9 year-old boys, but what can he do? His friendship is the only good thing that Winstone has ever known, and when Winstone’s Dad commits an unspeakable act of cruelty one night, Zane is the only person he can turn to for help.
And Zane does help, making an anonymous 111 call for police and ambulance, thus setting in train the final breakup of the Haskett family, and disappearing himself in the process: Winstone is dealt with by the courts and social workers, and eventually put into a foster home – where the family are kind to him, but yet another crisis occurs, so awful that Winstone runs away, literally taking to the hills, ‘hiding out’ in the best tradition of all the cowboy movies he so loved. Here, to pass the time in the sweeping, majestic, wildly beautiful landscape that he long yearned and fantasised about, Winstone becomes in his imagination Winstone Blackhat, relentlessly pursued by Cooper and The Kid; The Kid, wearer of a white hat and protector of women and children and the vulnerable in the best cowboy tradition. Coop is his mentor and together they track Blackhat until the inevitable showdown, not letting up until THE END comes up on the screen of young Winstone’s life.
Ms Moir won me as a dedicated fan with her first novel ‘La Rochelle’s Road’ (see July, 2011 review below). She excels herself with Winstone Blackhat, thrilling the reader with the lush, gorgeous imagery of his imagination, then horrifying us with prose of stark and terrible clarity as she writes of the reality of his tragic situation and agony of heart. Long may Winstone and his Black hat live on in the minds of all readers. Most highly recommended.
La Rochelle’s Road, by Tanya Moir
Ms Moir’s first novel takes the old and well-tried pioneer theme and creates an entirely new perspective upon it, not only because of her beautiful prose and command of atmosphere and time, but also the authenticity and strength of her characterizations.
The Peterson family leave England at the end of 1866 to begin a brave new life in New Zealand; Daniel the father has bought acreage sight unseen on the Banks Peninsula; he is a clerk but means to become a gentleman farmer, producing grass-seed; his wife Letitia is adoring, soft, gentle and genteel, the mother of Hester, aged 18, and Robbie, 15, and frighteningly ignorant of the realities and harsh trials of their new existence: their land, for which they paid an exorbitant price is unproductive and must be cleared by them all of scrub and rubbish before they can even begin to think of a crop; Daniel finds that, when his money runs out his services are not required by the contemptuous new settlers, hard men all, when he attempts to find supplementary work as a clerk or a teacher, and his humiliation is complete when he has to offer himself as a labourer – for less money than the going rate – in order to put food on the table.
The family’s plight is recorded firstly in optimistic letters Home by Hester to her friend Lucy, then by more realistic entries in her Journal. She also finds the Journal of the house’s previous occupant, Etienne de la Rochelle, gentleman, artist and would-be explorer, the original owner of the land; his story offers a fascinating subplot as he relates his adventures in an attempt to find a way across the Alps from West to East – and his guilty love for a Maori woman, the concubine of his guide, Teone. Ms Moir chronicles this love story with great skill, using the language of the time with absolute assurance.
Her account of farmer- turned -labourer Daniel’s descent into bitterness, disillusionment and despair is masterly: Daniel does not eventually conquer his land: it conquers him, and he is forced by tragic circumstance into the realization that the contempt shown to him for his British airs and graces is perhaps justified - there is no room here yet in this young, harsh, unrelenting land for those with pretensions towards education and airy-fairy ideas on politics and philosophy: the class system has been turned on its head, and he with it.
This book is completely absorbing from start to finish; Ms Moir’s prose is lyrical , brilliantly evoking people, times and places long gone, and her chief narrators, Hester and La Rochelle, carry the story onward with strength, optimism and purity of heart. Highly recommended.
A Quiet End, by Nelson de Mille
Could there be a more entertaining character than Detective John Corey, the hero of seven novels by Mr De Mille, and the lucky owner of more than nine lives – or his legion of fans will certainly hope so, so that the adventures will just keep coming. He survives each new nail-biting situation by the skin of his teeth, and has managed to eliminate more baddies than anyone can shake a stick (or a gun) at. What a man! What a hero! What a babe!
‘A Quiet End’ opens with a stake-out by Mr Corey and his enthusiastic, irritating new side-kick, Tess Faraday, of an FDR assassin, colonel Vasily Petrov, masquerading as a Diplomat attached to the Russian Federation Mission.
Corey is now employed as a team leader for the Diplomatic Surveillance Group, a very sedentary job compared to previous death-defying occupations, some of which being with his wife Kate, who recently earned a promotion to FBI Supervisor while he has been moved sideways to ‘The Quiet End’ of investigative work.
Corey’s surveillance of Petrov becomes more than routine when Petrov makes a trip outside diplomatic limits to rendezvous with a luxury super-yacht anchored of Long Island Sound: the vessel is owned by a fabulously rich Saudi Prince, and to Corey’s experienced nose, he smells a rat; something stinks in the state of Denmark; and lastly, something doesn’t smell right! Needless to say, he’s 100% correct, as usual: the date is September Eleven, and it is a perfect anniversary for a terrible deed to be perpetrated by fanatical followers of Islam; instead, Corey uncovers a plan that is totally gob-smacking: a suitcase nuclear bomb hidden in the super yacht by Petrov and his henchmen, to be detonated by remote control in the harbour of Lower Manhattan. The destruction would be absolute; millions would die; the United States would never recover economically or financially; and no-one would know that the Russians were responsible when all evidence would point towards a Saudi Prince and his luxury yacht. Is that a fiendish superplan or what!
Petrov thinks so, and is hell bent on carrying it through to the bitter end, despite unforeseen setbacks that have his loyal henchmen questioning his better judgement. Besides, Petrov’s nasty dad, a Hero of the Soviet Union (in the old days) told him not to come home if he can’t deliver, so he doesn’t have a choice. Fair enough.
BUT!! He has bargained without John Corey and annoying rookie Tess Faraday: through conventional and entirely unbelievable means, our Dynamic Duo manage to foil the plot - literally at the last minute; rub out all the bad guys – and succumb to the fatal attraction that has been dogging them throughout this hugely entertaining page-turner. And, just in case you think that Corey has been lower than a snake’s belly in his treatment of his wife, well, think again: all those trips to Washington with her boss since her promotion equate to marital infidelity. Yes, folks, true-blue Kate is loyal no longer, which leaves the Corey field clear for annoying but smart-with-mouth-and-weapon Tess – and she comes from old money, too: could Corey start climbing the social ladder – whether he wants to or not?
As Corey has a great one-liner for every occasion, I can’t wait for Book 8, where he will presumably meet Tess’s parents: watch this space. Highly recommended.