Friday, 28 August 2015

  LAST GREAT READS FOR AUGUST, 2015

Starlight Peninsula, by Charlotte Grimshaw

This story is the latest in Charlotte Grimshaw’s collection of connected short stories and two novels, ‘The Night Book’ and ‘Soon’ featuring some of the same characters.  I haven’t been able to track down ‘The Night Book’ in our library system but read ‘Soon’ (see January 2013 review below) and was mightily impressed;  few other New Zealand authors can emulate her shrewd observance of the strata of Auckland society;  of those who live on the hallowed slopes of the Eastern Suburbs, and those who aspire to – and the various attempts they make to get there.
            Ms Grimshaw has  plenty of fun with New Zealand politics both national and local, and ruthlessly satirizes the back-room deals, the Old-Boy networks and the donorships, both corporate and private that keep the conservative government afloat, and for most kiwis, some of her characters in ‘Starlight Peninsula’ are easily recognisable;  the fat German internet mogul wanted for internet piracy by the United States;  the TV current affairs host, ablaze with sincerity and expensive suits;  a gaggle of cabinet ministers involved in suspicious activities, not to mention the Prime Minister, forced to state repeatedly that he knew nothing about illegal spying on said German internet pirate. 
Ms Grimshaw’s wit and talent to expose hypocrisy is as sharp as ever;  sadly, her story loses merit because her key character, Eloise Hay, is a dingbat of the first order.  Sorry, Eloise, but it’s true:  you are too unfocussed and wimpy to give credibility to the plot, so there.
Eloise is a research assistant for the aforementioned TV current affairs host.  She is also awash with grief and Chardonnay because her husband has just left her for ‘a bullshit New Age actress’.  She sits alone in the marital home on the Starlight Peninsula which will be sold from under her soon:  ex-hubby is a big-time lawyer, immensely rich thanks to his parents, Sir Jarrod and Lady Cheryl Rodd (what fun Ms Grimshaw has with names!) and they all want the property gone – along with her – so that they can make a killing.  Because that’s what they always do.
Eloise loves Starlight Peninsula.  She doesn’t want to live anywhere else, but instead of reaching for solutions she just reaches for the bottle;  even an interesting new neighbour can’t keep her away from the demon drink and her family are even less effective – which is not surprising.  Eloise’s loving sister Carina and her daughter are towers of strength, but their mother Demelza (!) is poisonous enough to have frolicked with Gorgons as a child:  she offers Eloise ‘another brandy for the road’ when her drunken daughter comes to visit.  Ee, Chuck, she’s a right one, her! (Demelza is from Manchester).
Eloise consults Klaudia, a formidably logical German Psychotherapist in an effort to sort out her troubled thoughts and realises after much analysis that ‘a layer of the world has been hidden from me’ – which causes her to delve past her broken marriage into the grief she suffered from the mysterious death of her boyfriend Arthur many years ago, a death that she has refused to acknowledge had many suspicious elements to it.  ‘He was the love of my life!’ she declares to various people, but seems to have no trouble feeling emotional attachments to those very people.  (It’s the booze talking, love.)
In her bumbling, stumbling winey way, Eloise is starting to unravel the secrets surrounding Arthur’s death:  her seemingly random, haphazard lurching from one potential guilty party to the next uncovers some surprising and shocking truths:  she attributes her acumen to ESP; the fat internet pirate calls it ‘collective consciousness’ –  call good luck whatever you like, but by the end of the novel, Eloise has ferreted out enough secrets and lies to achieve her dream:  to remain in the house on the Starlight Peninsula.  As she states to Klaudia (don’t look at your watch, Klaudia!) ‘The house is a mind.  If I lose my house I will lose my mind.’
Well done.  I applaud the fact that she grew enough cojones to blackmail the big baddies to hang on to her beloved house;  it was a mighty achievement, but please, Ms Grimshaw, could she NOT be a continuing character in your next novel?
 Ms Grimshaw’s other characterisations are, as always, beautifully and finely drawn, and her depiction of Auckland, that chaotic, teeming, vital city is as superb and truthful as ever.  Highly recommended, except for You-Know-Who.       

Soon, by Charlotte Grimshaw

Simon Lampton and his family enjoy a privileged and enviable position:  a close friendship with the current Prime Minister of New Zealand, David Hallwright, enabling them to be honoured houseguests at his palatial holiday home north of Auckland for the summer.  For Simon and Karen his wife, it is a very satisfying time;  they have reached social heights envied by their contemporaries and never dreamed of by themselves.  Simon is a wealthy and successful obstetrician and gynaecologist but came from the very lowest of backgrounds;  Karen is his trophy wife, another goal to be ticked off his list of  life aspirations, along with the respect of his medical peers, beautiful home, BMW and children – whom he loves utterly:  they are his reward, his bonus for the hard years of his childhood with an alcoholic father and the hard work of studying and establishing himself in a demanding medical field.
Life can’t get any better – can it?
Unfortunately, all that glitters is not gold:  the longer the Lamptons stay with the Hallrights, the more hidden agendas reveal themselves:  the friendship with David on which Simon prides himself – ‘I never kowtow to him;  I’m apolitical and always give him my honest opinion.  That’s why we get on so well together’ – goes through subtle changes, partly caused by David’s glamorous second wife Roza, who holds all the males of the holiday household in thrall, including Simon.  As the holiday progresses it becomes increasingly obvious that Roza doesn’t regard Simon and Karen as bosom buddies;  she tolerates them charmingly for one reason:  she wants their adopted daughter, Elke – because Roza is Elke’s natural mother:  she couldn’t look after her when she was born, but she can now and begins an insidious campaign to win over the affections of the beautiful 18 year old.
Ms Grimshaw describes this tug of love so articulately that the reader feels palpably the steely determination of one character to possess, and the heartbreak and anguish of others finally aware of what they stand to lose.  As they find themselves trapped in the cleverly-woven web of privilege and ambition, all masked by the paper-thin veneer of best-mateship, Simon and Karen have to decide which hard decisions to make, and how to keep that which they love most – as well as retaining their self-respect.
And this is not Simon’s only crisis:  a shameful memory from the past rears its ugly head, threatening not just him and his cushy life but scandalous enough to cause big problems for his ‘best friend’ the Prime Minister.  Simon Lampton’s envied existence is fast becoming intolerable.
Ms Grimshaw has given us a wonderful story, written with great pace and clarity.  Her characters are a delight, each captured with elegant and astute observation – David Hallwright bears a striking resemblance to our own Dear Leader, John Key, and his party and policies are mercilessly dissected.
In my reading experience, no author can evoke mood, atmosphere and landscape more strongly than she, and it is a pleasure to read such a fine book.  Highly recommended.

The Slaughter Man, by Tony Parsons.

Detective Constable Max Wolfe is sent to the scene of a gruesome murder in one of the most affluent gated communities in London – so exclusive there are only six houses in the enclave.  An entire family, the parents and two teenagers, have been dispatched execution-style by a cattle bolt, a weapon used to stun cattle before they are slaughtered at the freezing works:  the only other family member, a four year old boy, is missing.  As they begin their investigation, the police can only hope that he will be found in the first twenty four hours:  chances of survival traditionally fade from then on.
            Max and his superiors are reminded of another similar crime committed more than thirty years ago:  a farmer and his three sons were killed by the same means by one of the Travellers (they aren’t called Gypsies any more) – but the Traveller has done his time;  he is old and dying and his family are fiercely protective of him.  He can’t have done it – can he?
            As the investigators wade through mountains of evidence, the façade presenting the dead family as idyllically happy and functional starts to crumble:  Mum and Dad, former Olympic athletes, were having marital problems that resulted in Dad keeping an apartment solely for the use of meetings with prostitutes;  it is unclear if Mum was aware of his infidelity, or if she cared:  the question is academic, but Max still requires answers of his own and as always he’s very good at playing hunches, and turning over stones to see what’s underneath.  And as always, it is nothing good.
            Mr Parsons has once again written a very efficient thriller.  Characters from the first book return as strong as ever, and he writes with great warmth and humour of Max’s relationship with his little daughter, and the pitfalls of sole parenthood – and the great rewards.  His careful attention to detail again lifts his story above the hackneyed, and while I had to suspend disbelief when the bastardly baddies bury Max alive (in a coffin already occupied by a mouldering pile of bones and other nasty bits and pieces), his escape was still just this side of credulity.  Well, he had to get out, didn’t he?  He has to be in the next book!
            This is a bone-rattlingly good sequel to ‘The Murder Bag’.  Highly recommended.
 
             
The Murder Bag, by Tony Parsons.

This is the first thriller that Tony Parsons has written, and what a good time he has had with the genre:  all the boxes are ticked;  there are plenty of corpses;  the suspense builds with each murder;  there are heaps of suspects, and it is almost guaranteed that no-one, and I mean no-one will know whodunit until the very last pages.  What more could a dedicated thriller reader ask for?  Mr Parsons fills every requirement.
            Detective Constable Max Wolfe has just received a promotion and a pay rise, thanks to his disobedience – not because he meant to be insubordinate, but he acted spontaneously on a hunch that proved to be right, saving a lot of lives after he was ordered to cease and desist.
            Now he has been seconded to the investigation into the murder of a prosperous London banker who has been dispatched in a very novel fashion:  his throat was not merely slit, but excavated – gouged out with a weapon that was usually used by wartime commando troops.  To complicate matters further, no fingerprints or indeed any trace of the killer is found at the murder scene, and were it not for a school photo of seven teenage boys found in his office, the police would not even have a starting point.  Until Max, with the enthusiasm of the new recruit pursues the old school connection between the boys, most of whom attend their banker friend’s funeral.  Several of them have become very successful, including an aspiring politician and a prosperous lawyer;  one has become a warrior captain serving in Afghanistan – but one has committed suicide, and another is a heroin addict.
            Despite the horrible loss of one of their little band, the remaining friends are reluctant to speak of their school days with any clarity and remain committed to the same story:  they could not understand how anyone could do such a thing – the banker was a fine fellow, beloved by all – until Max uncovers evidence of cruelty and sadism, particularly towards the banker’s wife.  Things, as usual, are never what they seem and the situation only gets worse when the heroin addict is found dead, also with his throat gouged out.  As more of the original seven are picked off by the same method the remaining potential victims are eventually only too happy to unburden themselves of their dark teenage secrets, but to no avail:  they still continue to die, and the police always seem to be just a day late and a dollar short.
            Mr Parson has constructed a very busy, convoluted plot;  there are a lot of subsidiary characters and subplots that require the reader’s concentration, but the pace rattles along at a very satisfying speed, as do the pages.  In fact, this is a page-turner so good that Detective Constable Max Wolfe (who manages to get himself suspended twice for not following orders) should not be confined to one book only:  I hope this will be the start of a series.   


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