Wednesday, 28 October 2015


The First Rule of Survival, by Paul Mendelson

Colonel of the South African Police Service Vaughn de Vries is a typical protagonist of classic crime fiction.  Suffering Burn-out?  Of course.  Marriage down the tubes?  Naturally.  Finding solace in Alcohol?  Goes without saying.  Appearance less than inviting?  Women ‘avert their eyes when they see him sitting at the bar’. 
            In short, Colonel de Vries’s life is rather less than satisfactory – except when he is working:  his job is ‘what gets him up in the morning’, and his passion for justice is legendary;  it is what elevates him above the norm, especially in respect of his colleagues, new examples of the integrated police force of Mandela’s Rainbow Nation, all vying for power and prestige in a department formerly run by white men like de Vries, whose time must surely soon be up.  They hope.  Yes, give him a bit more time and he will be the author of his own misfortune …… until the naked bodies of two malnourished teenaged boys are found in a skip at the back of a farm café miles from Capetown, de Vries’s base.  They have been murdered, and Vaughn, the token white officer is sent to investigate – and finds to his horror that they are the victims of a terrible abduction seven years before, when three young white boys, one the son of a serving police officer, were kidnapped on three consecutive days, never to be seen again.
            It is a case that has haunted Vaughn’s dreams, turned them into nightmares and destroyed his peace of mind forever, especially when the case becomes cold after months of searching fruitlessly for clues – any clue – as to their fate.  Now, two of the three kidnap victims have been found, obviously transported to the skip after death – from where?  And where is the third boy?  de Vries and his immediate superior Hendrik du Toit faced unprecedented contempt from the media and eminent child psychologists alike for their inability to provide answers seven years ago:  now, their new bosses are demanding bold actions and quick solutions to the murders;  any delay will reflect badly on the new Rainbow police hierarchy.  Those dinosaur Boers Messrs du Toit and de Vries better shape up or ship out.
            British writer Paul Mendelson has constructed an impressive debut thriller for his first foray into crime writing.  He has created credible, excellent characters – especially Vaughn’s black second-in-command Warrant Officer Don February, so called because his real name would be impossible for most people to pronounce – and his descriptions of the wild and splendid coastline and croplands around Capetown make one feel that they are riding shotgun with Vaughn de Vries and Don February, hanging over their shoulders, exhorting them to find the killers before more children are abused and killed.
            This is a page-turner par excellence, made the more readable by its magnificent setting.  FIVE STARS!!

The Antipodeans, by Greg McGee.
            Bruce Spence, an elderly, terminally ill New Zealand lawyer makes a final sentimental visit to Italy accompanied by his only child Clare:  he wishes to see Venice one last time;  to meet with old friends of his youth from the surrounding towns, particularly a little inland village called San Pietro, where he used to (of all things) coach and play rugby back in the 70’s.  Clare is happy to go with him;  apart from her worry about his frailty, she also needs the distraction:  life back in Auckland has dealt her some harsh blows of late, starting with the classic husband-sleeping-with-best-friend-right punch, then the left uppercut of hubby and besty defrauding her business, something her father discovered by accident.
            To say that Clare feels bitter and betrayed is a massive understatement.  Her wanderings through Venice, that magical place of gorgeous light and stunning architecture, fail to move her:  she is impatient with her father’s clumsy and shuffling attempts to find his way to obscure little piazzi;  cafes that used to be in a certain place but aren’t any longer;  his searching scans of any elderly female that crosses his path, and his insistence in lugging around his old briefcase containing several musty folders, all of which he tells her she must read when he dies.
            His reunion with the friends of his youth produces much laughter but many tears, for it is clear to his old companions that he will die soon, but to Clare, there seems to be an undercurrent, a trove of secrets from the past that everyone knows something  of – everyone except herself.  And their common knowledge seems to centre on events of the Second World War, when Italy became the meat in the sandwich, occupied by the Germans until they were driven back and defeated (not without huge casualties) by the Allied troops.
            The more light Clare tries to shed on the mystery, the more impenetrable it seems, until the inevitable occurs:  Bruce finally succumbs to his illness;  his strength has run out, and to occupy herself as she grieves by her beloved Dad’s hospital bed, Clare finally begins to read the contents of those yellowing folders.
            Greg McGee has given us a story of astonishing depth and power.  He covers three generations, starting with the friendship between two young men from Oamaru in the South Island of New Zealand, recounting their experiences as enlisted men during World War Two, and their eventual capture and internment in an Italian Prison camp.  Harry Spence is the leader of the two, a lightning-quick thinker and planner, and absolutely ruthless in achieving any objectives he sets himself, be it getting extra food, or escaping from the camp.  Joe Lamont is a follower;  he has been badly wounded and is troubled by nightmares;  he has also been brought up Catholic by a fearsome bully of a father, has a huge work ethic and a conscience to match.  He is an intelligent young man, appalled at Harry’s amorality, but smart enough to know that if they stick together they will survive.  The phrase ‘turn a blind eye’ has never been more apt.    
            Survive they do, but at a cost that Joe is horrified to pay:  good Italian families who helped them are punished fatally for their generosity and Harry, who has earned  a well-deserved reputation as a fearless partisan, killing Germans and blowing up bridges and railway lines (with Joe’s expert assistance) reveals shameful feet of clay. 
            The acts of both men have consequences that echo through the generations, and Mr McGee never lets the pace falter for a second;  he switches timelines with such skill that the reader always regrets leaving one set of protagonists whilst welcoming another.  I was sorry to leave these wonderful characters.  This is great New Zealand fiction.  SIX STARS!!

Nora Webster, by Colm Tóibin.

1969:  Man has travelled to the moon and the world is rejoicing – but the everyday tragedies of life still occur.  In Ireland, the Webster family have just  lost their beloved father Maurice too soon to a long illness which has had a lasting and terrible effect on the younger children Donal and Conor. Their mother Nora is at a loss as to how to manage her own grief, let alone find sufficient comfort for her two boys.  Her teenage girls are more self-sufficient, less dependent on her which she feels is a good thing;  her childhood and youth have made Nora very self-contained, teaching her to keep her many disappointments to herself, like having to leave school early because her mother needed the money that she would bring home as an office worker at Gibney’s, the major employer in the area.  When she and Maurice married, she saw their union as her release from bondage to a job she hated.  Marriage stood for freedom for Nora:  now she finds she will have to return to work (back to Gibney’s!!) just to make ends meet.  Her freedom is over.
            In spare and beautiful prose, Mr Tóibin tells Nora’s story;  her attempts to make sense of her new circumstances, and how she must find the means to change them, for no-one else can live her life, and no-one else (she thinks) should be ‘poking their nose’ into how the family is managing – but they do:  from the unsolicited advice provided by her sisters, to the officious help given to the boys, particularly by Maurice’s brother and sister (‘we can afford it – we’ve a bit put by!), down to her bossy Aunt Josie, who induces her to have a fortnight in Spain because it will do her good.  Unfortunately, Josie snores like a bull elephant and Nora is forced to occupy a cubby-hole in the hotel basement in an attempt to get any sleep at all. 
            No – her family will just have to realise that she and her children will manage, and should just scale down their interference.  Until Nora realises that her boys – and indeed, the girls when they are home, get along with her family a whole lot better than she does.  Donal, her eldest son, he of the recent terrible stutter, goes to sister-in-law Margaret’s house daily, for she has converted a space into a little darkroom for him to develop his photos;  they share easy conversation and a camaraderie that Nora has never experienced with him.  Major decisions concerning her family are being taken by other people, including sending Donal to boarding school, something he swears he wants, not that he had ever told her. 
            Nora’s unwanted new life seems to be lurching out of her control – until she finds unexpected comfort in music, particularly singing, for she had ‘a voice’ when she was young:  can she find that voice again?  She meets new friends without even trying when she joins the Gramophone Society (without possessing such a thing) and listens to members talking about their favourite composers.  Very gradually, Nora returns to life again, a different life without her beloved Maurice, but one with new passions, and a new confidence born of having the courage to make decisions she would never have thought of if he were still there.
            And her pesky family – that family who won’t leave her and the children alone for more than five minutes:  far from being a hindrance to her bold new existence, they prove time and again that they are the mesh, the safety-net that keeps her upright, stops her from falling – every time.  This is a lovely story, beautifully written.  FIVE STARS.        


Friday, 16 October 2015


Bull Mountain, by Brian Panowich

‘Brother-versus-Brother in the dope-damned South.  This first novel has it all:  Moonshine, Maryjane and Mayhem!’.  So says James Ellroy on the front cover of this debut novel from Brian Panowich, and I have to say that yep, that blurb just about sums it up:  Mr Panowich packs more action, brutality, horror, and down-home humour into his relatively slim volume than most thrillers twice the size.  (But I'm still waiting to meet Maryjane!)
            All the sins get an airing here – moonshine;  weed-growing;  meth manufacture;  weapons trafficking;  all perpetrated by the Burroughs family, owners of land on Bull Mountain, a wild region in North Georgia.  Succeeding generations of sons have guarded the land and their various ‘industries’ and, though they have never made any of their vast fortune legally, the money is secondary to the love they feel for their ancestral home:  they are all prepared to fight and die protecting their rights to Bull Mountain, and anyone who thinks to oust them from there (particularly the law) had better be prepared to die, too.
            Clayton Burroughs is one family member who has gone against type – he is the local sheriff, enjoying an uneasy truce with his outlaw brothers up on the mountain, who hate him for what they see as his betrayal for joining ‘the other side’.  Their contempt grieves Clayton sorely, for every Burroughs feels a kinship to each other just as strong as their atavistic love of place;  but he is sick of all the killing;  he wants a good, peaceful life with his wife, not a short, bloody one.  He hopes this will happen.
            Until an FBI agent visits him with a proposition:  if Clayton can persuade his lawless family to give up a Florida criminal kingpin who is a weapons manufacturer and their main supplier, the FBI will give them amnesty from prosecution – providing they give up their various criminal means of income.
            As if!  Clayton knows his family well enough to realise their reaction to that proposition:  they would never betray a trusted business partner, and their contemptuous reaction to the sight of him journeying up that familiar mountain in his sheriff’s uniform, bearing the FBI’s offer like a dog hopeful of a pat instead of a kick – nope, this is never going to fly.  But …….
            He is a hopeful man.  He will grasp at any straw as a means to stopping the bloodshed and tragedy that have dogged his family for four generations:  he is willing to try it the FBI’s way, and hope the mess won’t be too impossible to clean up when that fails. 
            And fail it does, spectacularly.  Mr Panowich spares the reader none of the blood and gore;  nor does he let the action flag for a single minute:  his characters are all larger than life and for the most part twice as ugly;   they ride each page like marauding Vikings and they make the Hatfields and McCoys look like sulking parishioners at a Church picnic.  Every chapter has a twist and a hook, and no-one is what they seem – including FBI agent Holly, who has a secret agenda of his own.
            Mr Panowich’s rip-roaring debut novel lives up spectacularly to all the  flattering blurbs on its front cover:  FIVE STARS

Life after life, by Kate Atkinson

Once again it seems I have dragged the chain here;  I should have read and reviewed this gem many moons ago.  Instead I procrastinated, read heaps of other stuff (some of it not half as good) and now have caught up with it so that I can read its sequel, ‘ A God in Ruins. ‘
            I have to admit to confusion as to this unique writer’s motives regarding her plot,  the premise being ‘what if you had the chance to live your life again and again, until you finally got it right?’  This is exactly what the heroine, Ursula Todd appears to do, from the moment of her birth in 1910 until her last breath is definitely drawn fifty-seven years later:  in between-times she ‘dies’ many times, from strangulation at birth by her umbilical cord;  drowning at the seaside aged five;  falling from a top floor window whilst trying to rescue a beloved toy and so on into adulthood, when the Second World War presents many more ways of dying, from the horrors of the London Blitz to the ruins of Berlin and suicide for herself and her young daughter, rather than endure the bestiality of the conquering Russian troops.
            Miraculously for Ursula, death is averted each time by little twists of fate or the quick actions of others;  her young life is bolstered and protected by rock-solid supporting players, from her sound-as-a-bell middle-class parents Sylvie and Hugh, beloved sister Pamela and favourite brother Teddy. (Older brother Maurice is hateful, arrogant and only happy if he can make his siblings cry).  Stability is further provided by Bridget the scullery maid, arriving from Ireland at the age of fourteen;  and Mrs Gardner, dour-faced cook for the family, and no respecter of the class system.  These characters are the gold standard in this wonderful story;  they have their own dramas and tragedies to contend with and such is Ms Atkinson’s skill that the reader is just as involved with them as with Ursula and her stuttering, stop-and-start journey through her life.
            I cannot remember reading anywhere a more electrifying account of London during the Blitz:   in 1940, Ursula has volunteered as an ARP warden, and the terrible destruction and horrific sights she sees are experienced in all their stark terror by the reader, too:  Ms Atkinson’s prose is almost painterly in its harsh imagery, thankfully to be softened later by much-appreciated humour.
            It was unclear to me whether Ursula finally ‘got it right’ at the end of her many attempts to start her life anew, but it doesn’t matter:  it was great to make the journey with her.  FIVE CONFUSED STARS!