Sunday, 13 November 2016

GREAT READS FOR NOVEMBER, 2016

The Mare, by Mary Gaitskill


           Velveteen Vargas is eleven years old and she lives in Brooklyn, New York with her mother and younger brother Dante.  The slum neighbourhood in which they live is populated with families whose parents work hard and have little;  Velvet’s Mum works hard and has even less for the children’s father left them years ago and has another family.  He doesn’t send any money, except for the occasional dollar sent to Dante for his birthdays, but Velvet is never the recipient of the occasional anything:  in his eyes she seems not to exist.
            Velvet’s mother Sylvia came from the Dominican Republic many years before but still cannot speak English;  she is also illiterate, believing that education never helps anyone;  people all have to endure a hardscrabble existence whether they can write their name or not.  Consequently, anything on paper must be translated and read out by Velvet, and instead of being praised for her responsibility she is often beaten so badly she has come to the attention of the school social workers.  Fortunately for him, Dante is treated as the Golden Child by his mother, a role he plays to the hilt.  Once again, Velvet is forced to wonder why she isn’t treated the same as Dante and concludes that she must be worthless, a loser, someone not worth worrying about.  She is too young to understand that her mother blames her very existence on their current circumstances:  if she had never gotten pregnant with Velvet, Sylvia’s life would have been entirely different – she would be happy, not living in this nightmare!  Dante’s father would have stayed with them, their lives would be perfect! 
            Velvet has been turned into a punching bag so that her mum can get rid of all her frustrations, blighted hopes and hatred at her circumstances.  Velvet’s future is bleak.
            Until Velvet is enrolled in a holiday programme for disadvantaged children (her mother explained to the social worker that the child is now too big for daycare and is so stupid that she would sit on the tenement steps while Sylvia was at work and talk to strange men.  The social worker is appalled.)  It has been arranged for Hispanic and black children to spend two weeks upstate ‘in a country setting’ with kind and loving people who wish to give them a good holiday, and that first trip becomes Velvet’s salvation.
            She is billeted with Ginger and Paul, a prosperous and well-meaning white couple who live close to a riding stable;  when Velvet is taken to see the horses an epiphany occurs:  she meets a damaged and abused rescue horse called Fugly Girl, and a long, difficult transformation begins for them both, from hurt and crippled to whole and strong, culminating in emotional and spiritual triumph .  And if that sounds corny, well we’ll have to blame it on my inferior writing powers, for Ms Gaitskill has told a superb story:  each character (with the exception of Fugly Girl) narrates different sections of the novel, sometimes giving different versions of the same event, and it works beautifully, not least because Ms Gaitskill is a writer able to speak convincingly in any voice.  She lays bare the people behind the facades that we all build to protect ourselves, and she does it brilliantly.  SIX STARS!!

The Trespasser, by Tana French

I first became one of Ms French’s devoted fans when I read her excellent ‘Faithful Place’ some years ago;  her perfect blend of the treacherous shoals of a Dublin family’s dynamics with all its horror and humour, plus an unsolved disappearance and a cruel murder made one of the most entertaining and incisive thrillers I had read for some time.  (See ecstatic reviews below!)  Needless to say I have read with great pleasure everything she has written since;  she is a writer of consistent high quality and has never short-changed the reader – until now.
In her efforts to produce a story where we cannot possibly guess WhoDunit, Ms French has disappeared more than once into her own plot labyrinth;  I found myself continually thinking ‘Stop with the navel-gazing – get on with the story!’  but Ms French’s  tale proceeds at an eyelid-drooping pace and she refuses to speed up till she’s good and ready.  Fair enough, but as I only read at night I had enormous trouble staying awake.
 Anyway.
Detective Antoinette Conway, a lead character in Ms French’s previous novel ‘The Secret Place’ has achieved her dream of working permanently for the Dublin Murder Squad after serving an apprenticeship in Missing Persons;  unfortunately she feels that she is still an apprentice as she and her partner Steve have been consigned only to Domestic Incidents and Saturday night Brawls where people have been kicked to death because they looked at someone funny.  Where’s the skill in that?  Until their Gaffer puts them both as lead detectives on something more meaty:  a young woman has been found dead in her home while she was preparing a romantic dinner for two the night before.  This is not what Antoinette and Steve usually investigate, and they would both feel grand about it if they hadn’t just finished the night shift, but never mind – show willing!  This could be their big break!
Except that they have been assigned a rock-star older Detective to ‘mentor’ them – not to interfere, mind, but just to offer shrewd advice whenever he thinks they might be heading down the wrong track:  the trouble is, the rock star seems to be throwing red herrings at them by the bucketful – and why?
            Antoinette has not made any friends on the Murder Squad;  she’s a prickly girl who tells people truths they would rather not hear, but she doesn’t care – she has had to withstand discrimination all her life because she has mixed parentage;  also because she is a woman doing a man’s job.  Well, they’ll all have to get over themselves:  she’s here;  she’s good, and she intends to stay.
            Which would be fine if there weren’t so many shadowy people working against her – even in her own squad, she discovers, and true to form she manages to alienate even those few who believe in her.  After all, attack is always the best form of defence.  Except when a brutal murder needs to be solved.
            There are still flashes of Ms French’s trademark wit and humour in the guise of Antoinette as acid-tongued narrator, but there are enough what-ifs, buts and maybes to investigate the serial-killing of a dozen young women, not just one, and that’s a shame;  one of the strengths of Tana French’s writing is her perfect pace and razor-sharp characterisations, sadly absent this time.  FOUR STARS, in the hope that the next book will be back to her usual high standard.

The Secret Place, by Tana French

I am a committed fan of Tana French.  The Crime and suspense genre has many good authors, but few great ones:  Ms French deservedly belongs in the latter category and it is satisfying to know that each time we read one of her books we are enjoying a story of the highest quality. 
Yet again, she doesn’t disappoint:  ‘The Secret Place’ is a masterly analysis and dissection of friendships and those that pass for the word;  the lengths that people will go to preserve the relationships that are important to them;  and the tipping point between friendship and obsession.
The unthinkable has happened at one of Dublin’s most exclusive private girls’ schools:  The body of a young man, a pupil at a nearby equally expensive boys’ school has been discovered with severe head injuries in the grounds of St. Kilda’s.  The shock amongst the elite is absolute:  this sort of crime happens in lesser, meaner suburbs;  parents pay good money to St Kilda’s to protect their darlings from such horror – surely the murder was random, committed by some low-class weasel who climbed over the wall!  The fact that the boy should have been in his own school, tucked up in bed instead of being AWOL in a place where he had no business to be – in short, HE had climbed over the wall to meet his fate – well, that seems irrelevant.  The police will sort it all out.
But they don’t.  There were precious few clues to start with, and despite extensive interviews with every pupil of both schools little has occurred to advance the case or produce a list of suspects.  After a year the case has gone cold, and everyone is supposed to be moving on with their lives – until Holly Mackey, a St Kilda’s pupil and acquaintance of the dead boy visits Detective Stephen Moran with a notice she found at ‘The Secret Place’, a school noticeboard that pupils can use to leave anonymous messages, supposedly to let off steam by disclosing secrets they would rather not keep.
The message that Holly shows Moran is simple:  it has a photo of Chris Harper, the murdered boy, with words beneath cut from a book or magazine:  ‘I know who killed him’.
Holly and Stephen have met before.  When she was nine, she had to testify in a murder case (see ‘Faithful Place’ review below) and Stephen prepared and supported her to do so;  trust was forged between them during that terrible time and she feels now that he will know what to do about this mystery message.  Stephen is an ambitious man.  He is currently working on Cold Cases but has been lusting to join the Murder Squad for years – he even enjoys a relationship of sorts with Holly’s father Frank, a high-ranking detective and local legend;  Frank has said good things about Stephen whenever the occasion warranted.  Could this anonymous message be the opportunity he has been waiting for?
Perhaps.  Unfortunately, he has to provide the Lead Detective on the case, Antoinette Conway with his new information, and it is up to her whether he rises or falls.  She makes it patently and quickly clear that she doesn’t suffer fools gladly: she is a lone wolf.  Her colleagues in Murder don’t want to work with her;  they think she’s an uppity bitch, and the fact that she hasn’t solved the case is enormously satisfying to them.  Stephen soon realises that there will be many bridges to cross before he reaches his goal.
Meantime, the investigation is resumed and fresh eyes see things that were not obvious a year before. It becomes plain eventually that what was originally a harmless vow of loyalty by four good friends has turned into something darker when one of the girls is emotionally harmed:  it’s time for payback.
Ms French is acutely observant of human behaviour, whether it be giggly, impressionable teenagers or the adults in their lives.  She has produced a beautifully written, compelling exploration of friendship in all its guises, and how far some will go to preserve it.  FIVE STARS

Faithful Place, by Tana French

Undercover Detective Frank Mackey works for the Dublin Police;  he’s very good at his job – and an absolute disaster at personal relationships:  so far, so predictable for readers of suspense novels, but Tana French invests Frank with so much more than the usual Brilliant but Burnt-Out persona -   all too readily adopted by other writers -  that he is like a chilling but welcome blast of fresh and frosty air, holding the reader in his ruthless grip from the start of this story to the finish.
His life so far has had some huge disappointments:  his first love Rosie stood him up on the night they were planning to run away from their gothically awful families to start a new life in England together, and was never seen again;  his marriage has ended in divorce and the associated recriminations; and apart from his job, his life doesn’t have much focus – except for the precious gift of his daughter, 9 year old Holly .  Frank’s love for her is profound and complete and he constantly blesses the fact that she will never know the horrors of living with an alcoholic Da who terrorized not just Ma, but all five children of that blighted union, and that she has never met his terrible relatives – and nor will she – he thinks.  He hasn’t seen any of his family except his sister Jackie for 22 years,  until a derelict house undergoing demolition in Faithful Place, their street, reveals some secrets that require his professional attention, and to his horror, he finds that Rosie didn’t stand him up after all:  she was murdered.
This book is more than just a who-done-it;  it’s more than the usual tragic family saga of violence and dashed hopes:  it has more layers than an onion, and as each layer is peeled away more insights are given into each character and the terrible reasons for their behaviour towards each other.  And before the reader decides that they wouldn’t touch all this tragedy with a barge pole, I’d like to lure them back in with the solemn (!) promise of a laugh on every page:  the uniquely Irish humour which has helped the entire race survive war through the centuries, famine and The Troubles  is here in abundance:  who else but an Irish author could write such great drama, and leaven it with such comedy.  This is a wonderful story:  FIVE STARS



                 

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