Saturday, 11 March 2017

FIRST GREAT READS FOR MARCH, 2017

Holding, by Graham Norton

                Hugely popular Irish TV host Graham Norton has written his first novel, a long-held dream of his after writing two volumes of memoirs. And who would ever know that this is his literary debut if it hadn’t been publicised as such, for he writes with the charm and assurance of a seasoned performer – which of course, he is.
            He sets his story in the little village of Duneen, a picturesque farming community where time hasn’t stood still, but it is mighty close to it.  ‘Time doesn’t pass in Duneen, it seeps away’.  Predictably, everyone knows everyone else’s business – why, you only have to check the recycling bins to know what people are up to, like Brid Riordan, for instance:  sixteen wine bottles – Mother of God, has the woman no shame?!
            And what about that vastly overweight upholder of local law and order, Sergeant Patrick James Collins (PJ for short), who just sits about, jammed behind the steering wheel of his car inhaling tea and muffins – which he hardly needs – brought to him by Mrs O’Driscoll, fierce owner of the local shop.  He’ll never have to tax his policing skills with anything more than issuing parking tickets and hauling drunks out of the local of a Saturday night – until a workman knocks on his car window to report that a digger at the new subdivision has unearthed human bones.  HUMAN BONES??
            In no time at all (or so it seems) Detective Superintendent Linus Dunne is despatched from Cork, the nearest big city, to oversee ‘the crime scene’.  His initial impression of PJ is not favourable until he sees beneath the blubber caused by comfort eating kindness, intelligence and tact, not to mention an encyclopaedic local knowledge.  The fat man is a lot smarter than he looks.  And it isn’t long before they have a potential identity of the victim:  a young man called Tommy Burke, who disappeared twenty-five years ago in mysterious circumstances, after causing two young women of the village – one being the aforementioned Brid Riordan before she became an alcoholic and the other an upper class young lady called Evelyn Ross, to scrap in the street like a couple of navvies, for Tommy Burke had made romantic advances to both of them – even proposing marriage to Brid.  Because she owned a farm.
            But the more the case is investigated, the more bewildering and full of dead ends it becomes, until both men are forced to conclude that despite the head injuries to the corpse’s skull, death could very well have been accidental – until another body is found on the same construction site, this time of a newborn baby.
            Mr Norton writes very well of youthful dreams and potential wasted;  his characters are (for the most part) carefully portrayed and as recognisable as thee and me and despite a  bit of a rush to finish things with all I’s dotted and t’s crossed, he still beguiles the reader with his trademark warmth and humour.  The story’s conclusion leaves enough questions unanswered to hope that PJ, that kind, honourable and tactful fat man, will appear in a sequel at some time in the future, for he’s a broth of a boy.  FIVE STARS

The Rules of Backyard Cricket, by Jock Serong.

            Darren Keefe, former enormously talented bad boy of the Australian Cricket Team (this is the National SIDE, mate, not any old State team) has reached the nadir of his career.  And his life for, as his story opens, he is trussed up in the boot of a car with a bullet hole in his knee and various other injuries caused by a huge beating suffered at the hands of his abductors.  Yep, things don’t look too good and, as he is driven to the far-away destination where he feels sure his life will be ended, he has more than enough time to reflect on his life and all the ways he could have avoided this fate – if only he’d been a better person.  Yeah, right.
            For Darren is one of those enormously talented but directionless athletes, always impatient for the next thrill;  his pranks and misdeeds never seem to have many consequences to start with – until now.  Old crimes and misdemeanours are rearing their heads;  sins that he can’t even remember are surfacing and have to be examined.  It’s time to face up to the fact that, despite being Australia’s darling throughout a lot of his career, he didn’t deserve any of it – not like his brother Wally, older by two years and as much an example of probity and Good Sportsmanship as Darren is not – and Wal is the CAPTAIN of the National Side, mate, not just a player!
            Darren and Wally have a love/hate relationship, starting with their childhood in Melbourne’s Western Suburbs where they are raised by a loving solo Mum who, when she wasn’t working all the hours God sent at the local pub, encouraged their love of backyard cricket, little realising what gladiatorial combat it became between the two brothers:  The competition is so fierce and hate-filled between them that they don’t realise that cricket is a team sport until they play it at school, where their unique talents are recognised and developed:  they’re on their way to fame, fortune and a place in the pantheon of past Australian Heroes of the game.
            That’s the theory, anyway:  Wal leads the decent, upstanding life with a decent, upstanding woman.  They have a child whom Darren loves wholeheartedly (‘God.  I’m an uncle.  I’m anuncle.  I’m a nuncle.’).  Darren meets a decent, upstanding woman of his own, whose influence he feels – for a couple of years until the inevitable slide into his old boozing, drug-fuelled habits resumes, then rock-bottom (he thinks) is reached with match-fixing:  he is approached to miss a particular shot but instead hits it out of the park, setting in train the series of tragedies that result in him crammed in the car boot, riding to his death.
            Every character in Jock Serong’s great story is a gem, wholly credible and finely realised;  his plot is so gripping it could fit into multiple genres – crime, mystery, suspense, family saga – and fraternal love, for Darren will always love Wal.  Wal is his brother, no matter what.  But does Wal feel the same way about Darren? 
            I am still recovering from the revelations in the last few pages – I didn’t see the plot twist coming, and it was like a punch to the jaw.  Cricket will never be the same for me again.  SIX STARS!

                      

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