FIRST GREAT READS FOR AUGUST, 2017
Marlborough Man, by Alan Carter
And what a wonderful advocate he is of all things Kiwi, particularly in his neck of the woods at the top of the South Island: there can be no keener observer of daily life, good and bad – including NZ politics and big business and its effects on the environment: he doesn’t miss a trick, as my dear old gran used to say. Add to that a clever plot and engaging characters, and crime writing has never been better.
Police Sergeant Nick Chester is in a witness protection program, fleeing from the UK with his wife and Downs Syndrome child to anonymity – he thinks – 13,000 miles away Down Under. He can’t be traced here, surely; he and his family are set up in the back of beyond at the end of a dead end road little more than a gravel track, so. Why does he still feel jumpy (paranoid would be closer to the truth), continually on edge, waiting for a sign that his enemies are coming for him? To make the situation worse, the discovery of a child’s abused and tortured body, dumped by the side of a local road has galvanised and distracted all his colleagues from the usual boy racers, firewood thieves and Saturday night drunks. He should concentrate on this shocking crime, not on vague feelings of unease, no matter how disturbing they may be.
But his instincts are correct: the criminals who want to kill him have the means to pay computer hackers to find him. They are on their way; he and his family are in mortal danger – then another little boy goes missing: his life has become a nightmare.
Nick’s colleagues rally round: another safe house is found for his wife and little boy until he can ‘dispatch’ the assassin who must inevitably show his face, or be dispatched himself, but their concerns – and his – are taken up with the discovery of the body of the second child in the same abused state as the first. The whole of Marlborough is reeling with horror: this bastard HAS to be caught – it can’t happen again! Yeah, right. That’s what everyone said the first time. And making matters worse? There are no clues; no revealing evidence. This sicko has done this before, including casting red herrings like confetti to lead everyone into dead ends which, predictably, lead to more dead bodies.
Mr Carter moves the action along at a very satisfying pace; he is a smart, witty writer and his characters are all satisfyingly as they should be, from the villains (there are several grades of villain here, from the ‘good’ baddies who save Nick’s bacon, to the really evil paedo baddies that get caught in the end) to Nick’s colleagues, chiefly his sidekick Constable Latifa Rapata, smart-mouthed upholder of the local law and acknowledged expert in unarmed combat, when she isn’t ticketing boy racers – one of whom has fallen in love with her and wants to be engaged, even after a deadly beating she endured at the hands of the villain: ‘Look! Engaged, and me with a face like a kumara. Isn’t he a sweetie?’ Nick can’t deny it, but Latifa is a sweetie, too, and from the novel’s conclusion it appears that we may not meet these great characters again, which will be our loss. Chester and Rapata would have made a great team for a very satisfying future Kiwi crime series. I hope Mr Carter will change his mind. FIVE STARS
Saints for All Occasions, by J. Courtney Sullivan
This family saga is a book of secrets, kept not only by Nora from the rest of her family – her remaining children have no idea that she has a sister, let alone that she is a Nun – but by the Uncles and Aunties too, of the big Boston Irish family to which they belong. The siblings are staggered to find that they are literally the last to know that when Nora and her younger sister Theresa came from their little village in Ireland to make a new life in Boston with relatives of Nora’s fiancé Charlie, everyone knew that the sisters had had a ‘falling-out’; Theresa had obtained a teaching job in Brooklyn, then eventually entered a convent in Vermont. Ancient history, not worth mentioning, so the family didn’t, until the Nun appears at the Wake. Now John (always trying (and failing) to gain his mother’s approval and praise; Bridget – gay, and hoping to have a baby with her lovely partner, if only her mother would not turn a blind eye to their relationship, introducing Natalie to everyone as Bridget’s ‘room-mate’; and youngest son Brian, a failed Baseball player, drinking too much and living at home with his mother, need answers from the stoically silent matriarch.
They’d better not hold their breath. Fortunately, the reader is luckier: in a series of flashbacks to the fifties and beyond, Ms Sullivan,best-selling author of ‘Maine’ (see review below) takes us back to Miltown Malbay, the village that set Nora and Theresa on their life’s path: Nora is happy to be engaged to Charlie, the son of the neighbouring farmer; she is not in love with him – in fact she is not sure she even likes him – but if they marry their two farms will combine, which will be a good thing. Until another son inherits the farm, and Charlie decides to settle with his brother in Boston. Nora’s fate is sealed; she must go too, and decides to take flighty Theresa with her ‘to see that she doesn’t get into trouble’. Oh dear.
Theresa is wronged, and deserted, but Nora’s revenge on the man who shamed her sister is one of biblical proportions, aided always by loyal Charlie, who turned out to be so much more than she expected. Wasn’t she the lucky one?
At the core of this fine book is what drives all families: sibling rivalry (John says that when he was little, he always thought that Patrick’s name was MyPatrick, because that’s what Nora always called him), solidarity, lots of humour, family love – and secrets. Always secrets. Ms Sullivan writes simply and well of the old ways of conservative Irish Catholicism; how it sustains – and constrains. FIVE STARS
Maine, by J. Courtney Sullivan
Three generations of women from the same family congregate at the old family beach house in Maine for the summer month of June – not because they planned to be together, but because circumstance dictates it. Alice, the matriarch, first came to the property as a newly pregnant married woman nearly sixty years before; her husband had won beautiful beachfront land on a bet with a friend and since then the family, now spanning four generations, have made annual pilgrimages to this lovely and cherished place. Alice is in her 80’s, sharp as a tack, a devout Catholic with a tongue like a butcher’s knife – especially on matters of faith – and a defiantly heavy drinker.
Alice’s granddaughter Maggie has also arrived to stay solo ‘for just a few days’; the original plan of spending some idyllic time there with handsome but irresponsible boyfriend Gabe scuttled after a huge fight that has ended their relationship. The problem now is that Maggie’s plan of confessing to Gabe that she is pregnant – in a setting guaranteed (she hoped) to introduce him gently and romantically to the responsibilities of impending fatherhood – has been thwarted: she finds that at the age of thirty-two, she will have to soldier on alone. Gabe informs her by email that he can’t deal with fatherhood ‘at this point in time’, which means it’s time to bite the bullet and inform the rest of the family, specifically her mother, Kathleen.
Kathleen is the oldest of Alice’s children, a former alcoholic and intentional rebel against everything that Alice holds dear: thanks to several massive family confrontations, one involving the death from cancer of Kathleen’s beloved father Daniel, Alice and Kathleen are bitter foes. Kathleen has sworn after her father’s death never to return to Maine – until she gets the news of Maggie’s pregnancy; then she swoops in from California to take charge of her errant daughter and do battle with her detested mother.
And into this mix is added the long-suffering, martyred Ann Marie, Alice’s daughter-in-law, married to son Patrick (‘I am the ONLY one of this family who looks after YOUR mother and what thanks do I get?), who has reluctantly arrived two weeks earlier than usual to keep an eye on Alice (and her drinking) because she couldn’t persuade Kathleen to come from California to do her family duty – until Kathleen gets the news of Maggie’s dilemma. Ann Marie is furious.
The stage is set for family fireworks, and Ms Sullivan does not disappoint us: she writes beautifully of fraught family dynamics, the struggles of successive generations to break iron-bound ties of faith and Irish conservatism, and the attempts by Kathleen and Maggie to be as unlike spiteful Alice as possible, without realising that they are more like her than they can possibly imagine. No-one to their lasting regret has inherited Daniel’s sanguine and sunny nature, that calming and amiable influence that always steadied the family ship, and as Alice eventually reveals yet another bombshell guaranteed to shock her divided family to the core the reader is treated to the long-secret reasons for all the family slights and resentments. Each woman has successive chapters to herself, a narrative device that works particularly well here, and by the end of this tender, funny and loving tribute to an American family, the reader feels as familiar with the Kelleher family as their own. Ms Sullivan portrays beautifully ‘The importance of generations: one person understanding life through the experiences of all the people who came before’. FIVE STARS .