Sunday, 20 August 2017


Early Birds, by Laurie Graham.

 Laurie Graham is famous for writing immensely readable ‘social comedies’ as the book blurb says, and her latest novel is no exception.  It’s always a pleasure to settle down to enjoy each of her stories as they appear;  there are always great, true-blue characters that we can all recognise and identify effortlessly with what happens to them:  ill-health, tragedy, ageing and the ailments pertaining to;  precious, lifelong friendships sustained until the last gasp, and most importantly, lots of laughs. 
            Early Birds is the sequel to ‘The Future Homemakers of America’,  Ms Graham’s 2001 story of the young wives of American Airmen stationed in Norfolk, England in the 1950’s.  They weathered many an emotional and physical storm together, especially Lois, married to Herb, the best, most faithful husband anyone could wish for, but choosing instead to take an English lover who was anything but stable – the resulting child from that unhappy liaison being raised by Herb as his own. 
Now it is 2000 and the young women have become elderly;  Peggy Dewey, who narrates their latest adventures, has had a chequered career of her own:  her marriage to Airman Vern Dewey collapsed when he retired from the Air Force;  she bowed out because she objected to having the living room furniture thrown across the room – at her.  Now she and her inadvertent companion Grice, a much younger Gay man, have been asked to assist in the care of Vern, whose second wife has died:  Peggy’s daughter Crystal has been trying – and failing – to look after Vern, who now has Alzheimer’s.  Would they PLEASE get their selfish asses out of Texas and come to Maine to give her some help?  PLEASE??
So they do.  For their living circumstances in Texas are anything but ideal.  They are between the classic rock and the hard place – surely,  looking after Vern so that Crystal can work at being a taxidermist (!) and work at her shaky marriage to vegetarian Marc can’t be that difficult.  Can it?
Ms Graham writes beautifully of family relationships, fractured and otherwise:  Lois and Herb come to visit to give some respite care for those at the coalface of Vern, only for Lois to extend the visit by breaking her hip in a fall – which is common in ladies of a certain age, but she is anything but common, and certainly not a docile patient.  Then the huge, nation-wide tragedy occurs:  the attack and collapse of the Twin Towers, with its accompanying terrible loss of life shocks the world and conspiracy theories abound, even in Maine:  Vern’s stepson Eugene has constructed a bunker and fills it with canned food – all very well and good until the shelves collapse while he is underneath.  Things are only middling!  (As my dear old Granny used to say.)
Peggy begins a very cautious and tentative relationship with one of their remote ‘next-door’ neighbours;  it literally takes years to progress to the point where Grice says ‘Remember.  If you marry him you must promise to adopt me.’  Well, he is such a fabulous character that I would adopt him myself if I could!  Funny, touching and tender, this lovely story’s feel-good factor is guaranteed.  FIVE STARSü

Look Who’s Back, by Timur Vermes
           Berlin, 2011:  on a patch of waste ground where the Führerbunker was situated in 1945, Adolf Hitler wakes up, mightily confused.  How did he get here, and – surely more importantly – why?
            His uniform is grubby but intact;  he seems to possess all his excellent faculties;  his mind functions with its usual brilliance, and he is ready to lead the German Volk with his customary unerring genius – the only problem being that the Volk, in the shape of some kids kicking a ball around close by speak a language that is entirely unfamiliar to him: ‘ ‘Hey guys, check this out!’  ‘Whoooooa, major casualty!’ ‘  Then, ‘ ‘You alright, boss?’ ‘ All this without the Nazi salute!  It was obvious they wished to return to their game, but show him to the street when he demands directions from the tallest boy, who must have been their Hitler Youth leader.  (Hitler is gratified to see that the boy’s mother, a flower of good German Womanhood, had sewn the boy’s name to his shirt.)  ‘ ‘Hitler Youth Ronaldo!  Which way to the street?’ ‘
            So begin Hitler’s adventures in 21st century Germany, narrated by the man himself.  A kind News Vendor offers him shelter in his kiosk – even lending him a pair of ‘Genes’ so that he could get his uniform drycleaned, and introducing him to some of his customers, producers of comedy shows on local television.  Hitler is unimpressed with their attempts to find out who he really is, and finds tiresome the fact that he has to keep repeating himself all the time:  he is Der Fürhrer, for Pity’s sake!  It is not his fault if they have trouble accepting that.  What HE has trouble accepting is that it appears that he is the only one who has made this puzzling journey through time – none of his staff is here (what he wouldn’t give to have good, faithful Bormann by his side!) and he must carve out a new life for himself – and eventually, the Volk:  if he can gain exposure on this wonderful new invention of TV - even as ‘a Hitler Impersonator’ – well, that’s a start, and when his appearances go viral on YouTube ‘on the InterNetWork’, Herr Hitler is well pleased.  His powers of oratory have not left him:  thanks to the InterNetWork he now has a global audience.  World domination on behalf of the Volk will again be within his grasp!
            Until the ultimate irony occurs:  Der Führer receives the beating of his life one night by some Far Right louts, who called him ‘a dirty Jew’.  The nerve of them!  But he understands their feelings:  as he agreed with the Head of the TV company to whom he is now contracted when she said ‘The Jews are no Laughing matter”.  He succinctly replies ‘You are absolutely right!’
            Mr Vermes has written a brilliant satire which has since been made into a film.  It ruthlessly explores the hard-fought freedoms that everyone enjoys today without a thought, and exposes the shameful currents of racism and greed that underlie communities everywhere.  The old prejudices still apply.  He is a brave, honest and disturbing writer – and a very funny one.  SIX STARS!!

A Song for Drowned Souls, by Bernard Minier

          This highly-coloured page turner is a sequel to Mr Minier’s ‘The Frozen Dead’ (see 2015 review below).  Once again, sad burnt-out Commandant Martin Servaz is the main protagonist, trying to make sense of a senseless crime:  the murder of Claire Diemar, a wildly popular and beautiful young teacher at an exclusive prep school in a rich town near the Pyrenees.
            Her body has been found in her bath trussed up with metres of cord tied in complicated knots, and a small torch has been jammed down her throat:  still turned on, it gleams under the water like a tiny headlight.  And Mahler’s 4th Symphony has been set up to play on the stereo downstairs, a fact which makes Servaz’s blood run cold:  the escaped serial killer from Book One was a great Mahler aficionado – surely this can’t be his work, especially as one of the corpse’s 17 year old pupils, Hugo Bokhanowsky, is found sitting by the garden swimming pool off his head on God-knows-what.  It is up to Servaz and his team to refrain from seeing it as an open-and-shut case with Hugo as the killer as the local Gendarmerie believe, until the evidence makes it so – especially as Hugo is the son of Marianne, the great love of Martin’s youth. 
            The plot thickens!  Especially when the Commandant meets Hugo’s mother in the course of his investigations and realises that her allure is still as powerful as ever, meaning that he will move heaven and earth to prove that her son is innocent – he hopes.
            As his investigations progress and no stones are left unturned, Servaz is faced yet again with many more questions than answers. True to form he is threatened, beaten up and shot at more times than a body should rightly have to endure (partly his fault for not having his gun with him, then being a lousy shot when he does), but he stubbornly presses on, not least because of pressure from his bosses On High:  this murder at such an exclusive Prep school (teaching Tomorrow’s Leader’s, for God’s sake!) could make a big stink if the killer isn’t caught soon;  political lives and reputations depend on it, especially as one of the rising stars of the ruling party was having an affair with Claire Diemar – while his wife was at home, quietly dying of cancer.
            Mr Minier spares no-one in the police force or politics;  his characters display a scathing disrespect for their judicial and political rulers that made this reader wonder if such real-life institutions in France are really in such a weakened and corrupt state.  One certainly hopes not.
            There are many sub-plots in this book;  the prose is quite purple at times and there are a host of minor characters described with more detail than their importance requires.  Once again the plot has more twists and turns than a pretzel, BUT!  Mr Minier keeps us turning the pages at a hectic speed:  he knows how to draw the reader in – and teach us all a few unpleasant societal home-truths at the same time.  And there will be a Book Three:  the evil serial killer is still around and has not been brought to justice.  Servaz is on the hunt!  FOUR STARS.     

The Frozen Dead, by Bernard Minier

Swedish Noir has been at the forefront of thriller writing for the last decade:  now, a worthy challenge to its dominance has emerged from France.  This is the second novel (the first being Michel Bussi’s ‘After the Crash’) I have read recently that employs all the tried and true elements necessary for the success of Nordic dread;  lowering skies, brooding mountains (the Pyrenees), and a labyrinthine plot, solved brilliantly by the archetypal burnt-out detective – but in this case, Martin Servaz is more fallible than usual:  he is a lousy shot, and frequently leaves his police weapon in the glovebox of his car when he most needs it;  he is constantly on the receiving end of all sorts of criminal attempts on his life and survives only because other people fortuitously appear to rescue him;  BUT!  His saving grace is what makes every excellent investigator above the norm:  an incisive intelligence and intuition and an incomparable ability to think outside the square.
And he certainly needs to after being despatched from Toulouse to the small ski resort town of Saint-Martin in the Pyrenees, there to investigate the killing of …. a horse.  A horse??  Yes, but not just any horse – this animal was a thoroughbred belonging to one of the richest men in France, a powerful man who demands answers after his beloved animal was beheaded, then partly flayed before being strung up on a ski-lift.  It is a grisly crime, the ultimate in animal abuse, but hardly worthy of the huge numbers of police seconded to investigate – except that Servaz feels that this crime will be the start of worse things to come, especially when his enquiries lead him to a secluded psychiatric hospital for the criminally insane in the district, jam-packed with any number of likely candidates for the atrocity, if only the building and grounds weren’t as impregnable as Fort Knox.
His worst fears are confirmed when the first human victim is discovered hanging from a bridge, then another is murdered almost in front of his eyes in a carefully engineered trip on another ski lift:  his job is getting more impossible by the minute, especially when political pressure is exerted from high places.   The longer these crimes remain unsolved, the worse it looks for those in power. 
Fair enough – except that the higher-ups aren’t at the coalface, and Servaz and his offsiders are faced with many more questions than answers – until random clues start falling  into place, and the eventual shocking outcome  reveals villains that no-one could have suspected at the start of the investigation.  Which is as it should be:  the recipe for a superior thriller/crime novel is that (obviously) the reader shouldn’t figure out the solution until the end, and the pages should turn at a furious rate before one gets there.  ‘The Frozen Dead’ ticks all the boxes.  There could be a sequel , too, because the most homicidal villain escapes the long arm of the law, so I live in hopes of reading that he gets what he surely deserves in Book #2.  FIVE STARS



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