Thursday, 26 October 2017


The Survivor’s Guide to Family Happiness, by Maddie Dawson

            Where would the dedicated reader be without Chick Lit?  If nothing else, the genre helps us to distinguish between ‘Light Reading’ – encompassing at one end the Bodice-Rippers which all seem to involve Dukes wearing tartan who fall for spirited (and beautiful) wenches from humble backgrounds, to the Feel-Good Heart-Warmers that make us go ‘Aaaaaaah’, only to forget them when something more substantial from the higher end presents itself – as indeed it should.
            Maddie Dawson’s higher end charming story ticks all the boxes:  it’s a heart-warmer;  the reader feels good at the end and no-one has to wear tartan.  Instead, real-life problems that we can all identify with are faced by ordinary, typical, disfunctional  characters  that we easily recognise as ourselves or our neighbours.  Ms Dawson casts a loving and astute eye here on families, especially of the adoptive kind, particularly that of Nina Popkin who is now mid-30s, divorced by her husband after six months of marriage – he fell in love with his bank teller and moved out on the day he confessed – and completely on her own after nursing her beloved adoptive mother through her last illness.  It’s time, thinks Nina, to start a search for her real  family, her birth family, kin who will fill the awful, yawning gap in her solitary life.  No-one should have to go through life alone.
            Which she doesn’t, because Nina has true friends and a new romance on the horizon – one that fills her with dismay, because Carter, though divorced, continues to live in the family home with his ex-wife and his two teenage children because he can’t bear to be away from them – the kids, that is, not the wife.  When the living arrangements eventually get sorted, Carter’s daughter, a terrifying fifteen-year old who dyes her hair with purple markers because she wants to be different and has a to-do list that includes having sex as soon as possible to ‘get it out of the way’ is instrumental in helping Nina search for her birth mother who (thanks to Google) is eventually revealed as a Pop Star of the Eighties. 
            In due course a younger sister is found, the biggest shock to that being that they both went to the same school, and Nina is ashamed to think that in those days she thought Lindy Walsh was a snivelly little thing.  Now Lindy Walsh is not interested in any kind of sister relationship with Nina, much less making contact with their birth mother.  Finding a replacement family is proving to be much harder than Nina thought, particularly when it is obvious that all concerned consider her to be ‘needy’.  Which she is, but surely in a good way?
            This is a charming story, and what elevates it into the higher ranks of Chick-Litdom is Nina’s floundering approach to the perils and joys of a ready-made family, and her inept but persistent attempts to bond with her true sister and birth mother:  the laughs come thick and fast, as do the tears, as in all families.  FOUR STARS.

The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane, by Lisa See
           Li-yan is a child of a remote hill tribe in China, the Akha.  It is an animistic, patriarchal society governed by traditional and ancient rituals designed to propitiate the many spirits that rule their lives;  life is hard and there never seems to be enough to eat, for Li-yan’s family, like the rest of the tribe, grows tea on the steep slopes of one of the six Tea Mountains in Yunnan.  They all work from dawn to dusk to tend the trees, harvest the leaves, then take them to the collection centre – and hope they will get a fair price for their labours.  If they don’t, everyone goes hungry.
            Fortunately, Li-yan’s mother enjoys a special status in the village.  She is a respected midwife and wishes to pass on her skills to Li-yan, the lowly daughter who is addressed as ‘Girl’ by all the male members of her family, but if Li-yan learns well, she too will have a status denied other women.  Also, Li-yan’s mother reveals a special secret known only to the female members of her family:  she is the custodian of a special grove of tea-trees which she lovingly tends.  Li-yan will be the next guardian of this secret, and no man must ever know where these trees are.
            Li-yan is not happy.  She does not want to be a midwife, especially after her first ‘birthing’ where newborn twins were killed because they would bring misfortune to the village – just because there were two of them;  she is interested in learning about teas and their myriad varieties and production, but the secret grove can remain so, as far as she’s concerned – she wants an education!  And the effort she employs to achieve her goals is mighty – until she falls in love, as all young people do, but with a young man who is not welcomed by her family.  The resulting baby from their union should be killed according to tribal tradition, but Li-yan’s mother, that superb midwife, helps her to give birth in the secret grove;  then it is up to Li-yan to take the baby to an orphanage in the nearest big town ,for abandoning her will give her a chance at life not possible in the Tea Mountains.
Ms See writes so well of the crippling traditions and superstitions of a remote people that the reader’s heart aches along with Li-yan’s as she eventually gains everything she dreams of:  an education;  a business;  an enviable reputation as a Tea Master;  a strong and loving husband;  a prosperous life in America, and a son, the greatest gift of all – except for the yawning hole in her heart where her daughter should rest.  Will she ever find her?
The reader certainly hopes so, especially as Li-yan’s child is adopted by Americans and we are treated to a parallel story of Haley’s childhood, youth and experiences both positive and negative of being a Chinese American Adoptee.  Ms See’s impeccable research delves into every aspect of brown skin in a white family and the contradictory emotions such a state evokes, and this great story is played out against a backdrop of the huge changes made in Chinese contemporary history over the last forty years – all melded together by the timeless allure and mystique of an ancient and beloved beverage.  FIVE STARS.

A Gentleman in Moscow, by Amor Towle

          Moscow, 1922.  Thirty year-old Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov, scion of a formerly illustrious family of the Russian aristocracy faces a Bolshevik committee dedicated to investigating his reasons for returning to Russia on pain of execution by firing squad, rather than staying in exile in Paris with so many other cowardly White Russians.  His reply that he ‘missed the climate’ was greeted with the disdain it deserved, and if he hadn’t displayed pre-revolutionary valour during the First World War he would have been executed forthwith:  instead, his punishment is to remain under house arrest as a ‘Former Person’ in the Metropol Hotel, directly opposite the Kremlin.  If he should leave in the future for any reason at all, then he will be shot.
Alexander is a cultured bon vivant, educated to his very fingertips, an aristocrat to the bone.  He is also an optimist, determined not to be daunted by his new situation – even when his sumptuous apartment at the Metropol as part of his new circumstances is substituted for a poky attic room in the servants’ quarters, but he is still able to move precious items of furniture and possessions he holds dear into his new ‘accommodation’.  Things could be worse – he could be dead!  As it is, he is still able to indulge himself in his daily epicurean routines in the hotel’s various restaurants, forming firm friendships with the staff, all of whom accept him for the good man that he is, especially bored nine year-old Nina, whose father is an important cog in Stalin’s new government.  Their friendship is so strong that many years later, she entrusts her own precious child Sofia to his care (to his utter bewilderment!) while she searches for her husband, sent in disgrace to a Siberian Gulag.
Yes, life is tolerable at the Metropol, thanks to the staff loyalty and friendship – why, it is even possible to have a romantic liaison with ‘a willowy young beauty’ who is a rising film star:  she is attracted to his wit and urbanity, not to mention more intimate skills.  For the fact that he must never venture past the front door, his life contains everything he enjoys or desires.  Until a new waiter is employed in one of the hotel restaurants:  his waiting skills are negligible;  he is rude and inept – but he has contacts in high places, and he loathes Alexander, viewing him as a prime example of an effete and evil class system, the remains of which Comrade Stalin is purging assiduously.  Alexander has an enemy without making the slightest effort to gain one, and his life is more dangerous as a result.
Alexander’s story is recounted in prose as elegant and witty as its protagonist.  Amor Towle has created a singular and unforgettable man who makes the very best of his circumstances despite fate’s attempts to defeat his perpetual optimism - he is eventually employed as the hotel’s top restaurant’s head waiter, a position designed to humiliate, instead producing the opposite effect:  he excels at his new job, for no-one knows wonderful food and wine better than he.  But when a threat to Sofia rears its head, he must risk his own life to save hers.
This is a beautiful story of friendship and loyalty set against a background of some of the most turbulent times of Russia’s history – across the road from the Kremlin in fact, for the Metropol Hotel is as much a character as its occupants in this fine novel.  SIX STARS


Monday, 16 October 2017


Among the Living, by Jonathan Rabb.

          Holocaust survivor Yitzhak Goldah has just arrived in Savannah, Georgia in the summer of 1947.  He is to live with his only surviving relatives, cousin Abe Jesler and Abe’s wife Pearl.
            He stands on the railway platform, feeling ghostly and entirely detached as his new-found family fuss around him;  they are all painfully polite to each other, as strangers invariably are – but Abe and Pearl have no conception of the impact their security and prosperity has on Goldah:  after years of unimaginable hell in the camps everything that is happening to him now is like a dream that is happening to someone else.  He is a ghost among the living.
            Savannah has a thriving Jewish community and Abe has done well in the shoe trade, rising from very humble beginnings to live in the best neighbourhood when he prospered.  He is proud to show his thin and exhausted cousin what he owns, especially his late-model car – ‘Brand new, Forty-Seven Ambassador with the unitized body.  You know your cars, Yitzhak?’
            No.  Pearl drops some clangers, too, about closing the drapes to his room as the sun could bake him ‘like an oven’, then weeps at her thoughtlessness:  it will take time before everyone relaxes enough to feel ‘normal’ again.
            As time passes Goldah endeavours to make his hosts know how grateful he is, what life savers they are, and how their generosity has given him another chance at life.  He has started work at Abe’s shoe store – a far cry from his job in Prague as a former overseas journalist for the prestigious Herald Tribune – but it occupies his time in a therapeutic way, and it doesn’t take him long to notice that Abe’s negro assistants, while not treated badly by him are regarded in the South as worthless.  Like the Jews of Europe.
            There is much for Goldah to absorb in his new life in America, not least the tremulous hope of a romance with one of Abe’s customers, a young war widow, the daughter of the local newspaper editor – a liaison frowned on by Pearl because the young woman’s family are ‘reformed Jews’ who go to a Temple, not to Shul, but this is not even worth thinking about for Goldah:  his life is starting again.  Hope, that vital emotion, has returned!
            As does another survivor:  The woman Goldah had pledged to marry, long thought to have perished in the camps.  She arrives in Savannah, irreparably damaged and holding Goldah to his promise:  she is now his responsibility – and his burden.  What this woman has endured was unspeakable, but Hope, for her, has died;  instead she despises the well-meaning people who want to help and comfort her, those fat smug Jews in Georgia who never knew what the war was really like – they never suffered a day in their lives!
            This is a very fine book.  Jonathan Rabb has told a story that aches with sadness at the same time as its lyrical prose fills the reader with hope:  what a literary accomplishment, a powerful chronicle of those who have the capacity to heal, and those who cannot.  His parallel story of Abe’s negro workers – unwittingly embroiled by him in shady dealings to their detriment – starkly underscores the age-old racism that blights even the very best of intentions.  Rabb’s characters are unforgettable and will remain with me for a long time, especially Goldah, who eventually becomes a Man Among the Living.  SIX STARS!

The Blood Miracles, by Lisa McInerney

            Ms McInerney is a writer of astonishing talent, smart enough to leave the reader gawping at her superlative imagery and language that swings a punch on every second page – that is, once one can figure out the local idiom for, as this novel is set in the city of Cork in Southern Ireland, English is not immediately recognisable as the main language.
            Fair enough.  This is not so much a warning as a respectful caution NOT TO GIVE UP EARLY!  I nearly did until I got hooked eventually by the plight of hapless Ryan Cusack, drug dealer and sad sack extraordinaire, a young man whose life is unravelling, thanks to an overindulgence in what he is dealing, a depressive episode (coming down off whatever he is sniffing/smoking only makes things worse), the imminent break-up of his long-term relationship with his True Love Karine, and a very risky deal to import ‘New Product’ from Italy by his Boss, Dan Kane.
            Ryan is essential to the success of the Italian venture, for he is bi-lingual.  His late mother was Italian and he still has relatives in Italy who dote on him, little realising what he is using his language skills for:  to his Nonna he and his siblings are perfect in every way:  the fact that he is facilitating drug deals between his boss and the Camorra would probably send her off to Heaven early.  She cannot know what he is really doing.
            No:  life is not good, and one night Ryan decides in a drugged-up haze to resign from the Human Race:  there are just too many insoluble problems all requiring his immediate attention;  it will be much easier to leave them all behind for someone else to deal with.  BUT!! 
            His cowardly exit is thwarted by an Ould Biddy, miraculously out for a walk on the very footbridge Ryan is contemplating The Dive.  She achieves the near superhuman feat of hustling him off the bridge and home to her place to come back to the land of the living, no easy task for Ryan is a snivelling quivering mess, in his own words ‘not worth saving’.
            Fortunately for him the Ould Biddy doesn’t believe him, and his eventual resurrection with her assistance (no:  it’s not a Damascus Moment – that would be too corny and corn doesn’t feature here) is one of the highlights of this great story, as is the revelation of her identity:  she has known him all his life, for she and his ill-fated mother were friends.
            And that is not the only revelation in store for Ryan.  I am not going to reveal any more plot shocks, (no spoiler alerts from me!), suffice it to say that Ms McInerney’s tale has more twists than a pretzel, with lies, betrayal and murder most foul playing a starring role – and humour, that wonderful Irish craíc that we have come to expect from even the least-talented of Irish writers – and Ms McInerney could never be on the lower rungs of contemporary Irish literature.  What a talent she is.  WHAT A BABE!  SIX STARS!!  (And I’ll really have to go easy on the exclamation marks.)

The Force, by Don Winslow

            Steven King has written an endorsement for the cover of Mr Winslow’s book, saying:  ‘Mesmerising, a triumph.  Think THE GODFATHER, only with cops.  It’s that good’.  And he is not wrong.
            ‘The Force’ is a huge story of corruption, the rot that creeps into the hearts and souls of men who start life with the very best of intentions, and the consequences that follow, planned for or not.  It’s a story of justifications, rationalisations and excuses, with a plot so chillingly topical that it is almost impossible for the reader to separate fact from fiction.  ‘It’s that good’.
            NYPD Detective Sergeant Denny Malone is at the very top of his game:  he heads an elite Drug Squad known as the Manhattan Task Force and his crime busts are legendary in the Manhattan North area they patrol, which includes the Black Projects in Harlem.  He is justly feared by dealers and addicts alike and he and his team Hold the Line against the various ethnic gangs hoping to gain a foothold in his domain:  he’s the King, and his team are his knights.  Mess with them at your peril. 
            He is also very wealthy, thanks to kickbacks, bribes and other easy money that various people pay him for protection:  he reasons that he deserves some perks for keeping good people safe, and if he and his squad didn’t line their pockets occasionally, the crims would spend it and that would be a waste.  He and his team have also risked their lives numerous times taking down gangsters, in fact they have just lost one of their own at a bust who left a pregnant girlfriend – because they weren’t married she can’t claim his pension.  But Denny and his men will make sure she gets a package every month.  They look after their own;  they are The Force – May Dah Force Be With You!
            Until the consequences from that particular raid turn up to haunt Denny in the shape of the FBI:  they have evidence on him that they have been collecting for months – they know he’s crooked and they can prove it (they say), but if he becomes their snitch they’ll ‘go easy’ on him (they say).  Graft, corruption among the legal fraternity – Denny knows things that would blow them all away:  they want names?  He’ll give them names, but he won’t rat on his workmates.  Never.  Never, until his family is threatened;  then he becomes that despicable low-life, a Snitch Cop. 

            The desperate measures that Denny takes to protect his loved ones and repair the irreparable damage he has done is the action that drives this breathtaking novel.  It is impossible not to side with Denny – crooked as a dog’s hind leg, but willing to murder a drug dealer who ordered the ‘execution’ of an entire family;  who used his crooked money to do numerous good things for his area; then did his best to bring down the worst culprits – the rich and powerful, the old money – and the old money-launderers.  The city of New York has never been portrayed so starkly and so well.  This is Mr Winslow’s mighty tribute to The Force.  His prose is as harsh and tough and funny as his characters, and unrelenting in its drive to depict one man’s loss of his soul, and his efforts to regain it.  SEVEN STARS!!!  (And every exclamation mark is deserved, so there!)