Monday, 31 December 2018

Unsheltered, by Barbara Kingsolver

            Two families living in the same ramshackle house in Vineland, New Jersey – but nearly 150 years apart:  in Barbara Kingsolver’s latest novel, she has alternating chapters for each family, setting her stories at tumultuous times in America’s history.   The novel opens in 2016, election year, when Willa Knox has found out the worst possible news from the local builder:  the Vineland house she has inherited from her Aunt is ready to fall down around their ears;  in fact the next good storm (and there are so many now, thanks to climate change) will probably finish the old structure off completely.   This is not what Willa wants to hear, for she and her husband, university professor Iano Tavoularis have just lost their jobs because the university lost funding and had to close.  They are on the bones of their backsides and it’s not a nice feeling.
Schoolteacher Thatcher Greenwood and his new wife and her family settle in Vineland in the 1870’s in a rickety house belonging to his mother-in-law.  Vineland has been newly established by land baron Charles Landis, hoping to attract workers for the mills and industries encouraged to build on his land after the Civil War.  Reconstruction is booming, as are Landis’s fortunes.  Thatcher is smitten with his beautiful little wife, but less so with his incumbent mother-in-law – both of whom wish to keep up the kind of appearances he can ill afford on his salary, and it soon becomes obvious that in his daily classes he will not have permission to teach his pupils about the natural world, particularly the exciting new ideas of Charles Darwin and his own eminent Boston educators.  Vineland is Charles Landis’s fiefdom;  he is its mayor, he runs its newspaper, its high school:  he is king of all he surveys, and radical thought is dangerous thought – it must not be allowed!
Ms Kingsolver draws the reader so expertly into Then and Now that at the end of each chapter I felt sorry to be snatched away from that time zone – until the next chapter grabbed me and wouldn’t let go:  Willa’s myriad problems increase with the shocking death of her son’s English girlfriend after she has just given birth, leaving Willa literally holding the baby;  her snippy little daughter Tig turns up on their rotting doorstep, hair in dreds and in a foul temper after a mysterious sojourn in Cuba;  and Willa’s irascible wheelchair-bound Greek father-in-law is dying, but in the most bad-tempered way possible.
The political and social life and times of each century are beautifully portrayed, including the shameful 21st century materialism and consumerism championed by poliiticians who judge worth by wealth:   19th century mores are exposed in all their ugliness, too, especially the yawning gulf between profligate waste and dire poverty, proving that, as always, nothing changes.  This is a great story..  SIX STARS 

Friday, 28 December 2018

The Book of Essie, by Meghan Maclean Weir.

           Essie (short for Esther Anne) Hicks has lived all of her seventeen years in the spotlight.  Her father is a fiery evangelical preacher, so successful that his sermons were televised, then eventually his whole family life, thanks to the determination and ambition of his wife Celia:  she has choreographed their lives into an enormously successful reality show – there are very few Americans who haven’t watched ‘Six for Hicks’, detailing the births of the six Hicks children and the joys that God gives Pastor Hicks and his staunch and loving wife as a reward for their faith - and the tragedies too, that strengthen their ties to the Divine.  God is good, and He certainly is to the Hicks family who have grown enormously rich on the proceeds of their virtuous popularity.  Donations flood in every week from those hoping that the Hicks’s holiness might shine a light on them, and now – now, handsome son Caleb Hicks has announced that he will run for Congress.  Thank you, Jesus!  The Hicks family is doubly blessed.
            Except that Essie has announced to her mother that she is pregnant.  Instead of asking who the father is, Celia treats her with contempt and confers with her producers as to how to manage The Problem:  send Essie away?  Pretend she is pregnant again?  Or try to arrange a love-at-first-sight romance and a speedy marriage for Essie to a suitable, paid-off bridegroom, with a televised wedding that will send the ratings into the stratosphere?  The latter is the best idea, especially when Essie has struck up an unlikely friendship with the school baseball hero:  he wants to leave their small town and attend a prestigious New York university but has no chance for his parents are nearly bankrupt.  They should be easily persuaded – money can buy anything, especially silence.
            But Essie has no intention of remaining silent:  she will decide the most opportune time to announce publicly the news that she has been raped repeatedly, and by whom. It has to have maximum impact, and could there be anything more public than to make the announcement to the hundreds who will cram the church and wait outside, and the millions watching and sighing at her beauty on TV.  Revenge is a dish best eaten cold.
            Ms Weir’s debut novel is a superb evocation of goodness spoiled, faith mocked, and money as the only God worth worshiping.  She exposes mercilessly the distorted values of today’s 21st century society, its double standards and hypocrisy.  She is a great and fearless writer.  SIX STARS  


Saturday, 22 December 2018

The Survival Game, by Nicky Singer.                        Young Adults

            Teen fiction today  seems to centre on stories with a Dystopian theme;  young people battling to survive as best they can in an alien, futuristic and brutal society:  Nicky Singer’s novel is no different – except that it reflects  a world situation that is all too real for us all:  global warming and its terrible consequences.
            Mhairi Anne Bain is fourteen years old.  She is walking in the North of England, hoping to reach the Scottish border, where she will seek shelter with her grandmother who lives on the Isle of Arran.  Mhairi has undergone unimaginable suffering to have reached this stage of the journey:  her parents had spent seven years working in the Sudan before they were both murdered by trigger-happy border guards;  she was lucky enough to escape. She was not pursued by the border guards – why bother?  The desert would kill her anyway.  Except that it didn’t:  she has survived so far – but is infuriated to find herself being followed by an old man and a little boy.  She doesn’t need company:  she moves very quickly by herself, but when the old man falls dead at her feet and the little boy stubbornly follows her regardless of all her clever attempts to shake him off, she accepts the inevitable:  he has become her responsibility, whether she likes it or not.
            The little boy is brown-skinned and from somewhere on the African continent;  he is also mute – but not deaf, or so traumatised that he is an impossible burden, but it is obvious that he has suffered terribly, as Mhairi finds when they reach Glasgow, which is full of refugees just like him. He searches all those half-starved faces for a familiar one, only to be heartbreakingly disappointed.  And the tragedy of all those waves of people heading north is that their own countries are no longer habitable:  global warming has turned their lush tropical lands into sand and dust.  They must all move to the colder regions or die.
            Mhairi finds too that, after seven years away from her beloved Scotland savage new laws are now in place to conserve and protect the scarce remaining resources – and to protect the rights of the white celtic indigenous population against the ‘predations’ and sheer numbers of desperate migrants.  Compassion has flown out the window, especially from her grandmother, so happy to see her initially – until she arrived with the little brown mute.
            Nicky Singer has written a story that is beautiful and terrible, a story that fills us equally with hope and despair, for no-one can deny the frightening existence of climate change  or be afraid of its consequences, portrayed so ably in this unforgettable book.  Everyone should read this.  SIX STARS.   

Sunday, 16 December 2018

Apostle Lodge, by Paul Mendelson.

           This is the third novel in Paul Mendelson’s crime series set in the beautiful city of Capetown, South Africa;  again it features Colonel Vaughn de Vries, old school, burnt-out Afrikaner detective from the Apartheid era:  he is not popular with the new Rainbow Nation administration but they cannot deny that he gets results whether they like him or not, and currently he is being pressured to find ASAP the monster behind a series of recent murders where women’s bodies have been found raped and tortured in deserted buildings.
            One of these buildings is Apostle Lodge, an architect-designed house near a popular beach in the city;  it has been for sale for years with no takers, for opinion is that it is spectacularly ugly and, now that a woman’s defiled body has been found in its lounge there is zero chance that it will ever be sold.  To make de Vries’s job even harder, there is no crime scene evidence;  whoever perpetrated the crime was meticulous in leaving no trace of themselves, and it is only by doggedly trawling through recent killings from other districts that de Vries’s staff uncovers evidence of murders that are distressingly similar:  there is a serial killer at work.
            The public of Capetown is not ready to absorb such horror:  a few days before a huge bomb has blown a delivery van apart in one of the busiest tourist thoroughfares of the city; there are at least eleven deaths and more expected amongst the fourteen others who are fighting for their lives – add to that the crippling drought that has struck the entire coastal region, threatening to wipe out livelihoods, industries and in some cases, life itself.  No. Capetown cannot take another blow, and Vaughn de Vries and his team are under extreme pressure from his latest bosses to get results – and present a good image to the Press, one of whom seems to have inside information about the crimes – and him – that could only have come from his department.  Who is the leak?  Unthinkably, some of the inside information could also have come from the killer himself.
            Paul Mendelson has crafted with great skill another unputdownable thriller, a roller-coaster ride set against a backdrop of racism, greed and corruption: signalling that change for the better has yet to occur in the Rainbow Nation – as proclaimed by one black policeman who states baldly that de Vries and his team only investigate ‘white’ murders – until a politically driven plot to conceal a heinous crime by the government to boost its popularity comes to light, proving that no part of the Rainbow Nation is spared in this stark account of today’s South Africa.  SIX STARS      

The Goose Road, by Rowena House.

         In Northern France in 1916, Angelique Lacroix receives the dread news that her father, who was one of the first to enlist in the French army, has been killed in the battle of Verdun.  Her mother is stunned with grief;  Angelique is not.  She hated her father, who beat her and her adored brother Pascal often, especially when he had been drinking;  she is just glad that it wasn’t Pascal who died:  now the family farm will belong to him and he will come home from war victorious, and marry Angelique’s very best friend.  She hopes.  Such are the dreams of a 14 year old.  In the meantime she and her mother must carry on and save what they have for him, even though the French army keeps passing through their district ‘requisitioning’ any livestock to feed their troops – and thanks to the troops’ rampant and brutal theft of every farm’s animals and poultry, people are beginning to starve;  Angelique hopes that the army doesn’t discover their farm, remote as it is.
            But they do, and remove their cow and pig.  Nothing is left except Pascal’s flock of magnificent Toulouse geese, hidden in the woods when the army scouts arrive.  And as if that were not enough tragedy, their father’s gambling debts surface in the shape of angry creditors demanding what is owed:  they will lose the farm and very soon be homeless unless Angelique and her mother can think of a solution, and the only solution is for Angelique and her Uncle Gustav to herd her beautiful geese across France to find the highest bidder in a country that is desperate for food, a country full of liars and profiteers, good people who are starving – and English and French Officers who will pay astronomical prices for a Christmas Goose, especially those Officers who are expecting to die in battle soon.
            Ms House recounts Angelique’s journey with her beloved Uncle as suspensefully as any good thriller writer;  her characters are rock-solid and she captures all too well the desperation and despair that makes good people do terrible things – and those like Angelique’s childhood friend René, who enlists in the army despite having a withered leg from a bout of Polio:  he couldn’t bear to be called a coward.  This is a truly great book for all teen readers.  FIVE STARS

Friday, 7 December 2018

Preservation, by Jock Serong.

            In 1797 the ship Sydney Cove was wrecked off Preservation Island in the Bass Strait separating Tasmania (then known as Van Diemen’s Land) from Australia.  The valuable cargo of rum and tea was salvaged, the captain and thirty-two of the crew stayed to guard it while the mate, carpenter, the supercargo, and tea merchant accompanied by thirteen lascar crew departed in a repaired longboat to sail to Sydney for help.
            Months later, three starving, wounded ghosts of men are rescued by a fishing boat;  two are European, the third a lascar boy supposedly unable to speak English.  The Supercargo William Clark is his master and has managed to keep a diary of sorts of their terrible experiences;  the other European is the tea merchant John Figge, made ugly by horrendous facial injuries:  both men have differing versions of the privations they have suffered – and their wounds, especially Clark’s, both of whose hands have huge spear holes in them.
            The men also take pains to avoid each other, and it is not long before Lieutenant Joshua Grayling, the Governor’s representative sent to assist them, discovers why:  the tea merchant has an unsettling air about him, not caused only by his smashed nose;  his general demeanour causes discomfort and hackles to rise.  He is not the man to ask for a favour, for the price paid for it might be much more than one could afford – as Grayling eventually discovers.
            And he discovers, too, that the young lascar boy Srinivas speaks fluent English, this talent hidden on the advice of his father:  one learns a lot more about a master’s plans if they think one is ignorant, which means that what is written in Clark’s diary  - especially about the wicked savages who cruelly injured them – has a dissenting witness.
            Jock Serong has turned the factual event of the wreck of the Sydney Cove into superb historical fiction.  He depicts with masterly skill the great natural world that mere handfuls of men were trying to tame and enslave, and the ‘natives’ who at first assisted, then vainly resisted the White Man’s Civilisation.  Much has been said and written about Colonisation in Australia - and New Zealand – but seldom matched by Serong’s gorgeous imagery when describing nature, and his stark and terrible depictions of man’s barbarity and savagery, in the name of civilisation, to his fellows.  There are parts of this novel that I had to read between my fingers, but it has been an unforgettable experience.  SIX STARS!     

Sunday, 2 December 2018

Gabriel’s Bay, by Catherine Robertson

          Gabriel’s Bay could be any small coastal town in New Zealand, according to Catherine Robertson, so if your small town fits the description, then that’s where this charming little story is set:  easy-peasy.
            Gabriel’s Bay has high unemployment, an aging and diminishing population, and the attendant problems of petty crime, drug use and child neglect.  The local council are all dyed-in-the-wool practitioners of licking each other’s nether regions depending upon what it will get them, and those sterling characters who are genuine in their wish to see the town they love survive and prosper – somehow! – are at a loss to know how to remedy the situation before Gabriel’s Bay deteriorates into a ghost town.
            Enter Kerry Francis MacFarlane from London, employed as home help to an elderly couple who were one of the first families in the area, and therefore the Gentry:  they are of the mistaken belief that they have employed a woman, when in fact Kerry is a male, and a ginger one at that (every stripe and colour gets an outing in this book).  He has left his bride at the altar and feels that the farther he travels from the scene of the crime, the better:  to say that he is feckless is unkind, but he definitely needs to overhaul his ‘responsible-for-his-own-mess’ sensibilities.  Gabriel’s Bay is just the place to have a change of heart.  It rolls out its characters to him gradually;  they don’t accept charming strangers with the gift of the gab at face value, so it is up to Kerry to prove that he has stickability, especially when floating the idea of luring tourists to the town by opening a kind of Museum of Miniatures:  both his employers have made a wonderful miniature railway and a gorgeous dollhouse (with a real diamond chandelier!) and the local Doctor spends his rare leisure hours making intricate and authentic mini soldiers for war games of famous battles.  These  games are tremendously popular among the local aficionados because the historical outcome is not always achieved, depending on who’s playing:  Sacre Bleu – Bonaparte won against Wellington last week!
            Naturally, Romance rears its pretty head for Kerry, but not in the shape of someone gorgeous, lean and lithe:  instead Sidney is a struggling solo mum with two unruly sons and a waistline that disappeared long ago – in other words, someone real.  She is also a big-hearted minder of waifs and strays, not all of whom are poor – and she doesn’t tolerate any BS, so to Win Plump Lady and prove his worth as the town’s saviour, Kerry has to grow a spine and, for the first time in his life, Stay Put and Follow Through.
            Christmas is coming, and ‘Gabriel’s Bay’ is the ideal present for a hugely entertaining Beach or Airport read -  just the fun, feel-good story to relax with during the holidays.  Catherine Robertson has done small-town New Zealand proud.  FOUR STARS.  

Monday, 26 November 2018

Smoke and Ashes, by Abir Mukherjee

            Book three of Abir Mukherjee’s vastly entertaining crime series featuring Captain Sam Wyndham of the British imperial Police Force in Calcutta, and his trusty sidekick Surendranath (called Surrender-not, because how’s any British chap supposed to pronounce that absurd name) commences in late 1921:  mild-mannered but persistent little lawyer Mohandas Ghandi has founded his Congress Party and decreed that its legions of members should register their disapproval of British Rule by ‘Peaceful Protest’, a euphemism for followers to clog up transport networks , thus bringing Calcutta commerce to a grinding halt whenever they get the word.
            The authorities, particularly the police, are feeling the strain:  the jails are full and there have been unexpected resignations among their own ranks by those who feel the power and worth of Ghandi-ji’s logic:  there is nothing more effective than peaceful, non-violent protest, and there are always the jackals of the Press hanging around to report on any savage lapses of professionalism by the authorities – and there are many, especially in the army which has been brought in to restore order where the police have failed, for the military is staffed with Sikhs and Ghurkas, ruthless and famed warriors with an utter contempt for the local Indians, for whom they feel no kinship. 
It’s a sticky situation, old chap, compounded even more by the fact that Captain Sam is nearly caught by the Vice Squad on their raid of an Opium Den where he has been stupefying himself for most of the night.  He is forced to make a hair-raising escape across the rooftops – and discovers a dying man, eyeless and stabbed on both sides of his chest.  Sam is unsure whether he’s having an opium nightmare or if what he has found is real – until after his lucky escape to safety, where another body killed in the same fashion is discovered two days later.
And to prove that all the Gods of the Indian Pantheon are laughing mightily at British expense, the Powers-That-Be in Whitehall have decided to shore up the Raj with a visit from the future king-emperor, Prince Edward, Prince of Wales:  a great show of British might and power will surely convince all those natives, low caste and high, where they really stand.  Sam is a slave to his addiction, an ‘Opium Fiend’;  Surrender-Not, scion of one of Calcutta’s proudest families, has been exiled because he is working for the Raj, but together they must try to avert the inevitable bloodshed caused by Peaceful Protest and Prince Edward’s Christmas Goodwill Visit, not to mention the ritual killings, all of which display great purpose and planning.
Yet again Abir Mukherjee displays his mastery of the era, melding the crime genre satisfactorily with the explosive events of British and Indian history of almost a century ago.  His two unlikely protagonists are so convincing that, along with Surrender-not, I hope Sam cleans himself up for the next instalment!  FOUR STARS

Tuesday, 20 November 2018

Take Your Last Breath, a Ruby Redfort mystery

Junior Fiction by Lauren Child.

           My granddaughter Ava LOVES Ruby Redfort, and after reading the second of her adventures, I can see why:  Ruby is cool!  The first book wasn’t available so it was a little difficult to fill in all the details;  suffice to say Ruby is almost the youngest secret agent ever, except for the late Bradley Baker, who was recruited when he was even younger than her (thirteen) by Spectrum, a spy agency ‘set up to foil the plots of evil geniuses capable of committing any crime’.  Since Ruby’s induction into the agency she has risked death, broken codes (she is a master code-cracker – it’s just something she does) and has had Perfect Bradley Baker rammed down her throat at every opportunity:  well, she’ll show her superiors at Spectrum that girls can do ANYTHING!
            Well, anything with some rock-solid assistance from her very best friend Clancy Drew, who is the most loyal bestie in the universe;  he is not supposed to know that she is a secret agent, but where she is concerned he is zipped up tighter than an oyster and is as reliable as the sunrise – with one exception:  he doesn’t like the ocean.  Nasty critters such as sharks  live in the ocean, and he is not convinced by Ruby’s explanation that ‘sharks are just big fish going about their business’.  As far as Clance is  concerned, their business is to eat him, and because of this aversion he is a particularly fast swimmer – when he can  be convinced, persuaded or bullied to put a toe in the water.
            Which is a definite inconvenience because Ruby’s latest adventure is to check out rumours of Pirate attacks on the local shipping in their coastal city of Twinford, and even more exciting whispers of buried treasure somewhere in the outlying islands:  Ruby needs Clance to be her partner, her offsider, not a jelly-trembler hiding under the seat of the boat – which she has commandeered from Spectrum without their knowledge.  Ruby is taking the mantra ‘Girls Can Do Anything’ to its outer limits, not to mentioned getting sacked by Spectrum boss LB if she is discovered.  Yep, Clancy will have to put his silly little phobias aside if he wants to outwit pirates and find treasure.  What’s he got to worry about?  It’ll be a stroll in the park.  Yeah, right!
            I can certainly see why Ava is so devoted to Ruby:  Ms Child has created a SuperGirl who is heaps of fun.  She has amazing talents bordering on the genius level but she still manages to have ordinary friends who do ordinary things – and they are all very, VERY funny.  The villains in this story couldn’t be more villainous, especially Count von Viscount, whom Ruby faced down in the first book – he doesn’t do too well in this story either, but I’m sure he’ll be back for Book Three.  I should think so!  FOUR STARS   

Wednesday, 14 November 2018

A Keeper, by Graham Norton.

           This is Irish talk-show host Graham Norton’s second novel and once again he displays with effortless ease the Irishman’s ability ‘to tell a good yarn’, and to surprise the reader yet again with a story that is not at all what one expects.
            Elizabeth Keane, divorced, fortyish and pretty much dissatisfied with her current life, returns from New York to the little Irish village of Buncarragh.  Her mother has died and Elizabeth is there to settle her mother’s estate and decide what to do with the property;  she is an only child and everything should be fairly straightforward – except for her mother’s brother and his family.  There was talk for years that Elizabeth’s uncle should have also inherited the house (as well as the family business) so Elizabeth is not looking forward to being ‘welcomed’ into the bosom of the family again;  after all, family friction was one of the reasons she left home in the first place, as well as her mother’s awful neediness. 
And the rumours.  The rumours that Elizabeth’s mother Patricia, a spinster who’d missed the boat with a husband on it because she had to look after her ailing mum, all of a sudden disappeared for months after her mother died, then came back with a baby and the announcement that she had married a lovely man who lived near Cork, but sadly he died, so it would be just Patricia and baby Elizabeth now.  Well.  Who would believe all that balderdash?  No, that uppity Patricia had got herself in the family way and come back with a baby and no husband:  Elizabeth was regarded as the village bastard and had to wear the shame of it until she was able to escape to university.  Well, she hasn’t made the ideal life for herself in New York – far from it, but it beats Buncarragh by a mile:  as soon as she has sold mum’s house she’ll leave, never to return.
And there things would have remained until Elizabeth finds a collection of letters in her mother’s wardrobe, a trove of historical information so intriguing that Elizabeth decides to play detective and travel to its source, for it is obvious that these letters are from the father she never knew, the father who had died.  Well, his letters were so lovely that Elizabeth’s sore heart quickens:  if she searches out his home, could there not be other members of the family still surviving?  Could she have a history after all?
Mr Norton tells his protagonists’ story in flashbacks:  Patricia is Then and Elizabeth is Now, and both women tread a rough road;  in fact it is hard to know who suffers more:  Patricia for all the sacrifices she made and the lies she was forced to tell, or Elizabeth, innocent recipient of a family history she never dreamt of.  Mr Norton’s prose gets a bit purple at times but he can still weave a tale that nails us to the spot.  FOUR STARS.   

Sunday, 28 October 2018

Transcription, by Kate Atkinson.

            London, 1940.  Eighteen year-old Juliet Armstrong is an orphan following the recent death of her beloved mother.  Fortunately, she has been raised to be resourceful and self-reliant, and her mother worked hard to provide her with the best education that she and various scholarships could achieve.
            Now Juliet is alone, but has landed herself a job – albeit a menial one – with a branch of MI5:  she will be transcribing secret recordings of the meetings of Hitler sympathisers and Fifth Columnists in an adjoining flat;  
those who admire the Third Reich and think it only a matter of time before England is invaded by the triumphant German Army.  Imagine them goose-stepping along the Mall:  what an uplifting sight!
            The clandestine meetings are conducted by Godfrey Toby, an MI5 operative posing as a Gestapo agent, and the darling of the little cabal of traitors who meet with him for tea and biscuits, imparting snippets of news of troop movements, industrial build-ups, and any gossip they may hear or can contribute to that may sow seeds of rebellion and dissent:  they are the Nazi version of the French Underground, and Juliet would find their treachery (artfully orchestrated by Godfrey) quite shocking – if only it weren’t so pedestrian, and frequently interrupted by a barking dog, for traitor #3?  4? Dolly always brings her dog Dibs along, and he seems to have as much to say in his little canine way, as the other plotters.  It is very hard to transcribe secrets when a lot of what she types is ‘conversation inaudible.  Dog barking.’
            Life starts looking up, however, when her shadowy bosses decide that (apart from continuing her daytime transcription duties – ‘it doesn’t matter when you type them, just as long as they are done.’) she is now ready for some field work:  because of her fresh prettiness and higher education, she may be able to penetrate the upper echelons of society to provide evidence of Far Right thinking amongst the Aristocracy.  Surely not!  The Great and the Good could never harbour such vipers to their bosoms.  Could they? 
            They could, and no-one is more horrified than Juliet to discover that various pillars of the Establishment are not marble, but crumbling clay.  And who spies on the Spies?  It becomes impossible to know which side her most trusted colleagues are on, as evidence mounts of betrayal in the most unlikely places. 
            Prize-winning author Kate Atkinson takes the reader on a heady ride through twentieth-century wartime history, shifting the action via flashback through a forty-year period.   Her characters are ordinary, flawed but always appealing and, as we expect with a writer of Ms Atkinson’s calibre, a rich vein of humour is threaded throughout, thanks to Juliet, who is singular and unforgettable.  There’s a twist to the tale, too, that I never saw coming:  that Juliet – who would have thought!  FIVE STARS.       

Wednesday, 17 October 2018

Lethal White, by Robert Galbraith (aka J. K. Rowling)

               This is the fourth novel in the series featuring Cormoran Strike, former soldier, amputee and now private detective, and Robin Ellacott, his recently married business partner – and this is the best, despite its mighty size (650 pages) and predictably complex plot, not to mention the usual raft of characters that initially are hard to keep track of:  well, fear not!  Galbraith/Rowling is too good a storyteller to let the reader wallow in confusion, and apart from having to have strong wrists the page-turning proceeds at a satisfyingly high speed, as we would expect from a writer of this calibre.
            Due to recent successes Cormoran has gained something of a media reputation – not that he is enjoying the spotlight, for his M.O. depends on his anonymity and the ability, despite his size, to blend into the background.  Fortunately, he is able to hire new staff for various surveillance jobs, and Robin is invaluable as always, despite a severe case of PTSD caused by their last case – a condition about which her new husband is spectacularly unsympathetic;  he is hounding her to leave ‘that shitty job’ – not because it is dangerous and obviously stressful, but because he is jealous of her good relationship with Strike.  She should stay at home and be a good little wife.  Not a good start to a marriage, but hardly surprising:  Robin’s husband and Strike have never hit it off.
            Thanks to Strike’s enhanced reputation, a Minister of the Crown comes calling.  He is puffed up with privilege and self- importance, especially considering his aristocratic background:  Strike will get onto his problem, find out why some anonymous bastard is trying to blackmail him out of forty thousand quid – which he WILL NOT PAY!  And do it right away.  And it’s none of Strike’s business what the blackmailer knows:  suffice to say that in days gone by ‘it used to be perfectly legal’.  So get to work.
            Reluctantly, Strike does, sending Robin in to the House of Commons undercover;  she will be the Minister’s Goddaughter, come to assist his daughter Izzy who is snowed under with Admin – and to plant a bug in the office opposite of a man who plainly loathes the Minister and would be thrilled if a scandal surfaced that would see him retire in disgrace;  in fact that sleazy little man could be the obvious suspect as blackmailer – until the Minister is found dead shortly after in his townhouse, supposedly a suicide.  Really?
            The plot thickens nicely and in the process we meet a great cross-section of London Society, from its rarefied heights to its scummy depths, including various members of the Minister’s family -  all damaged to a greater or lesser degree, and a poor psychotic homeless man who is convinced he was witness to a murder at the Minister’s country home twenty years before.
            Apart from an overlong and fruitily melodramatic unveiling of the blackmailer/murderer (poor Robin is in the hot seat again – her PTSD will never leave!), ‘Lethal White’ is unputdownable, even though it weighs a ton.  FIVE STARS.

Friday, 12 October 2018

Children of Blood and Bone, by Tomi Adeyemi       Young Adults

           On a scale of one to ten for the Fantasy genre hit for this year, ‘Children of Blood and Bone’ has to be an eleven.  Ms Adeyemi’s tale has it all:  heart-stopping action, almost unbearable suspense, and characters that, despite their magical skills, we can all identify with – especially lead protagonist Zelie Adebola.
            Zelie lives with her father and brother in a fishing village on the coast of a mythical African country called Orisha.  She is always getting into trouble thanks to her short temper, and her older brotherTzain is always there to rescue her – whether he wants to or not.  Their small family is still suffering from the loss of their mother, a Maji cruelly murdered eleven years before by the ruling family of Orisha – for her mother was part of one of the ten magic Clans that used to rule Orisha until they were overthrown in one terrible night of bloodshed:  magic is now outlawed throughout the country and those who survived who are gifted with the control of Healing, Air, Wind, Fire, Spirit, Water, Darkness and Light, Animals, time, and Life and Death, are now oppressed and enslaved, their powers weakened or non-existent – unless …..
Unless someone is brave enough to make a hazardous journey into the unknown and still sacred parts of the country to regenerate the power of the Clans, to bring back the Magic that will free them all from oppression.
            And that person is Zelie;  impetuous, rash, prickly and bad-tempered – but blessed (or cursed) with the gift inherited from her mother of Life and Death.  She is a Reaper and her power is so great she is frightened of it, but the mission she has been given is vital:  she MUST succeed, or her people will never be free.  She will die for them if she has to.  Failure is unthinkable.
            Accompanied as always by the furious but loyal Tzain and a naïve escapee from the Royal Palace, the princess Amari, Zelie sets off on the adventure of a lifetime, intent on bringing Magic back to Orisha – but pursuing them with deadly efficiency is Crown Prince Inan, charged by his ruthless father the King to bring back his silly little sister, and to eradicate like vermin any Maji in his path. 
            WHAT A STORY!  Ms Adyemi herself has magic powers, the power over words and how to transform them into a story so gripping that it is impossible to put the book down until it is finished – the very best kind of story.  And it’s being made into a movie as I write:  Magic!  FIVE STARS
            And once again I thank my darling granddaughter Ava for recommending this book:  she knows what’s good!       

Sunday, 30 September 2018

Anyone for Seconds? by Laurie Graham.

            Laurie Graham writes heart-warmers.  (See review below)  And that’s fine with me, especially when they are as down-to-earth and entertaining as her latest title – which is a sequel to ‘Perfect Meringues’, according to the jacket notes, a book that our library has missed out on, even though it has a number of her other stories, but:  NEVER MIND!
            ‘Anyone for Seconds’ with its redoubtable protagonist Lizzie Partridge is a Blues-banisher extraordinaire, a laugh-out-loud chronicle of six months in Lizzie’s life as she deals with a front door swollen with damp, mice (though this turned out to be a dust-bunny because she hates housework), the selfishness and uncaringness (is there such a word?) of her close family and friends, and the loss of her job as a TV chef on daytime telly – well, it wasn’t her fault;  those two cows roped in to sample her wonderful desserts wouldn’t eat a thing;  in fact one of them said that sugar was bad for everybody  - she was obviously an anorexic!  Well, it wasn’t Lizzie’s fault if diplomatic relations failed and she ended up trying to shove one of the desserts down the anorexic’s throat, nor was she expecting the anorexic to rally her skeletal strength and knock out Lizzie’s two front teeth. 
            No:  it wasn’t a good day.  Lizzie avoided being charged, but now she’s out of a job.  Her partner Tom has left her too, that kind, wonderful man whom everyone in the family liked – and when told that he’d gone, they’d said ‘but he was so nice!’  Even Lizzie’s dour 89 year old mother said she Could Have Done Worse, and Lizzie’s high-flying defence lawyer daughter thought Lizzie was mad to let him go.  Well, no-one knew The Dark Side of Tom:  the man who washed everything BEFORE loading the dishwasher;  the man who tried to whisk your plate away before you’d finished everything on it – yes, he was definitely OCD and it was a relief to leave a magazine or anything else on the floor if she wanted to without having it consigned to ‘a proper place’ complete with eye-rolling.  But she still misses him.
            Well, never mind.  She’ll just disappear for a week and see how long it takes for all the Near and Dear to miss her;  it will do them good to have some worrisome moments trying to track her down – Heavens, they might even ring the police!  Well, serve them right for treating her so casually, taking her for granted:  there’s nothing like a bit of tough love to wake everyone’s ideas up.
            Needless to say, Lizzie’s mystery disappearance doesn’t produce the reaction she desired;  her Near and Dear have other, more pressing matters on their minds and life for a slightly overweight (well, comfort food should do just that, shouldn’t it?) 64 year old ex-TV chef becomes more complicated before it gets better.
            As always, Ms Graham’s  portrayal of family dynamics is right on the money;  we read about ourselves in all of her books, but seldom are our stories told with such humour and flair.  At the risk of sounding oxymoronic (oh come on, who cares!) this book is serious good fun.  SIX STARS.

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 STARS

Saturday, 22 September 2018

Children’s Fiction.

Here are two completely different war stories for children – though the second title is definitely more suited to teenage readers.  It is a story of The Great War, The War to End All Wars, and it deals unflinchingly with more adult themes and their consequences, including the Influenza pandemic that engulfed the world at the end of hostilities.  Despite their vast differences in time and place, both titles have in common the terrible cost that war forces upon us all, especially the children.

The Blue Cat, by Ursula Dubosarsky.

            Sydney, Australia in 1942:  Columba and her best friend Hilda watch, fascinated, as a new boy is introduced to the school by the Headmaster at assembly.  His name is Ellery and he has come from You-Rope, where they speak French and where Hitler is.  ‘The Pope lives there, too’, remarks Hilda, who is known as That Child! by Columba’s mother, because Hilda soaks up information – and gossip – like a sponge and passes it all on like the bush telegraph. 
            Ellery is the palest boy Columba has ever seen which is a worry, for the Australian sun is fierce;  they haven’t had rain for months, the big dam is nearly dry and new water restrictions have been brought in:  Ellery will be fried like a sausage if he doesn’t keep out of the sun, and despite the general urge to scoff at those who are different, Columba is curious and concerned about Ellery.  He lives in a flat with his father, but where is his mother?  She wishes he could speak English so that she could ask him, for Columbia is a naturally curious child – especially about her own name, which she knows means ‘Dove’, and she has exhausted her mother’s patience more than once with her relentless questioning.  But why does Ellery carry with him ALL the time a book written in German, ‘Die SchatzInsel’?  German is the enemy’s language in You-Rope;  they are the enemies along with Japan of King George and the British Empire, and the Australian Army is fighting them at this very minute!
            Another mysterious new arrival in the street is a large grey/blue cat, a stray who adopts two spinster ladies for a time.  They are Columba’s next-door neighbours, Miss Hazel and Miss Marguerite, and they are bereft when the cat moves on, especially Miss Marguerite, who is ‘delicate’.  Where has it gone?  Will it return?
            The questions multiply as Hilda turns up at school to announce importantly that her big brother is now a prisoner-of-war in Italy:  Hilda hopes he will be getting enough to eat.  (Her mother’s words).  And the warships in the harbour multiply, too:  the Americans have arrived to save them all!  But Columba still wants to know about Ellery.  Because she wants to be his friend.
            Ms Dubosarsky captures the times perfectly.  Her characters are exactly right, a great humorous mix of the young and old, and every chapter is accompanied by pictures and newspaper clippings of the day, which is an inspired addition to this lovely story.  Perfect for those keen young readers ten and upwards.  FIVE STARS

The Goose Road, by Rowena House.

         In Northern France in 1916, Angelique Lacroix receives the dread news that her father, who was one of the first to enlist in the French army, has been killed in the battle of Verdun.  Her mother is stunned with grief;  Angelique is not.  She hated her father, who beat her and her adored brother Pascal often, especially when he had been drinking;  she is just glad that it wasn’t Pascal who died:  now the family farm will belong to him and he will come home from war victorious, and marry Angelique’s very best friend.  She hopes.  Such are the dreams of a 14 year old.  In the meantime she and her mother must carry on and save what they have for him, even though the French army keeps passing through their district ‘requisitioning’ any livestock to feed their troops – and thanks to the troops’ rampant and brutal theft of every farm’s animals and poultry, people are beginning to starve;  Angelique hopes that the army doesn’t discover their farm, remote as it is.
            But they do, and remove their cow and pig.  Nothing is left except Pascal’s flock of magnificent Toulouse geese, hidden in the woods when the army scouts arrive.  And as if that were not enough tragedy, their father’s gambling debts surface in the shape of angry creditors demanding what is owed:  they will lose the farm and very soon be homeless unless Angelique and her mother can think of a solution, and the only solution is for Angelique and her Uncle Gustav to herd her beautiful geese across France to find the highest bidder in a country that is desperate for food, a country full of liars and profiteers, good people who are starving – and English and French Officers who will pay astronomical prices for a Christmas Goose, especially those Officers who are expecting to die in battle soon.
            Ms House recounts Angelique’s journey with her beloved Uncle as suspensefully as any good thriller writer;  her characters are rock-solid and she captures all too well the desperation and despair that makes good people do terrible things – and those like Angelique’s childhood friend René, who enlists in the army despite having a withered leg from a bout of Polio:  he couldn’t bear to be called a coward.  This is a truly great book for all teen readers.  FIVE STARS      

Saturday, 15 September 2018

The Blood Road, by Stuart MacBride.

        The Scottish city of Aberdeen has the worst weather in the U.K., if not the world.  It never stops raining, from the gentle pitter-pattery misty kind to the driving, horizontal, attacking, sleety stuff guaranteed to freeze Logan MacRae to the marrow as he ponders his ‘promotion’ in Police Scotland to Inspector in the Professional Standards division, a job he is unsure if he actually enjoys.  He really should be out catching crims, rather than policing his own colleagues – it doesn’t seem right somehow, as evidenced by the change in said colleagues’ attitudes.  They scuttle past him in the corridors with minimum eye-contact and he now sits by himself in the pub, not at the rowdy table. 
            Until Detective Sergeant Lorna Chalmers, whose unsatisfactory  behaviour he is investigating in relation to several linked child abduction cases is found hanging in her garage, an apparent suicide, and because Police Scotland is woefully short-staffed, not to mention copping the flak from the media at its inability to solve the child disappearances, Logan is seconded to investigate Chalmers’ suicide and an even bigger mystery:  the return (temporarily) from the dead of Detective Duncan ‘Ding-Dong’ Bell, found murdered in a rental car a couple of days before Chalmers’ suicide.  To say that most of the police force is in shock is no exaggeration, especially as most of them had attended Ding-Dong’s funeral two years before.  That was a suicide too.  It’s hard to know where to start and who to question, and which of the investigations should get the most of Police Scotland’s scarce manpower:  Logan’s job sucks.
            And the rain keeps falling – and rumours keep surfacing of a Livestock Mart, a terrible auction of kidnapped children bid for by paedophiles for sexual pleasure;  it’s the last thing that Logan wants to investigate – and the last thing that readers want to read about, for child abuse (and animal cruelty) show that some people are beasts and should not be dignified by being called human.  Once again (see review below) Mr MacBride takes his readers to the Dark Side of his characters’ behaviour, but always alleviates the horror at the right time with his trademark brand of humour – I would sleep like a smug baby every night if I could come up with all those quick quips and smarty rejoinders that his characters bandy about – but I can’t even remember any!  Life is cruel.
            Demoted-to-Detective-Sergeant Roberta Steel makes another unforgettable appearance;  she is gay and the proud mother with her wife Susan of two daughters, fathered turkey-baster fashion by Logan (the things some people have to do for friends!) and she is not happy at her loss of status, particularly when Logan makes her drive the squad car because he is Senior Officer.  Well, that’s what you get when your policing methods are less than ‘conventional’, not to say downright illegal.
            It’s great to meet up again with all these mighty characters, good and bad – but when is it EVER going to stop raining?!  FIVE STARS
Now We Are Dead, by Stuart MacBride

           Mr MacBride’s archetypical burnt-out but brilliant copper Logan Macrae features only peripherally here;  instead the floor is given to Detective Chief Inspector Roberta Steel, proudly gay and relentless enemy of Aberdeen’s bad guys – until her illegal efforts to put rapist Jack Wallace behind bars result in exposure, a court case, and demotion to Detective Sergeant.  And an insatiable desire for revenge against the Motherfunker who dobbed her in – Logan Macrae. 
            To add awful insult to terrible injury, the brutal rapes are still happening, and with each new crime, the ‘raping wee shite’ she put away (now released from prison and trumpeting his innocence all over the media) cannot resist sending a video of himself and ‘friends’ going to the movies, having dinner, clubbing – all at the exact times that the rapes occurred:  Roberta knows Wallace is behind each crime, but proof is impossible to come by and it is not long before she is in trouble with her superiors – again! – for surveilling the Wee Shite’s house, much to his delight;  he has a video of her doing just that and he has made an official complaint of harassment to her boss.  Just what she needs.  To make matters even worse, she is told that if she keeps up with the harassment, she won’t just be losing her job, but her behaviour will be terminating the job of her long-suffering but protective assistant Detective Constable Tufty, in her opinion a ‘useless wee spud’ – but her useless wee spud.  She’s on a final warning.
            There is an element of Keystone Cops to the opening chapters of ‘Now We Are Dead’;  there is lots of comedy, clever repartee, not to mention cheeky young kids training to be tomorrow’s crims, but Mr MacBride brings us all back to cruel, stark reality with Steel and Tufty’s efforts to prosecute a debt collector for ruthlessly beating an old lady and cooking her little dog in her microwave, and the discovery by them of an eight month old baby left in his cot with a tin of dog food while his mother died from an overdose on the filthy mattress in front of him.  In both cases, the neighbours refuse to give evidence:  in the baby’s case the neighbours got out the air freshener when the smells got worse.  Which proves that such is Mr MacBride’s storytelling skill he can take readers anywhere he likes on the emotional spectrum that he chooses, and it is not always a comfortable journey.
            It is clear too, that Steel and Tufty are in line for a very messy showdown with Raping Wee Shite Jack Wallace;  once again it isn’t pretty, but again Mr MacBride demonstrates his effortless mastery of the Crime genre.  My only criticism is that he doesn’t write his stories quickly enough:  there should be one every six months, not a measly one per year!  FIVE STARS.