Wednesday, 29 August 2018

Less, by Andrew Sean Greer

            Arthur Less is a novelist who has gained minor fame, first for being the lover (when he was young and beautiful) of a much older Pulitzer-Prize winning poet (Arthur was entrusted by the poet’s wife to teach the illustrious man how to swim, a fateful decision), then for his own literary efforts, which are hardly in the same league.  Still, he has made a reputation of sorts for himself in San Francisco, including (oh, the irony) of taking on a much younger lover:  now, as Arthur approaches his fiftieth birthday, young lover Freddy is about to marry someone else -  for Less has refused to give more.  He cannot bear the thought of being an old, infirm burden in the future to someone who means everything to him.  Nope, time to pull the plug – and as for going to the wedding (yes, Less has received an invitation;  the ceremony is in the wine country somewhere) he has hit upon the perfect excuse not to attend:  he has a number of invitations to attend various literary events in different parts of the world, including a 5 week tenure at a Berlin University.  He will accept them all!  Arthur Less will not even be in the country when his darling ties the knot.  Perfect.
            Except, of course, that it isn’t.  Fretting is Less’s middle name;  he worries constantly about things that have occurred, could occur and may never occur, and true to form, glitches and hitches occur with gay abandon at every stage of his odyssey:  the card entry to his flat several floors up in a Berlin apartment building refuses to work (of course it does!), necessitating in a death-defying climb up several balconies to gain entry;  a heinously expensive luxury camel trip into the Moroccan desert laid every other member of the party low with a mysterious illness – except Arthur.  Why wasn’t HE sick?  His beautiful and beloved blue suit is destroyed by a stray dog (truly!) in India, and last but certainly not least, in his research for writing a classy foodie review of a rare Japanese cuisine, he is trapped in a 400 year-old restaurant – because the door to the room in which he is dining is stuck.  Because it is 400 years old.
            But all these distractions (and I listed only a few) have done nothing to take his mind off the fact that Freddy is now married and enjoying an idyllic honeymoon in the Paradise of Tahiti with his new husband.  Arthur can imagine almost to the minute what they will be doing and when;  all his attempts to distract himself from the horrible reality of being without Freddy have come to nothing.  He must face his future without his love.
            Fittingly, Andrew Sean Greer was awarded the 2018 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for this superlative little love story.  He proves himself over and over as the master of metaphor, and shows us that comedy is as essential to the human condition as its opposite.  I feel very blessed to have read this lovely book, and I’ll go travelling with Arthur any old time.  Less is definitely more!  SEVEN STARS, SO THERE!!!  

Monday, 20 August 2018

Wake of Vultures, by Lila Bowen

          What the Sam Hill have we here??!!  This little book, the first of a series, is bursting with monsters of every stripe and kind.  Shape shifters, werewolves, vampires, unicorns (truly!), harpies, dwarves and cockatrices (that’s a new one on me) crowd the pages and fight for space to be the biggest and baddest in Lila Bowen’s page-turning fantasy set somewhere in the region of West Texas in the 1870’s.  It’s the perfect mix of history and fantasy, so successfully blended that the reader has difficulty distinguishing between fact and Ms Bowen’s boundless imagination, and it’s written in such Good Ole Boy language that I thought I was back in ‘Lonesome Dove’ – Ms Bowen’s all-time favourite TV series.  She knows her onions, as my dear old Gran would say!
Nettie Lonesome works on a rundown property in Durango Territory its owners grandly call a ranch;  the ‘work’ description is laughable too;  she is their slave.  They told her that they found her as a baby, and because they saved her life she must repay them by ‘working’ for her keep – and the ‘keep’ barely keeps her alive.  She can see no change in her miserable existence until her talent for wrangling and training mustangs earns her a job offer at the next property, which is far enough away from Ma and Pa’s decrepit spread, but too obvious for them to come looking for her:  it’s called Hiding in Plain Sight. 
Her life changes dramatically:  she earns a wage (very small)  she is fed well (she can’t believe she can have second and third helpings!), her skills are appreciated and rewarded – but everyone believes that she’s a boy, an error that Nettie does not correct:  in her experience women are only in the background to serve and clean up after men, plus do other things she’d rather not think about – nope, pretending to be a boy is far better.  And for the first time in her young life, she makes friends with her workmates.  What a great feeling!  Life is good.
            Until a dying Indian woman is found crying in the desert, wailing that the Cannibal Owl has stolen all the children of her tribe – and she chooses Nettie as the person who must avenge the dead children and destroy the monster, before all the children in Durango territory are eaten.  She has until the next New Moon to do so. 
            Needless to say Nettie is horrified and understandably reluctant to carry out this new task, especially as she is only a puny girl pretending to be a feller:  she’s not equipped to go up against monsters of any kind, particularly one that eats children by the score, but the Indian woman is persistent, especially after she dies:  she haunts Nettie so persistently that Nettie finally, and with very bad grace, starts her search for the Cannibal Owl – maybe then that Injun will let her get a good night’s sleep!
            This story reminds me of Charlaine Harris’s ‘True Blood’ series, a delicious and successful mix of horror and humour:  dang if I cain’t wait for ‘Conspiracy of Ravens’ – whut’s takin’ it so long??  FIVE STARS!

Sunday, 12 August 2018

Warlight, by Michael Ondaatje

            Michael Ondaatje has recently won the Man Booker supreme award for  the last fifty years of fiction for ‘The English Patient’, a prize certain to make readers approach his latest novel ‘Warlight’ with reverential awe:  his story of two children abandoned by their parents at the end of World War Two must surely be beyond criticism, such is the greatness conferred on the writer by this honour – still, there is a certain dour similarity to some of the characters that gibes with the distinct personalities he works so diligently to create.  The story loses impact as a consequence.
            Nathaniel and Rachel, aged fourteen and sixteen, watch their parents pack for an extended work trip to Singapore in 1945.  The parents will be away for a year, not a short visit by any means, but necessary:  don’t worry, though – their lodger Walter would be looking after them, they will be quite safe.  Except that both teens have suspicions that Walter – whom they have nicknamed ‘The Moth’ – may be a criminal.  He has some very questionable friends who could be criminals, too, not that they communicate these suspicions to their parents who leave separately, both with an excited, anticipatory air.  They watch their mother Rose pack her trunk, and listen to her explanations of where she would be wearing this or that, and for which occasion – and are shocked to find months later that same trunk hidden in the basement.
            She has left them.  Why?  For what reason?  It is Nathaniel who is most obsessed with finding out the truth, especially when an attempt is made by shadowy strangers to murder him and Rachel and the Moth is fatally wounded trying to protect them.  The experience was so horrific that it brings their mother back from whatever shadowy corner of the world she has been hiding:  her enemies are trying to get to her through her children.  It is time she returned to protect them.  Her daughter doesn’t feel the same way:  their mother should never have left, and their father – well, where is HE?
            I would love to know that, too.  He disappears completely from the narrative.  A lot is made of Rose and her mysterious background, and through diligent searching via a convenient job in the Foreign Office, Nathaniel is able to trace a lot of information about his mother’s spying activities for Britain during and after the war.  It is also obvious that Rose made many enemies, each of whom has her death as top priority:  it is just a matter of time till she meets her fate, leaving her as a perpetual enigma to her son, and the person most hated by her daughter.
            Mr Ondaatje’s prose is predictably dazzling but it was hard to warm to his characters and, instead of feeling saddened by Rose’s demise and sorry for her hapless son, all I could think of was ‘Serve you right!’  FOUR STARS    

Friday, 10 August 2018

Radio Boy and the Revenge of Grandad.                 Junior Fiction
By Christian O’Connell

            After being introduced to Spike Hughes A.K.A. Radio Boy in Book One,   I HAD to meet up with him again in Book Two and am happy to report that the sequel, continuing his adventures as DJ Radio Boy in his Dad’s garden shed, is just as entertaining – especially as a new character makes his mark, whether Spike wants him to or not.
            Now that Spike has been outed as Radio Boy, his cred (and his listeners) have increased hugely;  he still hasn’t made any impression on Katherine Robertson, The Girl He Would Love to Marry Some Day – in fact she is now going out with horrid but handsome School Bully Martin Harris – but Spike is now regarded as pretty cool and funny by his schoolmates.  And his parents, particularly his dad, are proud of him too.  Life is pretty good (even though Headmaster Fish Face Harris makes it plain every day that Radio Boy and his sidekicks Artie and Holly are his least favourite pupils and he wastes more time than he should on thinking up nasty punishments for them instead of doing his job of running the school.)  Never mind:  Radio Boy and his team can handle anything, especially when his favourite DJ announces that there will be a competition  to find a DJ to replace him when he takes a week’s holiday very soon.  COOL!!  This competition is Spike’s to lose!  He’ll nail it!  No-one else will even come close, so they may as well not bother entering.
            But they do.
            And Spike is super disgusted to learn that his very own Grandad is up against him – not to mention Fish Face Harris (WHAAAAAAT???!!!).  Even Sensei Terry, who runs a Karate class and is also the local Postman has entered.  WHAT’S WRONG WITH THEM?  Don’t they know – of course they do! – that being a DJ will be his life’s work and they shouldn’t waste their time going up against him, because no-one in the history of radio is a surer thing than Radio Boy.
            Unfortunately, his Grandad thinks the same about himself.  He has recently been thrown out of home by Nan and has come to stay at Spike’s house, thanks to an invitation from Mum;  well, that’s all very well but he’s sleeping in Spike’s bed, which means that Spike has to sleep on the World’s Most Uncomfortable Air Mattress, and to add insult to injury, Grandad SNORES.  IN SURROUND SOUND.  And because he tried to take over Radio Boy’s nightly shed broadcast, Spike and the team were forced to sack him.
            He didn’t take it well, and has turned into the Grandad from Hell, entering himself in the Radio Competition as professional singer Tony Fandango.  Spike is mortified.
            And that’s not all:  Spike’s dad and his old mates resurrected their teenage band the Pirates and have now reached the semi-finals of Simon Scowl’s TV show.  DOUBLE mortification!
            Christian O’Connell has worked his magic again, effortlessly involving readers of all ages in the ordinary lives of his characters:  these characters are you and me and the neighbours, not to mention the rellies, and once again Radio Boy is laugh-out-loud funny.  I hope Christian’s working on Radio Boy #3 – now I know he’s a DJ himself in his day job, but writing great children’s books is more important.  FIVE STARS.

Monday, 6 August 2018

The Outsider, by Stephen King.

           Respected Little League Baseball coach Terry Maitland has guided his team into a regional play-off which, if they win, could see them into the finals, a dream unheard of at the start of the season:  instead, as a crucial part of the game is under way, he is loudly and publicly arrested on the field by two police officers for the rape and murder of Frank Peterson, a young boy whose body had been found in a park days beforehand.
            Detective Ralph Anderson has given the order for the arrest in front of 1500 people, so convinced is he of Maitland’s guilt, particularly with eye witness statements from a raft of different people who saw the boy get into Coach Maitland’s van (even though it was not his usual transport);  well, this bastard needs to be publicly arrested, for the child’s torture and death was horrendous – worse still, Maitland had coached most of the city’s young boys over the years, including Ralph’s son – any of them could have been victims.  Ralph has never been so angry in his life.
            And he is even angrier still when his incontrovertible evidence is defeated by a perfect, iron-clad alibi from Maitland:  he was nowhere near the scene of the crime on the day specified.  He and other high school colleagues were attending a conference in another city – he even made an appearance on a video recording of the event.  Close, Ralph, but no cigar.
            Stephen King takes his legions of readers on another rollercoaster ride through the Supernatural – as always, the plotting is watertight and his characters are always (ALWAYS!)  credible:  they are all people we know as neighbours, friends, family (or enemies), ordinary people  to whom unspeakable things happen.  Which makes Mr King’s brand of horror all the more shocking, for young Frank Peterson is not the first victim in this hair-raising story;  by the novel’s end there is a death-toll of characters, good and bad – and the reintroduction of Holly Gibney, the damaged, brave and endearing protagonist from Mr Mercedes, Finders Keepers and End of Watch.  It’s a pleasure to meet her again, and Detective Ralph comes to think so too, as she eventually convinces him that some crimes do not have a logical - or earthly – content.  I hope we see her in future stories – she is a gem and should shine again.  I hope you think so too, Mr King.  FIVE STARS