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.    

Thursday, 6 September 2018

Clock Dance, by Anne Tyler

           There is no writer more adept than Pulitzer Prize-winning author Anne Tyler at depicting family relationships (the dynamics of which we are all familiar with whether we like it or not), and in this latest lovely story covering a  period of fifty years, she demonstrates yet again her expertise as she portrays the daily skirmishes and defeats in the battleground of the marriage of 11 year old Willa Drake’s parents, before recounting Willa’s forays into Romance with all its future disappointments.
            Willa has plans to be a linguist, until at twenty-one she meets The Love of Her Life Derek at college.  It is 1977;  Women’s Lib hasn’t properly taken hold yet and Derek is a master of persuasion – it seems like no time at all before her studies are ‘interrupted’ and she is married, becoming the mother of two sons:  where has the time gone, not to mention her ambitions?  Then at forty-one, she is a widow after Derek dies in a Road Rage incident. (He was the angry one).
            Fast-forward to 2017:  Willa is now sixty-one and living in Tucson, Arizona with her second husband Peter, a retired lawyer.  They live next to the golf course because he loves the game.  Her sons are not estranged from her exactly  - they just don’t contact her often.  Well, they live in different states and they have their own life, don’t they?  But neither is married, and Willa would love to be a grandmother.  Peter has never had children so he doesn’t understand her yearnings, nor is he interested:  Golf is King!
            And so it would remain, until Willa gets a phone call one night, asking her to ‘come help out’ in Baltimore, Maryland – her son’s EX-partner Denise (whom Willa has never heard of) has been shot in the leg, and her 9 year old daughter needs to be ‘babysat’.  The caller is a neighbour who has to get to work;  she cain’t be lookin’ after Cheryl and her dog Airplane no more, and Willa’s phone number was on Denise’s list:  can Willa come soon?
            And Willa does, for a variety of reasons, one of them being to finally meet someone from her son’s closed life whilst being seen to be doing a great kindness, and it will be a great break from the golf course -  except that Denise and her frighteningly independent little daughter Cheryl are not what she expected at all:  in fact the little community in which they live is quite different from anything she has experienced.  She feels rejuvenated, needed and necessary, part of a network of people who depend on each other for help, company and friendship:  Tucson and her golfing husband are becoming foggy memories.
            Which means that sacrifices must be made, but will it be Willa (as usual) who makes them, or will she finally find enough gumption to live a different life?  Ms Tyler never lets her readers down:  every story and its characters are of the same superb quality –  quality as reliable as the sunrise.  What artistry!  FIVE STARS