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.