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.