Monday, 30 December 2019

It’s that time again …….!

When all the August Publications and Flash Mags bring out their Best of the Best lists for the year. 
So here’s mine.
Well, why not, I say!  I’ve read some pretty amazing titles this year and while I can’t list a mighty Top Twenty, I have come up with Seventeen Stunners (sorry, sorry!).  These are books that I have rated more than five stars;  it’s not easy to award six stars out of five, or even seven – so the quality of writing is stratospheric in my August Opinion.  Should you wish to read individual reviews, please use the search drop box;  for some mysterious reason I can’t provide a title link. 
The titles are in chronological order, not in order of preference.  Happy New Year, everyone, and keep reading.  As if we could ever stop!

1                   Country, by Michael Hughes
2                   The Rosie Result, by Graham Simsion
3                   November Road, by Lou Berney
4                   The Border, by Don Winslow
5                   The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock, by Imogen Hermes Gowar
6                   Necessary Secrets, by Greg McGee
7                   The Hoarder, by Jess Kidd
8                   Boy Swallows Universe, by Trent Dalton
9                   The War that Saved my Life, by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley (Junior fiction)
10              Flight of the Fantail, by Steph Matuku (Young Adults)
11              Good Girl, Bad Girl, by Michael Robotham
12              In the Shadow of Wolves, by Alvidas Slepikas
13              Auē, by Becky Manawatu
14              Elephant secret, by Eric Walters (Junior fiction)
15              The River, by Peter Heller
16              Bridge of Clay, by Markus Zusak
17              Akin, by Emma Donoghue

Thursday, 19 December 2019

Agent Running in the Field, by John le Carré.

Nat (anglicised from Anatoly) is in the middle:  middle-aged – coming up 47 – middle-sized – a slim 5’ 10” and pretty fit – and a British spy of the middle order, running agents in the field here and there in Europe, which he usually recruits through his middling prowess on the Badminton court.  It’s relatively easy in his guise as a middle-order diplomat to invite likely recruits from other consulates or embassies for a game of badminton, thence to practice his well-honed skills of charm and persuasion (and practical rewards) to turn the likely one into a middle-order spy.
            Now he has been called permanently back to Britain, a country he hardly recognises after so many years abroad, and given charge of a minor station on its last legs, surely a blatant signal by his bosses to position him for early retirement – ‘Dear old chap, thanks SO much for your sterling efforts’  etc.  The writing is on the wall, Nat informs his stoic wife Prue, a human-rights lawyer who is also getting used to his everyday presence, having decided to stay in London to bring up their daughter Stephanie who is now raised, and rebellious with it.  Yes, his new life will take some getting used to, not least Brexit, Trump’s presidency and its effect on the ineffectual Tory government scrambling to make trade deals with America -  and the meeting with a mysterious young man who visits Nat at his athletics club especially to challenge him to a weekly game.
            Ed Shannon is vague about his occupation:  he’s in Research, but researching what is unstated;  instead he uses their matches to expound on his hatred for Putin and Trump, those arch-collaborators and anti-Christs.  He is filled with the unquenchable zeal of youth, but no-one is more surprised than Nat when a badminton foursome he arranges at Ed’s request (so that his disabled sister can have a hit or two), and Florence, a very promising agent from his office develops into something much more – and infinitely more sinister.
            As always, Mr Le Carré’s enormous gifts of credible and witty  characterisation are a pleasure all by themselves, but his sharply-focused eye on Britain’s current troubles is all-encompassing, and his view is bleak:  the ways in which the world can now be manipulated are myriad, ‘Fake News’ being the least of them:  When Nat the cynic and Ed the idealist’s views collide, the fall-out is deafening.  FIVE STARS.   

Saturday, 7 December 2019

Akin, by Emma Donoghue.

           Retired, childless scientist Noah Selvaggio is planning a trip to Southern France – Nice, specifically, the city of his birth.  His late sister has left him a bequest in her will on the condition that he go off ‘and have some fun!’, so he shall follow orders, not hard to do as he has nothing to tie him to his New York apartment.  His brilliant wife, also a scientist, died nine years ago;  his sister’s beautiful, wastrel son died of a drug overdose a couple of years previously and it’s very obvious that Noah, about to ‘celebrate’ his 80th birthday is only marking time until it is his turn to follow his family into the beyond.  Still, it will be interesting to see the South of France again;  he wonders how much of Nice he will remember, having left as a young child towards the end of World War Two.  And it will be interesting to know if his maternal Grandfather’s illustrious reputation as a photographer will still be celebrated in his birthplace. 
            Yes, now that the trip is only days away, Noah is pleased to see that he can still feel some excitement at spending his Milestone birthday in such a special place.
            Until he is called by Rosa Figueroa, a social worker (with 24 other cases in her personal workload) who informs him that his sister’s late, overdosed son had an eleven-year-old son of his own, previously cared-for by the maternal grandmother:  sadly, she has died of complications from diabetes, and Michael has no-one from his biological family to care for him.  Apart from Noah, his Great-uncle. 
And it does Noah no good to enquire after the whereabouts of Michael’s mother:  ‘she’s currently incarcerated.’  Would Noah be prepared to care for Michael until Rosa can track down Michael’s Aunt (who is who knows where) – perhaps he could take Michael to Nice, too?
            The acclaimed author of  ‘Room’ takes us all to Nice on a very bumpy ride for two people who do not want to be together;  a man at the wrong end of his life forced with zero experience to care for a child who is grieving for the absence of his mother and grandmother, the pillars of his short existence. And there is the deepening puzzle of Noah’s origins, the mystery of which ultimately creates the fragile beginnings of a relationship that, at the end of the trip, doesn’t seem so impossible after all.  This is a story of the true meaning of kinship and the unbreakable bond of family, there whether we recognise it or not.  SIX STARS.   


Sunday, 1 December 2019

A Curse so Dark and Lonely, by Brigid Kemmerer.  Young Adults

            Seventeen-year-old Cerebral Palsy sufferer Harper and her older brother Jake are in trouble in Washington DC:  their father has abandoned the family with huge debts;  their mother is a terminal cancer patient, and the people from whom their dad borrowed want their money back yesterday – with interest, the interest being Jake as enforcer and standover man to extort money out of other unfortunate debtors.  Harper is Jake’s reluctant look-out when he works as a heavy, until one night she sees a woman being attacked by a man not far from where she is hiding.  Without thinking she grabs an old tire-iron and gives the attacker a good swipe – and finds herself hoisted up and dragged away, away into an alarming parallel world that bears no relation to her own in real life, for she is transported by her abductor Commander Grey to a fairy-tale castle inhabited by a handsome prince, and no, she wasn’t dropped on her head on the way:  she is now a captive in the realm of Emberfall, and is part of a curse that lays upon the land, a curse so dark and lonely that it seems no-one can break it.
The curse has been imposed by an enchantress called Lilith, and can only be broken by true love (truly!  Sound familiar?) between the handsome Prince Rhen and whichever young woman Commander Grey manages to purloin from the other side:  so far, results have been very sketchy, especially as Rhen turns into a monster every month and lays waste to anything that moves, including most of his subjects and all of the castle inhabitants, including the royal family.  Commander Grey is still alive because he’s a fast mover.  Believe it or not.
 And, needless to say, the arrival of Harper with her palsied leg does not inspire Prince Rhen toward any affectionate feelings – until Harper (after she has accepted her impossible circumstances) shows an aptitude for strategy, planning and tactics that are an unexpected and refreshing change from the norm:  handicapped Harper from DC becomes Princess Harper of Disi, a powerful and entirely fictitious ally of Emberfall, and there to promise Disi’s thousands of fictional troops to save the country’s inhabitants from a hostile Queen’s border attacks, the evil enchantress, and the monster, who is scheduled to make his dreaded appearance soon.
This is a great blend of fantasy, fairy tale and hard lessons in the Big City, and Ms Kemmerer leaves so many questions hanging that she must have Book Two underway.  Well, I hope so:  - what about Commander Grey, eh?  What’s happening with him?!  FOUR STARS.  

Tuesday, 19 November 2019

Knife, by Jo Nesbo

            It’s hard to imagine how dedicated thriller readers survived before the advent of Scandy Noir, the genre created by Stieg Larsson’s ‘The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’, and continued with varying degrees of talent by any aspiring author with a Scandinavian-sounding name.  Until author and ex-muso Jo Nesbo came on the scene, launching his burnt-out, alcoholic detective Harry Hole on an unsuspecting public:  we have never been the same since, begging like addicts for each new episode of Harry’s adventures on the Dark Side – and we always, always get our fix.           
            This time round, the Dark Side is largely of Harry’s own making:  his beloved wife Rakel has thrown him out;  he is drinking himself unconscious every night and his work has become slipshod – well, who can produce results when remorse and alcohol overwhelm everything?
            And worse is yet to come:  rapist and murderer Svein Finne is finally out of prison where Harry put him so long ago, and is swearing vengeance, especially as Harry also killed his son (read ‘The Thirst’!).  Harry’s past is rapidly catching up with him and he has never been so ill-equipped to defend himself.  Only a further tragedy of cataclysmic proportions can drag him back onto the straight and narrow – temporarily, at least –for he MUST solve the heinous crime of his wife’s murder, which surely would never have happened if he had been there, drunk or not, to protect her.  When he has found the murderer and killed him, then he’ll drink himself to death.  
He’s officially too close to the victim in the investigation, and therefore required to leave the investigating to his colleagues.  And officially, he’s on bereavement leave.  Well.
            Since when has officialdom ever stopped Harry Hole and his rat-trap mind from deducing information from the slimmest of leads, the mere breath of suspicion – and always coming up with the right conclusion?  Hopefully.
            Red Herrings (it’s Norway, folks!) constantly fool Harry and the readers;  Nesbo convincingly casts suspicion on absolutely everyone as well as the obviously evil Svein Finne, but once again I have to say that I never suspected Whodunnit when all was revealed.  And more shocks are to come:  we are kept guessing about everything – including Harry’s fate – until the very last page, and that is surely the mark of a storyteller par excellence, a master of characterisation, suspense – and human failings.  FIVE STARS.        

Tuesday, 12 November 2019

The River, by Peter Heller.

           Dartmouth College best friends Jack and Wynn decide to take two semesters off to experience the adventure of a lifetime:  canoeing the Maskwa river in Northern Canada.  They are young Renaissance Men, sharing a love of arts and literature as well as finely developed skills in surviving in the great outdoors, and a great love and respect for the natural world.  This trip will be unforgettable, just for its beauty alone.
            And it is, but for none of the above reasons.
            The first few days after setting out they have seen no-one else apart from plenty of wild-life – but are becoming increasingly concerned by the smell of smoke in air that should be pristine.  When they climb a tree to view the horizon, they are horror-struck to see an enormous wildfire coming their way.  Suddenly the idea of no electronic contact with the outside world doesn’t sound so great after all, and when they finally meet two other canoeists further upriver and warn them of what’s ahead they are disgusted with their couldn’t-care-less attitude, fuelled by fifths of bourbon.  Well, they’ve done the right thing:  what the drunks do about it is their own business.           
            Jack and Wynn press on, determined to try to outrun the fire (oh, for a sat phone to call in a copter!) and reel from the next shock:  through the gathering smoke and mist a couple are having a knock-down-drag-‘em-out fight on a river beach – about what is unclear.  Should they warn them of the danger?  Nah.  Can’t even see them! 
Hours later, yeah.  Conscientious Wynn and Jack paddle back but find  no-one – until the husband finds them, saying he has lost his wife in the mist:  he’s distraught, but Jack feels his story is suspicious.  Nevertheless, he and Wynn decide to mount a search for the lady who, when they eventually find her, is still alive but has injuries consistent with a terrible beating. Attempted murder?  Jack and Wynn are duty-bound to try to save her and themselves, first from the fire, then from her husband who obviously wants her dead.
            Peter Heller has a prodigious talent for transporting his readers right into the thick of things, be it the roiling horror of a vast wildfire and the terrible destruction of everything before it, or the great and awe-inspiring beauty of the wild;  it’s all here in beautiful language for us to marvel or lament over, and proves yet again that greedy and rapacious humans are indeed lower forms of animal life.  SIX STARS.   

Tuesday, 5 November 2019

Queenie, by Candice Carty-Williams.

          Londoner Queenie Jenkins, eponymous heroine of Ms Carty-Williams first novel, is a troubled soul:  troubled by the fact that her white boyfriend (she is black, of Jamaican ancestry) has demanded a break from their relationship:  what kind of break?  A month?  Three months?  Permanently?  Surely not, for Queenie loves her Tom, even though she realises she has been more than a bit on edge lately.  Well, some of his relatives are frankly racist, and she is against Police Brutality and into Black Lives Matter in a really big way.  Well, she has to be, innit?  (as her African Bestie would say):  when you’re black, the right-white people regard you as a bit suss anyway.  You have to stick up for yourself, and Queenie never lets an opportunity go by to do so.  Now Tom has had enough, and wants a breather.
            Oh, please God (Queenie never prays, and never goes to the family’s local Catholic church unless dragged there by her grandmother and Aunty) please may this break just be a breather?  Please may she not lose her funny, kind, loyal partner of three years because she is a damaged person, and it shows in a myriad different ways.  Please, God.
            Meantime, she has to find a new place to live – which she does and it’s definitely substandard – and new ways to pass her spare time – which she does, and has more questionable sexual encounters than she expects, some of them so rough that she is forced to visit the local sexual health clinic, accompanied by her lovely white bestie from work (where she is on a final warning) for moral support:  Queenie’s life is starting to unravel at an alarming rate, but she still clings to the hope that Tom will eventually make contact. 
You think?
            Ms Carty-Williams chronicles Queenie’s fall from grace and eventual redemption in ruthless detail, all the while using Queenie’s family as a Greek Chorus, especially when Queenie reaches rock-bottom, shifts in with her Grandparents, then decides on psychotherapy. 
            ‘ “Psychotherapy?  PSYCHOTHERAPY??!  You trying to shame all ah we?  You tink you are the only one with problems?” ‘ – Oh, granny lets her have it, before eventually conceding (because her husband said so!) that maybe that’s what young ones do these days.  Her generation just got on with it. 
            As a counter to the Greek Chorus, Queenie is constantly buoyed by the texts of the Corgis (the Queen’s corgis:  get it?), her close friends and staunch allies, all of whom provide loving and hilarious support when she most needs it.  Queenie is blessed indeed and so are we, to be part of her tragicomic journey to wellness.  This is a great story, innit?  FIVE STARS    

Friday, 25 October 2019

Auē, by Becky Manawatu.

            Auē is Maori for sorrow or woe, and it concerns the ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’ in this superb novel – a description that doesn’t apply to material things, but to the most important need of all:  the need to love and belong together, a need that dominates everyone’s life, and the vengeance wreaked by those who lack it.  Or deserve it.
            Each chapter lets a different character tell the story, which starts with the fatal accident suffered by seventeen-year-old Taukiri’s foster parents.  Completely unmanned by the tragedy, he delivers his eight-year-old brother to his Aunty Kat and his Uncle Stu;  they have a farm in Kaikoura;  it should be a neat place for Arama to live – you know, cows, sheep etc.  He’ll be right in time, Taukiri tells himself, while he goes to Wellington to search for his Hoe-Bag birth mother.  Yeah, right.  As if!  Nope – Tauk’s going to get a job, find a place to live and eventually the great gaping hole in his soul will close over and he will be healed.
            In a perfect world.
            Real life doesn’t turn out so conveniently:  Tauk ends up busking (he’s a great guitarist, a natural, like his dad) and it’s not long before he chums up with Elliot, another busker who has access to all kinds of memory-deadening ‘medications’:  fortunately, Elliot has a sister who looks out for them both so he hasn’t hit rock-bottom – yet.
            Meantime, Arama isn’t happy in his new home.  Aunty Kat is not happy either, because Uncle Stu is a bully and gives her black eyes and bruises whenever he feels like it;  he even smashed Arama’s All–Blacks lunchbox just because it was there.  He’s a W.A.N.K.E.R.  (Sorry mum, for the swear.)  If it weren’t for Beth, who lives on the neighbouring farm with her Dad Tom Aiken and dog Lupo, he would be very sad indeed.  Oh Tauk, can’t you come and get me?  Where do I belong?  Who do I belong to now?
The story is also traced of Taukiri’s ‘hoebag’ birth mother Jade and his fisherman father Toko.  Jade was born into a gang and has never been able to escape – until she met Toko, who rescued her from The House where she was born and degraded;  he is her saviour – her everything:  she could never live without him.  Until the gang comes looking, and she finds that she has to.
This is a singular work, a poignant and beautiful story that should rightly become a kiwi classic.  Ka pai, Ms Manawatu!  SEVEN STARS!        

Friday, 18 October 2019

The Van Apfel Girls Are Gone, by Felicity McLean.

           Ms McLean has previously written a children’s book and ghostwritten six other works for various celebrities.  This is her first novel, and centres on the families who live in Macedon Close, a cul-de-sac in a quiet, far-flung suburb of Sydney.  Eleven-year-old Tikka Molloy and her older sister Laura are very best friends with the three Van Apfel sisters who live further up the street;  Hannah, Cordelia and Ruth are firmly controlled by their deeply religious parents, especially their father, who appears to model himself on a Biblical prophet of old – and he punishes the girls accordingly.  With his fists, and Cordelia is often a victim of his cruelty ‘because he has to drive the devil out of her’. 
            Sadly, the more he punishes Cordelia, the more she rebels – even when he kills her pet mice and rips her hair out she doesn’t see the error of her ways:  could Cordy be an irretrievably lost soul?
            Tikka and Laura, whose home-life is blessedly normal, do their best to support their friends, even though they are forced to concede that Cordy brings a lot of her father’s biblical wrath purposely upon herself, and her latest trick of flirting with the new replacement teacher is sheer madness – she’s only thirteen!
            But she is their friend, to the extent that when the Van Apfel girls announce they are going to run away, Tikka and Laura will do anything they can to help them – except that the carefully orchestrated escape goes wrong, with tragic results for one of the Van Apfel girls, and twenty years later Tikka, now in her 30’s and working in the States, sees Cordelia look-alikes wherever she goes;  she is unable to forget the events of 1992:  what happened to Cordelia and Hannah?  Ruth was found, but there has never been a trace of the other two, and Tikka and Laura have never been able to leave the tragedy behind.
            Now Laura has cancer and Tikka comes home to give her family the best of her support, but the mystery still remains, even though the Van Apfel parents are long dead:  what happened to Cordelia and Hannah?
            Ms McLean’s novel works best when narrator Tikka is eleven;  with her shrewd, humorous and knowing gaze, she skewers the everyday – and covert! – behaviour of her neighbours and schoolmates:  no-one is safe from her scrutiny, but it’s a shame that the first and last chapters are overwritten, fraught searches for Cordy:  it’s a literary device that doesn’t work here and I nearly gave up before the third chapter. Happily, Ms McLean gets into her stride and lets Tikka carry the day.  FOUR STARS.      


Friday, 11 October 2019

The Whisper Man, by Alex North.

           Twenty years before the action in this story begins, four little boys were abducted, tortured and cruelly murdered in the small English village of Featherbank by a sadistic killer who was eventually betrayed by his terrified wife.  Detective Inspector Pete Willis was the man who ran the case and made the successful arrest, but the cost to him has been enormous:  a descent into alcoholism and the break-up of his marriage, and the knowledge that there was a fifth victim, but police have never found his body.  Until that happens, the case will never be closed to Pete, and his efforts to find out information from killer Frank Carter, imprisoned for life, yield nothing but sadistic pleasure for Carter, and an urge to drink until death for Pete.
            And people’s memories are enduring of the terrible crimes:  The killer was known as The Whisper Man for his habit of whispering enticements to his intended victims;  school children even recite a rhyme amongst themselves to that effect – but no-one is prepared for the another child going missing, a six year old walking back to his mum’s place after visiting his dad:  where could he be?  All of Pete’s old nightmares resurface.  The original Whisper Man is in prison, so he can’t be blamed:  is there a copycat on the loose?  And matters are not helped by the arrival in Featherbank of recently widowed writer Tom Kennedy and his small son Jake, hoping to make a new start without their beloved wife and mother – Tom is worried about Jake’s reliance on an Imaginary Friend, a little girl to whom he talks all the time, supposedly learning the Whisper Man rhyme from her.  Jake is not settling at his new school and Tom is at a loss to know what to do for the best;  it doesn’t help to know that they have just bought the local Scary House at Jake’s dogged insistence – and they start getting visited by scary people.  Which prompts Tom to contact the police in the shape of DI Pete Willis, a meeting which changes their lives irrevocably, especially when the fifth body for which Pete has been searching for twenty years is found buried in the floor of the Scary House’s garage.
            Alex North has written a deeply disturbing, truly creepy thriller for all of us to read between our fingers – but read it we must for, despite its theme of sadistic cruelty to the most vulnerable, it’s utterly compelling and unputdownable.  FIVE STARS.  

Thursday, 3 October 2019

Air Born, by J. L. Pawley.                        Teen Fiction

           Tyler Owen is seventeen years old and he is an ace flight cadet.  Intent on following his Air Force Colonel father’s footsteps into the military at the earliest opportunity,  he is about to make his first solo sky-dive above the California landscape:  to say that he is nervous is an understatement;  he is also elated at the realisation of his dreams – but he is worried, too.  Worried about his back, which is super-painful, not to mention the recent weird swellings that are making his jumpsuit very tight!  Well, never mind – don’t sweat it, worry about the changes after the jump.
            Except that the jump becomes a nightmare:  his parachute is beyond his reach because something explodes from one side of his back, and all he can think of is that his parents will watch him fall to his death – when another explosion occurs on his opposite shoulder:  suddenly his fall is arrested and he realises the lumps he feared are actually wings, they are clumsily working, and he’s not going to die after all.
            The trouble is that his fall and miraculous recovery have been captured by phones galore, and within hours he is a YouTube sensation – not to mention a freak who is imprisoned inside a hospital, waiting to be examined.  Well, that is not going to happen:  Tyler’s life on the run begins whether he likes it or not, but it is hugely preferable to being a guinea pig in a hospital.  One positive thing that he didn’t expect, however, was that he is not the only one who has sprouted wings:  it has happened to six others, all of whom try to make contact, for they all face the same problems of freakdom, and once they are together, find that they are of unhealthy interest not only to the authorities, but to The Angelists, a Hippy Dippy group of misfits led by a by-the-Good-Book preacher man, and a very shady, well-financed group called the Evolutionary Corporation:  the Evos are intent on capturing all of the winged friends, but to what purpose?
            ‘Air Born’ is the start of a great series by Jess Pawley, a young Kiwi author who is a master story-teller;  her characters are top-notch, including Tui, a young Maori/Samoan who used all her savings to fly to California to try to track Tyler down – because she had started to sprout wings, too, and is not happy about it – but the major question is WHY.  Why is this happening to these Seventeen year-olds, and are there more out there?  Book Two coming up!  FIVE STARS.

Monday, 30 September 2019

In the Shadow of Wolves, by Alvydas Slepikas.

           After the Second World War ended, the German province of East Prussia which bordered Poland and Lithuania was annexed by the Russians as part of the Potsdam Conference between Churchill, Stalin and Truman.  To the Victor, the Spoils.  Königsberg became Kaliningrad.
            But what of the German population, who had been living there for countless generations?  Well, what of them?  They are all fascists, less than human, and Soviet soldiers are told to take their pick of any woman they find.  Mass rape is common – soldiers fuelled by hate and alcohol have been given free rein amongst the population (mainly women, children and old men); consequently, any street is a dangerous place to venture in search of food and firewood.  The staples of life have disappeared in one of the coldest winters ever, and frozen corpses litter the banked snow:  it is a dog-eat-dog existence –  if there were any dogs left who hadn’t been eaten.  If a woman is caught by the soldiers her fate is sealed – and her children used for target practice.  They are subhuman, after all.  The Soviets are doing the human race a favour.
            Lithuanian novelist Alvydas Slepikas’s novel spares the reader none of the horrors that were recounted to him by Renate, a woman who, as a child, became one of the Wolf children, abandoned and orphaned little Germans who lived through experiences so horrific as to be barely imaginable, starting with the eviction of Renate’s family from their farmhouse to the woodshed in the yard:  the farmhouse is now occupied by a Russian couple – who also took over their cow, pigs and chickens.  Renate’s grandfather was furious at their eviction so he went to the authorities to complain – and was never seen again.  Renate’s brother managed to cross the border to Lithuania, find enough work to be paid with food, and make it back to the woodshed – only to find on return from a nearly fatal subsequent trip that all his family had disappeared, deported who knows where.
            Renate’s fate is equally uncertain:  after losing her sister at a market whilst begging for food, she is adopted by a band of homeless orphaned children, all of whom have seen and undergone the unspeakable in their efforts to survive:  these are the Wolf children, barely subsisting in the frozen forest, but there because they don’t want to die.
            Mr Slepikas takes no prisoners in his stark and brutal story.  Beautifully translated, it brings home to the reader yet again that wartime allies are just as capable of inhumanity as the enemy.  SIX STARS!

Sunday, 22 September 2019

Good Girl, Bad Girl, by Michael Robotham.
            Word-of-mouth publicity isn’t always reliable, given peoples’ varied tastes, but I am so pleased I took my friend’s advice to read anything by Michael Robotham.  What a treat!  The above title had all the necessary requisites to keep me turning pages feverishly – and if I hadn’t had mundane but necessary ‘things to do’, I would have happily read the book in one sitting:  there is no higher praise.
            Forensic psychologist Cyrus Haven is approached by a social worker acquaintance to assess Evie Cormac, an occupant of Langford Hall, a secure children’s home in Nottingham where Cyrus is based.  Evie is not her real name, but one given to her by the authorities after she was found in a secret room in a house that was undergoing renovation.  Also, a rotting corpse was discovered in an adjoining room after neighbours complained of the smell.  Two dogs were also found, seemingly cared for and not starving, like Evie.  No-one knows how old she is or what her real name may be, for Evie refuses to divulge anything about herself;  it is all guesswork. 
Now, six years have passed;  she is dyslexic, surly, the bane of those in charge, and the terror of the other inmates:  you mess with Evie at your peril  She is also ferociously intelligent and has an uncanny gift:  she knows when someone is lying.  Just by looking at them.  And she’s due to be released into a perilous future when the authorities decide she could be eighteen.
Meantime, the body of fifteen-year-old Jody Sheehan, British Junior Ice-skating champion has been found in a nearby wood, raped and murdered.  Her family is in pieces, and Cyrus and his police colleagues are concentrating all their expertise on finding the killer:  Evie’s eventual release into society is pushed down his ‘to-do’ list until the court makes her his foster-child, as an experiment.  Could two people be more mismatched?  For Cyrus has his secrets too, especially concerning the deaths of his family:  he, more than anyone, would know all the emotions flooding Evie like a huge tide – but he doesn’t feel adequate for the job.
There are plenty of red herrings that sent me happily down all sorts of dead ends in this tightly-plotted, truly thrilling story, and the ‘whodunnit’ at the end was (for once!) a real surprise, but what really impressed me were the characters:  even the minor players were credible and beautifully drawn, and Cyrus and Evie are so endearing that they deserve a sequel - especially Evie, cantankerous, violent, explosive, funny and loyal.  We need to read about her again.  SIX STARS

Friday, 13 September 2019

Ghosts of Gotham, by Craig Schaefer.

(Cover Image not available)

Lionel Page is a crusading journalist dedicated to exposing those bottom feeders who prey on the vulnerable;  the faith healers, miracle workers and ‘Come to Jesus and be Healed’ Evangelists who have made their fortunes from the hope they can generate within people who wish to escape their afflictions:  it is Lionel’s mission in life to reveal their criminal deception, and to prove, as always, that there is no such thing as magic or miracles -  and he’s very good at it, too, until he receives a phone call from Regina Dunkle, an elderly, very wealthy lady who lives at a top Chicago address, in a house remarkably devoid of personal touches. 
She has a lucrative proposition for him:  a previously undiscovered manuscript by 19th century master of the macabre Edgar Allan Poe is coming up for auction in New York:  she wishes to know who the successful bidder might be, so that she can buy it from him – if it’s authentic.  Lionel naturally wonders why she doesn’t authorise him to make the highest bid, but hey!  He has never been to New York, let alone an all-expenses-paid trip, and he could do with the break.  Let’s go!
And Lionel, arch-cynic, atheist, believer-only-in-what-I-see-with-my-own-eyes is about to have a very rude awakening:  absolutely nothing is what it seems, including his chance meeting with a beautiful (of course!) woman in a diner who, it transpires, is a witch (she saves his bacon numerous times!);  a trip in a subway tunnel that shows that not only trains travel down there – nasty blood-sucking ghouls with a preference for human flesh reside there too, and consider him to be a particularly tasty morsel.  And don’t forget what happens at the Auction of Poe’s manuscript, where New York’s finest gather, all members of the Thoth Club (are you up with your Egyptian Mythology?) but not for much longer, for the Arch-villain arrives, reduces everything to a bloody wasteland, then saunters off with The Manuscript.  Just like that.
Mr Schaefer takes the reader on a mad, action-packed ride through Mythology and history, ancient and modern;  there are more characters than we really need ( I had such a lot of trouble keeping up with the sub-sub-sub plots ), BUT!  Lionel is a pretty shrewd guy, with a very smart and sassy tongue, and his witch is just as entertaining – and OMG, those monsters! I’ll be having bad dreams for months.  FOUR STARS.      

Sunday, 8 September 2019

The Nancys, by R.W.R. McDonald.

           Eleven-year-old Tippy Chan and her mother live in Riverstone, a South Otago town in New Zealand’s South Island that time seemingly forgot – absolutely nothing changes, ever, in Riverstone, especially in the opinion of successful gay Sydney hairdresser Pike, Tippy’s a-maz-ing uncle, who has returned to kidsit Tippy while mum reluctantly goes on a 10-day cruise.  He doesn’t want to be there, the scene of many bad youthful memories:  it was impossible to be oneself growing up in that baleful, constricted atmosphere, so he fled to Sydney to come out.  Now, he has returned with Devon, a lover who has miraculously survived the usual three-month duration of Pike’s relationships, and a desire to help Tippy and her mum through the terrible grief they feel at the accidental death of Joe, Tippy’s Chinese dad and Helen’s beloved husband.
            Pike (who looks like Santa Claus with tats – lots of them) and Devon certainly liven Riverstone up;  Devon loves spangles and sparkles, sprinkling them around like fairy dust, and they are thrilled to know that Tippy has read every copy of Pike’s boyhood collection of Nancy Drew novels.
            Nancy Drew, girl detective:  what a role model!  And what fun to pretend to use her detective skills on various unlikable locals – until Tippy’s friend Todd falls off a bridge and ends up in a coma in Dunedin hospital, and her despised teacher Jill Everson’s decapitated body is found on the riverbank:  suddenly, it’s not a game anymore.  Whether she wants to or not, Tippy becomes involved in investigating a genuine heinous crime, and it’s nowhere near as easy as she thought.  Nancy Drew has a lot to answer for!
            Mr Mc Donald has brought a small town beautifully to life in ‘The Nancys’ – especially Tippy’s neighbours, the Browns, who pop in and out more often than they should because neither family wanted to pay for a fence.  Which turns out to be a good thing, especially when Mrs Brown’s surly granddaughter decides to enter the A & P Show Queen competition to bring it undone and prove that it’s  ‘a Meat Market for the Ages’:  she has the perfect accomplices in Pike and Devon, who don’t believe in hypocrisy of any kind.  Tell it like it is, girlfriend, and solve that murder too!
            This is a most charming story, with great characters and poignant insights into grief and loss of every kind.  It is also Mr McDonald’s first novel; what a mighty debut!  The Rainbow Community will love it, and rightly so.  FIVE STARS     

Saturday, 31 August 2019

Things in Jars, by Jess Kidd.

           A cover comment on this book said that ‘Jess Kidd should be a genre all to herself’.  And that is indisputably true – she is impossible to categorise, apart from the fact that her stories so far all involve the supernatural, haunted houses and/or ghosts.  (Or Gwosts, as my dear old Gran used to call them.)
            ‘Things in Jars’ is no different:  it is 1863 and Mrs Bridie Devine, a London private detective (straying spouses a specialty) is going through a dark time in her life: a ransomed child that she was charged to find has been found dead, and even though she caught the perpetrator, the little one’s death makes her heart heavy, and her spirits remain so until she is sent to Highgate Chapel to view a bricked-up corpse in the basement.
            And who should she see, posing nonchalantly on a handy tombstone before she even crosses the chapel threshold, but a fine handsome young spectre clad in pugilist’s attire and sporting laughing dark eyes, a wonderful moustache and a collection of enough tattoos to make one’s eyes roll.  The back of his head has been stove in – ‘a tavern brawl’, he casually announces, but his mates all clubbed together to get him buried in the chapel grounds.  And he is amused but offended that she doesn’t recognise him, refraining from giving her any clues as to their earlier association – ‘you’ll just have to work it out yourself, so!’  He is still waiting for her when she emerges from the chapel, horrified at what she has seen – a decayed mother and young baby imprisoned behind a wall, and even worse – the baby had rows of sharp, pointed teeth.
            In Victorian England, it was common for those with means to collect curiosities for novelty or to make a financial profit from their freakishness;  as Bridie investigates further (always accompanied by her ghostly companion – which no-one can see but herself, thus making her appear to be conducting a long-winded, cross conversation with no-one), she is horrified to learn the extent of the practice, and the large number of people already killed in an effort to preserve sick secrets, and it does her no good to discover that a despicable enemy from her deprived childhood is behind all the wickedness.
            Ms Kidd is in complete command of the reader:  she orchestrates her prose so that we are laughing like hyenas, or reading through our fingers at the horrors and degradation of 1860’s London, that great dirty city where evil, cruelty, goodness and compassion stride, taunting each other, on opposite sides of the street.  I’m a huge fan of the Kidd genre.  SIX STARS!         

Thursday, 22 August 2019

Girl in the Rear View Mirror, by Kelsey Rae Dimberg.

          Ms Dimberg’s debut novel opens with her protagonist, Finn Hunt, feeling very smug indeed – she has a great new job as nanny to Amabel, the 4 year old granddaughter of incumbent Arizona Republican Senator James Martin – ‘Your Senator’ and as such, has entrée to places that previously only featured in her daydreams.  And thanks to her good looks, she is the girlfriend of the Senator’s trusted Aide.  Life is good!       
            Well, she needed a break.  Finn has left secrets behind in the MidWest from whence she came, and ‘restructuring’ is in order – she’s ready to slam shut the door on her past, and embrace her great new circumstances.  Why, even her handsome employer, Amabel’s father, eventually expected to take over the Senator’s safe seat, appears to be attracted to her, as she is to him:  such a life could go to a girl’s head if she’s not careful!
            But good times inevitably turn into their opposite:  Amabel announces that a lady is following her – ‘I’ve seen her lots of times’ – and the lady eventually contacts Finn, saying that she needs her help:  she’s pregnant to Amabel’s father and he won’t speak to her!  Finn’s attempts to remedy the situation create more problems than they solve, for no whiff of scandal must blight the Senator’s re-election campaign, especially when he has a personable young Latino running against him.  Blackmail and extortion to buy silence destroys the wonderful illusion for Finn of privilege and moral righteousness surrounding the Martin family.  Their wealth is a buttress against secrets and lies, but they are no better after all, than anyone else.  Finn’s idols indeed have feet of clay.
            More tragedy occurs and Finn is on the receiving end of it:  her job has gone and eventually, so does her boyfriend, betraying her in such a way that for her own self-respect she finally has to make a stand against the corruption she uncovers – or die trying.
            Ms Emberg is a skilful writer.  Her portrayal of life for the privileged in the great desert city of Phoenix is compelling and credible:  as we cruise through the first half of the book we have no inkling of all the trouble that’s waiting, BUT!  The action slows, the plot stutters and an entirely predictable conclusion is presented.  The Bad Guys win.  YOUR Senator’ wins.  The air has leaked out of Ms Emberg’s tires.  THREE STARS.