Monday, 24 June 2019

The Hoarder, by Jess Kidd.

           It’s impossible to confine Ms Kidd to a particular writing genre:  comic novel, magical realism, ghost story, heart-warmer, crime thriller:  ‘The Hoarder’  fits the bill admirably in all categories, leaving the reader to wonder how she did it.  (And I still do!)
            Irishwoman Maude Drennan is temping for a company that provides home help for the well-off in London’s West End;  currently, she is employed as a ‘caregiver’ to another countryman, Cathal Flood, an ancient recluse and hoarder whose property is so full of rats and rubbish that the local Council consider it and him a health hazard.  They want to put him into ‘Assisted Living’ which, according to Cathal, would be worse than dying.  Fair enough, but Cathal does nothing to endear himself to Maud, a potential ally;  instead he does everything he can to make himself disagreeable – and so does the house!  Taps turn on and flood everything just after she has cleaned it;  the kettle regularly boils itself dry and the pantry is always emptying its newly clean shelves.  What to do?  For with every inexplicable mishap that Maud must rectify, a fresh clue to the house’s past occupants reveals itself:  the house is trying to tell her something, and gets angry when Maud is not clever enough to read the signs.
            Maud’s home-life isn’t all hunky-dory either:  her downstairs neighbour, a majestic transvestite called  Renata with whom she drinks another neighbour’s questionable home-made hooch every night, is a lover of detective yarns and is fascinated by Maud’s tales of the house and its caprices (not to mention Cathal and his acres of garbage);  Renata has a list of things that Maude should do to solve the various mysteries – unfortunately, she can’t assist because Agoraphobia has made her a prisoner in her maisonette for many years.  Her resentful sister (‘she’s just jealous because I stole all her boyfriends off her!’) does her shopping, in between fights involving door-slamming and vowing never to return, but Renata is a prisoner of her fears.  Solving the mystery – and a couple of probable murders will be Maud’s responsibility entirely, which is very hard, for she has secrets of her own that don’t bear close scrutiny, such as the several saints (all from her Granny’s Book of Saints that Maud loved as a child) that tiresomely dog her footsteps:  who knows which – or all – of them will be following her down the street, whether she wants their company or not!
            Ms Kidd’s singular characters are all beautifully larger than life, and an added bonus is that unique brand of humour that can only be Irish, not to mention the swear-words:  there are enough gobshites and feckers in this book to float a boat. Fair play to you Ms Kidd!  SIX STARS.    

Sunday, 16 June 2019

A Book of Bones, by John Connolly.

            In the twenty years since his first book was published, John Connolly has perfected the art of supernatural thriller writing – it is an incontrovertible fact that no-one does it better, including the master himself, Stephen King:  then why have his last titles not lived up to the quality of those before them?
            They are as beautifully – even lyrically – written as every Charlie Parker story always is;  assassins extraordinaire Louis and Angel still loom large, though Angel is suffering grievous side-effects from the Chemotherapy treatment for bowel cancer;  FBI Special Agent Ross still retains Charlie for special missions pertaining to the supernatural, knowing that Charlie appears to have an entrée to worlds of which ordinary mortals should know nothing (in the interests of their sanity); so why has the air gone out of the balloon?
            This story is a continuation of ‘The Woman in the Woods’, where Pallida Mors, a particularly bloodthirsty (and odiferous) murderer has strewn victims in a trail across the North-Eastern United States in her search for hidden maps at the behest of her Master, Quayle, a truly evil lawyer cursed with eternal life – unless he manages to assemble all the pages of a magic Atlas (truly!), which when complete, will destroy the world as we know it, and finally end his own benighted life. 
            I am the first to admit that my truncated version of events would not induce the Rational Reader to pick up this book, but all Charlie Parker fans will give RR the stink eye:  no-one can carry off such wild plotting as successfully as John Connolly.
Until now.
‘A Book of Bones’ is Part Two of the search for the missing pages, with the pursuit of Pallida and Quayle by Charlie, Louis and Angel;  Louis is particularly keen to meet with Pallida again after she put two bullets in him at their last meeting:  he thirsts for vengeance.  Angel, is along for the ride, even though he shouldn’t be going anywhere, but where Louis goes, so does he.  And the first third of the novel doesn’t disappoint:  there are a series of bloodthirsty serial crimes to mystify merely mortal Northern English police;  wonderfully descriptive accounts of ancient British history and beautifully etched characters who have the fatal misfortune to meet Pallida and Quayle, BUT.  Thereafter, the action slows down and even stops completely under the weight of dense detail and digression.  I don’t believe that Connolly has fallen in love with his own erudition, but many tangents a tough and taut thriller doth not make.  (Work that one out if you can:  this is why he’s the writer and I’m not!)  Very disappointing.  THREE STARS.     

Sunday, 9 June 2019

The One Dollar Horse, by Lauren St John                Junior Fiction

           Starting with Anna Sewell’s ‘Black Beauty’, there have always been children’s classic horse tales, a wealth of wonderful stories about the most beautiful animal on earth, and ‘The One Dollar Horse’ deservedly follows the tradition:  horse-loving children aged twelve and up (girls especially!) will identify with the many strong messages in this book, especially the overriding belief that if one wants it enough, nothing is beyond reach.
            This is not a new title, but the first in a trilogy about teenager Casey Blue, volunteer at a no-frills riding school in London’s East End.  Casey lives in a scruffy high-rise apartment with her beloved Dad, an ex-burglar who has zero luck finding a job after a stint inside.  Her mother died when she was two, so her Dad is everything to her – until fate steps in one day and she and her father rescue an ill and traumatised horse that has escaped from the local knacker’s yard:  from then on it is Casey’s mission to bring the dying animal back to good health – and back to life, a job much easier to imagine than to achieve. 
            Fortunately, Casey has some firm friends in the tiny horsey fraternity in the East End, including Mrs Smith, an elderly lady who once had a glittering career in Dressage and Show Jumping;  Mrs Smith is a woman who understands big dreams and how to realise them, having had huge success herself.  She knows that Casey and the One Dollar horse (so named because Casey’s dad found an American dollar on the day they rescued him – it was all he had in his wallet, so the knacker accepted it!) have a special, loving bond that occurs very seldom:  if they are coached correctly, they could be eventing stars – especially at Badminton, the biggest prize of all.
            Casey’s efforts to attain the standard required to reach Badminton hit many snags on the way, not least rivalry and derision from other competitors;  she finds that there are few highs and lots of lows in her efforts to lift her game, and just when all finally seems attainable, her father betrays her by selling her horse to the father of her rival competitor.  How Casey overcomes these massive barriers to the success of her dreams is told with humour, verve and a true sense of suspense by Ms St John, who writes like she’s been there, done that on every page:  great stuff.  FIVE STARS.

Monday, 3 June 2019

Necessary Secrets by Greg McGee

           This is SUCH an Auckland book - not least because Greg McGee lives there and captures effortlessly the pace, heart and diversity of population that characterise the sprawling, messy city bursting beyond its boundaries.  From the elegant harbourside reaches of Herne Bay to the sad state houses of Glen Innes and New Windsor, Mr McGee transports the reader on a Tiki Tour of best and worst with his protagonists, the Spark family.
            Den the widowed Herne Bay patriarch is ostensibly celebrating his 70th birthday;  his three children plus some mysterious hangers-on have joined him to drink champagne (which he hates) and doubtless end up fighting with each other, but it won’t matter, he thinks, for this will be his last night on earth:  he intends to die by his own hand – assisted by Walter, his name for an ancient Walther PPK with one bullet in it, for he has received a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s from his physician and wants to leave the world while he can still remember names and faces.  Fortunately, he has sold his boutique advertising and production company to his eldest son Will, who seems to be running the business successfully;  his daughter Ellie has some sort of glorified social worker position helping waifs and strays – why, one of them, Jackson, a strange quiet Maori boy is living with them at the moment, and he has a sister who has suddenly turned up:  why are they here, exactly?  Oh yes, that’s right – their father is now out of jail for half-killing their mother, and he’s looking for Jackson to kill him because it was Jackson’s testimony that put him inside.
So Ellie’s OK.  Youngest son Stanley seems to be the only unfocused one, living on a remote Golden Bay ‘Co-Operative’ having decided to renounce all his current worldly goods (which weren’t many.)  Oh, he’ll be alright.  So.  Tonight will be the Night!
            Except that it’s not:  Den’s house burns down and the insurance company is procrastinating about the pay-out, saying that the fire could have been deliberately lit, which is bad news all round, especially for Den who is farmed out to Assisted Living.  Will, inheritor of the family business is deeply in debt and in urgent need of the insurance pay-out to prop up his company, plus his marriage is going south – and he has a raging meth habit.  Could things get any worse? 
Of course they could, and they do, in ways that kick the plot along at a great pace, providing a solution to those necessary family secrets that is both credible and satisfying, for Greg McGee is completely at home with his characters and city, and portrays the whole with an honesty and expertise that is masterly.  FIVE STARS

Tuesday, 28 May 2019

The Strawberry Thief, by Joanne Harris.

            I have the feeling that this fourth book in Ms Harris’s series involving Vianne Rocher, fey and eccentric chocolatier-extraordinaire in the Southern French village of Lansquenet-sous-Tannes will be the last:  there is an air of finality to the plot and all the ends are tied up neatly by the last page – not in an unpleasant way;  just very conclusively.  Which is a shame, for Vianne and her Gypsy lover Roux (played so convincingly in the film version of ‘Chocolat’ by Juliette Binoche and (sigh) Johnny Depp) have become loved, staple figures that every reader of Ms Harris’s fiction associate with her work:  to give up stories of them and Lansquenet-Sous-Tannes is akin to having to forsake chocolate!
            The village is changing, and people are dying, including Narcisse, the old farmer and owner of the florist shop across the square.  No-one is surprised by his demise;  he was very old, but the contents of his will shock everyone:  his daughter (whom no-one likes) inherits the farm and shop, but a little wood adjacent to the farm is left to Vianne’s daughter Rosette, considered by everyone to be retarded because she doesn’t speak and was unable to attend school because she had ‘accidents’.  When children bullied her (well, could you blame them?  She’s VERY odd!), stormy weather could appear in a cloudless sky, for Rosette has the power to put the wind up anyone who upsets her.  Better she stays at home with Vianne – who feels the change in the wind too, especially when a stranger, a mysterious woman rents Narcisse’s shop and starts business as (of all things) a tattooist!
            And people start flocking to her – almost like the Pied Piper, Vianne thinks – which fills her with dread, for the Pied Piper always demands to be paid.  And the tattooist has the seeming ability to read peoples’ minds, to glean all their secrets;  even Vianne’s old adversary Father Reynaud, bearing a terrible secret of his own as well as having to read Narcisse’s last written Confession, is helpless before her power.
            When Roux visits the tattooist, then announces he is moving on, Vianne is bereft, but the unthinkable occurs when Rosette, against her special orders, visits the tattooist:  this woman is intent on taking away all whom Vianne loves.  It’s time to call up the wind.  It’s time for the tattooist to go.
            Ms Harris beguiles the reader as always with her wonderful imagery – especially her descriptions of strawberries, and who could ever be impervious to her thoughts on chocolat, sweet balm for us all.  She has seduced us yet again with her lovely characters –magical realism was never better served.  Vive Lansquenet-Sous-Tannes!  FIVE STARS  

Monday, 20 May 2019

Blood and Sugar, by Laura Shepherd-Robinson.

           Laura Shepherd Robinson’s debut novel works well on various levels,  but not as an 18th century crime thriller, as it has been promoted. It starts off promisingly  enough, with a grisly murder in 1781 in the shipbuilding town of Deptford, close to London on the Thames river:  the naked and horribly tortured corpse of young London  lawyer Thaddeus Archer has been found hanging from a lamppost down by the docks. When his sister reports him missing to Archer’s old friend Captain Harry Corsham and the trail leads to Deptford and identification, Corsham is shocked at the lack of cooperation he finds:  none of the town’s worthies, from the Mayor, to Magistrate, to local physician, to rough and ruthless seamen, have any time for Corsham’s enquiries, still less for finding Archer’s killer – for Archer was an Abolitionist, abhorring slavery in Britain, and trying to find any legal means to stamp out the heinous industry in human souls.  Deptford and its inhabitants all depend – indeed, England depends on the human cargo shipped by slavers across the Middle Passage to the Caribbean, there to work in the sugar plantations, so that an Englishman may enjoy sugar in his bowl of tea.  What decent British citizen would question such a right?
            As Corsham delves into the murkier levels of his inquiry his questions unleash violence upon himself, and yet more murders;  it becomes clear that it is not only the local hierarchy of Deptford who are intent at hiding at any cost the evil he uncovers -  especially the voyage of the ‘Dark Angel’, a slave ship that ran low on water halfway home, and threw more than three hundred men, women and children off the ship to drown.  The more Corsham discovers, the more he realises that a very powerful syndicate is pulling the strings, and the legitimate industry of slavery will persist as long as they say so.  Human misery is trumped by profit every time.
            Ms Shepherd-Robinson’s story moves too slowly to be described as a thriller;  dare I say that there are too many minor characters who contribute little to the action, and Corsham asks himself so many questions (no wonder he upsets everybody!) that his introspection becomes a very annoying plot device, BUT!  As a harrowing historical account of the worst sin and indignity that the human race can perpetrate against itself, her story works brilliantly.  FOUR STARS.       

Sunday, 5 May 2019

The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock, by Imogen Hermes Gowar.

           It is September, 1785 and canny Deptford merchant Jonah Hancock is horrified to learn that the trusted Captain of Hancock’s ship ‘Calliope’ has sold the vessel for – for A Mermaid????
            And a fearsome ugly one at that! But the Captain swears that Mr Hancock will make himself rich from displaying such a Curiosity;  there is no other like it and the merchant should set about reaping the returns on his ‘investment’ as soon as possible.  Jonah Hancock has had many tragedies in his life:  the loss of his wife and baby in childbirth fifteen years before;  the responsibilities of many relatives to support without any of the rewards of a close and loving family life, and the prospect of bleak and loveless old age – he may as well try his luck  with his horrid new acquisition:  what more can he lose?
            To his great shock, he finds that his friend the Captain is right:  there is no shortage of spectators wishing to pay good money to see his Curiosity – why, he even receives an offer he can’t refuse from the Madame of one of the most exclusive brothels in London to display the Mermaid for one week, she eagerly acquiescing to the most outrageous sum he can name – and there, finally, he meets his fate in the shape of Angelica Neal, high-priced courtesan who effortlessly steals his heart (and hopefully, his fortune later).  He is hopelessly smitten, but not entirely foolish:  he is dogged, determined and good at playing the waiting game, even enduring a tempestuous and doomed love affair she conducts with a handsome and penniless young man, and as a show of devotion he even dispatches his Captain on another search when Angelica gaily challenges him to ‘find me another mermaid!’
            And he does.
            But this one is real and has a dreadful gift of plunging all who see and hear her into a dreadful melancholy, including Mr Hancock:  it is time for Angelica, low-born and whore though she may be, to fight for all she holds dear – including Mr. Hancock.
            Ms Gowar thrills us with her gorgeous language and spectacular imagery, especially when evoking the tumultuous life of 18th century London and beyond, and the huge, unassailable ramparts of the Class system.  From those forced to sell themselves for food to the courtesans of princes, ‘commerce’ is involved every step of the way:  what do you have that I can buy at the cheapest possible price?  (Beauties and Curiosities excepted!)  SIX STARS.   

Sunday, 28 April 2019

My Sister, the Serial Killer, by Oyinkan Braithwaite.

           Korede and Ayoola are sisters in Lagos, Nigeria:  Korede is clever, shrewd, a highly-respected career nurse – and plain.  Ayoola is tiny, curvaceous, shallow – and beautiful.  She also has a predilection for murdering her boyfriends, then sending out a distress call to Korede to help her avoid the consequences of her wildly impetuous actions.  And to dispose of the bodies.
            Korede dreads phone calls from her sister even worse than the sick envy she feels at Ayoola’s effortless ability to attract whomever she pleases;  consequently she is horrified when Ayoola visits her one day at the hospital where she works – ‘we can go to lunch at that new place round the corner.  Won’t that be fun!’ – and immediately draws the eye of Doctor Tade.
            Doctore Tade:  noble, kind, handsome.  Everything a Doctor should be, and Korede’s secret love.  Why, oh why could he never look at her in that gobsmacked way at his first sight of Ayoola?  OK, Korede is nearly six feet tall and all angles, but still ……..  life is cruel and will be even more so if he follows his lust struck impulses and asks Ayoola on a date:  Korede must nip this ‘romance’ in the bud before it even starts.
            But how?
            Korede’s best efforts to discourage contact come to nothing, for Ayoola is quite taken with Doctor Tade;  it’s fun to have a highly educated man completely smitten with her, and even more so when he buys her an engagement ring (admittedly rather small, under three carats;  she doesn’t usually accept anything less, but perhaps this time she’ll make an exception) but Korede knows only too well what will happen to Doctor Tade if he pursues his fatal romance with Ayoola:  there will be fatal consequences!
            Korede’s only confidante during these trying times is a coma patient in the hospital whom she visits to pour out all her worries, including Ayoola’s previous murders, Korede’s infatuation with Doctor Tade, even her preference for a certain type of popcorn, and their childhood with their brutal father.  Well, the coma patient is a perfect audience – he can’t see, speak or hear - he’s the three wise monkeys rolled into one!  Until, much to everyone’s shock and surprise, he wakes up one day – and wishes to speak to Korede.
            Ms Braithwaite’s debut novel is smart, funny - and spine-chilling, exactly as a good thriller should be.  Each sister has choices, as we all do;  it’s very satisfying to see what they decide.  FIVE STARS.   

Monday, 22 April 2019

The Border, by Don Winslow. 

            This is the last book of master crime-writer Don Winslow’s trilogy which started with ‘The Power of the Dog’, followed by ‘The Cartel’.  Now this magnificent, terrible story of the drug war between Mexico and the USA comes to an end;  several of the major characters have died, including Adan Barrera, ‘El Senor’, supreme leader of the Sinaloa drug cartel, with whom the Mexican government negotiated a deal:  if they gave his cartel autonomy, then the myriad killings of innocent people could be kept to a more ‘manageable’ level.
            Yep, sounds like a plan.  But Barrera has now been murdered and his cartel is exposed to a take-over from rivals for whom brutality, sadism and ferocity are meat and drink:  the butchering of innocents resumes, as does increased trafficking of heroin across the border to the cartels’ biggest customer – the USA.
            New Head of the Drug Enforcement Agency Art Keller is once again at the helm of a special undercover unit tasked with tracing  heroin shipments and money laundering movements by the bankers believed to be attached to the cartels, and what he eventually discovers is information to chill his blood, if only it can be proven:  not only is drug money laundered by being provided as seed-money in New York hedge fund operations,  but the faceless people borrowing laundered Mexican drug money reside at the very top:  the new White House administration.  Art Keller has always been a Lone Wolf and as such will never be popular.  But he is brave and honourable and believes in doing the right thing, and the right thing here is to expose the corruption and rot within those at the highest levels, those whose only god is money.  He knows it is a battle he cannot win.
            ‘The Border’ teems with characters that delight and horrify the reader.  The violence is gut-churningly graphic – there is no escape for us as the gory, bloody war that will never be won proceeds onwards;  instead we can only marvel at Don Winslow’s genius at bringing this monumental tragedy to life with such cruel realism:  although this is a work of fiction, it was all based on factual events, but the question remains:  what is so fundamentally wrong with American society that they must continually seek the anaesthetic release from pain for, as long as there are buyers of poison, there will be vendors.  Why? 
            This is a master work.  SIX STARS.         

Friday, 12 April 2019

November Road, by Lou Berney.

            The assassination of President John F Kennedy in November 1963 has given birth to conspiracy theories galore, not to mention rafts of published material, both fact and fiction guaranteeing the continued life of the legend.  Stephen King introduced the supernatural element in his masterful novel of time travel in ’12.22.63;  now we have Lou Berney’s version of the tragedy in Dallas.  And it is chillingly plausible.           
            Frank Guidry is a fixer for Carlos Marcello, a ruthless Louisiana crime boss whose reach is long and power absolute;  Frank is his favourite because he’s very good at his job, which is keeping even a sniff of trouble away from his merciless employer, and for that he is well paid.  He’s handsome, a sharp dresser, and well-read enough to fool all kinds of people.  He loves being indispensable.  Until the unthinkable Crime of the Century occurs:  Kennedy is murdered in Dallas, and Frank is despatched from New Orleans to Dallas with instructions to dump a car hiding an incriminating weapon in the tide.  Which he does, for a good soldier always follows orders – until he realises that plans of disposal have been made for him, too:  he knows too much.  Never mind that he would eat his teeth before he would divulge that he has figured out that Oswald and Ruby were patsies and that Kennedy’s murder was a mafia hit:  sadly, the only way his boss can be sure he won’t talk is to silence him forever.
            Frank finds this morally outrageous.  Is this any way to treat a 100% loyal employee?  His only course of action is to go on the run, which is fine – at first, until he hears that Paul Barone, a particularly evil killer has been hired to find him and end his life as painfully as possible:  well, he’s not going to make Barone’s job easy for him – he has friends in Las Vegas who will help him leave the country, if he can get there in one piece.
            And he does, with the help of a young woman and her two little girls and their family dog;  Charlotte has left her drunken husband and is going to her aunt in Los Angeles.  Frank is not the only one on the run, but a chance to pose as a family man will be the perfect disguise – he hopes.
            Lou Berney’s characters leap off the page.  His dialogue can be smart and funny, until the reader is sideswiped by dramatic, jaw-dropping twists in the plot of a great story in which there are few winners.  SIX STARS 

Tuesday, 2 April 2019

The Rosie Result, by Graeme Simsion.

           Professor of Genetics Don Tillman is very happy with his life at the beginning of the final book of Graeme Simsion’s marvellous trilogy:  he is still married to Rosie, The Most Beautiful Woman in the World, who has now gained all her qualifications for new medical research into various mental illnesses;  he has a satisfying job at New York’s Columbia University;  their 11 year old son Hudson – after a few false starts – is doing well academically (for the most part:  maths and English excellent, handwriting illegible and sports terrible), and Don has firm, loyal friends.  For the first time in his life, he fits in.
            But Rosie inadvertently changes everything when her application for a position as lead researcher on a medical team in Melbourne is accepted.  In what seems an obscenely short time, Don’s little family is ensconced in a three bed two bath house in suburban Melbourne, and Hudson is not adjusting at all to his new environment and new school.  Meltdowns, formerly few and far between, are occurring often:  Hudson, because of his American accent and complete lack of interest in sports (he’d rather read books on Space Travel) is  bullied by his class-mates, the ‘neurotypicals’ (that’s thee an me, folks!).  Something has to be done, and Don, who went through the same agonising situations when he was the same age and knows just how damaging they can be, determines that he is the one to do it:  his brilliant, atypical, ‘your son has autism’ boy will receive the maximum benefit from Don’s own adolescent Baptism of Fire:  Hudson will fit in if they both die in the attempt!
            Thus begins Don’s efforts to help Hudson lead a normal life by showing him all the pitfalls of ‘being weird’ and how to avoid them, including tuition on How to Ride a Bike – but Hudson has his own ideas about what he considers normal, and his own solutions to his problems of not fitting in. He’s brave enough to acknowledge that he’s On the Spectrum, and eventually, confident enough in his new learned skills to think that maybe ‘neurotypicals’ might like to fit in with him for a change.
            This is such a lovely story that I am saddened to think that this will be the last we read of Don and his singular little family, but Mr Simsion has ended his trilogy at the right time – leaving us wanting more, and wishing to show more tolerance to those of us who don’t always fit in.  SIX STARS.

Thursday, 28 March 2019

Vox, by Christina Dalcher

            In Christina Dalcher’s debut novel, it has been less than two years since ultra-conservative President Dyer has taken up occupancy in the White House, and Jean McLellan marvels at the swiftness of the change in her circumstances:  prior to President Dyer’s election she was a respected Doctor of Neurolinguistics, juggling career, marriage and children with varying degrees of success, the same as most women;  now it has been decreed by Dyer’s new religious advisor that she stay at home 24/7, attending to the needs of her family ‘as all women should’.  Her computer and passport are gone, locked in her husband’s study;  he also has the key to the mailbox – not that she receives any mail;  all letters are addressed to him.  TV coverage is sparse;  cooking programs rule, as do ‘family friendly’ sitcoms, though these are sometimes interrupted by ‘public shamings’ of individuals who have broken the new laws against adultery and fornication:  women are the only sinners here and are sent off, heads shaved, to parts unknown for a life of slavery.  Those unfortunate enough to be exposed as homosexual share the same fate.
            But the worst thing, the most shameful  thing, is the bracelet.  The bracelet is a thin band that all women must wear around their left wrist.  It counts the words that are said:  if a woman utters more than 100 words a day she receives an electric shock so severe that it burns.  If she starts ranting against the injustice of it all, the bracelet is capable of incinerating her hand.  Even the president’s wife, a former model, (sound familiar?) is not immune:  Jean watches her on TV, silently attending a function, remote and beautiful as always, bracelet exactly matching her outfit.  Her eyes are dead.
            Until … until the president’s elder brother and chief adviser sustains a major brain injury in a ski accident.  Prior to the new laws giving all women’s jobs (except the menial ones) to men, Jean and her team were involved in an exciting new experiment to repair aphasia in stroke and injury victims, restoring speech and lucidity – which the president’s brother now lacks:  suddenly Jean’s former scientific expertise is vital.  For the duration of ‘the cure’ her bracelet will be removed and she has freedom of movement. 
            But she also has a lover.  And she is pregnant.  Two secrets that could send her into slavery in a heartbeat, not to mention another one she has discovered:  a resistance movement that could get them all killed.
            This powerful story has echoes of ‘1984’ and ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’;  it is an intelligent, chillingly real portrait of what could happen in a society where fear and hatred have an unassailable hold on people’s hearts and minds.  Great stuff.  FIVE STARS.

Thursday, 21 March 2019

The Honourable Thief, by Meaghan Wilson Anastasios.

           Well.  This is definitely a novel of two halves.  Ms Anastasios has trained as an archaeologist, and her practical knowledge is vast, the research of her book’s subject thorough, well written and cleverly woven into the plot of her story based on a real-life 20th century character whose archaeological career ended in disgrace, his reputation destroyed forever by his inability to prove the existence of a mysterious woman who showed him a priceless cache of treasures supposedly stolen from tombs in Northern Turkey.
            Ms Anastasios’s protagonist is American Benedict Hitchens, an archaeologist passionate about the exciting excavations he is involved with in 1950’s Turkey, a country he has come to love after spending the war years in Crete, fighting for the Resistance troops against the Germans, and facing his own almost unbearable tragedy:  he has put his past behind him (he thinks) until he encounters a young woman on a train who is wearing an ancient and priceless pendant.  Benedict can’t believe his eyes – or his ears – especially when the woman says that she has more like that at home.  Would he like to see?  With his superior knowledge he would be the perfect expert to verify the authenticity of ‘her father’s’ collection.  Needless to say, Benedict is hooked:  he excitedly catalogues her collection, even though he has to draw everything because she won’t have it photographed;  the woman repays his enthusiasm in the usual way (oh, really?);  and when Benedict wakes in a state of bliss the next morning, finds that the young lady and her treasure trove have disappeared.
            Everything turns to custard for him from then on:  his attempts to find her and her jewels attract the attention of the Turkish police, who take a dim view of the illegal excavation and sale of antiquities (especially gold and gems) and it is not long before Benedict is jobless, drowning his many sorrows in Turkish bars and subsisting on falsely verifying forged ‘antiquities’ for a clever friend.  He has hit rock-bottom and so has the plot! 
            Benedict is a horrid drunk;  he has an absurdly short fuse, and the number of times he shakes with fury nearly made me do the same.  Add to that some Mills and Boon soft porn sex scenes (SO much info!) and what was a very readable, rollicking adventure almost came to a tired old halt – until Benedict is given a second chance to resurrect himself - and the plot - by the discovery of an ancient tablet purporting to reveal the way to the Tomb of the Iliad’s legendary warrior Achilles.  Benedict’s heart beats faster, so did mine, and about time!  This is the first book of a series:  let’s hope he cleans up his act.  FOUR STARS.   Maybe.   

Monday, 11 March 2019

Country, by Michael Hughes.

            Irish novelist Michael Hughes has presented us with a modern version of Homer’s epic poem ‘The Iliad’, and what a gift it is:  ancient Greece becomes Ireland in 1996, the time of The Troubles, the time of a fragile ceasefire between the IRA and Sinn Fein (the Greek Armies) and the Protestants and Unionists of the North (the Trojan forces).
            The ceasefire is not going well for the local squads of the IRA.  They have snitches and touts in their midst, and a big internal stoush has erupted between the OC (Officer Commanding) Pig – called so because he farms pigs, smuggles pigs, eats pigs, and is a f---ing pig by nature – and Achil, a sniper so renowned and feared for his courage and skill that the British soldiers will not leave the local base if they hear that he’s about.  Achil is the IRA’s star, a true warrior they all want to be like, de ye see, so his squad points out to Pig the error of his ways:  he’d better make up with Achil or their next operation, scheduled after the ceasefire fails (as it surely must) – will fail too, without their greatest asset.  It’s kiss and make up time!
            But Achil has had enough.  Enough of the fighting and the killing for that  impossible dream, the unification of Ireland:  he’s going back to his Home county and his family.  No more fighting. 
            The lads are horrified, and true to prophecy, the next operation they mount when the ceasefire is broken is a disaster;  they are lucky to escape with their lives, and the hated British in their impregnable base are laughing and  not going anywhere – until one of their number, a much-decorated SAS officer, mercilessly kills Achil’s dearest friend Pat in the town square, causing Achil to swear vengeance and a gruesome death for Pat’s killer.  ‘I go to end that murderer, but not for him.  For his country.  To show them evil doesn’t go unpunished, that there’s consequences to taking the innocence of a quiet wee land and trampling it down.  They need to feel the pain we do.  They need to see what it is they’ve done, know it in their guts and in their blood.  They’ve called it on themselves. It’s about justice.  If they’re let think it’s right to rob the freedom of another people, that we accept them as our betters just because they say they are, then we surrender any claim to self-determination.  If we don’t fight, then we have nothing worth fighting for’.
            With prose as harsh and relentless as gunfire Hughes takes us through to the inevitable conclusion of Achil’s revenge, travelling the corridors of power in Whitehall to the bar of a border pub where the SAS officer’s superior bargains for his body:  This is hardly the first time that a writer has produced a modern version of ancient stories, but it is a rarity that Homer’s wonderful poem has been portrayed with so much vigour and power.  Even if readers know nothing of ‘The Iliad’, Hughes’s wonderful book is a page-turning thriller in its own right.  SEVEN STARS!!          

Saturday, 2 March 2019

Chicago, by David Mamet.

            Pulitzer prize-winning playwright David Mamet has produced his first novel for some considerable time.  As the cover shows, it’s a story of that city and its lawless inhabitants set in the 20’s:  ‘that toddlin’ town where anything goes’, the song that Sinatra made famous all those decades later was not exaggerating.  It was a city and a time that laughed at the law, but was seen to pay lip service – and bribes – to the various Irish ‘Upholders’ (the police and politicians) so that some crime was kept at a manageable level.
Prohibition was openly flouted;  Speakeasies and brothels (run by the Italians led by Al Capone) flourished, and florists and funeral parlours did a roaring trade ‘cleaning up’ after the various gang wars, the florists often recovering flowers at the graveside so that they could resell them while still fresh.  The ways to make money were myriad and infinite.
The men who reported the daily news i.e. knifings, shootings, robberies and hijacks were of a special breed, inured to emotion and suffering, only concerned with presenting the facts – or as much fact as they were permitted;  they scorned sentiment and had total belief in journalistic honesty – and the restorative powers of the whisky always stowed in their desk drawer.          
Such a man is reporter Mike Hodge, a veteran of the First World War.  What he saw during the fighting in France prepared him well for Chicago’s lawlessness;  no-one could be more detached than he – until the little Irish girl he loves is shot dead in front of his eyes by a stranger in a long foreign overcoat.  Detachment is no longer possible and, after nearly killing himself with booze (so much for Prohibition), he decides he will find Annie’s murderer and exact the vengeance her killing demands.
Mr Mamet has painted a compelling and authentic picture of Old Chicago, peopled with fascinating characters of all stripes and a most satisfying solution to the mystery of Annie’s killing, but I have to admit to some confusion with the speech patterns:  the coloured characters have a dialect that suits their humble origins, while the fearless reporters of the Herald Tribune – and some of the villains – speak a courtly, old-fashioned English that seems wildly at odds with their everyday life.  And Mr Mamet is a lover of the comma and italics, all of which are sprinkled like confetti in the strangest places!  That said, ‘Chicago’ is like ‘The Untouchables’ - a great amalgam of humour, horror and heart.  FOUR STARS.   

Sunday, 24 February 2019

Magnus Chase and the Gods of Asgard
The Sword of Summer (Book One) by Rick Riordan.  Junior Fiction

           Magnus Chase has been homeless for two years.  He has been living on the streets of Boston since his mother was murdered by supernatural wolves when he was fourteen:  he knows that something supremely evil is looking for him and so far, hiding in plain sight, dossing down under bridges and in parks, and fossicking in dumpsters for food feels a whole lot safer than contacting his few living relatives – all of whom could care for him, but he doesn’t want to bring mortal danger into their lives.  Until finally, it becomes unavoidable:  at an unplanned meeting with his uncle Randolph, an expert on Norse mythology, he is ordered to raise the Sword of Summer from the Charles River, where it has been submerged for a millennium – yes, it is Uncle Randolph’s firm belief that the Vikings did sail, plundering and looting, as far south on the eastern seaboard as Boston and Magnus, who is turning 16 on this very day, must call the sword forth from the river-bed, for the Sword of Summer is a vital weapon in the Doomsday War of Ragnarok, the destruction of the Gods of Asgard.
            Needless to say, Magnus wants to leave uncle as soon as it’s polite to go, especially when told he is the son of a God (!) -  but he is stopped by (yes, truly!) a gigantic fire-demon called Surt who, in his efforts to track Magnus down, has also set fire to most of the bridge they are standing on.  He wants the sword, so hand it over and he’ll promise a quick death.  Oh, Okay then.
            So begins Magnus’s adventures  in the Nine Worlds:  he is introduced in many dangerous and undignified ways to various elves, dwarves – two of which are his firm friends from his homeless days – Valkyries (including Samirah Al-Abbas, Sam for short, of Iraqi heritage but deeply ashamed that she is a daughter of God Loki the Liar:  at the Hotel Valhalla it gets her into no end of strife) and he and his friends have to battle (or at least try to avoid) a giant, homicidal squirrel, one of the guardians of the World Tree, whose tangled branches conceal the entrances to the nine worlds, most of whom Magnus has to visit on his quest to prevent Ragnarok beginning.  The action is non-stop and the mythical beasts of Norse mythology all make an appearance, either to rescue the adventurers, impede them – or eat them.  In the meantime, the Sword of Summer gets sick of its name and decides to change it to Jack:  yep, time to be cool, dude.
            This is the first of the Gods of Asgard series, and as with Rick Riordan’s forays into Greek Mythology, he takes readers of all ages on a fabulous, action-packed ride through the old Norse tales.  It’s hard to know what is most admirable about his books;  his pinpoint accuracy of character and legend, or his wonderful humour which raises a laugh on every page (especially the chapter headings!):  either way it’s a winning formula.  FIVE STARS.      

Saturday, 16 February 2019

What You Wish For, by Catherine Robertson.

           This is Catherine Robertson’s second instalment in her wholly addictive chronicle of life in a small New Zealand town – I still haven’t figured out where it is yet, and she herself says that it could be anywhere, or where we want it to be.  Fair enough, but she makes Gabriel’s Bay sound so inviting, so typical of a community that we would all like to join, that I would like to pay it an extended visit. 
            Her characters are very real, as the first book demonstrated (see review below).  Some have had an improvement in their circumstances;  Kerry McFarlane has made a satisfying life with Sidney, no-nonsense solo mum of two strapping boys, and is currently expecting a visit from his parents in the U.K.  His dad is famed for being monosyllabic, but his mum makes up for it in spades.  Kerry’s powers of oratory fall somewhere in between.  Mum and Dad are going to stay with struggling farmer Vic Halsworth in a guest cottage Vic’s wife established during their very short marriage.  Vic doesn’t say much either, and doesn’t really know how it came to be that Kerry’s parents are renting his cottage.  While the income will be very welcome, he has bigger problems to deal with:  there are squatters on his land camping by the river and the local council (who haven’t changed their spots at all since the first novel) wants Vic to move them on – health and safety, you understand, not to mention polluting the waterway);  now an anonymous person has started a blog naming Vic as a ‘dirty’ farmer.  Things are only middling!
            The beloved, long-serving and suffering Doctor Love has retired, replaced by earnest young Indian Doctor Ashwin Ghadavi:  he has his own cross to bear in the shape of his mother in Ahmedabad;  he must uphold the family honour by marrying soon – here are the details of a suitable twenty-five year old.  Return home forthwith, and look rested!  Yes Mum.  The only inconvenience with that plan is that he has fallen helplessly in love with Emma, gorgeous free-spirited daughter of Jacko, proprietor of The Boatshed, the best bar and café in the district – well, the best bar ever if measured on the friendliness and conviviality scale.  Yes, Ashwin has found his niche, and doesn’t want to return to Ahmedabad, looking rested.  Gabriel’s Bay is IT.
            Ms Robertson treats us to interesting subplots as well, characters such as Devon, so beautiful he is mistaken for a girl, not least because he refuses to cut his long blonde hair in defiance of people’s opinions that he must be a poof;  and Brownie, just out of jail and trying to integrate himself into the community again:  they’re all here in this charming story that ace journalist John Campbell said made us ‘not so much readers as neighbours’.  An entirely fitting compliment.  FIVE STARS.

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. 

Wednesday, 6 February 2019

Verses for the Dead, by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child

           Woo Hoo!   Silver-eyed, silver-haired and silver-tongued FBI special Agent Aloysius Pendergast is back, and about time, too:  it’s all very well gadding off to the Himalayas to bring back Constance, his 120 year-old (or thereabouts.  Ask me no questions;  you will just have to read the previous books) ward, for whom he has developed a great love, even though she has been despoiled by his wicked  brother Diogenes and bore him (Diogenes) a child (looked after by monks in the same Himalayan Monastery.  Oh, for goodness’ sake:  do I have to fill in the whole backstory?  Read the books!)
            Pendergast and Constance are back in New York, cosily ensconced in his Riverside Drive Mansion, when he is called to Miami on a most distressing case:  a young woman has been found dead, her heart cut out – and the same heart has been found on the gravestone of a young woman who committed suicide.  Also, Pendergast has a new boss in place of his late superior, who always allowed him free reign to employ often unconventional – and sometimes fatal – means to solve the many cases for which he is famous:  Assistant Director Pickett has no such intentions – it’s time Pendergast’s rogue behaviour and lack of discipline was curtailed.  The sooner he is exiled to a desk job in Utah, the better.
            To that end, Pendergast is given a partner of Pickett’s choosing, Agent Coldmoon, a rising, ambitious young star who will solve this awful crime and expose Pendergast for cutter-of-corners and lamentable rule-breaker that he is:  Coldmoon will report everything to Pickett;  the FBI will shine and Pendergast will be out the door. 
            But that doesn’t happen:  Three more young women are killed by the same horrible method, their hearts left on the tombs of three suicides, and it is patently clear that only Pendergast has the expertise and foresight to plumb the depths of the sick mind behind these crimes.  As always, our hero wears his usual garb in spite of the Florida humidity:  a series of black designer suits of finest wool, equipped with multiple pockets in which to secrete plastic bags of clues that he gathers at the crime scenes.  He invariably resembles a very rich undertaker.  He does change at night, though, into a white suit of finest linen, accompanied by hand-made loafers.  He is a polymath par excellence, and Coldmoon has never met anyone like Pendergast, ever;  eventually, he is so impressed with his unconventional partner that he defies his boss, offering to go to Utah too, rather than betray Pendergast. 
            And what of the killer, and who done what?  The big reveal is made in true Preston and Child fashion;   an entirely unsuspected villain is unmasked, snakes and alligators feature in large numbers, and Special Agent Pendergast, covered with gory glory (as usual) is free to return to his Constance.  Great fun!  FIVE STARS