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.