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.