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 entrĂ©e 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