Sunday, 28 July 2019

All That’s Dead, by Stuart MacBride.

           They’re back!  All the great characters in Stuart MacBride’s Logan McRae novels make a reappearance, from main protagonist Logan, reluctant Inspector for Professional Standards, Police Scotland’s austere department of coppers policing coppers, to demoted DS Roberta Steel, proud vaping lesbian and champion delegator – mostly of jobs she considers beneath her station – to Tufty, alias PC Quirrell, a wee loon so out there that most of his colleagues consider him an interplanetary visitor – and of course, the subsidiary villains.  Oh, it’s a pleasure to climb (vicariously) into Logan’s Audi (he saved long and hard for those great wheels) as he is sent off after a long sick leave by his bosses on what should be an open-and-shut case, run by a Detective Inspector King:  Logan is to observe King’s handling of the day-to-day disposition of colleagues and witnesses.  There have been complaints;  King is reputed to have a short fuse, and it’s up to Logan to report on King’s suitability for major projects – like the current abduction of several very different people:  a Scottish Councillor, an Academic, and a local reality show celeb.  All had very publicly supported staying with Britain in the Brexit talks.
            Needless to say, there is no such thing as ‘open-and-shut’ regarding these cases.  The more the police dig, the less they find:  the only sure evidence they have is that these men seem to have been kidnapped by a very secret Scottish Rights group, whose main aim is to drive the English out of Scotland forthwith.  Scottish Nationalism has been a touchy subject for some time, especially with the inequality of representation at Westminster, but when the bloody hands of the abducted academic turn up at BBC Scotland, there are grave fears that pieces of the rest of him might be sent to other media.  And as we all know, bad situations can get even worse:  a tabloid reporter hints that he has evidence that the lead detective, DI King, used to belong to a Scottish ‘terrorist cell’ in days gone by. 
            Police Scotland is screaming at its Aberdeen branch to find the kidnappers yesterday and restore its public credibility – well, good luck with that , thinks Logan;  they will do their formidable best, but the situation becomes even worse when the kidnap victims are found, and DI King is with them – barely alive.
            Stuart MacBride thrills his myriad fans yet again with his consistently excellent combination of horror and humour;  no-one writes a better crime novel than he, and I reckon the only thing that will kill Logan, DS Steel and wee loon Tufty will be their evil fast-food diet (which DS Steel always drops down her front.)  Not a vitamin to be seen!  FIVE STARS.      

Wednesday, 17 July 2019

Boy Swallows Universe, by Trent Dalton.

           At the beginning of this explosive and brilliant story, Eli Bell is 12 years old and lives in a working-class suburb of Brisbane, Australia with his ex-junkie mum, her drug-dealer partner Lyle, and his mute 13 year-old brother August.  August is not disabled, but mute by choice;  in his opinion, there’s not much worth talking about, but he has a wealth of facial expressions that communicate his opinions perfectly, especially to Eli, who ‘reads him like a book’ sometimes whether he wants to or not.
            When his mum and Lyle go to the movies (deliver drugs to third-tier dealers) the boys’ babysitter is Arthur ‘Slim’ Halliday, an elderly ex-criminal friend of Lyle’s, who thrills Eli with stories of his time Inside, and his attempts (some successful) to escape to the Outside but – despite a decidedly unconventional upbringing and sporadic schooling,  Eli has very few complaints about his life, for he is loved by his family and loves them wholeheartedly in return.
            Until Lyle makes a fatal mistake:  his heroin supplier is Drug Lord Tytus Broz, who has all the local counsellors and coppers in his pocket:  he prizes loyalty above everything, and when he learns that Lyle has done a sneaky side deal with another supplier, there is only one solution:  the annihilation of Eli’s family, starting with Lyle, taken away who knows where, never to be seen again;  a trumped-up prison sentence for Eli’s mum, and the amputation of Eli’s forefinger in an attempt to make August reveal information even though he doesn’t speak.  Eli’s precarious but carefree life is changed forever by Tytus Broz and his goons, and whatever happens in the future is beyond his control.
            Or is it?  For Eli’s mum has always said that her two boys are special, and their next few years in the custody of their alcoholic father (Child Custody Services getting it right again!) turn out to be a time to gather strength, hone special skills, search for Lyle’s hidden drug money – and plot an unexpected revenge.
            Oh, this book is a delight!  By turns horrifying and hugely funny (nothing like humour to counter all the blood), Brent Dalton has created a family that is special indeed:  Gus, who speaks volumes with the curl of a lip and the raising of an eyebrow, and Eli, impulsive, impetuous, exuberant and bursting with life and ideas, good and otherwise:  this wonderful story should be – DESERVES to be - an Australian classic.  SEVEN STARS!     

Sunday, 7 July 2019

Cari Mora, by Thomas Harris.

           Thomas Harris, the writer who introduced the world to the horrifying, cannibalistic, irresistible Psychiatrist Hannibal Lecter, has launched a new character into his singular world:  Cari Mora, a young, beautiful (naturally!) survivor of various conflicts in South America.  Abducted from her village as a child and taught lethal skills by her revolutionary army captors, Cari escaped and is now living peacefully in Miami with her cousin, niece and aunt, who suffers from dementia;  Cari is working at multiple jobs on a visa that could be revoked at any time.  Life is precarious, but it beats fighting as a guerrilla in in bloody battles for which she has no heart.
            One of Cari’s many low-paid positions is as caretaker for a notorious bayside house formerly owned by the late drug Kingpin Pablo Escobar;  there have long been rumours that this is where Escobar hid $25,000,000 in gold bullion, and it is not long before Pablo’s former henchmen turn up to try to find the loot – with the aid of Cari, for she knows the house and its environs better than anyone:  it’s a chance for her to make enough money in one hit (maybe) to enable her to make her family’s future secure.  Maybe.
            True to form, things go fatally wrong in a big way, and Cari finds herself caught between Escobar’s former lieutenants and a frightening new enemy – Hans-Peter Schneider, a German from Paraguay also interested in the gold, but principally in her, and how much money he could make if he could sell her to sadists rich enough to pay whatever he asked, for Hans-Peter caters for all tastes in ‘matchmaking’ – the baser, the better.  I have to say that Herr Schneider is the most black-and-white villain I’ve come across lately;  Mr Harris doesn’t waste time analysing to any great degree Hans-Peter’s sheer wickedness.  He is just a supremely evil dude, and it goes without saying that the showdown between good and evil at the end of the story is monumental – as it should be, but it would have been better if some of the characters were fleshed out sufficiently to make them more three-dimensional, and more real.
            Having said that (thus revealing my nit-picking nature!), Cari Mora is still a great character, so resourceful and endearing that it would be great to meet her again:  she sure packs a punch!  FOUR STARS.

Tuesday, 2 July 2019

When it All Went to Custard, by Danielle Hawkins.

            Ms Hawkins writes Chick Lit – and she’s very good at it.  Two years ago, I reviewed ‘The Pretty Delicious CafĂ©’, full of seriously predictable characters and situations, but so funny that I swooped on her latest effort with great enthusiasm, and amd very pleased I did.  Even though ‘When it All Went to Custard’ could be classified by some people as lighter-than-air reading, Ms Hawkins has a way with words that most writers would envy, and a big plus is the Kiwiness of her setting:  this time it’s beef and sheep country somewhere south of Waikato, and farmer’s wife Jenny Reynolds is shocked to find out in the most public possible way that her husband has been caught with the next-door farmer’s wife - and they weren’t making daisy chains.
            The messenger (don’t shoot!) was the farmer himself, who discovered them ‘at it’:  he immediately felt the need to appraise Jenny of the situation at her part-time job as a building control officer for the town council, and just like that, Jenny’s family life changes from mum, dad and two kids to solo mothering with defiant (‘it’s all your fault, Jen!’) hubby having the kids every Wednesday and every second weekend.  In the meantime, she is left with a farm (leased from her parents when they retired) to run, and no clear idea about how she can make a future for herself.  There is the added complication of her sister, who wants their parents to sell the farm so that she can be advanced money ‘from her inheritance’ enabling her to buy ‘the house of her dreams’ in Wellington:  a rock and a hard place is where Jenny’s fetched up, and it doesn’t feel good.
            But faint-hearted chickies never get anywhere, as we all know:  Jenny rolls up her sleeves, girds her fruitful loins and flings herself courageously into the Great Unknown – and an affair (can’t you see it coming!) with  wronged next-door neighbour farmer who’s a grumpy bugger, but he loves indoor plants and has a heart of gold – and a gay brother who is deathly afraid of emerging from the closet.  Endearing minor characters (and some nasties, too) fill the pages most satisfyingly, but Ms Hawkins writes about children best of all, especially their conversations:  I defy anyone not to recognise their own children in Lily and Nathan, not to mention fat dog Tessa, who is a very important dog indeed!  FOUR STARS.