Saturday, 31 August 2019

Things in Jars, by Jess Kidd.

           A cover comment on this book said that ‘Jess Kidd should be a genre all to herself’.  And that is indisputably true – she is impossible to categorise, apart from the fact that her stories so far all involve the supernatural, haunted houses and/or ghosts.  (Or Gwosts, as my dear old Gran used to call them.)
            ‘Things in Jars’ is no different:  it is 1863 and Mrs Bridie Devine, a London private detective (straying spouses a specialty) is going through a dark time in her life: a ransomed child that she was charged to find has been found dead, and even though she caught the perpetrator, the little one’s death makes her heart heavy, and her spirits remain so until she is sent to Highgate Chapel to view a bricked-up corpse in the basement.
            And who should she see, posing nonchalantly on a handy tombstone before she even crosses the chapel threshold, but a fine handsome young spectre clad in pugilist’s attire and sporting laughing dark eyes, a wonderful moustache and a collection of enough tattoos to make one’s eyes roll.  The back of his head has been stove in – ‘a tavern brawl’, he casually announces, but his mates all clubbed together to get him buried in the chapel grounds.  And he is amused but offended that she doesn’t recognise him, refraining from giving her any clues as to their earlier association – ‘you’ll just have to work it out yourself, so!’  He is still waiting for her when she emerges from the chapel, horrified at what she has seen – a decayed mother and young baby imprisoned behind a wall, and even worse – the baby had rows of sharp, pointed teeth.
            In Victorian England, it was common for those with means to collect curiosities for novelty or to make a financial profit from their freakishness;  as Bridie investigates further (always accompanied by her ghostly companion – which no-one can see but herself, thus making her appear to be conducting a long-winded, cross conversation with no-one), she is horrified to learn the extent of the practice, and the large number of people already killed in an effort to preserve sick secrets, and it does her no good to discover that a despicable enemy from her deprived childhood is behind all the wickedness.
            Ms Kidd is in complete command of the reader:  she orchestrates her prose so that we are laughing like hyenas, or reading through our fingers at the horrors and degradation of 1860’s London, that great dirty city where evil, cruelty, goodness and compassion stride, taunting each other, on opposite sides of the street.  I’m a huge fan of the Kidd genre.  SIX STARS!         

Thursday, 22 August 2019

Girl in the Rear View Mirror, by Kelsey Rae Dimberg.

          Ms Dimberg’s debut novel opens with her protagonist, Finn Hunt, feeling very smug indeed – she has a great new job as nanny to Amabel, the 4 year old granddaughter of incumbent Arizona Republican Senator James Martin – ‘Your Senator’ and as such, has entrĂ©e to places that previously only featured in her daydreams.  And thanks to her good looks, she is the girlfriend of the Senator’s trusted Aide.  Life is good!       
            Well, she needed a break.  Finn has left secrets behind in the MidWest from whence she came, and ‘restructuring’ is in order – she’s ready to slam shut the door on her past, and embrace her great new circumstances.  Why, even her handsome employer, Amabel’s father, eventually expected to take over the Senator’s safe seat, appears to be attracted to her, as she is to him:  such a life could go to a girl’s head if she’s not careful!
            But good times inevitably turn into their opposite:  Amabel announces that a lady is following her – ‘I’ve seen her lots of times’ – and the lady eventually contacts Finn, saying that she needs her help:  she’s pregnant to Amabel’s father and he won’t speak to her!  Finn’s attempts to remedy the situation create more problems than they solve, for no whiff of scandal must blight the Senator’s re-election campaign, especially when he has a personable young Latino running against him.  Blackmail and extortion to buy silence destroys the wonderful illusion for Finn of privilege and moral righteousness surrounding the Martin family.  Their wealth is a buttress against secrets and lies, but they are no better after all, than anyone else.  Finn’s idols indeed have feet of clay.
            More tragedy occurs and Finn is on the receiving end of it:  her job has gone and eventually, so does her boyfriend, betraying her in such a way that for her own self-respect she finally has to make a stand against the corruption she uncovers – or die trying.
            Ms Emberg is a skilful writer.  Her portrayal of life for the privileged in the great desert city of Phoenix is compelling and credible:  as we cruise through the first half of the book we have no inkling of all the trouble that’s waiting, BUT!  The action slows, the plot stutters and an entirely predictable conclusion is presented.  The Bad Guys win.  YOUR Senator’ wins.  The air has leaked out of Ms Emberg’s tires.  THREE STARS.   

Saturday, 17 August 2019

Flight of the Fantail, by Steph Matuku.          Teen Fiction.

          In a remote New Zealand National Park, a bus crashes off the gravel road into a steep gorge:  inside are seniors from Kotuku High School, all set for camping until they hit the bottom of the gorge and the front of the bus is swept away by the deep, fast-moving river.  Very few survive the trauma, but some are washed up along the banks and manage to find each other:  Rocky Reweti, class babe who harbours ambitions to be an All Black, but with a leg so badly injured the dream must surely be no longer possible;  Devin, class loser, ‘Duh-Devin’, Devin who lives with her dad in a skanky old place and never, ever talks or even looks at anyone;  Eva, class lesbian and proud of it to the extent that she took over the school PA system to announce just that, to the fury of the gay principal, who had been locked out of his office;  Jahmin, class clown and long-time detention-companion of Eva – his parents are rich as, and work for the Seddon Corporation which has mining land somewhere around here;  surely they will be rescued soon.  Search and Rescue should be sending helicopters anytime now.
            But when?  Two of the number manage to get back to the remains of the bus, finding that new kid, Theo, on the way, lying dead with a cell phone smashed into his face.  WHAAAAAT????  Their search for food, clothes and equipment takes a worrying turn – who killed Theo?  And why?
            As they establish a very rough, makeshift camp, it seems that Duh-Devin is’nt stupid after all, for her loser dad taught her all sorts of practical skills which actually improve their situation, like lighting a fire, constructing a shelter to keep the rain off, catching an eel (she was amazed that she could!), and finding some edible plants which, whilst not exactly broccoli, plugged the gnawing hunger gap for a time. 
            But what about the strange pulsing they all feel – the headaches they  experience, and the dark fantasies that threaten to overcome them unless they physically hurt themselves to banish the nastiness:  there’s something badly amiss in this part of the forest, and it doesn’t take them long to find it.
            Ms Matuku has done a fine job here of combining fact, fantasy and Maori myths to weave a great story of friendship through adversity and heartache:  the terrible situation in which her characters find themselves is hardly real, but Rocky, Devin, Eva and Jahmin are great examples of today’s generation - resourceful, staunch, loving and brave.  Great stuff!  FIVE STARS.

Monday, 5 August 2019

The War That Saved my Life, by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley.
Junior Fiction.
          It is 1939 and war has been declared between Germany and Great Britain.  Ada Smith and her brother Jamie live in one room above a pub in London with their mother;  Mam works in the pub, Jamie is school-age, and Ava goes nowhere.  She has a crippled foot and can’t put any weight on it – she crawls everywhere in the flat and depends on Jamie to bring her news of the outside world because her mother doesn’t want her near the window;  she doesn’t want people to see ‘the idiot cripple peering out’.  Mam is always in a bad mood, and when she is feeling particularly hateful she locks Ada in a cabinet under the sink, which is infested with cockroaches. 
            Life is very hard but it becomes intolerable when Ada learns that her beloved brother is to be evacuated to a place called ‘the country’ to escape the bombs that Hitler’s Messerschmidts will surely drop:  to be left behind without him is unthinkable – she will go too, and to that end practises walking on her poor deformed foot, an agonising process but practice that serves her well when the day comes and she escapes with Jamie and his classmates to the train station.  The trip is a revelation:  Ada has never seen grass, let alone trees – the greenness of everything astounds her, as does the vastness of her surroundings, and when they arrive at a small village in Kent which is to be their destination, there are even more shocks in store:  everyone looks so clean and wholesome – well-nourished.  Which she and Jamie are not.  Eventually, as the last children left, they are forced onto a lady who did NOT want to billet children:  Susan, a woman who had lost her beloved companion Rebecca to illness and is still sorely grieving. 
            The children don’t care:  they are still together, Susan gives them a bath and hot food, and they sleep in a warm bed with sheets on it!  And behind a stone wall at the bottom of the garden is a friendly pony called Butter!  Ada, who has never learned to read or write, finds that she is not ‘slow’ or an idiot after all when Susan persuades her to learn her letters so that she can help Jamie with his homework;  she even teaches herself to ride Butter even though her foot won’t always cooperate, but best of all is the news that her foot (clubfoot, it’s called) can be fixed!  If Susan can get her mother’s consent.
            And there lies the problem:  Susan’s letters are returned;  Mam remains out of sight – until she returns one day and takes Ada and Jamie back to London to another squalid room ‘because I ain’t paying nineteen shillin’s a week to no lazy slut in a fancy house to look after my kids!’
            Then the bombing starts.
Ms Bradley has given us a wonderful brother and sister to cheer for:  narrator Ada’s journey from stupid cripple to resourceful and clever problem solver is a delight to read. This lovely story is a superb  introduction for children aged 12+ to the extraordinary bravery shown by ordinary people in the face of terrible adversity.  SIX STARS!!