Monday, 30 September 2019

In the Shadow of Wolves, by Alvydas Slepikas.

           After the Second World War ended, the German province of East Prussia which bordered Poland and Lithuania was annexed by the Russians as part of the Potsdam Conference between Churchill, Stalin and Truman.  To the Victor, the Spoils.  Kรถnigsberg became Kaliningrad.
            But what of the German population, who had been living there for countless generations?  Well, what of them?  They are all fascists, less than human, and Soviet soldiers are told to take their pick of any woman they find.  Mass rape is common – soldiers fuelled by hate and alcohol have been given free rein amongst the population (mainly women, children and old men); consequently, any street is a dangerous place to venture in search of food and firewood.  The staples of life have disappeared in one of the coldest winters ever, and frozen corpses litter the banked snow:  it is a dog-eat-dog existence –  if there were any dogs left who hadn’t been eaten.  If a woman is caught by the soldiers her fate is sealed – and her children used for target practice.  They are subhuman, after all.  The Soviets are doing the human race a favour.
            Lithuanian novelist Alvydas Slepikas’s novel spares the reader none of the horrors that were recounted to him by Renate, a woman who, as a child, became one of the Wolf children, abandoned and orphaned little Germans who lived through experiences so horrific as to be barely imaginable, starting with the eviction of Renate’s family from their farmhouse to the woodshed in the yard:  the farmhouse is now occupied by a Russian couple – who also took over their cow, pigs and chickens.  Renate’s grandfather was furious at their eviction so he went to the authorities to complain – and was never seen again.  Renate’s brother managed to cross the border to Lithuania, find enough work to be paid with food, and make it back to the woodshed – only to find on return from a nearly fatal subsequent trip that all his family had disappeared, deported who knows where.
            Renate’s fate is equally uncertain:  after losing her sister at a market whilst begging for food, she is adopted by a band of homeless orphaned children, all of whom have seen and undergone the unspeakable in their efforts to survive:  these are the Wolf children, barely subsisting in the frozen forest, but there because they don’t want to die.
            Mr Slepikas takes no prisoners in his stark and brutal story.  Beautifully translated, it brings home to the reader yet again that wartime allies are just as capable of inhumanity as the enemy.  SIX STARS!

Sunday, 22 September 2019

Good Girl, Bad Girl, by Michael Robotham.
            Word-of-mouth publicity isn’t always reliable, given peoples’ varied tastes, but I am so pleased I took my friend’s advice to read anything by Michael Robotham.  What a treat!  The above title had all the necessary requisites to keep me turning pages feverishly – and if I hadn’t had mundane but necessary ‘things to do’, I would have happily read the book in one sitting:  there is no higher praise.
            Forensic psychologist Cyrus Haven is approached by a social worker acquaintance to assess Evie Cormac, an occupant of Langford Hall, a secure children’s home in Nottingham where Cyrus is based.  Evie is not her real name, but one given to her by the authorities after she was found in a secret room in a house that was undergoing renovation.  Also, a rotting corpse was discovered in an adjoining room after neighbours complained of the smell.  Two dogs were also found, seemingly cared for and not starving, like Evie.  No-one knows how old she is or what her real name may be, for Evie refuses to divulge anything about herself;  it is all guesswork. 
Now, six years have passed;  she is dyslexic, surly, the bane of those in charge, and the terror of the other inmates:  you mess with Evie at your peril  She is also ferociously intelligent and has an uncanny gift:  she knows when someone is lying.  Just by looking at them.  And she’s due to be released into a perilous future when the authorities decide she could be eighteen.
Meantime, the body of fifteen-year-old Jody Sheehan, British Junior Ice-skating champion has been found in a nearby wood, raped and murdered.  Her family is in pieces, and Cyrus and his police colleagues are concentrating all their expertise on finding the killer:  Evie’s eventual release into society is pushed down his ‘to-do’ list until the court makes her his foster-child, as an experiment.  Could two people be more mismatched?  For Cyrus has his secrets too, especially concerning the deaths of his family:  he, more than anyone, would know all the emotions flooding Evie like a huge tide – but he doesn’t feel adequate for the job.
There are plenty of red herrings that sent me happily down all sorts of dead ends in this tightly-plotted, truly thrilling story, and the ‘whodunnit’ at the end was (for once!) a real surprise, but what really impressed me were the characters:  even the minor players were credible and beautifully drawn, and Cyrus and Evie are so endearing that they deserve a sequel - especially Evie, cantankerous, violent, explosive, funny and loyal.  We need to read about her again.  SIX STARS

Friday, 13 September 2019

Ghosts of Gotham, by Craig Schaefer.

(Cover Image not available)

Lionel Page is a crusading journalist dedicated to exposing those bottom feeders who prey on the vulnerable;  the faith healers, miracle workers and ‘Come to Jesus and be Healed’ Evangelists who have made their fortunes from the hope they can generate within people who wish to escape their afflictions:  it is Lionel’s mission in life to reveal their criminal deception, and to prove, as always, that there is no such thing as magic or miracles -  and he’s very good at it, too, until he receives a phone call from Regina Dunkle, an elderly, very wealthy lady who lives at a top Chicago address, in a house remarkably devoid of personal touches. 
She has a lucrative proposition for him:  a previously undiscovered manuscript by 19th century master of the macabre Edgar Allan Poe is coming up for auction in New York:  she wishes to know who the successful bidder might be, so that she can buy it from him – if it’s authentic.  Lionel naturally wonders why she doesn’t authorise him to make the highest bid, but hey!  He has never been to New York, let alone an all-expenses-paid trip, and he could do with the break.  Let’s go!
And Lionel, arch-cynic, atheist, believer-only-in-what-I-see-with-my-own-eyes is about to have a very rude awakening:  absolutely nothing is what it seems, including his chance meeting with a beautiful (of course!) woman in a diner who, it transpires, is a witch (she saves his bacon numerous times!);  a trip in a subway tunnel that shows that not only trains travel down there – nasty blood-sucking ghouls with a preference for human flesh reside there too, and consider him to be a particularly tasty morsel.  And don’t forget what happens at the Auction of Poe’s manuscript, where New York’s finest gather, all members of the Thoth Club (are you up with your Egyptian Mythology?) but not for much longer, for the Arch-villain arrives, reduces everything to a bloody wasteland, then saunters off with The Manuscript.  Just like that.
Mr Schaefer takes the reader on a mad, action-packed ride through Mythology and history, ancient and modern;  there are more characters than we really need ( I had such a lot of trouble keeping up with the sub-sub-sub plots ), BUT!  Lionel is a pretty shrewd guy, with a very smart and sassy tongue, and his witch is just as entertaining – and OMG, those monsters! I’ll be having bad dreams for months.  FOUR STARS.      

Sunday, 8 September 2019

The Nancys, by R.W.R. McDonald.

           Eleven-year-old Tippy Chan and her mother live in Riverstone, a South Otago town in New Zealand’s South Island that time seemingly forgot – absolutely nothing changes, ever, in Riverstone, especially in the opinion of successful gay Sydney hairdresser Pike, Tippy’s a-maz-ing uncle, who has returned to kidsit Tippy while mum reluctantly goes on a 10-day cruise.  He doesn’t want to be there, the scene of many bad youthful memories:  it was impossible to be oneself growing up in that baleful, constricted atmosphere, so he fled to Sydney to come out.  Now, he has returned with Devon, a lover who has miraculously survived the usual three-month duration of Pike’s relationships, and a desire to help Tippy and her mum through the terrible grief they feel at the accidental death of Joe, Tippy’s Chinese dad and Helen’s beloved husband.
            Pike (who looks like Santa Claus with tats – lots of them) and Devon certainly liven Riverstone up;  Devon loves spangles and sparkles, sprinkling them around like fairy dust, and they are thrilled to know that Tippy has read every copy of Pike’s boyhood collection of Nancy Drew novels.
            Nancy Drew, girl detective:  what a role model!  And what fun to pretend to use her detective skills on various unlikable locals – until Tippy’s friend Todd falls off a bridge and ends up in a coma in Dunedin hospital, and her despised teacher Jill Everson’s decapitated body is found on the riverbank:  suddenly, it’s not a game anymore.  Whether she wants to or not, Tippy becomes involved in investigating a genuine heinous crime, and it’s nowhere near as easy as she thought.  Nancy Drew has a lot to answer for!
            Mr Mc Donald has brought a small town beautifully to life in ‘The Nancys’ – especially Tippy’s neighbours, the Browns, who pop in and out more often than they should because neither family wanted to pay for a fence.  Which turns out to be a good thing, especially when Mrs Brown’s surly granddaughter decides to enter the A & P Show Queen competition to bring it undone and prove that it’s  ‘a Meat Market for the Ages’:  she has the perfect accomplices in Pike and Devon, who don’t believe in hypocrisy of any kind.  Tell it like it is, girlfriend, and solve that murder too!
            This is a most charming story, with great characters and poignant insights into grief and loss of every kind.  It is also Mr McDonald’s first novel; what a mighty debut!  The Rainbow Community will love it, and rightly so.  FIVE STARS