Sunday, 17 January 2021

 

Olive, Again by Elizabeth Strout.


            For the myriad devoted fans of Ms Strout’s superb Pulitzer Prize-winning ‘Olive Kitteridge’, Christmas will have come early as the last part of Olive’s life is revealed;  that irascible, tactless, forthright and singular woman is now in her 70’s – more by good luck than good management, she thinks, and she is amazed to find that Romance in the shape of wealthy widower Jack Kennison has entered her life:  is God playing a joke on her?

            As always, Olive enjoys/endures a long-distance relationship with her only son Christopher, and finds his family wanting;   (for Heaven’s sake, Chris’s wife has two children by two different fathers, neither of whom married her!), a visit by the family to her home in Crosby, Maine is rather less than successful as a vehicle for meeting the new man in her life, Chris’s prospective stepfather, and it takes an exasperated, belittling lecture from Olive’s despised daughter-in-law to make Chris see reason, by pointing out that she had five children to look after, not four.  Nothing has changed for Chris:  he is still being bullied.   Chris is the ‘Needle in Olive’s Heart’.

            Once again, Ms Strout expertly uses the same short-story format from the first book, introducing various townspeople as characters that Olive influences – or upsets, and they are fascinating as always, from the suddenly orphaned lawyer returning to Crosby after the family home is razed to the ground by a fire started by squatters, a fire that killed her father who lived as a recluse on the top floor:  it is not until she meets with his long-time lawyer to settle the estate that all the shameful family secrets emerge. 

            Or local pillars of the community Fergus and Ethel MacPherson:  he enjoys the annual re-enactment of Civil War Days in the local park, and wears a kilt sometimes in tribute to his Scottish ancestry.  Ethel works in the town hall issuing fishing licenses.  They have been married for forty-two years, but thirty-five of that number have been incommunicado, for Fergus had a fling way back in the day and has never been forgiven, or spoken to since – or divorced.  And   they both expect to live out their days in similar fashion, until their oldest daughter comes home on her annual holiday from New York City with the earth-shattering news that she is ‘starring’ in a documentary.  As a Dominatrix.  Because that is her profession.

            Yes, life proceeds at sometimes breakneck pace in Crosby, Maine:  Olive has a major heart attack in her eighties and enters the last stage of her life in Assisted Living, concluding that ‘I do not have a clue who I have been.  Truthfully, I do not understand a thing’.   Anyone at the rear end of their life may feel the same, but Strout’s brilliant Olive embodies perfectly the person we wish we weren’t, and the person we wish we had become.  SIX STARS. 

Friday, 8 January 2021

 

The Searcher, by Tana French.

 


            It’s always a pleasure to look forward to a new book by acclaimed Irish Novelist Tana French, and with ‘The Searcher’, as always, she lives up to her stellar reputation, combining mystery, suspense and starkly realistic characterisations to produce yet another story that leaves us regretful we have come to the end.

            American ex-detective Cal Hooper has come to Ireland for a new start after a failed marriage and early retirement made him long for a release from his problems.  He bought acreage sight unseen (off the Internet – where else!) in Ardnakelty, about as far as one could get from Chicago, scene of all that he felt is wrong with his life:  now, he is employing building and carpentering skills that he thought he’d long forgotten, and he’s enjoying the novelty of village living – which involves searching questions about his origins from absolutely everybody.  No stone is left unturned in the quest for Knowledge Of Cal, and he finds that it’s useless to be offended by everyone’s nosiness – no offense is intended;  they all just want the craic because he’s a stranger who may stay on, or disappear after his first winter.

            Fair enough, Cal thinks, and all is peaceful and predictable until a child turns up on his doorstep (after spying on him for a week) and announces that he wants to hire him to find the child’s 19 year-old brother Brendan.  Because Cal is an ex-cop and should know how to find him. Because the child knows that Brendan would never have left his family, a family that is regarded in the village as occupying the lowest rung of life socially and economically.  Something bad has happened to Brendan, and will Cal take on the job?

            And for various reasons, Cal does decide to investigate, not least because there seems to be a strange reluctance by the locals to freely proffer information.  He finds he has to ask about Brendan in a very roundabout way, as though he were trying to find out about other people entirely, and as he proceeds deeper into his enquiries he finds that far from being a peaceful Sleepy Hollow where crime is barely awake, Ardnakelty has grim and violent undercurrents that reveal themselves all too readily if disturbed.

            Ms French, once again, has introduced us to characters whom we are loath to leave;  they are completely convincing and their problems are instantly familiar, whether they live in a big city or a tiny dot of a village.  We know these people, and it would be great to meet them again.  SIX STARS.      

Sunday, 27 December 2020

 

THE BEST OF THE BEST, THE CRÈME DE LA CRÈME 

THE FIRST FOURTEEN OF THE GREATEST READS OF THE YEAR 2020, FOR ALL GREAT READERS!

1.    The Testaments, byMargaret Atwood.

2.    The Butterfly Girl, by Rene Denfeld.

3.    The Overstory, byRichard Powers.

4.    American Dirt, by JeanineCummins.

5.    Saving Missy, byBeth Morrey.

6.    The Mirror and theLight, by Hilary Mantel.

7.    Broken, by Don Winslow.

8.    The Dickens Boy, byTom Keneally.

9.    The Last Crossing,by Brian McGilloway

10.          Call Your Daughter Home, by Deb Spera

11.          The Pull of the Stars, by Emma Donohue

12.          The Thursday Murder Club, by Richard Osman

13.          Like a House on Fire, by Caroline Hulse

14.          The Sound of Stars (YA), by Alechia Dow

 I thank you all for your interest throughout the year - isn't it great to have great stories at our fingertips.  In spite of Covid and its attendant worries, we are still able to enjoy the best escapism of all.  Season's greetings everyone, and let us hope that 2021 will be a vast improvement on crappy old 2020 - we all should have a refund on this year!  Lots of love to all.  

Tuesday, 22 December 2020

 

Like a House on Fire, by Caroline Hulse.

 

 


        
Stella and George Mandani are getting a divorce – for reasons as diverse as unforgivable untidiness on George’s part (constantly leaving kitchen cupboards and doors open, thus driving Veterinary surgeon Stella into a permanent state of frothing-mouth resentment, just as one example), but they have decided not to announce the fact just yet because it is her parents’ 40th wedding anniversary;  her mum Margaret Foy has gone to an enormous amount of trouble to plan the weekend, beginning with an Original Murder Mystery Party written by Margaret, and all parts played by family members, favoured friends and neighbours, but unbeknownst to Margaret, there are several hitches and glitches waiting to spoil what should be her perfect weekend.

            First, her husband Tommy has just lost his retirement job at the local supermarket for not being Politically Correct:  his breezy statement ‘Cheer up, it may never happen’ was taken amiss by a woman in a bad mood and, rather than enrol in a course to help one avoid today’s hidden minefields of unwitting offense he has handed in his notice.  Helen, Stella’s ‘Perfect’ older sister is feeling anything but:  her 10 year-old daughter is turning into a bit of a rebel – a rebel with a cigarette lighter!  Add to that the fact that Margaret’s favourite child, gay son Pete is VERY late, which is worrying because he has a starring role in the drama (being the favourite this is only fair), so when should one get the Show On The Road?  It is vexing, to say the least.

            But what is most irritating is that there is another cloud on Margaret’s horizon:  on the following Monday she is due to start Chemotherapy for a cancer that looks pretty terminal so, being Margaret the Controller of Everything, she has decided not to start the treatment:  what’s the point in feeling sick enough to WANT to die, when she will die anyway.  She might as well feel as healthy as she can for as long as she can and chemo can just go and get forgotten about.  Except that secrets have a way of revealing themselves whether one wants them to or not, including George and Stella’s decision to part – not to mention what happens to Helen’s daughter and her cigarette lighter.  The weekend definitely ends with a bang!

            Ms Hulse has written a sparkling novel of the times – I’m sure we can all identify with the myriad family problems faced by the Foy family and their singular ways of dealing with them.  She has achieved the perfect balance between humour, seriousness and every other emotion in between:  a perfect Christmas read.  SIX STARS.

Sunday, 13 December 2020

 

The Dirty South, by John Connolly.

  


          Private Detective Charlie Parker’s creator John Connolly has written a prequel set in 1997 to his famous and riveting series, starting just after the unspeakably sadistic murders of Parker’s wife and young daughter, and detailing the beginning of Parker’s search for their killer – and his overwhelming need for revenge.

            Charlie’s resignation from the NYPD notwithstanding, he is still able to call in many favours from former colleagues in his search for cold cases that resemble in any way the gruesome methods used to dispatch his beloved family;  he will travel anywhere and employ any means possible to find parallels between unsolved murders and those of his loved ones: Charlie’s grief is raw and terrible, and retribution is the only fitting response. 

            To that end, he finds himself in Burdon County, Arkansas, an impoverished part of the state that is hoping for a big economic injection from a huge international firm thinking of establishing itself in either Arkansas or Texas, bringing prosperity and hundreds of jobs – and the ripple effect – to whichever state it chooses.  But lately, Burdon County has been plagued by a series of sadistic murders of young black girls, each killed by multiple stab wounds, and as a final indignity, impaled at either end of their bodies by branches.  And even worse, the local sheriff, member of the premier family of the county was seen kicking the corpse of the first victim onto private land.  It had originally been dumped on federal land, which meant that the FBI would have investigated, but private land denoted just a local investigation, ensuring that the crimes would stay ‘local’ and under the radar of the prospective international investor;  negative publicity of any kind being anathema to those who would make a huge profit from the deal’s success.

            As always, the more Charlie finds out, the more secrets and corruption are exposed, not to mention the thriving business in methamphetamine in which all the local good ole boys are involved – but that’s a minor crime in the scheme of things as yet more bodies are discovered:  Burdon County has a terminal disease that Charlie can’t cure.

But he can find out its source, and does so with the aid of Angel and Louis, his two staunch friends who have his back, always.  And as always, Mr Connolly fills the book with wonderful characters, drawn with great detail and accuracy, and heart-stopping action that keep the pages turning well into the night.  And you’ll never guess whodunnit!  FIVE STARS.    

Monday, 7 December 2020

 

The Thursday Murder Club, by Richard Osman.

 


            The Thursday Murder Club is Osman’s first, and so far, his best novel.  Well. You can’t say fairer than that.  And that statement alone will give readers a taste of what’s to come, all of which is a pure delight.  I’ve been wading through some pretty heavy stuff lately and it was an utter pleasure to sit back and enjoy that rare combination of excellent characters, a complex plot (you have to pay attention at all times!), and wonderful humour combined with shrewd observation on what to expect when we reach the wrong end of life.

            The residents of Coopers Chase retirement village have reached that stage of their existence, but a number of them are refusing to throw in the towel just yet, and have formed The Thursday Murder Club, held on that day in the Jigsaw Puzzle room and organised by Elizabeth, Ibrahim and Ron, all of whom had very interesting occupations before Old Age caught up and galloped past them:  Elizabeth was something mysterious and high up in law enforcement (she has influential 'friends’ seemingly everywhere);  Ibrahim is a retired psychiatrist with a huge, not to say alarmingly pedantic grasp of facts and statistics, and Ron – Red Ron is a famous Union stirrer and battler of legendary repute, the bane of every British Prime Minister for the last forty years until arthritis and his short-term memory did for him.  They are still intent on using their combined formidable intelligence to solve a Cold Case, and have just recruited Joyce as a new member.

            Joyce is practical, disarmingly cheerful and a prolific baker of excellent cakes – and she’s a nurse, providing necessary medical knowledge to the group – oh, they’re going to have great fun solving the cold-case murder of a young woman who died in the 70’s!

            Except that not one, but two ‘fresh’ murders occur within days of each other:  first, the builder of the retirement village is bludgeoned to death in his home, then the developer for whom he worked is poisoned with a massive overdose of Fentanyl.  Never mind that the police are on the scene with alacrity – the Thursday Murder Club will provide invaluable assistance, not least because they live On the Job.  And it’s great to have mysteries to solve, for it makes them feel young.

            Mr Osman successfully negotiates the fine line between pathos and bathos by treating his great characters with utter respect, and giving them – and the reader – myriad opportunities to laugh;  at themselves, at each other, and at life.  SIX STARS!    

Saturday, 28 November 2020

 

Troubled Blood, by Robert Galbraith. (a.k.a. J. K. Rowling)

         

        


 
The welcome reappearance of ex-soldier, amputee and private detective Cormoran Strike and his attractive, resourceful and secret love Robin Ellacott is hardly helped by the size and weight of their latest adventure together, ‘Troubled Blood’, nearly 1000 pages of myriad characters, mind-taxing detail – and first-class storytelling.  Yep, you’ll have to do plenty of wristy push-ups to manage its weight, especially when trying to hoist it up to read in bed.  I speak from experience!

            But, as usual, weight and size count for nothing from the very first chapter:  the reader is as hooked as Strike when a woman approaches him in a Cornwall bar – he is visiting his beloved Aunt Joan, who has terminal cancer, and he’s having a necessary break with a friend – and asks if he would like to take on a 40 year-old Cold Case, specifically that of her mother, a respected doctor in general practice, who went out for a drink with a friend after work one night, never to return – and never to have left any trace of herself anywhere from that day to this.  Her daughter has no memory of her mother, being only a year old when she disappeared, but her desire to know what happened is overwhelming – as it eventually becomes for Strike and Robin.

            There begins the meticulous ‘no stone unturned’ poring over old evidence, made more difficult by the fact that the original supervising police detective had a huge nervous collapse when he started bringing in Astrology and the Occult into his investigation, but his replacement couldn’t have been more different – a by-the-book copper with no belief in intuition or hunches.  And zero imagination.

            There are red herrings galore, dead ends for Africa, and the wrenching loss of Strike’s beloved Aunt Joan, not to mention approaches from Strike’s Rock Star father, with whom he wants no contact at all – and tells him so:  why should this man who is world-famous anyway, want to claim kinship with Strike, because he is now a famous detective?  He didn’t want to know Strike as a child;  now Strike is returning the ‘interest’.

            And Robin’s divorce from her self-centred husband is progressing at a snail’s pace:  anything that he can do to cost her extra time and expense is worth a try – even though he was the one caught in adultery, everything is still all her fault.  In the meantime, Strike’s ex Great Love Charlotte, society Belle, mother of twins and sender of texts announcing suicide attempts is busily doing just that:  no peace of mind for HIM.

            Robert Galbraith drags us into Strike’s complicated world yet again with no effort whatsoever – beautifully plotted, unforgettable characters and dialogue, and still no Declarations of Love!  The  Robin/Strike love affair has to happen, but when???  FI VE STARS.