Wednesday, 13 October 2021

 

Love after Love, by Ingrid Persaud.

 


            ‘What is Love?’  A question that has been baffling famous figures of history – and mere mortals such as we – for millennia.  I think the question should be not what it is, but why does it change (especially to its opposite) as time passes.

            Ingrid Persaud’s debut novel explores the nature and degrees of loving each other, commencing with Betty and Sunil Ramdin, Trinidadian descendants of the Indian canecutters imported five generations ago.  They have one little boy, Solo, whose birthday it is when Sunil takes a tumble down the back stairs and doesn’t survive the trip:  Betty now has to raise Solo herself – fortunately, she has a good admin job at a high school and they manage to make the best of their new life, which becomes even better with the advent of Mr. Chetan, the maths teacher, who asks to rent a room from her.  He is with them for several years, becomes a much-loved father figure to Solo, and a better-than-best-friend to Betty, to the point that one night, they share secrets.  Betty reveals that Sunil didn’t fall down the stairs:  he was pushed.  By her.  For Sunil was a drinker, and became a different, monstrous person when he was drunk – as her numerous hospital visits and injuries showed.  She didn’t expect him to die;  she just wanted him to experience broken bones, cuts and bruises, the same he had inflicted on her, but the worst happened.

            Mr Chetan’s secret is his homosexuality, worse than a crime in Trinidad  - it can get you killed!  His own family had banished him from their lives after he and his schoolfriend Mani were discovered in an embrace;  Mani’s family eventually saw sense and accept and love him as he is, but Chetan’s family have not:  he is dead to them.  And Trinidadian attitudes to LGBTQ people are biblical in their condemnation:  all ‘Bullers’ are fair game!

            Sadly, teenage Solo overhears some of these revelations and his love for his Mammy turns to hatred.  He leaves for New York to seek out his father’s family in the hope that he will find a better kind of familial love than that from which he flees – and finds a very different life from what he expected.

            Ms Persaud has filled her story with exuberant, wonderfully engaging characters, all the while demonstrating with almost careless ease the many and various necessary connections we need to have a life of some meaning:  maternal love, familial love, romantic and sexual love, and the love of friends:  have I covered all the bases?  FIVE STARS.  

Wednesday, 29 September 2021

 

Billy Summers, by Stephen King.

 

 


           Prolific and acclaimed author Stephen King introduces us in his latest novel to a singular new protagonist, former Marine sniper turned hit-man Billy Summers.  Billy is used as often as needed by the Mob – he has an ‘agent’, Bucky Hanson, through which his work is vetted and his one proviso is that the target be a truly bad man.  Which must surely be an oxymoron of sorts, but Billy has a moral code made up of Marine honour, good and evil and a past life that explains everything.

            Of late he has felt like retiring;  it’s time to hang up the weaponry and live normally if such a thing could be possible, but Bucky has offered him one last job that pays so much, he’d never have to work again at anything.  The target is an Asshole Extraordinaire who doesn’t deserve to live another  minute, much less all the time his crooked lawyer has managed to buy him.

            Billy takes the job, which involves living in the community as a writer, an alias that turns out to be a very good way for Billy to blend in as an aspiring author attempting his first novel, all the while scoping out from his ‘office’ the Courthouse where the shooting will occur:  piece of cake!  Except for the Best-Laid Plans of Mice and Men etc etc:  Billy does the job and expects payment, only to find that his contractors aren’t going to pay, and they aren’t going to let him live, either.  He’s been stiffed.

            It takes King a while to get to this point in the story;  in fact (dare I say it!) I was starting to wish he’d ratchet up the action, get things moving, when that’s exactly what happens:  Billy’s on the run;  he’s been forced to don another identity, including wearing a ridiculous disguise – but it works, and it buys him time in his new little hidey-hole to plan his next move.

            Which is to pursue those who betrayed him, and find out who employed them, for whoever did so, is the most evil one of all, and must be removed from this earth like the disease that he is.  This world has no place for such bad men, and Billy intends to eliminate them all.  Needless to say, Billy has morphed into a hero of Biblical proportions, with the reader cheering him on every bloodstained step of the way and, as an added bonus, we are privy to Billy’s writing attempts in his guise of ‘author-to-be’.  It is no easy task to write a novel-within-a-novel but Stephen King’s storytelling skills are superlative:  unforgettable characters, great dialogue, superb action - when it gets going.  Piece of cake!  FIVE STARS.   

Sunday, 19 September 2021

 

Wanderers, by Chuck Wendig.

         

  


          An apocalyptic novel forecasting the end – and possible rebirth – of a different  civilisation is not inappropriate for times such as these, when the world is fighting wars against disease, bigotry and fanaticism;  in fact, there is the inescapable ring of truth in Wendig’s huge (800 pages!), densely plotted novel which teems with characters and has subplots galore.  And I have to tell you that nothing becomes really clear until the very end, which means that you have to stick with it, so there!

But it’s worth it.

            In early June a new comet, named Comet Sakamoto after its discoverer, passes over the United States, and a phenomenon coincidentally occurs:  certain people start walking, beginning with Nessie Stewart, a 15 year old girl who literally drops everything one morning at her home in Pennsylvania and starts walking – where?  Her elder sister Shana tries to stop her and is horrified that her attempts provoke a terrible physical response:  it is clear that her sister will literally die rather than stop walking.  In a very short time, Nessie is joined by other ‘walkers’, all silent, zombie-like and seemingly impervious to outside influences – they don’t need food, water or toilet-breaks:  they are in stasis till further notice.  The walkers are trailed by a band of loving, concerned relatives, and a team of scientists from the Centre for Disease Control, for surely this phenomenon must be an outbreak of a previously unknown pathogen? 

            In the meantime, a new disease has reared its ugly head in San Antonio, Texas:  a bat population disturbed by an explosion bites every human they find, and the resulting symptoms develop into a 100% contagious, fatal disease called White Mask, after the ghastly white mucus that runs from ears, eyes and noses.  It doesn’t take long before Southern Evangelicals start chanting about the End Times, and white supremacists begin blaming niggers, spics and slit-eyes for the breakdown of society – which, of course, was doing just that, well before comets and disease.  And it doesn’t take long before the Far Right start blaming the Walkers as well, for all of society’s ills:  it’s time for them to go, to be rubbed out!  After they’ve gone, Amurrica will be great again! 

            There are some great characters in this story – too many to list, but controlling everything is an Artificial Intelligence presence developed by one of the scientists called Black Swan:  he/she/it literally has the last word. 

            ‘Wanderers’ is similar in theme and content to Stephen King’s ‘The Stand’ and Justin Cronin’s ‘The Passage’, but retains its originality and frightening message to the end:  start walking, world!  FIVE STARS     

           

   

Thursday, 2 September 2021

 

Falling into Rarohenga, by Steph Matuku.    Young Adults.

           

            Tui and Kae are twins, and contrary to all the stories we hear about the close bonds of twins, that happy state doesn’t apply in this case:  Tui is a school prefect at the small-town high school they attend;  she’s a swot and gets consistently high marks in everything, the object of which is to get away from this little nothing place, get to the big city and eventually cover herself with academic glory.  Kae is just the opposite – who cares about good results, as long as he has his mates – and his ukulele, the source of his biggest pleasure, for if there’s one thing Kae worships, it’s music, and composing his own songs:  music is the most important thing in his life, certainly not his snobby sister, who is Nigel No-Friends because she’s too smart.

            Until they arrive home from school (fighting all the way) one day, to discover that their beloved Mum, their mainstay through the divorce of their  jailed fraudster Dad and the death from cancer of their darling aunt Huia, has disappeared without a trace – but what follows next is so unbelievable it can’t be happening:  what they at first thought was one of the frequent earthquakes that plague Aotearoa New Zealand turns out to be a summons from Aunty Huia in Rarohenga, the Maori Underworld:  they have to fall through the portal to look for their mother, who has been abducted by their father, of all people!  Only the intervention of the twins will save her from dying before her time and staying in Rarohenga.  Neither of their parents are meant to be there, but their father learnt some pretty dreadful magic from one of his cellmates;  now, he has his prize, their mother, and who cares about the twins?  They were only distractions to divert their mother’s attention from him. 

            There begins a series of hair-raising adventures for the twins, including meeting Hinekoruru, Goddess of Shadows;  a fearsome taniwha with paua-shell eyes and many sad memories;  and an unbelievably handsome fairy called a túrehu.  They all provide assistance for the twins’ quest, but all demand payment – in the túrehu’s case, it’s Tui’s hand in marriage.  To which she agrees, fervently hoping that she will be able to get back to the real world before she has to honour her promise – which, perhaps, would not be that bad:  he’s pretty damned hot!

            Once again, the author of ‘Flight of the Fantail’ delivers the goods:  an exciting, topical meld of today’s New Zealand with Maoritanga and its ancient myths and legends - and she does it so well. Twins Tui and Kae are heroes for the ages! SIX STARS.  

Tuesday, 24 August 2021

 

Pilgrims, by Matthew Kneale.

 

  


       
In thirteenth century England, it was common for groups of people to make journeys to various holy places in expiation of their sins – which were usually decided by their local clergy, as was the punishment, length of journey and number of prayers to be said at each shrine, depending on the gravity of the sin.  Indeed, Sir John of Baydon has been forced  by the church authorities to walk all the way to Rome to pray for forgiveness for punching the local abbot, whom he swore was trying to steal land from him. 

            With wife Margaret reluctantly in tow, he joins a diverse and motley band who also have Rome as a destination:  there is Tom son of Tom, also known as simple Tom;  a kindly and truly simple young bondsman who is persuaded by his crafty family to become a pilgrim after his cat dies and he can’t stop dreaming about him (Tom’s absence will free up space in their hovel);  a prosperous farmer and his wife who pretend poverty;  a rich widow and her sickly little son who may die if they don’t reach Rome to pray to St. Peter at his mighty church for the boy’s salvation.  Her avaricious sister comes along ‘to help’, and as their journey progresses, more supplicants join their little band. After enduring a nightmare trip across the channel, they all feel that God has punished them enough:  surely their way to the Holy City will now be straightforward and uneventful.  (I’m very tempted to say ‘yeah, right! here.  Get thee behind me, Satan!)

            It is impossible for us who now live 800 years later to imagine the awful privation and physical sacrifices made by ordinary people, rich and poor, who were so sure that, were they able to reach their destination, their sins would disappear;  from Tom son of Tom hoping that his dear cat Sammo would get to heaven instead of plaguing his dreams, to religious zealot Matilda who is sure that when she gets to Rome, Jesus (with whom she converses all the time even though no-one else can see him) will give her a wonderful gift.  Because he said so!  And don’t forget those holier-than-thou women, mother and daughter, who are so pious they may be Jews in disguise:  vipers in the nest!

            Matthew Kneale makes a fine job of recreating the teeming times of the age;  the terrible superstitions (especially regarding Jews) that were wielded by clever, unscrupulous men in the name of religion to keep the populace in thrall;  and the irrefutable fact that regardless, human nature always prevails:  the Seven Deadly Sins will exist as long as does the human race.  We haven’t changed at all!  FIVE STARS.     

Thursday, 12 August 2021

 

Falling, by T.J. Newman.

 


            Thriller writers, this is how it’s done:  a by-the-numbers, textbook example of suspense and impending doom on every page of T. J. Newman’s debut novel ‘ Falling’ – and she knows what’s she’s writing about:  she spent ten years of her life flying the friendly skies as a flight attendant;  no-one knows better than she how staff and passengers manage long-haul flights – or how they react to danger.

            Captain Bill Hoffman has been unexpectedly rostered on at the last minute to take a flight from Los Angeles to New York, leaving him very unpopular with his wife Carrie;  it’s their 10 year old son Scott’s first little-league game of the season and Bill promised he’d be there. To add to her displeasure their internet connection is down, and baby Elise is trying to walk – everywhere.  It’s not a good day!  Especially when he promised to be at home.  They part on very cool terms, just as the internet serviceman turns up;  well, thinks Bill, that’s something positive.

            Except that it isn’t.  For the internet repairman turns out to be a kidnapper, holding Bill’s little family hostage at gunpoint, with the object of forcing Bill to crash the plane with upwards of 150 souls on board:  if he refuses, his family will die – and he will be able to witness that unspeakable horror on his family’s newly restored internet link.

            T.J. Newman is skilful enough to have a compelling reason for the kidnapper to be taking such terrible steps to draw the world’s attention to his dreadful act:  internet repairman Sam is from Kurdistan, a country that the American President (unnamed) promised the world to if they would help his troops fight in Syria, only to leave the Kurds in the lurch by eventually withdrawing all American troops, and making all Kurds a defenceless target of chemical warfare, which killed hundreds of thousands of innocent villagers and townspeople – including Sam’s entire family.  And a prime example of Sam’s murderous determination is his Plan B if Bill refuses to crash the plane and kill everyone on board:  there is a traitor amongst them – but who?  Who will release poison gas first so that all passengers will die the horrendous death that Sam’s family suffered?  Well, no spoilers this end.

            This is a very impressive effort from T. J. Newman, not least because she has vast experience of the story she tells.  It’s a bit rough around the edges but what an amazing journey we travel with her.  Having said that, I reckon there’s a lot to be said for train travel.  The world should slow down so that that form of travel becomes profitable once more.  FIVE STARS.

           

Tuesday, 3 August 2021

 

The Perfect Lie, by Jo Spain.

 

   


         This is fast-food writing:  tasty but vitamin-free – fills the gap but has very little nutritional value.

            Having said that, Jo Spain’s latest thriller is well-plotted, well-researched and in this mad day and age, almost credible.  Her characters, while two-dimensional, still manage to carry the story along at a very fast pace, and I have to say that, clever as I think I am at figuring out WhoDunnit,  I never saw this particular ending coming.  If only we were able to travel again, this would be the perfect Airport and Beach read.  How the world has changed!

            And Irish Erin Kennedy’s life changed in the space of hours, from waking in the morning with her African American Detective Husband, preparing to go to her job as an editor for a Publishing firm, to the disintegration of her world when her husband is visited by his Police colleagues – who are there to arrest him for corruption and, instead of leaving with them, he flings himself to his death from their fourth-floor balcony.

It goes without saying that Erin’s husband had many secrets, and Erin had no idea of any of them;  she can’t believe that she could have been so woefully ignorant of his problems, but when someone doesn’t want their loved one to know things, they get very good at the cover-up, especially if one is a Detective.  Still, Erin owes it to herself and his family to try to expose the truth, whatever that may be;  she just hopes she will be brave enough to accept it, especially if it destroys completely her vision of the man she thought she knew and loved.

Until she finds herself on trial for murder –the murder of her husband, a crime too ludicrous even to contemplate, but Erin’s life has taken such a bizarre turn since her husband’s death that this is God just playing with her again:  having acknowledged that, can God stop faffing around and get her acquitted from this murder charge that will have her in prison for the rest of her life.  Please God.

Ms Spain tells a parallel story of minor characters in flashbacks that link up cleverly with the main protagonists by the time everything is done and dusted, but I wonder if she just got sick of her story (and/or Erin!) and couldn’t be bothered fleshing things out.  What a shame.  THREE STARS.