Monday, 1 November 2010

Great reads for November 2010



ONE GOOD DOG, by Susan Wilson

One good dogI have been reading a lot of very mediocre stuff lately;  consequently it was a pleasure, a DELIGHT, to come across this lovely story by Susan Wilson.  This is her sixth novel and the first I have read – it’s strongly reminiscent of Garth Stein’s wonderful ‘The Art of Racing in the Rain’ in that part of the story is narrated by the Good Dog of the title, but there the similarity ends, for Chance is very different to Stein’s Enzo;  in fact he fancies himself as a bit of a dude, an ex-fighting dog and a mighty street warrior with pit-bull ancestry  – until he ends up in the pound on Death Row.  He is rescued, albeit reluctantly, by Adam March, who because of a careless promise he made, needs to find a dog as a substitute pet for a homeless man he doles out lunch to everyday  at a shelter for indigents.  Adam, by his own standards has hit the bottom of the barrel, too:  he is a former top executive of a huge corporation who loses everything –carefully sculpted wife, spoilt daughter, several homes, the bulk of his money and social status – when he strikes his P.A in a fit of uncontrollable rage. He is sentenced by a spectacularly unsympathetic judge to a year’s community service at the shelter.  ‘You’re an arrogant bastard who needs to learn some humility’, says the judge, and this is what this book is about:  learning to be humble, learning to redeem oneself, learning to make real friends, and learning to love again.  It’s definitely a feel-good novel and in the hands of a lesser author these themes would seem chintzy and old-hat, but Ms Wilson’s considerable writing talents chronicle Chance and Adam’s experiences together in entirely credible fashion.  FIVE STARS.

THE EYE OF THE RED TSARby Sam Eastland

The eye of the red TsarMeet Finnish-born Inspector Pekkala,  the latest hero  in a long line of thrillers about  flawed but brilliant detectives – but here’s the difference:  Pekkala was formerly Tsar Nicholas the second’s most singular and trusted detective, dubbed ‘The Emerald Eye’ and given carte blanche in his investigations – until the revolution and fall of the Romanovs.  Pekkala’s fall from favour is equally steep;  he makes an unfortunate impression on Comrade Joseph Stalin and ends up barely surviving for the next decade in the gulags of Siberia  - until Stalin requires his unique talents for investigation.  He promises Pekkala his freedom if he will track down and deliver the murdered Tsar’s fabled gold reserves – for the Glory of the Revolution and the good of the Great People of the Soviet Union, naturally!  A number of books have already chronicled the Romanovs’ last months before they were shot to death at the Ipatiev house in Ekaterinburg in 1918, most notably ‘The House of Special Purpose’ by John Boyne, and ‘The Kitchen Boy’ by  Robert Alexander;  both books show better craftsmanship, but what Sam Eastland lacks in technique he makes up for with sound facts and solid research, fast-paced action, plenty of suspense and believable characterization – the basic requirements for all successful thrillers.  This is his debut novel:  I look forward to # 2.

WENCHby Dolen Perkins-Valdez

WenchDespite its Bodice-Ripper title, Ms Perkins-Valdez’s debut novel is anything but – rather, it is the second damning account of slavery that I have read this year; more subtle, perhaps, than Andrea Levy’s ‘The Long Song’ (recently shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize) but having the same horrific impact:  how can people who purport to be civilized visit so much inhumanity on their fellow men?
‘Wench’ is first set in 1852 at Tawawa House, a fashionable resort in Ohio, popular with Southern gentlemen who take the waters every year, go hunting and fishing – but leave their wives behind, bringing instead female slaves who service their every need.  Four of these women become friends and look forward to the annual renewal of contact;  their individual histories  graphically demonstrate blatant cruelty or the same evil disguised as kind and loving treatment:  Lizzie’s master professes to love her;  she is his ‘true wife’ and has given him two children of whom he is particularly proud, especially as his white wife is barren, but he refuses her only wish that he give the children their freedom:  they are his lawful property, and as such he is entitled to sell them if he wishes.  Mawu belongs to Mr. Tip, whom she hates and bravely stands up to at every opportunity – she even makes an escape attempt, only to be brought back by the slavecatchers, stripped naked and whipped by Mr. Tip while the other slaves are forced to watch ‘as a warning’.  He then sodomises her and her humiliation is complete.  Reenie is owned by ‘Sir’, her late father - and Master’s son:  he uses her whenever he pleases, then ‘loans’ her to the resort manager.  Each woman must deal with her own tragedies as best they can;  sometimes they make the right choices but for all but one of these good women, slavery is the only option:  they dare not leave their children.  Their only hope that life may some day be different is that the first rumours of Abolition have started to surface;  indeed, Ohio, where they ‘vacation’ every year with their masters is a Free State – could this mean that more and more people are willing to protest against the appalling outrage of slavery?  Emancipation does not come until the South has fought a bloody and unsuccessful Civil War in defense of its slave-based economy;  meantime, the ‘wenches’ must remain strong in the face of their thralldom, and resolute in the hope that the next generation will know a better life.  Ms. Perkins-Valdez has produced a superb story, moving and beautifully written.  FIVE STARS                                                                                           

FEVER DREAMby Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child

Fever dreadI hardly dare introduce yet another Brilliant but Flawed super-detective to readers, but Aloysius X. L. Pendergast is such a singular invention of the above authors that, after reading the latest in a long line of Pendergast adventures, I feel I must give this SuperHero some publicity.  Pendergast is an FBI Special Agent, but that is the least of his talents:  he has two PHD’s (only two? you say); he’s a master psychologist and manipulator of the human psyche;   he has an exhaustive knowledge and appreciation of the arts and literature;  he is an accomplished forensic scientist;  he is immensely wealthy, the last survivor of  a Brilliant but Flawed family of old New Orleans aristocracy ;  he is a driver with Formula One capabilities;  he is a martial arts expert;   he has ‘preternaturally fast’ (a favourite Preston/Child adjective) reflexes, and he is a crack shot – naturally. In fact, what Pendergast doesn’t know about weaponry – about ANYTHING – isn’t worth knowing!  Lastly, he is tall and thin, pale as death (he always dresses in immaculate black suits which give him the appearance of a wealthy undertaker) and he has a disconcerting, silvery stare.  Bet you haven’t met anyone like that in the Supermarket lately.  Oh, I nearly forgot to mention (and how could I have forgotten such a villain!) Diogenes Pendergast, Aloysius’s equally Brilliant but Well and Truly Flawed criminally insane brother:  he has chosen the paths of evil, due to a terrible childhood incident which drove him to madness.
 ‘Fever Dream’ is the ninth Pendergast novel, and, incredible as all his adventures may be, Pendergast and his associates ruthlessly command the cowering reader’s attention from beginning to end:  there’s enough blood and gore to float a boat;  corpses litter the series’ pages like old bones;  Pendergast’s powers of deduction are repeatedly flaunted and effortlessly honed รก la Holmes and Watson by using his dimmer associates as sounding-boards;  in fact, it all sounds like utter silliness -  BUT…..  Messrs.Preston and Child’s scholarship and research are irrefutable (they are themselves Academics) , Pendergast is made human by exhibiting some very irritating  failings, and the various supporting characters are well-drawn and credible.  Well, SOMEONE has to be, don’t they?  In the forthcoming book # 10, we are told, our hero journeys to a shooting lodge in Scotland, intent on some R & R with a dear friend who turns out to be exactly the opposite – will he prevail?  Will he survive?  Well, what do YOU think?   In short (which I haven’t been),  the action’s torrid, the prose is florid, but all these books are serious fun -  trash of the very highest quality.