LAST GREAT READS FOR APRIL, 2013
Rubbernecker, by Belinda Bauer
Patrick Fort is 18 years old, and has left home to study anatomy at university in the Welsh city of Cardiff. He will share a tiny house with two other students and has a small allowance from his mum for food and incidentals, similar to so many other young people experiencing relative independence for the first time – with one huge difference: Patrick has Asperger’s syndrome, and has gained his place at university because of his disability. The institution must accept a certain quota of handicapped students by law.
Patrick will never be ‘normal’. His social skills are practically non-existent; humour and irony are completely wasted on him, for Patrick takes every statement and situation literally. If logic is not evident to him in conversations and actions he refuses to respond. He is also fanatically clean and hates being touched, foibles which baffle and irritate his flatmates and fellow students, who are unaware that his condition has a name.
On the upside, however, Patrick has some enviable skills: he loves puzzles; he can fix a mucked-up Rubik’s cube in seconds, then offer to show the mucker-upper (in this case, the university Professor who admitted him to the anatomy class) where he went wrong; he has a wonderful aptitude for all things mechanical; and the human body, that supreme example of physical mechanics, is the puzzle he most wants to solve – for Patrick’s father was killed in a hit-and-run accident when he was eight and the killer was never found. Nor can Patrick understand the concept of death logically; he needs to know by dissecting a body, where life goes, and if it could ever come back. He needs to know, and the logical place to find out is in the Dissection class where he and his classmates are introduced to a corpse they name Bill.
Bill has donated his body to medical science; he had been in a serious car accident, putting him in a coma for several months before he died; now it is up to Patrick and three other students to study every part of Bill, and they must also establish the official cause of death whilst they do so. Patrick is thrilled; the mystery of where his father went when his life ended may soon be revealed!
Unfortunately, the only mystery revealed is the cause of Bill’s death: he did not die of heart failure as was officially stated – he was murdered, and Patrick is faced with solving the biggest puzzle of his young life, and trying to keep himself alive as the murderer becomes aware that his was not, after all, the perfect crime.
This is SUCH a good book!
Ms Bauer has, through her impeccable research and enviable writing skills, made Patrick an entirely credible character, imprisoned within his syndrome but not lost to it. Her minor characters are excellent and there are some great twists and turns in the plot – she had me fooled more than once, which is, after all, one of the most basic requirements of a good crime novel. This was a pleasure to read. Highly recommended.
AN OLDIE BUT A GOODIE!
The Cypress House, by Michael Koryta
I found after reading ‘The Prophet’ by the above author, that I absolutely HAD to check out some of his earlier fiction – which makes me wonder where I have been all my life that I have remained ignorant of Mr Koryta (and Ms Bauer) until now. I have spent too long in my fairy bower, obviously.
Hang onto your hat: you’re going to have another white-knuckle ride (as all those really flash reviewers say) through a hurricane; into drug-trafficking; smacking up against smelly corpses and other nasty things in swamps; and feeling the hairs rise on the back of the neck (even if you have none) as the hero tries to deal with the supernatural. Oh, it’s great stuff, and while the reader’s credulity has to be suspended more than once, it’s a small price to pay for such a page-turner.
It is 1935, the middle of the Great Depression, and a band of men employed by the Government are on their way by train to Florida to work on a hugely ambitious project: to construct a succession of highway bridges across the Florida Keys. The men are excited; they are employed where so many thousands are not, and the work will last a long time. The atmosphere is light-hearted – until one of them, Arlen Wagner, starts to see his workmates transformed into skeletons. This is not the first time such a thing has happened to Arlen; during the Great War of 1914-18 he fought as a Marine in France, in Belleau Wood: that’s when he first knew who would live and who would die. He has sought the anaesthesia of alcohol ever since, unable to come to terms with these terrible futuristic visions, but now he knows that they must all leave that train - get off at the very next station, or die. Something terrible is going to happen and he is never wrong.
The men regard him as a crank – does he seriously think that they are going to give up the chance of steady work on his whim? Only one young man follows him off the train; his would-be friend, Paul Brickhill, a gangly, friendly-as-a-puppy teenager: something in Arlen’s warning rings true for him.
And as they watch the train of soon-to-be- corpses leaving a tiny station in the deepest, darkest Florida countryside, that’s just the start of misadventure and misfortune for the pair: worse things are going to occur as inevitably as the sunrise.
This is the perfect airport or beach read. As Stephen King, that peerless master of Horror says in a cover endorsement: ‘ a hurricane, gangsters and the supernatural – what’s not to like?’ I couldn’t agree more, and the icing on the cake is that Mr Koryta isn’t a sloppy scribe who can tell a good story: he can really WRITE. Lucky us.